What's one of the hottest condiments of the late '90s...

April 17, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

What's one of the hottest condiments of the late '90s? Here are some clues:

Despite its common name, this root vegetable is a member of the mustard family.

It's been around at least 3,000 years, and has been used as a medication and an aphrodisiac, among other things.

The largest supplier to food service distributors of this particular ingredient is right here in Baltimore; the company is 65 years old.

It's the secret ingredient in chef Jennifer Price's grilled marinated portobello mushrooms, in Spike Gjerde's roasted beet, watercress and goat cheese salad, and in Pauli Santi's encrusted rockfish.

If you guessed horseradish, consider yourself quite hip to food trends. Long familiar in prepared form as a down-home condiment for meat, pungent, slightly sweet horseradish has been discovered by restaurant chefs looking to give all sorts of dishes a little snap. These days, with butter, eggs, salt and cream on the nutritional hit list, a little touch of horseradish can add a lot of flavor to a dish. It's showing up, both fresh and prepared, in sauces, salsas, marinades, chutneys, breadings, and glazes. And it's especially popular with fish.

"It's certainly one of my favorite condiments," said Mr. Gjerde, chef and co-owner, with his brother Charlie, of Spike & Charlie's in Mount Vernon. Mr. Gjerde says he uses "a lot" of horseradish in the restaurant and has even developed a source for fresh horseradish: "We have a customer who lives up on the Pennsylvania line and he has more than he can use, so he brings us some."

Horseradish shows up at Spike & Charlie's in a number of dishes. "Obviously, it's an integral part of our Bloody Marys," Mr. Gjerde said. Besides the beet and goat cheese salad, freshly grated horseradish appears withcorn bread crumbs and some herbs as a crust for baked salmon.

In Baltimore, the word horseradish is virtually synonymous with the name Tulkoff. The company, which began as a fruit and vegetable stand in the '30s in New York, moved to Baltimore and is now called Tulkoff Products Co. It produces more than half a dozen items, including prepared garlic and packaged breakfast syrup. But it's best known for grinding horseradish and producing horseradish sauce, horseradish mustard, and Tiger Sauce, an English-style mild horseradish sauce.

In the early days, said Lee Rome, CEO of Tulkoff, "horseradish was sold only as a root. People bought it and took it home and ground it up. Or they had someone grind it up for them." Then, he said, "In the '30s, they discovered you could bottle horseradish and keep it in the refrigerator" -- where it would last for months.

But, he said, people were so used to buying the root, Tulkoff couldn't sell the prepared product "for love or money." So they started giving it away, and that developed the market. Today, Mr. Rome said, Tulkoff, best-known in Baltimore for its sauces, has 70 percent of the domestic market for the food-service industry.

In the wild, horseradish can become a virulent weed, but commercial growers harvest and replant every year, sometimes two crops a year.

Primary commercial horseradish-growing areas in the United States are St. Louis, Eau Claire, Wis., and Tutelake, Calif., according to the Horseradish Information Council in Atlanta. The roots are kept in cold storage until they're processed. "Heat is the enemy of horseradish," Mr. Rome said.

However, a different kind of heat is what makes horseradish what it is: The spiciness comes from a volatile compound called isothiocyanate. When it's oxidized by air and saliva, it creates a -- powerful kick that can clear your sinuses in a hurry. However, when fresh horseradish is cooked, it becomes mellower and sweeter, much as fresh garlic does.

Elizabeth Schneider, in her book "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" (Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1989, $16.95 paperback), suggests grating fresh horseradish on hot or cold vegetables, seafood or meat; using it in sandwiches, creamed soups, purees, or in mayonnaise or cream sauce: "Like good black pepper, this complex, aromatic flavoring enhances a wide assortment of food."

Ms. Price, chef-owner of the Wild Mushroom restaurant in Canton, likes the spiciness of horseradish. She uses Japanese horseradish, called wasabi, in mayonnaise and in some appetizers. Horseradish is the main ingredient in the marinade she uses on grilled portobello mushrooms. "It adds a little bite, a little texture," she said. "It's got a lot of flavor to it. People are very curious what the marinade is," she said. When she tells people what's in it, "they're surprised by how much they like it."

At Chef Pauli Santi's restaurants in the Belvedere -- the Owl bar, Champagne Tony's and the 13th Floor -- horseradish plays a traditional role with steak, and, less traditionally, pairs with smoked fish.

"The best thing we do," Mr. Santi said, "is take a rockfish, or a grouper, or some other flaky white-fleshed fish, encrust it with turnip and horseradish and pan sear it."

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