It's an ugly root, but somebody's got to grate it

November 10, 1996|By Rob Kasper

FULL OF ANTICIPATION, I dug up the horseradish. I had been accustomed to dealing with ground horseradish in a jar, but now I was going to get the herb in its primal form, horseradish roots.

I'm talking grind-your-own horseradish. Common-sense sorts might ask why anyone would want to dig up and grind his own horseradish. This has little do with common sense. This has to do with gardening.

Gardening is a leisure-time activity that involves lots of time and not much leisure. In the spring, when enthusiasm and the barometer are surging, you plant every kind of plant you can get your hands on. In the fall, when enthusiasm is dropping faster than your frost-bitten tomatoes, you look over in the corner of the garden at one of the few surviving species, and ask, "Is that a plant or a weed?"

In the case of the horseradish plant, the answer varies. Some folks regard it as a pungent gift of nature. Others regard it as a nuisance. Right now, I'd have to say I'm uncommitted.

When I dug up the horseradish roots in my garden they looked ugly. That, of course, is how roots are supposed to look. Try to name a good-looking root. Can't do it. Even ginger root looks as if it might have come from a mastodon.

Another drawback of roots is that they are dirty. They can't help that either. They are products of the soil. Soil is gardeners' talk for dirt.

So I dug up these horseradish roots and washed them off in the kitchen sink, then wrapped them up in a plastic bag and put them in the refrigerator.

I forgot about them until my wife screamed. It wasn't a terror-filled scream. It was more of a "what-in-the-world-is-this?" scream. Those might have been her exact words when she opened the fridge.

Like any veteran husband, I reassured my wife, without getting out the kitchen chair I was sitting in. "Don't worry, dear," I said. "It is horseradish, and I have plans for it."

Like most statements made by husbands who don't want to get out of their chairs, this statement was, if not an outright lie, then definitely "a stretcher."

My plans for what to do with the horseradish roots could be described as "in development," or "awaiting inspiration." I know that fans of the root claim fresh horseradish is more versatile and pungent than the kind that comes in a jar. But I wasn't sure how to cash in on these advantages.

I recalled reading how chef Spike Gjerde of Spike & Charlie's restaurant and Pauli Santi, the chef of the restaurants in the Belvedere, did inventive things with horseradish. They coated pieces of salmon and rockfish with mixtures made of horseradish, orange zest and turnips. "Encrusting" was what the chefs called their technique of coating fish with a horseradish batter and then cooking it.

I didn't feel ready to "encrust." But I could handle a hot dog. So I heated a pot of water until it boiled. Then I turned off the heat, tossed an all-beef dog in the hot water, and put the lid on the pot. In my kitchen this technique is called "steaming the dog."

As the dog steamed, I made a sauce for it. I grabbed one of the ugly horseradish roots. I peeled and grated it. When I had built a mound of shredded root in a bowl, I added a tablespoon of mayonnaise and stirred the mixture together.

I found a heel of homemade bread, split it open, and arranged the steaming dog and freshly made sauce on the crusty bread. I paused to admire my creation, a horseradish-rooted hot dog. As I took my first bite, I anticipated tasting bliss. Instead, I got bland. The horseradish sauce didn't have any kick. I added more grated root, but still got a mild-mannered sauce.

I had grown roots as blah as Melba toast. I didn't know where I had gone wrong.

Bill Mercier, a master horseradish grater, told me it wasn't my fault. Some roots, he said, are hot, and some aren't. The heat can vary from root to root.

Mercier regularly grates horseradish roots at his business, Coney Island, in Baltimore's Lexington Market. He sells grated horseradish in 4-ounce and 8-ounce jars for $1.75 and $3. Old-timers who visit his stand have told him tales about the glory days when there was a horseradish grater on every corner. Now Mercier is one of the few small-scale, horseradish graters left in the Baltimore area.

Mercier said his business is brisk from Thanksgiving to New Year's, when people want fresh horseradish to put in the cocktail sauces they serve at holiday parties. And there is a surge of horseradish sales around Passover because it is a Jewish custom to serve the bitter herb at the Seder as a reminder of the hardships the Hebrews suffered in Egypt.

During the rest of the year, sales of horseradish are steady, but not overwhelming, Mercier said.

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