Horseradish — a member of the mustard family native to Eastern and Central Europe — has been enjoyed by people since antiquity. Even so, when Peter Kump, one of my mentors, wrote in praise of the root in 1992, he argued well that horseradish remained vastly under-appreciated.
Sure, we know it as a key ingredient of cocktail sauces and as one of the five bitter herbs served at a Passover seder. But fewer people know it for how well it complements roasted meats, poultry and fish, he said.
If anything, Peter may have understated its usefulness. Food historian Waverly Root wrote that some ancient populations ate copious amounts of horseradish in winter for its warming qualities and that Roman philosophers recommended horseradish to treat all manner of ailments. Modern chefs have always loved horseradish, but now, increasingly, you can find it in the produce section of the supermarket, making it easy to add it to your home culinary tool kit.
So let's talk about two kinds of horseradish: fresh and homemade prepared. In search of fresh horseradish at the supermarket, look for a firm, off-white root with no soft spots or cuts. Peeled, it should appear smooth and white inside. Potent as horseradish can be, sometimes just a hint of it is enough. In that case, peel and grate the fresh vegetable on top of your finished dish right before serving. Raw, it's almost sweet.
But if you want to make your own prepared horseradish — similar to what you'd buy jarred at the grocer — a fierce batch that will last for several weeks in the fridge, you'll need to start with quite a bit of freshly grated horseradish. If you try to do the job with a hand-grater, you'll be sawing away for hours. Here's a much faster and easier way; cut the root into 1-inch chunks and grind them in a food processor.
However — and please pay attention here — once you've ground the root, you must treat it like a dangerous gas. Horseradish contains strong and volatile oils that are released when it is chopped or crushed. That's why you need to stand at arm's length from the processor as you remove the lid, then keep your distance for a few minutes before spooning it out of the processor. If you don't keep your distance, at least initially, you'll tear up worse than if you'd just chopped a bushel of onions.
Oddly enough, 10 minutes later all the wind has gone out of this storm. The horseradish becomes quite mild, even boring. What do you do to preserve horseradish's trademark heat? Add vinegar, and do it quickly, before the flavor starts to fade. Your homemade condiment will taste sharper and cleaner than the stuff in the bottle and can be used in any dish to which you used to add the bottled stuff.
Here, I've combined our prepared horseradish with mayonnaise and mustard to form a super-tangy glue for the crumbs adorning some steaks. It would be equally wonderful with fish. For that matter, it'll add a nice kick to just about any spring dish you can name.
Petite steaks with homemade prepared horseradish crust
Start to finish: 45 minutes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely crushed potato chips
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared fresh horseradish (recipe below)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds petite fillet or flat-iron steaks or boneless short ribs, cut crosswise into 1-inch thick pieces
Heat the oven to broil.
In a large, oven-safe skillet over medium, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Stir in the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, until they have turned slightly golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, then add the potato chips and stir well. Set aside. Wipe out the skillet.
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, horseradish and mustard, then season with salt and pepper.
Heat the remaining oil in the skillet over high heat. Season the steaks on both sides with salt and pepper, then sear for 1 minute per side.
Working quickly, spread the horseradish mixture generously on one side of each steak, then top the mixture with the bread crumb mixture, pressing it down gently. Transfer the skillet to the oven's middle shelf and broil until the crumbs are lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Divide the steaks among serving plates, along with any juices from the skillet. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 560 calories; 370 calories from fat (66 percent of total calories); 41 g fat (10 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 120 mg cholesterol; 460 mg sodium; 13 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 34 g protein.
Homemade prepared horseradish
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes about 1/2 cup
2-ounce piece peeled fresh horseradish, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 1/2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
In a food processor, process the horseradish until it is very finely chopped. Keeping your eyes averted when you remove the lid from the food processor, transfer the horseradish to a bowl and stir in the vinegar and salt. Let stand for 10 minutes before using.
Sara Moulton is the host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "Home Cooking 101."