My usual preparation for Passover entails reading and contemplating a lot (did I say “a lot”?) about the meaning of freedom and liberation; gratitude for the myriad ways I am blessed to experience it daily, and pondering the responsibilities it imposes on me to help free others less fortunate. I also focus on “cleaning out the chametz” theme by getting back to basics about the food I put into my body - everything I eat is homemade, not processed or packaged.
I often get bored by the fourth day and have been hungry for new recipes. This year, the timing was right and I was lucky to attend a Vegan Passover Cooking class with our favorite vegan chef, Philip Gelb in Oakland, CA. The dish that particularly drew my attention was “Roasted Beets with Horseradish and Basil”.
Growing up in the 1950’s, convenience food was the norm. So I only knew about jarred horseradish (white or with beet juice to make it red), until I attended a friend’s Seder a few years ago and asked “What’s that funny looking thing on the Seder plate?” . Only then did I learn that horseradish is the root of a perennial plant of the Brassicaceae family (including broccoli, cabbage, kale, mustard). The intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma. But when cut or grated, enzymes from the now-broken plant cells break down to produce a chemical (allyl isothiocyanate), which is actually mustard oil. This is what irritates the mucous membranes of the sinuses and eyes and makes us cry and cough. Once exposed to air (via grating) or heat, if not used immediately or mixed in vinegar, the grated mash darkens, loses its pungency, and becomes unpleasantly bitter-tasting.
While Ashkenazi Jews use horseradish on Passover to symbolize the suffering of our people under Egyptian slavery (many Sephardim use green onions), it also has a long medicinal and culinary history. Early Greeks used it as a rub to relieve low back pain, as well as an aphrodisiac. Made into syrup, it’s also been used as an expectorant cough medicine. In the 1600’s horseradish became the standard accompaniment for beef (and oysters) among the English. In fact, they grew it an inns and coach stations to make cordials that would revive exhausted travelers.
Early settlers brought horseradish to North American and began cultivating it in the colonies, so much so that it grew wild near Boston by 1840. The first commercial cultivation here began in the mid 1850’s, when horseradish farms were started by immigrants in the Midwest, leading to a thriving industry on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
So, now that we’ve learned about its history, let’s make something delicious with that horseradish leftover from the Seder plate!
Roasted Beets with Horseradish (recipe by Philip Gelb)
3 medium beets
1/4 cup grated horseradish
1/4 cup shredded basil leaves
1-2 Tbs. olive oil
1) Cut the beets into small, bite size pieces. Sprinkle them with sea salt and olive oil, cover and roast in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees for about 35 minutes, or until slightly caramelized and soft.
2) While the beets are roasting, grate the horseradish and shred or finely cut the fresh basil.
3)Mix the horseradish, basil and olive oil. Coat the beets with this mixture after they are roasted.
Note: the horseradish flavor (and effect) increases over time!
Want to know even more about Horseradish?
Did you know that …
• Horseradish is still planted and harvested mostly by hand?
• Sales of bottled horseradish began in 1860, making it one of the first convenience foods?
• In the American South, horseradish was rubbed on the forehead to relieve headaches? (Some folks still swear by it.)
• Horseradish is added to some pickles to add firmness and “nip”?
• Before being named “horseradish,” the plant was known as “redcole” in England and as “stingnose” in some parts of the U.S.?
• Horseradish has only 2 calories a teaspoon, is low in sodium and provides dietary fiber?
• Researchers at M.I.T. claim that the enzyme “horseradish peroxidase” removes a number of pollutants from waste water?
• The most widely recognized horseradish fan in the world may be Dagwood Bumstead, who consumed it regularly in the popular comic strip, “Blondie,” by Dean Young and Stan Drake?
• Germans still brew horseradish schnapps … . some also add it to their beer?
• Al Weider earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records by tossing a horseradish root 80.5 feet to win that event?
Ilana Schatz is the founding director of Fair Trade Judaica, www.fairtradejudaica.org. She lives in El Cerrito, CA and loves to hike, restore their backyard to its original oak tree habitat, and make wine and liqueur from the eight plum trees in their garden.