Rejuvenating The Past - תחית העבר
My paternal grandfather, Samuel (Shmuel) Kassen z"l, was a very religious man and a very stubborn man. He chain smoked filterless cigarettes even during meals. And like my father, who also chain smoked, he insisted that he wasn't addicted. But on Monday, Thursday and Saturday he abstained from smoking altogether since on those days the פרשה (Parashah - weekly section from the from the Torah) is read. He fasted on every יום טוב (Holy Day), which I believe is not required but he had been raised in this tradition and even though he fled the old world, he never really left it behind.
This was especially true of his eating habits. My grandparents only ate food that was גלאט כשר (Glatt Kosher - no scars or adhesions on the animals lungs) and their vegetable intake was restricted to root vegetables - onions, turnips, carrots, beets, radishes, horseradish - and cabbage and potatoes. They ate שמאלץ (schmaltz - rendered chicken fat) and eschewed butter. A sandwich often existed of rye bread, schmaltz onion and a sprinkle of salt.
No doubt this was due in part to their economic standing in Eastern Europe - poor - and to the limitations on land ownership and cultivation placed on Jews in the תחום המושב (Pale of Settlement, 1791-1917).
I did not understand when I was a child why my grandmother cooked their food beyond recognition and ate only a small variety of meats and vegetables. We kept kosher but we ate all sorts of things they didn't recognize, didn't want to recognize and were not willing to try.
My grandparents died when I was very young and I only remember them in flashes of memory related to the holidays and when I smell fresh baked rye bread with caraway seeds, pickled herring or the sharp odor of horseradish.
My grandfather used to grate horseradish and beets to make סלט חזרת (chrain) for פסח (Passover). He also ate the horseradish raw, thinly sliced with bread and meat. Coming near his plate made my eyes water.
So yesterday I was in a fancy food store picking up some treats for the weekend. And there is was, horseradish, in the flesh so to speak. A whole root. I couldn't resist. I bought it. Now I had to do something with it.
I have a vegetable bible - The Victory Garden Cookbook / by Marian Morash.
I don't use the recipes very often but when I want to know the crop yield or the general characteristics of a vegetable or whether it can be frozen, I will consult the book. I looked for horseradish, sure that I would find some useful information. But there was nothing. No entry. Only entries for radishes which are different creatures altogether. I checked and rechecked but it seems as though the horseradish is so lowly a vegetable it does even qualify for wartime cultivation.
I did an hour's research on Google looking for horseradish recipes and came up with bupkis. Every last entry was about grated accompaniments for roast beef or for adding it to a bloody mary to make it spicy. Perhaps if I had tried a Google search in Ukrainian or Russian I would have had more success, but that was never going to happen - I don't speak either of those languages. Well, there weng a few shekels on a whim since as much as I respect the memory of my grandparents I will wait another six months to make chrain and eat it on matzoh with gefilte fish.
This morning I woke up and looked at the horseradish and thought "Why not? I'll roast it". I put it in the oven with a butternut squash (for another purpose) and after an hour I could only smell the sweet aroma of the squash. Nothing emanating from the horseradish.
I peeled the root. It was very fibrous like ginger. Long ropes of pulp. I took a very small slice and
tasted it. It was bitter too bitter to eat but there was a nice nice earthy flavor that lingered.
I like bitter tasting food. I love radicchio and watercress and sorrel when they are in combination with other foods but they can be bit too much on their own. So I threw some butter and garlic in a pan and turned up the heat until the butter was brown, sliced the horseradish and added it to the pan and let it fry for a few minutes. I added salt and a little sugar and pepper. Finished the lot with thyme and cream and lemon juice.
The horseradish itself was tamed but the slices were not especially pleasant to eat because of the texture and intensity of the bitterness . However, the cream that was produced was rich with undertones that reminded me of mushrooms and morels. I would make this again with more cream and add the cream to potatoes. They would have a wonderful flavor without the overpowering zing of the grated root.
I learned that perhaps horseradish is to be treasured in small amounts raw or cooked, but should not be consumed on its own, like bay leaves. I love the fact that my grandparents were able to enjoy the earth's bounty no matter how modest. I would love to let them know that the story of their lives inspires me even though it is true that I still prefer rutabagas.