Ah, spring foods. The delicate greens, the sweet pea shoots, the slender grace of asparagus...the sinus blast of horseradish root.
Although it matures in fall, horseradish is one of the few Northern crops that overwinter in the ground; freshly grated or bottled in vinegar (called prepared horseradish), the knobby crucifer becomes the hottest flavor of the early season.
At the table, horseradish is the classic foil for plain roast beef (which typically needs a wake-up call), and its spike trumps the saltiness of smoked foods like ham, sausage and smoked fish. The audacious condiment gives a thump on the head to bland egg or potato dishes, and it stabs a love arrow through dairy-rich sour cream, yogurt and crème frache. On hearty rye bread and with sweet beets or tart apples, horseradish is the yang to their yin.
Like Wisconsin's early settlers, who brought a taste for horseradish when they emigrated, horseradish is native to Europe. In past times, horseradish was more than food - it was used for medical purposes during the Middle Ages and, according to Harva Hachten in The Flavor of Wisconsin, beauty-conscious women of the 19th century used horseradish soaked in milk as a remedy for freckles (but don't try this at home).
The world's largest grower and producer of horseradish is located right here in little ol' Wisconsin. Silver Spring Gardens was started as a door-to-door business by German immigrant Ellis Huntsinger in 1929, and the Eau Claire-based company now harvests about six million pounds annually.
You can find Silver Spring's horseradish in most grocery stores, but consider, too, buying it directly from a small grower. At the Dane County Farmers' Market, Jim Schroeder of the Summer Kitchen in Highland sells his prepared horseradish all season, and Sylvan Disch of Monticello will even bring you a freshly dug root if you order ahead.
Schroeder warns against using a metal spoon with prepared horseradish because "the metal discolors and gives off flavors." Instead, he says, "Attach a plastic spoon with a rubber band to the jar, so it's always there as a reminder." Another precaution: Keep horseradish refrigerated, to maintain its sharpness and white color.
Growers John and Joan Oosterwyk harvest and bottle horseradish in autumn, when the root has maximum zing. "It's like oysters; there are months that are not its best time," says John. "But if you don't want it so hot, then dig horseradish in spring, before the plant leafs out."
It's no surprise that some people prefer horseradish with a bit less vigor. Vendor Lynn Bednarek doesn't grow it herself, but she tells the story of a friend who walked into the kitchen when her husband was grinding a root. As Bednarek relates, "She said she could feel [the fumes] go into her nose, up to her brain and right down her spine."
Whip heavy cream (avoid ultra-pasteurized, which doesn't volumnize well) in a clean, dry bowl until soft peaks form. Sprinkle on a small amount of freshly grated or prepared horseradish and use a rubber spatula to fold it in. Add more horseradish to taste.
On buttered rye bread with smoked fish and thinly sliced red onion
As a dip for apple or cucumber slices, blanched asparagus spears or potato chips
Dolloped on deviled eggs or potato pancakes
On whole-grain crackers with deli ham or roast beef
Folded into sliced beets (cooked and chilled)