Horseradish has nothing to do with horses and it is not a radish. In English, the first syllable was originally hoarse and related to the pungency of the root of this plant. The French word for it is raifort and that simply means strong root. Botanically, it is in the family of plants that includes cabbages and mustard.
The word I like best for horseradish is in Yiddish. It is chrain. The ch comes as a thick rasping H from the top of the throat. It is a word that sounds as caustic as what it describes. There is nothing subtle about chrain.
Horseradish is popular in French cooking. A little grated horseradish is particularly effective in a sauce. The sharpness of the root balances the richness of butter or cream. A Larousse Gastronomique recipe for a simple appetizer starts with butter mixed with hot English style mustard and chives. Spread this thinly on black bread. Top the canape with grated horseradish and add a border of finely chopped hard boiled egg yolk.
Such refinement, however, seldom made it into our house as I grew up. There was always a bottle of Mrs. Whyte's hot prepared horseradish on hand. The plain variety is made from horseradish, vinegar and a touch of salt and sugar. Red horseradish includes beets.
But fresh horseradish is likely to be on the table too in most Jewish homes at Passover. This is the feast of freedom which began last night.
The Passover celebration requires that a bitter herb be eaten in memory of Jewish slavery in Egypt. While any bitter herb, such as Romaine lettuce, will do, most reach for the number one masochistic vegetable in the markethorseradish. Proud papas watch as their children munch their first bite of this ferociously strong root. And, with tears streaming from their eyes, someone is bound to say "that's good, but it is not as strong as last year."
I remember my mother making horseradish sauce for the first time. No knuckle scraping grater for her. She tossed the chopped roots into our new food processor. It ground away for a minute. Strong fumes filled the air. The machine seized. A horseradish so strong that it destroyed the blender became part of family lore.
Here's the way Mom makes it today:
Wash and peel one large horseradish root and one beet. Chop these into smaller chunks. Mix together 3/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 3 tablespoons of sugar.
(I like the rock-and-roll burst of bitter and sweetness of this recipe as it explodes on the tongue; but for a stronger horseradish flavour use less sugar or none at all.)
Put the vegetables into a cuisinart-style food processor. Chop these finely while slowly adding the liquid. This makes about two pints. Keep this covered until serving or it will lose pungency quickly.