March 22nd, 2013
08:17 PM ET
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Plenty of traditional foods pack an emotional whallop, but few of them back it up with a sensory punch as strong as horseradish's. The pungent root is a key part of a Passover Seder plate (along with salt water-dipped vegetables, a shank bone, a hard boiled egg, a sweet paste of apples and nuts called charoset, and a bitter vegetable - often lettuce) and symbolizes the harsh lives of the Israelites before they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.

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CNN Radio's Steve Kastenbaum and Eatocracy's Kat Kinsman took a trip to Schmitt Family Farm to see where the horseradish was grown, and then tried their hand at preparing some in a kitchen back at home. Listen to their journey in the player above and see more at the Soundwaves blog.

Growing horseradish is a tradition for the Schmitt family. Phillip Schmitt's grandfather moved the family's farming operation from New York's borough of Queens to the Eastern end of Long Island in 1929, under protest from his own father who couldn't believe that anyone would want to set up shop in that then-desolate region. Schmitt Family Farm found a permanent home in Riverhead, New York in the 1970s, and now Phillip and his son Matt grow 164 acres of greens (mostly spinach, collards and kale), herbs, beets and flowers - and a single acre of horseradish.

That acre yields around 5000 to 6000 pounds of roots a year - a comparatively small crop for the third and fourth generation farmers, but a weighty matter for loyal patrons who have come to rely on the farm for their yearly Passover or Easter fix. The bulk of what the Schmitts sell is in the form of 30-pound cases of large, cleaned roots, sold in the produce department of chains like King Cullen, America's first supermarket. (It's on special this week for $.99 a pound at the store nearest the farm.)

phil schmitt horseradish

But there are also devoted fans who drive up to the packing shed in search of a Schmitt to sell them anywhere from a single root to a couple of hundred pounds. And would a person do with such a massive stash of brassicas? According to Phillip, they're prepping for a "horseradish party." He estimates that 10-15 customers a year buy in quantities at least that large (and make a side trip to a liquor store for a case or two of vodka) and gather friends and family together to make especially zesty Bloody Marys and prepare the roots for their Passover suppers.

The purpose of the vodka, Matt notes, is potentially twofold - raising the spirits of the revelers while dampening the sting of the plant. He's no stranger to the olfactory and ocular assault of horseradish; under the "Holy Schmitt's" label, the Pace business school graduate sells horseradish prepared according to his grandfather's recipes.

As a child, Matt watched as the elder Schmitt shared his home-jarred gifts with members of his Polish and German community who eagerly awaited the arrival of this springtime treat at their doorstep. Fearing that the craft would be lost to the ravages and conveniences of time, he researched the requirements for preparing a packaged product and began production in his garage. The cars that had previously occupied the space were driven out by his expanding business, and he now sells 8000 jars a year of original, beet, cranberry and hot pepper horseradishes as well as horseradish mustard via the family's farmstand, other markets, and online.

Though he won't give away his secret formula, Matt emphasizes that good ventilation is essential for withstanding horseradish's notorious sting. When they're grated, the roots release a compound called allyl isothiocyanate that travels into nasal passages and triggers a burning sensation in the eyes and nose.

The gnarled, unpeeled heaps in the farm's packing shed release a woody, earthy odor, but that's nothing compared to the unholy, acrid waft as the roots meet the teeth of a fine hand grater back in a CNN office kitchen. It's impossible not to cough and stream hot, salty tears over the growing mound of oyster-white shreds. Colleagues sitting down to a quiet afternoon snack wince and we apologize profusely.

But soon strands of sumptuous, burgundy beet, a dash each of sugar and salt and a kiss of vinegar tamp down the horseradish's fire enough to render the mixture edible. What was previously hellish is now merely purgatorial and upon repeated tastings, something close to heavenly.

It's impossible to stop eating it (even as we scrub down our Lady Macbeth beet-stained hands) and that's good news for the farmers. They've saved all the slim side roots to plant for next season's crop, and as long as loyal customers come flocking to them for the bitter herb, horseradish will be a sweet tradition for the Schmitt family.

1 cup finely grated fresh horseradish
1 cup finely grated raw, red beet
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch sugar
2 to 3 Tablespoons white or cider vinegar

Put the horseradish, beet, salt, and sugar in a medium, nonreactive bowl and stir to combine. Add vinegar to taste, and adjust salt and sugar as desired. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a week.

More Passover on Eatocracy
Add the flavor of barbecue to Bubbe's brisket
More Passover recipes from around the globe
5 ways to modernize your seder
Passover recipes from Israel, Estonia and India
Stephanie Izard's favorite matzoh toppers
Seder meal 101: From matzo to lamb bones
L'chaim! Israeli wines for Passover

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. clean sinus

    Love horseradish. Read thinking I might try to grow. Still wiping away the tears after reading comments. Think I will leave it to the professionals. Thanks for the laughs and warning.

    March 27, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  2. Dave Glo

    Similar experience. Bought the root. Sliced the root. Put the roof in the food processor. Opened processor. Took a great big whiff. Fist came out of processor and punched me in the face. Ran screaming from the room.

    March 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  3. JMK

    Makes me want to grow my own horseradish.

    March 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      It's dirt simple. Plunk root in ground. Harvest. That's about it, with a few months in between during which time you do nothing.

      March 27, 2013 at 5:25 am |
  4. Susan

    We make horseradish outside with a food processor. It's a simple recipe, but OMG what pungent stuff. We still have to use a fan to keep from tearing up.

    March 26, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  5. David

    My parents owned a small horseradish processing plant in Northern CA at the Oregon border and at 4000 ft elevation. Horseradish is grown there because of the deep organic soil and that it is frost tolerant. Anyway my dad, Otto, was featured on the program "Real People" in the early 1980's wearing a gas mask as he ground the stuff-otherwise the fumes are similar to tear gas.

    My favorite recipe for horseradish sauce is one-third Tulelake Old Fashioned HR, one-third mayo, and one-third sour cream.

    March 25, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      OMG – do you have video of that? I looooved Real People.

      March 26, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  6. rad666

    Funny how there is a meal to celebrate the passover of God's Angel of Death that killed the first born male of non-believers.

    I bet parents don't teach their kids that hard fact.

    March 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • wei xin

      Hey, you post this on every passover story! Funny fact, we do. You know...bitter herbs?

      March 25, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • VladT

      Can you learn a new tune? I am sure there is something else the Jews of the world are doing to piss you off, so go to that website. As for us foodies, you're beginning to tick us off.

      March 26, 2013 at 7:34 am |
    • Dondi Cook

      If you have any friends sharing the same last name as I, (MOST DO) I believe I should enlighten You... Cook is Germanized
      Yiddish, Cook=Koch=ohen or kohnihem. The High priest of Judahism... Now, Go eat Your Horeradish streight from a raw root you piece of Human Excrement!!!

      March 26, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • Dondi Cook

      Also, feel free to google:martha jean cook, and hit images. Now quit listening to My Families Music, It's obviously not for You!!!

      March 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • cheese head

      Passover does not celebrate the killing. Rather, it celebrates the saving by G-D of the Jewish eldest sons.

      March 26, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • Jeremy

      The way in which you frame this story is quite ignorant. You emphasize that the non-believers had their first child stricken from this Earth, yet you fail to mention that they were also the same people who were enslaving the Jews. They just happened to be non-Jews. The point of the story is that God protected the Jews from their oppressors.

      Go away.

      On a less hateful note, my grandfather always makes fresh maror every year. Each year its stronger, and each year more is eaten. It truly is addictive!

      March 31, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  7. Richard

    I used to frequent a restaurant famous for its prime rib. Only problem was, the horseradish wasn't hot. So myself and friends kept asking the owner for hotter horseradish. Finally one day, they guy served it, but we didn't know it. I took about 1/2 a teaspoon on a piece of meat, the fumes went up my nose and I choked, spitting the food out! Horseradish, for those who haven't had it isn't like the heat of chillies, it's vapourous and it will hit you like tear gas if you aren't careful. That said, it's one of the most amazing things to eat.

    March 23, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      It's such stunning stuff, isn't it? If you go out to Brighton Beach, some of the bars have horseradish vodka and when the lid comes off, the whole crowd winces.

      March 25, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Tear gas is a good description. I made the mistake of grating fresh horseradish in my kitchen one New Year's, using the KitchenAid grating attachment, and it drove me out of the kitchen for a good half-hour before the fumes cleared. Vinegar neutralizes the most extreme assault, but getting there is painful.

      It makes you wonder: who on earth ever decided that eating this stuff was a good idea? Starvation must have hit so hard that dying seemed like a better idea, and they tried to do themselves in by gnoshing on this stuff.

      March 25, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Montello

      I had exactly the same experience. My wife that I just sat there blinking away the tears with this faraway expression on my face for a minute or so. She howled. But horseradish is no good unless it hurts!

      March 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • UncleJohn

      The first time I encountered wasabi, I thought it was an after-dinner gumdrop and popped the whole thing in my mouth (about a teaspoon) .

      A few seconds later, I saw Elvis in Heaven.

      March 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  8. I'd buy it

    non-corporate farmers are dwindling. Obama 2016!

    March 22, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • Pat

      Their farm is still a family farm. Most likely it has gone corporate for tax reasons.

      March 25, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  9. SKL

    If you process it in a blender, you have to leave the pitcher in the dishwasher for at least a week afterwards to get rid of the smell.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      Nope, all you have to do is take the blender completely apart so there are no nooks. Then run a cycle through with a cup of white vinegar. Then wash as normal.

      March 27, 2013 at 3:29 am |
  10. A. Shorr

    Any time a recipe calls for you to use a "nonreactive" bowl, watch out!

    March 22, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
    • cheese head

      Copper is not a good idea.

      March 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
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