Steeped in tradition and rich in symbolism, the Passover seder retells the Exodus story through food. Everything has a purpose: from the foods served to their placement on the seder plate. The traditional components of a seder plate are:
Karpas — a green vegetable, often lettuce or parsley, which symbolizes the freshness of spring. The karpas is dipped in salt water, which is symbolic of the tears shed during the enslavement of the Jews.
Zeroa — a roasted lamb shankbone which represents both the lamb that was sacrificed the night before the Hebrews fled Egypt and the Paschal lamb Jews offered in the Temple, until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Vegetarians may substitute a roasted beet.
Baytzah — a hard-boiled egg, which symbolizes springtime, renewal and fertility. It is also stands in for the Hagigah, an additional sacrifice offered in Temple times on Passover.
Charoset — a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, wine and spices. Charoset is symbolic of the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to make bricks.
Maror — bitter herbs, often horseradish, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery.
Hazeret — bitter vegetables, often romaine lettuce, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery.
Of all the symbolic foods on the seder plate, the one that packs the most sensory wallop is horseradish. According to Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, of Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, horseradish became a custom for maror (bitter herbs) from the Ashkenazi Jews of northern Europe. “As you know, horseradish is not bitter, just very sharp. Bitter greens, such as romaine lettuce stalks and endive were not available at this time of the year in Poland and surrounding lands, so horseradish came to fill the role of maror. The Sephardim (those of Spanish descent) use bitter greens,” says Waxman.
Prepared horseradish is readily available in the dairy section of most grocery stores. However, nothing beats homegrown and prepared horseradish. The horseradish plant grows very easily in Long Island gardens and comes back year after year. I have grown horseradish for years. I dig up a clump in the spring and then again in the fall. The adventure comes in its preparation, as the pungent fumes released during grating will bring immediate tears to your eyes. Several years ago I was gifted a pair of goggles by a friend who listened to my tale of horseradish prep while enjoying my homemade cocktail sauce on raw clams. From the initial peeling of the thick roots to the cleanup of my food processor, the goggles stay on during the entire process.
Rabbi Waxman’s wife, Sarrae Crane has been preparing her own horseradish for years and shares with us her recipe, which is less recipe and more intrepid technique.
Horseradish root (½ pound of cleaned and trimmed roots yields 1 cup of prepared horseradish)
Note: If you do not have goggles, make sure that you work in a well-ventilated room. The oils released when the root is crushed are extremely irritating to the eyes and sinuses.
Peel the root and cut into 1-inch chunks. Working in batches, place in food processor fitted with a metal blade and process. Add enough white vinegar to moisten the grated horseradish and puree until smooth. If mixture is too stiff or dry, add a little more vinegar. If the prepared horseradish is too strong, add sugar, ½ teaspoon at a time, to taste.
Immediately place prepared horseradish in a glass container, cover and refrigerate; if left uncovered, it will become milder. Prepared horseradish keeps in the refrigerator for months.
Intimidated? Then take a ride out to the First Annual North Fork Horseradish Festival at the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead on Saturday April 12. There will be everything from locally prepared horseradish to horseradish pickles, cheese and even chocolate!