Horseradish: Some Like It Hot

Horseradish has historically been a hot commodity in Riverhead, with its large Polish and German communities
Tom O’Neill offered tastings and demonstrations of how the root is ground and then pureed with vinegar to create the familiar mixture. Debra Scott

    The heat was on Saturday as hundreds of hotheads descended on a field at the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead for the debut year of the North Fork Horseradish Festival.

    Horseradish has historically been a hot commodity in Riverhead, with its large Polish and German communities. The event began about 40 years ago as an annual backyard party where families could gather and make a condiment from the fiery root. It moved to Martha Clara Vineyards six years ago, but outgrew that space and was taken over this year by Starfish Junction Productions, a company that produces festivals throughout the Northeast.

    The festivities have traditionally been held in early spring when the root is harvested, having been left to overwinter and build full flavor. Just in time for Passover and Easter, festivalgoers were able to see demonstrations of how the root is processed, buy horseradish products, and partake of other typical festival activities, from watching a woodworking demonstration to getting glitter tattoos for the young’uns.

    Families and friends worked together to peel and chop the root, then grind it in a grinder that extruded pieces that looked like shredded mozzarella. White vinegar was added before pureeing the mix in a food processor. The finer the grind, the hotter the result, one old-timer said. The more vinegar, the milder. In this undoctored state, it can stay in a fridge about three months.

    Tom O’Neill, who has been helping with the party for decades, offered us a hard-boiled egg to halve and spread the fresh concoction on — a pure way to experience the sinus-searing plant.

    There were purveyors on hand selling jars of various flavors, including a knock-your-socks-off blend from Schmitt Farms combining the combustible duo of horseradish and jalapeno under the Holy Schmitt’s Homemade Horseradish label. Matt Schmitt, this generation’s farmer, still uses his grandfather’s recipe.

    The founders of S+M Horseradish, two brothers-in-law, Marc Appelbaum, an architect, and Seth Lehman, a lawyer, managed to sell out of their softly spiced jars of made-in-Brooklyn product within two hours — an auspicious start, as it was the first time they had introduced it. Last year at a Passover Seder they grabbed a root as it was about to be tossed, then played around with a recipe till they landed one that “was better than the competitors out there.” They also plan to launch a “kick your butt” Bloody Mary mix.

    Lines were long for the horseradish pickles, horseradish fudge (better than you’d think), and ice cream topped with the tangy condiment (strange, but palatable), both sweets made by Kilwins, a confectionery house in Babylon.

    Chris Richards, a Long Island chef who heads East End Events Catering, demonstrated recipes made with horseradish. His mixture of sour cream, mayonnaise, sweet chili sauce, champagne vinegar, and, of course, horseradish made for a mild crudite dip with a pronounced tang. He also made a beurre blanc with horseradish, butter, cream, and Dijon, a versatile sauce to be served with any kind of meat or fish. And he prepared a crust of horseradish, panko, Parmesan, and mayo he said could be used to encase a fish for searing and oven-finishing.

    Entries for a recipe contest included a beet salad, crawfish-stuffed tomatoes, ham Bisquick pie, cheddar spread, and bacon-wrapped shrimp with a cream dip, all starring horseradish. The winner was the shrimp, entered by John Barci, a web designer from Babylon. His prize was a year’s supply of Cabot Cheese, a value of $312.

    The high point of the day was the Bloody Mary contest, which pitted regular folk against bartenders. Theresa Lavallo, a bartender at Gosman’s restaurant in Montauk, prepared a tongue-tingling cocktail given a kick by Sriracha chili sauce, a habanero pepper sauce, Cajun spices, and the ground root of the day. Garnished with a pickle spear, horseradish cheese, pepperoni, and pepperoncini, it packed a palate-pleasing punch. Hers was a virgin version, as she wanted the mix, which she warned was “not for the faint of heart‚” to stand on its own without the distraction of vodka. You can look forward to imbibing what she called the Bloody Buccaneer at Gosman’s soon. With vodka, please.

    Other versions of the cocktail were equally as creative, with contestants rimming their glasses with ingredients including paprika, seafood seasoning, and horseradish. One drink was doused heavily with Guinness Stout and sprinkled with bacon. Another was laced with a puree of jalapenos, tomatillos, and cucumbers.

    The winner again was John Barci, a kind of contest pro who enters many contests around the country, especially barbecue competitions. His cocktail incorporated classic Bloody Mary ingredients with the addition of two barbecue rubs and liquid smoke. He won a $100 gift certificate to BBD’s, a restaurant in Rocky Point. When asked to give a speech, Mr. Barci, who is planning to launch a Long Island barbecue championship on Labor Day weekend, said simply, “Let’s drink.”

    Alas, only the judges were allowed that honor, much to the consternation of the audience, who exhaled an audible grunt.