Why Hello There, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes! I’m your wringed-out writer of the day, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to touch on a part of my culinary preferences we’ve been somewhat lax in addressing of late: my love of spice. And we’re touching it in a very unusual, dare I say inappropriate way, via salad: A Horseradish, Green Apple, and Fennel Salad.
Clear Eyes, Clear Nostrils
As I’ve mentioned quite frequently and vociferously in the past (I got a word-a-day calendar for Christmas, and it’s already paying off), I am something of a chili-head. A fiend for the fiery, and sycophant of the spicy. Jalapeños, Habaneros, Ghost Peppers, I like them all. Just this summer I sprinkled Scorpion Pepper Powder in my Rolling Rock beer, because if I had to suffer through Rolling Rock, I wanted to at least enjoy the suffering.
Trust me, over time, it became pretty enjoyable.
Now, many people actually aren’t a fan of all kinds of heat. By which I don’t mean simply different levels of heat, but of the primary TYPES of culinary cremation. See, “Spiciness” actually comes in 4 main varieties, based on, well, 4 different chemicals.
Hot Peppers, like the aforementioned Jalapeños and Habaneros, have capsaicin as their chemical heat. (Real quick aside here, Scientists actually have to use a different word than normal people do here, tending to rely on “pungency”. This is because the terms ‘hot’ and ‘spicy’ are imprecise, hot being also applicable to temperature, and ‘spicy’ including too many spices that aren’t particularly, well, “hot”.)
Garlic, on the other hand, has a compound called allicin as its pungent powerhouse. This is why the heat level of garlic actually increases the finer it’s chopped: allicin is produced by rupturing cell membranes in the garlic. A Ghost Pepper is just as hot whole as diced, but minced garlic is much stronger than smashed. Onions have a similar compound, but its name has four dashes and ends in “-ide”, so it’s best to just ignore it.
Also, it's name starts with "syn", and has a random S in the middle of it, so it's clearly some sort of trick by the Devil.
Next, piperine is what makes black pepper such a popular topper.
And lastly, a powerful compound with a name like poison, allyl isothiocyanate, is the pungent punch behind horseradish, wasabi, mustard, and radish. The sinus searing butane torch that burns like flash paper: blazing brightly for a second, but already fading as the afterimages bring tears to your eyes. Amid the richness of winter stews, butter-slathered breads, and calorie-thick carved roasts, your tongue sometimes needs a touch of fire to cut through the clatter and refresh the pallet. These were the thoughts that motivated me, as I stirred an entire brick of cream cheese into a hot skillet of stock for turkey tetrazzini, to decide to punch up the side dish to something with some kick.
Just a Spoonful of Sugar…
Now, of course, you can’t just toss Horseradish in unaccompanied, like a high-school DM at the Sadie Hawkins dance, you have to bring it along with some friends. This is actually partly scientific: horseradish can sit for weeks if left undisturbed in the fridge: I bought mine just after Thanksgiving, and it’s probably only NOW thinking about going bad. But, like all too many seemingly potent powerhouses, once things get intimately physical, horseradish runs out of juice FAST. Once cut or grated, the exposed parts will turn bitter in just a few hours. But dousing the bits in salt and vinegar can keep the potency going strong, just like thinking about grandma or baseball stats will for your other disappointing powerhouses.
Though, over time, this process tends to make them very uncomfortable watching bull-pens.
Another reason is simply that, well, while a little punch of pungency is nice to cleanse the palate, when delivered alone, it’s also somewhat jarring and uncomfortable. Try punching someone in the mouth the next time you find them boring, see how long you keep your friends. Or free. So, Horseradish almost always comes to play with someone else. In today’s dish, the pungency is matched with the acidic sweetness of Granny Smith Apples, the anise-adjacent aroma of fennel, the freshness powerhouse that is mint, and some impressively herbaceous celery root.
And…by listing the ingredients, I’ve honestly covered most of the recipe here. I wish I was being less serious, this is a recipe of arguably three steps, which you could write in a single paragraph. Because the construction of this salad is, basically, like any other salad: make a dressing, toss the salad in the dressing, top with whatever. Boom. The only difference is instead of your weak-ass iceberg lettuce, we brought some down muthafuckas who’re ready to drop some flavor bombs. (Sorry, I watched some of The Wire before that paragraph.)
Specifically, a scene where the drug trade hierarchy is likened to the roles on a chess board. Which is just a great scene.
In any case, this is a recipe that more about the mise en place than the real execution. It’s been a while since I talked about the mise, so a quick reminder if you’ve forgotten it: mise en place is French, and means something like “everything in place” as in “putting everything in place”, as in “I’m putting everything in place so that we can kill the king with no one noticing.” So it’s a phrase used in cooking and regicide. It’s the process of, well, everything that should take place BEFORE you start actually cooking. It’s super important for something like stir-fry, where the heat is so high and the cooking times so short, if you DIDN’T chop your veggies before the beef went in the wok, your shit will be BURNT before you finish chopping carrots for your Kung Pao Chicken. Shit, I let alliteration distract me, and fucked up what meat I was cooking. MOVING ON.
This recipe is comprised of a lot of different, fairly similar looking ingredients cut into little thin strips called “matchsticks”, which generally implies that each one is about as tall as it is wide. So just cutting up the ingredients is the major time waster of this dish.
Mincing Mint mightily minimizes meal momentum.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s the main event, oh no. See, you got this gnarled goat’s horn of a root, subtly menacing with hidden pungency, and for this recipe, you gotta grate that sucka. Remember earlier, when I mentioned about allicin getting sharper the more air it’s exposed to? Allyl isothiocyanate is a little like that: until it’s exposed to the air, it’s not really all that strong. So when you pick up and sniff the root (Do it. It doesn’t matter how weird you look. You have to know your enemy to defeat him.), you won’t get much in the way of ferocity. But when you start grating it, raw and live in your too-small kitchen packed with too many people watching you prep the pain? It fills the air like invisible dragon’s fire. Eyes water, heads toss like fly-bitten horses, and people start coughing.
Awaken, dark soul of fire! Consume all who oppose me!
Then you whip that shit into a vinaigrette, and toss the salad in it.
Like I said, simple.
The Big Finish
The recipe I had called for toasted hazelnuts to serve as the crouton to our Caesar salad of searing discomfort. And I forgot to grab any pre-peeled and prepped while at the store getting my magic goat’s horn of fire herb. Luckily, my family had like, 2 pounds of mixed nuts set aside for the holiday season. UNLUCKILY, I have no goddamn idea how to crack hazelnuts.
Is this going well? Poorly? I have no idea.
Look, I’m a walnut and pecan kinda guy. Peanuts at bars are also nice. But hazelnuts? I don’t even eat Nutella, because I’m secretly a dark faerie powered by human spite, and not a mortal man at all. Anywho, I could NOT get the hang of it. I’d crack two pretty easily, and then the same amount of force would utterly SHATTER the third nut, spraying shell and nut meat everywhere, like someone launched a mortar into King Kong’s Coconuts. After like, 15 minutes of suffering through shrapnel in my eyes and beard, I eventually gathered enough for a toasted topper. And let me tell you, I have never watched a pan as closely as I did this one: I was NOT going to re-crack another 16 hazelnuts for this shit. Not the least because we’d only had 18 left. If I fucked this up, then it was finito.
I didn’t fuck it up. I mean, of course not, the instructions for toasting nuts are “watch a warm pan for 8 minutes. If it starts to smell weird in any way, immediately pull them off.” The only way to fuck it up is to literally leave.
Nuts roasted, salad matched, and vinaigrette brimming with vim, it was time to serve it alongside the turkey tetrazzini.
That's one heck of a pale plate.
It was…certainly something. Turns out that dousing celery root in a vinaigrette does NOT, in fact, make it stop tasting like celery. I uh…I don’t know. It wasn’t so much “bad” as it was…”not a dish.” Like, the flavors didn’t really meld at all. Even taking the foods together, it was just disjointed. Maybe we screwed up, somehow. Maybe the directions forgot to say “let sit for 6 minutes” or something, but it was weird.
Nate’s review was “I’m very confused. I take one bite, and think ‘this is pretty good’, I take another bite, and think ‘Why am I still eating this garbage?’” As I said, erratic and disjointed. Not helping things was the fact that the turkey tetrazzini turned out not to be as cloyingly rich as the directions “add the brick of cream cheese to the sauce” would imply. So I made a super-cloying-cutting-concoction…and set it next to Olive Garden Fettuccine.
All in all, while I didn’t really enjoy the results, I’m not disappointed I made the salad. I mean, just the fun of grating the horseradish was worth the price of admission. And cutting loose and doing something stupid and fun in the middle of a stressful time is always a valuable practice. Unless it’s punching your friends in the mouths when they bore you. Again, not a good call.
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THURSDAY: JON REVIEWS A COOKBOOK ABOUT BREAKING THE RULES.
MONDAY: JON MAKES SOMETHING FROM THE CITY OF BROTHERLY LOVE. HE HONESTLY DOESN’T KNOW WHAT YET; THE POLL DOESN’T CLOSE TILL THURSDAY.
The Mean Joe Green Apple Salad.
1 small shallot, or ¼ a small onion, grated
1 ½ tbsp. apple cider vingar
3 tbsp. lightly packed grated horseradish
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp honey
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
1 Granny smith apple, cored and cut into matchsticks
¼ lb celery root, peeled, and cut into matchsticks.
1 small fennel bulb, cleaned up and thinly sliced
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped/clumsily crushed
1. Mix the first two ingredients, and let sit for 10 minutes.
2. Mix the horseradish, olive oil, honey, salt, and pepper with the shallot and vinegar.
3. Add the apple, celery root, and fennel, and toss to coat. Mix in the parsley and mint.
4. Top with hazelnuts, and serve.