There are many advantages to making your own chrein (which is, for those who missed out on their Jewish education, a spicy horseradish sauce).
It is simple to make and most recipes include horseradish, beets, vinegar, salt and sugar. You can control its strength by adding as much horseradish as you like and you add nothing that sounds like Cellulose or Xanthan Gums, whatever that means (and yes, some store bought horseradish chreins do include it). Of course it will also give you the satisfaction of preparing yet another dish by yourself.
The chrein recipe I’ve attached here is from a wonderful restaurant in Haifa, called Maayan Ha’Bira (spring of beer, in Hebrew), a famous Ashkenazi institution in town. Their chrein is strong and tangy and goes well with their chopped liver and smoked meat. It will work well with your gefilte fish as well.
But the unknown advantage of preparing your own chrein is the simple beet soup you get when you from cooking the beets for the recipe.
Since we’re talking about poor-men kitchen here, and as your grandmother told you, "do not throw away food when there are hungry kids in Africa!" this deep purple water has to be used.
So for lunch before the seder in many Ashkenazi households, in the middle of a chaotic kitchen filled with the aromas of fish stock and matzo ball soups, tired but adrenaline-pumped cooks would drink a simple borscht, often mixed with egg yolks, or serve it over boiled potatoes with a side of sour cream.
My dear friend Denyse Tannenbaum told me about her before-the-seder-borscht experience:
“Throughout my life I have eaten beet borscht once a year, every year, at the same time and in the same place. It is Passover, I am in Toronto, and I have been working (or keeping the chefs who are working company) in the Passover basement kitchen of my mother's kosher home.
"We are four women, my grandmother, adorable as always with a pink glow on her round cheeks from the exertion of rolling 200 knaidel for the chicken soup we will be eating during the seder; my mother, supervising all kitchen activities, including the grating of the horseradish and the peeling of the dozens of boiled eggs; Jacqueline, our live-in housekeeper from Switzerland, who knows the location of every pot and potato grater and is a genius at peeling an egg without losing a dimple of white; and my sister and I, the extras, who offer help with the stirring or grating or rolling while relentlessly prodding our mother to sing us some opera to entertain us, which she does to our unanimous delight. She is a small woman with a big voice. Eventually we all sing along and end up miscounting the eggs, the knaidel, or both.”
“We break at lunch for beet borscht with the rest of the family. It is our last meal before the seder's dinner, many hours later. A practical woman on a busy day, my mother makes her borscht out of a few cans of beets,” added Denyse (rruining my theory about the homemade chrein).
To the borscht her mother would add “some egg yolks and salt and pepper, and serves it in our childhood soup bowls over peeled and boiled potatoes. The first taste on your tongue is, in a word, weird, and somewhat unpleasant, but it fills up the stomach and seems right on this strange day when old Europe reclaims our modern Canadian home.”
What I find delightful is that my Polish grandmother Rachel in Israel used to do the same. To make the chrein, she would send my grandfather to grate the horseradish outside on the balcony, where the strong smell is easier to handle. She would then use the beet water blended with an egg yolk to make a simple borscht. Since her one Passover set was only fleishig, instead of serving the borscht with the classic boiled potatoes and sour cream, my grandmother served it next to mashed potatoes topped with chicken livers she cooked with a lot of onion. How they managed to eat anything at the seder table is still a mystery to me.
And there’s another Passover custom I just learned about and decided to adopt. My beautiful grandmother used to carefully cut a circle shape from the afikoman matzah and keep it for the whole year as a token for good luck. Es ken nisht shatn (it can’t hurt).
This story was originally published in April 2012
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