horseradish duchess potatoes

Chef Nancy Silverton makes horseradish duchess potatoes topped with a little freshly grated horseradish too. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times / March 12, 2014)

Over the years as a chef, I've become fixated with understanding the intricacies of various ingredients, but I'd never given horseradish a second thought until fairly recently, when I became obsessed with the horseradish cream that my friend Suzanne Tracht serves at her restaurant, Jar. I dine there often, and every time I tasted that sauce — which she serves with her famous pot roast and as a dip for the potato chips she offers at the bar, among other things — I was blown away by how strong the burn was from the horseradish. I loved it!

Since, at that time, Suzanne and I used the same produce purveyor, the next time I saw him, I asked him what kind of horseradish Suzanne used. As a cook, I come from a school where fresher is always considered better (and I know Suzanne thinks the same way), so I expected our produce guy to hand me some knobby root of an extra-special, very rare variety of horseradish that would offer me that pungent, up-the-nose quality that made Suzanne's horseradish cream so special.

"Atomic," our produce guy said casually, as if I'd know what he was talking about.

"What variety is that?" I asked him.

He walked out to his truck and came back in holding a giant jar.

Before I go on record confessing that my favorite horseradish comes from a jar, I feel like I can at least partially redeem myself by pointing out that it's not just any jar. Morehouse Foods, the company that makes it, is here in Los Angeles. It makes another horseradish sauce under its own name that is common in grocery stores. But Atomic is a product aimed at the company's wholesale market, though it is available at select groceries, delis and online. I buy mine at Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market.

The more common Morehouse horseradish contains just horseradish and vinegar, but Atomic contains grated parsnips as well, which gives it a slightly sweet flavor. But the ingredient responsible for the eye-watering heat that makes this brand irresistible turns out to have nothing to do with horseradish at all. It's sort of a secret, listed simply as "natural flavoring," which, upon some investigation, I learned is mustard oil.

I still appreciate fresh horseradish and use it daily at Osteria Mozza, along with parsley, garlic and lemon zest, to make a spicy gremolata to serve atop braised short ribs. And I love fresh, grated horseradish on a ham sandwich.

And even in dishes where Atomic is the star, I often include fresh horseradish as a supporting player. I grate a layer of fresh horseradish over a beet salad with horseradish vinaigrette and also top a horseradish-infused version of duchess potatoes with a light covering of freshly grated horseradish.

I like how fresh horseradish finishes the flavor of a dish, just like fresh Parmesan finishes a pasta, or a dusting of powdered sugar a pastry. And adding freshly grated horseradish to something like horseradish cream also adds a textural component.

But more than anything, like the flecks of vanilla bean in ice cream or gelato, somehow it's reassuring just to see the fresh horseradish there. Even if most of the punch does come from a bottle.

food@latimes.com