In September Jackie and I were in Vienna for three nights, on a side trip from our U.K. travels. We’d naively believed the pre-departure weather forecasts – highs in the 60s, lows well down into the 50s – and had packed for fall. Of course, it turned out to be unremittingly hot and sunny, and we were all of a sweat within minutes of leaving the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel (the charming Bristol, right across the street from the opera house, where we saw two terrific shows).
We ate consistently well: good ingredients skillfully prepared, with few modernist flourishes. There are a couple of dishes I’m working to duplicate, such as amazing stuffed dumplings with a filling of pork cracklings, little shreds of pork and reduced juices: There are plenty of recipes for these grammelknodel out there, but I’ve found none that reflect just what we ate after the opera on our first night in Vienna. I will report back if and when I’ve nailed the dish; it is certainly something I will want to share.
But for now, I just want to mention my rekindled love affair with horseradish, which figured in most of our meals – cut in a fine julienne rather than grated (presumably on some sort of machine or mandolin) so that it provided texture as well as heat and flavor. Somehow it wasn’t as pungent this way either: A dish of spiced smoky raw bacon was topped with a haystack of these threads, and it was a pleasure to eat, whereas I believe that the same quantity of finely grated horseradish would have blown a gustatory fuse.
On our last night, again after the opera, we ate around the corner at a newly opened branch of Plachutta, a well-known group of restaurants specializing in Austrian cooking and more specifically in boiled beef. I’d wondered whether on a sultry evening I’d feel up to two different cuts of simmered meat with all the traditional trimmings, but I stripped down to my shirtsleeves and placed my order. Among the sides that came with the really excellent beef in broth were two horseradish preparations, both delicious. One was semmelkren, a creamy sauce thickened with bread – like English bread sauce or Italian pearà – and the other was apfelkren: horseradish-spiked apple sauce.
It is now peak apple season, and the farmers markets are packed with dozens of varieties ancient and modern. Horseradish root is also abundant in all its misshapen hairiness. So when we recently offered guests a slab of roast pork belly, it seemed only right to replicate the condiment we’d enjoyed in Vienna. This proved to be a cinch, and worked the first time: No recipe-fiddling necessary as with the elusive grammelknodel.
All I did was peel and coarsely grate three small apples – use varieties you enjoy eating, whether they be sweeter or more sour – and, over low heat, cook them for 10 minutes or so with a little water, a very little sugar and some lemon juice, adding a dribble of water whenever they looked as though they might burn.
While this was cooking, I peeled a slim 3-inch length of horseradish, then used a vegetable peeler to cut it into wafer-thin strips, which I then cut crosswise into fine julienne. Loosely packed, these amounted to a heaping half a cup.
When the apples had turned into applesauce, I took the pan off the heat, let it cool for five minutes and added half of the horseradish. I tasted: not enough. So I added the rest, plus a sprinkle of additional sugar for balance, and it was just about right: mainly apple, with a pleasant horseradish kick just in the background. Everybody loved it.
Lots of people make apfelkren with cream or sour cream. Plachutta’s version included neither, and I really can’t see the point of diluting the clear apple/horseradish flavor with extra ingredients. I also can’t see the point of making this with prepared horseradish: The freshly cut root gives the sauce texture as well as flavor, and the vinegar used in jarred horseradish would be a distraction.
You can serve this with any roasted or simmered meat, alone or as an adjunct to a sauce or gravy. It would also be great with potato pancakes, wouldn’t it?