My apologies to the International Herb Association for not writing sooner about the 2011 Herb of the Year.
I always try to reveal the Perennial Plant of the Year as soon as I can find out what it is, and immediately after I receive the press release from the National Garden Bureau's picks for flowers and vegetables, I put that out as well.
But for some reason, I never remember to check on the Herb of the Year. That is about to change, because not only can I tell you what the herb of the year is for 2011 - horseradish - I can tell you what it is for the following four years as well. In 2012 it is rose, in 2013 the elderberry, in 2014 it includes all the artemisias and in 2015 it is savory.
The International Herb Association celebrates all things herbal and to make their decision on exactly which herb to celebrate in the coming years, members take into consideration at least two of the three major categories of herbal uses: medicinal, culinary or decorative.
When I was growing up, we always had a jar of horseradish in the refrigerator, but my best memory of this plant involves the summer my mother decided to grind her own from a large root someone gave her. Using an old pot-metal, hand-crank grinder that attached to the table with a clamp and a toggle bolt, she and my older brother set to work one afternoon. After washing the root, she cut it into chunks that could fit into the grinder. It wasn't too difficult, but once the grinding began, so did the nightmare.
Imagine cutting up a large white onion without the usual list of precautions: put it in the freezer first for 15 to 20 minutes, don't cut off the root end until the very last, wear protective goggles, a face shield or even a carpenter's mask. OK, maybe we don't go that far when we cut up onions, but you get the idea. Once you have that image in your head, multiply the eye-stinging, throat clenching symptoms of inhaling sulfuric acid about 10 times over, and you'll have an idea of what it was like in our kitchen that day.
My mother and my brother took turns cranking the grinder a few times and then running out the back door, and hanging off the stair railing while they inhaled as much fresh air as they could. I was too young to take part in this adventure, but going into the kitchen was impossible. The fumes permeated the air and irritated the mucus membranes of any person who dared get too close.
It's not quite as bad now that we have food processors and other sorts of mini-electric choppers. Instead of slowly hand-grinding the root, these machines can whizz the herb into a manageable mush in seconds flat. There is barely time for the pungent oils to escape, minimizing the risk of asphyxiation.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), has been grown for centuries. It appeared in the Middle Ages as an accompaniment in the Jewish Passover seder. It has tall, broad leaves and is easily grown from just a small piece of root. The root is the part we use, but if you leave a little in the ground when you harvest, you'll have plenty of horseradish for subsequent years.
As a garden plant, horseradish prefers to be ignored. It does spread rampantly if left unchecked, but if you are sure you want to grow horseradish, it is best to give it specific boundaries, such as planting it in a large container or separate it from the rest of the garden.
Some growers claim fall is the best time to harvest, especially after a frost, but others say it is perfectly OK to harvest in the spring. Whichever you prefer, simply dig up the root and grate it as needed. If you dig it all up, be sure to break off a few pieces and replant them for another crop next year.
As far as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerned, it is generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but like most herbs that contain volatile oils, excessive doses can be dangerous. Why anyone would want to eat excessive amounts of horseradish is beyond my comprehension, because a little goes a long way.
It is best used raw and grated, and there are multitudes of recipes. The most common use is with beef and fish, but it can also be used with mustard sauces, deviled eggs and even mashed potatoes.