I can feel it in the air. Just today I noticed that a few more green bits had forced their way above the soil surface outside. Spring will be here soon and for some of you it has already arrived. In the meantime, these flowers have been helping me through. Their colourful, long lasting blooms have been a nice respite from the dreary monochromatic gloom of winter.
I have so much to tell you about the Ecuadorian food store in my neighbourhood that it was difficult working out where to begin. I’ve travelled in Southern Mexico and I’ve perused many Latin American food stores, yet this store was a treasure trove of exciting food stuffs I had never seen before, primarily from Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. The packaging was delightful, too. But that’s a post in itself.
First up is huacatay, a dark sauce in a jar that had me perplexed. The label identified the main ingredient as “black mint”, but the illustration on the front looked nothing like the black peppermint I am familiar with. If I had to take a guess, I’d say it was a marigold, but even though I eat marigolds (particularly the gem series), I do so in small quantities and could not imagine devoting it to a sauce. Because that seemed illogical, I chalked the illustration up to the sort of packaging that just has any old plant stuck into the design.
It’s become a tradition and now that I live in an Italian neighbourhood it’s pretty much a requirement. When my local Italian greengrocer set out the seed rack I did a little happy dance, and it was then that I knew I was doomed to buy more seed than I will ever have room to grow.
Cucumber ‘Spuredda Leccese’ – While not technically a cucumber (Cucumis sativa), this Italian melon (Cucumis melo) from the Puglia region (Southern Italy) is eaten like one. I have seed for several Italian cucumber/melon varieties and am quite taken with them. The poorly translated product description was also a selling point. “It has to be harveste the unripe fruit and consumpted in salad.” It’s either going to be awesome in a salad or bring about the consumption — I like the promise of a little risk.
Arugula ‘Selvetica’ aka rucola selvatica (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) – This is my favourite arugula, hands down, and even though I have several packets from other companies, I can’t seem to stop buying it. Just in case! If The Apocalypse comes in 2012 I will not be without.
Onion ‘Tropea Rossa Tonda’ – I am partial to red onion varieties and am more likely to plant them than white. It’s the colour! This one has an interesting shape and matures to red. I’ve long since started my onion seed — these will go in the second sowing. I believe these may be a short day variety so I don’t know what kind of luck I will have with them; however, we have no shortage for scallion usage so I’d be okay if they never reach bulb size.
Pitaya, or dragon fruit, is a strange edible that is commonly sold (at a premium) in Asian food markets. The fruit is hot pink on the outside with an edible, white interior flesh that is dotted throughout with tiny, black seeds. The taste is mildly sweet, ever-so-slightly sour, and if I’m being honest, rather bland. Its saving grace are the crunchy seeds as they create a textured sensation that is fun to eat, not unlike a kiwi, but more exotic. I like it fresh and chilled, spooned straight out of that intense fuchsia skin.
The thing that intrigues me most about this fruit is the fact that it is grown on a cactus, and an epiphytic (air plant) one no-less. Hylocereus undatus is a night-blooming, jungle cactus that originated somewhere in the tropics of South America and the Caribbean, but is now most closely associated with South East Asia, where the fruit is grown commercially. Hylocereus is remarkably easy to grow as as houseplant and takes off equally well from seeds or cuttings. I know several gardeners that have successfully grown the seeds harvested from store bought fruit with no special effort or preparation. The plant requires more moisture and nutrition than a typical cactus, but can withstand periods of drought. It takes a tropical climate or a heated greenhouse to grow a plant large enough to produce fruit, but in the right conditions it can be made to produce in cramped quarters or a large pot.
I was on Martha Stewart Radio today to talk about my new book about growing herbs and edible flowers. The question was asked, “What is your favourite edible flower?” and I replied, without hesitation, “Nasturtiums, hands down.”
Of course, now as I am typing this, I am hesitating, “But wait… what about roses? You really like roses. Don’t forget violas! You lose your mind over them in the springtime. Scented geraniums… you can’t live without them.” And so on…
No, really. I often choose nasturtium when asked this question and I think it comes down to the unexpected. Most people expect edible flowers to taste kind of sweet, floral, and a little bit weird, which is how many flowers smell. When I hold out a nasturtium, which does not have a particularly strong smell, and ask a friend to eat it, no one ever anticipates that their tongue will be met with a burst of sweetness and a spicy, radish-like kick.
Nasturtiums are fun, perhaps more-so than other flowers.