Food is Why We Garden

Sure, it's fine to grow all sorts of things in the garden, but what good are they unless you eat them? Several readers asked what interesting foods we found along the trail to Florida, so here's the wrap-up.
The next blog entries will be about the Missouri Organic Growers Conference in St. Louis. If you'd like to see who the other speakers are (there are about 70, I'm told) go here for the details. And if you can come to the conference, stop by my booth and say hi. My program is Edible Landscaping (or as I call it, "Dig up the yard and plant something useful."

Tomato gravy on grits.
The most unusual, or at least unfamiliar food I found on the trip South, was tomato gravy. It's common in southern Mississippi and Alabama. The recipe calls for flour browned in bacon grease to make a roux, to which you add canned tomatoes, tomato paste and water. Sadly, no herbs, which might give it flavor. My reaction upon eating the first bite (in spite of the waitress saying, "You'll just love it, I do!") was.....blech. It won't ever be on my list of favorite things. I don't even like canned tomato soup and this was worse.
Half rack of ribs at Central BBQ, Memphis
By far the best barbecue I found was at Central Barbecue in Memphis. Their barbecue sauce and baked beans are a much better use for tomatoes than tomato gravy! Memphis style ribs are a dry rub, the sauce is on the side.
Vietnamese soup, known as pho.
One of the best meals of the trip was Pho, a complex blend of spices, broth and flavors, served with lots of noodles and either round of beef, chicken or meatballs. Plus the Sides:
Traditional side for Pho.
Pho is always served with a plate of fresh bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno peppers, Thai or Vietnamese basil and topped off with culantro. If you don't know culantro, it is an Asian kind of cilantro (or coriander, depending on the reference you use). It's not an easy plant to grow as it requires a lot of moisture and shade. I brought several pots of culantro with me from Florida and I grow it for about 9 months of the year, although not always successfully.
Catfish near Truman, Arkansas
One of the best meals was the catfish plate at a little roadside barbecue place near Truman, Arkansas. Beans, cornbread, homemade coleslaw and perfectly fried catfish. That's the way catfish is done in the South.
Tamales and homemade salsa.
Equally as good were the tamales we found at a little roadside produce stand. They were, without a doubt, the best tamales I've ever eaten and the sauce was so hot I sweat. The corn for the tamales was local, the peppers in the sauce, was, as well. $4 worth of tamales and it was almost more than I could eat.
The famous Chatterbox Cafe chocolate pie.
But the prize was this, the famous chocolate pie from the Chatterbox Cafe just off highway 78, near Byhalia, Mississippi. Sherri and Barry McCallah got me hooked on this pie some years ago. It's not your ordinary chocolate pie, not pudding, it's more of a baked fudge pie, a real Southern thing. I've tried to concoct the recipe without success many times. I detoured well out of my way just to buy a pie to bring home. I'm doling it out in tiny pieces (it's too rich to eat more than a sliver). You can't find the Chatterbox on any Google searches so I'll post the details below. They also have lots of other homemade pies and desserts, plus exceptionally good catfish and coleslaw. But that pie....!!
I'm off to the Missouri Organic Conference, stop by and see us if you attend.


Rare Plants, Seaside Characters

It looks like a cold day with a bit of snow, doesn't it? Actually it's the sand dunes in Pensacola. Miles and miles of pure white beaches and on a rainy day, looking for all the world like new snow. I had to wonder, just what grows there? Unfortunately so much of the seashore is condominiums that finding public beaches is a bit of a challenge.
Key West, 85 degrees.
Austin and I drove to Key West. He'd not been that far south before and I hadn't visited in many years. We had several friends who used to winter in Key West and work there, returning to the Ozarks for the summer tourist season. It didn't take many steps to meet a few local characters.
Coconut Larry, a true Key West beach bum.
Meet Coconut Larry. Everyone knows him and you can't walk far on the beach without finding him. He sets up shop under the coconut trees with an ice chest full of ripe coconuts. For donations, he'll show you the art of drinking coconut juice.
Larry saws the stem end off the coconut.

After the coconut top is sawed off, Larry cuts a hole in the top, to reach the coconut juice inside.
And there is your finished coconut, already chilled with an instant holder - the sand.
Beach life isn't too shabby. Coconut Larry has made another visitor from the great cold north, happy.
Northward bound, Austin and I stopped at one of my favorite places to shop for unusual plants, the Mustang Flea Market in Tampa. Lots of plants and produce you won't find in your local grocery store.
You can see most of the market in about 3 hours if you hurry, it's huge.
Ginger, lotus flowers, gourds, yams, tiny oranges, garlic, starfruit.
The disappointing thing is that I can't get home with the fresh produce. Sometime I want to rent a place for a couple of weeks just so I can cook up some of what I find at the Mustang Market.
Banana flowers, lotus stems, gourd and more.
What I did find to bring home are some additions to my tropical plant collection. I found Thai pandanus (Pandanus amaryllifolius). There are several varieties of pandanus, but only one used for cooking as far as I know and it's a hard plant to find. I learned to appreciate the flavor when I was in cooking classes in Thailand. I also bought a jaboticaba, one of my favorite fruits. It's 3 ft. tall and 2 years old, it should start bearing fruit at 3 or 4 years, hopefully. (To see what it looks like, view this video): http://youtu.be/lCpG5ZkLp5Y  I also brought some other cooking herbs, equally difficult to find which I'll be describing later as I start cooking up dishes with them. Now, heading north and sadly leaving behind the 70s and 80s weather we've been soaking up. I dropped Austin off in Gainsville where he's headed back to catching oysters and fishing for a few days before heading northward himself. Thank you for checking on our progress!


Tropical Plant Conference, Ft. Lauderdale

We took in the TPIE (Tropical Plant Conference) in Ft. Lauderdale this week. It's where lots of new plants are introduced to the retail nurseries. New products, hot new plants and what's for sale this year. For example, last year when I attended this conference, the exciting new plant was the introduction of the blue orchids.

This time, the same company introduced two new colors, lavender and maroon along with a deeper blue. You can see these, below. At the beginning of the year no one knew much about these, but by fall of 2011, you could find blue orchids in Home Depot and lots of other stores. I assume these new colors will be available in the same places. They are, however, not naturally colored. They are white orchids that have had color injected into the base, so when the re-bloom, they will be white or near white.

New orchid colors for this year.
Rachael Hopkins, from Hopkins Nursery won best of 10 x 10 nursery displays.
Hopkins Nursery, a wholesale nursery, is a place I've written about before as I try to visit just about every time I get to Florida. They're growers of things like allspice, cinnamon, bay rum and similar rare and hard to find plants. To see what they grow, here's their website.

Notice, it's a plant watering container, but also a sprayer at the top.
I thought this was a good new product this year. It's a container for watering plants and also has a mister on top for plants that need more humidity.
Medillina Magnifica
One of the winners of the cool new plant category was this Medillina Magnifica - sorry, there's no common name. It stays in bloom form 4-6 months, is tough with long clusters of bright flowers and large buds (which are about the size of an orange, the flowers hang down about 15 inches or more).
I liked the garden feet planters - they're almost 30 inches long and come in 6 colors. And this little planter, below of a bromeliad and a cat in a basket.
Bromeliad in bloom with "cat."
While this looks like a real cat in a basket, it's not. The basket is about 1 1/2 inches across, the bromeliad that's in bloom is only about the size of 2 postage stamps and the cat is made of rabbit fur. Still, it's one of those too-cute items there will probably be a market for.

That's the news from South Florida. Wish you could all be here and smell the flowers!


Florida Sunshine

Flower of the sausage tree. Flowers hang on long "ropes" then become "sausages."

It's hard to leave home when the daytime temperatures get up in the 40s and 50s, but it's easier when nights are still in the 20s. I hopped down to Florida over the weekend. Thailand had flooding problems, so I didn't go there and south India just wasn't working out, so to gather up some warmth and inspiration, I'm back to Florida for a week or so. The pull - besides days in the middle 70s and nights as low as 55, is the Tropical Plant Conference in Ft. Lauderdale.

Austin, telling his parents about the banyan tree. Yes, that's just one tree behind him.

I met up with a friend, Austin Jones (see his blog), in Central Florida a couple of days ago. He's a farm worker from Bear Creek Farm near Osceola, MO (you'll find stories about Bear Creek Farm in my older blog posts). So we met up and are heading to the plant conference tomorrow.
Oranges of all kinds are ripening right now, sweet and juicy from the trees.

Today we visited friends, Tom and Roxana Collins who winter in Bradenton. They took us to a fun little citrus orchard to check out the hundreds of varieties of citrus trees grown there. Austin is intensely interested in fruit, especially apples, but found lots of things to see and ask about in the orange trees.
Austin quizzing the orange guy about citrus varieties.

We also visited the Barnum Bailey Mansion and Gardens, and checked out the variety of trees there.
You may recall I came this way south last year and nearly froze. I'm enjoying the warm breezes and palm trees - this is what Florida should feel like. And food? Check out this - soft shell crabs are in season and here's what you get when you order a crab sandwich.
Yes, you get the whole crab, deep-fried and you eat it all.
More news soon about the tropical plant conference tomorrow.


Barbara Young enjoying the sunshine on the Sun porch with tropical plants.
The sun porch is a great place on sunny afternoons in winter. Barbara reads on her Kindle or sits and plays solitaire amidst the keiffir lime, curry tree, cinnamon, bay rum, allspice and other plants we over-winter here. Just behind her, here's the view, below.
The garden today. Most of the light snow is gone, still lots of green things growing.
Hope for spring, these jonquils are already this tall.
The exciting event this week was a friend of Josh's niece who lives in upstate NY, came to photograph us. She, Lois Bieliefeld, is working on what she calls, The Bedroom Project. She's traveling around the country, photographing people in their bedrooms. (Yes, she calls and asks first and makes an appointment). She's a professional photographer - you can see some of her work on her website, and the bedroom project is for both a gallery show and for an upcoming book. It's something she's been thinking about for many years, the idea of photographing people where they are most comfortable, and where they spend half their lives. No, it's not risque or erotic, just simple photos of people in their most comfortable room. She asked us, it sounded fun so she came. From here she headed into Arkansas, then Mississippi, over to Texas, through Oklahoma and north through Kansas City, photographing people in their bedrooms all the way. Here she is, standing in our bedroom.
Lois Bieliefeld in our bedroom.
Molly, who's always included in everything that goes on simply because she's so curious, laid in her bed, observing the photo process. Eventually she got in the photos, too.
Molly isn't quite sure about all those lights and cameras.
Lois photographed Barbara first, in her bedroom. You may notice the very large, fan-shaped lights. They run off of enormous (car battery size) photo batteries she carries with her.
Lois visiting with Barbara while she photographs.
More photos in Barbara's room.
Mexican oregano on the left, Sicilian oregano on the right.
In spite of 18 degrees and a dusting of snow, the Mexican oregano and the Sicilian oregano all came through fine. The flavor is different in winter, more dense and "darker" but still quite tasty. Most years they remain green throughout the year, just like thyme and rosemary.
Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) gets mistaken for forsythia, which blooms later.
The winter jasmine is in bloom this week, and will continue sporadically for the next couple of months. The second part of the Latin name, nudiflorum, refers to its lack of leaves when it blooms. It's always a cheery sight in January.
Romantic Kit for 10 makes 10 nice Dream Pillows.

So that's the news from the garden this week. If you're looking for a unique plant-related gift for Valentine's Day, we've got a special Romantic Kit for 10 on our website. Great for all ages and you create 10 little Dream Pillows to give. Check it out here. And if you want more information about Dream Pillows, visit my Dream Pillows blog. I've been writing about and creating formulas for Dream Pillows for over 20 years and have written 2 books on the subject.


Garden Visitors

Today as I write this, it's 71 degrees outside. That probably means we're in for a blizzard in a few days, but for now, it's most welcome. I moved the black pepper plants outdoors to soak up the warm air, and hopefully some little flying pollinators will find the flowers and we'll have some peppercorns setting on.

We had visitors to the garden this week. First let me introduce you to Chad Wilt, from Creation Gardens in Compton, Arkansas.
Chad Wilt, Creation Gardens, Compton, AR

Chad called a few days ago saying he and his family had been away over the Holidays. They'd left their greenhouse in the care of neighbors. The greenhouse contained all of their stock plants that Chad takes cuttings from, to grow on for their spring plant sales. They sell at the Baker Creek Spring Festival and at the Herbal Affair in  Sand Springs, OK, places we also always attend. His greenhouse is heated with a wood stove and the neighbors had filled the stove too full of wood. The stove overheated, setting a wood pile just a few feet away, on fire, too. Well, actually the greenhouse is so tight that air didn't get in, so the hot stove and the lack of air flow, turned the wood pile into charcoal! That was a lot of heat and a wonder the greenhouse didn't burn, too. All of their stock plants were just baked to death.

Chad called to ask if he could come up and take some cuttings from my plants. He got several kinds of sage plants, a couple of varieties of rosemary, some Mountain Mint (Pycanthium), both Mexican and Sicilian oregano, a honey eucalyptus (which hadn't been hurt by the cold) and a few others. Then we went over to our friend, Brent's, who had a African blue basil for Chad. Then on up to Ozark, MO where our friend, Olee at Spring Fever Greenhouse had a small stock plant of Vietnamese cilantro, which is always a good seller for Chad. Olee had special empathy for Chad even though they'd never met. Olee's greenhouse burned down a few  years back from a similar issue.
In case you want to email Chad to see if there are other herb plant starts he's missing, his email is chadwilt2@gmail.com. I'm sure he'd appreciate any unusual herb cuttings you might have to share. You can mail them to him at Creation Gardens, HC 33, Box 75, Compton, AR 72624.
Austin Jones, heading to Florida to capture oysters.

Our second visitor this week was Austin Jones, a young man who has a passion for antique fruit tree varieties. He's been running a trial of about 100 heirloom fruit varieties at Bear Creek Farm (which I've written about before here - they're the ones doing the experiments with acres and acres of grafted tomatoes). He works there on their 11 acre produce garden. They sell to Whole Foods in Kansas City and at area farmers markets.

Austin stopped by for a visit and tour of the garden, on his way south. He's not been here before and we enjoyed getting to visit. He's off on an adventure, hoping to learn about oyster and shrimp harvesting off the coast of Florida for the next month or two. He doesn't have any contacts there, just plans to head to the coast and offer his labor in exchange for learning how oysters are harvested. We told him we expect good stories when he comes back.
Lamium amplexicaule
The henbit is blooming in the garden. It's not bothered by the cold and blooms at any opportunity. By spring it will be big clumps where it will burst into bloom and you'll see lots of it. For now it gives the bees something to graze on. Some people hate it in their lawns, I prefer it to boring green grass, plus the chickens are always happy when we weed the garden and throw bunches of it over the fence to them.
Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)
The bluets, too, are in bloom. You can see they're pretty small but it's almost my favorite color of blue and they're scattered all over the lawn and garden. They're another plant that isn't bothered by the cold weather ahead.

For today at least, we have fabulous weather and the garden thinks spring is on the way!


Growing Black Pepper

Still eating this past summer's tomatoes. Today, Jan 1, these are all we have left.

Eating Locally has become more than a fad, more than a movement, it is a major cultural shift for an increasing segment of our population. And it's not just something that's happening on the West and East Coasts, it's happening world wide. I saw how enormous this cultural shift had grown when I attended the International Slow Foods conference in Turin, Italy in 2005. People from 130 countries, 5,000 of us, were all there for the same purpose, to help make local food a priority in our own countries.
Carrie and Ron in Halloween attire.

Long time friends of ours, Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, in their internationally acclaimed restaurant, The Herbfarm, in Woodinville, Washington, serve only food that comes from 30 miles or less from their location. Even the salt on the tables is evaporated from sea water, nearby. Their extensive herb and vegetable gardens (and truffle pigs - truffles can be found in the Pacific Northwest and pigs are the best hunters) furnish their kitchen the year around. I admire that process, and to eat in their restaurant is the kind of indescribable dining experience you remember for the rest of your life. (If you can) imagine 9 courses, 7 wines and 6 hours of dining and one of the best times in your life.
The Herbfarm Restaurant, a remarkable place where everything you eat is from the local area.
Just one course out of the 9 I had that night, every bite so good you want it to last forever.

While I do my best to eat locally, some things simply aren't possible here. Oranges, for example, to grow my own would require expensive greenhouses and more energy than could be justified. Avocados, too, bananas, Cheerios, chocolate, beef, the list is long, of things that either aren't available locally, or impractical. But I like to try to keep things as local as possible, and our fall garden continues to feed us pretty well. Shown at the top of this post are the last of our summer-fall tomato crop, harvested from the garden as green tomatoes after Halloween and left on the kitchen counter to ripen slowly. We've eaten them all except for these (and the 16 pints of Fish House Green Tomato Pickles I made - and included the recipe here on the blog; thanks for all your good comments from the pickles you made from the recipe).

I'm currently working on my Heirloom Herbalist column for The Heirloom Gardener magazine, and for the spring issue, I'm writing about growing black pepper. I got the idea recently while taking a shower - good ideas come while my mind is idle and soapy! I keep my black pepper plants in the bathroom because it has a heated tile floor and the temperature stays above 65 degrees. Black pepper requires that much heat in order to thrive and mine has burst into bloom in the past 2 weeks. I brought the plants back from a Florida trip 2 years ago and once I figured out what the plants need, they have done pretty well.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum)
Black pepper is native to the southwestern coast of India, and the spice traders of the world, beginning in pre-Roman times, found their way to the pepper growers. It's a vine, grown clinging to tree trunks where it can reach 30-40 feet high. The plant requires filtered light, not direct sunlight, lots of heat and reliable moisture. If the soil temperature dips below 65 degrees F., the plant will drop its leaves. Over all, it's not a difficult plant to grow indoors and does great when it's moved outdoors in the shade in summer. Here's what the blooms look like at present on one of my plants.
The flowers grow along the stem, which is about 2 inches long.
Black pepper vine on a wall with flowers.
To give an idea of how tiny the flowers actually are (each one will become one peppercorn), here is the flower stalk with flowers, next to the head of a straight pin, like you get when you buy a new shirt or garment.
The head of a pin, next to the pepper flowers.
Normally the plant flowers in summer but the heated bathroom floor has hurried the process. I tried pollinating the flowers with a tiny watercolor brush but it is many times too large. Bees can't pollinate the flowers, so I'm guessing it must be pollinated by tiny moths or gnats. I doubt any of these will set fruit during the winter.
This is what the pepper berries should look like once the plant is pollinated. These, from last year, are ready for picking. Once picked, you drop them into boiling water for 5 minutes to split the skin of the berry, then they are placed in the food dehydrator for 3 or 4 days or until completely dry. Then the peppercorns are then ready for putting in the pepper mill and you're ready to season your food.

Malabar pepper comes from the region of Malabar in India and is the most common variety, and the least expensive. Tellicherry pepper is a larger, more robust flavored peppercorn and a bit more expensive. Green peppercorns are those that are picked before the pepper berries are completely ripe (like the green ones in the photo to the left). White pepper is from the Malabar pepper and the berries have been boiled and the dark, outer skin removed. White pepper is the mildest of all of the peppercorns. Red peppercorns aren't pepper at all but are from a small tree in China.

Pepper is grown in Brazil, Vietnam and other areas but all of the pepper varieties were originally from India. Pepper is grown within 15 degrees of either side of the equator, areas with 100 inches of rainfall per year, high humidity and temperatures, and where the plants can be grown on the trunks of trees. However, the plant makes a fairly good houseplant, with the benefit of providing you with black pepper for the table. Happy new year ahead of each of you from us here at Long Creek Herbs!