Jan 27, 2012

Plant Profile - Petasites

pronounced [pay-ta-site-ees]

                                                                     Petasites japonicus

Known as bog rhubarb or giant butterbur, this magnificent plant grows at the edge of the little pond at the home of Jeffrey Farrell and Bruno Boussier in Ashfield, MA. Patasites japonicus is a shade and moisture-loving perennial that spreads rapidly via rhizomes. In early spring the cheerful inflorescence appear, each made up of clusters of pale light-green and white flowers surrounded by light-green bracts. Seemingly stemless and sitting directly on the soil they present a curious sight. These succulent flowers and stems are used in Japanese dishes and are known as fuki.

New leaves are particularly beautiful as they begin to unfurl into specimens that look unreal in their shape and size adding stark contrast to the more finely textured plants in the garden. By the end of summer they are a sea of green that almost hides the pond, making it a favorite and cool hiding place for frogs, salamanders, newts, big and small children.

                                                                    Flora in the folia

Jan 19, 2012


Mother Earth News magazine recently published an article about the blood-pressure lowering properties found in a tropical plant of the hibiscus family. The chemicals in this plant were proven to be more effective than the leading laboratory drugs for blood pressure reduction and it is said to also be useful in lowering cholesterol, aids digestion and is a treatment for scurvy and an immune booster. I also read somewhere that it is used as a remedy for the aftereffects of drunkenness. The plant is used as a diuretic, a mild laxative and for the treatment of colds and cancer. This plant is non other than sorrel, (Hibiscus sabdariffa) used to make the traditional Christmas drink of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the same plant used to make the familiar red zinger tea. Known as roselle and Flor De Jamaica it is a tropical or subtropical plant native to Iran, Africa, Mexico, India and the Caribbean but it can be grown as a warm-weather annual here in the US.

Attractive, delicious, good for your health - all reasons to love and grow sorrel.

While at my parents' house in December, I was awoken one night by a loud cracking noise just outside my bedroom window. I described the noise to my father the next day and the retired Police Sargent in him set out to investigate, armed with a cutlass. The noise turned out to be the sound of an unusually large sorrel bush breaking under the weight of its mature fruit. Together we cut and hauled the bush to the kitchen area and proceeded to harvest the sorrel fruits from all the surrounding plants which were growing among bananas and pigeon pea shrubs. We filled three large bowls of sorrel while chatting about this and the other. Dad pointed out that he and his friends and siblings ate the young sorrel leaves when they were children. I tried some. They were sour but very tasty and a bit like cranberries. The leaves can be used in salads and are favored in curries and stews in many African countries. The fruit of the sorrel plant consists or an acorn shaped seed covered by short, colorless hairs and encased by a deep red calyx supported by a short spiky collar. Peeled away, the calyxes are the most desirable parts of the plant. Also, the stems of sorrel contain strong fibers which are used to create ropes and rugs.

My mom gave me small bag of dried sorrel to bring back to New York. She was sure to include a couple leaves from the bay leaf or spice tree from the backyard. I have found packets of dried sorrel in the Latin/ Mexican sections of many supermarkets and of course it is sold in small groceries in Caribbean neighborhoods. Packaged this way it is available to be enjoyed all-year round. It is easy to prepare this delicious drink. Simply add the dried sorrel to water and boil for five to ten minutes. Almost immediately the water will become a luscious deep red. You may add a few whole cloves and/or a stick of cinnamon to the boiling water. Cool and strain. Add sugar to taste and serve with ice. I'm a bit of a purist and find the taste to be best with nothing added. However, Jamaicans are known for adding ginger to their sorrel which to me creates an entirely different experience. I tried one such concoction at Miss Lily's on Houston Street a few days ago. Not bad at all. Carib Lager Beer bottles a Shandy Carib in three mixtures: beer with ginger, beer with lime and beer with sorrel. Try sorrel with rum for an evening cocktail. Whichever way you like it, drink to your heart's content, live well and enjoy!

Jan 14, 2012

Shadow, Sorrel and Pigeon Peas

Since returning from my last visit to Trinidad and Tobago in December, I've been inundating my boys with things Trinidadian or rather, Trinbagonian. I play parang, traditional Christmas music sung in Spanish and performed by groups of skilled serenaders logging cuatros, a base and chac chacs (maracas) going to various houses in the middle of the night or early morning.  I remember my family would be startled out our beds after the stealthy group announced themselves just outside the front door (God only knows how they get past dogs that usually raise a ruckus) by suddenly bursting into song, "Sereno Serano Sereno Sera.. Bilar, Bilar.... Aheeeeeeeeeee!" We scrambled to make ourselves decent and be ready to greet them before the first song ended. What lovely music the men with cuatros made while the bass went dumdumdum, dumdumdum. The women and men sang "Alegria, Alegria...Ahi Ahi Ahi, Brrrrrrrr." Those parang sessions afforded the rare opportunity to see my parents dance together. We learned to click spoons back to back and joined in by clapping. After several songs and rewards of black rum cake, slices of ham, lots of rum, ginger beer and eggnog, the musicians shuffle away singing "Sai Sai Sai".

I found an old CD of vintage calypso with songs by Crocro, Brigo and Rio and embarrassed the boys when explaining that the words cocoloux, pum pum, bamsee and tot tots are all local words for penis, vagina, buttocks and breasts. We talked bout the use of metaphors, satire and political and sexual references in the tunes of various calypsonians like Chalkdust's, "Quacks and Invalids", Shadow's "Stop the Boat", the line "Captain the Ship is Sinking" and "Big Word (pronounced 'wood') Man". Julian was introduced to the music of the Mighty Shadow and looked at me with some concern and amusement as I imitated Shadow's dance and movements on stage. We listened to "Christmas Nice" a gazillion times and I love that line from Bassman, "I was planning to forget calypso and go an plant peas in Tobago.."

Julian has had it with my constantly speaking with this not so-easy-to-understand Trini accent, dancing like a jab jab (diab diab) and extemporising instead of speaking to him. I would start singing:
"Listen young man, if yuh doh hear what I say yuh see that bloody iPhone, I go take it away..."
to the tune of Nelson's King Liar.

Without realizing it, the seemingly resistant Julian often finds himself singing or humming along and even dancing a bit. I can't wait till he learns to whistle too.

On Sunday I made a breakfast of pumpkin cooked with tiny bits of salted codfish, lots of garlic and pepper and served it with some left over collard greens and my family's version of fried bake, the very thin ones rolled out with a pin and cut into squares. When heated they create air pockets almost like nan and require little oil for cooking. Orion loved them. Julian did care too much. Last night I cooked salted cod with coconut milk and tomatoes and served it with boiled green bananas, cassava (Manihot esculenta), corn dumpling, whole ochro (Abelmochus esculentus) and hard boiled eggs. While Julian did his homework I tortured him with cooking details, explaining how simple it is to make the "cow tongues", the name my family gave to the elongated, boat-shaped dough that were boiled to make dumplings. The only thing missing was a slice of zaboca (Persea americana) on each plate. The meal was accompanied by our very special Xmas drink, sorrel, made from Hibiscus sabdariffa. As is often the case, dinnertime is when we get a chance to talk and last night the talk was focused on the meal itself. The boys fought over the last egg and traded various pieces of food. Orion wanted seconds of course (how a skinny kid could eat so much is beyond me). Julian really liked the sorrel and asked me to repeat the word "sorrel" a few times.

"Not a chicken in de nest, dey know man love chicken breast....."

Speyside, Tobago

I am very thankful that Shadow continued producing calypsoes instead of turning to a life of agriculture. My life, those of my boys and countless millions more have been made richer by his sense of humor, his soulful, insightful lyrics and tantalizing rhythms. As I sit here, adjusting to the New York winter cold, I contemplate returning home to the countryside where I can create a paradise with jade vines, passion flowers, petrea, orchids and bromeliads. It will also be a place where chickens graze on grass, where I can plant rows of avocado trees, bananas, sorrel, cassava, ochro, pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun) and tomatoes that taste like the sun, in Toco, Rio Claro or on a breezy hillside in Tobago.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...