Feb 22, 2013

Winter Hibiscus for Meme

My godmother Mary (we called her Meme) lived in Winchester, just north of Boston, and loved plants. I have been inheriting her aloe off-shoots and baby cyclamens for as long as I can remember, but the most recent acquisition this fall was an enormous hibiscus tree her neighbors gave to her and she to me. If it was summer and the giant hibiscus tree was in bloom I could write and tell you I was making hibiscus cake out of my own hand-harvested hibiscus flowers. 

But, it's February and the tree sits dormant in the living room next to the radiator. We wrapped it in twinkly lights for Christmas, the glow of the tiny bulbs on the shiny leaves looking almost like flowers. I look forward to dragging the tree outside come June and seeing if it will bloom. One can dream. 
On New Year's Day this year I visited Longwood Gardens, outside of Philadelphia, PA where I saw an incredible collection of hibiscus plants. Some of the flowers were as big as dinner plates, with colors so vibrant they looked like the surreal blossoms of Munchkin land in the Wizard of Oz. This one I photographed was a perfect example of the magical realism of hibiscus: the petals flopping out from the central calyx like elephant ears, the colors bleeding into one another like paint. 

Feb 15, 2013

Dream of Juniper

This past October I picked my yearly supply of juniper berries from the woods in Maine. It's February now and I've already used up my supply. I suppose I need to start enlisting help with the harvest—a prickly business which involves bending over the low shrubs and tickling the berries off the underside of the spiney branches one or two at a time. You're on board, right? The berries are not berries at all actually but female cones, the soft, fleshy scales wrapped around a tiny seed.

In mid-coast Maine my family has a house and an adjoining field with a small grassy knoll we grew up calling "troll knoll" because of a big tree stump my father had convinced us was inhabited by trolls. It's a sandy bank facing due west, the soil just acidic enough to offer a perfect environment for two plants—blueberry and juniper—whose berries look eerily similar when mature but are unrelated botanically. The wild blueberry belongs to the heath family, the juniper to the cypress, but here on this grassy knoll and here in this buttery scone recipe they belong together. I know it may seem a strange combination, but as Pat reminds us: Don't let the doubts complicate your mind. 

The juniper plant was sacred to the Navajo, who strung the berries like beads and wore the aromatic bracelets to ward off evil spirits. They used them medicinally as well, for diabetes and even contraception, but I prefer the mystical usage, because I suffer from the stress of an overactive dream mind. Juniper may help me dream better, may help cure me of nightmares if I string them above the bed, if I take the midnight cones between my teeth and taste their waxy spheres, their compact flavor of the woods.

Feb 9, 2013


We are far from spring here in Boston—in fact as I write this, a blizzard named "Nemo" has descended on the city, bringing with it a "state of emergency" due to the 28 inches of snow that's been falling. It's been a while since we've had a big storm like this. Everyone keeps talking about the blizzard of '78, the one my oldest brother Colin was born into. A blizzard baby! 

I wonder how many blizzard babies there will be today. I think of my grown-up brother now, with his wife and baby girl living on the opposite side of the planet, in Bangkok, Thailand, where ne'er a blizzard descended, but lots of cilantro grows. For Christmas, Colin gave me this knife, from Thailand, which I used last night to deftly chop up fresh cilantro leaves. I love it. Thank you, brother—I am so glad dad drove mom safely to the hospital in all that snow so she could give birth to you and then later you could move to Thailand and walk down the hot, humid streets to Thai Home Industries to pick out this lovely Christmas present for your little sis.

So i'm in love with a knife. Whatever! It's beautiful and makes me feel more professional than I really am. But the time has come to think about the glorious freshness that coriander brings to the table. Coriander may be one of the few flavorings we use both in leaf and seed form - the only others I can think of are celery and dill. Are there others? 

The herb coriander (what we call 'cilantro' here in the U.S., due to the fact that it's a Spanish word popularized here by Mexican cuisine) is used all over the world, but particularly in SE Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese. It is also a popular fresh flavor in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine. What is a good fresh salsa without cilantro? What about a bowl of Vietnamese pho? Ah, cilantro.

Feb 2, 2013

Hey Little Caraway

I've been waking up at 3:27 AM a lot lately.

Enough to make me wonder what's happening inside my brain at that hour; unfortunately I'm rarely experiencing any great revelations that require a stumbling in the dark to find my notebook and scribble said brilliant idea in a mess of black ink over yellow legal paper. It might simply be the time of night when my sleep eye-mask slips off and the glare from the digital clock and ambient streetlamp light wakes me up. My sleep mask has the word "DIVA" spelled out in rhinestones but I can't say I look like one when I wear it, my hair poofed out on either side of the elastic band securing it to my face. It does help me sleep, however, making everything pitch dark.

Caraway is a diva, even if an obscure one. She is the diva of cabbage and sweet potatoes, pork and pastrami, Irish soda bread and the infamous rye. When I take a whiff of caraway seeds I see and taste rye bread. Would rye bread even be rye bread without caraway? Not to me. I smell caraway and I see a Jewish deli, and I'm ordering a Ruben sandwich. It's strange and yet so obvious that smells get attached to images—feelings—all of our senses. I want to understand this better, the power of associations, because it's what helps make spices come alive.