By Alex Norelli—
Perhaps it was outright laziness, but at the end of last year’s dedicated season, it didn’t really seem all that unpardonable to leave a few surplus onions laying about unharvested. The worst that could happen is they’d be wasted (really only returned to the soil), and the best that could happen, well…that I didn’t know.
So I left them there with about as much thought as I’d give to pulling out a nondescript weed. After months of dealing with groundhogs and enjoying the harvest, my thirst for gardening felt quenched and I was looking forward to winter’s break. What I didn’t foresee is that an abnormally mild winter would not sunder them, and a precocious spring would give them more than a head start. Its not even June and I am met in my garden by the bulbous head-high minarets. Within their thin sheaths bundled clusters of tiny blooms press against the barrier, forcing its expansion and eventual rupture. Their ascending stems looked serpentine, as they kneeled in support of their nearly insupportable height.
The color of the conical unopened blooms once the sheath has ruptured is an icy blue, like that of a glacier in the form a golf ball, but with the opposite of dimples. About a year ago I visited Landcraft out on the North Fork of Long Island and they were growing Okra as an ornamental, its large-petaled Hibiscus-like flowers a soup for the eyes to drink in. Ever since then I’ve been trying to let plants show me their attributes, to approach them without any preconceived notions of what they are. Yes, maybe they are a vegetable, but that is not all they are. For me an onion was something in the ground, but now, after letting them grow an extra year, they are something reaching for the sky, inhabiting another atmosphere.
At the other end of my garden, the globe Allium were in heady bloom, though not long ago they looked similar to the onions. They too had the translucent minarets filled with eager buds. The resemblances are pretty scarce from there though…the allium have broad vaulting foliage radiating from the ascendant stalk, and their “onion” is a bulb usually planted about 6 inches underground. Apparently, if you go by Wikipedia’s estimates, there are somewhere around 750 varieties of allium, and Allium in Roman times was actually Garlic.
Maybe next year I will choose a place in my garden to plant my surplus onions, and turn the fruits of happenstance into the tools of expressive gardening. But then again there will be something I let go at the end of the season if for no other purpose than to see what it will do when I cede my will to its own, and allow it to show me something.
By Alex Norelli—
Among the half-unfurled parasols of the May Apples…
from the leafy forest floor…
beneath a mix of shagbark hickory and liriodendron tulipfera…
with an occasional white pine grown scrawny in the shade…
just down an embankment from the fringe of a larch stand…
amongst the mossy decaying poles of a log cabin abandoned decades ago…
…the three-leafed propeller of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) extrudes from beneath the leaf mat, sunning itself in the soft white spring light that has not yet been blocked by the eager canopies of the foliating trees.
This plant is something I saw in a book before I noticed one growing in a woodlot next to where I’ve intermittently spent more than twenty years of my life. This land was an old iron mine that gave out around the time of the civil war and has since been the setting for a bustling habitat of deer, hawks, owls, salamanders and everything seemingly opposed to the near incessant encroachment of cookie-cutter homes devouring the surroundings. It’s a fitting example of “nature’s” ability to recolonize whatever moonscape we hand back to it, after taking from it what we value—which nature is really rather indifferent about, in the long run.
Once I identified the one, I ultimately became adept at recognizing them not only by their trademark lidded chalice flower (the pulpit), but by the lime green three-winged pinwheel that springs up alongside it, that against the brown forest floor catches the attention quite readily once the eye becomes attuned to their form and stature. Pretty soon I realized this could well be called a haven for Jacks, as they were too numerous to catalogue.
My ensuing wanderings lead me to encounter it in its many stages of unfurling. While technically a flower, it is as otherworldly as a euphorbia bloom, its appearance snake-like enough that an arm-chair Darwinian might surmise its species’ survival is attributed to its approximation to a serpent poised to strike. And perhaps it is? As a matter of fact, Arisaema is commonly know as the Cobra Lily for its startling resemblance to the snake equivalent of JAWS. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s first encounter was accompanied by a jump and skip of the heartbeat. But on second look, one can see this is merely a flower, a unique one, that likes moister acidic soils and a mottled shade, and the one I found was beneath a pine in a lull between two hills.
While I’ve not personally seen an array of these in any one garden, this plant it said to be easy to grow. What strikes me most is that it seems somewhat out of place; its form is tropical and its illusiveness makes it a pleasant find. Its picturesqueness is partially due to the fact it seems to be posing for the camera, maintaining an upright posture. As it matures and its green leaves darken, the semblance to a serpent becomes chilling. However, it is just a plant, and its only danger is its toxicity, which Native Americans once harnessed as a purgative.
by Alex Norelli—
Sapote are an exceptionally imaginative group of fruit, especially since their complex sweet and colorful interiors are often hidden behind a deceptive epidermis. Like weather-beaten treasure chests holding pirate’s booty, sapote promise a treat for those who dig inside. While all sapote are not directly related, they do share the overarching characteristic of having delicious flesh hidden beneath a callous exterior, and have their origins in Central America. When I first encountered them at a farmer’s market in southern Florida they were seriously upstaged by bundles of fiery orange carrots, heady plumes of crisp emerald lettuces, and celestial mounds of golden star fruit. But next to such visible palates of color, they came to stand out for not immediately catching my eye.
When it comes to an apple, peach, or pear I feel like they look as good as they taste—though sometimes they do taste better, i.e. Bosc pears. However, it is only once sapote are halved to expose a ripe custardy flesh that they exemplify the saying: “Its what’s inside that counts.” Their flavors are evocative and expansive, to the point where each new tasting evokes new descriptors for the flavor. And while the fruit of this group are most often eaten as desserts, they are not merely chosen as a healthy alternative to ice cream or flan—They are good enough on their own, with just the right level of sweetness that serving them for dessert will not be met with a shrug of lost indulgence.
What follows are four sapote that happen to be available now in Southern Florida, Central America, though rarely, if ever, in a store near you.
Black Sapote, the dark delicacy
The Black Sapote is an intriguing fruit, on the tree it looks like a very under-ripe persimmon, green and hard as a melon to touch. That is, before it has been picked green and allowed to cure, ripening until it looks a couple days from outright rotten. It’s then that it’s at its edible zenith: before then, just as with the related persimmons, the flavor is a tongue-puckering astringent.
Maybe it’s this over-ripened appearance that keeps it from being more well known outside of Florida and Central America. Once you do eventually try one, tasting the dark buttery flesh—a malty sweetness not far from molasses, not far from chocolate—will expand into an ethereal realm where you try and grasp for other ways to explain this bewitching fruit (note: to me all fruits are bewitching, but this one especially). Coincidentally it is also know as ‘the chocolate pudding fruit’ and from the first bite you will taste the reasoning. The pulp of this fruit, if blended and presented as chocolate pudding, would fool more than a handful of people.
Additionally, for locavores this fruit may satisfy your urge for chocolate without coming from another continent. Vegans should take note of black sapote because it is a chocolate pudding alternative with very little processing needed. While most of the recipes I’ve uncovered for it have revolved around milkshakes and desserts, I have begun thinking of other applications. It could be spread on toast, like an apple butter, or made into muffins or bread. Now that I think of it, this fruit tastes a lot like Shoe-Fly Pie, and I’m tempted to make a black sapote pie using my pumpkin pie recipe and see how the maltiness interacts with the nutmeg, clove and ginger. And I bet with the addition of certain spices you could have a delicious molé of sorts.
Of the four sapote here described, this one is by far the most outwardly appealing. Its yellow is as familiar as that of a New York City Taxi cab, however its texture is far more foreign—when it comes to fruit anyway. The first bite is floral, almost like a zucchini flower while the texture is like that of a hardboiled egg yolk.
But where as you might ditch a yolk to avoid the cholesterol, this yellow you savor. Its dry sweetness spirals through the senses, and of all the sapote here described, this is by far the most indescribable in flavor. Reminiscent of acorn squash or pumpkin pie, similarly loaded with vitamin A, this fruit is as much a dessert for its flavor as its color. This would be a great substitute for pumpkin in a pie recipe and because of its natural sweetness you could cut back on any added sugar.
Originally this little fruit, similar looking, though less fuzzy than a kiwi, was harvested for a different thing, its sap. If you scratch the unripened fruit it will ooze driblets of gummy white that becomes increasingly tacky when exposed to air. The name of this is chiclé and it was used in the first chewing gums, like Chiclets. Even now some chewing gums still use this natural latex, as opposed to the vinyl of manufactured gum.
The fruit itself is the smallest of this sapote quartet, looking something like a russeted goose egg. Its flavor is of a pear steeped in the maltiness of sugar-cane, with a roasted nut aftertaste.
This one is quite something, and if you are a fan of sweet potato, pumpkin or papaya you will find this insatiable. Though if it were a beauty contest, mamey would certainly have only its hidden talents going for it. About as rough looking as elephant skin, anywhere from oval to oblong, this fruit is about as visually unfruitlike as they come. It looks more like a stone pestle or muddy potato.
Yet if you cut it longwise and carefully ply the two halves, you will see a large glossy almond-shaped seed of sculptural elegance surrounded by blushing glossy flesh the color of clouds burnt orange by the setting sun. This color tells you it is rich in vitamins and flavor, and its flavor tells you you’ve made the right choice. This fruit has enough firmness that it can be cubed and add it to a fruit salad, and similar to papaya, it tastes awesome when doused in lime.
These fruit truly are reminders to not judge a fruit by its cover. Similarly, how many fruit—from cantaloupes to figs, avocados to squashes in general—prove that digging deeper is sweeter than mulling about the outside?
Feel free to post sapote recipes for this quartet of curious fruit.