Peanuts And Sorghum And Black-Eyed Peas, Oh My
One of the many reasons I love gardening in the maritime Northwest is that so many plants from all over the world are happy here. True, until recently, our summers and/or our gardens lacked the summer heat to really please tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, but that’s changing. Some of the change is climatic, but some has to do with increasingly sophisticated plant choices made by Northwestern nursery growers.
Thanks to careful selections made over the years by pioneering growers like Log House Plants and Territorial Seed Company, gardeners can now choose amongst an inspiring range of heat lovers that are truly adapted to our sometimes-iffy climate. This makes me very happy, because nothing tastes better than vine ripened tomatoes and peppers, backyard sweet corn, and fresh-picked eggplants. It’s especially fun to be able to grow and cook with heat lovers from truly exotic places that will perform in my Northern garden. The flavors may not be exactly like the originals, since soil, water, and other factors also play a role, but they will be pretty close.
Happy In Haiti, Happy Here?
Thus, I am excitedly filling my new garden with a collection of authentic Haitian culinary plants. Developed as a fund raiser for the nonprofit Lambi Fund of Haiti, the selection includes all sorts of goodies that were chosen (through garden trials) for their ability to thrive in the Northwest as well as for overall yumminess. For starters, I’m growing Plate de Haiti, succulent little heritage tomatoes grown in Caribbean gardens since the 1500s. Unlike many garden tomatoes, these are not fully ripe until they pass through the bright red stage to turn deep, burnished vermillion red and the flavor is most intense. Mine’s already got a few fruits forming and I’m eager for that first salad.
I was curious to try Haitian amaranth, or callalou. I’ve enjoyed colorful amaranths as lovely and dramatic ornamentals but the Haitian types are prized for their tasty, spinach-like green or red leaves. Like spinach, they can take some shade and taste best when pinched back often to promote fresh young leaves. Like most pot greens, amaranth is often wilted into hot soups and stews or braised with ham or other meats. Vegans can enjoy them in stir-fries with onions, garlic, and peppers, served over brown rice or with black-eyed peas.
Southern Beans For Northern Gardens
I love eating black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), but have never succeeded in growing them in the North. However, the Haitian collection features several varieties that grew fairly well in the trial gardens, so I’m giving them a whirl. Originally African, these plump little beans became fast favorites throughout the Caribbean and the American south, acquiring names like Ozark Razorback and Louisiana’s Rouge et Noir. They feature heavily in classic beans and rice partnerships, often with sizzling hot Scotch Bonnet peppers.
In true Caribbean style, my black-eyed peas are partnered with tall sorghums, which they use as living trellises. Sorghums are used to make a syrup like molasses (which is usually made from sugar cane), and the stalks are chewed as a sweet snack. In Haiti, high-protein sorghum seeds are used like rice, often with beans or fresh peas. Both black-eyed peas and sorghums like to dry out as they ripen, so don’t plant them where they’ll get regular water once they start to mature.
Harnessing Haitian Sizzle
Mouth scorching, bright yellow Scotch Bonnet peppers enliven all sorts of Haitian meals. Bonnies are rated between 100,000 and 350,000 on the Scoville units scale (most jalapenos come in around 2,000-8,000 units); these peppers are not for wimps. However, many selected varieties are milder than the super hotties, with top notch, sweet-hot flavor to boot. Usually sliced VERY thinly, they are added freely to sauces, soups, and vegetable dishes, including a condiment called pikliz that’s a Haitian version of kimchee. This is something of a national dish with many variations, but nearly all involve Scotch Bonnets as well as cabbage, carrots, peppers, onions, and fresh lime juice. The flavor is most authentic when made with cane vinegar (found in Asian markets) and allowed to gently ferment a bit.
2 cups shredded cabbage 1 sweet carrot, shredded
2 red or orange bell peppers, finely sliced
1 onion, finely sliced 2 green onions, finely sliced
2-4 scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and finely sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
2 cups cane vinegar
1 lime, juiced
Combine all ingredients in a large glass canning jar, adding more vinegar to cover if needed. Let stand at room temperature for 4-5 days before serving. Refrigerate leftovers in a covered glass jar (it keeps like sauerkraut). Makes about 5 cups.
I love peanuts and am fascinated to try growing some Valencia Tennessee Reds, which grew pretty well in Northwestern trial gardens. When they ripen, I plan to roast and grind them with sea salt, a little sugar, and a Scotch Bonnet pepper to make mamba, the spicy Haitian version of peanut butter. The peanut plants come in coco fiber pots and get planted pot and all to minimize root disturbance. No plant likes its roots messed with, especially root crops, and the plant’s roots quickly grow through the fiber into the soil. Peanuts appreciate a sunny spot and do well in sandy loam, so I’m hopeful that I’ll get enough to brag about come fall.
My peanuts are planted near some Caribbean okra, a plant I admire very much as an ornamental. I’ve never warmed up to okra’s slimy side, but I’m willing to give it a try in a gumbo, along with amaranth foliage and fresh tomatoes. Still, I’m more eager to harvest the dusky leaves of Roselle, or Flor de Jamaica, a West African hibiscus with edible foliage. The lovely, creamy flowers last just a day, but if you’re growing this handsome plant for tea, the dark red calyxes are picked for drying before the flowers open. Once dry, they’re used to brew lively herbal teas (think Red Zinger) or steeped with ginger and some sugar for zippier effects.
Want To Learn More?
Here’s a chance to have a hands-on experience, complete with taste treats. If you are in the Seattle area, plan to drop on on Sky Nursery from 1 -2:30 pm on June 13th for an introduction to the Grow Haiti project and to learn more about the Lambi Fund of Haiti. Stephen Riechard, Deputy Director of the Lambi Fund, will be here to discuss the challenges of Haiti and the successes of the Lambi Fund. Myrtle Von Damitz of Log House Plants (and the genius behind this project) will share information on growing, harvesting, and preparing these exotic delicacies. Learn to grow ingredients for and cook up your own calalou, gumbo, pikliz, and other delicious Creole and Caribbean favorites. Be there or be culinarily deprived!