Columns, Photos

Petunia Envy

With spring in full swing and summer soon upon us, many of you are no doubt wondering what the well-dressed garden will be wearing this season. Pink or lavender? Blue and yellow? All white perhaps?

How about black?

You heard me right. Black flowers have intrigued gardeners at least since 1850 when Alexander Dumas published The Black Tulip, his historical adventure novel about a Dutch contest to breed the first black tulip. Plants men, in fact, tried for centuries to produce a black tulip until “Queen of the Night” came along in 1944. Considered the closest there is to a true black tulip, the Queen is actually a very dark maroon. In fact, most so-called black flowers aren’t black; most are extremely deep shades of purple, maroon, or burgundy.

Though the tulip is the most popular black flower, the gardener seeking something unusual and elegant today has his or her pick of more than two dozen black roses and several types of black irises and lilies. Carnations, dahlias, geraniums, hollyhocks, and pansies even come in basic black too.

This year’s black sensation is a petunia called “Black Velvet” developed by flower breeder Jianping Ren for the Ball Colegrave Company. It took her four years to breed the extremely dark petunia — what some are calling the Birkin bag of the garden — using traditional methods of pollination and not genetic modification. Two years is what it usually takes to produce a new color of petunia, according to Ren, who boasts over a dozen patents on new varieties of petunias.

Petunias are a classic summer annual, a cousin to tobacco and the tomato and a native of South America. Flower hunters introduced the petunia to Europe in the early 1800s and breeders immediately began crossing them in search of larger flowers and more colors. The first true red petunia was brought out in 1953. Yellow was introduced in 1977.

Those in the know claim it is rare to get a flower as near to true black as “Black Velvet,” which is why gardeners around the world are snatching them up despite a rather high price attached to what is still regarded by many as a rather common plant. I bought all I could find over Easter weekend.

Now, looking at flats of the black petunias still sitting unplanted in my garden, I had to wonder: was I was following in the tradition of great botanical explorers of the 17th and 18th Centuries whose pursuit of exotic flowers took them across the globe? Or, was I merely a garden fashionista sucked in by the power of a horticulture industry that still thinks about plants like next season’s shoes?

There’s even an ad campaign touting the “Black Velvet” petunia as an instant classic, the most unique flower of the year, and one hot plant sure to make your garden the envy of your neighbors.

Moreover, what does this black petunia means in the grand scheme of gardening, which has been trending towards more natural, nativist plantings? Am I out of step in my desire for the trendy annual? Last year I went gaga a for a chartreuse colored zinnia called “Envy.” Before that it was blue batik irises and an heirloom tomato called “Mr. Stripey.”

While I mull this conflict and, more importantly, try to figure out what do with all these black petunias I bought, at least I can take comfort in knowing they’ll look great with the black and white striped awnings on my white house.

Columns, Photos

A Matter of Size: How I Came to Appreciate the Cucumber

I’ve never been particularly excited by the cucumber. As a summer vegetable – actually a fruit — I’ve always found it lacking in flavor, a poor imitation of a melon and not quite a zucchini. The greasy green skin creeps me out. And, they make me burp. The closest I get is a Kiehl’s cucumber and herb skin toner.

Yet right now, there are a half dozen cukes hanging on vines that I’ve trained up an eight-foot bamboo wigwam frame in the middle of my rose garden.

Trained is a figure of speech. The vines seem to grow six inches a day and the prehensile tendrils grip on to anything they can find. It’s an ongoing battle to keep them from smothering my rose garden like kudzu.

Given all this, you must be wondering what possessed me to cultivate cucumbers this summer. Well, it all started with an NPR story about cornichons, those tiny, delicious, imported French pickles you buy in gourmet stores. Seems France is in an uproar because production has been outsourced to India. Frenchmen take their cornichons seriously, as do I. How can one enjoy a country pate without cornichons? It’s uncivilized.

Despite the fact that the cucumber originated in India and seventy percent of the world’s cucumbers are now grown in Asia, I share the Franco-fear that this isn’t going to work out well in the long run. I can only imagine it’ll be similar to that mealy Chinese crab some places are now pushing off as blue crab.

I decided, therefore, to take matters into my own hands, and I ordered up a packet of seeds from Paris. Not just any seeds, but “Cucumber Vert Fin de Meaux,” a very ancient variety specially selected to be harvested for the making of cornichons. They come from the mustard-making region of France. Special fruit with excellent productivity.

My plan was to pickle the midget cukes in a bath of kosher salt, vinegar, peppercorns, tarragon, grape leaves and mustard seeds for enjoyment in the fall. No longer would I need to travel to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to get the very best. I’d grow cornichons on Columbia Avenue.

Or so I thought. I got distracted, you see, by the heat, the beach, and a busy social scene. Turned my back for one week it seemed, and when I went to take a peek at le petit cornichons, whoa Nelly! I was shocked to find them all swolled-up and wagging to and fro on the vine like some sort of hothouse porn star.

I couldn’t pickle a cornichon of this size. Defeats the purpose.

What was I gonna do now? Make batches of cucumber and onion salad? Give ‘em as gifts at dinner parties? Actually, I like that idea…

Just as I was about to toss them into the composter, I had a brilliant idea. Why not drink them?

Truth be told, I’d never tasted a cucumber cocktail. But, I was certainly aware that cucumbers had moved out of the realm of garnish and into the main event. The challenge would be to find a cocktail that paid homage to the French spirit of Vert Fin de Meaux.

Nothing with tequila or gin would do. Rum didn’t feel quite right either, even though the French-speaking Caribbean nations are known for full-bodied rhums produced from sugar cane juice. A frozen concoction seemed tacky. A martini, too American. And, I was not the least bit interested in anything that required boiling a cucumber to make syrup.

Finally though, I came across a recipe that seemed worth trying. In the spirit of Julia Child, follow along with me if you please.

Peel four cukes. Remove the seeds and coarsely chop them. Puree, and then liquefy in a food processor. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much jus as possible. Notice how the scent of cucumber fills the air.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add one cup of loosely packed mint leaves, two tablespoons of sugar, and three tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice. Shake. Then add a cup of cucumber jus, half a cup of vodka, and two generous shots of Cointreau. Shake again. Strain into four glasses filled with ice and garnish with a cucumber spear.


This cocktail is pure bliss. Better than a mojito and without the mess. Summer in a shaker. Funny how a couple of inches can alter one’s perspective.

Columns, Photos

Desperately Seeking Sorrel

Every spring, the New York Times showcases a single sorrel recipe. They don’t draw attention to it, and most people probably don’t give it much thought.

But for the sorrel aficionados out there, it’s the equivalent of the announcement of the Academy Award nominees or the release of college football’s first BCS rankings. It is anticipated.

This year’s recipe was for poached eggs in a buttery sorrel sauce. Last year was a sorrel and stinging nettle soup. Naturally, the recipe triggers a run on sorrel, which makes it even more difficult than it usually is to find some.

I couldn’t get any last season. Not at the Giant. Not at the Rehoboth Farmer’s Market. Not even from Whole Foods in Washington. So when I found myself in Manhattan recently on a Wednesday afternoon and with an hour to kill before my next meeting, of course, I made a beeline to the green market at Broadway and 17th.

There were cartons of fresh fava beans and containers of fresh cow’s milk. Honey to eat. Bees wax to burn. Apple wine and apple cider. And because it’s springtime, bountiful greens. Ramps, yes, but sorrel, no.

I was about to give up, when I spotted a fuzzy young farmer at a tiny organic cheese and herb stall. He was staring intently at me, as if he could sense my desire. I approached cautiously, not wanting to get my hopes up, and asked him if I could see it. With a knowing grin, he hauled it out.

“You like it,” he asked? What wasn’t to like? “It’s big, right?” It was indeed an impressive specimen, I had to say, and a fancy French variety — Blonde de Lyon, to be precise. My mouth was watering. The French, you see, are responsible for bringing sorrel under cultivation to improve the quality and the flavor of the leaves. Until the late 1600s, it was gathered from the wild. Most markets carry only the common type, if they carry it at all. This was indeed a fortunate find.

I purchased the only one he had left, which I then transported around for the rest of the day, to meetings, to a cocktail party, and then back to Washington on the train. It’s currently sitting in a big terra cotta pot in my back yard on Columbia Avenue.

By now, you may have probably surmised that sorrel is a delightful potherb and one of spring and summer’s most special greens. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, that’s because Americans tend not to like its somewhat sour, acidic taste.

The plant’s distinctive taste is due to oxalic acid, which is, in fact, a poison. In small quantities, sorrel is harmless. In large quantities, it can be fatal. But, if you open your mouth and your mind to it you’ll find sorrel to be an adventuresome and tangy taste sensation that can take your taste buds through all of the following: limes, lemons, spinach, rhubarb, cabbage and amaranth.

What other green can do all that?

Personally, I think sorrel is best enjoyed as a chilled soup on an exceptionally hot day and served with a French white wine, preferably a Sancerre or a Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley. While there are many recipes for sorrel soup, I like Julia Child’s the best. It pays proper homage to the leafy vegetable.

One final note: to cultivate a taste for sorrel is a commitment. You must first find it. And then you must buy it. In a gourmet market, you can expect to pay up to $6 a bunch. For a decent sorrel soup, you’ll need about 5 bunches, plus heavy cream, eggs, and chicken stock. Don’t worry that it costs more than lobster bisque. A thirty-dollar soup is a small price to pay for a taste that is like no other.

French gourmet and culinary writer Francis Amunategui once declared sorrel soup rich enough for the governor of the Bank of France. How appropriate is that? You’d have to have access to all the franks of the realm to really indulge your taste for it.

Bon appetit.