Monday, October 27, 2008

Bountiful Fig Crop is Welcome Event

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 27, 2008)

For the first time ever, our fig trees have produced more fruit than my husband can eat.

Along with red raspberries, blackcaps, blackcaps and ripe apricots, fresh picked figs top the list of Ralph’s favorite fruits. For breakfast, he likes to cut them up into little pieces to add to oatmeal. For a mid-day snack he makes a sort of open-face sandwich out of a piece of whole wheat bread topped with almond butter, bee pollen, cider jelly and fig slices. And throughout the day, he munches on fruit plucked fresh from the tree.

Most people are not as well acquainted with the delicate flavor of this most ancient of fruits as my fruit-loving, health-conscious husband. The only time they may have tasted a fig was when it was either processed into a snack like Fig Newtons or offered up in its dried state during holidays. That’s unfortunate because fresh figs are marvelous. Unlike their tough and chewy dried counterpart, the fresh fruit is mild flavored, soft and sweet.

Yet, despite these attributes, figs are not a staple of the produce aisle. Perhaps that’s because its soft skin damages easily or maybe it may be due to its inability to ripen off the tree. Unlike apples and bananas, which can be picked before they reach maturity and ripened over time, figs must stay attached until they are ready to be eaten. That presents problems for grocers who want produce to withstand extended transportation, storage and shelf time. None-the-less, every year from late summer through December, a small number of figs make their way onto supermarket shelves.

In past years, our family eagerly anticipated fig season so we could supplement our meager supply of homegrown fruit with store bought delicacies. I’d bite the bullet and spend $6 a pound for a small container of Brown Turkey, Mission, Calimyrna or Kadota figs (CQ all names). I had my rationales down pat:

· Even at $6, a pound of figs costs less than a bottle of wine, fresh fish or a better cut of meat.

· As a splurge, figs are far cheaper than dinner out, a movie or even a box of popcorn at the movies.

· Figs are just as sweet but less expensive and better for you than a fancy dessert or a box of chocolates.

The cashier would take my money and I’d deliver the goods to my waiting family. Ralph would immediately sort the fruit into piles of most and least ripe. The ripest fruit were eaten right away with the remainder stored in the refrigerator in the hope that they’d last for at least a few more days.

The supermarket run was fun but growing your own is way better.

Ralph planted his first fig trees just over 30 years ago on Cape Cod. Because these deciduous members of the mulberry family are sensitive to cold, each winter Ralph would partially dig up the short, stocky trees, tip them over and cover the top with a heavy layer of mulch. This work-intensive technique enabled the trees to survive harsh freezes, but didn’t result in fruitful harvests. What it did do was prolong our anticipation of a seasonal crop.

“Maybe this will be the year (pick any summer from 1976 to1987),” we’d optimistically muse, “when the trees will be mature enough to finally produce a crop.”

Apparently, they never reached that precipice of fruit-worthy development because in all our years of Cape Cod living, I can’t remember eating a single homegrown fig. What can I say? We were young. We were eager. We were stupid.

Our move to Florida in1987 presented new opportunities for fruitful explorations. No longer challenged by snowy weather, we had expectations of bountiful harvests. Unfortunately, we failed to realize that Florida’s mild climate presented problems we had not anticipated – namely, soil-inhabiting, multi-celled creatures called nematodes.

Nematodes, more commonly known as round worms, are members of the 20,000-strong phylum Nemata. While some types of nematodes act as beneficial controls for annoying pests like Japanese beetles, fleas and plant-eating grubs, others are a fruit-grower’s nemesis. When nematodes attack fig trees, immature figs drop off before they have a chance to ripen. That means even before other threats to a fig’s viability – threats like birds, squirrels, snails and slugs - have a chance to ruin any ripening fruit, tiny soil born organisms will destroy them.

After years of trying one type of fig tree after another, Ralph finally latched onto a nematode-resistant variety developed at Louisiana State University in 1991 called LSU Purple. It’s been figs from those trees that, this year, produced more fruit than we can eat.

Having too many figs is not a problem to someone like my husband. In addition to the various ways he enjoys eating them fresh, Ralph has been experimenting with different ways to preserve his plentiful crop. Usually, he freezes them but one day I came into the kitchen to find a batch of figs on the stovetop being boiled up into a kind of bare minimum jam. I had my doubts how his no-sugar, no-pectin concoction would taste but it only took one lick of the spoon to turn me into a believer.

I may politely say “No thank you” whenever Ralph offers to make me one of his patented fig-laced, bee pollen, almond butter and cider jelly sandwiches but when it comes to offers of fig jam on toast or fresh figs off the tree, I’ll answer “Yes!” every time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whatever your age, revel in the present moment

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 20, 2008)

From my father's perspective, at age 96, I'm just a kid. It doesn't matter that my head hosts more than a few gray hairs or that my eyes are surrounded by bags on the bottom, folds on the top and a whole nest of crow's feet on both sides. Looking at me from his stage of life, I'm still wet behind the ears. A kid and a young one at that.

That's not how my son perceives it. From the sage perspective of one who has seen 16 summers come and go, I'm old, ancient, practically prehistoric. I was, after all, raised in a time when -- GASP! -- iPods did not exist, information was found in books instead of online and you had to actually get up off the couch and walk to the TV if you wanted to change channels.

The world in which I grew up is almost as difficult for my youngest son to comprehend as it was for me, when I was his age, to imagine the unhomogenized, gas-lit world of my father's era.

When my father was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., a man wouldn't think of leaving the house without a hat. Milk with the cream on top was delivered to your door in glass bottles and if you wanted to tell someone something, you wrote them a letter and mailed it with a stamp that cost 2 cents.

Times have certainly changed. Stamps now cost 42 cents and, for all practical purposes, e-mail has replaced handwritten letters. Milk made from soybeans is nearly as commonplace as milk from a cow. And the idea of dressing up before leaving the house is as outdated as 78-rpm phonograph records. ("What are they?" my son might ask.)

I've pondered these generational "gasps" as I await the approach of my 57th birthday. As it turns out, I'm smack-dab-in-the-middle of my youngest child's age and that of my father. One is 40 years my elder, the other 40 years younger. The middle ground I sow produces its own crop of distinctive perceptions.

For starters, I don't feel old. Then again, I'm no spring chicken. My body is saggier, draggier and baggier than it was in my 20s, 30s or even my 40s. My once limber legs now orchestrate a cacophony of clicks, creaks and cracks whenever I squat down and attempt to stand back up. In order to see anything clearly, I'm obliged to wear bifocal lenses, and my deteriorating bones prevent me from daring to do certain activities I would have jumped at in my youth.

But it's not all bad news. Ever since my memory began waning, it's become easier to pick out books to read and movies to watch. Even if I've seen them before, I can enjoy them again because, for the most part, I can hardly remember anything that happened. And as for romance, well, let's just say the old adage "practice makes perfect" is absolutely true. When I think about all the things that could go wrong in life, I'm amazed how many of us live as long as we do. As I navigate through the early years of my second half-century, the accumulating miles do not upset me. Instead, I'm thrilled to still be rambling along the well-trod road. The way I see it, life is as full of pleasure and potential as we want to make it. The trick is to seek out those treasures as we make the journey -- to focus on the scenery instead of the potholes -- to have fun along the way and enjoy the ride.

Sweet Sixteen days may be a thing of the past, but the precipice upon which my 96-year-old father stands is still distant. Who knows what the future will bring? The only thing certain is that the present is here. And, since my birthday is also almost here, I'm ready to do some serious unwrapping. Give me the present and I'll open it with care. No matter how old or young we might be, today, this one moment in time -- the present -- is one gift everyone shares.

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's subtle, but Florida offers fall sensations -- no need to wander

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 13, 2008)

My daughter Jenny, who lives in western Massachusetts, says New England's autumn foliage is about to peak. Scarlet-colored leaves cover the limbs of trees lining the street in the quaint town in which she lives.

She has been riding her bike a lot, which is a perfect way to appreciate the crisp air and bright autumn colors. I've been tempted to visit -- to book a flight and spend a weekend surrounded by pumpkins, apple cider and a palette of leafy color. But I know I won't do it.

As much as I'd like to see my daughter and spend a few days re-experiencing a Northern autumn, I'm as anchored to home as the bamboo in our nursery is rooted to the ground.

I've become stodgy in recent years. Home draws me in and holds me secure. The surprising thing is, I'm totally content with that. I have my patterns, my routines and everything in its place the way I like it to be. It's a comfort zone so familiar and cozy that few places can tempt me to leave it behind.

Books have been written about all the places you should see and things you should do before you die. Those aren't books I'm drawn to read.

Sure, travel has its benefits, and there are, without doubt, some amazing places in the world that would be fascinating to visit. I've seen a few -- not many, but a few -- and enjoyed those trips immensely.

But I'm at a point in my life where most of the things I want are right here where I am. The way I see it, counting the sources of your contentment is at least as important as compiling a collection of must-dos.

Autumn in Florida may not be the same as it is in New England, but a seasonal transition still can be experienced. Daytime temperatures have taken a dive, and accordingly, diving into the lake takes more courage.

When I go for my daily swim, I no longer walk fluidly into the water. By the time October's cooler weather has arrived, I have to either be very hot from a hard workout or brace myself to get wet above the waist.

Lakes are not alone in reflecting lower temperatures. The plant world projects a vivid response. Although more subtle than the blatant hues of a Massachusetts October, the foliage around our property also changes color.

In recent days, I've noticed yellow plumes of goldenrod swaying in the breeze alongside the purple flowers of Southern fleabane and white blooms of climbing hempweed (Mikania cordifolia).

Beautyberry bushes are suddenly loaded with clusters of dark-violet fruit, and a two-toned cloak of coral and yellow tops golden rain trees. Not to be outdone, the once-green leaves of woodbine, better known as Virginia creeper, now appear on the trunks of whatever trees they are climbing like angry red fingers clutching tightly.

While Jenny is enjoying bike rides around town, I'm going for rows, picking bouquets of cosmos and firespike, taking walks around the lake or sitting on the porch admiring the view. No matter where you live, October weather commands appreciation.

This is the time of year to take a lawn chair outside and park yourself in it. Look up at the clouds. Follow the butterflies. Enjoy the antics of squirrels gathering acorns, the cooing of doves. Watch brown and green anoles climb onto plant leaves while a breeze tickles your face.

Bold colors make it obvious that autumn has arrived, but there are seasonal stories to be found in more subtle signs as well. You don't have to live in Northern climes to enjoy autumn. You don't have to travel to live a full life.

If I were writing a book of things to do before I die, I'd focus on seeing -- really seeing and appreciating -- all the wonders and beauty that surround us each day. That alone would be momentous. That alone says it all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The sweet, sweet papaya - a fruit, a salad, a renewal

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 6, 2008)

Until I moved to Florida in 1987, I had never tasted a papaya. Back then, if you had handed me a large, oblong, green-skinned fruit with an orange tint and asked me what it was, I might have guessed, "Some kind of melon?"

In a way, I would have been right. Although not actually a melon, papayas share many characteristics with cantaloupe, Crenshaw, Persian and casaba melons. All have soft flesh, seedy centers and a fairly thin, inedible outer skin.

The edible inside portions range from pale yellow to an orange-red and have a smooth texture, mild flavor and natural sweetness. One difference: Melons grow on vines, while papayas grow on trees.

We've grown papayas for about 20 years and now have 26 trees planted around our property. All but four -- those my husband bought from a south Florida nursery -- started as seeds scooped out of other papayas. We cultivate them not only because our family likes the fruit's delicate flavor, but also because papayas are so easy to grow.

You don't need a green thumb or much space to raise these fast-growing, prolific fruiters. Papayas are upright plants that rarely top 20 feet. They also come in dwarf varieties, like the four Ralph recently purchased. These bear fruit on a plant less than 6 feet tall. The dwarf varieties' short sizes make them much easier to harvest.

Most papaya trees have a single trunk shaded by an umbrella-like, leafy canopy. Sometimes, however, multistemmed plants develop. The fruit grows in clusters near the top of the trunk. If left alone, papayas will ripen on the tree, but they also can be picked partially ripe and brought inside to complete the process. On our taller trees, we must climb a ladder to reach the fruit.

I used to plant papayas near the house, but I don't anymore. Its large leaves grow at the end of long stems, and as the plant matures, the lowest leaves and their attached stems yellow and fall off. So a leafy mess is always littering the ground underneath the tree. More mess is left by overlooked papayas that ripen on the tree and drop off.

Fallen fruit attracts squirrels and other rodent family members. They like to nibble through the soft skin to get at the inner flesh. I like papayas but not rats, so my compromise is to plant fruit trees a good distance from the house.

To start a papaya tree, begin with a ripe fruit purchased at the store. You can tell a papaya is ripe if the outer skin has turned from green to a yellow-orange. Cut it in half and scoop out the peppercorn-sized, gray-black seeds. The plant's seeds and even its leaves are edible, but the soft flesh is the main attraction. If you want to grow papayas, eat the fruit and save the seeds for planting.

Before planting, some people say you should first rinse and dry the seeds, but I don't do that. I simply take handfuls of fresh seeds and toss a few into each spot where I want my papaya trees to grow. Choose an irrigated spot that gets plenty of sun and has soil enriched with compost, cow manure or potting soil, and you increase germination chances.

With the seeds dispersed, sprinkle more soil on top and tamp the area down. In about two weeks, young plants will emerge. That's a good time to either thin the sprouts out to one plant every 10 feet or transplant the seedlings to different areas.

It takes less than a year for young sprouts to develop into fruiting trees. The tree not only looks exotic, but yields a versatile, highly nutritious, mild-flavored fruit. Unripe papayas can be cooked like a vegetable. The ripe fruit can be juiced or eaten like a melon. Seeds can be ground up like pepper and used as a spice or made into a salad dressing. Even the leaves can be steamed like spinach.

Papayas are rich in the enzyme papain, which aids in digestion. They are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories but high in vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium.

For centuries, indigenous people around the world have used all parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. The roots have analgesic properties. The seeds are anti-inflammatory and used to soothe stomachaches and treat fungal infections. The unripe fruit has been used to treat high blood pressure, and ripe papayas applied directly to skin sores are said to provide immediate relief.

I haven't tried any of these folk remedies myself, but I appreciate any plant with so much potential. Cantaloupes may be more familiar to Americans than papayas, but around the world, papayas reign supreme. The next time you're at the grocery, look for these oblong-shaped, orange-tinted fruits and give one a try. If you like the taste, don't toss the seeds -- plant them instead.