Monday, January 31, 2011

A Far Eastern experience that's close to home

Long aisles filled with boxes and tins of tea entice both Asian and non-Asian customers

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 30, 2011)

I don't go to Orlando often, so when I do, I pack as many stops into my trip as possible. Inevitably, one of those stops is an Asian market.

O-Town has dozens of stores to choose from, but the two I like best are Dong-A Co. (816 N. Mills Ave., 407-898-9227) and 1st Oriental Supermarket (5132 W. Colonial Drive, 407-292-3668).

The 1st Oriental Supermarket is on Orlando's west side, making it a few miles closer to home. Although the distance is shorter, it is still worlds away from any comparable American grocery-store experience.

Established in 2003 and located in a former shopping plaza in Pine Hills, the 42,000-square-foot supermarket claims to be the largest Oriental market in Florida. No matter when I go, the store is crowded. Customers of various ethnicities load up carts with products from their homelands that aren't readily available elsewhere.

For me, a person with limited travel experience outside the continental U.S., an ethnic market is like a virtual travelogue. America fades away as I step through the double glass doors. Cantonese, Vietnamese and other tongues replace English. Foreign sights, sounds and smells surround me. No matter where I look, I see something unfamiliar, and I love it. Without having to board a plane, I have been transported to the Far East.

This is no Epcot experience. This is the real deal. Employees aren't trained to cater to tourists. If anything, they display a certain amount of impatience toward the English-only crowd. Asian markets are busy, get-what-you-need-and-get-going places. Stores such as 1st Oriental Supermarket are the Far Eastern equivalent of Sam's Club or Costco. They provide a wide selection of products, often in oversized packages, at low prices with limited service.

Ostensibly, I go to the market because I'm running low on tea. Colorful tins and boxes of tea occupy both sides of a long aisle at 1st Oriental Supermarket. I can search for a specific type, shop by brand or seek out blends for certain ailments or needs. A seemingly endless array of teabags and loose-leaf varieties competes for my attention.

Inevitably, I leave with several selections, including my current favorite, Prince of Peace brand organic jasmine green tea. I usually opt for the 100-bag box for $5.95. My local Publix, which doesn't carry the Prince of Peace brand, sells a similar product for $3.96, but that's for only 18 bags. At American groceries, economy-size packages of tea are simply not available.

Although tea is my excuse for traveling 27 miles to shop, that's not all I buy. I always come home with some packaged items as well as a selection of seasonally available fruits and fresh produce. On my most recent trip, I purchased six egg-shaped white sapotes, a bunch of bok choy and two types of dried ginseng root.

Sapotes are South American fruits that have found a niche in Vietnamese and Filipino cuisine. After examining the display of about a dozen different kinds of bok choy, a Chinese green that's like a cross between cabbage and spinach, Ralph picked one and added it to our cart. Asian grocery stores stock an abundance of leafy green vegetables, most of which are unfamiliar to non-Asian consumers.

Anyone who finds the unfamiliar fascinating will enjoy a visit to an ethnic food store. At 1st Oriental Supermarket, entire aisles are devoted to bags of dried mushrooms, cans of syrupy fruits and packages of seeds, roots and dehydrated fish. Live fish and eels swim in a 1,000-gallon tank. Customers can choose what they want for dinner, then take it home, filleted to their specifications.

The store also contains a meat market, fresh poultry corner, bakery, Chinese medicinal herb area and assorted housewares, cookware and personal hygiene items. There's so much to see, I often feel I'm on sensory overload.

The Internet does a great job of bridging physical distance, but it's not yet able to duplicate the experience of picking up and touching an object, inhaling its fragrance or savoring its taste. Sometimes a hands-on approach is needed to foster real understanding. Shopping at an ethnic market is an easy, inexpensive way to expand horizons and broaden your palate without having to travel far from home.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Thanks to clever camouflage, killdeer nests are elusive


Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 23, 2011)

Killdeer are fast runners. They scurry by when I'm taking walks and rush out of the way when I'm driving down our dirt driveway. They move so quickly that their slender legs seem to disappear, making them look more like cartoon characters or windup toys than the land-loving shorebirds they actually are.

Although the killdeer is a type of plover, you are more likely to see one on a golf course, field, pasture or even your front lawn than at the beach. These 10-inch-long birds are easy to identify. They have white bellies, tawny backs and two black neckbands. They also make a distinctive cry when disturbed. A startled killdeer will take to the air with a scolding screech and circle overhead. Its flight is erratic. Intermittently, it flaps its wings frantically and glides effortlessly. It releases a shrill wail as it flies.

I see killdeer all the time. They might like the many sandy paths we have that don't get much traffic. Killdeer nest in such areas, although to call the places they lay their eggs "nests" smacks of hyperbole. A killdeer nest looks like … well, it looks like the ground. The birds meagerly attempt to scratch away dirt. I'm not talking about a big hole but a mere indentation. Into this minimal space, the female deposits four to six eggs. Once she has laid her eggs, the birds add light-colored stones, sticks and bits of shell to camouflage the nestlings.

In the 20 years I've lived here, I've come upon a killdeer nest only once. I was walking along an infrequently used path when I saw what looked like a bird with a wounded wing. The old "my wing is broken" trick is a killdeer specialty. When it senses danger, a mother or father bird will feign injury to divert a potential enemy's attention away from the eggs or baby birds. The adult bird does this by dragging one of its wings along the ground as it moves away from the nest site. Every now and then, it cries out plaintively, bobs up and down and fans its tail feathers.

It's a captivating spectacle. I can see how it might fool a hungry animal in search of an easy meal. Humans, however, are not as easy to trick. I allowed the bird to continue by pretending to be distracted. All the while, I was mentally mapping the spot so I could return later. I let the bird draw me away until it finally flew off. Later, I returned to the spot thinking I'd locate the nest in a flash.

It didn't happen.

I walked back and forth, but no matter how many times I carefully crisscrossed the spot where I first saw the killdeer, I couldn't find any sign of a nest. Then, just as I was about to admit defeat, I spotted it. Several buff-colored eggs with mottled brown and tan marks were nestled together in a shallow hole in the middle of the driveway. The nest blended so seamlessly with its surroundings, it was hidden in plain sight. I looked at the eggs but didn't touch anything. Killdeer, like many birds, will abandon eggs if they think they've been disturbed.

It was years ago when I saw that nest. With all the killdeer on our property, there must be many others, but I never discovered them. That's either a tribute to the birds' clever camouflage or an indication of how little time I've dedicated to the art of nest detection. Whatever the reason, I'm happy to have so many of these bug-eating plovers in the area. Killdeer eat seeds and all sorts of invertebrates, including earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles and the larvae of water bugs. They will even consume live frogs or dead minnows when necessary.

Killdeer are not my favorite birds, but because there are many of them, they are easy to observe. You don't have to love a critter to appreciate its special characteristics, unusual habits and distinctive behaviors. Perhaps one of these days I'll chance upon another killdeer nest. Until then, I'll get a kick out of listening to them scold me for getting too close as they scurry away.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A new home for an old desk

The roll-top desk drawers and crannies may be empty, but the floor remains covered with items to be sorted.

Simply Living
(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel January 16, 2011)

I've spent the last three days emptying the roll-top desk in my former office. The desk, an oak behemoth that I bought about 30 years ago, has 15 drawers and nine cubbies. In 2009, when I moved my office from one room in the house to another, I left behind the desk and everything inside those cubbies and drawers. I always intended to go back and clean it out, but every time I did, the thought of emptying all those compartments was overwhelming.

Time after time, I put it off.

That changed last week when my friend said she was in the market for a used desk. Knowing my affinity for secondhand stores, Theresa asked me which thrift shops I thought she should visit. I mentioned a few, but in the back of my mind I was thinking of my old desk.

The next time I saw Theresa, I asked if she had found a desk yet. When she said no, I took the plunge. "Would you be interested in an old wooden roll-top desk that I no longer need?" Her enthusiastic reply made me realize that my days of procrastination were about to end. We arrived at a price and, more important, a day and time when she would pick the desk up. I knew that without a deadline, nothing would happen. I needed a push, a date on the calendar, before I could even begin to attack the project.

Once a date was set, my work began. I brewed a large mug of jasmine tea and settled on the old office floor. With a trash can and several cardboard boxes nearby, the sorting began. I rummaged through drawers, tossing this item here, that item there. I found boxes of colored pencils, old calligraphy pens and rubber stamps for decorating envelopes in the days when I actually wrote letters by hand. There was an entire drawer filled with sewing paraphernalia and another with blank paper, old pads and partly used notebooks.

Some things were easy to sort, though others brought me pause. When I discovered containers filled with my children's baby teeth, along with handwritten notes about when each tooth was lost, I put everything else on hold and took a trip back through time. As it turned out, time travel was to become the theme of my desk-emptying endeavor — especially when I began sorting through the two large file-cabinet drawers.

File folders overflowing with data from the days before computers were so stuffed into those drawers that I had difficulty opening them. Once I did, I found myself awash in a flood of memories. Piles of paper relating to old business projects triggered a sense of relief. Into the trash they went! I was glad to be rid of them.

That's not how I felt when I discovered the hand-drawn Mother's Day cards and colorful scribbled love notes written by my children when they were little. Those discoveries made me long for the days of sticky kisses, tight-squeezing hugs and crayoned words of devotion written in the colors of the rainbow.

Deep in the drawers were more reasons to remember. I unearthed reams of my old writings — stories, poems, songs and letters. Drawings, too. And letters from friends, some who are no longer alive. Time slowed as I read through those long-ago words and looked at sketches I hadn't seen in years.

Sometimes a piece of furniture is nothing other than a few bits of wood, some glue and nails. That wasn't the case for my old wooden desk. For me, that desk was a portal to the past. As difficult as it was to tackle, emptying the 15 drawers and nine cubbies transported me back through time. It refreshed my memories. My appreciation for the little things in life was renewed and invigorated.

After all the sorting, reviewing and renewing of memories, you might think I was sad to sell the desk. I wasn't. It made me feel good knowing that my friend will soon be filling the drawers and cubbies with memories of her own. I'm 59. Theresa is 27. That desk has enough nooks and crannies to contain several decades of her life's detritus.

I wish her well on her journey. Maybe someday it will be time for her to pass the desk on to someone else, and she'll face the curious task of sorting through papers and deciding what to do with old pens, crayon-scribbled notes and a collection of her children's baby teeth. When she does, I hope she gets as much satisfaction from her efforts as I have had from mine.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Versatile kale packs nutritional punch

Young Red Russian kale plants thrive in Florida throughout the fall, winter and early spring.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 10, 2011)

Every day around lunchtime, I go into the garden and cut a few kale leaves. After shaking water droplets off them, I bring the crinkly edged greens inside to use in place of lettuce on my sandwich. Kale leaves add a pleasant crunch to my midday meal as well as a slightly sweet, pleasant flavor.

Unlike lettuce, which has few vitamins and minerals, kale leaves pack a nutritional punch. Each bite provides antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients and cancer-fighting glucosinolates. Kale is a rich source of vitamins A, C and K as well as minerals such as calcium, copper, potassium, iron, manganese and phosphorus.

Kale belongs to the Brassica family, whose members include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, mustard greens, radishes, rapini, turnips and watercress. While some of its cousins are strong-flavored and bitter, kale is mild-mannered and inoffensive. Consider it the Clark Kent of cruciferous veggies.

Kale is easy to grow. Its growing season is long — August through March. It likes cold weather and is seldom bothered by bugs or disease. The variety we're growing this year is Red Russian, ordered from Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine ( Although the company's main clientele lives in Northern climates, many of its seeds, including Red Russian kale, do well in the South.

In late August, Ralph sowed about half of a 70-cent, 2-gram packet of the tiny black orbs into three 15-gallon containers filled with our special soil mixture, a rich combination of composted manure, peat and woodchips for aeration. Within a few weeks, dozens of sprouts began to appear.

When the young shoots were about an inch high and sported a few small leaves, my son Tim, who inherited his father's green thumb, transplanted them into two dozen 15-gallon containers. From then on, the seedlings developed quickly. We began harvesting the frilly leaves in late September. Today, four months later, the plants are still producing growth without showing any sign of decline.

I take scissors with me when I'm out gathering leaves. Kale leaves grow on tough stems that resemble pinkish-green celery stalks. The stems are edible, but they taste better when cooked, while the tender young leaves are delicious raw. For each sandwich, I snip off four bread-slice-sized leaf sections. I come back for the stems when I'm making soup or looking for a crunchy ingredient to add to a stir-fry.

There's much more to do with kale leaves than use them as a substitute for lettuce. The chopped greens also work well in stews or in any recipe that calls for spinach. Sometimes for dinner, I'll gather a basketful of the fresh tops and chop them into small pieces before sautéing them in a cast-iron frying pan lightly coated with olive oil and pressed garlic. When the leaves are turning bright green — it's important not to overcook — I pour in a dash of lemon juice, turn off the heat and cover the pan for about two minutes before serving. If Ralph is making dinner, he'll add a sprinkle of turmeric as a seasoning.

When we lived on Cape Cod, my kids were partial to kale soup, a Portuguese staple available in many local restaurants. I haven't had that ethnic delicacy in years, but recently, Ralph and I spent time in St. Petersburg, where we discovered a completely different use for this most versatile and nutritious vegetable. Leafy Green Café, a wonderful little vegan raw-food eatery, serves side orders of a house specialty called kale chips. The chips — crunchy, seasoned morsels that melt in the mouth — are the result of slowly drying fresh kale leaves sprinkled with a special spice mixture. They were unexpectedly delicious.

Just as Clark Kent changed into Superman, the modest kale plant reveals superpowers of its own. The difference is that kale's transformation requires no telephone booth. All that's needed are an inexpensive packet of seeds, some potting soil and a desire to experiment with your taste buds. No matter how it is used — cooked, raw or dehydrated — kale is one vegetable worthy of attention.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Fancy name belies rose's hardy nature

The fragrant and carefree Louis Philippe rose blooms continually, even in cold weather

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 2, 2011)

The low-maintenance, disease-resistant and sweet-smelling Louis Philippe rose practically grows itself.

Unseasonably cold weather has wreaked havoc with my more tropical landscape plants. Several varieties of ginger have lost leaves, as have hibiscus bushes, cassias and even one of our golden rain trees.

Flower-studded ground covers such as wedelia, impatiens and zebrina (wandering Jew) also succumbed to the cold. Overnight they turned into soggy black mats, while colorful accent plants such as Mexican petunias morphed into skeletal images of their former selves.

One botanical bright light remains in my otherwise freeze-dulled landscape: an antique rose with a fancy name — Rosa "Louis Philippe." Even when frost blanketed the ground and icicles dangled from crape myrtle seedpods, this hardy bloomer remained unscathed. It continued to produce a headdress of ruby red flowers.

I've been growing this particular rose for more than 20 years, but it would be misleading to suggest that I was responsible for its success. Louis Philippe roses belong to the category of plants I like best – independent cultivars that don't require much attention.

Named in honor of Louis XVIII of France, the rose was introduced to North America in 1834. Lorenzo de Zavala, Mexico's minister to France and a Texas colonialist, received rose plants as a gift when his service ended. His wife, Emily, an avid gardener, planted the roses alongside the front porch of their home in Lynchburg, Texas.

I'm sure the flowers looked lovely next to Emily's house, and the heady fragrance must have perfumed the rooms, but I wouldn't want to copy her example. Like most roses, the Louis Philippe has thorns. It also spreads. Left alone, this sweet-smelling ever-bloomer expands annually until it eventually fills a 7- to 8-foot wide area. It also will grow upward.
Although not technically a climbing rose, this is one strong-willed, determined beauty. A few years back my son planted a cutting he had rooted (Louis Philippe roses are also extremely easy to propagate) beneath a pine tree. The rose now stretches up into the lower branches. It's at least 10 feet tall.

Although I have been growing this cultivar for two decades, I didn't learn its name until this past summer, when a customer at our bamboo nursery pointed it out.

"I love your Louis Philippe roses," the customer said, as she stood next to a sprawling specimen we had supposedly confined within a bamboo fence.

"Is that what it's called?" I asked. "I always assumed it was a knockout rose."

"Oh, no," she said. "It's an antique rose. Very fragrant. Very hardy. It's definitely a Louis Philippe."

My customer knew roses the way I know bamboos. I wrote down the name, and after she left I hurried to my office to look it up online.

Although my research confirmed her pronouncement, I quickly learned that one rose could have many names. Some people call it crown rose, while others know it as Florida rose, Florida cracker rose, cracker rose or antique china rose. Regardless of its label, Rosa "Louis Philippe" has been a popular addition to Southern landscapes for the same reasons I find it so endearing.

"It is considered a continuous bloomer because it produces flowers over such an extended period. It has a sweet fragrance and has good disease resistance," according to

The website of Seminole Springs Antique Rose and Herb Farm in Eustis adds a culinary perspective: "The flowers of Louis Philippe are deliciously scented and are great to use in the kitchen for rose syrups, rose water or just as a cut flower."

It's easy to see why this bush rose receives so much praise — especially in Florida after an early winter freeze. Many flowers have qualities that make them appealing, but few have as many desirable attributes as this common rose with the fancy name.