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Highlights from the Philadelphia Flower Show 2017

With March 2017’s Holland: Flowering the World, the legendary Philadelphia Flower Show once again thrilled visitors who, in recent years, saw the event celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service (2016's Explore America), contemplating cinematic displays dedicated to famous films (2015’s Celebrate the Movies), and connecting the dots between art and plants (2014’s ARTiculture).

A dazzling display of tulips at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show  - Photo by Reese Amorosi

The Philadelphia Flower Show is presented annually by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). This year highlighted Holland’s signature flower, from its dazzling tulip-filled entrance garden with 5,000 flowers, to important moments such as the presentation of the specially bred Philly Belle Tulips (a red beauty gifted to the city of Philadelphia from the Royal Netherlands Embassy), to scaled down displays of miniature topiary set pieces filled with tiny tulips and clinging foliage.

Philly Belle Tulips Gift to City of Philadelphia from Royal Netherlands Embassy Phila Flower Show 20

Of course, tulips aren’t Holland’s only claim to fame: the Dutch have long been leaders in the horticultural industry as breeders and suppliers of all manner of plant materials (bulbs, trees, roots, etc.), and the show didn’t focus solely on flowers. As always, the Philadelphia Flower Show presented a wide range of plants, experts were available to answer questions, and there were numerous booths for shopping.

Displays from the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show - Photos by Reese Amorosi

Recipe: Tofu and Mushroom Soup with Shiso

I am that gardener who rescues parched plants ("How much for that dead daisy?") and rehomes potager pests ("Would anyone like a slug?"), because I CANNOT BEAR to see them perish. This is how I became The Shiso Queen.

Shiso is a mint-family herb popular in Asian cuisine. In our fair realm, shiso sprouts are one of the heralds of Spring, and shiso flowers are among the harbingers of Fall. As the white (and sometimes pink or purple) flower spikes mature they release their tiny seeds, and this results in a mass planting of shiso the following Spring.

Shiso

I could remove the shiso flowers to prevent them from self-seeding ("Off with their heads!"), but our bees find them to be delicious, as do we. Since it vexes me to see plants die, instead of banishing hundreds of extra shiso seedlings to the compost pile, I keep as many as possible and bestow the rest upon family and friends who — because of my ongoing giveaways — jokingly call me The Shiso Queen.

Shiso is an aromatic plant with attractive foliage, it does well in full sun to partial shade, and common varieties grow 18 to 36 inches tall. Fresh shiso isn't widely available in stores, but an internet search reveals retailers with seeds for varieties including purple-red (also used as a food dye), green, green leaves with purple-red undersides, large flat leaves, and micro leaves. Depending on the variety and your palate, shiso tastes of mint, basil, clove, cinnamon or anise. Sometimes it's listed under different names such as Perilla, Japanese Basil, Ooba or Beefsteak Plant.

Even if you don't recognize shiso by title, you may have seen it; fresh shiso leaves are often used as a garnish or wrap for sushi and sashimi. In addition to the leaves (used fresh and dried), the flowers and seeds are also edible, and all three are used to flavor meat, seafood, rice, noodles, vegetables and more. I frequently make shiso pesto, and even shiso ice cream. In my recipe for Tofu and Mushroom Soup with Shiso, I've found that two or three large leaves and/or flowers per bowl is enough, but as always, my fellow sovereigns, you are free to issue your own royal edicts in your kitchen garden kingdoms.

Soup

Tofu and Mushroom Soup with Shiso

Prep and cooking: approximately 40 minutes │ Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

• 14-16 ounces extra-firm tofu cut into small cubes
• 1 pound broccoli cut into small florets
• 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced (I often use oyster, shiitake and portabella)
• 3 large carrots cut into small pieces
• 1 large onion, diced
• 2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
• 6 cups vegetable stock
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon tamari sauce (or soy sauce)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 16 to 24 shiso leaves and/or flowers

Directions:

1. Coat a stockpot or Dutch oven with olive oil, add garlic and ginger. Bring pot to medium heat while stirring to coat the ingredients with oil. Add carrots and onions, once again stirring to coat with oil. Cook until the carrots begin to soften and the onions begin to turn clear (5-10 minutes).

2. Add vegetable stock to pot, bring to boil, immediately reduce heat to low. Add tofu, broccoli and mushrooms to pot, stir gently. Simmer for 5 minutes.

3. Taste the soup, add tamari sauce, taste again, add more tamari or salt and/or pepper to taste.

4. Simmer soup on low for 10 minutes, ladle into bowls, garnish with shiso and serve.

Recipe: Cucamelon Refrigerator Pickles

Reese AmorosiAs an avid kitchen gardener, I'm always looking for new edibles to grow and serve. Several years ago, my quest led to the Cucamelon (Melothria scabra), an annual vine in the Cucurbitaceae plant family that includes cucumbers, melons, and squash.

The cucamelon is known by numerous names, including Mexican sour gherkin, mouse melon, and in its native Central America, sandita, which means "little watermelon." All of the names apply: Cucamelons taste like a cross between cucumber and lime and look like mini watermelons, the perfect size for a mouse picnic. Luckily, neither wildlife nor insects in our garden show any interest in the tiny, tart fruits (although that may not be the case in your area). 

Cucamelon seeds can be found at heirloom seed retailers, and they are an easy, prolific crop. Seeds can be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before last frost, or direct sown after last frost.  In Philadelphia, PA – zone 7b – I sow the seeds in the garden in mid-May (spacing 3 inches apart; depth one-half inch; light required for germination). I see small yellow flowers by mid-June, and I'm swimming in sanditas by mid-August.  

The vines will happily grow along the ground, but for easy access and to save space, grow them vertically on a fence, net, or trellis. They can also be container grown with the proper support, and they make interesting hanging baskets. Most instructions suggest growing cucamelons in full sun, but ours are situated for morning sun and afternoon shade. This is because Philly has surprisingly hot and humid summers – high 90s to low 100s for days and weeks at a time – and in full sun our plants would burn.

Cucamelons are super straight off the vine, and are scrummy in a salad or stir-fry. My favorite way to prepare cucamelons is to make refrigerator pickles. I use a similar recipe to the one my father taught me for refrigerator cucumbers, but I've adapted it for cucamelons and the results are delicious. 

I like to use clear Ball jars because the pickles are pretty and the size is just right to send home with dinner guests (trust me, they WILL want to take some home). In my kitchen, this recipe yields 4 pint jars, but your yield may vary depending on the shape of your jar. If you wind up with extra cucamelons then make more pickles; if you wind up with extra vinegar whisk it with your favorite oil to make salad dressing.

cucamelon refrigerator pickles

Cucamelon Refrigerator Pickles

Preparation: 20-30 minutes, plus 2 weeks in the fridge.  Yield: 4 wide-mouth pint jars

Ingredients:

• 4 wide-mouth pint jars, sterilized
• 6 cups cucamelons, washed  (approx. 1.5 cups per jar)
• 3 cups white wine vinegar
• 2 tsp salt
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 12 sprigs of fresh dill (I use 3 per jar)
• Handful of fresh mint leaves
• Pink peppercorns (20 per jar)
• Coriander seeds (20 per jar)
• 4 cloves garlic (one for each jar)
• 4 fresh grape leaves (one for each jar), optional

 

Instructions:

1. Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar in mixing bowl, whisk until dissolved, set aside.

2. Divide the cucamelons and spices between your jars, placing a layer or two of cucamelons and then adding some of the spices, repeating until done. I put the dill sprigs around the middle of the jar when it's half full.

3. Pour vinegar mix over cucamelons in each jar up to the tread.  OPTIONAL: scrunch a grape leaf, place it on top of the cucamelons, and push it down under the liquid (this was my Father's trick for keeping the pickles crisp).

4. Seal tightly. Place in refrigerator, wait two weeks until you eat them, finish within two months, continuous refrigeration required.

Cucamelon refrigerator pickles can be used just like any other pickle: in a relish tray, in salads, on sandwiches, etc.  Enjoy!