Herb Spotlight: Vietnamese cilantro

Vietnamese cilantro, also known as Vietnamese coriander, Cambodian mint or Rau Ram, makes an unusual addition to your herb garden. It’s native to Southeast Asia, where it's a very popular culinary ingredient. Vietnamese cilantro is not the same as the “regular” cilantro we are all so familiar with in Western cuisine. It has a very strong, smoky yet minty flavor and, because of its strength, should be used in quantities about half that of cilantro. The biggest benefit to growing Vietnamese cilantro over cilantro is its ability to beat our summer heat.

Plant
It’s a low, creeping plant that will spread into ground cover if given enough time. It can’t handle temperatures below freezing, but if grown in a pot and brought inside when there is a frost, it can last for many seasons. Plant grows best in bright morning sun and afternoon shade.

Care
Keep the soil moist. If the plant stops producing new leaves in midseason, cut it back almost to the base to promote new growth. If it’s growing in a container, you might need to repot it into a bigger one—or divide it and replant in the same pot—a couple of times a season.

Harvest
Prune herb, pull young leaves from stems, rinse, and dry. Store clean leaves, layered between slightly damp towels in the refrigerator. Soak any wilted leaves in ice water briefly to refresh them.
 

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

This sauce can be used to brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty, spicy and authenticity to your dish -- from omelets, to salad dressing or drizzled on a sandwich. This sauce brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty spicy and authentic to your dish.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons local
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1 or 2 small Thai chiles, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 handful Vietnamese coriander leaves, finely chopped

Directions
Mix the lime juice, honey and 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl and stir. Taste and adjust the flavors if necessary to balance out the sweet and sour. Add the fish sauce, garlic and chiles. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Cover and set aside at room temperature until needed, up to 24 hours. Just before serving, mix in the mint and Vietnamese cilantro.

Pitchers in the Pines

I saw a peacock in the pines. What had begun as an exasperating morning shifted at the sight of this exquisite bird and the remainder of the day unfurled into one of the most magical experiences that would alter the course of my life.

It began several years ago with some friends sharing their excitement of having found a secret spot off Highway 65 that was filled with carnivorous pitcher plants and dwarf cypress trees. I was already a native plant lover and always up for an adventure, so I jotted down their directions and recruited my friend, Bonnie, to join me for a Sunday trip to find this spot. This was before I had a smart phone and I hadn’t done much exploring of areas outside of Tallahassee, so of course I took circuitous route that had us driving all morning. Our confidence was waning when we finally found the small dirt road.

As we drove in, were greeted by a male peacock-in the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest. I was speechless, peacocks do not live here and I have never seen one before or since. I was compelled to hop out of the car and approach the bird as he fanned his feathers in an epic display. It was completely surreal and set the tone for the remainder of the day. We watched aghast, as he disappeared into the trees and continued on our way down the road. The area had been recently burned and we immediately spotted thickets of bright, chartreuse pitchers rising up on the edges of the blackened forest where it met the dwarf cypress swamp. I had never seen such a sight. The lemon-lime pitchers rose up to my waist and had a bright scarlet blush just below their hoods. Having only read about these plants in books or seen a few sorry plants in pots, I was unprepared for how magnificent they are in their natural setting.

Many of us are unaware that we are nestled in one of the richest areas of biodiversity in North America. Our Panhandle is a truly unique place with a multitude of diverse ecosystems that are home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. The Panhandle is, in fact, a hotspot for carnivorous plants and home to the most number of species and the largest population of total plants in North America.

We have more species of Sarracenia, also known as pitcher plants, than anywhere else in the world. There are so many that, as I quickly learned, you do not have to know a secret spot or even look that hard for them. They line the roadsides of Highway 65 near Sumatra and are easy to spot once you know what they look like.

My friend Eleanor Dietrich has been working with the Florida Wildflower Foundation and Department of Transportation to regulate the roadside mowing schedule so we can enjoy these beauties. I regularly spend my Sundays driving down to Sumatra with friends or alone to see them at their different stages of growth. Their stunning, pendulous blooms appear first in early spring followed by the pitchers, which are their leaves, in summer and more in fall. There are several species, and even color variations within species that are extraordinary.

That entire afternoon had an otherworldly feel to it, an experience that has blossomed into an adoration for the Apalachicola National Forest and the plants that inhabit its wet prairies and pine flatwoods. I especially fell in love with the many species of carnivorous plants including pitcher plants, butterworts, sundews and venus fly-traps. They are easy to find and experiencing them in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Garden to Table: Ratatouille

Essentially a vegetable stew, the name “Ratatouille” comes from the French verb touiller, meaning “to stir up” – and it’s just that easy! This hearty dish hails from the Provence region of France is a super easy-to-make mix of seasonal vegetables, garlic, and olive oil. A perfect dish for a hard working gardener and lazy cook like me - enjoy!


Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves smashed & peeled
2 large green bell peppers, cut into chunks
2 medium onions, cut into half-moons
1 large eggplant (or three small ones) cut into chunks
3 medium zucchini, cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or oregano leaves
2 (14-1/2-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, drained
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 Bay leaf
2 tablespoons sugar
salt to taste
black pepper to taste

Method

1.     In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat; sauté the garlic, bell peppers, and onions for 5 minutes, or until tender.

2.     Add the eggplant and zucchini; mix well, and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley, basil, marjoram, bay leaf and diced tomatoes; mix well.

3.     Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and heat for 2 to 3 minutes before serving.