Ga-Ga for Grapefruit

A Prolific Backyard Grapefruit Tree

A Prolific Backyard Grapefruit Tree

It’s hard to believe, but grapefruit didn’t even exist until the 18th century.

Some time in the 1700s on the island of Barbados, someone crossed a sweet orange and a pumelo, the largest of the citrus, and what locals termed “forbidden fruit” was born. The word “grapefruit” originated later in Jamaica, and was given because the large golden fruits grow in clusters, like grapes.

The grapefruit itself was first documented in 1750. In 1809 Spanish nobleman Don Phillipe planted the first grapefruit in Florida. Later, in 1823, the French Count Odet planted a grove on the west shore of Tampa, in a town now known as Safety Harbor.

By 1885, Odet was shipping grapefruit to New York and Philadelphia, creating a whirlwind of interest and launching the beginning of the commercial grapefruit industry.

Today, 40% of grapefruit in the U.S. is consumed as juice and 60% is eaten fresh. And Florida is the world’s leading grapefruit producer. But since the one lone tree towering over my roofline produces enough to feed an army brigade, it’s safe to say that grapefruit grows pretty well in Louisiana, too.

Cutting the Cost of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans

Dried Vanilla Beans

Planning ahead for holiday baking, I recently did an inventory of one of the most important and pricey flavorings in my pantry — vanilla.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

Vanilla was first grown in the highlands of Mexico, where 15th-century Aztecs called the mature seed pod the “black flower.” After the French discovered Mexican vanilla, they started plantings in the Comoros Islands, Reunion and Madagascar. Today, Indonesia and Madagascar produce 80% of the world’s vanilla.

Vanilla is a tropical orchid that grows on a vine. The main cultivars are Bourbon vanilla (from the Indian Ocean region), Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla and West Indian vanilla. Vanilla beans and extract cost so much because harvesting and preparation are extremely labor intensive. For this reason, saffron is the only spice more expensive than vanilla.

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

Because it seems like I use it by the gallon, I’ve learned to brew my own from pods I buy in bulk. To make a pint of homemade vanilla, just slit three vanilla beans all the way down, place in a clean glass pint jar and cover with a distilled spirit such as vodka or rum. Let the covered jar sit for a month and, voila, you have vanilla extract!

And guess what? I just found a jar I’d started brewing a few months ago and had forgotten about. Now, on to baking those Thanksgiving cake and pies — and I won’t have to scrimp on expensive vanilla.

Roselle, The Tea Hibiscus

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I'll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I’ll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

I was first introduced to roselle by my Herb Society buddy Melinda Winans, who gave me a few seedlings that promptly rocketed into tall bushes festooned with large maroon-colored buds. The calyx, the bright red outer part of the bud, can be dried and steeped into a tart, refreshing tea that, for eons, has been consumed around the world.

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is native to the Old World Tropics. This relative of the garden hibiscus is extremely popular in places like Thailand, Senegal, Sudan, Jamaica, Mexico, and South America. There, both hot and iced roselle teas are common, while some folks even eat the leaves and roots.

Iced Roselle Tea

Iced Roselle Tea

Research shows that a dried calyx is very high in vitamin C, and many devotees swear it lowers cholesterol, is good for the heart, and is a diuretic. In Southeast Asia, roselle is even known as the “Oriental Beauty Fruit,” because it supposedly keeps your complexion looking dewey-young.

Hmmm. I have a few dried calyces in the cupboard. I think it’s time to brew up a cup of roselle tea.

It’s Persimmon Time!

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

A delicious right of fall in Louisiana is the “turning of the persimmons,” which miraculously happens every year beginning in October, when this fruit (that’s technically a berry) changes from a leaf green color to pumpkin orange.

Persimmons are native to China, where they’ve been cultivated over 2,000 years.

Louisiana does have native varieties, but gardeners tend to have better luck with orientals like Hana Fugu and Fugu, which are 7-10 times larger and have less seeds. Japanese varieties made their way to the U.S. in the 1800s, and grow well in the South and California.

Although persimmons are great baked in quick breads and cookies, I prefer them raw, and snatch up as many as I can during the season.