A few weeks ago a woman named Sheron, who hosts one of our CSA pick-up sites, e-mailed us about having her daughter do a work study at the farm for a school program. Dhilini, her daughter, who goes to Coral Reef Senior High has been to the farm a few times; she is a hard worker and a very good listener. Sheron has stayed with her to get her hands dirty as well. She was born and raised in Sri Lanka on a small farm which her father still owns and works today. On the first day when I took both of them on a tour, Sheron kept pointing out every plant and tree with any culinary, medicinal or horticultural significance before I could get to it! I was thoroughly impressed. We talked about food effortlessly, mostly sharing information about exotic and less known edible plants (and plant parts) as well as preparation techniques. Sheron is an expert and has a true passion for traditional foods from her country. As we walked by some flowering banana plants she referred to a delicious way of preparing the flowers and I was immediately intrigued. I had heard that banana flowers are edible and tasty, but never got around to researching the idea. That’s when she enthusiastically offered to cook some for us next time they came to the farm!
A week later:
The first thing to do is peel the outer tougher petals of the flower until you get a tender pointy pod.
Chop the flower like an onion. First in half lengthwise, then into very thin slices.
Rinse the flower in salt water twice and once in fresh water. Here Sheron is using her hands to strain and gently squeeze the shredded flower out of one salt bath and into the second. She explained that in Sri Lanka, traditionally people use their hands for many tasks in cooking, such as for straining and mixing.
In a wok or frying pan add the spices and a little bit of water to the flower, sautee for a minute and then simmer covered for a few minutes, mixing occationaly. The key here is the spices! Sheron brought a basket of beautiful fresh spices, some of which she brings back from visits to Sri Lanka, some of them are from her father’s farm. Here’s the list: dried Goraka (a vinegary black fruit), Turmeric, Coriander, Cumin, Fennel, sharp chilis, whole Fenugreek (she says every meal in Sri Lanka uses Fenugreek), small piece of whole Cinnamon (from her father’s tree), a piece of Rampe leaf-aka Pandan (which she brought from home and has promised to bring us a plant for the farm since we don’t have any, they do so well here and they have a distinct flavor that is great for cooking), a few pieces of Curry leaf from our tree and a bit of diced red onion.
Next step is to add the coconut milk, which Sheron made from scratch in an impressive amount of time. She taught us an easy and fast way of opening coconuts and then used the same method I’m familiar with to make the milk, which is by putting the coconut meat with water in a food processor and straining it. Here she is using her agile hands as a strainer again! She let the mixture simmer covered until the liquid almost disappeared, which took about 10 minutes.
The last step is to sautee a few spices in a little bit of canola oil and toss in the mixture to fry for a minute. She explained that this last step is very important because it takes the bitterness of the banana flower away. There is a key ingredient used in this step which we were able to provide from last seasons’ harvest. Black Mustard seeds! Sheron pointed out that they are harder to come by in the US than yellow seeds and have a totally different taste. Along with the Mustard seeds she put in another small piece of both Rampe and Curry leaf as well as bit of red onion.
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the finished dish because we all grabbed forks and started trying it right out of the pan. The smell was amazing (a very complex mix of spices, like a curry) and the texture was very nice (like picadillo).
We can’t thank her enough for the wonderful lesson and we look forward to her next visit!