24.03.22 Plant People

What early plant memories or encounters have shaped your relationship to nature?

Having had a city upbringing, my plant memories are of my mom's lush spider plant collection with their long dangly offshoots in these amazing 70s macrame hangers – obviously where my love for apartment gardening comes from. My childhood summers were spent in Puerto Rico at my grandma's house; in her sweet little backyard she had a jobo tree, a tropical fruit with a spiny pit and deep ambrosial flavor. I really dream of having a home in nature with a bunch of fruit trees or a full-on orchard, to me that's the ultimate luxury, the sweet life, the goal.

Your Manhattan apartment is full of plants – a towering fiddle leaf fig, spindly avocados, cascading citronella. Can you describe some of them, their quirks, and how they came to be in your home?

Most of my plants are either rescues, gifts, or clippings from friends' gardens throughout the world. Everyone remarks on the fiddle leaf because it nearly reaches the double height ceiling.  The key to fiddles is they like a little neglect. The urge is to give them lots of water and sun, their native habitat is in rainforests below the larger trees, shady but bright, humid air, soil moist but not too wet. I love how oddly citronellas grow, but they also have a real purpose in the home: prune them and put the beautiful scented leaves in a linen drawer or in cupboards that tend to have pesky grain bugs. I love plants that have uses other than exhaling oxygen into an environment. For example, I'll pull a leaf off my avocado tree and place it under dumplings so they don't stick to the steamer basket. I also have two rescued calamansi citrus trees that produce a nice amount of fruit and an aloe that I use for skin irritations or to make a native medicine water recipe for when I'm feeling depleted.

What are some rituals you have around plants?

Probably the true key to healthy plants is adding nutrients to the soil. Currently my local compost source, LES Ecological Center, isn't selling compost until the spring so I started getting into ways of feeding them from a variety of different elements at home that has become a ritual now. I've taken to watering my plants with the milky water that's left over after rinsing rice.  I'll rinse the juicer or blender after a smoothie and use that water. I'll also save the pulp from the juices and mix it with soil and sprinkle it on top of the plant. I'll add water to the used tea and coffee grounds and water with that. I'm definitely keeping these new practices after I start getting proper compost, it makes so much sense to use those nutrients for your plants rather than dump it down the drain.

What role do fruits and vegetables play in your cooking? Are they the stars of the plate? Supporting players?

I came up cooking in vegetarian and macrobiotic restaurants and that knowledge transferred to the style of cuisine I became known for and how I cook today: vegetable-forward dishes with beautiful products, carefully paired, adhering to sourcing locally. While I do cook and eat a small portion of good quality, well-sourced meat and fish, it usually takes up less than 15% of my cuisine. I'm about trying to influence people to buy 100% American produce as a starting point.

Besides eating fruits and vegetables fresh, you experiment a lot with extending their usefulness through teas, infusions, preserves, and fermentation. Who or what informed your philosophy about maximizing the potential and flavors of ingredients?

Our harvest season here in the mid-Atlantic goes up until October so I adapt by buying loads during the growing season and preserving. I steam a large platter of different veggies in the spring and summer and serve them with a side of sauce. Whatever vegetables we don't eat I freeze and add to soup in the winter. I'll buy herbs and dry them – a pineapple sage or lemon verbena tea on a bleak winter day is happiness. Fermenting is a great way to preserve, it’s a lifelong practice and a beneficial component to health. Cabbages are the easiest – a warm sauerkraut with pork sausage is a winter treat. Berries in peak season are frozen to bake or smoothie with. I'll save jamming with them for when I have more time while hibernating in the winter. I also turn fruit into sweet fermented syrups, shrubs or vinegar to have for daily morning tonics. I don't buy lemons too often, especially when they aren’t in season in the country. My philosophy about maximizing flavor is really sourcing products from farms that have rich soil, better flavor and more nutrients. I take time to pair ingredients but ultimately, if it grows together it goes together.

How do you think about sustainability in the food world? What about waste?

I committed to buying 90% of my vegetables and fruit from local markets most of the year. After our harvest season dies out I increase my perimeter to only the east coast but my great love is fruit and I splurge on citrus from California in the winter. I never buy vegetables or fruit from outside of the US. I feel like I have a responsibility to build a foundation for a better food system and it starts by shopping at the local farmers’ markets all year. This act connects us with nature and the seasons. And I always compost. It's important to see what you throw out: it informs you and forces you to become a better cook by tapping into a stream of creativity.

How do you think about the medicinal and healing capacity of plants – the ones we eat and the ones we live with?

I fully believe that plants have medical properties but most importantly that eating right keeps the body fit and increases our ability to fight disease and illness. Gardening is a meditative practice, very good for the mind.

Could you describe a moment, interacting with plants or plant-ingredients, when you have felt astonished? Horrified? Delighted?

Planting or sprouting a seed is pretty astonishing: you wait and wait and then magic happens.