Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Taking the time

I've probably mentioned this before, but Irish Boxer Husband and I both work full-time at demanding jobs. We have a very busy five-year-old Monkey who has birthday parties, playdates, swim lessons and school functions. Then we added a five-month-old Baby Bluebird (soon to be renamed Lion Cub, BTW) to the mix. Last year we bought a house on a half acre and proceeded to completely gut and renovate the interior... and when it was about 95% done, we started to move mountains outside to reshape the landscape completely.

All this to say, we don't have a lot of spare time on our hands. I can't remember the last time we went to see a movie -- wait, yes I do... it was more than 6 months ago -- and we've had exactly one date night since Lion Cub was born. I'm naturally an introvert, and crave peace, and quiet, and calm, so it's silly little chores like shelling peas (when's the last time you shelled peas?!?) that help me maintain my sanity.

It's been a challenging few weeks... months... okay years... but something as simple as my Lincoln peas finally gearing up into full production so that I can get more than a handful of peas at a time is what keeps me balanced nowadays.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Dinosaur plants

What a crazy month it's been... on top of all the usual, we had some extra doses of drama and chaos that made this year even more challenging. But the Monkey declaring "This has been the best Christmas ever!" made all the troubles fade into the background, even if only for a day.

One of the running jokes between the Irish Boxer Husband and I is his inability to keep a secret, especially when it comes to gifts. He had no choice but to give me this one early when I declared, a few weeks before Christmas, that all I really wanted was a plant. Well, he had one already in the mail, so out it came (and off he went to go look for something else that could still be a surprise).

This plant is interesting. The "dinosaur" stuff may be a little heavy on the marketing, but it was truly remarkable to see a ball of dried-out grass turn into a lush green plant in just an hour.

The outside of the box:

He actually bought two. Here's what they looked like when I unwrapped them. Not much to look at...

 Set it up in a little dish with some lava rock...

Add a teensy bit of water... and then wait all of TEN MINUTES.

Twenty minutes later, you see green, and unfurling action...

Thirty minutes later, lots of green and a pretty rosette shape...

 After an hour or so, here's how it looks. Quite a dramatic transformation for just an hour.

It actually started to mold a little bit after a week or so, so IBH put them outside and sure enough they turned right back into dried grass balls. If you want your very own, you can find it here:

The Amazing Desktop Dinosaur Plant
A Pre-historic Evergreen That Just Won't Die This one-of-a-kind plant has lived on the Earth for over 290 million years and has the ability to “come back to life” (much like the undead) over and over again for hundreds of years! Simply place this seemingly dead ball of foliage in water and within hours it transforms into a vibrant green blood-sucking evergreen. Ok, we are kidding about the blood-sucking part. It's still amazing though! It's also great for lazy folks since you can forget to water your Dinosaur plant whenever you want! It will simply dry up and hibernate for up to fifty years and will spring to life every time it is given water.

Some Interesting Tidbits about your Dinosaur Plant:
  • During the Carboniferous period these plants used to grow over 120 feet tall (bigger than a T-rex)
  • When dry it curls up into a tight ball so that the wind can easily roll it to a new location or cubicle, hopefully closer to moisture.
  • Retains 3% of its water when it is dehydrated.
  • Grows to be about 4"
  • Enjoys life so much it survived the Ice Age
Kit includes:
  • Live Dinosaur Plant (Selaginella Lepidophylla)
  • Bag of genuine Volcanic Lava Rock
  • Display Bowl

Monday, December 16, 2013

TV and Korean dumplings (mandu)

I don't watch much TV. I might have, many years ago, but nowadays our Netflix queue is completely dominated by Jake and the Neverland Pirates, My Little Pony, Miffy, and Strawberry Shortcake. Once a week though, on Sunday nights, I will occasionally watch a few episodes of something or other... currently it's Fringe.

So last night, after the kids were down and the house was quiet, I watched three episodes back-to-back with the Irish Boxer Husband. But instead of being curled up on the couch under a blanket with a mug of tea, we made mandu. It's so much better knowing exactly what goes into them, making them with the ingredients we like, and it probably works out to be cheaper. And while we made almost 200, you certainly don't have to make that many at once... though good company certainly makes it go quickly and you can easily freeze them so you never run out.

Keep in mind, you can make mandu with almost anything. All vegetarian, different meat, seafood... feel free to customize.

Korean dumplings (mandu)
3 packs of dumpling/gyoza skins
2 pounds of ground beef
1 pack of firm tofu
6 cups of mung bean sprouts
2 cups of Korean chives (buchu)
2 carrots
4 cloves of garlic
1 egg
4 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the chives and combine with vegetable oil, mix well. I saw this tip on Maangchi's blog and she says it helps keep the vegetables moist.

Cook with sprouts in a little bit of water in a big saucepan until they are quite limp but not totally disintegrated. It took about 5 minutes for me. Then chop roughly.

Very finely chop the carrots. You don't want to bite into a big chunk of crunchy carrot when you eat your mandu! Do the same with the garlic.

In a big bowl, mix the ground beef, tofu (you crush it with your fingers as you mix), sprouts, chives, carrots, garlic, egg, soy sauce and sesame oil. Whew! Season with salt and pepper. If you're not sure if the seasoning is quite right, I cook a tiny bit of the filling in a frying pan to taste it.

It's mandu-making time! I used the rounds, but they come in squares, too... the process is basically the same. Set yourself up a little working area with your filling, skins, a little bowl of water, and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. And of course, your episode :-)

Dip a finger into the water and use it to wet the edge of half the skin.

Then put in about a tablespoon's worth of filling. You'll learn how much you can fit after you've done a few, and it'll start to go much faster at that point.

Fold over the skin, and press firmly to seal tightly.

Then wet the outside edge and put in three pleats to really help hold the mandu together. Otherwise, they might break open while cooking and nobody wants that!

We put ours on baking sheets to freeze. After three episodes of Fringe, we had nearly 200 made.

The baking sheets went straight into the chest freezer and I'll bag them up once they're solid.

Some couples go bowling, or watch a movie, or take long moonlit walks on the beach. We make mandu!

Winter growing

This is the first winter I've done any real growing, and I'm now confident that I vastly prefer cool-weather gardening over the summer. Granted, winter in San Diego County means there is a chill in the air and the nights just MIGHT dip below freezing... MAYBE. Which means putzing around out there is much more enjoyable than during the months of 100+ temps and blazing sun.

I harvested our second head of Graffiti purple cauliflower, as well as the potatoes from one of my Smart Pots. I should have given it at least another month, but I went ahead and did it. Because I prefer my potatoes small. My impatience has absolutely nothing to do with it. Nope.

The garlic is sprouting, the peas are producing, the leeks are swelling, the greens are all still pumping out leaves, and I have managed to leave my other potatoes in the ground to continue growing. Love winter.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Oh-so-cute Parisiennes... carrots, that is.

I've never grown carrots before. Between our warm climate, the difficulty in getting them to germinate, their general finickiness, and the fact that I can get a bag of organic "baby" (yes I know they're not really babies) carrots for under a dollar at Sprouts, I never really saw the need. But I got a sample pack of Parisienne carrot seeds so decided to see what would happen.

My dish of carrot seedlings actually had to endure a few late-season heat waves -- which incidentally haven't stopped, but I digress -- so went from a thick planting to only a few of the strongest making it. I thought of the whole thing as a project of curiosity and yesterday actually was able to pull a couple carrots!

Haven't tried them yet, but do find them almost irresistably cute. Who knows, maybe I'll sow some more.

Parisienne carrot
Small, round carrots that are so popular in France. Tender, orange globes are superb lightly steamed. Easy to grow even in heavy soils. This little carrot is great for home and market gardens, as this variety is fairly uniform.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


I like to grow things that are either prohibitively expensive to buy, hard to find, or best when extremely fresh. And I usually have a long list of things I want to try but am not above an impulse buy at a neighborhood nursery, either! While putzing around the garden the other day, I realized I must have purple on the mind...

Chitting a batch of these beautiful purple potatoes to plant out by end of the year, once the Russetts and Yukon Golds are done... I thought it was so neat how even the little sprouts are a dark, intense purple.

Purple Majesty potato
Oblong. mid season potato with smooth dark purple skin. Almost solid purple inside unlike All Blue. Very good table quality. Makes a great blue potato salad.

I picked up a six-pack of purple cauliflower transplants on a whim from our Green Thumb nursery. I had no idea if they'd even grow in our climate, let alone head, but two out of the six have good-sized heads now and the other four look like they're right behind. I'm so excited to try them. Since purple is the little Monkey's favorite color, maybe she'll be more inclined to eat it too...

Graffiti cauliflower
The medium sized heads of this vigorous, uniform, main-season cauliflower are intensely purple, with large, purple wrapper leaves. It looks absolutely stunning when served raw on a veggie platter, but also retains most of its colour when cooked. A novel, nutritious, delicious cauliflower choice! - See more at: http://www.westcoastseeds.com/productdetail/Vegetable-Seeds/Cauliflower/Graffiti/#sthash.aVpVFxXT.dpuf
Easily the darkest and "truest" of the purple cauliflowers, Graffiti is here to brighten the plate and jazz up the vegetable patch! This widely adapted, vigorous variety sets large heads of deep purple that keep their color even after cooking (reaching a shade of mauve). Perfect for coastal climates, the far north, and the humidity-laden south and southwest, it's both a gourmet selection and a tried-and-true dependable performer in the garden.

These heavy, well-packed heads intensify their shade of violet with exposure to sun, and need less wrapper protection than most others. They make a splendid fall crop, but are also suitable for spring. Highly resistant to downy mildew, they can withstand rainy and humid climates far easier than older varieties. And they just look spectacular!


The medium sized heads of this vigorous, uniform, main-season cauliflower are intensely purple, with large, purple wrapper leaves. It looks absolutely stunning when served raw on a veggie platter, but also retains most of its colour when cooked. A novel, nutritious, delicious cauliflower choice!
- See more at: http://www.westcoastseeds.com/productdetail/Vegetable-Seeds/Cauliflower/Graffiti/#sthash.aVpVFxXT.dpuf


The medium sized heads of this vigorous, uniform, main-season cauliflower are intensely purple, with large, purple wrapper leaves. It looks absolutely stunning when served raw on a veggie platter, but also retains most of its colour when cooked. A novel, nutritious, delicious cauliflower choice!
- See more at: http://www.westcoastseeds.com/productdetail/Vegetable-Seeds/Cauliflower/Graffiti/#sthash.aVpVFxXT.dpuf

Thanksgiving recipe rundown: grill-roasted turkey

And now... the turkey.

Let me preface by saying, I spent most of my life unsure I even liked turkey.

It either meant the overly processed slimy sliced stuff you were supposed to use for sandwiches, or the dry and tasteless stuff that came in stringy chunks.

And then, I had good turkey. And it completely changed my view.

Once I had turkey cooked on the grill, I knew there was no going back. It's an increasingly popular way of doing it, though the methods vary -- directly on the grate, cut into pieces, in a pan -- but this is the way I've done it the past few years. Maybe next year I'll try something new. But no matter what, I don't think my turkeys will ever see the inside of an oven.

Grill-roasted turkey
1 turkey -- preferably organic, pastured, free-range, non-processed, never frozen... you get the idea. This year, ours was a 13-pound Diestel Farms.
2 gallons of water
2 cups of kosher salt
1.5 cups of brown sugar
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1 head of garlic
6 sprigs of rosemary
6 carrots
1 bunch of celery
4 onions
2 lemons
1 stick of butter

The night before: You're going to brine the turkey. You can Google all the science behind why, so I'll just say -- it's worth it. Keep in mind that if you're using a non-organic turkey, it might already be injected with a brine solution, which is the only reason to skip this step.

Boil a few cups of the water with the salt, sugar, and peppercorns. You can add other flavorings as well, but I usually don't; I feel like it's a bit of a waste, as any spices you might use will most likely get diluted so I'd rather use them more directly. Once the salt and sugar have dissolved, combine with the rest of the water -- which should be cold -- and then submerge the whole turkey, sans gizzards and such.

There's different ways of doing this; with a smaller bird, I use my biggest pot, line it with a huge plastic bag (you can find brining bags at the store specifically for this purpose), put the turkey in, pour the brine in, tie up the brine bag and then put the whole pot into a trash bag just in case there are any leaks at all. With a bigger bird, you may want to use a cooler. If the whole contraption doesn't fit into the fridge, use ice to keep it all chilly cold and put it outside if that's the kind of climate you live in.

The day of:
After the turkey's been in the brine for 12-18 hours, remove the turkey and discard the brine. Double up two foil roasting pans and put the carrots, celery, 2 of the onions (quartered) and some of the rosemary into the pan and set the turkey on top. Slice off the top of the head of garlic and throw the whole thing in there too -- no, really. Pour a little wine or water in so the vegetables don't char and burn.

Slather the butter under the skin, over the skin, everywhere, all over the turkey. Set it into the pan on top of the vegetables. Now set it aside for an hour at room temperature.

Make 4 foil packets of wood chips. (This is simple. Soak your wood chips, then fold them into foil packets and poke a few holes in the tops of each packet. That's it.) If you've got a three-burner grill, turn all three on until the grill hits about 450 and then turn off the middle burner. That's where the turkey will go. The foil packets go on either side; put two down when the turkey goes in and then replace them once they stop smoking.

Start the turkey off at 450 for about 30 minutes, until the skin is getting quite brown and crisp, then turn the heat down to about 350 to finish. I like to have it positioned with the legs toward the back, since dark meat takes longer to cook and the back of the grill tends to get hotter than the front. Overall, mine never take very long... I think about 90 minutes total for a 13-14 pounder. If the skin starts to get too dark, just put some foil over it.

When the temperature hits 155 in the breast, pull it off the grill, cover with foil, and watch to make sure it gets to about 160 as it rests.

And... that's it!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thanksgiving recipe rundown: smashed potatoes

You can't have Thanksgiving without potatoes. Maybe even two or three types. But it seems like mashed potatoes are a cornerstone Thanksgiving dish, and though you can doctor them up a bit with roasted garlic or chives or cheese, they're still just mashed potatoes.

This year, we tried something different. Smashed potatoes, in colors! No more bland white bowl on the table. Plus, you can do a lot more work before the day, making Thanksgiving just a wee bit simpler. Winner in my book! Next year, I think I'll experiment topping them with chives and a sharp and dry grated cheese.

Smashed potatoes
5 pounds of baby (3-4" size) potatoes, in different colors; mine were Yukon Golds, reds and blues
1/2 stick of butter
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Day 1: Boil the potatoes in heavily salted water until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain. Cool and refrigerate.

Day 2: Gently smash each potato with the bottom of a glass until it cracks and splits but is still in (mostly) one piece. Transfer to a baking dish and repeat until all the potatoes are in a single layer (you may need more than one dish).

Melt the butter in a small bowl or pan, add the olive oil and garlic, and hold over gentle heat until the garlic has thoroughly scented the butter and oil. Then pour over the potatoes in the baking dish and salt and pepper to taste.

About an hour before dinnertime, you're ready to bake!

Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are really sizzling, and then flip them and give them another 20 minutes. You should start to see the edges crisp up and turn golden brown.

Serve while still hot, topped with herbs, cheese, more salt and pepper, vinegar... the possibilities are endless!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving recipe rundown: cranberry-persimmon sauce

Thanksgiving is behind us, though there are still plenty of leftovers in the fridge, and I figured I'd share some of the lessons learned from the recipes I tried this year. Nothing was a total flop, but there are definitely things I'd do differently for a few, and then a few really stood out as ones to save and repeat as often as possible. Here's one, inspired by this 2005 Gourmet recipe.

Cranberry-persimmon sauce
1 bag of cranberries
1 cup of white sugar (or to taste. My cranberries seemed especially tart this year)
1 star anise
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3 ripe Fuyu persimmons
Sprinkle of cinnamon

Boil the cranberries, white sugar, star anise and vanilla extract together in the water. Stir occasionally.

Once the cranberries pop, the sauce is done; take it off the heat, remove the star anise, and let it cool. It'll gel as it cools.

While you're waiting, peel and dice up the Fuyu persimmons into very small cubes -- about 1/4" square. Don't worry too much about whether or not they're ripe; Fuyus can be sweet even when still very hard. Mine were on the softer side so I knew there were sweet without a doubt. Then fold them into the cooled sauce, and stir in just a touch of cinnamon.

It doesn't get much easier than that! But this sauce is so good, I was eating it by the spoonful. And I've never been much of a cranberry sauce lover. I may experiment with turning it into a jam that can be canned so we can enjoy it year-round.

Next up: smashed potatoes that will make you wonder why you'd ever bother with the mashed kind...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Changing colors...

I had no idea that there were trees that would change color and drop their leaves in fall even in our climate. Granted, the colors aren't nearly as brilliant as they are in the Great Smoky Mountains of my youth, but there is something incredibly satisfying about a seasonal ritual like raking leaves (until I'm doing it for the third time... then I'm over it). It's one of those little things that makes me disproportionately happy.

American sweetgum tree (Wikipedia link)
Liquidambar styraciflua is a deciduous tree native to the warm temperate areas of eastern North America and regions of Mexico and Central America. A popular ornamental tree in temperate climates, it is recognizable by the combination of its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruits (which you can apparently avoid by sterilizing the tree once a year... we're determined to do this as those spiky balls make the lawn underneath impossible to walk on with bare feet).

Monday, November 18, 2013

The force is strong... within my fig tree!

I've always wanted a fig tree. Once that had multiple trunks, spreading wide, with a sculptural shape and of course -- lots of fruit. Because -- no offense, Trader Joe's -- there is NOTHING like a fresh fig.

I also had the perfect spot for it: directly between my kitchen window and the massive new steel-and-glass spaceship-like hospital they have built across the canyon that completely kills the rural feel of our home. I dreamt of a massive fig tree with broad, handsome leaves that I could look at while doing the dishes.

I picked up this Black Mission a few months ago, right before we went out of town for the weekend as our last getaway before the new Baby Bluebird arrived. Unfortunately, that weekend was unseasonably hot and dry with Santa Ana winds pushing the temps up into the mid-90s while incredibly dessicating gusts fried it to a crisp despite the fact that I had given it several soakings before we left. Every single leaf got crispy and brown and fell off my tree.

Despite my initial inclination to take it back, I asked the Irish Husband Boxer to plant it (I'm sure he felt a little silly planting a leafless stick, but I think he's getting used to my weird requests). He even set up a little drip irrigation emitter for the stick. Because even leafless sticks need water... right?

Well this little fig tree has bounced back with a vengeance! and I couldn't be happier. I wasn't sure if it'd leaf out in "fall," but apparently our weather has been mild enough that the tree didn't mind actively growing. Hopefully it really takes off and gives me my "unruined" kitchen window view -- and fresh figs! -- soon.

Who's the new little buddy who hasn't budged since yesterday?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A recipe for "healthy" cookies

Food fads come and go. From low-fat to low-sugar to low-carb, low-GI, gluten-free, raw, macro, ketosis...

I can't really be bothered to follow a prescribed diet. My personal stance has landed somewhere in the gray area between whole food, high-plant, healthy fat, and two-working-parents-two-kids-busy-family.

These cookies are based on "lactation cookie" recipes that you can find online, but there's nothing in them that induces lactation, herbally or otherwise. Rather, they just have certain ingredients that are natural but pack a powerful punch when it comes to certain vitamins and nutrients. (Did I mention I'm horrible at taking vitamins, too?) They're not low-fat or low-carb, but there is nothing artificial or highly processed in them -- so whether it's the Irish Boxer Husband grabbing one on his way out the door, the Monkey asking for one with breakfast, or me enjoying one with my morning coffee, I feel good about having a jar of them around.

High-Nutrition Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (makes 4 dozen)
1/2 cup butter (organic, unsalted if you can find it)
1/2 extra virgin coconut oil
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons warm water
4 tablespoons ground flaxseed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup brewer's yeast
2 tablespoons wheat germ
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole rolled oats
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix together the water and flaxseed; set aside.
Soften the butter and coconut oil, then cream together with the brown sugar. Add in eggs, one at a time, beating well; then add in vanilla.

Sift together the flour, yeast, wheat germ, baking powder and salt. Add the butter/coconut oil blend and the soaked flaxseed, and mix well. Then stir in the oats, chocolate chips and walnuts.

Drop by spoonfuls onto parchment paper and bake for 12-15 minutes at 350 degrees, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack... if you can wait that long :-)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

I have plans for you...

I planted Lincoln Garden Pea seeds on September 8th. They looked decent at first, but then really started to struggle. I realized they were being attacked by cabbage loopers... ugh. A quick Bt spray later, they are bouncing back.

After 4 days out of town, I came home to find my first blossoms!

I am determined that the first solid food to pass into our new Baby Bluebird's mouth will be home-grown, heirloom, non-GMO, organic peas. Cannot wait!

Lincoln Garden Pea
An old-time pea introduced in 1908. High-yielding and tasty, this pea does better than many in warmer weather. The tightly-filled pods are easy to shell, and compact vines are a good choice for small gardens.


I moved to Southern California a little over eleven years ago, and still remember that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I first arrived. I had grown up in North Carolina, and then spent several years in the SF Bay Area before shooting down the I-5 overnight to my new home. I felt like I had arrived on the set of a postapocalyptic movie as we drove past the dust-dry and barren hillsides of San Diego in July.

Since then, I've grown to appreciate the beauty of the desert. The eager burst of new growth after the first rain of autumn, the lushness of restful winter, the hopeful persistence of green into spring. But there is no denying that we live in a dry, dry climate, and it's up to us to be responsible in how water is used.

The Irish Boxer Husband likes to say that our home looked like a Costa Rican rainforest when we moved in. He might be exaggerating a bit -- he is known to do that -- but I do remember the freshly sodded lawn that was green even in September, the slopes completely overrun with groundcover, and trees like the alder in our backyard that seemed curiously happy, given that they're native to soggy riverbanks. Hmmm.

Bit by bit, we've been tearing out unfriendly groundcover and thirsty grass. We've still got two large areas of lawn, but expanded the patio with DG, put in a totally drought-tolerant bed out front, and have been running enough drip irrigation all over to wrap three times around the block if all the tubing was laid out end-to-end. 

We've been here just over a year now, and the most recent water bill showed me just how much of a difference we've been able to make in our own water consumption despite watering a lot of new fruit trees and planting beds. While I still envy those who live in a climate where they don't have to be quite so strategic with water usage, I'm proud of just how far we've come.

Monday, October 28, 2013

It's almost garlic time!

The past year has been a whirlwind of doing LOTS of things we've never done before. Like build a retaining wall. Or three. Or start an orchard. Or put together a worm bin.

So I figured, why not throw in one more... let's plant garlic. Lots of garlic! Several pounds of garlic, to be exact.

Apparently in Southern California, the right time is October-Novemberish. The idea is to get the cloves in the ground once it's cooled off a bit, giving them the fall and winter weather to slowly establish; then come springtime, they'll take off like gangbusters (I actually rewrote this sentence specifically so I could use the word "gangbusters") and hopefully be ready in June. Or so I read. Because I've never actually done this before.

Sampler pack from Peaceful Valley: check.
Read and re-read tips from Peaceful valley: check.
Stare longingly at garlic while waiting for the daytime temps to no longer hit 80: check.
Build raised bed for garlic: check.
Stare longingly at garlic some more: check.

At long last... next weekend might be the time. Should be an interesting adventure.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Taking pictures like a big girl

I'm usually too lazy to pull out the DSLR to take pictures for the blog, since my smartphone automatically backs up all my photos. But even my several-years-old camera blows the socks off a cell phone picture any day, so today I decided to take just a few. (Keep in mind, I'm still too lazy to retouch any of them.)

The dew was on the plants, the sky was overcast, and all in all the garden is really coming alive.

Heritage raspberries, growing quite happily on their trellis:
Calendula (pot marigold) brings a shot of sunny color to gray mornings:
 Heirloom Benning's Green Tint pattypan squash. Has decided it's a fall vegetable and not a summer one. :-)

Total experiment: Graffiti purple cauliflower. I have no idea if cauliflower will even grow here. But the purple was so cool:

And who is this guy, hanging out on the last of my basil?

Friday, October 18, 2013

A warm bowl of lentil kale soup

Ahhh, Southern California weather... it's now definitively fall, and yet the days can still hit 80. The nights are consistently cool though, and our house tends to hang onto that chill so it doesn't feel totally inappropriate to eat autumn food even if I'm still in a tank top.

The Irish Boxer Husband is on paternity leave and I work from home, so we're both in the house nowadays. Which means lunchtime has become a bit of a challenge. When it's just me, I just scrounge around in the fridge or just skip it altogether, but when it's both of us, two hungry people in the house = BAD idea. We do really well putting together complete breakfasts and nutritious dinners, but lunch always seems to get forgotten once the Monkey's lunchbox has been packed.

Today, I was determined not to let that happen! so made this soup. Literally had all the ingredients for it already, but feel free to take liberties and throw in a bit more of this or less of that, depending on what you've got. Didn't take too long and is so good, I might have to plant more kale...

Lentil kale AKA clean-out-the-cupboard soup
1 smoked ham hock (was buried in the back of the freezer for AGES)
1 pound of red lentils
1 onion
1 pound of carrots
6 stalks of celery
3 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of kale
1 cup of rice, cooked (totally optional. But again. I had it. Throw it in!)
2 bay leaves
Handful of Italian parsley
Salt & pepper

Boil the ham hock in 12 cups of water for about an hour, or until it's almost falling apart and the water has become milky in color.

Stir in the lentils and bay leaves and simmer gently until almost to your desired tenderness (I like mine practically mush, so gave it nearly an hour).

Chop up the onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Add to the pot and simmer for another 15 minutes or so.

Pull out the ham hock and let it cool.

Lastly, roughly chop the kale and add it to the pot. If using some leftover rice, throw that in there too. And the thyme. And whatever else you've got laying around. Beans? Potatoes? Corn? Hard to go wrong, really.

And by now your ham hock should be cool enough to handle, so shred any meat on there and throw that back into the pot too. I didn't throw the big chunks of fat back in. I guess you could. I won't tell...

Salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle chopped parsley on top, and feel that soup warm you up from the inside out.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Growing the family

Ever since moving in last fall, we've been slowly but surely chipping away at the previous landscaping -- which basically consisted of 'cheap plants that are green as long as you constantly douse them with sinful amounts of water' -- to make it more drought-friendly, but also more productive. I don't feel quite as bad watering a tree that gives us fruit than I do when watering a tree that doesn't do much of anything and isn't even all that attractive.

We've been on a bit of a spending spree for the past month or so, now that the weather is a little cooler and planting a new tree isn't an automatic death sentence. Meet the latest members of our family:

Our new Haas avocado to keep our Bacon company:

A sweet little bay laurel that traveled all the way down from the Bay Area in my brother's car (why they don't sell them down here I do not know) and hopefully will grow into a more substantial plant that gives us plenty of bay leaves:

A little Mexican lime tree awaiting its final home, the third of four citrus trees we're looking to line our walkway with:

Heritage raspberry brambles to take up residence in the new fancy schmancy trellis that the Irish Boxer Husband built:
The raspberry came from the sweetest old man at the farmer's market who sets out huge plants for only $20. Considering the number of canes shooting up from the pot and the tons of developing fruit still on the vine, the patience-challenged person in me says we got a deal!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

There is autumn in the air...

Today was the first damp morning of the season, and it was almost disorienting to wake up to the patio (and patio furniture, eek) being wet. Forecast says there may be a bit more rain coming today. Summer may finally be over! And Halloween, the Monkey's favorite holiday, is just around the corner. You know it's happening when pumpkins start popping up around the house because we can't go anywhere without her picking out just a few to bring home. "But look, they're SO cute, can't we have one? Or two?" You'd think she was talking about puppies. But no. Pumpkins. Which might explain why, after the season, I have such a hard time cutting these guys up for pie. Because in my head, they are almost like puppies.

Yes, silly, I know.

The peas-and-lettuce Earthbox is coming along, and we've eaten salad from it a few times already. I've learned that, when growing lettuce, it's not about getting individual seedlings started and lovingly placed. It's about quantity over quality. Plant many, often... then harvest ruthlessly.

Baby kumquats!
Unfortunately no baby fruit on the Meyer Lemon despite a profusion of blooms and lots of bee activity, but maybe it will just take a bit more time...

The first batch of potatoes is looking a bit silly despite having been hilled up nearly a foot already. Oh well.
There are two big SmartPots of potatoes right behind it, and then 10 more pounds of seed potatoes coming in a month. The Irish Boxer Husband likes potatoes, what can I say.

And in the terraces, the rainbow chard (which is oddly un-rainbowy), lettuce-and-cosmos-volunteers, and pattypan-that-has-decided-it-likes-fall-better-than-summer are doing well.

Next up: raised bed kit is in the mail, destined to hold garlic and onions. We need to go pick up a persimmon tree. In the empty terrace, kohlrabi, beets and maybe some more kale. Because you can never have too much kale. And leeks. LOTS of leeks.

Because it's fall!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fall feels like spring around here

After moving to San Diego, I had to learn rather quickly that my perception of the height of summer being when the garden was busiest was very, very wrong.

In my head, I thought... the weather's warm, sun is out, bees are buzzing, plants are happy...

It only took a few years of searing, dessicating, I'm-afraid-to-step-outside heat and the kind of sunshine that made my skin feel like it was charring by the minute to make me realize that plants felt no different. With the exception of a few that defied the intense Southern California summer, most living things seemed to wilt and give up after a few days of 100+ temperatures.

The winters, though -- when many parts of the country are tucking their gardens to sleep and crops do things like "hibernate" or "winter over" that make absolutely no sense in our neck of the woods -- are mild, and moist, and even occasionally rainy. So while tomatoes won't exactly be pumping out ripe, red fruit in weather like that, you can get by growing a lot of things right through those winter months.

Which means right around now is basically like our springtime!

All the summertime vegetables have been pulled out of the beds now, and new compost put down in preparation for our cool season crops. The Earthbox that used to house cucumbers now has baby peas poking their heads up:

Swiss chard seedlings are growing well and just need to hang on for one more weekend before the weather should be cool enough for them to be transplanted out:

Lettuce seedlings are also hanging out, waiting. Not sure what I was thinking planting these, as there is no way we will ever eat this much salad... and in the corner, those are beet seedlings that I just may have jumped the gun on. Oops.

The experiment in growing leeks from seed is going okay... I may just end up tucking these in among other plants vs. dedicating space to them. I'm reading that planting alliums (onions, leeks, garlic) among other plants, especially brassicas, may even help deter some pests. All for that!

The next few weeks will be a flurry of planting and transplanting. Garlic, onions, potatoes, kohlrabi, beets, greens, herbs... all will hopefully thrive as the weather finally cools down over the next few months.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hanging on to the last of the basil

Every summer I set out to grow a ton of basil. Coming-out-of-your-ears basil. Can't-keep-up basil. Why-on-earth-did-I-plant-so-much basil.

Some years, it does well. The best year was when I had 6 plants set in a homemade Earthbox on a very sunny patio. Between the constant moisture, abundant sunshine and just-right planetary alignment, that year had us in pesto for 24 months, give or take.

The next year, life factors intervened and the baking sun of a new home on a hilltop dessicated my plants before they ever had the chance to take off.

This year, good intentions but then being 9.999 months pregnant during the world's longest heatwave meant my basil plants were gloriously ready to be sheared back in June... but never got sheared back... and so my hopes for massive bushes of basil fizzled like my skin in the Escondido sun.

But I got some. SOME. And I won't tell you about how I kept cheating by planting more even though it was way too hot and I couldn't get myself out there to water them enough. But still, my love of basil persisted and I was determined to try and preserve it into the fall, winter... and maybe even spring?... until I could plant more basil, yet again.

So I hopped on the Internet and found a few articles about how basil can be preserved in the refrigerator almost indefinitely if stacked with salt and olive oil. And not only do you get perfectly preserved basil leaves that can be singly dropped into dishes all winter long, but you get beautifully basil-scented oil, too.

This isn't much of a recipe, and I certainly didn't come up with it, but the crux of it is simple.

Wash and dry your precious, precious basil. Gently. GENTLY. And it'll take more than you think to fill even a very small jar.

Then you just layer it in your jar with salt in between layers.

Top off with olive oil (it's going to take quite a lot) making sure to fill all the air bubbles, then tuck away in the fridge.

I have yet to see how well this turns out, but am hopeful we'll have basil flavor to take us through the (relatively) dreary days of winter.