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...