Top 5 Fabulous Things of the Month

Time for a fabulosity update!

1. I got to see my grandmother at a family wedding in Temple. I’ve really missed her, and it was so nice to be with her for a few hours.

2. My family and I went to Galveston for our family vacation. It was a lovely part of the shoreline, and the condo was lovely. My favorite part, though, was the pool. You can SEE the beautiful beach but not be bothered with the sand and salt water. Win-win.

3. I grew potatoes! I gave up on my backyard garden for the most part because when it got over 100 degrees every day, nothing would grow. I’m watering enough to keep the plants alive so that they may start producing in the Fall, but I’m not out there much these days. I did go out long enough to tear down the chicken-wire barrel around the dead potato plants, though, and I dug around to see if I had anything. And voila, tiny little potatoes! I don’t think they were really worth the water and effort, but at least I know I did it right this year, for the most part. I’m going to fry them up in some real butter and some salt and pepper, and enjoy the only fruits of my Summer labor. I’ve still got some carrots growing, but my six workhorse Swiss chard plants are pretty much done – although goodNESS they were prolific. The jalapenos never fruited, nor did the TEN zucchini plants. Annoying. But I will enjoy my potatoes and wait for Fall.

4. I threw an awesome party for Beth and Deanna! It was a combination of engagement/Deanna’s birthday/wedding shower/bachelorette. My brother offered me his extra grill, and although it was nice of him, it was totally rusted out inside, and it fell apart trying to get it out of my car. The old propane grill wouldn’t come off of the hose, and my dad diagnosed it as unusable. He cut the hose, took the tank to dispose of it, and it will be my offering to the landfill on bulk trash day. So without a grill, I had to make due with my two George Foremans and my two grill pans. One is fancy and non-stick with a handle, and it worked really well, but I also got to take my estate-sale find for a spin! A while back, I got a cast-iron grill pan that fits over two burners, and this was the perfect time to give it a try. My mother came to the rescue and helped me grill enough chicken, hamburgers, and veggies to feed 20 people in my kitchen – she was such a party-saver! I got to meet some women who knew Beth’s mom, a bunch of Irving teachers, which was neat. And there was even a former student of my mother’s, who is married to a GP teacher who taught my sister. I also got to know Deanna’s attendants, Stacy and Susan better, which was nice – they’re so sweet!

5. Restaurant Week! I’ve wanted to participate many time but just never did, as it’s $35/person anywhere you go. I won the food lottery this year – I got to go twice for free! Mom and I went to Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen, which specializes in local, seasonal, and organic food. I had a wedge salad with a very powerful green goddess dressing, Paula Lambert cottage cheese, and bacon, which I picked off. This dressing made my breath bad for two full days, but man, was it good! I had the Dr. Pepper BBQ chicken – it didn’t taste like BBQ, but it was yummy. I’ve never liked cottage cheese, but this stuff was so fresh and awesome – it made a fan out of me. I also tried the fried oyster that came with my mom’s salad – oh my goodness, it was good. I’ve never tried any kind of oyster – I’m kind of theoretically opposed to them. But I went to try one tiny bite just to get the idea, and I ate the whole thing. Just more proof that if you think you don’t like something, you probably would were it made correctly and with fresh, wholesome ingredients.

My second Restaurant Week outing was to Central 214, culinary home of Chef Blythe Beck. I’ve been wanting to eat here since seeing her reality show The Naughty Kitchen (so named because she uses cheese, butter, and big hunks of meat with abandon) on Oxygen. Barry and I went with his mother and brother. The starter was a mushroom and spinach empanada with a chimichurri sauce and pico – excellent! The brisket was really fatty, but the meat I got off of it was really nice. It was served with what looked like gravy in a small bowl but turned out to be a sweet dipping sauce. Strange, but it worked. Desert was banana bread pudding, which was awesome, but far too large of a portion to eat all of, even for a big eater like me. The cake pictured below was Barry’s – chocolate peanut butter – he won the dessert course for sure. The best part of the whole meal for me, though, was the bread that came before the food. It was served with English butter, which was really, really good, and cayenne pimiento cheese!! I ate all of the cheese and far too much of the butter. But, you know, most of my meat was left on my plate encased in fat, so it all worked out. We got RW gifts of naughty cookies to take home, and they were yummy. I can’t wait to go back and try the chicken fried kobe!

I hope you’re having a fabulous month of your own!

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Garden, March: Planting Asparagus and Potatoes

I’m 100% certain that the asparagus crowns (year-old root systems that look like a mop) I just planted were not done so correctly. But they were also sprouting inside the plastic bag, so they needed to get into the ground ASAP. You’re supposed to dig a full-on trench so that the soil that’s put back in is loosened and amended with compost and fertilizer and the shoots have soft ground to move through, but I just don’t have the energy for that at this particular moment, so I just loosened the soil a bit and then dug holes for each crown.

I don’t know if these will take. Asparagus apparently doesn’t like competitors, and there’s a small tree fairly nearby whose roots are running all through the soil. I pulled up as many as I could, but they may get strangled or crowded or whatever happens under there to make a plant fail. I chose the spot anyway because it’s off to the side and gets a lot of sun. We’ll see!

The broccoli plants are growing, and the tiny heads are starting to form and get a little bigger every day.

The spinach sprouts are getting bigger…

The radish sprouts are turning pink at the bottom…

And the carrots finally sprouted! The second photo is the accidental carrot explosion!

I’m trying potatoes in a barrel again this year. The problem last year was that there wasn’t enough real dirt mixed in with the bagged soil, compost, and fertilizer. The only place the potatoes grew was down at the very bottom, where the added soil mixture met the ground. So, here, I used mostly real dirt with some earthworm castings mixed in. I’ll add more compost and fertilizer along with more bagged and existing soil as the plants grow, slowly building up the height of the barrel, about 3 inches at a time. Hopefully that will leave me with potatoes all along the way up. No sprouts yet.

By the way, if you buy a roll of chicken wire, unroll it with someone else’s help. I attempted it alone, and it scratched the heck out of me. I felt like I’d been attacked by a pack of cats. So…potatoes and asparagus. Stay tuned.

Spring Garden Miscellany

A few interesting things occurring in my garden…

1. We’ve had some over-70-degree days this week, which means my red-leaf lettuce is bolting! That means the growing stalks up the middle are going to shoot up some flowers and therefore seeds. In this picture the red-leaf are the two reddish ones to the right of the onions – you can see on the top one that it’s getting taller. I’m going to try my hand at harvesting and saving some of those seeds to plant next time. I’ve never done this before, but people have been doing it since the beginning of agriculture – so I think I can figure it out. Hopefully.

2. I have spinach sprouts! The radish sprouts came up last week, but the spinach just broke the surface in the last couple of days. I feel so much better. The suspense was killing me! The carrots still haven’t appeared. Wondering if the seeds were too old or something.

3. The more Swiss chard I pick, the more new growth suddenly appears. I was trying to conserve because the plants weren’t producing much, but I decided I should just go for it before it gets too much warmer, and lo and behold, they are looking better, bigger, and brighter every day. So interesting! The same has been happening with my other lettuces – arugula (far bottom left) and the mesclun mix (bottom middle and second photo). They are the very definition of sustainability, and I’m so thankful to be able to walk out my back door, grab a handful, wash it off, and have a salad or drop some chard into a sautee pan or a pot of soup. I have long since blown past the $2 each plant cost me in savings at the grocery store.

Janie’s Garden 2010

So, as of about a week ago, I’ve officially been a gardener now for a year! The 2009 community garden experiment went better than I ever could have expected, and I learned so much. This year, I have a house with a back yard, and I built my own raised bed out there. I’m hoping that with it right outside my door, I’ll be able to tend it more consistently than I did last year. I won’t have the help of fellow garden-mates, but I think the proximity trade-off will be a beneficial one. That, and I get to enjoy all of the food myself instead of splitting it into four portions. So here we go!

I measured my space, went to Home Depot and had them cut wood for me, and I nailed them together using the fence as a fourth wall. Never bought nails before. Felt like a grownup! This weekend, I added more existing soil from my driveway, organic garden soil, compost, and Redenta‘s bed starter. Mixing them all together took arm strength, and it reminded me of mixing our own concrete for the foundations when we were building houses through Amor in Juarez.

The planting took no time at all, compared to all the soil business. I planted some leftover red onions from Old Roommate, and I planted broccoli, Italian flat-leaf parsley, English thyme, three rows each of two kinds of radishes (Cherry Belle and French Breakfast), spinach, and carrots. I had an accidental carrot-seed explosion over by the carrot rows, so I just patted them in and will hope for some extra, accidental carrots. I bought asparagus crowns, but digging an asparagus bed is heavy duty work, more than I had time for yesterday, so that will go in some time this week after the rain stops. I’m not digging up that much soil when it’s wet and heavy. I know I most likely will not live in this house in three years, which is how long it takes to get asparagus out of the planted roots, but I’m not getting to enjoy the harvest of the one I dug into the community garden, either, so that’s okay. I think leaving an asparagus legacy in my wake is a good thing, whether or not I get to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

I’ve still got my winter garden over to the right side of this bed, and the red-leaf lettuce has slowed down, but the onions, arugula, cilantro, and especially the 6 Swiss chard plants are still going strong! There’s garlic growing in the pre-existing landscape bed near the driveway fence, and at last count, I’ve got 41 bulbs working. I may actually get to make a garlic braid like you see in stores! I’m so excited to start over this year with my own little garden. Having any clue what I’m doing is a major victory, even if there are some bumps along the way. And so it begins…

Iron Chef America at the White House

I hesitate to get into politics here, but I will just say that THIS is exactly why I voted for Obama. I am endlessly impressed with the White House vegetable garden’s existence to begin with; I think it sends all kinds of great messages. But THEN they shot an episode of Iron Chef America where the secret ingredient was anything from the WH garden, and the first lady made an appearance. ON THE FOOD NETWORK. Bobby, Emeril, and Mario got to traipse around in the garden, gather vegetables, and then go cook with them for the competition (yes, I know the actual vegetables weren’t used for taping in NY, but that’s not the point). In the kitchen, they paired the vegetables with proteins grown/raised within 100 miles of Kitchen Stadium.

[Photos are from foodnetwork.com]

This episode had me glued to the TV. But I think I’m mostly impressed that there is a place on the U.S. government’s website to communicate with citizens why it’s important to create and support local food systems. (I am not giving you a free pass, USDA – you have big issues – but this is a step in the right direction.) Bush did some great things – I’m not saying he didn’t – but this is an important issue for me, and it’s one that his administration didn’t care about, and I love that the Obama administration followed through on their campaign promises to support it. Say what you will about their position on health care reform or the expense of supporting environmentally-friendly policies; if more people grew food in their own communities, understood the ramifications of what they were eating on any given day, and took control – even a little – over their own food supply, there would be cleaner air (no need to overnight those bell peppers from Holland before they spoil) and healthier people to begin with, hence less need for expensive health care and environmental legislation. Call me naive if you like – but small choices like these add up in a big way, and I’m so very glad our President is paying attention.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2009/12/16/planting-winter-garden

Food, Inc.

I saw a movie last month that I forgot to write about, but it’s important, so I’m doing it now.  Food, Inc. is a documentary about the progression of the industrialization of food in this country since the end of WWII. If you’re already surfing the Fast Food NationOmnivore’s Dilemma – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle wave, nothing in this movie is really new information (other than an enlightening and moving segment on a small child who died from eating an E-Coli-tainted burger patty and his mother’s fight for more strict recall measures).

If you’ve read neither of those books or missed the movie version of Fast Food Nation, go check it out. The website has info on where it’s showing in theaters. Here’s a quick summary from the site:

“In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, herbicide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won’t go bad, but we also have new strains of E. coli—the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults.

Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) along with forward thinking social entrepreneurs like Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farms’ Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising—and often shocking truths—about what we eat, how it’s produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.”

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Community Garden: June

We’ve been busy watering and harvesting in the community garden! The ridiculous summer heat has settled in, so we’re trying to keep everything well-hydrated (and myself from fainting!). Mulch has helped keep moisture in the soil so we don’t have to water as much.

Rob recently planted two watermelon plants, which are taking over our new little patch of land given to us after someone dropped out of the garden. Here is Jon taking pictures of our adorable orange, bulby carrots next to the watermelon. We also started harvesting purple carrots, which are actually orange inside.

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Here’s a photo of the watermelon now – it’s taking over! Hopefully that means we’ll have lot of watermelon, although I don’t know how many a single plant is supposed to produce.

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We’ve got tiny edamame pods and hot peppers growing (not sure what kind, serrano, maybe).

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Some of the wildflowers Jen planted in these cinder blocks at the end didn’t take off, so Jon planted some beans (I think these are pinto). They’re getting pretty tall, so we stuck some bamboo shoots in to help them stand up. They would probably do better in the ground or a pot with more room to expand their roots, but we’re doing the best we can with the space we have. Just an experiment (as is all of this!).

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We’re very excited about our first cucumbers! Richie in the plot next to us has a big area full of cucumbers – slender, crescent-shaped ones with big wrinkles! Ours are more traditional-looking but, hopefully, tasty.

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Our crowning achievement, however, has been the zucchini. It rained a LOT this week (about 5 inches in 24 hours), so we got a couple of monsters. If this was in our back yard, I think it would be easier to keep under control, but between the 4 of us, our care for the garden can be a bit haphazard. We show up and things often are a little out of control, like these!

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We found out that certain flowers can help keep insects away, so this weekend we planted three marigolds around the plot. Petunias, Southernwood, and flowering radishes (just let them grow until the flower “bolts” up from the middle and leave it there) are also supposed to help. Those ratty plants to the left there are the spent broccoli we just dug up. Onions are also supposed to keep pests away, and we planted them all over the garden when we first took over the plot in February. Some are still tiny, but some are getting pretty big! We’re just taking one here and there to cook with.

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The asparagus bed is trucking along, hopefully building up a strong root system underground. I got a new shoot this week. The ferns look kind of dill-like.

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I’m really happy to see – and eat – some fruits of our labor. It’s getting to the part of the year where I try to hide from the sun as much as possible, because it’s just too hot to live, so it’s nice that most of the actual work is already done. All the growing has already been set in motion, and now we can just monitor, maintain, and enjoy the summer’s bounty! Several of my friends have started gardens this year, too, and it’s so cool to see pictures of how other people are doing it and what they’re harvesting. I know we’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, lost some plants, and are not making the most of our limited space, but we’re trying our best. Luckily, nature can be kind sometimes. It still amazes me that we can drop these tiny little seeds into the dirt – dirt! – and something nourishing grows out of it; life honors our attention to it with produce to sustain us.

I go to this great little emergent community church, and I loved this reflection on the ancient practice of walking a labriynth printed in the bulletin on Sunday. Between the thunderstorms pouring down rain on our ground and into our water containers and my continual amazement over the growth I’m helping take part in here in the garden, it really struck a chord in me.

“How does one walk into a Mystery?

Reverently…

Let us go with a sense of awe,

a feeling of approaching the powerful holy

whose lightning slashes the sky,

whose persistence splits concrete with green sprouts,

whose miracles are present in every place and moment.

Hopefully…

And with the knowledge that God meets us in the center.”

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