Sunday, May 29, 2011

Surf and Turf

Not in the way we usually think of surf and turf when we dine out in a nice restaurant, I’m thinking of a select piece of fish on the grill accompanied by a small column of shrimp on a skewer, paired with the lovely bounty of my salad garden.
 Baby lettuces and spinach
 Radishes and Turnip Greens
Onions, Scallions and Garlic
The afternoons have been sunny and nearing a comfortable warmth.  The rains have politely stayed away until night and into the mornings so it feels, finally, like spring.  The grill is reasonably clean (as clean as it will ever get) and whatever char is still on the grates will probably stubbornly be there forever.  But the heat of the fire will burn off anything that is problematic, so it’s good to go.  I don’t like grilling in the winter because it’s cold and wet and absolutely distasteful to my way of thinking.  I’m not a macho griller but spring, summer and fall give me opportunity to enjoy the best of the grilling experience.

Joe and I have a compatible division of labor:  I plant and he loves to weed.  He’s timid about weeding aggressively for fear he will tear up some precious thing I planted and want to treasure always.  So, he stays to the perimeter of the beds and I attack the big things with a vengeance.  He cleans up after my destructive war on weeds and I can move on to my singular passion of anything and everything to do with the kitchen.  He cleans up after me there as well, which I appreciate immensely—especially if we have company.
 Shrimp and Albacore in Marinade
This evening would be dinner just for the two of us.  I could have dragged out some of the leftover stash in the freezer, but I wanted to do something a little different, and on the grill that I had prepared for a good season of grilling splendor.  I had two steaks of wild-caught Albacore tuna that I had gotten on sale and some frozen shrimp (farmed far away—before my environmental sensibilities had fully kicked in).  One steak would be enough for both of us if I added a skewer of shrimp for each of us.  I could freeze the other for another time.  No asparagus spears were ready to harvest but I found a young onion tucked in with the lettuces and there were some partial peppers that really needed to be used. A little bit of Papardelle from Trader Joe’s would complete the dish.  That plus a bounteous salad from the salad garden and we would have our own “Surf and Turf”.
I made up a marinade that is worth repeating every time we have fish—or a mild meat—like a chicken breast or a pork chop.
Marinade for Fish
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon sweet red chili sauce (in Asian section of grocery store)
2 chopped green onions
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 albacore tuna steak
8-10 large shrimp (31-40 per pound)
Combine all ingredients in bowl or plastic Zip-Lock bag.  Mix well and put in fridge for about an hour.
 On the grill
 Ready to serve
Heat grill to high.  Skewer shrimp on two sticks.  Put steaks, shrimp and vegetables on grill.  Brush vegetables with light balsamic vinaigrette (in beaker of Kitchen Essentials).  Brush fish and shrimp with marinade.  Turn all in five minutes and brush again.  Move shrimp to cooler part of grill and finish cooking fish and vegetables about five minutes more until done.  Serve immediately with papardelle that has been tossed into fresh greens (in this case, baby turnips).  
That and a salad from the garden?  What could be better?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Simply Breakfast

Always the same, always satisfying

The upside of all our budgetary belt tightening is that it has literally meant belt tightening.  Joe was on the verge of becoming diabetic.  He was seriously overweight and his doctor told him firmly that if he didn’t change something he would have diabetes, and all the other serious ailments associated with overweight.
Having an active young border collie for a pet was a good beginning to a new regimen because it has meant that both of us have also had to be more active.  When Trace was given to us, we were told that he needed to run five miles a day.  And I believe that if he could, he would run twice that distance—every day.  We are fortunate to have a wonderfully extensive park nearby with a very large off-leash area that leads to a beach on Lake Washington that is dedicated to dogs.
This means that we have an interesting walk as we enjoy the variety and the antics of all the dogs and their owners or handlers.  And of course, Trace gets his necessary workout as he chases the ball endlessly and finally gets a long swim in the lake.  He stays clean and he stays fit.  Most of all, he’s happy and so are we.  And we get the exercise we need.
But in addition to exercise, our whole lifestyle has had to change with this word of caution from the doctor.  There was a time, not so long ago, when Joe felt he couldn’t get to sleep unless he had a bowl of cereal before he went to bed.  He made covert trips to Baskin-Robbins, or surreptitiously had a biscotti or a sweet roll with his coffee when he went for a break with his friend.   Like every dieter, he couldn’t tell me of his lapses because to do so would be admitting to a lack of will power.  As for me, I was also concerned about what these treats were doing to our budget.
The first to go were the boxes of cereal.  At one time, my pantry looked like Jerry Seinfeld’s cupboard, with myriad boxes lined up for an extensive choice of nighttime comfort food.  As for the treats, they could no longer be part of our budget.  When we have to count the cost of everything, a treat becomes a special luxury not often indulged.  These days, our needs and desires are as simple as our means.
With simplicity comes heightened appreciation.  We choose carefully and thoughtfully, realizing that every action has its price.  I think about the trips I make during the week, checking the mileage, and try to combine errands when I can.  We’re more careful about turning lights on or off, or letting the water run unnecessarily.  This new consciousness has as much to do with minimizing our carbon footprint as it has to do with saving money.  I recycle plastic bags because I feel awful about throwing them away as I visualize the landfill.  I reuse and recycle because that’s the way I was brought up.
Kim, my daughter, lives this way because that is the way she was brought up as well.  She learned to knit and sew because it was fun, but she also recognizes the value in such skills.  As an artist, she expresses herself in mixed media—which she describes as coming from found objects.  She mends, rather than throwing away.  She makes from scratch because it is not only cheaper, but she knows all the ingredients.  These skills are learned partly from necessity, but also for the value of living more simply, more responsibly. 
With our interconnectedness and the tools of knowledge at our fingertips, what we don’t know we can find out.  If we need help, a Google search will yield an answer.  I used to have a little handbook of the Birds of North America.  It was a handy little book, but I never had it where I needed it.  As I looked out my window the other day, I spotted a little bird I had never seen before, trotting along the top of the fence.  I was at my computer so I Googled Birds of Washington and click, there they all were, including the Spotted Towhee, the little bird on our fence.
If I want to buy local meat, I can find it from a Google search.  If I want to avoid the big Agribusiness operations in making buying choices, I can also see the brand names I want to avoid.  Buying organic produce is still more costly, but I can have an organic garden that only costs the price of seed, a few tomato starts and organic compost.  The bounty from this garden will mean that I don’t buy any produce at all until near Thanksgiving—if then if our hoop house does its job of extending the growing season.
The meal both of us look forward to more than any other is also the same every morning.  I no longer even remember what we had for breakfast before this ritualized standard we now have every day.
In winter, we have the sunshine of a Texas ruby red grapefruit—a lapse, I know, from carbon footprint consciousness.  But, oh my!  It is so very good!  I love eggs in any form, though scrambled eggs are not my favorite.  So I end up making two breakfasts, but the whole process only takes ten minutes.  Joe has one scrambled egg and two breakfast turkey sausages, with a piece of toast from one of the baguettes I made, with a little light margarine and a small spoonful of the marmalade.
And this is where we part ways.  My father always had the same lunch, which he always ate alone.  I think he must have needed this time for reflection and as a pause to break the day in two.  Over time, I have adapted his ritual lunch to have it become my way of starting the day. 
In a small sauté pan, I drizzle a scant teaspoon of olive oil.  With the heat on medium, I add a chopped slice of onion and half of a chopped tomato. 

 I sprinkle this with a dash of herbs de Provence,

crack an egg in the center, turn the heat to low simmer, sprinkle on a few shakes of sea salt and cracked pepper and a few drops of Tabasco sauce.  I cover the pan and take it off the burner in two minutes.  Meantime, Joe’s links are browning, and the toast is happening. 

In the last thirty seconds, his scrambled egg gets cooked and we have our breakfast.  

That and a steaming cup of coffee begin my day on a high note.  

I can sop up the runny egg and tomato with my toast and I feel as if I might be in Paris.  And Joe says, “Yum. That was so good.  My favorite meal of the day.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Finally, the Hoop House

The Hoop House

It wasn’t quite as easy as we thought it would be, after all.  But finally, such as it is, we have a hoop house for the young tomatoes that are still shivering in the Seattle cold and wet.  At its center, it stands about seven feet high.  It is about nine feet by ten feet, a cozy home for six tomato plants and two rhubarbs that somehow were there anyway.  I envision being able to tie the vines to the spines of the house as the plants grow.  Inside the shelter, the air seems several degrees warmer.  So it’s all good.
Joe was involved in preparations for his upcoming meeting this week, so I thought I could do most of this by myself and just get his help when I really needed it.  I bought the ¾” PVC pipe in ten foot lengths, as the instructions said to do.  Since this house was going to be about half the size of the one described, I only needed eight lengths of pipe.  I got two three way connectors and two four way connectors.  I got eight pieces of rebar in foot long lengths and I was ready to begin. 
I measured the plot and planted the rebar in two rows at 36”.  Then it got kind of tricky.  I stuck each of the ten foot lengths of PVC over the rebar and watched them wave in the wind.  What now?  I called Joe to help me make the connections.  He would have to bend the bars and connect them to the connectors.  He bent the first two and connected them.  Snap!  They flew apart like a rifle shot.  This wasn’t going to work.  We took everything down and I went back to the hardware store to get PVC glue for the connectors.

Now we had twenty-foot lengths of pipe stretched out on the grass—and it was starting to rain—again.  We dragged them into the house so that the solvent would cure and left them stretched out overnight.  Good thing Joe’s office is longer than twenty feet.
The following morning, we tried again.  It was still cold, but at least it wasn’t raining.  This time, Joe was able to get the hoops up.  The two ends looked a little precarious so he lashed them with wire.  He inserted the spine pieces down the center of the house.  Now we were ready to lay the Visqueen over the hoops.  I cut twelve feet off the roll and we carefully draped it over the hoops.  To keep the Visqueen from flying off in the next breeze, I secured it to the poles by weaving pieces of wire through the plastic and tying them to the poles.  Beautiful!  Now I just hope it holds up through the summer and into late fall so that we can have a long season of tomatoes in our unseasonably cool Seattle summer.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guests for the Evening

A Couple of Dips & Tortilla Chips

It was going to be a small gathering of only six or eight of us tops.  This time wouldn’t be potluck so I had to plan carefully to stay on budget.  I didn’t want to serve from my stash in the freezer, though I could have pulled out the spaghetti sauce; but there really wasn’t enough for this group.  And I wanted to do something a little more special.  But I really couldn’t spend more than $10.  What could I do?
The flyer from QFC advertised pork loin, minimally processed, no hormones or antibiotics for $1.99 a pound—a bargain!  I found one for a under $7.50 and got a small tin of anchovies for under $2. 
“Wow, that’s some deal!” the girl at the checkout counter was eyeing my pork loin as if she had been unaware that such a bargain was possible.  “How are you going to fix it?  On the grill?’
“I was going to marinate it first.”
“My mom has a great rub she uses that’s really simple.”  Now she was warming up to this feast she was imagining.  “She uses dry mustard and garlic salt and pepper and rubs it down good.  Yum!  I love meat, don’t you?”
She was a picture of wholesome farming health—rosy cheeks, plump good looks and a wide smile of joy at simply being alive.  On this sunny spring day in Seattle, I could as easily have pictured her somewhere in the heartland.  The rub she described sounded good, but I had other plans.
I made a mental checklist as I drove home.  I had some cream cheese, a partial package, a little sour cream, half of a large container of Greek yogurt that Rona had left behind the last time.  I still had more than a pound of asparagus.  There was still part of the brownie cake left from Cara’s birthday dinner and I had almost a pound of strawberries.  I had some green onions.  There was a little salsa left over that should probably be used up.  I had some flour tortillas that I could toast for the salsa.  I would make bread and would slice some into crostinis.  The rest would come from my burgeoning garden.  The chives were beautiful and the baby lettuces and spinach and kale and radish leaves would make a bounteous salad.  I had my menu:
Marinated Grilled Pork Loin, Spaghetti with Anchovy Carbonara, Grilled Asparagus, Mixed Baby Lettuces in Light Balsamic Vinaigrette
Greek Yogurt and Strawberries with Fudge Brownie Cake
I started with the bread.  It would rise in the bread machine while we went to the park with Trace.  It was too beautiful a day to spend indoors.  And this whole thing wouldn’t take long to put together anyway.  Joe and I could probably even get some gardening in—at least a little weeding.
When we got back from the park, I opened the lid of the bread machine and was dismayed and puzzled.  What happened to my usually beautiful loaf that would always rise to the very top of the machine?  Instead, the lump that was settled only halfway up looked dense, heavy—and all wrong.  I groaned audibly and Joe came in to see what had happened.
“The dough didn’t rise,” I said somewhat peevishly since it seemed so obvious to me.
“What do you think went wrong?”  He was trying to be helpful.  “Maybe you forgot to put in the yeast?”
“Of course I put in the yeast.”  Now I was truly annoyed.  “How could I forget that?  I do this by rote—it’s automatic!”
“Sometimes we can be distracted.  I know that happens to me a lot.  And how about the time you forgot to put in the water?”
“I was distracted that time.  We were talking about something and I forgot.”
“Well, that’s what I mean.  Maybe you thought you put in the yeast…”
 “Maybe it was the flour—sometimes it can be old and not as good.  Never mind.  I’ll make it work,” I huffed defensively.  I started shaping the loaves, feeling the denseness of the batch.
It was past three and everybody would be here by six.  I needed to prepare a few things ahead of time so that I could be free to enjoy the evening.  With the strange dense bread in the oven, I made the marinade for the pork and set that in the refrigerator, covered.  Then I prepared the tortilla chips and crostini to put in the oven after the bread came out.  Next came the dips to mix so the flavors could blend and intensify in the fridge.  It would have been nice if I’d had enough of the chips, crostini and dips on hand already, but my ready supply was low.  Besides, fresh is best, isn’t it?
All this took about thirty minutes to prepare, assemble and put aside.  I already had a big tub of freshly picked greens for the salad, washed and ready to go, and the vinaigrette was in my trusty beaker of essentials on the kitchen counter.  The spaghetti with anchovy carbonara would be a last minute thing that I could toss together while the meat was cooking on the grill.  Sounds reasonable, except that this is where it can get tense.  With a lot of last minute things to do, would it all come together the way I hoped it would?
At 5:30, I set the table and began putting the appetizers together in small bowls on a tray we could take outside to the patio once everyone arrived.  The herb/cream cheese dip went in one little bowl, and the salsa in another.  The sun-dried tomato/garlic blend went in a third small bowl.  Assorted olives left from my Mother’s Day lunch with Kim were in the final bowl.  The crostini and tortilla chips were the accompaniment in two baskets.  I poured a glass of wine for Joe and one for me.  We were ready for our guests.
Some of the comments and observations of that evening were interesting.  For instance, no one seemed to notice the density of the bread.  It was crusty, which seemed to be the important factor.  Everyone loved the appetizers and enjoyed mixing them up.  The only dip that was left over at the end of the evening was the salsa.  I guess salsa can be pretty ordinary.  I thought the asparagus got too seared on the grill, but everyone loved the char—especially on the pork.  I enjoyed the spaghetti, which seemed to be a nice balance with everything else.  The brownie dessert with yogurt and strawberries was a hit as well, though maybe by that time we had all had enough of the fine wine brought by the guests that it didn’t matter anyway.
Marinated Grilled Pork Loin
3 ¾ pound pork loin
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese 5 Spice
3 green onions, chopped
Put all in a large plastic bag and knead ingredients together into the pork.  Refrigerate for two to three hours.
Preheat outdoor grill to high.  Turn center burner to medium and place pork on center of grill.  Brush with marinade and turn meat over.  Brush on remaining marinade.  Grill, turning once more until interior temperature reaches 160˚ on meat thermometer.  Serves 6-8.  Prep time about 10 minutes. Cook time about 30 minutes.    Slice and arrange on large platter with asparagus.

Grilled Asparagus
1 bunch asparagus, about 1 pound
2 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette
Trim ends of asparagus by breaking off ends.  Put in plastic bag with vinaigrette.  Seal and shake to coat asparagus.  Cook on preheated grill on high for about 5 minutes, turning once with spatula. Serves 6-8.  Prep time less than 5 minutes.  Cook time about 5 minutes.  Arrange on large platter with pork.

Spaghetti with Anchovy Carbonara
1 pound dry spaghetti
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 can flat anchovy fillets (2 oz.)
1 tablespoon capers with liquid
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon chopped oregano (fresh if possible)
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 large egg yolks
Ground sea salt and pepper
Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water to which has been added about 1 tablespoon olive oil.
While spaghetti is cooking, pour remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in large sauté pan on medium heat.  Add garlic and anchovies.  Mash anchovies as they cook.  Add capers.  Cook a minute or so and remove from heat.  Toss cooked spaghetti, saving about ½ cup cooking water, lemon zest, parsley and oregano with mixture in pan.  Whisk egg yolks in the ½ cup cooking water and pour into spaghetti mixture.  Toss and cook over low heat about 1 minute and serve immediately.  Serves 6-8.  Prep time about 10 minutes.  Cook time about 15 minutes.

A Couple of Dips
8 oz light cream cheese (Neufchatel)
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon dill weed
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon crushed green peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried shallots (or dried onions)
½ tablespoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon rice vinegar
Divide the Neufchatel equally between two small bowls.  Mix next four ingredients in one bowl and last four ingredients in second bowl.  Serve as a dip or spread on small crackers or toasted tortilla chips.

Tortilla Chips
2 flour or corn tortillas (burrito size)
½ teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle seasoning
½ teaspoon sesame seed
Ground sea salt
Mix chipotle seasoning into olive oil in small dish.  Brush mixture on two tortillas on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle with sesame seed and ground sea salt.  Cut each tortilla into bite size pieces with a pair of kitchen scissors.  Bake at 325˚ about 20 minutes until pieces are crisp and golden.  Store in sealed container.  Makes about 40 chips, depending on size of pieces.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I went to Costco yesterday, to get Joe’s medication and the fudge bars that he loves.  It was also time to replenish my olive oil supply.  At four liters for $21.99, it’s well worth it to always be able to have that on hand.
As always, the sample servers were in position at the end of many of the aisles.  This time, I tasted something that is undoubtedly the ultimate comfort food: a chicken and rice medley that can be popped into the microwave for a quick and easy entrée.  I was very tempted to drop it into my cart.  I would’ve done that in better days, but now my budget wouldn’t allow it.  Besides, couldn’t I make this yummy thing myself?  I remembered the leftover chicken that was nicely packaged in our refrigerator.  Besides our first roast chicken meal three nights ago, Joe and I had also had a tasty chicken sandwich yesterday using some of the white meat, but there was still a lot left.  I could make this casserole and package it in pint containers (sour cream, salsa, or margarine tubs) and freeze them for a quick entrée.  Each container would hold two one cup portions.  Add a salad to that and it’s a meal for two.
I am reminded of my mother, who scoffed at TV dinners and the waste of them.  And I reflect on the amount of time I have spent pondering nutrition labels on packaged foods—rejecting most if more than five ingredients were listed.  It becomes more than an issue of economy, because ultimately, I want to know what goes into my mouth to feed my body.
Chicken and Rice Casserole
3 cups uncooked rice (I like the Organic Rice Medley from Costco which is a combination of four grains, including brown, red and wild rice)
1 cup chicken drippings, fat removed, from roast chicken
6 cups water
1 large carrot, chopped into small dice
1 teaspoon herbs de Provence
1 teaspoon sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup frozen petite peas
2 ½ cups chopped chicken, including white and dark meat
1 cup grated parmesan
1 cup sour cream
In three quart saucepan, add water to rice.  Add chicken drippings.  Add seasonings.  Add carrot dice.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer and cover until rice has fully absorbed the water, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
In a large bowl, mix cooked rice and carrots with chopped chicken, frozen peas, grated parmesan and sour cream.
Spoon mixture into pint containers, cover and freeze until ready to use.  I stick a strip of masking tape on the lid to label contents and add date.  Makes 5 pints, 10 servings
           Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cook time: 45 minutes to 1 hour.  Serving size: 1 cup
Amazingly, I still have one chicken breast left.  I’ll make a chicken salad with that. 
 Nice lunch on a couple of Romaine leaves.

Chicken Salad
1 ½ cups white meat chicken
1 ¼ cups celery (about three stalks chopped in small dice)
½ cup onion (about ¼ medium sweet onion)
½ cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup chopped parsley
¼ cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon herbs the Provence
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped deli style jalapeño slices
Mix all together.  Makes four cups chicken salad.  Serving size: 1 cup. 
            Prep. Time: 15 minutes
When I finished putting all this in assorted containers, stacking them in the freezer and arranging a lunch with half of the chicken salad, I thought of the miracle of the loaves and fishes and thought: quite a remarkable chicken for $4.50!  Roast dinner for two the first night, chicken sandwiches for lunch the next day, ½ gallon chicken stock, one pint bone meal (for the dog), ten servings chicken/rice casserole, four serving chicken salad—all from one lowly fryer.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Essentials of My Kitchen

Here are the essentials of my kitchen.  These five little jars are so basic to everything I do that I don’t even put them in the cupboard.  For me, these are like the ubiquitous salt and pepper that is always on everyone’s table.
Besides the five jars, there is a lovely decanter given to me by a dear friend that contains very special olive oil.  And of course, the array of knives and bowls of fruit and onions.  Soon the large bowl will hold tomatoes from the garden, I hope...
In addition to two little decanters of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I have two that contain dark and light balsamic vinaigrette,  and my favorite, a jar of olive oil, herbs de Provence and crushed garlic.  This last, I can brush on bread for crostini, or on chicken before it roasts, or tossed into vegetables to sauté or roast, or brush on meat for the grill. 
I suppose I could have them all in pretty little jars, but this is just part of the practical application of sensible recycling.  If the jar is the right size, reuse it.  If you don’t have a proper stopper, fashion an adequate one from a wine bottle cork.
Provençal Mix
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon Herbs de Provence
Mix together in small glass container that has a stopper.  Shake well and pour desired amount into a small dish for brushing.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
½ cup balsamic vinegar (I especially like the one from Costco—rich, dark, almost sweet)
½ tablespoon stone ground mustard
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ tablespoon herb de Provence
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (again, from Costco—for the price)
Shake first five ingredients well in glass jar with stopper.  Add olive oil and shake well before pouring small amount into salad.  Makes 1 ½ cups dressing.

Light Balsamic Vinaigrette
Same ingredients, only substitute white balsamic vinegar for the dark.  Trader Joe’s has a good one, not expensive.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Great Tomato Challenge

It’s almost the middle of May and the heat has clicked on, warming my slippered feet.  The giant chestnut trees are a curtain of big fan-like leaves against the uniformly grey sky.  A chickadee pauses on the fence for a moment, his chevron crown bright white.   As he flies off, he reminds me that spring is already half over and my tomatoes are not yet in the ground.  Like gangly teenagers, their roots crowded into their little pots, they reach for the sun that isn’t there.  In the cool Pacific Northwest, the day after Mother’s Day is usually consistently warm enough to put tomato starts in the ground.  But this year may be different.  The local weatherman has warned to not even consider such a daring move until the end of May—if even then!
But I can’t wait.  The asparagus has begun to send up its fat green fingers and the rhubarb leaves are robust atop their blood-red stalks.  I’m picking lettuce and spinach and arugula as all the leafy greens crowd together in their neat rows, daring the slugs to come nibble on the tender shoots.   
I thought maybe Joe could put together some kind of hoop arrangement to keep the tomato plants warmer through what appears to become a very cool summer.  I went to our local hardware store to price the different parts that might work.  It all seemed to be getting very complicated, this attempt to grow tomatoes where there never seems to be enough sun or warmth.  But if there is any fruit that can make me swoon with passionate joy, it would have to be the tomato.  I have never been without a tomato garden—even a patio plant or two can be enough to carry me through the summer, at least.
What could be better than picking the “Sweet Million” right off the vine and popping it in my mouth like a juicy red grape?  Or how about sliced tomatoes with a little salt and olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar?  Add a fresh basil leaf, a slice of fresh mozzarella for a classic summer salad.  One of the varieties I got is called “Siberia”, another is “Black Krim”.  If these can grow in Russia, certainly they will be happy in our cool climate.  Even so, a tomato, like me, needs sun and warmth.
We have three twelve foot lengths of PVC pipe left over from some plumbing project.  That should work well to erect the roof of the “hoop house”.  A very nice young man at the hardware store walked me through the process for building this thing.
“You can use these elbows, at forty cents apiece, to make the curve of the roof.  Your husband will have to cut the piping to the right lengths and then connect the pieces with the elbows.”  He continued, “Then, he can anchor each end in a can filled with sand, with a hole in its lid to keep the pipe stable.  We have the cans here, for about $5.00, I think.  The whole project might not cost more than about $40.00 since you already have the pipe and the sand.”  He could see that I was concerned about price.  He gave me his card so that he could explain the process to Joe (maybe he thought this was too arcane for my female mind to comprehend?).
But I could see that this project could take a bit of time to actually put together.  I was as impatient as my sprouting tomatoes.  Suddenly, I had an idea—at least for an immediate, if temporary solution.  I went to the local dry cleaners in our shopping center.
“Do you think I might be able to beg, borrow or buy about ten of your cleaning bags?” I asked the pretty young woman at the counter.  She seemed definitely puzzled by my request.
“I don’t know,” she hesitated.  “What do you want them for?  What are you doing with them?”
“It’s to cover my tomato plants to protect them from the cold.”
“I’ll have to ask the owner…” she walked to the back of the store and returned with a diminutive older woman.
“You want some bags?  Why do you need so many?  You need ten bags?  What are you doing with them?” 
I explained again that it was to protect my tomato plants from the cold.
She pulled the ten bags from the fat reel behind her.  “You can have these—but you have to give me some tomatoes when they grow!” she laughed at the idea.
“I will be so happy to do that,” I said.  “I’ll give you a big basket of them!”
I went home very pleased with myself, the bags wadded up in the front seat of my car.  I would plant the tomatoes in the ground, give them a nice boost of alfalfa pellets, put their sturdy wire cage around them—and drape the cleaning bag over the cage to keep them warm at night, and warmer in the daytime, protected from the cool breeze.  Meantime, Joe would build the hoop house and they could be sheltered from cold all summer long.  The clear Visqueen sheeting over the hoops would allow the sun to warm the plants.
I went on line and Googled “hoop house” and got a step by step instruction guide—a little different from what the nice young man at Ace Hardware told me, but just as simple.  This would be something Joe could visualize—and build for me.  I printed the instructions for him.
“We could make this a lot bigger than what you were thinking of,” he said.  “I can prepare a much bigger bed for you.  And it doesn’t look as if it would be an expensive deal to put together.”
Of course, I was thrilled to hear that he had not only caught the vision but was willing to take it a step further.  In addition, we could probably disassemble and move the hoop house to another location in the garden next year, since I try to rotate them from place to place every season.
See how well this little project turned out!

Friday, May 13, 2011


I just published my first post.  I trust this will get easier with practice!

I Can't Complain

Happy birhtday, Trace!
As Joe and I find ourselves in this predicament of severely reduced resources, I have to wonder how we would fare if we were in the same financial straits as one of the 14.6 million Americans who counted themselves below the poverty line in 2010.  The official poverty line for two people is only $14,710 per year.  That’s only $1225 a month for two people.  I am humbled when I realize that this figure represents what we pay each month just for our mortgage. One in seven Americans lives below the poverty line.  How do they manage?
Many have lost their jobs and given up hope of finding meaningful work. Many are single mothers or people of color, or—have always lived in poverty.  Many have also lost their homes in this Great Recession that has come like a tsunami across all parts of the country.
There are some Government programs that act as a social safety net and a buffer for those who are destitute, like Food Stamps or WIC or school lunch programs.  And there are charitable organization and church communities that lend a desperately needed helping hand.  But still…How do they manage?
On a personal level, I’m sure there are ways that we can economize more than we do.  For instance, I suppose we could give up cable and internet, and even our landline—since we mostly use our cell phones anyway.  But that would be giving up on the idea that Joe might get another project.  If he can’t have his website and an office number, then what?  No, somehow, I’m sure we can manage on what we have.  We’ve cut all the frills and have made the decisions for how we want to live, going forward.
I derive a certain satisfaction in living more like my parents and grandparents.  I remember visiting my mother’s sister when I was about thirteen.  I was helping her do the dishes (a dishwasher?  I’m sure not!).  She filled the kitchen sink with hot water and swished a long-handled basket in it which was filled with soap slivers to get lots of suds.  She washed and rinsed, and I dried with a worn and very soft towel.  Sixty years later, I treasure this memory as part of a bygone era.
Living simply and within our means also means conscientious recycling.  I save plastic yogurt containers for storing chicken stock in the freezer.  I save big glass jars that I get from bulk foods at Costco for storing all manner of leftovers in the refrigerator.  I use the Sunday newspaper bag for the bread that I make (just the right size).  Peels and ends of vegetables go into a container to be cooked for Trace, our dog.  I mix this with oatmeal and a little chicken stock and even a pulverized chicken bone paste as an addition to his dry dog food.  He sits politely and with great expectation, his eyes fixed on me as he waits patiently while I mix his dinner.
Trace had a birthday, his third.  I wanted to give him something a little special.  We had run out of dog treats (for training purposes) and Joe was using bits of his dog food instead.  I went online (I love Google) and googled dog treats.  Zip, so fast I had a treasure trove to choose from.  Thinking about what I had on hand, I mixed a few recipes together and came up with my own.  Trace loves them as much as if they were bought in a box or a bag.  And Joe seems to like them too!
“What are you munching on?” I asked him that evening as we were watching the news.
“Those treats that you made for Trace.  They smelled  really good so I thought I’d try one.”
“You’re kidding!” I laughed.  “Though I guess that’s really okay.  It’s not as if there’s anything in there that’s just for a dog.  But don’t you find them to be a little bit on the really crunchy side?”
“No problem.  I added a drop of olive oil and a little sweetener.”
“Joe!  They’re for the dog!  They’re his birthday treat!”
“I know.  But I like them.  Crunchy, sweet, cinnamon.  What’s in them?”
“Flour, oatmeal, oil, cinnamon—and chicken stock!”
And so it goes.  As I look for ways to economize, to stay with ingredients whose names I can pronounce, the result can be a sweet surprise or a bleak failure—as when I tried to make my own tortillas.  Simple ingredients but way too labor intensive and time consuming—and they were too thick and therefore too tough.  I thought—a cup of flour, a little salt, a little lard (but I don’t have lard so I substituted my staple olive oil).  It looked simple.  Just roll the little balls out on a floured board with a rolling pin until they look like tortillas.  Fry them in an ungreased pan.  But it took forever to roll the dough, and the kitchen got really smoky and I was afraid I was ruining my frying pan.  They ended up looking like something a five year old would have struggled with.  I’ll just buy tortillas on sale and be done with it.  There’s such a thing as going a little too far with this economizing exercise.
Trace’s Dog Treats
2 cups flour
2 cup oatmeal
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoons cinnamon
½ cup oil
1 cup milk or chicken stock
1 egg
1 cup applesauce
Mix all dry ingredients, and then mix in all other ingredients.  Spread on parchment papered cookie sheet.  Bake at 350˚—about 20 minutes.  Cut into small pieces (depending on the size of your dog) with a sharp knife. Leave in oven to get more crisp.  Store in a closed container.  Makes about four cups.