Clearing the Drainage Ditch, Part 2

October 16, 2015

It’s going. I do about three wheelbarrows full of rocks about four times a week. That’s about two feet at a stretch.

  
Definite progress from last time! I’m doing chop-and-drop with the plants that have grown it over, and using them as mulch. That hillside could use a lot of mulch … heck, it could use a lot of plants, too, but right now we can’t quite swing it. I want to put some fruit trees in when we get that far. It’s a big space, but not well irrigated, so it’s going to take time, money, and effort to get it set up the way we want. It probably wouldn’t hurt to fill it in with succulents for now so that heavy rains won’t wash it down.

  
As you can see, there’s still a ways to go. I think we’re about a third done with it, though the first two-thirds are the most-full of rocks and the last third should be much easier to clear.

  
Pile O Rock Land, home of the happy lizard people! What are we going to do with all these rocks? I don’t know yet. If they weren’t so irregular, I’d seriously consider using them to build some raised beds. As it is, I keep toying with the idea. Or somehow use them as pavers. Anyone out there in internet-land have ideas?

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[Garden] Drainage Ditch Clearout, Part 1

September 18, 2015

I spent yesterday acquiring a wheelbarrow with the help of my buddy John. Thanks, John! It’s a good thing I did.

Y’see, we have this great backyard, with an enormous slope, and the nice folks who built our property installed a drainage ditch near its base. I wish I could say it was a swale, but nope. It’s lined with concrete and therefore really good at moving water off your property, rather than allowing it to sink slowly into your soil. The long and the short of that is that if it gets clogged, the water doesn’t move, and lucky us, if this year’s predicted El Niño hits us hard, we might get a mudslide that skims right over the surface of the ditch and into the backyard. Hopefully not into the house.

I’d rather not take that risk. I like this house. Ideally our slope would be all planted with nice deep-rooted plants that would prevent this from happening in the first place, but nope. The previous owners didn’t do a good job of taking water costs into account when they planted the slope, and they never bothered to redo the sprinklers from the base design to fix the water costs either.

We can’t afford to plant up the slope right now, so the next best thing is cleaning out the ditch.

Length of the Ditch

I swear there’s a ditch here. You can kinda see it in the back, and you see all those rocks? Yep, they’re in the ditch.

Getting Started

Getting Started

I cleared out a few of the really big ones by hand, but had to get the shovel sooner rather than later.

Load of Rocks

Load of Rocks

I did about six loads this size. Didn’t want to go too heavy. Rocks are heavy. Damp soil is also heavy. I think we will eventually re-use the rocks in the landscape, but I’m not entirely sure how I want to do that yet. The soil here is much less clayey than where we lived previously. It does stick together if you squeeze it, and it feels a little slippery, but it’s not nearly as rock-hard as where we used to live. I’m pretty sure you could have thrown pots from that stuff.

Making Progress

Making Progress

Check it out, I found the bottom. The ditch is somewhere around a couple feet deep. We’ll need to put a bridge or something over it to lead to the stairs that go up the slope, and the previous owners ran electrical wire over it to light the slope, and held that in place with more rocks in the ditch. Another bridge or something will need to go there.

Well, three feet out of a hundred’s not bad, and I’m starting on the more-full side. Next step should be dealing with the large grasses that are growing over there. I’d like to pull them out and transplant them somewhere they won’t be in the way, though ideally I’d cut them back with a string trimmer before I do that. Problem being that I don’t own one, so I’ll need to fix that sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll just keep clearing out the rest of it.

I wanted to take a picture of Pile O’ Rock Land, Home of the Happy Lizard People, where I am dumping these rocks and soil until we’re ready to use them, and I did. Problem being that the sun was right on it and blew out the color for half of it. I’ll post one the next time I update on this.

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[Basics] How to Poach an Egg

September 17, 2015

It never fails to surprise me when someone asks me what a poached egg is. I’ve been eating them since I was a wee thing, and they’re easy to make. Bonus: it’s very simple to get the hardness exactly as you like. For me, that’s a big deal. I love the tenderness of a perfectly poached egg with delicious runny yolks, that I can smear all over my toast. If you like your eggs harder, that’s fine! Cook them longer. But this method will get you a perfect poached egg or two. Or more, if you use a bigger pot.

Bring a small, shallow pot of water to a boil.

Bring a small, shallow pot of water to a boil.

You need more width than depth in this case. This is my smallest saucepan and it’s just right for making two eggs. For three or more eggs, just get a bigger saucepan, but try to keep it shallow. You don’t need more than about three inches of water in the pan. I don’t use my cast-iron skillets for this, but a deep skillet will work just fine if that’s what you have.

Optional: Add a teaspoon or two of vinegar.

Optional: Add a teaspoon or two of vinegar to the pot.

Why? The acid in the vinegar will help the eggs set more quickly and solidly, which can be helpful when you’re a novice at poaching eggs. It makes the process more forgiving. Plain white vinegar is fine, or you can use white wine or cider or rice vinegar. I’d avoid anything with more color than that. The vinegar does add a subtle acidity to the eggs. If you don’t like that, then don’t use it. Just be aware that your eggs will spread a little more in the pot and be a bit more delicate to handle.

Also, because the vinegar helps the eggs coagulate, it does mean that the bits of egg that get stuck to your pan will be harder to get off. If you use vinegar, scrub your pan right away to get the bits off most easily.

Reduce the heat to a simmer. Tiny bubbles should just break the surface.

Reduce the heat to a simmer. Tiny bubbles should just break the surface.

Boiling water is too vigorous for a poached egg. Your whites will get everywhere. You don’t want that. By bringing the water to a boil and then reducing it to a simmer, you know the water is hot enough but don’t need to mess around with pesky thermometers.

Crack the egg into a small bowl.

Crack the egg into a small bowl.

Or cup, or whatever you’ve got. Again, this is a simplifying technique. It does several things for you. One, you don’t risk getting shells in your pot of water. Two, you can make sure you didn’t break the yolk. (You can still poach the egg if you break the yolk, but you won’t get a nice runny yolk. It’ll coagulate with  the whites.) Three, it allows you to gently lower the egg into the pot, right at the surface of the water. This is important so that it doesn’t spread too much, doesn’t break the yolk, and you get a nice compact poached egg.

Gently pour in the egg.

Gently pour in the egg.

I really need to use that camera stand I have for my camera while I do this. You can barely see the lip of the bowl I’m using at the top of the photo. See how close we are to the water here? Just a few inches above, and I was having to do this with a camera in my off-hand. Normally I’d bring it in even closer. Pour gently but quickly. It may take a little practice to get the hang of it. That’s all right. Any mistakes will still be tasty, just probably a bit more spread-out in your pot than you’d like.

I’ve seen people suggest stirring a whirlpool in your pot before adding your egg, to get the egg to stay compact. Doing that really only works well if you’re making one egg. If you’re making more than one, you have collision issues. I don’t do that because I usually make at least two eggs at a time. Nice fresh eggs will stay pretty compact as it is. The older the egg is, the more it will spread in your pot. (Older eggs make great hardboiled eggs!)

Cook your eggs at a simmer for three minutes.

Cook your eggs at a simmer for three minutes. 

Use a timer! That’s for nice runny yolks, and they will be hard if you let them overcook. If you want them a little firmer, by all means, do four or five minutes. Experiment to find out what texture you like best.

The heat is the trickiest part of the equation. Having a gas stove makes this easy because you can adjust the heat on the fly very rapidly. If you’re using an electric stove, you may need to shuffle the pot on and off the heat — gently! — to keep it at a nice simmer rather than a boil.

Remove them from the pot with a perforated or slotted spoon.

Remove them from the pot with a perforated or slotted spoon.

I like a perforated spoon for this job. I find my slotted spoon’s edges are a bit rough and long and can break my eggs if I’m not super-careful. Slots do drain better, but they just seem to make it easier to break the egg, too.

Eat ’em plain, put ’em on buttered toast, drape one over roasted asparagus or green beans, tuck one into a hollowed-out block of tofu and drizzle with soy and ginger … there are lots of ways to enjoy a poached egg!

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Equipment and Technique: A Good Chef’s Knife

September 4, 2015

One of the things I learned in culinary school was a very basic thing: how to hold and use a chef’s knife. I think it’s key for anyone who wants to have fun in the kitchen to master this very simple thing. Using a larger knife makes larger jobs easier. It’s much faster and neater to slice and dice your way through a pile of onions or tomatoes with the right tool.

Everyone has their own personal preferences with a knife. It’s worth your while to take your time and try them out. While a big price tag doesn’t always indicate a great knife, one of the things that’s true is that there’s usually a reason cheap knives are cheap. They’re designed for people who don’t know what they’re doing, or how to hold one properly. I avoid Cutco knives  because their handles are specifically designed for people to use an incorrect hammer grip instead of a correct pinch grip.

You don’t necessarily have to pay a lot for a knife if you know what you’re looking for. You can find surprisingly good knives in thrift stores. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the picture below:

Two Knives

Two different chefs’ knives

So the knife on top is a Henckels, which I got as a wedding present -mumble- years ago. The knife on the bottom is a Martha Stewart Everyday, which I picked up at the aforementioned thrift store for $2 last week, for the purpose of writing this post. We could get into details about how a knife is ground and made, but other people have said those things better than I could, and I don’t think that’s essential for a beginner. What I do think is essential to talk about is the shape of the blade.

You’ll see that the Henckels knife has a straighter, flatter blade. The Martha knife curves upward more towards the point. This makes a small but significant difference in the size of item you can cut more easily. The longer and flatter your blade is, the more of it you can apply at a single time and to a larger item. The Martha blade will rock more easily if you’re chopping herbs, but it’s fiddly to do finer work like coring tomatoes with its point.

The handle on the Martha knife is also substantially longer, though it does have a nice comfortable bolster, which not all inexpensive knives do. (The bolster is where the blade meets the handle.) We’ll get into the utility of a comfortable bolster in a minute. The point I want to make about the length of the handle is that for smaller people like myself, a long handle can get in the way of chopping. It makes the lever action of the chop longer, and can rise up into your arm on your downstroke. I wouldn’t always say smaller is better when it comes to handle length, but comfort is a must. Try before you buy, if you can.

Now, let’s talk about the breadth of the blade and the bolster, like I mentioned before.

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Henckels knife on the left, Martha Stewart knife on the right. Note the difference in the thickness of the blades.

You’ll see here that the Henckels knife has a narrower bolster, but it’s nice, rounded, and smooth, and leads right into the blade, as it’s actually part of it. The Martha knife also has a nice solid bolster. You’ll notice that the edge of the blade sits a little below the bolster on the Martha knife, so there is a point there where it can rub against your hand.

The other thing I want you to look at is the width of the blades. The Henckels blade is much wider along the spine, and the Martha blade is much narrower. I will not say that one or the other of these is better, necessarily, but they do make a distinct difference in how the knife handles. You can get nice thin slices from the narrower blade, with the distinct downside that it’s much more painful on your index finger if you hold the knife properly. The thicker blade tends to have cuts stick to it a little more, and it’s a little harder to get a really nice thin cut, but it’s much more comfortable to use.

Now a bunch of you are probably looking at me going, “What do you mean, hold the knife properly?” How many of you out there hold a knife like a hammer? Right. So this is the thing that going to culinary school was worth it for. I’m going to tell and show you, so that you don’t have to go to culinary school for this.

Below is an incorrect grip.

Hammer Grip

Hammer grip. Don’t do this!

Most people hold their knives this way. It’s inefficient and doesn’t take advantage of the lever provided by the bolster. Your hands will hurt, the blade will slip around, it will take forever to chop things, and you’ll wonder why you hate cooking. Don’t make things harder for yourself than they should be.

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Pinch the blade like this.

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Your index finger should be on the spine of the knife, with the bolster under the base of that finger. No, you will not cut yourself, I promise.

This simple change in how you hold the knife will give you a lot more leverage and make your blade a lot less floppy. Don’t believe me? Hold a knife one way and let a friend waggle the tip of the blade in a side-to-side motion. Then switch to the other way. You’ll feel the difference in how well you can hang on and control the knife.

Now, about comfort. Your index finger will be sitting on top of the blade. Do that enough and you’ll feel it. Every professional chef has a callus on that finger from where the knife sits. I do too. If you do this with a skinny-spined blade, you’ll feel it a lot more. A thicker spine is substantially more comfortable.

No matter what kind of knife you choose, a dull knife is both dangerous and no fun to work with. You need a lot more pressure to use a dull knife, and the tendency for them to slip is much higher. Keep your knives sharp using a honing steel. You don’t need anything fancy. A plain steel like this one is fine.

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Your steel should be longer than your knife.

I’ll talk more about honing and sharpening another day, but for what it’s worth, unless you regularly slice bread, the tools pictured above are the only knives or blades you need in your kitchen: a quality chef’s knife, a quality paring knife (that one’s a Gerber that I found at a thrift store and love to pieces), a pair of shears and a honing steel. If you do more with bread, get a nice long serrated knife too, and you’re pretty much set.

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Bad Eggplant

August 21, 2015

Blech! Pretty sure I picked a bunch of my eggplants too late. It’s hard to tell with these. I’ve been growing Listada de Gandia, and mine didn’t quite turn out as advertised. More white, smaller eggplants. Thought I picked them in time, but noooope.

It’s pretty bad when the taste includes a chemical burn on the back of your mouth. No bueno!

I’ve cut them all off the plants now that I think I know what I’m looking for, and I might have rescued two before they were overripe. Hopefully I’ll get another couple before the season’s out. My eggplants are looking peaked.

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Thinking about what I cook

August 20, 2015

This little bit of introspection is brought to you by the fact that I’m reading an Indian slow-cooker cookbook, and feeling a little sad. I love Indian food. I really do. It’s one of my favorite cuisines, and it’s difficult for us to go out and get it, because restaurant Indian food is pretty high-carb and doesn’t play well with Mark’s diabetes.

The solution of course is to make it at home. Then you realize how much work it is. I guess for anyone who’s accustomed to cooking that way, that isn’t so bad. I certainly don’t mind occasionally making a complicated meal with a lot of steps and dishes. But with the number of unusual staples the cuisine needs, I would want to make it more frequently than every once in a while. There’s only so much space in my kitchen for half-finished staples.

Thing is, it feels like almost everything in the Indian repertoire is a lot of steps and dishes. Puree garlic and ginger. Precook spices. Slowly caramelize onions. Did you count the blender and two skillets you already needed? Then you get to the rest of the dish and it needs an hour or three on the cooktop, and that’s just for one dish. The slow cooker only minimizes that last step of the process, and even then there are often garnishing steps. Like I said, I don’t mind doing this sometimes, but that’s a lot for a weeknight dinner. 

As an aside, I love to cook, but I hate doing dishes. With a fiery passion born of ten years without a dishwasher. Let me tell you, as soon as they invent something that’s better than a dishwasher I will be the first person in line to buy one. I have jokingly threatened to hire a scullery maid.

So how do I usually cook? I live in southern California, and my cooking style is heavily influenced by that. The weather here is usually warm and our access to produce is ridiculously good. I use the best fresh ingredients I can get my hands on or can afford, raw or lightly cooked most of the time. And lots — LOTS — of fruits and veggies. That’s a taste thing. Why mess too much with good ingredients? It’s also a speed thing and a temperature thing. It’s too warm here most of the year to eat heavy dishes, or to overheat the house with a lot of stove or oven time. (The slow cooker makes this easier. I own three of varying sizes and use them constantly. I want a solar oven one of these days.)

In terms of cuisine style, my theme is mostly homestyle Californian.  Ninety percent of what I cook falls into a fusion of Cal-Mex/Baja, Italian thanks to my family heritage plus the lovely Mediterranean climate here, and Pacific Rim, mostly Japanese. Most of what I cook takes somewhere around an hour to an hour and a half to prep a full meal, though I also do occasional in-between prep where I’ll make things in advance one or two mornings a week. The staples that live in my pantry range from beans to tomatoes to bonito flakes. That’s another post, though.

Mostly I’m explaining this … well, partially to make myself feel better for realizing that I’m probably not going to make Indian food any time soon (except maybe kheema matar, we love that), and partially so you guys out there in Internet-land know where I’m coming from, and why I cook the way I do. What’s your cooking style?

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Chickpea and Lap Cheong Salad

August 19, 2015

The more we’ve been keeping a tight focus on Mark’s blood sugar, the more I’ve found that bean recipes are both tasty and good sources of filling, slow-digesting carbs. We used to rarely eat them, but now I find myself cooking them once or twice a week and trying to come up with new and interesting recipes.

One of the other things I’ve discovered is while I abhor canned chickpeas and actively avoid them in restaurants, ones that are cooked at home are an entirely different animal. Er, vegetable. Mellow and earthy, with none of that awful canned taste. I soak dry chickpeas for several hours, drain and cover them with fresh water, and cook on the stovetop for an hour and a half or so, until they’re nice and tender. Drain, cool, and use. Easy and good for you.

The best bean cookbook I’ve found so far is one that dates back to the 80s. The Brilliant Bean covers an enormous range of recipes featuring both dry and fresh beans. I’ve only started scraping the surface of what it has to offer, but it looks very promising so far. This particular recipe began as one featuring Spanish chorizo, which I didn’t have on hand, but I had an open package of lap cheong. Lap cheong is a Chinese pork sausage, dried like salami and Spanish chorizo, with a mild sweet-savory taste. It’s also very fatty, making the rendering step the longest part of making this salad, if you’re not cooking your chickpeas from scratch.

Don’t have Spanish chorizo or lap cheong? Pretty much any dry sausage, like salami, will work. Just cut it into pieces about the size of the chickpeas, and keep a close eye on it while it renders, since it may be less fatty and render more quickly. The flavor profile of the salad will be a little different, but it should still be delicious.

Chickpea and Lap Cheong Salad

Adapted from The Brilliant Bean, by Sally and Martin Stone.

Makes approximately 7 cups, to serve 4 as a main dish.

  • 19 oz. cooked chickpeas (approximately 4 cups)
  • 12 oz. lap cheong, sliced into ¼” rounds
  • 6 green onions, sliced into ¼” rings
  • ⅓ c. red wine vinegar
  • 1 c. extra-virgin olive oil (use the good stuff)
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • a splash of soy sauce
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Render the fat out of the lap cheong in a dry pan over low heat, about 15-20 minutes, until the sausage pieces are crispy and browned. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.


There will be several tablespoons of fat remaining in the pan. If you’re feeling thrifty, save the rendered fat in a small container in your fridge and use it like bacon drippings for other recipes. You can fry eggs with it, turn it into warm salad dressing, saute onions with it, and so on.

While the lap cheong is rendering, make the salad dressing. Combine the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, smoked paprika, ground cumin, soy sauce, and salt and pepper to taste in a lidded two-cup jar. Go light on the salt, since the lap cheong is salty. You can always add more after you taste the salad. Shake well to combine and set aside.

Combine the chickpeas, onions, and cooled lap cheong. Pour the dressing over all, and mix well. Refrigerate for several hours for the flavors to meld and the dressing to be somewhat absorbed. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving. Serve at room temperature.


This would make a pretty delicious lunch paired with another chunky salad (try cucumber, avocado, and tomato), along with some red grapes.

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Just a quick thing …

July 23, 2015

African blue basil. Gorgeous flowers, bees love it to pieces. It’s fuzzy so you don’t really want to eat it raw unless you shred it finely. It’s “herbier”, for lack of a better word, than regular basil. Maybe a touch more medicinal. Been growing like crazy in my yard. This little bouquet is under a quarter of the plant.

  

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Three Ingredient Fruit Salad

January 9, 2015

Three Ingredient Fruit Salad

Serves two.

  • 1 kiwi
  • 1 tangelo
  • 3 Medjool dates

Peel and chop the kiwi, pit and chop the dates, peel and supreme the tangelo. Better to supreme than segment, tangelo membranes are tough and not so fun to eat. Combine all in a small bowl and squeeze the tangelo membrane over it to get the rest of the juice. Spoon into two small bowls or ramekins and serve immediately.

This recipe is amazingly delicious and I only invented it because I wanted to clear those dates from my fridge. Sorry, no pix, we ate it too fast. It is beautiful, with the orange and green and brown.

Update: now with pix! ‘Scuse me while I go devour this.

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Holiday Leftovers Ramen Stock

January 1, 2015

This is so simple, and a great basis for healthy comfort food after way, way too much holiday fare.

Holiday Leftovers Ramen Stock

  • 1 large ham bone, some meat attached
  • 1 chicken carcass, some meat attached, or 2 chicken legs and 2 chicken thighs
  • 1 small onion, quartered, no need to peel
  • 3 large slices ginger (about 1/2″ thick each), no need to peel
  • 1/2 head of garlic, no need to peel
  • 1 square konbu (optional but adds delicious umami), about 4″

Place all ingredients in a large crockpot. Cover with water. Cook on low overnight, and strain the next morning. Voila, fantastic ramen stock. Makes about 3 quarts, depending on the size of your crock.

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