Sunday, April 10, 2011

Crying uncle

I spent much of the weekend doing much-needed gardening, even taking Friday afternoon off work because the rainy weather had given way to a day of relative sunniness. I put in 3 days of exhausting labor but am proud of the results.

Two of the three parking strip raised beds are prepped and ready for spring. The dirt in all three beds settled quite a bit in the past year so I sacrificed one bed to fill the others. I'm pleased to see how healthy the dirt has become: it's filled with wriggling earthworms.

In one of the beds I planted new asparagus roots, potatoes, and green onions. As soon as I get my hands on some strawberry starts, those will go in with the asparagus. Last year I planted asparagus on my front right slope in the hopes that it would be a good fit for that spot.

It wasn't.  In fact, not a single shoot has appeared this spring.  "Uncle!"

I'm going to just give up on that section of the yard.  It's never been a good spot for a garden and is subject to winter erosion.  It won't be hard to let it return to grass - it's nearly there.  (OK, truth be told I'm only going to give up on the left half of this slope; the right half will host my artichokes, more rhubarb, blueberries, and whatever else I feel like planting there.)

Front yard, right slope

Getting back to the raised veggie garden: the second bed contains over-wintered leeks and celery. To them I added some lettuce, spinach, and bush peas this weekend.  I'll do successive plantings in the coming weeks to stretch out the harvests of each.  After I get more dirt for the third bed I'll  plant tomatoes and tomatillos in it.  I'm hoping we'll put in 2 additional beds on the parking strip this spring as well.  Likely plantings include parsnips, basil, carrots, squash, eggplants, and other stuff yet-to-be-decided.

Veggie beds on the parking strip

The left slope in the front yard, which is a combo of herbs and flowers, is newly weeded and even got an infusion of plant starts from my grandma's yard. 

Front yard, left slope
The backyard, after a winter of being ravaged by chickens, got my full attention on Sunday.  Unfortunately my work made me feel like the movie "Groundhog's Day": didn't I just go through this?  A year ago I rototilled the large chicken run, planted grass, and put fences around the more vulnerable plants.  By fall the grass was gone and many of the plants were barely clinging to life.  The hens' larger run was a disgusting mud pit and we still haven't dealt with the drainage issue.
View from back porch

On Sunday I did what I could to make the yard better.  I again tilled the soil, this time by hand, raked, and replanted grass.  I transplanted the remaining plants to other parts of the yard and left only the shrubs and raspberry plants.  The rest will be grass.  It'll be good for Rosemary to have a little more room to crap and run.  The chickens are relegated henceforth to their smaller run, which is probably 7'x15'.  They've been bitching to be let out ever since.

View of backyard from garage toward coop (out of view)
I've officially given up on having a vegetable garden in the backyard.  Last summer did me in and I just can't handle the disappointment of it.  I tried for several years, years that included some very nice summers, to grow things like artichokes, peas, and green onions.  Every attempt was mostly a failure.  Last summer was unusually cool and yet the parking strip garden out-performed the backyard's best years.  "Uncle!"

View of new cut garden

My former veggie garden has yielded way to a cut flower garden containing mostly things from Grandma's yard.  I even got a start from her rhubarb, which I believe was itself a start from rhubarb on my great-grandparents' farm on Fox Island (my great-grandfather gave WA State the 40' of waterfront property where the bridge lands, and if you know Fox Island, the flag pole you can see from that spot was erected by my ancestors).  Keep your fingers crossed that it survives. It's always been a prolific plant and I'm hopeful it'll do well at my house.

Has this rhubarb lasted 4 generations?
The new cut flower garden is joined by a birdfeeder from Grandma's yard, and will be bordered by more grass.  I had gotten rid of over half of the grass since buying this house nearly 8 years ago, during which time my life has changed dramatically.  I hadn't even met Gene when I moved in, and hosted just 2 of the dozen animals that now live here with us.  Having a little more grass will make our itty bitty yard seem more open and make it more welcoming to our friends' young children.

I still feel kinda bad about planting grass, though.  But sometimes you've just gotta cry "uncle".

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Moroccan Food Fest - Seasonings

A few weeks ago I heard the new Adele CD on NPR and was hooked: I had to have it.  I wanted it so badly that I even put a reminder on my calender for its release date. 

When it came time to buy it I decided to go to instead of driving to the Borders near my house.  It was one of those penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions that cost me $25 to get free-shipping for a $10 CD instead of paying $15 for it at Borders.  Days later I even saw it at Starbucks.
Oh well.  I needed a new dog leash, having crunched the latch of Rosemary's old one in the car door a while back.  Still not to the $25 free shipping threshold, I threw a mortar & pestle into my cart and checked out.  I'd been wanting a mortar & pestle for a long time but this... this is a weird order.

There's a point to this story, I swear.

In this post I'm going to introduce you to three distinct seasonings found in Moroccan cuisine:
  1. Harissa
  2. Ras el hanout
  3. Preserved lemons
When I was researching this blog I got into a discussion with a French friend about harissa and ras el hanout.  She insisted they're the same thing.  I insisted they're not.  The conversation devolved into the equivalent of "nuh-uh" "uh huh", so we agreed to disagree.

But I'm right.

1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp red pepper flakes
.5 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
cayenne pepper
  • Toast seeds in a dry skillet until fragrant, roughly 1 minute or less.
  • Crush toasted seeds and red pepper with a mortar & pestle until powdered.
  • Crush garlic with salt and spices until this is a thick paste, then add the paprika and olive oil.
  • Mix in cayenne pepper to achieve the spiciness you desire.
My advice here is to make it spicier than you think you'd want because it's typically diluted in the cooking process. Oh, and read the directions before you start: I didn't and you might notice from the pics above that I started crushing the garlic with the spices then removed the cloves after realizing my attempts at crushing the spices would be futile with the garlic in the way.  Oops!

This was my first use of the new mortar & pestle.  There's a reason why you never see this tool on "30-Minute Meals".  It takes forever.  Anytime you see someone using one in a movie, they're FAKING IT.  Gosh dangit this take a long time.

Ras el hanout
This is a spice blend which, like herbes de provence or curry, varies in its ingredients and ratios thereof.  I found mine at Cost Plus World Market or a few bucks.  It won't make or break your meals but lends a new flavor profile worth trying.

Preserved Lemons
I saw so many "recipes" for preserved lemons this winter.  It seemed that every food blogger had one.  It's less a recipe than a technique.  Here you go:
  1. Get 5-10 lemons and a box of kosher salt.
  2. Wash the lemons well, then cut them almost into quarters, leaving the wedges attached at one end.
  3. Fill the lemon with as much salt as it will hold.
  4. Stuff as many lemons as you can fit into a jar.  Go ahead: stuff them in there.  It'l help release the juice and cover them with their own juice.
  5. Shake the lemons upside down daily for a week or so.
  6. Lemons will be ready to use in about 3-4 weeks.
They're simple to make and last for a long time,  Toby gets a little fancier with his recipe than I do - here's his how-to.  Marissa from Food in Jars suggests eating them with a spinach salad
When you're ready to use the lemons, pull one out from the jar, rinse it off, scrape out and discard the pulp, then chop the remaining bits.  Throw that into your bubbling pot and enjoy the yumminess they bring to your cooking.  We'll use them in many of the stew-like meals I'll feature for the Moroccan theme, like the beef and lamb dishes.  I also like to put a whole lemon (rinsed) in the cavity of a roasting chicken.

Oh, and my Adele CD?  Gene took it to work and I haven't seen or heard it since (boo).

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Moroccan Feast

Way back in January Toby from Plate Fodder surprised the bejeebies out of me by asking me if I'd like to write a guest post on his blog.  I was honored - I've never met Toby but know his cousin, whom I've met once and maintained a friendship with on facebook - and kinda intimidated. 

What would I write about?

January is a good time for citrus recipes but Toby had already covered that.  Drat.

There's not much to can in January, save citrus.  Dangit.

Ever gardened in January in the Pacific Northwest?  It's about as fun and interesting as a cold shower in the dark.  Dammit.

My chickens weren't laying in January.  Besides, Toby had been there, done that with eggs galore.  Doh!

Around that time, my favorite magazine published a recipe for Beef Tagine with Butternut Squash.  I tried it, mentioned it in passing to Toby, and the deal was set.  I'd write about Moroccan food!  Yes, that's it, Moroccan food!

Wait... whu... what?  You know: Moroccan food with stuff like couscous and tagines... and, um... couscous.

Oh man, whatever did I get myself into?

To cut to the punchline, here's the final blog post as it appears on Toby's blog

I intend to elaborate on the post I wrote for Toby and publish a series of posts here.  Watch for those this week.  It was a delicious journey and I hope you'll explore some of these yummy meals and ingredients.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Last week Gene worked until 10 or later just about every night.  The house got lonely after a few days and I started having weird things for dinner: scrambled eggs with capers and a microwaved potato; a bagel; jalapenos and cheese on Wheat Thins.  The problem was that these odd dinners failed to provide a lunch for me the following day and were rather boring. 

To rescue myself from boredom, I invited a girlfriend and her daughter over for dinner.  We made pizzas with homemade dough.  As we pulled her daughter's pizza from the oven, we discovered that I'd made the crust too thin (Gene normally does the crust tossing when he's home).  Not only did it stick to the pizza screen, it was undercooked.

As we did our best to resuscitate the little pizza, my friend joked that she was glad to see that I, too, had kitchen failures.  "You make things look so great on your blog," she added.

Well, yes, that's true.  I don't typically blog about the nuked potato I had for dinner, the weeds run rampant in the yard, or my recent attempt to bake not-risen-enough bread dough with my new convection oven and wound up instead with a hard lumps of crusty dough.

Except that's what pissed me off about other blogs, and was part of the impetus of this blog: the imperfections, the mistakes, the annoyances, the gaps of knowledge.  I wanted to write about discovery and share that with you.  There are enough blogs out there that make their lives seem perfect, written by people who seem to squeeze 45 1/2 hours out of every 24-hour period.  That's not me.

So here goes.  Here are some of the nonsexy things I haven't blogged about:
  • The tumbleweed-sized wads of dog hair lurking under the furniture.  The breeder wasn't joking when she said, "A corgi's first job is to shed."  For that matter, I haven't told you that my winter coat is hopelessly covered in dog hair.  I gave up on that battle and wear my dog hair like an "I love my corgi" bumper sticker.
  • The fact that my back yard hasn't a single blade of grass in it due to the nine chickens who have eaten, dug up, trompled, or crapped on just about any plant that's vulnerable to their destructive tendencies.
  • I get tired of cooking and cleaning up all the time.  Sometimes if the house has been messy for too long I'll go on strike and refuse to cook until it's better.  Those are the nights I call Gene in a pissy mood and tell him I'm not cooking, so he needs to pick up dinner.  Were I to blog about those nights, the blog title would read: "Takeout for the passive-aggressive wife".
  • Knitting is way more gratifying than yard- or housework.  Strangers at the grocery store never tell me that my yard looks great but anytime I'm wearing something I've knitted, the compliments flow.  Hell, just yesterday I was wearing my new shawl on its maiden outing and a woman stopped me to admire it.  Screw the fake humilty: it's gorgeous and I know it.  It had better be after I worked on it for 3 weeks.
  • I have cooking failures:. I burn things, especially since getting the gas oven with its high heat.  I suck at making Jello from a box but can make marshmallows from scratch (it's one of life's mysteries).  Uninspired or lazy, sometimes I make things that are so boring and/or bland that even a monk would ask for salt.
  • I'm a fair-weather gardener.  Putting on rubber boots and weeding in the rain is not for me.  Bleh.  And we've had a very rainy winter this year.
  • We don't have cable but that doesn't stop me from watching too much tv (see the above about knitting and rain).
  • I crave fast food at times.  Wendy's is my favorite because they have the best fries.
  • We have three rainbarrels, not a single one of which has been set up yet.  Don't ask how long two of them have been sitting on the side of the house: I'm embarassed to say but will admit that Gene brought them when he moved in with me.  The third one has only been sitting out there for a couple of weeks.
I'm not perfect and don't claim to be.  If ever I give a hoity toity impression in this blog, someone call me out on it.