Lemongrass poll

I've been making a lot of tom ka soup lately, and I've been going back and forth between big chunks of lemongrass that are easy to pick out and small slices that are (somewhat) chewable. I don't think I like the texture of lemongrass much, so I'm leaning towards big chunks. I haven't tried mincing finely. What do you think?

Using Google Earth to map the garden

I'm noticing a lot of other bloggers like haphazard musings and creations, Heavy Petal, and Kerri Conan on Bitten writing up explicit garden plans and it's making me realize that I ought to do more than just stick my plants in the ground with the tallest in the back. This post from The Urban Garden Project in particular inspired me look into the book All New Square Foot Gardening and think more seriously about my plan. In a nutshell, Square Foot Gardening recommends building 4'x4' square plots which are divided into 16 one foot squares. How many plants you grow in each one foot square depends on the type of plant. The idea is that you can reach the entire plot from each side, and eliminate wasted space.

So I've started by just mapping out where my vegetable beds should be. I grabbed a screenshot of an aerial view of my back yard from Google Earth and used the ruler tool to draw a line representing 4 feet:

Using Gimp (you can also use photoshop, but Gimp has the advantage of being free) I traced out the house and the shed, and drew other features of the yard on a layer:

On another layer, using the reference line I drew in Google Earth, I drew squares which scale to 4'x4'. I dragged these around to come up with this tentative plan:

The good news is that with this plan, I won't have much work to do in terms of removing sod -- I cleared away the area to the east of the shed, and along the north wall last year and now there are just some sparse weeds growing there. The bad news is that even if I ditch the fifth veggie plot, according to Square Foot Gardening, four plots is major overkill for just one person. But I already have four each of my two types of tomatoes, three types of peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and squash started. So I don't want to throw those out. I'd also like at least 4-6 square feet each of beets, carrots, and beans, 1 square foot each of my 8 types of herbs, and at least 8 square feet of mesclun and arugula (planted two at a time, one week apart). That's about 64 square feet.

I might be giving a lot of veggies away to neighbors and perhaps a food bank.

How to Build a Compost Bin in 15 Minutes for about $30

I don't want to spend over $100 for a commercially made plastic compost bin, so I came up with my own solution using wire mesh fencing. I spent under $35 total for the materials and was pleasantly surprised at how quick and easy it was to put together.

Here's how to build a similar compost bin. You'll need four 3' light-duty steel fence posts (under $2 each), about 12' of 2' vinyl coated wire mesh fencing (about $27 for a 50' roll -- I'm going to use the leftovers to keep my dog out of the veggies), a mallet, and wire cutters. You can use 4' posts with 3' mesh if you want a taller bin but I wouldn't go any taller than that or it will be hard to turn the compost.
  1. Using a mallet, pound each of the four posts in to the ground in a rectangle until the top of the cross-bar is about level with the ground.

  2. If necessary, use a screw driver to pry open any of the hooks on the posts that have been smashed down.

  3. Hook the wire mesh to one of the posts to start. On the 3' posts, there are two hooks pointing up and two hooks pointing down. It's hard to align all four up at once, so I slip the wires into the top two hooks and pull down on the mesh a bit so the wires on those hooks bend. Then you can easily hook it on to the two bottom hooks and bend the wires back slightly so they all stay in place.

  4. Unroll the mesh, hook it to the three remaining posts, and again the the first one. Don't worry about pulling it tight -- it's okay to have a little slack. (If you pull it too tight at the top, the posts will bend towards each other.)

  5. Cut the horizontal wires one block past where you've hooked it onto the first post.

  6. Pound the t-posts into the ground further, so that the bottom-most horizontal wire is close to or touching the ground.
The Slow Cook has some really good tips on what to add to to your new bin.

Before pictures of the garden

After this post from Kerri Conan writing for Bitten, I'm much less ashamed to post a picture of my currently brown, crabgrass over-run garden area.

This photo was taken facing due north at about 2pm. (Cat included for scale.) The back property line of my yard spans two neighboring properties, hence the mismatched fence. The ivy on the left is covering a couple of tree stumps. I'm going to remove the ivy and just plant around the stumps and think of them as added charm.

This photo was taken facing north-west, also at about 2pm. The area in front of the shed gets full sun all morning, and in the summer, the shade will creep in later in the afternoon. This is where I planted the vegetables last year. This year I'm planning to extend the vegetable area out in front of the stumps more, and plant flowers along the back fence with the stumps as sort of a natural divider between the veggie area and the flower area. It's kind of haphazard, but I think it will work. I'm putting the taller plants further north, so they don't cast shade on the shorter plants.

Breaking ground on the white house garden today

From the White House Blog:

I love that Michelle is in the garden herself, doing the work with a simple garden rake, instead of hiring people to come in with a sod cutter. I also am in love with the idea of using this as an opportunity to educate children about where healthy food comes from.

Also via Garden Rant and the NY Times, this is the garden plan:

Seems really heavy on the leafy greens to me. No tomatoes? Cucumbers? Peppers? Using flowers in the borders is interesting though.

Crock pot corned beef with Guinness

I adapted a recipe from RecipeZaar. The original recipe calls for rearranging the beef and vegetables in the crock pot 8 hours in to make room for the potatoes and cabbage. That's more trouble than it's worth. You can cheat and microwave the potatoes and cabbage together in a bowl with some of the cooking liquid. I also found that while the original recipe called for a brisket, it worked just fine with a round -- a less fatty cut of beef which works better for slicing cold the next day for sandwiches.

The parsnips add a lot of flavor to the meat. If you are parsnip averse, you may want to substitute extra carrots.

3-4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 onions, quartered
3-4 pound corned beef brisket OR round
2 cans of Guinness
1 1/2 teaspoons of mustard powder
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
10-12 small potatoes (baby red, baby gold, or even Peruvian purple)
1 small head of cabbage, quartered

Mix together mustard, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and Guinness.

Arrange corned beef and onions over carrots and parsnips in crock pot. Pour Guinness mixture over everything. Set to low for 8-10 hours.

20-30 minutes before serving time, put potatoes, cabbage, and a few ladles of cooking liquid from the crock pot in a microwave safe bowl. Cover and nuke it for 20 minutes.

Shrimp and sausage gumbo

I loosely follow this Alton Brown recipe which includes a fool proof way to make roux (baking it in the oven) and a money saving trick to make shrimp stock from the shells. I use frozen shrimp that are deveined but have the shells on. The stock turns out fine for me even without the shrimp heads that Alton calls for. I don't measure the vegetables precisely -- I use one medium onion, one bell pepper, two stalks of celery, and about half a 16 oz can of tomatoes. I also went ahead and used the entire 12 oz package of andouille sausage though the recipe calls for half a pound. It turns out a little chunkier than Alton might have intended, but that's fine by me.

Adding the vegetable to the roux makes me wish I could capture a scent and post it on the internet. It's that amazing.

After adding stock, sausage, and shrimp; the finished product:

Served with brown rice (please excuse my old hand me down dishes):

Signs of Life: Seeds Sprouting!

There's something really satisfying about seeing your seeds sprout! One day there's just soil, and then all of a sudden there's a tiny plant poking out.

After a long four weeks of waiting, all 8 delphiniums have finally sprouted. Some were earlier than others. Here's one of the bigger ones:

Of the plants I started at the eight weeks till last frost mark, the alyssum was the first to sprout:

Just yesterday the basil popped up:

A teeny tiny chive:

If you look closely, you can see the doubled over, blue-green stems of two Roma tomato plants:

Still to make their grand entrance are the peppers, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, rosemary, catnip, and parsley. This weekend I'll be starting marigolds, scabiosa, and impatiens.

Even High Fructose Corn Syrup is on Twitter

An excellent entry in the Huffington Post by Tara Stiles explains how while HFCS may be metabolized by the body in a way that is identical to naturally occurring sugar, the fiber found in Real Food regulates the absorption of sugar and allows for the absorption of other nutrients. Without fiber, processed foods containing HFCS cause a spike in blood sugar, contributing to diabetes, with the excess sugar turning to fat.

The article also alerts us to the fact that someone is posing as anthropomorphized HFCS on twitter.

My favorite tweets:

"@allisonb17 Sound like someone will be turning to me for comfort in 4..3...2...1..."

"@Thinkreferrals A 4-day, veggie-only cleanse?? What's wrong with you humans? If I had a mouth I would've just thrown up in it a little."

"@stylestar I am delicious, and ubiquitous. What can I say? It's how man made me."

"@AdrienneAXK If you need to talk I'm here for you. Your ol' friend, high-fructose corn syrup. Happy to lend an ear. (That's a corn joke!)"

"@akrukowski A beverage without me is like coffee without a cigarette. (Perhaps that's not the best comparison...)"

"@Pandazing I don't photograph well. Comes with being a translucent liquid."

"@russmarshalek No doubt. My dream is to someday make it into a Kanye lyric. If anyone can rhyme something with fructose, it's Mr. West."

"@baileygenine Coffee's busy right now. We're playing cards with a bunch of fiber. Beatin' the crap out of 'em."

"@innovate Not part of any machine. Not a spokes-syrup for The Man. Just a complex carbohydrate lookin' to rid the world of syrupism."

If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes

What a difference a few days can make this time of year! After Monday's "big storm", we are about to have our first weekend of Spring-like weather. I'm psyched. I'm planning to put up some wire mesh fencing so that Max the dog can hang out with me, leash-free, in the back yard. I'm also hoping to break out the grill for the first time.

8 weeks till the last frost: planning and starting seeds

Here's a list of what I'm planting this year:

  1. Delphinium. It's not the easiest to grow but it's one of my favorite flowers.

  2. Lobelia. I'm taking a tip from Calendula and Concrete. I love things that bloom all summer.

  3. Alyssum. It's easy to grow and also blooms all summer.

  4. Marigold. Allegedly they repel mosquitoes.

  5. Scabiosa. These are leftover from last years cutting garden plan from target (which I don't recommend).

  6. Dianthus. Same as above.

  7. Impatiens. These are good in the shade.

  1. Roma tomatoes. These worked out great for me last year. I plan to make lots of salsa again, and maybe can some of them for winter. Not only are winter tomatoes tasteless, but there are some serious ethical issues with harvesting.

  2. Cherry tomatoes. These also worked well last year.

  3. Eggplant. This never got off the ground for me last year because I didn't start them early enough and they weren't in good soil with enough sun. But I'm trying again. I want to make baba ganoush.

  4. Mixed bell peppers. These also didn't work out last year for the same reasons as the eggplants.

  5. Poblano pepper. I wanted to try a new kind of pepper.

  6. Jalepeno pepper. I did get a few serranno peppers at the tail end of the year last year, but the birds ate them. This year I'm starting indoors and they should be ready in time for my summer salsa.

  7. Crookneck Squash. Another one that didn't work out that I'm trying again.

  8. Wax beans. This will be my first time planting these. They're supposed to be easy to grow, so I have my hopes up.

  9. Beets. I've also never grown these, but I just love beets. And I want something that I can harvest late in the year. I also love that you can use the greens as well as the roots.

  10. Cucumber. My cucumbers rocked last year. I made lots of tzatziki which I used to smother grilled fish. This year I hope to make some pickles too.

  11. Mesclun and arugula. This is my first time growing salad greens. I eat them several days a week and they're supposed to be pretty easy to grow.

  12. Carrots. This is also my first time growing carrots. These and beets are the first root veggies I've ever grown.

  1. Basil. So many uses, the most obvious being pesto.

  2. Oregano. This is really good tossed with cous cous and tomato (from Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Meals).

  3. Parsley. Again, so many uses.

  4. Catnip. Also allegedly repels mosquitoes. I'm hoping my dog will counter act its tendency to attract neighborhood cats. My cat hasn't shown much interest in catnip in the past, so I'm hoping she won't disturb the plants.

  5. Rosemary. Another supposed mosquito repellent. I'm growing a ton of this and will mix it in with both the flowers and the other herbs.

  6. Cilantro. I actually use this in my tzatziki instead of mint which I have a slight aversion to. I also use it on salad and in salsa. Fortunately for me, I'm not one of the poor souls who has the cilantro hating gene (found via IFA).

  7. Dill. For the pickles and for salads.

  8. Chives. For potatoes and omeletes.

Since we are now about 8 weeks from the last frost in this area (you can find first and last frost dates for the US and Canada here), I've just started the rosemary, alyssum, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, chives, oregano, basil, parsley, and catnip. A few weeks back I started the delphiniums, lobelia, and dianthus. I also threw some mesclun mix in a pot to start growing some salad to eat. The mesclun really wasn't happy so I ripped it up and started over today. The other seedlings were doing okay but not great. I've figured out that the sun from the window isn't enough and today I got a simple grow light which I've hung from the ceiling. Here's my little set up:

As you can see, Mimi the cat took advantage of the photo op.