Saturday, June 30, 2012

Our Kitchenless Adventure: Insalata Caprese Crostini

So far, our summer kitchen has worked out well; in fact, it has been so much fun trying to come up with recipes that are a) tasty, b) easy and don't require a big prep space, and c) can be grilled quickly (given that the evening temperatures are often over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I don't feel like standing out there cooking something, even under an umbrella), that I have taken to calling the whole enterprise "Our Kitchenless Adventure."

Last night, for example, I made an insalata caprese crostini:
Walu is in Chicago for a few days on a family emergency, so I'm cooking for one. This is the sort of recipe, however, that easily expands or contracts according to need.

For the crostini I used slices of a French country loaf that Market Street sells. It has a tiny bit of sourness to it that I really like--not quite as intense as sourdough, but it is there nonetheless. I dipped both sides in olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, then placed the pieces on the grill, directly over a burner for about 3-4 minutes.

After they were browned on one side, I took them off the grill, flipped the toasted sides up, topped with freshly grated parmesan, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and chopped basil that I am growing in a pot right next to our boffo summer kitchen sink:
(It turns out that picking sweet basil, washing it in a patio sink, and immediately throwing it onto something that is cooking on the grill creates some kind of culinary miracle. I'm not sure which part of that process is responsible, but something certainly is going on that doesn't happen with ordinary from-the-store-basil.) (Probably it is the patio sink part.)

Back on the grill with the crostinis, but this time off to one side of the burner to use indirect heat so that the cheese can melt before the untoasted side of the bread burns.

I was supposed to drizzle balsamic vinegar over it, but I forgot. It turned out that it didn't matter, though, as it was stunningly good even without it. A side salad, and I was good to go. In fact, my only mistake was that I should have made five pieces instead of three.

If this keeps up, I may never move back into my inside kitchen.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Our Summer Kitchen

Walu and I are having a little work done on our kitchen right now:

So I've set up a grill and an outdoor sink on the back patio to use as our "summer kitchen" until the real kitchen is finished:

Here is Walu rinsing off some fruit:

The water is hooked up to an outside faucet using Pex tubing, which is rated for potable water. It is the white tubing that you can see in this photo:

The black tubing is the drain, which is a 25' length that I move around in the garden and lawn, giving the plants a little extra boost of gray water. The dish soap won't hurt them:

So that I don't attract pests, when I dump out my dish water, I remove the food particles with the strainer shown in the photo.

Come dish washing time, I fill a plastic tub with hot, soapy water, scrub the dishes, rinse them off with cold water, and set them in a dish rack that I take inside before the flies figure out what is going on. If I cook fish or shrimp, I add an extra tub for a final, disinfecting rinse of 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of hot water. It isn't all that different from how we wash dishes on canoe trips, except that I get to use potable water instead of river water.

The sink is a simple, relatively inexpensive one that is meant to be used in camp or the garden, and after the inside kitchen is finished, I'll probably break it down and find another spot for it in the garden. Or...maybe not. I was outside washing dishes this evening while a local brass band was playing in a neighborhood park. I looked out over the garden while scrubbing dishes in the hot, sudsy water, listened to the distant music of the band, and a routine task was turned into something special. Naturally, I got to thinking that a more permanent outdoor kitchen would not be such a bad project to take on...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sharing the garden with dogs

It was never our intention to own four dogs, but you know how it goes: This one came from the shelter, those two were rescued from the puppy mill, that one given to us after he was found wandering around, matted and nothing but skin and bones.

When we just had three dogs, a schnauzer and two schnoodles, the garden fared pretty well alongside them, but the fourth, a handsome scottie, somehow tipped the balance. Maybe it was because he came to live with us the same summer of the Big Drought, when the heat and lack of moisture certainly didn't help the situation, but with the addition of his feet, the lawn simply disappeared. It didn't help, either, that we were having a lot of construction work done on our house this spring, and there was demolition of more than just old siding in the process:

Well, climate change has arrived to stay and we aren't getting rid of our dogs, so I decided that instead of fighting those two states of being, it would be more efficient to redesign the garden to accommodate both.

My plan is simple: Add hardscaping in areas that get heavy dog traffic and shade (which makes it hard for turf grass to grow, even under the best of conditions). They have well-worn paths they like to take, carving them into the turf in the shortest possible distance from the back door to the places they like most to go. One of those spots is directly under the pecan trees, where they like to chase around like banshees, barking at the squirrels overhead:

So I've added a terrace of crushed limestone gravel under the trees for their "squirrel chasing pad," and large flagstones directly in the paths they've made:

I used the crushed limestone instead of pea gravel because it packs down better, and forms a surface that won't shift under your feet as you walk. It is slightly more expensive than pea gravel, but much less expensive than decomposed granite. The dogs like it, and in fact, seem to prefer it to grass and my flower beds for doing, well, their "business." I like that, because it makes the dog waste easier to spot for cleanup and also keeps it out of my flower beds. The result: No more "Oops!" moments.

And of course, gravel does just fine under drought conditions. I know some people are resistant to the idea of xeriscaping because they think it is all "gravel and cactus," but truthfully, I think that limestone or decomposed granite, used as a design element and not just as a big "cover," adds to the beauty of a garden.

Hopefully, the addition of the flagstones will allow the grass enough relief to grow in. Even if it doesn't happen that way, however, it already looks better than the bare dirt that was there.

I'm not done with the hardscaping work for the garden makeover, but this was the most critical, so it was done first. I'm pleased with the results.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The garden, 1994-2012

My sibs came to LBB over Memorial Day weekend and we went through boxes and boxes of my mother's photos. To my surprise, we found some she had taken of our house back in 1994, just after Walu and I had bought it. Here is the front yard in 1994:

And here it is today:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More back yard before and after: setting flagstones

In addition to the gravel terrace, I am adding some large flagstones in areas that get heavy wear and tear from the dogs. This task was made much easier over the weekend when Walu gave me a Troy Bilt electric cultivator for my birthday. Naturally, I had to try it out right away:

With the cultivator, a task that normally would have taken me about three days to complete took all of an hour. Why oh why did I wait so long to ask for one?

My hope is that the stones will allow some of the Bermuda grass enough respite to grow back. Even if that doesn't happen, though, the flagstones will at least look better than the bare dirt.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Progress on the back garden: Gravel terrace completion

Not much time for chit chatting this morning, as I've got to get ready to teach my summer class on natural history illustration. Here are a few photos, however, of the progress I've made on the back garden makeover. I've started by building a gravel terrace in an area that gets very heavy, destructive traffic from the dogs (they like to race around under the pecan tree barking at squirrels).


During construction:


Two things I'd like to mention:
1) Those paver stones weigh 22 pounds apiece, and I laid every stinking one of them.
2) Walu is a hero for wheelbarrowing in all that gravel for me.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Make haste slowly

Next week we are gutting our 1942-era kitchen all the way to the studs and starting a summer-long remodel. The contractor comes on Thursday. We are hosting a party on Wednesday. Naturally, these two circumstances are conspiring to create just a wee bit of chaos in the Bike Garden.

Party inside, among the dust and mess of emptying the kitchen? Party outside, among the ragged remains and construction wreck* that is the former glorious back garden? Decisions, decisions.

Either way, as an introvert I find the hosting of a party stressful even under ideal conditions, but when my house is a disaster inside and out, well...

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that when you host a party, if you have even one messy room--say the one where you toss everything at the last minute and close it off just because you don't have time to clean every freaking square inch of the house--certain guests will always find their way into that room? It is as if some people are just not happy until they discover where you hide your clutter. Or maybe that's too harsh. Maybe, like my cat, they just can't abide not knowing what is behind a close door. In either case, I've decided that it is a law of the universe, because it has happened every time we've hosted a party. Every. Single. Time.

I find that the same thing happens in the garden. People saunter through the nice part, looking bored, until they happen to notice that there is this one little spot, tucked out of sight behind a fence...

I, of course, knowing that this is where I have piled the uncurled, squirrel-ravaged hoses, the broken rocks, the bags of sand, the scrambled chicken wire, the seven thousand or so empty plastic pots I have yet to recycle, make the mistake of saying, "Oh don't go there. That part's not finished yet."

Susan, Susan, Susan. Will I never learn? Because naturally this disclaimer creates the exact opposite of the desired effect, causing them instead to rush to the very place I want to hide in order to see what is there. Do I imagine a satisfied smirk when they gaze upon the shambles that await?

I dunno. Maybe it is just my imagination. Maybe people aren't looking for garden warts for the express purpose of satisfying themselves that I am not, in fact, a garden goddess. Maybe, as with the closed door of the house, they just want to see what's behind that fence.

(Listen, people, for the record, if I ever want you to see that part of the garden, I will take you by the hand and lead you there. Otherwise, be polite and ignore that fence. (Unless you are a fellow gardener, in which case, feel free, because you totally get the whole "work in progress" thing.))

I am being unreasonably worried about what others think, I know. However, there is a fair bit of self-imposed pressure to have a nice garden when you write a garden blog. I fret that people expect too much, that they expect my poor little garden to look perfect when it is usually anything but. In fact, from time to time when I'm trying to decide on a name for my garden, I go through all sorts of super-poetic variations well above its humble station, but always end up thinking I simply should call it Jardin de los Trabajos en Progreso**.

Part of the problem, too, is that I see what it is supposed to look like. I see it as clearly as I can see that my hands are my mother's, and in the very same way it is glorious. Glorious.

I want desperately for other people to know that the garden is not supposed to look like this--this tired, ragged, beaten up, downtrodden, neglected patch of dusty turmoil. It is supposed to look like the garden in my head. And it will someday. There is just this huge gap between the garden extant and the garden vision.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this as I was rushing to finish have the garden in some sort of respectable, garden-like state for the party next week--some semblance, if you will, to the garden that is in my head--even though I knew, deep down in my bones, it just wasn't going to happen. I mean, I have been trying to put in eighty, count 'em, eighty some-odd retaining wall blocks, each of which weighs twenty-two pounds, in order to create a sparkling desert courtyard terrace, the gravel for which will be deposited on our driveway on Monday.

Dig the trench, wrestle the 70 pound bag of sand to the edge, dump it in, lug a block over to the trench, dump the block in, tamp it down, level the whole shebang, repeat.

This has not gone as quickly as I might have hoped. For one thing, my back does not think it is a good idea to try to lay all eighty blocks on the same day.

Plus, summer school starts next Tuesday. Did I mention that?

Anyway, today I was in a small panic about this--no, not panic, really, more like a mild, cranky tension--when it occurred to me that I was not enjoying working in the garden as much as I usually do, owing to the aforementioned self-imposed pressure of wanting everything to be perfect for this party coming up, when there is no way in hell it is ever going to happen, even if I pull off a miracle. See above, "people finding the messy room, no matter what."

So you know what? I'm not even going to try. Shambles schmambles. Forget the clutter-seeking people! I'm going to take my time in the garden this summer, expectations--mine or anybody's--be damned. I am going to make haste a bit more slowly, savoring each and every moment of the garden construction. That is after all, why I do it--that and because the garden in my head will not let me be. In any case, this garden writer's garden momentarily looks like crap. But it will be beautiful someday. It will look like the garden in my head and it will be glorious.

And don't you dare look over that fence. Or open that door.

*We've already been through three months of construction on another part of the house, and much of the garden was trampled in the process.

**Garden of the Work in Progess