Monday, October 4, 2010

Chopped Eggplant

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't run across something that makes me think about my Grams.  A dirty joke (she could have a pretty raunchy sense of humor).  Calla Lilies at Trader Joe's (we would "paint" them with powdered chalk at Easter time). Sweet 'n Low packets at a restaurant (she helped herself to them - for her morning coffee at home). All kinds of random things.  Like our vegetable garden - I think often about how much she would have liked it.  She would have liked making her chunky mash of our carrots and turnips. Or maybe some sour-creamy borscht from the beets.  And then there are the eggplants.  No matter what the occasion, my grandma brought two dishes to all of our family gatherings - chopped liver and chopped eggplant.  Now, for me, the chopped liver was a no go.  But the eggplant? - that was another story. 


Gram's Chopped Eggplant (or as close as I can get it)

  • 1 large eggplant (she always used the common Black Beauty) or about 1 1/2 -2 lbs. other variety
  • 1 medium red pepper
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1/2 medium white onion
  • olive oil
  • vinegar
  • sugar
  • salt and pepper
post roast
  1. Pierce each eggplant a couple of times with a fork (they can explode in the oven if you don't!), place them and the pepper on a lined baking sheet.  Roast them at 400° until the eggplant begins to collapse and is easily pierced with a fork, 20-40  minutes depending on  the size.
  2. After roasting, place the pepper in a paper bag or tightly covered bowl till cool, 10-15 minutes. Set the eggplant aside until cool enough to handle easily.
  3. While you wait, dice the onion and tomato.  You want the pieces small, but not overly fine.  Think salsa. Add to a medium bowl.
  4. Scoop softened eggplant out of the papery skin into the bowl with the diced veg.  Discard skins.
  5. Peel and seed the pepper.  Give the pepper a rough chop and add to the bowl.
  6. Drizzle in olive oil - start with a good tablespoon.  Add a couple teaspoons vinegar - cider, white wine, plain white, whatever you like best.  Sprinkle with sugar - start with 1/2 a teaspoon.  Add a couple hearty pinches of salt and black pepper.
  7. Chop the whole mess up. My grandma always used a mezzaluna to chop her eggplant, but use what you have.  Two butter knives will do the trick.  Stop when you like the consistency. I've seen versions where it is blended. My grandma's was chopped by hand and still chunky.
  8. Taste and add additional seasonings as you like.  Put in an airtight container and let it sit in the fridge for a day or two for the flavors to meld.  You might adjust the seasoning again at that point.  Serve it cold or at room temperature.  Grams always served it with fresh rye and egg breads.  It's good on crackers, too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Garden Snake

Found this cool snake in the yard the other day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dog Burrito

Marty rolled himself into a nice package for some relaxing on the couch (with a little help from Jeremy).


A funny buddy.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Since the tomatoes started going off a few weeks ago, I have had two big saucing sessions.  I did two separate batches each time - one with all Amish Paste tomatoes, and one with a mixture of different varieties.  

For both batches, the first part was the same.  After blanching them for 60-90 seconds (depending on the size), the tomatoes went into an ice bath and then were peeled, sliced and seeded.  It is messy, but very easy to do.

With the mixed varieties, I spooned them into the blender and whizzed them up into a slurry.  I poured the puree into clean quart-sized jars, lidded and labeled them, and sent them off to live in the freezer until needed.
With the Amish Pastes, I set about making an actual simple tomato sauce.  I used Alice Waters' recipe from The Art of Simple Food - there's not much to it, but with tasty tomatoes it really makes a delicious basic sauce that you can use on its own or easily dress up in dozens of different ways.  To store, I did the same as above - into clean mason jars and into the freezer.

So this winter when we are looking for some bright summer flavor, I will most likely use the mixed tomato puree to make tomato soup - with croque monsieurs or other grilled cheese sandwiches, of course.  The simple sauce will eventually partner up with some meatballs as it is, or maybe be cooked down into a heartier bolognese, or possibly make it into a casserole dish as lasagna or eggplant parmesan or....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Meet the Tomatoes!

With such funny, mild weather this summer, it has taken until just the past few weeks for us to finally meet this season's tomatoes. 

the extended family

Back in April, when I planted the majority of the summer garden, I sowed seeds for nine tomato varieties directly into the upper bed.  Though I had planned to start seedlings and transplant, time lapsed (as it tends to do) and I skipped some steps and put the seeds straight into the ground.  The cotyledons sprouted quickly, and lovely strong plants followed.  We had huge, bushy plants for months with no fruit to speak of.  Slowly, at the end of August, the tomatoes finally started appearing.

Ox Hearts

Our only crop to get bloom end rot - not on all of them, but on enough.  I'd say good for saucing, but not the best eating tomato.  A little mealy.

Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge

The catalog described these as more beautiful than tasty.  Ours taste pretty good, but the beautiful swipe of  purple that's supposed to grace the top of the fruit has yet to show itself.
White Queen 

So delicious!  Firm, but fairly seedy.  Fruity, a nice touch of citrus, and really tasty.
Galo de Table

Yummy cherry.  A multi-colored variety.  They are ready to eat when they are yellow (firm and tangy), great at orange (sweet with good bite), and at orangey-red (very sweet and very juicy).
Emerald Green

This has been our most prolific thus far.  Really tasty and really large.  Sweet, but still nice and tangy.  The catalog mentions that they grow with ease and with relatively little heat - which has been true for us.
Black Cherries

So pretty and dusky colored.  Big producer with firm, rich-flavored fruit.  And delicious oven-dried.  (Thanks for the inspiration Livi and Steve!)
Amish Paste

I waited several years to finally get this variety.  I'd looked for seedlings at local nurseries and online, but they were always unavailable - at least when I was looking.  Part of settling on seed this year  was the impetus to finally have some Amish pastes. Totally worth it!  Not a great looking specimen, and not a great eating variety, but when it comes to making sauce this is holding up to the hype.  Big tomatoes, almost no seeds, great consistency and amazing, zingy flavor.

Of the nine different tomatoes that I planted, we are still waiting on two of them - they have plenty of fruit, but it's all still green.  Our giant German Red Strawberry was the first to ripen, but after that one ready fruit, the rest have stayed green.  Pink Ponderosa is also slow going. All of the seeds came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - which is one of the most fun, inviting, inspiring seed catalogs to peruse.  I definitely recommend indulging in a paper copy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lawn Part 1

I have been making steady progress over the last few weeks on getting our lawn in.  This marks one of the last remaining big projects for the back yard.  We had planned for a lawn area when we first started laying out our backyard a number of years ago.  Over the last few years, I have researched different grass varieties and began to think that it wasn't such a good idea given our water shortages in Los Angeles.  Yet, at the same time, we both love a good lawn game with friends and we love entertaining.  About 6 months ago, I found a grass that had a lot of promise.  Called UC Verde, it is a buffalo grass developed by UC Davis specifically for Southern California and arid regions.  It requires a quarter of the water that typical grasses require, and it needs little or no mowing.  Some people have not mowed their lawn in 2 years.

After reading a few blogs about people's experiences installing this grass variety, we decided to go ahead.  One thing though, the grass is only available in plugs.  When I first researched pricing in the Spring, there were only a couple of sources to purchase through, now the sources have multiplied and it appears you can even order it through Armstrong.  I ordered mine through Florasource.  Using their recommendations, I determined that about 800 sf of lawn and plugs spaced at 15" intervals would yield roughly 500 plugs.  Four 128 plug trays are arriving tomorrow.

For the installation, I first laid out the sprinkler system: 3/4" sprinkler valve, 3/4" lines, and 6 pop-ups. For the nozzles, I am using these Rainbird brand high efficiency rotary nozzles.  They put out less water per hour, this reduces runoff, allowing the water to soak in properly.  They are also elgible for rebates from the state (25 head min.) and are readily available from Home Depot or your local sprinkler supply house.  I use J. Harold Mitchell in Pasadena.  They are not the cheapest, but they will answer all your sprinkler related questions as well as having lots of hard to find parts.  I have used them extensively for our drip system in our vegetable garden.

Valves for the lower half of our yard.  The lawn sprinkler valve has the
3/4" pvc running down.

Trenching was the hardest part but a pick axe, trench shovel and full day's work will do.  Next, I layed  the pipe in the trenches and glued it up.  This is a pretty easy process.  Cut with the PVC cutter, coat the pipe and fitting with glue, hold together until set.

For the pop-up bodies, I am using a 12" Rainbird 1800 series pop-up.  I decided not to use the cheaper 6" since I thought if I allowed the grass to grow out I may have problems with it the heads adequately clearing the grass.  The pop-up and nozzle assembly is connected to the water line with a swing joint giving lots of flexibilty in adjusting the head as well as raising or lowering the height if need be.

Spinkler assembly: the 12" pop-up body is attach to 2 swing joints, then a
1/2' by 12" pipe, then 1 additional swing joint that is attatched to a threaded
3/4" 'T'.

After all piping and sprinklers are glued up, I removed the sprinkler heads and turned on the valve to flush the line of any dirt or debris.  I let this run for a few minutes before I turned it back off.  I screwed the heads on and turned the valve on again to check for orientation and spray radius.  At this point I just needed to make my final adjustments and fine tune the spray distance with the adjustable screw on top of the nozzle.

The sprinklers installation is complete.  Next up, Part Two: tilling, leveling, and planting.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


German Red Strawberry. Seeds from Baker Creek.

First one!  WOW.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Main Sewer Line Replacement Part 2

Last Sunday, I finished replacing the main sewer line.  First, I removed the temporary fix and demo-ed the rest of the clay pipe.

Next, I cut out the cast-iron segment back to about its midpoint under the house.  The cast-iron is a bit tough to cut through but can be done with a good carbide blade and a little patience.  I then connected the old 3" cast-iron pipe to the new 3" ABS pipe with a Fernco coupler and extended this out through the hole in the foundation.  Here I added a 3" to 4" ABS coupler and added a new clean-out all glued together with ABS glue.

The new clean-out.  There will be a short length of pipe as well as a cap added.

The rest was easy: I ran the rest of the pipe and re-connected at the street with a 4" coupler.
 This was the easy part.

I did buy a torque wrench on ebay to set the proper tension of the Fernco couplers.  These are made to be cinched to 6olbs.  I have guessed in the past but since these will be underground (and hopefully trouble free) for a long time, I thought it best to do it right.

All connected and ready to go.  Just need to fill in the trenches.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Main Sewer Line Replacement

About a year ago, our sewer backed up.  Needless to say, it was a mess and at after-hours roto-router pricing, costly to deal with.  We have a cleanout under the house for this sort of situation, but it being the old style cast iron, was rusted closed.  The plumber had to go through a waste stack in the roof.

I watched the plumber work and thought if it ever backed up again, I would do it myself at reduced cost.  I went under the house, reamed out the lead solder that held the cleanout plug and put in a rubber gasket - something that I could easily remove if need be in the future.  About six months after the original cleanout, our sewer was backing up again and so I went to Home Depot and rented a roto-router.  The process was quite simple, but back breaking, dirty work since the Home Depot routers while electric, do not have a self feeder mechanism.  My sewer backed up 2 more times in the following six months, so I decided the best bet was to open up the main sewer line and take a look.

What I discovered was that our sewer in the front yard was a clay design: composed of 4' sections with a hub and bell style connection, concreted together.  While there were fine roots attached to the hubs, the weak points, the main culprit was a 1" break where the sewer line started to drop down the hill in our front yard.

Trenched and ready to go.  The narrow pipe in front is the
1" copper main water line.  The 1" break in the clay sewer is in the
middle of the photograph.

 Here is a close up of the 1" crack just below the hub.  I cleared away the
roots to investigate.

I ran down to Home Depot to gather all the supplies I needed:
  • 1 - 8' length of 4" ABS pipe
  • 1 - 4" Fernco Flexible Coupling (both sides equal size for the ABS to cast-iron street connection)
  • 1 - 4" Fernco Flexible Coupling (one side larger than the other to connect the 4" clay to the 4" ABS)
  • 1 - 4" 1/8 bend elbow
The following I already had:
  • sawsall with carbide tipped blade (these will cut through cast-iron and clay)
  • hammer
  • ratchet set (to tighten the hubs)
The first step was to break the clay out with a hammer.  I broke up to the point above the crack where roots where infiltrating.  Next, I removed all the broken pipe down to the point where the clay pipe connected to the cast-iron street connection at the sidewalk.  The clay was originally connected to the cast-iron with a rubber coupling.  I removed this and stuffed the cast-iron end with a towel to prevent dirt and soil from clogging while I worked.

The root mass inside the broken clay pipes.

Next, I used my sawsall to cut a straight, clean cut on the existing clay sewer.  There were too many roots, so I cut again above the next clay hub.

Sawsall with carbide blade.
After cutting the clay pipe with the sawsall.
The root mass can be seen.  I ended up cutting above the next hub.

All that was left to do was to tie in the new pipe.  I first cut two pieces of ABS to the proper length.  Next, I tied in one piece to the clay with the Fernco rubber coupling.  Then, I added the elbow and the second piece to the elbow. Finally, I connected the ABS to the street with the second Fernco rubber coupling.  Since this was a temporary fix, I did not glue the elbow.  To ensure that everything was leak tight, I took my hose and ran water at the cleanout and checked for leaks (in the process of digging out the line, I discovered a buried clean-out where the sewer came out from under the house) 

The roots are on the left.  Once the pipe was broken
they came out in one mass.

New connection, tested and with some wood stakes to stabilize.
The copper line above the pipe is the 1" main water service to the house.

The process was surprisingly easier that I expected and orders of magnitude cheaper than hiring a plumber.  Within the next week or so, I hope to rip out all the rest of the clay sewer pipe and permanently tie in the brand new sewer line.

For Fernco couplings see here.  If you live in the area, for additional plumbing supplies, help and advice, I would highly recommend Red Supply.  They are only open during the week.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Turnip Pickles

Jamie Oliver is a favorite of mine.  I have loved his rough, unfussy style in the kitchen for some time and was so happy when he combined his cooking ethos with product out of his own (outrageous) garden.  On "Jamie at Home" each episode is themed around a particular ingredient grown (mainly) on his own property - "tomatoes", "peppers", "eggs" - you get the idea.  Last year we started DVRing the series and, though I don't actually know how many episodes there are in all, we now have 22 of them recorded.  There is also a book.  "At Home" has a really messy, get-your-hands-dirty kind of vibe and Jeremy also immediately became a big fan.

One of our favorite episodes is titled "Pickles" and we have used a sort of all-purpose recipe from it with great results.  Over the summer we used it to preserve an abundance of eggplants from the garden.  Unsure how they would turn out or what we might use them for, it turns out that pickled eggplant is both tasty and versatile.  It is great used as a spread on the toast of a fried egg sandwich. Adds a kick to turkey sandwiches.  It has also starred as an option in one of our Mediterranean mini-feasts with warm flat bread, hummus, olives, feta, etc., In any case, last month I set out to try the recipe on this season's first harvest of turnips.  The recipe is meant to be good for use on any vegetable that will stay firm after 2-3 minutes of blanching - mushrooms, zucchini, onions...  This is my take on Jamie's suggestion for a flavory, quick pickle:

I stuck a bit of beet into the mix as well, for a little shot of color.

  • turnips (in this case), 2 pounds - cut into sticks about 1/2 inch thick
       pickling liquid
  • cider or white vinegar, 4 cups
  • water, 4 cups
  • kosher or sea salt, 2 tablespoons
       pickling marinade
  • olive oil, 2 cups
  • garlic, 5 cloves roughly chopped
  • fresh red chili, chopped
  • dried oregano or other favorite herb, 2 tablespoons
    1. Have some sterilized jars ready to go.
    2. Bring vinegar, water and salt to a rapid boil in a large pot.
    3. In a large bowl, add all marinade ingredients and mix/mash together well.
    4. Add turnips to the boiling liquid and cook for about 3 minutes.
    5. Lift the veg out of the liquid with a strainer or slotted spoon and add directly to the bowl of marinade.  Toss very well.
    6. Straight away, add the hot turnips to the clean jars, filling to the top and covering with the marinade.  Seal the jars tight and let cool.
    7. Store in a cool, dry spot and wait at least two weeks for the flavors to meld before you get eating. 
    I know that everyone has their own comfort level with canning/preserving techniques.  Jamie Oliver just sealed the hot pickle in the jars and left them unprocessed and in the pantry.  That's what I did as well, refrigerating only after I opened the jars, with great results.  He says that they can be kept that way for up to 3 months.  I suppose they could be easily processed in boiling water or just stuck directly into the refrigerator after making them if one had any worries about food safety.  Whatever your preference, the recipe is really simple and very tasty.  I think I'll try it with some of our fennel next!

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010


    Last Friday morning (while I was laying poolside in Hawaii) Jeremy accepted an enormous delivery of mulch back at the Rancho.  Instead of taking it to the dump, Finch's Tree Service brought a dump truck full of chipped branches and leaves and unloaded it right in front of the house.


    As you can see in the picture, my car is parked just feet behind the huge mound and is about half the size of it.  Our plan is to lay a thick layer of mulch over as much of the unplanted areas of the backyard as possible - both to (fingers crossed) keep the weeds at bay and add organic material to the dusty, clay soil.

    Jeremy made amazing progress on the pile over the weekend.  And, with a few loads between the two of us after work last night, the monster in the driveway is now about 1/3 of its original size.  After we finish getting it moved entirely we'll post pics of how it's really helped transform the weedy spring yard!

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    Garden Salad

    The first of the fennel came ready this week.  The bulbs are still really small, but the color and the soft, wispy greens are truly beautiful.  I went out into the garden to harvest cauliflower for my Auntie Hannah's pasta, and was inspired to make a small salad to go with the meal.  I plucked up one of the larger fennel bulbs, snipped a bunch of new growth from one of the parsley plants, and picked a few bright nasturtium flowers.  Just a few things I passed in the patch that jumped out at me in the moment. 

    Onto a dinner plate, I used my japanese ceramic slicer to thinly shave the fennel.  On top of the fennel, I layered the roughly chopped parsley and torn flower petals.  I sprinkled it with sea salt and fresh pepper, our "good" olive oil, and a healthy squeeze of lemon. Done.

    The quick bit of inspiration from the garden was fresh, crispy, cool, and a fun combo of flavors.  It went well with the savory pasta and, as Jeremy was quick to comment, was super pretty! 

    So definitely not so much a "garden salad" garden salad.  More just a salad from our garden.

    Friday, March 19, 2010

    Cauliflower Pasta from the Rancho

    Several years ago my mom described to me, in great detail, a meal that she had eaten at my aunt and uncle's house.  A simple pasta dish, but one that she had found so surprising and delicious that she couldn't stop talking about it.  My Aunt Hannah had cooked down loads of onions on the stove top until they were soft and sweet, and then added very roughly chopped cauliflower.  After the the veg had cooked awhile, she seasoned it with salt and crushed red pepper, mixed it with penne pasta, and topped it with grated pecorino romano cheese.  It sounded fine, I thought, but not necessarily warranting this extent of my mom's praise.  I decided I would have to make it myself to see what the fuss was all about.  My mom couldn't have been more right.  The dish was simple, with few ingredients, but highly delicious.  Not overly rich like macaroni and cheese or alfredo sauce, but creamy and flavorful, and really satisfying.  It quickly became a favorite.  It also set cauliflower as an absolute given in our garden.  Despite attracting colonies of dusky, gray aphids to our vegetable beds, I have increased the number of seeds sown each year.  Last night, in celebration of getting to spend more time in the garden after work now with day light savings, I harvested our first two heads of the season and made my aunt's delicious dish.

    Ultimately, I found out that my aunt had adapted it after seeing Mario Batali prepare it - on television I think.  Following is my interpretation of hers.

    Auntie Hannah's Cauliflower Pasta

    • red onions, 4 large - cut into 1/8 inch half moons
    • cauliflower, 2 large head - cut roughly into large chunks
    • flat leaf parsley, 1/2 cup or more - chopped
    • zest of 1 lemon - I like long strips, but grated could work, too
    • crushed red pepper flakes - I like quite a lot, but to your own taste
    • salt
    • good olive oil
    • Pecorino Romano, or other salty, hard cheese -1 cup grated
    • Penne or fusilli, 1 bag

    1.  Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat.
    2.  Add onions.  Sprinkle on a couple hearty pinches of salt to get them going.  
         (It seems like way too much, but they will cook down significantly.)
    3.  Cook 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and beginning to color.
    4.  Add cauliflower. Stir to combine. Continue cooking until cauliflower softens to desired bite.  

    note:  The softer it is, the creamier/saucier the dish turns out.  We like some whole pieces of cauliflower left.  I usually cook it at this phase for 20-25 minutes.  The smaller pieces break down, with the larger pieces staying whole and more firm.

    5.  While cauliflower is cooking, heat salted water and cook pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving some pasta water.

    6.  When cauliflower is softened, add pepper flakes, zest, and parsley.  Stirring gently to combine.  Taste for seasoning, adding salt if needed.
    7.  Add pasta. Add in stages, until you have the ratio of veg to pasta that you prefer. (I don't usually use quite all of the pasta.)  Gently combine.
    8.  Add cheese.  Combine.  Use reserved pasta water if you need to loosen the dish to desired consistency.
    9.  Serve.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Yard Projects

    middle patio - before

    The new goal is to complete all of our yard infrastructure by Summer.  A couple of Fridays ago I made significant progress towards this end by completing our middle patio.  A month ago I dug down and leveled the patio, hauled the excess dirt to various other areas of the yard and moved 10 or so wheel barrow loads of gravel base.  The following weekend I moved the remaining sand as well as the pavers that we had left after finishing our patio.  To finish the area off, I leveled the pavers (24"x24" 'Broadway Pavers' from Bourget Brothers) and bought and moved the gravel (14, 100lb bags of 3/4"-1/2" Del Rio gravel from Throop).

    middle patio - gravel base 2/13

    middle patio - complete (mostly) 2/27

    My next step is to finish edging and dressing the top of the vegetable bed broken concrete walls:

    dressing concrete

    After that I will finish the planter south of the patio, which includes weeding, drips for the future fruit trees, painting the fence, finishing and setting the electrical pullbox, backfilling and dressing the top of the broken concrete wall.  This area will get a nice healthy layer of mulch - one thing I wish I had done comprehensively over our yard a long time ago.

    planter south of patio

    Next, clean, final grade and plant out of the middle hill:

    middle hill - almost ready for succullents

    Then the lower patio:

    lower patio - lots of work needed here

    Lastly, there is the lawn area as well as the lower planting beds.  We also need to figure out where the chicken coop is going...