Monday, April 28, 2008

A commercial, of sorts

Okay, so you may have seen those ads for the FURminator, a shedding tool that is touted to work better than rakes, combs or grooming brushes. They are hideously expensive but guaranteed to perform.

After we bathe the dogs, there is always a two to three day period of massive shedding, which is probably stress as much as anything...the bath is a traumatizing experience for them, even when it goes well. You can just say "you want a bath?" to our dogs and the ears will go down and the dogs will slink away; one will even go upstairs and hide under the bed if you ask her. So we try not to use the "b" word around them.

At any rate, back to the shedding: it's a mess that begins in the shower when they are being bathed. They lose a ton of fur in there. Then they get dried off and leave a ton of fur on the floor, in the towel, and on the carpet. It's always a big mess.

So I bought a FURminator a few months ago. I tried it on the dogs just to see how it would do (I didn't do it after a bath, I just did it to try it). It worked pretty well; well enough that I didn't feel the urge to return it, at least.

Fast forward to this past Saturday, when Bernice had a bath. She shed a lot more than she usually does during the bath, which was impressive in and of itself. And Saturday night and Sunday morning, she was a walking explosion of fur. You could see it just hanging off her. So on Sunday, I took her outside with the FURminator and got to work. Thirty minutes later, the results were shocking.

The commercials weren't exaggerating. Jess and I took pictures, but it's hard to tell from the pictures just how much undercoat this thing took out. It was quite impressive. We could have made a coat for a medium-sized dog out of the fur that came off her! Meanwhile, the cats seemed to be amused by the process and came out to watch, which is unusual, because they usually hide under the house when the dogs are out.

Beginning the process. Note that the dog is thoroughly focused on the cats, who are just out of the picture.


The finished furpile...

And as seen from a different angle. No angle was really good enough to dramatize this.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Is it just Long Island...

...or does the produce everywhere suck right now?

We use a lot of fresh produce: bell peppers, lettuces, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, scallions, cilantro, carrots, cabbage, lemons and limes, among other things. Lately, not only has the price of everything skyrocketed, the quality has gone into the toilet!

At least that's how it is here. White onions are often either green or they're moldy. Bell peppers are mushy; carrots are rubbery. Cilantro is yellow and brown, instead of its usual deep green. You can't find a good looking lime to save yourself: the rinds are spotted and tough to the touch. Scallions are wilted and even slimy. Cabbage tastes bitter instead of sweet. And the zucchini looks as though it was rescued from a dumpster.

Okay, so city folks: you have the fresh produce markets on the corner all over the place; is the produce below par in the markets? And for those of you who aren't in New York, is the produce bad where you are? And is the price terrible? $2.29 for a head of iceberg lettuce is ridiculous!


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Planting mania(c)

Yes, I haven't blogged in weeks, and now two entries in one day – I've been somewhat sidetracked with spring.

You see, when we moved into this house three years ago, I really wanted to spruce up the backyard. It was nice enough when we moved in, what with our having hired the landscaping people to come in and clean up what landscaping was already there and seed some new grass since there was very little there. The landscapers didn't add anything, mind you, they simply spruced up what was there. There were some very large ivy beds at the back and on the east side of the yard, which had some trees in them; the landscapers shaped and edged them. The bed on the east had two forsythia side by side, and a lilac tree, with a single stand of daffodils, a single stand of wood hyacinth, and a tiny smattering of vinca minor. They trimmed back the forsythia in that bed and that was about it.

The bed in the back had a number of trees along the fence line, a few forsythia branches, a couple of small sassafras, several stands of wood hyacinth and several stands of daffodils. That bed was only shaped and edged, no pruning.

That year, we planted a Kwanzan Cherry in the back bed. It's pretty, but it's still not filled all the way out. It needs a couple more years to be stunning. Last year, I was very disappointed with it because I thought it should have bloomed more profusely. After all, this was its second year in the ground. But it was a rather weak showing of blooms.

But I digress. The backyard has been something I have wanted dress up from the beginning and, two years ago, I set about creating a plan for a perennial shade garden. I had seen a number of such gardens described in plant catalogs and such, but most of them weren't appropriately designed to the size of my space or weren't completely pet-safe. I also prefer perennials with a longer bloom period than two weeks, and those aren't easy to find, especially in a shade plant. They didn't all have to be long bloomers, but I wanted at least a couple of items to be able to run through an entire season. I also wanted a variety of plants so that the are bloomed in stages; that would make it nice from spring to late summer.

This year, I finalized my garden drawings and was ready to start buying. I created an Excel spreadsheet to get an idea of the cost, since I knew it wasn't going to be cheap. It was more expensive than I had thought. What's worse, one of the large nurseries here had some of the plants I needed as already grown, which offers instant gratification when planted, and being somewhat impatient when I am working on projects such as these, I am all about instant gratification. Naturally, the already-grown plants are more expensive than the small ones or the bare-root catalog stock. But I would not be deterred from the task at hand. As you read in my last post, I began buying some things here and there. A little here, a little there, a little more here, a lot more there, and before I knew it, I had spent a small fortune. But it's mostly done, and I think it's going to look great. In just the last four days, I've planted more than forty items.

I may need more than one sitting to post all this; it feels like "The Twelve Days of Christmas": 15 small Purple Dragon lamium; 9 Illumination vinca; 5 Coral Bells Obsidian heuchera; 5 small Brise d'Anjou polemonium; 4 Bridal Veil white astilbe; 3 large Bressingham Purple polemonium; 3 large Purple Dragon lamium; 3 Pink Skyrocket tiarella; 2 small bleeding heart in red; 2 Visions in Pink astilbe; 1 large bleeding heart in red; 1 large bleeding heart in white; 1 columbine in pink; 1 double columbine in deep purple; 1 Silver Fire andromeda; 1 azalea in lavender; 1 Sappho rhododendron; 1 Hachmann's Charmant rhododendron; 1 male Japanese Skimmia; and 1 mountain laurel in pink. I still have to add a few plants later in the season that haven't yet arrived in the nurseries.

I also bought 6 clematis vines, which weren't for the shady area, to cover some fencing that desperately needs it.

So pictorially, here's how it's shaping up, and don't forget, we're dealing with shade here, so some of these pictures won't be the greatest (click on the picture for a larger version):

The back bed had a nice dramatic curved line to work with already, so I am emphasizing that. Here, just to the right of the pansy pot, you see a small, yellow variegated leaf polemonium Brise d'Anjou, and further up right, a large Bressingham Purple polemonium. These have fern-like foliage and the flowers have a very light and wonderful fragrance that doesn't you have to stop and bend over to smell them.

Here's a close-up of the beautiful blooms.

This is the pink columbine; the flowers are so intricate they almost seem unreal.

These are the double columbine. They are called double because they produce a flower with many more petals or stamens/anthers than the original type. I am not particularly crazy about the double columbines, but I really liked this color.

On the left, you see the white bleeding heat, with the pink columbine in the foreground.

Here's the red bleeding heart, which was placed by the Hachmann's Charmant rhodo.

I created a cluster of the tiarella and framed it with the obsidian heuchera. It's very pretty. The tiarella also have a very faint but lovely fragrance, and their variegated foliage is interesting.

See the little yellow leaves in the center of the photo? Those are the Illumination vinca. They will develop tiny purple flowers and will line the border of the back ivy bed.

This is also a vinca, but the traditional type, and these were already in the east bed, though only a few. The flowers you see here will be like the ones that will bloom on the variegated "Illumination" version. They bloom for weeks.

This is a Silver Fire andromeda. It flowers in spring like a regular andromeda (see below) but it has a variegated leaf instead of solid green. The bonus is that once the flowering stops and the new foliage begins to sprout, the new foliage starts as this gorgeous coral-red shade and matures into the white-lined green leaf. This one I put in the bed in the front of the house where we had a rhododendron that didn't survive a harsh winter from the year before last.

Here's what the flowers of a traditional andromeda (also known as Japanese mountain laurel) look like.

This is the azalea, which is also in the front of the house. It replaced a holly bush that didn't make it through that same harsh winter I mentioned before. It hasn't bloomed yet, but as you can see, it has loads of buds.

In the foreground, you see the Purple Dragon lamium, which is a ground cover. The leaves are almost silvery, with a dark green edge, and the bloom is a lovely shade of magenta-purple. to the right and above is the Sappho rhododendron. I am very unhappy that its first day in the ground, it was ambushed by fracking squirrels who ate most of its buds! And today I went out to find the rest of them gone. Arrgh!

This has nothing to do with the shade garden, it's just the blooms on my peach tree. Unfortunately, due to the way it was shaded last season by the forsythia, I only got six blooms on the peach tree this year! That is so disappointing. Given the track record of peaches making it from bloom all the way to production, I will only get about three peaches from the tree this season, and that's only if the squirrels leave them alone. This is the tree's third season and these will be the only peaches I will have had from the tree, ever (if they even produce). The first season, you pinch all the blooms to give the tree branch production, so no peaches. The second season, those fracking squirrels ate the peaches while they were still green.

This is one of the hosta beds next to the house. I didn't plant anything here, just wanted to show what it looks like. Jess' mom and dad had planted these beds, and they are just beautiful when they are at mid season.

The other hosta bed on the west side of the walk. This shot was taken two weeks ago...

...and this one was taken yesterday, after I had added the obsidian heuchera for accent. See how much they've grown?

Okay, that's it for now. More to come later.

Party time

So a couple of weeks ago, we hosted a little party for the people in Jess' office. I was going to blog about it after my "Tired!" post but gardening kept getting in the way. So, I'll talk a little bit about it now.

We decided that we wouldn't do as much cooking for this event as we had for past events, and we narrowed it down to a few things I would make and then we would supplement that with frozen appetizers that could be heated and served on the spot. The Trivection oven makes that a snap, and cuts the baking time for most of those items to about 6-7 minutes (20 minutes in a conventional oven) so I just thought that would be perfect. I was so sure that this would be an easy party that I didn't hire a helper to heat and serve food and mix drinks so I could enjoy it.

At any rate, we decided the menu would consist of several appetizers, a 'mid-way' dish, and a dessert. Our appetizers were a made-from-scratch seven-layer dip; orange chicken; florentine and lorraine mini-quiches; chicken taquitos served with a sour cream and sweet corn relish dip; and chips with assorted salsas. Our mid-way dish was Penne Bolognese; and our dessert was a four layer chocolate cake, which you saw the construction of in the prior post.

I made up a gallon of hand-squeezed Margaritas to have on hand. Since I am also a good bartender, I usually custom-make other drinks for guests, but without having disposable barware on hand, we wound up with a ton of glasses to wash after the party. That was dopey. But I got rave reviews on my pear martinis and mojitos.

Jess did a major job of house cleaning while I was prepping food. Thank god, because that was a big job. Mail had to be sorted and tossed, carpets shampooed and vacuumed, floors vacuumed, bathrooms cleaned.

The seven-layer dip was quite a production. I don't like most recipes for seven-layer dips; people have produced so many shortcuts to the original idea that most aren't that great. I wanted mine to be hearty and taste very fresh, so I went the hard way. It would take more than two hours start to finish. But oh, my, was it good.

Making the guacamole (my favorite ingredient) took eight avocados, along with lime juice, onions, chopped garlic, scallions, cilantro, cumin, chili powder, jalapeno pepper, and salt. I usually add some diced tomato, but didn't since seven-layer dip has a layer of tomatoes and it would be redundant.

So here's the start of the dip:

I began making the guacamole. Eight avocados were cut up in the bowl and covered with lime juice, but not mashed. I like my guac chunky!

Adding the onions, garlic, chili powder and cumin...

...and finally, the jalapeno, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste.

Okay, I only have so much time, so I'll cut to the chase and show the finished product. Layer 1 is refried black beans, to which I added chili powder, cumin, salt, and cilantro. Once they were delicious, they were spread on the bottom of the 9x13" pyrex. Layer two was one lb. ground beef which I seasoned with my from-scratch taco seasoning. Layer three was 1 lb. Kraft Mexican Four-Cheese blend with taco seasonings. Layer four was 24 ozs. of sour cream. Layer 5 was thinly sliced lettuce. Layer 6 was cherry tomatoes which had been sliced in half. I use cherry tomatoes or Campari® small tomatoes during when home-grown tomatoes aren't available. They come a lot closer to real tomato taste than the cardboard-flavored full-sized tomatoes. Layer 7 was 4 chopped scallions.

Here's the finished chocolate cake, which was sinfully rich. I cut it into 20 slices, that's how rich it was. I served it with ice cream, because to eat it on its own was just too much.

The food all turned out terrific, but man, oh, man, I will never have another party like that without help! I was so busy mixing drinks and coordinating the continuous supply of food that I didn't get too much time to enjoy the party. Fortunately, some people hung out in the kitchen and chatted with me so that I got to enjoy the company even if I couldn't join the party.

Pear Martini
3 parts Ketel One® vodka
2 parts Mathilde® Pear Liqueur
2 parts Hero® Pear Nectar
1 part pineapple juice

Fill shaker 1/3 way with crushed ice. Mix and pour ingredients over ice, cover and shake well. Pour into martini glasses and garnish with a mint spring, ripe pear slice, or fresh pineapple chunk.

(Hero brand pear nectar is the absolute best. Kern's will work, but you will need to use three parts, since it is much more diluted)

Serves 2-4

3 ripe avocadoes (no brown in inner flesh!)
3 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
2 Tbsp. finely diced white or red onion
1 Tbsp. cumin
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 scallion, chopped, including green parts (don't use wilted parts)
1 large clove garlic, minced finely
1 jalapeno pepper, (remove ribs and seeds) diced finely
1 Campari® tomato, diced
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Make a lengthwise cut in each avocado, starting at the stem cap and going to the bottom of the fruit and up the back in the same way, ending at the stem cap. You will slice around the pit. Holding the avocado horizontally in one hand, gently twist the sliced avocado apart with the other hand. Carefully but firmly sink your knife into the pit and twist to remove. Make three diagonal cuts on each half, then make three diagonal cross-cuts. Use a serving spoon along the inside of the skin to scoop out the fruit, and you will have perfect chunks. Pour the lime juice over the chunks; sprinkle the cumin, chili powder and garlic powder evenly over the chunks and then add the remaining ingredients. Fold ingredients in gently with a spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. It's now ready to serve, but you can use a fork to continue to blend if you like it smoother.

NOTE: The writer cannot be responsible for your cutlery prowess or the sharpness of your knives, both of which are highly important! You should only use this cutting method if you are a seasoned professional with a knife. I also never use garlic from a jar in guacamole - it's wrong! I add the powdered garlic to give it another layer of flavor.