Container Gardening

Help! I have a problem. It's an addiction, really.

I can't stop buying plants. And so, because I have to have a place to put said plants, our sidewalk is being taken over by a proliferation of pots.

Since I lasted updated you, I have added a few more. Some coreopsis that eventually will be planted in the perennial garden I'm about to start. Some lovely marigolds. A yellow pepper plant to grow next to my green one. An eggplant plant. Some other little flowers I couldn't resist. (Don't worry, there was a big sale at the greenhouse, so I hardly spent a thing for all of it!)

Now the plants are growing merrily. And Conservative Boy is threatening to hide the keys to my car so I can't return to the greenhouse ever again. Ha. What about my perennial garden? At least for that I won't need more pots ...


Making Cheese

Yes, you read that right. Making cheese. Not making a grilled ham and cheese or macaroni and cheese. But actually making cheese.

I've been reading (or, rather, slowly savoring) Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And when I got to June (the chapters take you through a year of food life), I absolutely couldn't resist making cheese. That's because Kingsolver made it sound like such a fantastic process. (I also want to move to a farm and grow all of my own food now, but that's another story. For now, we'll stick with the cheese.)

So I hopped on the website for New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. and purchased a book on cheesemaking and a cheesemaking kit—complete with everything you need (except the milk) to make up to 30 batches of mozzarella and/or ricotta.

Here's the kit. It comes with a recipe booklet, 8 oz. of citric acid, 8 oz. of cheese salt, 1 yd. of cheesecloth, a dairy thermometer, and 10 rennet tablets.

And so my cheesemaking adventures begin.


Banana Cream Pie

Have you noticed I'm in a pie-making mode lately? After trying to pies I'd never made before—strawberry rhubarb and buttermilk—I decided it was time to go with an old favorite I used to love when I was younger. Banana cream. Yum.

Only this time, rather than using the version that calls for instant pudding (easy, yes), I opted for a recipe that has you make the filling from scratch. It goes a little something like this (adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook):

1 baked pastry shell

4 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

2 1/2 cups half-and-half

1 tbsp butter or margarine

1 1/2 tsp vanilla

3 medium bananas
whipped cream

1. Prepare baked pastry shell (any good single-crust pastry recipe will do the trick)

2. Separate egg yolk from whites; discard the whites.

3. In a medium saucepan combine sugar and cornstarch. Gradually stir in half-and-half.

Cook and stir over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly; reduce heat. Cook and stir for about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Lightly beat egg yolks with a fork. Gradually stire about 1 cup of the hot filling into yolks. Add egg yolk mixture to filling in saucepan.

Bring to gentle boil; reduce heat. Cook and stir 2 more minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla and butter.

No—not that kind of Butter!

This kind.

4. Slice and arrange 3 medium bananas over the bottom of the shell.

Pour warm filling in shell and bake in a 325-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for about one hour. Chill 3 to 6 hours (or as long as possible before you can't resist eating it). Top with whipped cream and take blurry photos before serving.

(Pardon those blurry photos. Have I mentioned lately how much I'm dying for a digital SLR? Please contact me if you would like to donate to my cause. Or if you have any requests for my next pie-making adventure.)

Vegetable Gardening

Look! I had to share this with you. It's the lovely flowers on my crazy cucumber plant.

And, while we're at it, how about the first peek at my tomatoes?


Containing Her Glee ...

... at the fact that Butter has taken to peeing on a John McCain sign in one of the yards they pass on their daily walks.

Attaboy, Butter. I knew you were a smart fellow.

A Bottle of Wine (Minus the Bottle)

No, I'm not saying I drank an entire bottle of wine in one sitting or anything of the sort. (Although it will be gone soon.) Rather, I started drinking a bottle of wine that didn't come in a bottle. Instead, it came in this:

The wine is called Bandit, and it's made by Three Thieves. But what makes it so interesting is that is comes in a Tetra Pak—essentially, a tall, skinny juice box that holds a liter of wine. Intrigued yet? I was, which was why I had to try it out.

You see, this isn't like your typical boxed wine. The Tetra Pak is taller and skinnier, and it's made to go anywhere, so you can take it to parties or the beach or what have you and not have to worry about breaking glass. (Although whether I'd drink it out of something other than a real wine glass is a different story ...)

According to the packaging, there are 10 reasons why you should drink Bandit (I added the parenthetical notes, in case you're wondering):

1. Because it tastes good! (I may not be a wine expert, but I agree it tastes pretty darn good. And others have said so too.)

2. 33% more wine (1 liter vs. 750 ml). (And it's under $10—yippee!)

3. Lower shipping weight = less fuel emissions.

4. 96% wine, 4% packaging. (Why waste money on packaging? they ask. I concur.)

5. No corked wine. (A boon for those camping trips, outdoor concerts, and the like when you forget the corkscrew, eh?)

6. Wine to go-go! (Yeah-yeah.)

7. 1 truckload of empty bandit cartons = 26 truckloads of empty glass. (Whew.)

8. Made largely of renewable resources. (Actually, this one is a bit sketchy of a claim in my book.)

9. You can toss it in your cooler. (Or across the yard to your friend while playing washers, assuming the lid is on.)

10. You can crush it on your forehead when you're done! (Mine isn't finished yet so I can't confirm or deny this statement. Ask me again tomorrow.)

The biggest problem is that the United States is (big shocker here) behind on its ability to recycle Tetra Paks. So in most places, you probably can't recycle that Bandit container like you would your glass wine bottle. And shipping the paks a long way to a recycling center that will take them isn't exactly environmentally friendly, is it?

But, at least, it's a step in the right direction. And kind of fun, too.

Hopefully it will catch on even more here, like it has elsewhere. In fact, on Little Views, I actually read that wines purchased in Tetra Paks now equal those purchased in bottles—in Italy! If the Italians do it, am I going to jeer? No way.

You can learn more about the pros and cons from The Wine Conversation. Then, if you're so inclined, stop scoffing at the notion of boxed wine (it's not a box, remember people?) and go try it for yourself.

If you feel like stopping by tonight, I might even share a class of my Bandit 2005 Merlot with you. Maybe.

Photo: Slice

Letting Butter Talk (Part 4)

C'mon, Julie.

It's Friday afternoon. Why are you still working? We're supposed to be outside playing right now.

Don't try to ignore me! I mean right now.

If you think I won't sit here and paw at you until you play with me, you're crazy.


Cowboy Boots

As a little girl, I rode horses. We even had a few horses of our own over the years—Rose, the sweet mare who spent her fair share of time in arenas with the steers and cowboys; Brownie, our precious pony (who, unfortunately, lived a short life); and my very own horse, Too Classy Gypsy, who had a beautiful painted baby I named Way Too Classy.

I even participated in a few rodeos—barrel racing and pole bending with the other kids—and rode in a coupla cattle drives in my day.

But I refused to wear cowboy boots.

Time out. That's not completely accurate. For a short time I coveted—and eventually received—a pair of bright red lace-up boots. They were all the rage then and I just had to have a pair. Of course, after I wore them about two times I realized cowboy boots—even shiny new red lace-ups—weren't my thing. So they sat in the garage after that and I went back to wearing my sneakers when I rode.

And, other than that, I refused to wear cowboy boots.

So why are these on my feet?

Because when I went back to Montana last month for my grandfather's memorial service, I realized as we were wandering around downtown that I needed them. Or, at least, a pair of cowboy boots to wear with my dress to the memorial service. (It was at the fair grounds, people. It was necessary.) And so off we went to Don's Western Wear (where else would you get cowboy boots?) to find a pair. And find them we did. These beauties right here, which are actually kids' boots in case you're wondering.

Man oh man were they a hit. And Auntie S even gave My Sister her old shit kickers (pardon my language, but that's what they're called!) so she could look the part too.

Now, roughly 20 years after those red lace-up boots, I've finally warmed to the idea of cowboy boots. And I'm just itching to wear these again. Maybe to Cousin J's wedding next weekend in Montana? Yes. Then again, maybe out to dinner in L-Town sometime soon too. Why not?


Life in L-Town

Rest assured, when you live in a relatively small town like ours, interesting happenings and sights are bound to crop up from time to time. And I'm not just talking about the world's largest covered wagon or the replica of the watermelon Lincoln used to christen the town (although stay tuned, because I'll take you on a tour of these and other quintessential L-Town sites soon). I'm talking those day-to-day occurrences that leave you chuckling. Case in point: Conservative Boy captured a photo of this sign yesterday and, I'm not exaggerating, laughed about it for hours.

Sign #1 you're in a small town: Creative advertising.


Buttermilk Pie

Can't say I'd ever have thought to make buttermilk pie, but Conservative Dad requested it for Father's Day. And, well, you just can't turn down a father's request on his day. (Plus I don't think I am capable of turning down an excuse to make a pie. Ever.)

So I went a-searching online for the perfect buttermilk pie recipe to make. Having no idea what a buttermilk pie looked like, let alone what ingredients went into it, I decided to trust Emeril's advice since it's a southern thing. So I settled on this recipe. But then I decided I wasn't so sure how I felt about the lemon zest, so I looked a little more and found one with vanilla instead. Much better.

Here's the recipe I used. It's super easy and the results were pretty darn delicious. Although I will warn you, I discovered yesterday that this pie tastes much better when it's cold. We ate it on Sunday when it was cool, but not cold. Yesterday afternoon's pie and coffee break proved that a night in the fridge did this pie some good. Anyhow, I digress. On to the recipe (I went for the sweeter version, by the way—what a surprise).

Buttermilk Pie
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat eggs slightly and add sugar and flour. Add melted butter and mix well. Add buttermilk and vanilla. Mix.

Pour batter into pie shell (use a premade 9-inch shell to speed things along like I did), then bake at 325 degrees. The custard should be set in the middle (it takes about an hour).

Enjoy with fathers, mothers, siblings, or whoever is around.

(Oh, and sorry. No pictures. I thought of that after Conservative Boy ate the last piece. Oops.)


A New Blog

When I went to write a new blog post last night, I could help but click the featured link on the Blogger home page: Gardening While Intoxicated. How can you not, with a blog name like that?

If you have any interest in gardening, I recommend that you check it out too. From what I've seen so far, you can expect lovely writing (the blogger is a magazine editor and freelance writer like me!), equally lovely (and real-life) gardening photos, and more. And no, you don't have to be drunk to enjoy it. (Although I'll admit, when I stumbled upon it I was finishing my chardonnay with dinner before heading out to check on my pots. Intoxicated? No. Inspired? Yes.


Dining Alone (Almost)

Between the time when I graduated from college and when moved to L-Town, I lived alone, which means that quite often I dined alone. There was nothing pathetic about it—I often dined out with friends or shared dinner with Conservative Boy and his roommates, mind you. But living alone typically means you dine alone fairly often, and so I did a few times a week.

That's why, when Conservative Boy went off to play golf tonight (yet another evening when it's "no girls allowed" on the golf course—harumph), I decided it was time to enjoy dinner alone like I used to in my apartment. What does that entail, you ask?

1. Cooking dinner. Nothing fancy, but real dinner. (As in, no PB&J.) One of my faves this time of year (and something Conservative Boy probably wouldn't eat because there's no meat involved): Zesty Zucchini Spaghetti with a salad. It's quite easy. While you're cooking the spaghetti noodles, combine one minced chipotle chile from a can of chipotles in adobo sauce with a tablespoon of the sauce and some minced garlic. Saute in olive oil over medium-high heat for about a minute, then add a couple of cups of shredded zucchini. Saute another four minutes or so, then toss with the spaghetti once it's cooked. To complete the dish, add a generous helping of freshly grated cheese (mozzarella and lots of Parmesan are my faves), some salt, and pepper. Serve with your salad. Easy. Delicious.

2. Listening to NPR.

3. Drinking a glass of white wine (tonight, it's chardonnay).

It's the perfect way to wind down after work.

As for the (almost)? That's because, of course, when I lived in my apartment I didn't have a happy dog looking for a bite drooling all over my leg while I ate. Alas, I'll take Butter over eating alone any day, even if I do have to go wipe said drool off.

More Gardening

I just wrote a post for The Home Know-It-All about how much I love container gardening, so I figured it was a good time to revisit how things are going in my own container garden.

Here's what my flowers in the planter looked like before. Now:

They're filling in nicely, aren't they? My dahlia pot is doing pretty well too, even though the aphids have been nibbling on the leaves:

Here's what my tomato plant looked like before, and here's what it looks like now:

No tomatoes yet on this one, but I do have a cherry tomato plant in the grouping of pots below that's already showing off a few green orbs. I can't wait!

What else do you see here? All sorts of treasures. There's a green pepper plant, a geranium, some marigolds, a cucumber plant, a random assortment of vines and leafy characters, some lettuce that's trying really hard to grow even though I probably planted it too late, and herbs.

Herbs! Besides the oreganos and parsley sitting by the dahlias, here I've planted rosemary, thyme, basil, and mint. The mint is going crazy, so come on over and I'll make you a mojito.

I also have a few pots hanging from this nifty little creation in the backyard:

Kind of cute, eh?

Oh, and in case you're wondering what Butter does while I tend to my pots, here's your answer.

He especially loves watching through the window (and drooling all over it) when I water everything with the big green watering can.


Vacationing in Georgia

I've been MIA for the past couple of days because we're on vacation in Georgia with my parents and aunt and uncle. Plus, Conservative Mom and Dad are down here so we got to spend some time with them too (and they gave us a ride to Georgia--how nice!).

It's been hot hot hot here. But we still managed to fit in some golfing on some terrific courses (including my parents' new course, Cuscowilla), a couple of days at beautiful Lake Oconee (boating and tubing? yes, please), and a peek at the Private Escapes place where Conservative Parents are staying this week (fabulous, as usual). In fact, when it comes down to it, I'm thinking I won't come back. Really. Someone needs to keep an eye on the lake house, the renters in the condo my parents just bought, and my uncle when my aunt is working. And it might as well be me.

Part of the reason I'm tempted to stay forever? This sunset over Lake Oconee.

And while I'm at it, here's one more. The boat on that dock is the one we took out for a pre-sunset cruise last night. Fun stuff.

Now it's time for yet another fabulous dinner. (Food is, of course, a key component of any vacation, right?) More soon ...


Talking to Climate Change Skeptics

Whether you're like me and you're faced daily with trying to talk to climate change skeptics (yes, I live with one) or you're a climate change skeptic yourself, I'd advise checking out "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" on Grist.org. (Speaking of which, if you're looking for environmental news with a sense of humor, spend some time reading the other stories on Grist or signing up for their daily newsletter while you're there.)

I haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but I'm sure there are great tidbits of info to add to my arsenal ...


Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

There must be something about this strawberry rhubarb pie recipe that people can't resist.

I saw it on one of my fave food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, not long ago and immediately flagged it as one I had to make. So, when big, beautiful red stalks of rhubarb appeared at the farmer's market last week (and when I learned Conservative Dad loves strawberry rhubarb pie), I decided the time was right to try the recipe.

And I'm not the only one—my good friend Cara made it just the other day too (and hers is much prettier than mine so you better check it out).

No cooking or baking endeavor in my kitchen is without adventure, and of course this instance was no different. First challenge: I had the crust all ready to go before I realized I don't actually own a pie pan. Funny, considering how much I love to bake pies. Guess I always make them at other people's homes. So I raced to Kroger to buy one of the glass ones I saw for sale there, only to discover that with their remodeling they got rid of all the Pyrex cookware in favor of those disposable tin versions. Ack. Needless to say, I made my pie in one of those little metal pie pans. Which led to the next near-disaster: When I pulled the pie from the oven, the flimsy pie pan tipped and sent hot, sticky strawberry-rhubarb juice all over the floor (that I had just mopped). That's why I went ahead and skipped the egg white and sugar on top. It's a good thing too, because I needed that time later when I tried to put the cooled pie away and spilled again.

Despite these misadventures and the fact that my pie isn't all that beautiful (who's for pies with character?), I have to say this recipe is delicious. Even Conservative Mom and Conservative Boy thought it was good–minus the rhubarb, of course.


Understanding Butter's Tongue

Man. This tongue.

Sometimes, when it's hanging out like this, I sit and wonder what this tongue says about Butter.

Beyond being his means for cooling down and slurping up water, I think this tongue is a way Butter expresses himself. Although he's an expressive guy anyway (when he's puzzled, you can see it in the way his face wrinkles; when he's sad, you can see it in his eyes; and when he really likes me, he even winks), his tongue really gives him away.

When Butter is sitting at his window, absolutely engrossed in what's going on outside, he sits perfectly still, except his tongue keeps falling farther and farther out of his mouth. (Here he just sat down, so it's only beginning its descent.)

Of course, when he's hot, he plops down on the coolest floor he can find and lets it hang. (This was after our walk to the farmer's market yesterday.)

And when he's feeling sweet? Just the very tip of his tongue comes out to give you soft little licks on your chin or arm. That, of course, is my favorite.

The L-Town Farmer's Market

Butter and I took a walk down to the farmer's market Saturday morning. Having long loved the Des Moines Farmer's Market, I knew this small-town version wouldn't come close to comparing. But as long as there are fresh, in-season, local fruits and vegetables and a few other things to choose from, what's not to like?

The first couple times I went to the market, there were three tables set up in the park: One elderly couple selling baked goods; one young woman selling a few plants, some fresh coffee in little paper cups, and some yummy cinnamon rolls; and a man selling a ton of herb plants and some asparagus. (I bought some of everything, by the way.)

This week, the market doubled in size! It was terrific. The three original vendors were there again, but they were joined by a couple hawking cherries, new potatoes, and some baked breads; another woman selling gourmet breads and dips; a couple of guys selling rhubarb, spring lettuce, and spinach. Here's what I came home with:

Some spring lettuce, rhubarb (so I can make Conservative Dad a strawberry-rhubarb pie), asparagus (of course), and cherries. The cherries may not be in season right around here yet this year, but they are growing in other parts of the state. And man, these ones I bought are good.

Of course, Butter was more interested in the people there than what they were selling. He was showered with attention by most, but those few people there shopping for farmer's market fare who weren't interested in having a panting, slobbery dog standing beside them really puzzled Butter. What? he asked when I pulled him away from them. But why wouldn't they want to pet me? I didn't have the heart to explain to his little puppy ego that not everyone loves dogs, but fortunately the guy who sold me my cherries loved him and rubbed his belly so then he forgot all about the mean ladies who didn't want to shower him with adoration.

Expect frequent updates on the state of the L-Town Farmer's Market, which is held each Saturday and Wednesday morning. And I expect to try out some other central Illinois farmer's markets later this summer too. Got a good one you know about? Let me know.

Oh, and here's a handy tool: If you want to know what's in season in your part of the country, just select your state and the time of month here and you'll get a list of what to look for. Pretty handy.