Monthly Archives: June 2011

The NEW Garden Model, in All Its Glory…

Well fair readers, when last we left, I had ripped out the “eyesore” of the wooden garden box (per the LL, not my own personal belief regarding the beautiful box) and removed it to my mom’s house.  While figuring out how best to tackle the large garden area along our garage (think 2.5′ x 16′) we got our jalapenos and strawberries planted in individual plastic containers, and our herb boxes going.  Yet none of this addressed how best to utilize my huge garden plot, without the wooden box that I had originally built for it.   Ultimately, I decided to just do exactly what I was originally going to do, only without the beauty of my wooden boxes.

I made a quick graph on computer paper so that I could determine what plants I wanted to put where in the garden plot.  Now, here’s a quick hint — according to Mel ( my new gardening best friend who I’ve never met), not everything has to be at a 1 plant to 1 square ratio.  As in, there are certain plants that you can pack in more than just 1 into the square foot area that you’ve allocated to them.  I know! What great news. I can maximize my beans and peas and carrots and onions, while still growing 1 red pepper plant behind them.

After consulting with Mel, I divided up the plot into two long rows of square foot sections.  They actually ended up being a little more than 12″ in depth, as I had 2.5 feet, less the 4 inches allocated to my brick and fence exterior. I knew from last year’s garden plot that our cucumber plant will grow absolutely out of control, and will need support.  This was the first year that we were doing beans and peas, but I’d read in my friend Tina’s blog (and others) that you really need good support for those plants as well.  And, I knew from previous experience that our bell pepper plants would need some structure as well.  Herbs, lettuce, carrots and onions, on the other hand, do just fine without any type of structural support.  Therefore, I decided that along the back row of the plot, would be all of the plants that needed structural assistance  Smaller plants would be in the front.

Patrick and I discussed what our gardening/eating goals were and we decided to plant the following:  cucumbers, beans, snap peas, red pepper, green pepper, yellow pepper, onions, lettuce, mint, cilantro, oregano, basil, and carrots.  Off to Lowe’s!  I got to Lowe’s, realized that although their flower selection was fantastic they didn’t have much in veggies and herbs, and I headed to Home Depot.  Once at HD, I was able to get starter plants of the cucumbers, peppers, and herbs.  Based on the seedling start times and harvest times for the remainder of the veggies, I decided to try my hand with seeds and starting those from scratch.

With plants and seeds purchased, and a break in the rain on the Sunday that I just happened to decide to do all this, I headed outside to work.  Lucky for me, I had already prepped the soil and done all that hard work, so my faithful companion for the day (Scout, my sister-in-law’s pug who was staying with us for a few days) and I set off to work.  Note:  our pug, Oscar, is not the biggest fan of dogging my steps in the garden and following me around.  He’s learned by now that I’m not going anywhere and that I’m not doing anything to interest him, so he just kicked back for some sun on the deck while we worked.

I was still determined to use the Square Foot Gardening Method, as outlined by Mel Bartholomew in his popular gardening book.  I knew I had 2.5′ in depth to work with, and 125″ in length.  I got my trusty tape measure out, along with my twine and I started by blocking off my garden plot into 12″ square areas.

For the back row of plants, working left to right, I planted the squares as follows:

Square 1:  2 cucumber plants

Square 2:  red bell pepper

Square 3:  green bell pepper

Square 4:  yellow bell pepper

Square 5:  bush beans (started from seeds)

Square 6:  snap peas (started from seeds)

Square 7:  carrots (started from seeds)

For the front row of plants, the squares are planted as follows:

Square 1:  Basil

Square 2:  Mint

Square 3:  Cilantro

Square 4:  Greek Oregano

Square 5:  Boston Bibb Lettuce (started from seeds)

Square 6:  Mixed Greens Lettuce (started from seeds)

Square 7: Onions (started from seeds)

This is how it all looked the day we did the planting:

And, some up close pictures of how the individual plants look:

Obviously, the last picture is of the seedlings that I planted.  I left the wrappers as indicators of what we had planted until they started to produce.  Patrick helped me install the little wooden fencing that I had gotten at Lowe’s, which has helped keep Oscar out of the garden.  (Confession: I had nightmares of Oscar jumping into the garden plot and doing his little pug kick and tossing my seeds every which way into the wind.)  It seems that the fence, at about 14 inches high, has proven to be a deterrent for our lazy pug when it comes to jumping and catapulting his body around.

Our last project for the Sunday was to get the tomatoes into the upside down tomato planter. The tomato planter can handle 3 tomato plants, so I had purchased starter plants of beefsteak, plum and large cherry tomatoes.  In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a good looking and healthy tomato plant, just knowing what I’m going to be eating in about 2 months on my salads:

As always, once the plants were in the ground and in their planters there was still more work to be done, but it seemed like a good stopping point on that particular day.  The garden looked GREAT! Our plants were in, our seeds were planted, the fence was up, and it was still warm and sunny outside.  The next morning I pruned the tomato and pepper plants back so that they could focus all their growing energies into the main shoots.

It was time to sit back and enjoy the remainder of a lazy Sunday afternoon, looking at all of my handiwork, and the hard work and planting efforts of my neighbors in their garden plots in the yard.  Yeah, I’ll throw in some more garden porn for everyone here:

The most amazing thing about the whole gardening process, and especially the seeds, is that within a week we started to have sprouts from the seeds that had been planted.  Why? Well, we had some AWESOMELY hot weather here in Chicago for a few days immediately after I planted — 4 days of 95 degrees and higher.  After that, the skies opened up and we had good, healthy rains for the plants to soak up nutrients. But that is for the next post! Hope you all enjoyed the pictures of what we have growing in our garden….and growing the stuff is…

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RibFest, or as I like to call it, The Best Way to Spend a Sunday!

Just a quick post about what we did last Sunday.  It was the annual RibFest in Chicago (on Lincoln from Irving Park to Montrose).  What could be better than a 75 degree sunny Sunday in Chicago, spent with friends at a RibFest, oinking on ribs, grabbing beers and having fun with some of our best friends? Not much, I tell ya.  It was a great opportunity for some pictures, which I feel compelled to share as sort of a “picto-blog” of our day.

 

Seems like everybody else had the same idea we did on how to spend a non-rainy day in Chicago.  I literally just held the camera up and took the picture.  Ah, the joys of being tall.  This is the crowd down Lincoln Avenue as we all queue up for ribs.

 

Our first stop of the day — Brown Trout!

 

Where we got our first sweet corn of the season.  And ginger ale and lime slushees.

This is what happiness looks like.  Sweet corn is Patrick’s favorite food and he’s gobbling up the first sampling of the season.

 

No street fest would be complete without two random guys with a guitar playing old Johnny Cash songs behind the grills.

 

Fifteen minutes in and we’ve lost Neal.  He went to the beer tent and never returned.  I resorted to trying to find him via taking pictures.  It didn’t work.  He did turn up about 20 minutes later, though.  With beer and ribs.  He was okay.

 

See? Beer in hand, all is okay!

 

The ribs? Well, they were finger-licking good! Course, when aren’t ribs finger-licking good?

We lost Neal yet again….but in our search for him, came across a mobile pork smoker! I have to admit, that’s one truck I wouldn’t mind being behind on the road!

 

We found Neal again (only the second time he got lost, people, the day is still young!), but he was just browsing at one of the fine local retailers offering inflatable superheros.  (I seriously hope he wasn’t shopping for a wedding present for us there:))

 

After some more beers, and ribs, and watching of pork being cooked, we decided we were ready to wrap up the day.  We all wanted something sweet, decided to grab some malts from The Malt Shoppe booth (fantastic, you really must try them sometime), and of course, Neal got lost again.  We were able to establish cell phone contact, Neal told us he was in the CVS parking lot waiting for us and off we went.

 

THERE IS NO NEAL HERE!!!!!

 

I have to admit, at this point, we were all tired of crowds and just wanted to go home and kick back….however, as we were down a man, we had to improvise on the relaxation techniques of our choice while we waited for him to show up.  Thank God for good cell phone service!

 

And, finally, Neal was located.  In the children’s play area NEAR the CVS parking lot:

 

So, that’s how we spent OUR Sunday in the city.  No better way to do it!

The Garden, Phase II — the South will Rise Again, or Something Like That….

A quick recap dear readers.  When last we parted ways, I had built 2 beautiful garden boxes for use in our yard, only to be shot down by the landlord who knows nothing. It was time to go back to the drawing board and rethink how I was going to approach this project to accomplish my goals, which were delicious veggies in a small area, and minimizing contact with the LL.  While I worked on plotting out my plan for how best to accomplish these goals, I decided I needed to get my window boxes with herbs done, as well as get my strawberry plants and jalapeno peppers potted.

On the porch outside our back door, we have 2-24″ window boxes that I’ve hung over the railing.  They get decent sun and are the perfect place to grow herbs as they are within steps of the kitchen.  This year, we decided to plant Cilantro, German Thyme and Garlic Chives (in the box that appears on the right in this photo, but is on the left when coming out the back door).  In the left (really the right) box, we planted Fennel, Rosemary and arugula.  I took this picture of the window boxes while standing on the deck…it doesn’t show off with true accuracy just how pretty the herbs look in the window boxes, especially when the sun hits them.

In addition to the herb window boxes, we also planted a beautiful, large pot of Rosemary, as it is fragrant and to useful in cooking all the way through the winter.  Hopefully, this plant will last indoors again, like our Rosemary from 2 winters did.

We also did some small pots on the ledge of our porch that have English tarragon and basil, and of course, our Jade plant that is now flourishing in the sun.

And yes, I know you’re all wondering, that IS a frog watering can in the right corner of the picture, with its tongue sticking out.  I won it at a garden party a friend of mine threw several years ago and it is just too funny not to keep and display!

With the herb window boxes and planters done, I moved on to the strawberries and jalapenos.  Both plants will grow like gangbusters, if I just got them going.  After the drama with the LL, I got out the individual, plastic planters that I have from years past and started in on them.  Each planter got 1 plant of it’s own — final count:  3 jalapeno, 3 strawberries.  The planters are on our deck, near the upside-down tomato planter.

Strawberries:

Peppers:  Ooh, I cannot wait for these to grow and be harvested — so many great things to do with peppers!

After getting all of these plants settled, we had some nice sunny and warm weather, and we got our first strawberry bud on one of the plants! Success!

Next post — after the success of the herbs, jalapenos and strawberries, I finally get the garden plot all sorted out, planted and producing! Stay tuned….

The Garden, Phase I, As it Lived and Died…..And Will Live Again!

When last I left you, fair readers, I had cleaned out a good portion of the large garden plot that we were going to use for veggies and was headed to the local lumber yard to make the beautiful garden boxes featured in The All New Square-Foot Gardening book that shows us that you CAN plant a garden in small or reasonably sized spaces.

Step One: The following Monday morning, I went to my local hardware store/lumber yard and purchased all of the wood that I would need, which I had painstakingly measured out TO THE INCH. Got my screws and nails, my plywood bottom for the box that was going on the deck and then headed to my second hardware store of the day.  Why? Because I had decided I wanted to put a trellis along the back of the garage where the big planter box would be, to use as a way for our climbing veggies (beans, peas, cukes, peppers to some extent) that would look real purty.  My local store did not have trellis wood, so off to Menards I went.

Step Two: Menards.  Now, if you’ve ever been to Menards, you know that the people who work there (inside the store) are helpful, IF YOU CAN EVER FIND ONE! I pretty quickly located the trellis piece that I wanted, but of course, in order to buy said piece of wood, I needed to find a sales associate and get him to ring me up.  That took approximately 2 hours.

Once you pay, the real fun begins, as you get to drive around the back of the Menards to the fenced in, Nazi-guarded lumberyard where you have to show your receipt at various checkpoints while the guards scream “Where are your papers?” (Okay, this may be a slight embellishment, but roll with it.)  After about 40 minutes, I found a guy to try and help me find where my trellis was located so I could put it into the car and drive happily off to home where I would start the next step of my project — assembly.  As the guy brought the trellis around, I realized, “oh holy shit, I have a problem.” There was NO WAY that I was getting the trellis into my car, even with the seats down in the hatchback portion.  Shit, shit, shit!

A light bulb went on in my head and I realized that I was at Menards! All I had to do was ask this lovely man to chop it down for me a bit. I mean, I am in the lumber section, that should be ridiculously easy to do, no? No. It was not. As I was informed by my sales associate/Nazi guard, this is Menards — they don’t have saws in the lumber section.  Of course not, what was I thinking? I then told the guy that if he could not cut it down for me, he was going to have to restock it and I would have to come back another day with a friend who has a truck so I could get my trellis.  Well, all of a sudden I must have said something to him that was akin to threatening to firebomb the place, as he raced off muttering something about a power saw. Moments later, he returned with a power saw and happily chopped my trellis down into 3 manageable sizes that I was able to get into the car.  Hmmmm, remember this for the future, readers — if you threaten to buy something at Menards and then leave it there for a few days to come back for it, they will do anything they need to do to get you out the door with your lumber — they do not want their precious inventory system messed up.  Finally, with my trellis loaded up in the car, I only had 4 border checkpoints to clear before I was headed home to start building!

Step Three:  HOME! I finally arrived home, unloaded all of my various lumber parts from the car and dropped them into the deck where construction would shortly begin.  At this point, I had been away from home for what felt like days, so I took an all-important lunch break before starting in on the assembly. THIS was my lumber, all in car-sized pieces, just waiting to be worked on.

I decided to first assemble the 4×4 box that would be placed onto the deck for the purpose of growing certain leafy and low-climbing veggies, mostly lettuce and chard.  After much hammering, nailing, screwing with the drill, waiting for the drill to charge again (WHO puts that drill away every goddamn time without charging it? Not me.), and realizing that I attached the wrong side 3 and had to dessemble and re-assemble, I had created a LOVELY, 4×4 box, just waiting for dirt to be tossed in and plants lovingly planted.

Once built, I decided to put the box at one corner of our deck so that it was out of the way and yet could make the deck look pretty.

Now that the 4×4 box was assembled, it was time for me to start in on the 34″x125″ box outline that was going to go in the large plot by the garage.  Now, since I don’t have an XLT pickup truck in the city, I had to have my 125″ sections of lumber cut down into 3 manageable pieces that I would then later link together with these lovely little brackets that cost $0.06 at Menards. Another 2 hours of swearing, sweating, assembling, waiting for the drill to charge, fighting with the wood and brackets, and going back to the store to get more wood screws later, I had assembled the box and gotten it into the garden plot.  Now, when you look at this picture, keep in mind, we had done no planting and it had yet to become truly beautiful.

My last step of the day’s project was to load dirt into the deck box and then the planting would start the following day.  Time for a cocktail and much-deserved night of Dancing with the Stars (gotta root for Hines Ward!)

The shitstorm with respect to this little garden project of mine occurred the following morning, when I went outside and there was a note on my LOVELY garden box from my landlord demanding a phone call from whoever was responsible for this project.  Oh great, I can only imagine what HE wanted to say about this. Keep in mind, that every time anybody ever asked him to do something in the yard, his stock answer is “it’s your yard, you guys do what you want, I do not want to get involved with any of it.”

During this 30 minute phone call, I was advised by my landlord that he did not like the look of the deck box, that it was an “eyesore” and that he wanted it moved.  Ironically, the wooden fence that is falling down and the half-dead yard of grass that he never mows is somehow NOT an eyesore, but my plants are. Despite my reminding him that I have planted in plastic containers every single year on the deck for 7 years, and that this is actually a more sustainable and pretty looking endeavor, he stood firm.  I offered to move it to the cement driveway along the fence, where the plants would still get plenty of sun, and was advised in no uncertain terms that it was an unacceptable idea as the dirt would stain the concrete.  Um, no.  He literally told me I was “to put the project on hold until he thought up a different way of doing it.” Oh, I don’t think so. I’ll show you! You want multiple plastic containers on the deck instead of 1 pretty box?  Well, fine.  Careful what you wish for!

The LL then also advised me that the wood box in the ground-garden plot was also an eyesore and that I should stain it (doesn’t matter that staining the wood will harm the soil for planting veggies) and that I have to put plastic down under the dirt to protect the bricks that comprise the garage so that the bricks are not “ruined” when we water the plants.  Now, I’ve planted here for 7 years and never had to lay plastic, nor do I water bricks.  Nor, to my knowledge, does anybody else in the building.  I asked LL what happens to the bricks when it rains and why the garage is not wrapped in plastic on those days, but I do not think he appreciated my obvious logic.

After this conversation, my hackles up, I made Patrick help me load the deck box into the back of my car and I promptly drove it over to my mom’s house, where she let me put it on HER deck.  Note: her neighbor saw me unloading the deck box from the car, and came over to compliment me on it’s construction and quality — he’s a landscape architect! I was validated — a normal, non-crazy person actually liked my deck box!  When I returned home, the LL was there, all sheepish about the conversation in the morning and convinced we could come to a workable solution. But where is the box? “Oh, no, LL, don’t you worry about that — I resolved the issue myself!” The box is getting some TLC at mom’s house and I’ll still benefit from what we plant in there.  I told him I would lay the plastic along the back of the bricks, even though his requirement lacked all logic and sense, and that I would use my plastic containers again.

Phase II of the garden saga will be posted separately, and in short order…..stay tuned !

Yeah, I Like to Cook….and EAT!

Oh, fair readers, it is a gloriously perfect day here in Chicago.  It is  about 75 degrees, sunny, with a lovely breeze that billows the curtains, musses your hair and reminds you what it is to be alive in this fantastic world.  This is, in short, the weather we’ve been waiting for the past 3 months here in the Midwest. I wish we could have had it on Sunday for our annual Memorial Day BBQ, but I can live with the fact that at least it’s finally here. What it truly is, though, is great grilling weather and time to spend with friends.

As you all know, dear readers, I LOVE to eat….but more than that, I love to eat when I’ve found a recipe for something that is truly out of this world and I’ve mastered it myself.  One of my favorite restaurants in the Chicagoland area is Wildfire. It is a big, badass steakhouse (yes, they serve chicken and ribs and fish for those who don’t like steak [you know who you are!]), but they are known for their steaks.  The interior is cozy-Aspen chic and makes you feel like you’ve just stepped off the slopes into a beautiful lodge with the 1950’s ambiance and fires going.  I’ve eaten here many, many times and have never had a bad meal.  My favorite entrée, of course, is the filet medallions dinner.  They are 3, 3 ounce cuts of filet mignon each with a special crust that you select hardened onto the top….there’s blue cheese, Parmesan, horseradish, mushroom and on and on.  This is the photo from the Wildfire website of this glorious meal:

I’ve tried forever to successfully replicate these crusts to no avail, until recently.  Yes, that is right, I’ve mastered the Wildfire steak toppings.  I know, it’s a total OH. MY. GOD.  Now, instead of paying $30 a plate at dinner, you can enjoy these delicious steaks at home!

Therefore, without further ado, here are the recipes:

Blue Cheese Steak Crust Topping (Isn’t the photo of the finished product GORGEOUS?):

Ingredients:

1/2 cup Japanese style Panko breadcrumbs

2T salted butter, cubed into small pieces

1/4 c. blue cheese, brand of your choice

Instructions:

1.  In a microwave safe bowl, combine the butter pieces and the blue cheese.  Microwave the mixture in 15 second increments until the cheese and butter have melted into each other, stirring frequently to combine ingredients.

2.  Once the mixture is melted and stirred, (shaken and stirred, anyone — sorry, I couldn’t resist), add the panko crumbs and mix it all together until you have a lovely crunchy mixture.

3.  Cook your steaks to your desired color, temperature, using your preferred method. I personally like my steaks grilled, medium rare to medium, with a touch of pink but not red.

4.  Transfer your steaks to a cast-iron skillet, coat the top of the steak with the blue cheese mixture and place into the oven on the broil setting for 1-2 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned.  Remove from the broiler, let the steak stand for at least 5 minutes and serve!

Parmesan Crust for Steaks (again, check out the food porn shot of the finished product!):

Ingredients:

1/2 c. of Japanese panko breadcrumbs

1/4 c. of Parmesan cheese, brand of your choice, shredded

2T of salted butter, cubed

Instructions:

1.  Place the butter in a microwave safe dish and microwave it in 10 second increments on medium heat until it is softened and malleable.  DO NOT melt it.

2.  Once the butter is softened and malleable, combine the panko crumbs and Parmesan cheese into the butter and mix it until all the ingredients are combined and mixture is crunchy.

3.  Follow the remaining steps as above for blue cheese topping!

Dietary Note:  If you maintain a gluten-free diet, Whole Foods carries gluten-free Panko breadcrumbs that are delicious and work as an excellent substitute for the traditional Panko breadcrumbs, and allow you to enjoy these gloriously wonderful crusts.

Enjoy! And if you attempt these recipes yourself, please let me know how you liked them!