My 2014 gardening scorecard

The D.C. area got its first hard freeze this week, and so this year’s outdoor gardening has officially ground to a halt–which also means it’s once again time to assess my attempts to grow my own food in a few spots around a tiny, largely shady backyard.

(See my earlier reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Green beansGreen beans: A

We literally could not eat these fast enough. The funny thing is, the pole beans that took over the larger raised bed did not come from the bush-bean seeds sown this spring; I guess last year’s experiment in growing pole beans had lasting effects.

Arugula: B

This was once again a reliable performer–but my attempt to grow a second crop in the fall ran afoul of a stretch of dry weather in which I was out of town too often to water the garden regularly.

Lettuce: B-

For the second year in a row, we had good results in the spring and nothing in the fall.

Herbs: C+

We never lacked for parsley, mint and rosemary (you can imagine my excitement this spring at seeing that the rosemary bush planted last fall had survived our polar-vortex winter). The sage did okay, and cilantro and basil briefly flourished. But dill, chives, thyme, and oregano all apparently don’t like me anymore.

Cucumbers: D+

After last year’s near-total bust, we were pleased to be able to harvest a few decent-sized cukes in the late summer.

Strawberries: D

Once again, I failed to water the pot on the back patio often enough or shield it adequately from the squirrels.

Blueberries: D-

The one medium-size and one small blueberry bush in the side yard yielded a respectable amount of fruit, which I’m sure the birds enjoyed very much.

Tomatoes: D-

The pole beans that grew so well also effectively blocked the sun for the tomatoes. After the bean plants died, one of the tomato plants mounted a comeback of sorts, and maybe the two puny specimens I grabbed before the first freeze will ripen on the countertop. I need to look into growing tomatoes elsewhere in the yard.

Bell peppers: F

I planted seeds. Nothing came of them. The end.

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Call me crazy, but I’m warming to the smartwatch concept

From the thumbs-down I handed out to a Microsoft “SPOT Watch” in 2004 to last year’s “try again” dismissal of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, I have not looked too favorably on the idea of wearing a smartwatch with a data stream of its own.

Android Wear watchBut now that I’m wearing yet another one of these devices, the Samsung Gear Live loaned to me at Google I/O, I find myself thinking of reasons why I’ll miss this thing when I have to send it back to Google PR.

Here’s the key thing it does right: provide a no-hands-required external display for my phone’s notifications list. If I’m cooking, gardening, biking or holding my daughter’s hand as we cross the street, I often have no ready way to get at the phone and so can only wonder if the beep or buzz of a notification is something I need to check or not.

Now I can see for myself. In some cases, I can dictate a reply by voice, but I’ve only done that once or twice; just knowing if what’s new on my phone is important enough to require taking it out of my pocket is good enough.

(I have, however, been surprised by how often I’ve leaned on Android Wear’s voice control while grilling: “OK Google, set a timer for five minutes.”)

Android Wear’s unavoidable updates are not always advantageous. As I noted in a Yahoo Tech column, I did not need or appreciate having the watch light up to alert me of a new e-mail (of course, spam) as I was putting our daughter to bed.

And that’s where Google could do a better job. Gmail has multiple ways to prioritize your e-mail–starring messages, marking conversations as important, displaying them in the “Primary” inbox tab–but none of them seem to inform what pops up on an Android Wear watch’s screen.

Should Apple surprise absolutely nobody by introducing an “iWatch” next month, I trust that such a timepiece will have an option to only notify you of new mail from people on your “VIP” list.

I also expect that any Apple smartwatch will be thinner than the Gear Live–which at roughly 3/8th of an inch thick, itself represents a welcome advance over the nearly half-inch thick Galaxy Gear and the 3/4-inch thick Microsoft-powered Suunto I hated in 2004.

That, in turn, should push the next Android Wear–or Pebble smartwatch, another promising contender–to get smarter and sleeker. And with these things costing $200 and change, that may be enough to get me to buy. And then you all can point and laugh at the nerd who decided he had to walk around with not one but two interactive gadgets.

Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.

 

 

The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

Things I have learned from life on the cold front

The coldest January Washington’s seen in almost 20 years is finally coming to a close, and it may even crack 50 degrees over the weekend. That makes this a good time to go over some lessons learned over the past few weeks of polar vortex-level chill.

Cold thermometer• Pipes can and do freeze in these conditions. If you’re really lucky, the burst pipe is almost directly over the sump pump, the plumber lives in your neighborhood, the repairs only run $600 and change, and your power tools still work after being rained upon indoors.

• Even after living nine and a half years in a 94-year-old house, you can still discover new leaks that let cold air seep into the basement.

• It’s easier to spy the biggest of those gaps from inside the basement when the ground is paved with snow and the sun’s shining down on it.

• Your mother was on to something when she told you to wear a hat any time you go outside in the winter.

• Thermal underwear generate a crazy amount of static electricity that, when layered under khakis, causes them to wrinkle in weird ways. Which I am okay with, given the circumstances.

• The less-than-stylish flannel or fleece-lined pants you can get from L.L. Bean and elsewhere are a good thing to have bought before this month. 

• Capital Bikeshare still works in the cold–and since biking provides more exercise than walking, you can warm up a little in the process. But fitting a helmet over a warm hat is difficult.

X-country skis• Cross-country skis work even better–and when it’s this cold, the snow makes a delightful sort of squeak. (Pity the roughly four inches we got on the 21st only allowed me to do laps in a nearby park instead of, say, skiing across the Key Bridge like I did after the “snowpocalypse” of 2010.)

• The Potomac River frozen over is a beautiful sight. Try not to miss it.

• Working from home when it’s below 15 degrees outside constitutes an excellent excuse to make a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch (jazz it up with a little caramelized onions or sautéed apple slices) and wash that down with hot chocolate.

My 2013 gardening report card

The forecast calls for below-freezing temperature tonight, so I officially put this year’s gardening season in the books by plucking the last few, still-green plum tomatoes off their dying vines. That also means it’s time to assess how growing my own food worked this year, as I did in 2011 and 2012.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoes: B+

The removal of a tree that had cast too much shade on one raised bed and, I guess,  better luck made a huge difference: We’ve had a good selection of plum tomatoes since about the middle of the summer–even while the other two plants yielded next to nothing. It was nice being able to skip buying plum tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Arugula: B

Unlike the last two years, I couldn’t get a fall crop started in time (I blame travel and a failure to focus when I was in town, followed by the stores near me removing seeds from their shelves), and the spring crop didn’t yield as much as before either. Even so, I’ll repeat my prior endorsements: This stuff practically grows itself, yo

Lettuce: B-

I love being able to step outside, grab some lettuce leaves, wash them off and put them on a sandwich or a burger. But without a fall crop (see above), that pleasure ended sometime in June.

Bell peppers: B-

These were late starters but came around over the last two months. Considering what red bell peppers cost in the store, they’ve definitely earned a spot in next year’s garden.

Green beans: C

Once again, I didn’t plant enough in the spring–I could pick enough beans off the plants to make a side dish for one, not so much for two and certainly not for four. And then a dry August put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Herbs: D

These did much worse than I expected, and I can only guess it’s because I took too long to enrich the soil around them with compost. The mint was its usual bulletproof self (it’s in a separate pot to stop it from overrunning the entire back yard), but cilantro was a no-show, and rosemary, sage and thyme died on me more than once. And the basil never yielded enough for a batch of pesto: How pathetic is that?

Strawberries: D

The pot on the back patio yielded fruit more often than last year, but I still haven’t figured out how to avoid having the squirrels make off with too much of it.

Cucumbers: D-

This was not the complete failure of last year, only a nearly-complete one. That leaves me even more confused as to how this vegetable could have grown so well two years ago and not since.

Also worth noting: Not through any effort on my part, I had a butternut squash vine grow on its own in one of the raised beds and give me exactly one squash.

Our weekly bread (among other recipes)

For an allegedly digital individual, I revert to analog ways more often than you might guess. I live in a 93-year-old house, dry clothes on a line in the summer, own a manual typewriter, and like to get my hands dirty gardening. And I haven’t bought sandwich bread since 2005 or so, because I bake my own.

I came across this recipe–after many years in which I couldn’t get sandwich bread to work–about eight years ago in the Post’s Food section. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s article, headlined “The Lazy Loaf,” promised bread in under four hours, and her instructions lived up to that advance billing. (In the spring of 2010, I was delighted to see Beranbaum post a few comments on my own blog.)

I’ve since made a few tweaks to the recipe, including variations for hot dog and sandwich buns as well as English muffins. I’m still seeing if I can get the hang of bagels.

FYI, I posted a version of this on my Facebook page in February of 2011. But the visibility of old Facebook notes is minimal, and I’d like to think that many of you missed this the first time around.

Sandwich bread

Our Weekly Bread

Makes a 9-inch sandwich loaf

  • 1 1/4 cup hot water out of the tap
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one standard packet, although I measure it out of a Costco-size bag)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3 1/2 cups flour: I usually combine 2 1/2 c all-purpose unbleached white flour with 1 c whole-wheat flour, but I’ll use as much as 1/2 c and as little as 1/2 c of the latter, and sometimes I’ll mix in some rye or flaxseed flour for a heartier flavor.
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 vitamin C tablet, ground in a mortar and pestle (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon of herbes de provence, Italian seasoning or dried oregano (optional, but recommended if you’re using all or mostly white flour).
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for the bowl

Add yeast and honey to the hot water and whisk together. Let stand for 10 minutes, until the yeast foams.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours and the ground-up tablet (I can’t find the link I’d read a while back that the ascorbic acid in it can ward off mold; skip it for bread that you’ll store in a freezer or eat right away). Mix in the salt and, if using, any dried herbs. Pour in the water/yeast/honey mixture, then the oil.

Use a standing mixer’s dough hook to knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 7 minutes (the original recipe says you can knead by hand for 10 minutes, but I’ve never tried that). The dough should be soft and cling slightly to your fingers, not the bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, kneading a few times by hand.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size, from 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the temperature.

Butter a loaf pan. Turn the dough onto a work surface, such as a clean countertop dusted with flour, shape it into a rectangle and fold the longer side over. Then flatten that into a rectangle and fold that over again. Finally, flatten it a third time, then roll that up tightly and pinch the seam with your fingers to seal it.

Place the roll, seam-side down, in the pan, then cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until almost doubled, from 45 minutes to as long as an hour and 45 minutes depending on temperature. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees about 30 minutes into that second rise, longer if it seems to be going slowly; if you let the pan rest on top of the oven, the residual warmth will help the yeast do its job. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool on a rack for at least an hour, preferably two.

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