We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.

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2018 gardening report card: tomatoes! (And rain and rabbits)

After years of complaining that my kitchen-gardening efforts were thwarted by drought, I realized that the opposite scenario can be bad too. D.C.’s rainiest year ever saw much of my attempt at a fall crop go to a watery grave when lettuce, spinach and various herb seedlings couldn’t withstand repeated downpours.

After the weather, the local wildlife was my biggest obstacle this year. The rabbits that scamper throughout our neighborhood may amuse our daughter, but they also found yet another way to get through the netting I’d stretched over a raised bed and devour all the lettuce and green beans in sight. To add to the indignity, one wall of that raised bed then fell apart from rot.

(For reference: my 201720162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula after rainArugula: A+

If you only try to grow one vegetable, make it this one. Arugula grows prolifically in the spring and fall–the photo at right dates to only last week–it’s great in a salad or on a sandwich, and unlike lettuce you can use it in risotto or an omelette.

Herbs: A

This grade is inflated by how well sage, parsley, and (after a slow start) mint did. Basil, however, was nowhere near as prolific as it was last year, and cilantro underperformed by an even larger margin. Mint, rosemary, dill and oregano did okay, while thyme had no time for me.

Tomatoes in cageTomatoes: B

After years of frustration, I finally got a respectable tomato crop. Lesson learned: There’s no such thing as overengineering your attempts to keep squirrels away from tomato plants. Another lesson learned: There is no tomato more delicious than the one you pluck on a summer afternoon and slice up, still warm from the sun.

Lettuce: B-

A solid spring was not matched by any fall crop, thanks to the aforementioned precipitation.

Spinach: B-

Same problem here. Which is too bad, considering how last year’s spinach survived throughout the winter.

Green beans: D

I thought these were off to a good start, and then those rascally rabbits made short work of them all.

Cucumbers: F

The seeds I planted did not appear to survive contact with dirt. To be fair, I think the seeds were from last year.

Bell peppers: F

These, too, failed to sprout, extending my streak of futility at trying to coax a crop of these out of my garden.

2017 gardening report card: lettuce, at last

With last Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to assess the results of a hobby that may not make much financial sense on an opportunity-cost basis–but which does allow a regular analog respite from all of my screen time.

(For reference: my 20162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A+

Planting basil seeds in a different, sunnier spot paid off with weeks of abundant leaves that I could toss into pesto sauces. The sage did even better and has kept on going into winter, although the relative lack of recipes for it means I’ve left most of the crop outside (any ideas to change that?). The parsley, meanwhile, rebounded from its subpar 2016 showing and once again led me to make multiple batches of tabbouleh in the spring. Mint, oregano, and rosemary were their usual prolific selves, and chives and dill did well in the fall. But cilantro only showed up in trace quantities.

Arugula: A

I got a terrific spring crop of this versatile green that lasted into July, then had another several weeks’ worth in the fall. If you’re thinking of starting a kitchen garden, this should be first plant you aspire to after parsley or basil.

Lettuce: A

Planting this in a sunnier spot paid off spectacularly well in the spring and summer, yielding an outstanding return on my investment in a couple of seed packets. If only I’d bought more: I couldn’t try for a fall crop because I forgot to purchase extras in the spring and then couldn’t find any after August.

Spinach: B

Last year’s plants held on through last winter–the day I got back from SXSW, one day after the season’s one notable snowfall, I brushed off some of the accumulation to pluck some leaves to use in a pasta sauce. It flourished throughout the spring but did not reward me with a fall crop.

Green beans: B-

These did great through the spring, but then some of our neighborhood’s many rabbits got into the raised bed and devoured the plants. Having enjoyed the Peter Rabbit books as a toddler, I can only laugh at the thought that I’ve become Mr. McGregor.

Tomatoes: C

Modest, incremental improvements at cultivating tomatoes did not yield a huge difference in this gardening paradox: I have no trouble getting tomato plants to sprout, but coaxing any to bear fruit is much less of a sure thing.

Cucumbers: F

Just to show that there’s no year-over-year logic to gardening, a comparable level of effort this year yielded 100 percent less than last year. Fortunately, cucumbers cost almost nothing at farmers’ markets.

Bell peppers: F

For yet another year, I got nowhere trying to grow these.

A Thanksgiving baking project: almost-no-work bread

Well over a decade since I got into the habit of baking sandwich bread from scratch, I still remember how nervous I was at first about winding up with a deflated loaf. The recipe I’m sharing here cuts that risk as close to zero as possible; all it asks in return is about 24 hours of time.

Because I, too, am a little hesitant to try out a recipe with that much latency, I waited to try the “No-Work Bread” recipe in my well-read copy of Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” (which you may have seen in the New York Times as “No-Knead Bread”). I shouldn’t have: This product of Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey is the most fault-tolerant bread recipe I know, and if you start it by mid-afternoon Wednesday you can have it ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

(My apologies if you’ll be spending Wednesday afternoon on highways or in the air. Maybe bookmark this for Christmas?)

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups water, about 70 degrees
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal (or flour)

Mix the flour and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir the yeast into the water, and after a few minutes mix that into the dry ingredients for longer than seems necessary. This may look like a mess, but as long as you don’t have any chunky bits left, you should be fine.

(Bittman’s original recipe calls for half a teaspoon of instant yeast, which I never buy because Costco sells regular yeast in a 2-pound package. The last time I made this, I forgot the 1:1.33 instant-to-active-yeast conversion and threw the non-instant yeast in with the dry ingredients. Everything turned out fine; as I said, fault-tolerant.)

Take a 3-quart bowl and coat it with the olive oil. Dump the dough into it, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about 18 hours. You’ll know it’s done, or close enough, when it’s risen to near the top and it’s covered with bubbles as if they were craters on the surface of the moon.

(While the dough enjoys that long rise, you may want to watch an episode of the Great British Baking Show for motivational purposes.)

Dust a clean surface with flour and pour the soggy dough onto it–taking a moment to enjoy the aroma of the risen, fermented yeast. Fold the dough over a couple of times into a ball, more or less, and cover it with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

After that rest, scatter more flour on the dough and re-form it into a ball. Scatter the cornmeal (or more flour, if you’re out of cornmeal) on a silicone baking mat, wax paper, or a towel (as in, something that you can grab to lift the dough off the surface), cover with plastic wrap, and leave the dough ball there for two hours.

About an hour and 15 minutes into that last rise, put a 3- to 4-quart pot, cover included, into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Half an hour after the oven hitting 450°, open the oven, remove the lid and dump the dough into the pot.

This is when the results–a damp glob slumped unevenly in the pot, part of it stuck to its side–may look like a culinary catastrophe. Ignore the untidy appearance, put the lid back on, and shove it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Open the oven, remove the lid and you should see that the bread has settled back into a somewhat flattened ball. Set the lid aside, close the oven and bake for another 20 minutes. If the crust looks browned like something in a real bakery, it’s done; otherwise, try another 10 minutes.

Let the bread cool for 30 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once.

Updated 12/25/2018 with a few clarifications.

Bonus of an unwinter: a spring surplus of parsley and spinach

I really did think that the 2016 gardening season had ended in December with the first hard frost. But then the parsley and the spinach refused to die. Even the few inches of snow we got in March wasn’t enough to kill them, as I found out when I removed some chunks of hard-packed snow two days after I got home from SXSW to expose intact spinach leaves that promptly wound up in a creamy pasta sauce.

Now that the ground has warmed up and the arugula and lettuce seeds have germinated and gone to work, I suddenly have more parsley and spinach than I know what to do with–although I’m trying by throwing some into every stir-fry, stew and sauce I can put together.

I guess I’ll also be making a lot of tabbouleh and parsley-walnut pesto weeks earlier than my usual gardening schedule would suggest.

(The sage also kept going through the winter in less robust form, although there aren’t as many obvious applications for that herb.)

As much as I appreciate living in a place with actual seasons, this does look like a pleasant bonus for having a fake winter. Now if I could just get basil to be half as productive, or at least to stop taunting me with a lack of productivity…

 

Mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe

This time of year means falling behind on gift shopping and getting overrun by CES pitches, but it also brings my annual excuse to make my mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe. It’s pretty great and not that much work, though the dough does call for an overnight stay in the fridge. Share and enjoy!

Christmas cookies (an old recipe)

Makes a few dozen cookies, depending on cutter size

  • christmas-cookies-before4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl, then set aside. In a stand mixer’s bowl (or a large, regular bowl; you can combine everything by hand with more effort and sufficiently soft butter), mix butter, sugar and egg, then add sour cream and vanilla before adding the flour mixture. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

christmas-cookies-coolingThe next day, cut the ball of cookie dough in half. Preheat oven to 375° and lightly grease cookie sheets with butter or cover them with parchment paper. Cover a clean kitchen surface with flour and roll each half of the dough flat to about 1/4 in. thick. Cut with cookie cutters, place on cookie sheets and decorate with colored sugar (I stick with red and green because Christmas, but use what you like). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

About those cookie cutters: You want a mixture of small, bite-size cookies in generic shapes and larger, statement cookies for when you absolutely, positively need 200-plus calories of cookie in one serving.

You also want some creative shapes. Stars, basic geometric shapes, trees, and gingerbread men and women all work. But as the D.C.-outline cookies in these photos should attest, I’ve grown fond of state-shaped cookie cutters like those you can buy in the District at Hill’s Kitchen, across the street from the Eastern Market Metro stop and just off the 8th Street SE row of shops in Capitol Hill.

2016 gardening report card: arugulification and cucumbering

With Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to take stock of a hobby that makes zero financial sense if you put any value on your time.

(For reference: my 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

arugula-can-be-a-december-crop_30721026823_o Arugula: A+

This incredibly versatile green–beyond using it in place of lettuce, you can also use it as you would chard in soups, stews and risotto and even make pesto out of it–rewarded me with bountiful spring and fall crops. My only regret: I didn’t clear-cut the remaining foliage on Wednesday.

Cucumbers: A

These took off beyond my expectations or intentions–a bunch of cucumber plants volunteered in the other raised bed and random spots around the yard, which makes me wonder if the squirrels or the birds helped redistribute them. Making cucumber salad, cucumber soup, gazpacho, and cucumber salsa–not to mention using them as a sandwich condiment–wasn’t enough to use them all up.

cucumbers_29466424642_oHerbs: A-

The parsley was not as prolific as last year, hence the slightly lower grade. Cilantro did well in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September; meanwhile, sage didn’t come around until the fall. Mint, oregano and rosemary were their usual unkillable selves, but basil was yet again nearly a complete bust. Speaking as a quarter-Italian American, that last part really hurts.

Spinach: B

I only rarely had enough of this to use as a major part of a salad, but in the spring and the fall I could count on being able to step outside and grab a few leaves to use in an omelette or whatever.

Lettuce: B-

Its spring performance was matched by its weak showing in the fall. But considering what you pay for lettuce in the grocery store or at the farmers market, this still represents one of the best gardening bargains. It’s just not arugula.

tiny-tomato_29881788191_oGreen beans: C+

This grade would have been higher had all of my travel in May and June not led me to neglect the green beans that had gotten off to a fantastic start.

Tomatoes: C

Mindful of my history of heartbreak here, I limited my efforts to buying a couple of plants at the farmers market and trying to grow a few others from seed. The handful of tomatoes I was able to harvest were utterly delicious, even the tiny specimen in the photo at the right; I just wish I’d had more of them.

Bell pepper: F

At least my sunk cost on them was under $2, the cost of a packet of seeds. And at least these are pretty cheap from the right farmers-market vendors.