Monday, July 30, 2012

Apricots: BEFORE, DURING and AFTER

The joy of edible gardening is watching your plants flower, fruit and grow.

The pain of edible gardening is watching your plants' fruit befall heat, drought, locusts, squirrels and a myriad of other Farmer Bob problems before the darn things are ripe enough to be picked and eaten.  Case in point, our Blenheim Apricot.

BEFORE:  Here is a photo of a blossom from our apricot tree.  The fruit will form around this delicate flower.



DURING SPRING: The fruit has formed and is small, green and hard but already at this size the fruit has its distinctive apricot cleavage line.



DURING SUMMER: The fruit plumps up and softens in June.



AFTER PICKING: And after spending a week in a brown paper bag, the fruit is ripe and orange-colored with a soft rose blush.



AFTER EATING: Homegrown Apricots = delicious joy!



Please try growing these at home.  The pain is--just barely--worth it!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Squirrel Hell

“What a great party,” I said restacking the outdoor chairs, a smile spreading over my lips.
“Yes,” Mr. Wonderful said reparking the grill beside the fence.
“The sun, the food, the friends; it was perfect.”
“Yes.”
“Nothing could remove this grin from my face.”
“A squirrel is eating our apricots.”
“What!”
                                         
Back in December we’d planted several fruit trees including a Blenheim apricot.  Because I’m an impatient orchardist, we’d bought trees that were already several years old so they would bear fruit for us this summer and I was looking forward to July/August because that’s when apricots ripen in our Valley.  We’d planted our apricot tree in the backyard to protect it from hungry people passing by.  We hadn’t thought about protecting it from hungry squirrels. 

But squirrels were so cute and fluffy with big brown eyes that made my heart melt.  They wouldn’t steal our almost-ripe fruit.  I followed Mr. Wonderful’s gaze and saw eight apricots on the ground chewed through to the pit.  From the teeth marks it was undoubtedly a squirrel’s work.  Mind you, not a famished one because the fruit was only half eaten.  Instead it was the work of a slacker squirrel too lazy to chew around the apricot’s central stone pit so it just tossed the half eaten fruit aside and plucked another almost-ripe piece and hit the repeat button again.  And again.  And again. 

Just then the squirrel appeared, leapt from the neighboring tree to our apricot, plucked another half-ripe fruit right before my eyes and starting chomping away.  This one squirrel would decimate our entire crop of edible fruit before it ripened in August.  I decided: this was war!

The first stop was the Ivory Tower professionals.  The University of California had an excellent website for in-state fruit growers which suggested several time-sensitive methods to deal with squirrels.  According to its pie chart May-August was the season of glorious summer for humans and primo poison time for ground squirrels.  U of C suggested poisons—from Anticoagulants to Zinc Phosphides—be put into a bait station and Voila!  Squirrels and problem gone.  The only hitch was we had a cat who was more curious than smart.  If I put squirrel poison in my garden, I couldn’t guarantee that Jackson wouldn’t be hurt, too.  I dumped the poison option; metaphorically speaking.

Outside I saw Harold, our 86 year-old neighbor with the sparkling blue eyes.  In all his years Harold must have used some method to deal with ground squirrels, even if it was during the nicey-nice Eisenhower Administration. 
“How good a shot are you?” he asked.
“I shot skeet... in college… once—”
“You’ll need a shotgun.  Believe me you hit ‘em with lead bullets, they’ll never come back,” he said with a chuckle, which made me rethink the niceness of the Eisenhower Administration. 
“I don’t know—” I said looking for the right word to extricate myself from the conversation.
“Oh, you kids don’t want to hurt the vermin.  Then use rubber bullets.  Just don’t shoot out my windows.”

I retreated to our property.  What was wrong with me?  I had started gardening to experience the joy of growing our own food and finding harmony with nature.  And now I was contemplating poisons and guns to wipe out the natural wildlife.  When did I become a cold-hearted killer?  Weren’t the squirrels here before my apricot tree?  Before the house?  Before me?  The problem wasn't with the squirrel, it was with me.

That was it!  I couldn’t remove the squirrel but I could remove the temptation.  A friend of mine volunteered for the local arboreal organization, Tree People, where she learned that apricots are one of the few fruits that can ripen off the tree. 

That night while the squirrels slept I dressed in camouflage and snuck out of the house.  On my way to the apricot tree I tripped over 10 more pieces of half-eaten fruits.  I controlled my anger—so as not to blow my cover—plucked all the remaining fruit from our tree and tiptoed back to the safety of my kitchen encampment.  I put all the half-ripened fruit into a brown paper bag, folded the flap down and left it on the countertop. 

A week later the fragrance of ripe apricots wafted toward me as I approached the brown bag.  Opening the bag was like magic—our half green-orange fruits had transformed into orange orbs with a faint rose blush.  They were the ideal picture of what the perfect apricot looked like.  For breakfast I cut one in half and shared it with Mr. Wonderful on the back patio.  The flavor was sweet, juicy and perfect.  It was the ideal taste of what the perfect apricot was. 

From the table outside I watched the squirrel leap onto our apricot tree looking for fruit.  He didn’t find anything except, on the ground, the pit of the delicious apricot we’d completely eaten.

Squirrel—0; New House Girl—1       

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Barbecue Success!

What a perfect weekend for a barbecue.  Well, most weekends in Southern California are perfect for a barbecue and this was no exception. These were the ingredients:  


One Part Potato Salad.  I make my potato salad with a combination of olive oil and mayonnaise, which prevents the potatoes from being too heavy in your mouth.  Later they’ll still stick to my hips but I’ll swim them off...  Maybe.  Also I add cucumber and celery to give a crispy crunch to the salad so your palate remains curious.  Will this bite be crispy, crunchy or smooth...?



Plus One Part Veggie Skewers.  Hot off the grill.  I know the veggies are ready when the wooden skewers are burnt.  Not charred, just a little burnt.  


Plus One Part Apple Pie.  Homemade crust paired with home sliced apple wedges.  Because every pan I owned was full of chips, dip or salad, I made this crust—without a pan—just by forming a lazy circle with the dough, arranging the apple slices inside and baking it on a cookie sheet.  It was delicious.

Oh yeah, plus The Pool. 
Equals Success!





Friday, July 20, 2012

Barbecues and Watermelon

Summertime was made for barbecues.  Barbecues were made for desserts.  And dessert demands watermelon.

But not any old melon will do.  It has to be seedless--if you're a neat eater; or seeded--if you don't mind spitting in front of friends.  Most of all a melon has to have heart.

Our barbecue's dessert watermelon fit the bill.



Happy Barbecuing!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tomato Salads!

Our vegetable garden is bursting with produce.  Every day the cherry tomato plants are giving us bowls full of red tomatoes.  Yesterday I made lettuce salads with mozzarella di Bufala cheese topped with our homegrown tomatoes and basil.  I could taste the sunshine in the tomatoes.
 


Today I'll make tomato, cucumber and feta salads for dinner.  

Tomorrow it'll be tomatoes topped with tomatoes and a side helping of tomatoes.

I love summer!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kitchen Redo--Step 4 No Woman is an Island

“How’s that?” Mr. Wonderful said while on one bended knee.
“More,” I said standing over him.
"How about now?"
"Another 10 inches."
"I just gave you 14 inches.  Twice."
"Give me 20 more and we'll call it even.”

After weeks of plans, work and countless decisions on our kitchen remodel finally we’d reached question #1,367: Do we build an island?  Or not?  To help us decide Mr. Wonderful was on the kitchen floor with a roll of masking tape outlining the size of our potential island.  It was as if we were homicide detectives chalking out the lay of a dead body; except our taped outline didn’t have arms, legs or bloody gunshot wounds. 

Yet.

Currently our kitchen floor plan had all the cabinets lining the perimeter walls leaving the room’s center empty, making the space as warm and cozy as an Olympic ice skating rink.

I felt we should take advantage of the openness and break up the space with an island that could double as a work station, storage bin and home water cooler.  I could see it now: I’d slice dinner and store all my Tupperware in organized stacks while swapping gossip with Mr. Wonderful over a glass of rosso on our exotic kitchen island.  How romantic.

Meanwhile Mr. Wonderful wanted to keep the space as it was: big enough for an ice skater and her partner to do four triple axels—at the same time.  However by getting him to tape out the outline of a possible island meant that maybe, just maybe, I could sway his opinion.  My goal: to make the taped outline a three dimensional island.  My plan: A-ttaaack!

“Hello…?  Anyone home?” a cheery feminine voice wafted on the breeze before our blond, 50-something neighbor leapt into our kitchen. 
“Hi, Mary,” I said.  “Come in—”
“Already am!” she said with a smile so warm it could melt glaciers, which actually just might be the cause of global warming because she smiled a lot.  Every time I saw her, in fact.  I wondered if GreenPeace and the EPA knew about Mary’s grinning warmth?  I decided not to tell them because her smiles were too gracious to miss.

“You remember Mike,” she said pointing to the gray-haired man beside her.
We did.
“They’re redoing their kitchen,” she said to her husband.
We were.
“Mike’s the one to call for a remodel,” she said.   “He’s a contractor contactor and can organize your redo if you don’t want to.”
We wanted to and were currently doing it.
“He’s really busy but really good,” she added. 
At this point I realized neither Mr. Wonderful nor Mike nor I needed to be here.  Mary was running all sides of the conversation on her own.  Like a homicide detective on “Law & Order”, she had all the best—and worst—lines. 
“Thanks,” I said smiling at her.  “But we’ve got it covered.” 
“If I were doing this job,” Mike said, “I’d start by getting rid of this gunk,” and in one fell swoop he yanked our tape outline off the floor.
“My island!” I shrieked. 
“An island?  Here?” Mary said smiling.  “Don’t do it, you’ll just clutter up the room.”
“See?” Mr. Wonderful said raising an eyebrow at me.

I needed to tell them about my island envy.  How through my kitchen remodel research I’d discovered Americans spent six hours a day watching television and 39 hours of that day in the kitchen, which made for a long day.  I also learned that when a hostess was in her kitchen cooking, entertaining or burning the creme brulĂ© her guests wanted to be three feet away from her—or less.  We were cook entertainers so I needed a place where the guests could congregate that was close to me but not in my hair.

Instead all I mustered was, “I want an island.” Before stamping my foot.

Mary tossed us a gorgeous smile then said, “Don’t put in an island, you’ll just clutter up the room,”  
What did she know about clutter?  Then she and Mike hurried out to drive their three kids to soccer, ballet and oboe practices. 

I saw her warning words seeping into Mr. Wonderful’s brain.  I needed to act fast.  I rushed out to the guesthouse, grabbed several boxes of books and returned to the kitchen where I stacked them 3½ feet tall and 2½ feet wide to mimic the size and height of an island.  Unlike the outline taped to the floor, now I could feel this island’s heft and space requirements.  This was the way to test drive an island!

Before I could show it to Mr. Wonderful I saw a bearded man through the window approaching our house.
“Hey, neighbors,” Charles said lugging two large shopping bags, “I brought you Meyer lemons.” Charles and his spouse, Stephen, lived across the street from us and their walled garden was as lush as Eden.  Boy, those guys knew fruit.  Their pomegranate trees were ripe with red globes, their grapefruits laden with fruit the size of volleyballs and their orange trees had more vitamin C than all of California and Florida—combined.  Now our neighbors wanted to share their citrus wealth with us.

“How beautiful!  Put them right here,” I said patting my makeshift island. 
“Let me move the junk,” Charles said grabbing all the boxes from my island and—before I knew it—lining them up against the wall.  He was so quick and efficient he put our professional movers to shame. 
“Charles,” I said, “that’s my kitchen island!”
“You’re putting an island here?” he said followed by a long whistle.  “I wouldn’t, you’ll just clutter up the room.”  Right then Mr. Wonderful entered the room.
“See?” Mr. Wonderful said raising both eyebrows at me. 
“You don’t need an island or its clutter,” Charles said.  I saw Mr. Wonderful nod his head in agreement.  I watched him dig in his “no island” heels.

My big island plans were faltering.  Before my romantic isle became deserted, I needed to make a bold move.  I raced to Ikea and bought a butcher’s bock table.  It had a solid wood top for chopping and two open shelves perfect for stacking Tupperware.  I unloaded it from the car and set it in the middle of our kitchen.  No more makeshift, fake islands.  I now had the next best thing to a built-in island: a real, three-dimensional table.

At least this time no one could mistake the table in the middle of our room for anything but an island.  I had to show it to Mr. Wonderful!  In the meantime I started dinner.  I opened the refrigerator door, which hit my island table.  I slid the table way from the frig but moving around the island I bumped into the built-in counter bruising my hip.  I washed the salad at the sink then carried the wet lettuce to the island—sloshing water across the floor as I went. Turning back to the stovetop I slipped on the lettuce water puddle and hit my funny bone.

“Whoa!  The island looks great,” Mr. Wonderful said upon entering. “I needed to see it.”
“I needed to, too.”
“You were right—”
“No, you were,” I said.  Our kitchen was large but putting an island in the middle of it would torpedo the spacious feeling and just clutter it up. 

Mr. Wonderful looked at me with raised eyebrows ready to scream bloody murder.  And he would have too if I hadn't said the magic words: “You were right.”  I repeated them. 
“Thank you,” he said.”
“Thank you,” I said hugging him.

We deserted our island, avoided the clutter and bypassed dead bodies.  Then we squeezed some lemonade.  It wasn't exotic or romantic but it sure was sweet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kitchen Remodel: Handle Photos

The next step in our kitchen remodel was to update the cabinets by giving them a modern, ergonomic handle and matching hinges.

Here's a close up view of the old copper kitchen handles and hinges.  They were too small to put our fat 21st century hands through.  Plus, the handles were so thin and sharp if I grabbed them the wrong way I gave myself metal “paper" cuts.  



For inspiration on what new handles to install, I let my own kitchen tell me what would work hardware-wise.  My Electrolux oven and its sturdy handle was just the look I wanted.   



At the home improvement store I found the perfect handle.  



I painted the kitchen cabinets with the turquoise-colored paint.  Mr. Wonderful installed the handles on them. Our friend, Grun, painted the "Coffee Cup" painting, which matches the cabinets perfectly!


And Voila!  Our kitchen remodel is one step closer to completion!

Next up:  To build an island… or Not?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kitchen Redo: Step 3 Getting a Handle on It

“Can I help you?” said the smiling employee at the home improvement store.
“I’m looking for handles for my kitchen cabinets,” I said.  “Hey, do you like this one?” I asked pointing to a curvy one. 
“Uh—”
“Or this one?  Although it’s actually more of a knob.  People use knobs in their kitchens, don’t they?”
“Uh—”
“Or maybe I should get this adorable one with the apple design?   But maybe it’s too cutesy?  What do you think?”
“They’re paging me,” he said waving overhead to the speakers and ran away.  Unless his name was “Against All Odds by Phil Collins, the Muzak Version”, I was pretty sure he lied about being paged—just to get away from me. 

But I didn’t blame him. 

I was sitting on the floor of The Home Depot trying to decide which handles to buy for the kitchen cabinets.  I wanted the new hardware to be: 1) Clean; 2) Modern; and 3) More ergonomic, in other words easier for our fat hands to grab hold of.  Being blunt, our 21st century hands were bigger than those in the 1950s.  In fact, if our old cabinet handles were anything to go by, the paws of all mid-20th century people were downright Hobbitesque

I started my search for handles at The Home Depot so I could feel each one and be sure my fat digits could work them.  I grabbed every handle, knob, pull and grip thingy and quickly narrowed the field of acceptable handles to 47.  Maybe I could buy one of each of the 47 models and create a kitchen where every handle was unique.  Imagine the conversation starters!  Guests would come visit and I’d say, “I couldn’t decide which ergonomic handle to get so… I chose them all!”  “How clever,” guests would say testing each handle and pulling open all my cabinets.  Exposing all my Tupperware, plastic wrap and rubber bands—

No, I couldn’t invite lookey-loos to explore my kitchen and all its secrets.  Maybe ergonomic was less important than esthetic.  After all I’m a woman who still thought looks trumped comfort.

I raced home and poured over my file of inspiration kitchens.  I examined the White Kitchen, the Blue Kitchen and the Yellow.  The metal handles in the White Kitchen were mixed with well… white, which wouldn’t work in my blue kitchen.  Those in the Blue inspiration kitchen were gray metallic and would look good with grays and metals but not our turquoise paint.  The Yellow Kitchen had handles in a delicate scallop shell design that were beautiful and whispered of the ocean.  How great to live in Los Angeles’ land-locked Valley and be reminded of the ocean with every visit to the kitchen to refill the tortilla chip bowl.  I liked the shells. 

On closer inspection, the scalloped pulls were designed to shove your hand up under the shell and pull out.  This aggressive pull movement for me meant, sooner or later, chipped nail polish and jammed fingers.  I could see it now, guests would come visit and shriek “What happened to you?” upon seeing my bandaged hand.  I’d explain, “I was getting the popcorn bowl out of the kitchen cabinet, when I broke six fingers and chipped every nail.”

No, Clumsy Me couldn’t go with a handle that I couldn’t navigate well enough without going to the Emergency Room on a daily basis.  Perhaps esthetics weren’t that important after all.  But if looks and comfort didn’t matter to me, what did? 

Before embarking on the kitchen redo / kitchen remodel, Mr. Wonderful and I knew it was going to be a long-term project.  Not a 100-meter dash that was over in less than 10 seconds but a full-on 26.2 mile marathon through an alligator infested, mud-soaked bayou…  Followed by a second 26.2 mile marathon through the bone-dry,  hell-heated Mojave Desert.  Currently we were only at the first marathon’s three-mile marker and—already—I was raising the white flag in defeat.

But why?

Why was choosing kitchen cabinet handles so hard?  That day at work, I had wrangled two meetings, wrote three film synopses and answered every email in my inbox—oh, like 568 of them.   Now I sat surrounded by professional magazine clippings in total despair.  At the office I was the picture of efficient decision-making.  However with this kitchen handle decision I was a confused heap on the floor, literally.  What was my problem?  I mean, I was a college-educated, Masters degree-holding adult perfectly able to make—

Perfectly.  That’s it.  Or really, “perfect”.  Because of the time, money and enormous effort this kitchen remodel was costing us, I wanted our kitchen to be perfect.  However my desire for perfection was prohibiting me from making a simple decision.  Which isn’t to say I didn’t want to do perfect work at the office; or at least as-perfect-as-possible work at the office.  I contemplated my dilemma and teased out the differences.  At work I knew the parameters of my job.  I knew what type of synopsis to write since I knew the milieu, the company culture and the client.  I knew what kind of emails to write because I could tailor each one to the original writer of the email.  What I needed to do in my kitchen was to forget the inspiration kitchens, forget all The Home Depot options and just look.  At.  My Kitchen. 

I realized with a jolt that the answer to the handle question was before me: here in my kitchen’s milieu.  Yes!  The answer I wanted was discernable in the method and personal culture of how I used my kitchen.  I looked at the room, at the sink, the refrigerator and the gas oven.  I loved cooking and baking with our new Electrolux gas oven.  I appreciated the solid temperature knobs that my fat hands could easily grab.  I admired the oven’s straight-forward, sturdy handle that I could pull open with my bare hands or with oven mitts.  Actually the oven’s handle was… perfect!  A perfect handle for the oven, for all our kitchen cabinets and for me. 

At the home improvement store I found metal hardware handles that mimicked our oven’s sturdy handle.  I bought them all.  And I decided: they are perfectly me. 

So long Mile Three of the marathon.  Bring on Mile Four!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Your Email Inbox

So I added a new feature on this blog.  It's called "Type Your Email Address Here and Get the Next New House Girl Post in Your Inbox".  Since that title was longer than 20 characters I had to shorten it to: "Email address...".  You can find it right under the banner and photograph of the New House Girl at the top of the home page.

So add your email address if you'd like.  Or not.  Whatever you do have fun because life's too short not to... add your email address!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Kitchen Redo—Step 2 Some Kind of Blue


“After work I’m going to The Home Depot,” Mr. Wonderful said putting his empty coffee cup and saucer in the dishwasher.
“Great,” I said returning the milk to the refrigerator.
“So I can pick up whatever blue paint you want for the kitchen,” he added.
“First I need samples: in light blue, dark blue and every shade in between.”
“You don’t know what blue you want?” he said closing the dishwasher.
“I know exactly I want,” I smiled.  “Just as soon as I see it.”

In the long-term, fixer-upper project that was “The House”, Mr. Wonderful and I had decided that he was the man of tools and I was the woman of design, comfort and color.  If we’d been on the Titanic that fateful night he would have been trying to repair the hole caused by the iceberg while I would have been serving drinks to passengers, color coordinating deck chair pillows and dancing to the band as it played its final set.

Admittedly his tool skills were more valuable in solving problems than mine.  Which isn’t to say he was ignorant about color.  On the contrary as a director he made dozens—maybe hundreds—of technical and creative decisions every day so at home he was more than happy to let me decide what went with what. 

Besides, he knew color was my forte.

Speaking of, I had a skill set too, which just so happened to include decorating, designing and putting colors with… other colors.  Some people may call me and my talents frivolous; and I say: go ahead.  Frivilous c’est moi!

After work I drove to Lowe’s and the Do-It Center where I collected a select number of paint sample cards—oh, like 300.  I grabbed a little this, a bit of that, and a boatload of those.  I was like that picky, piggy person at the salad bar who loads her plate with the freshest romaine lettuce, darkest spinach, deepest ruby red tomatoes and crispiest cucumbers that still smell of the organic Central California Valley farm soil they were grown in.  I noticed the soggy Chinese fried noodles and the dried out black Mediterranean olives and steered clear.  That’s how color is for me.  Names don't matter.  I have to see it to know if I like it. 

Which isn’t to say I was clueless about what type of blue I wanted.  As part of our kitchen remodel, we’d bought and had installed a steel Electrolux oven.  The model we got was called “Gorgeous with Four Gas Burners”.  To complement this functional beauty of a piece de resistance I wanted a blue paint with some silver or gray undertones.  I snapped up the color samples named: Blue Steel, Steely Blue and Blue-Gray Steel. 

Some companies’ color labels are more descriptive than creative.  And I admire that. 

When we moved into our house there weren’t any appliances, so we brought our white refrigerator with us and plugged it in.  It still worked and looked great so we felt it was silly (read: “fiscally irresponsible”, his words not mine) to buy another.  So as far as colors went, I also wanted a blue paint that complemented white appliances.  I snatched up card samples of paints called: 0647, S-H-570 and 123456789. 

Some companies’ color labels are precise in their utter lack of creativity.  And I don’t dislike precision.

The yellow dream kitchen that was partially responsible for inspiring me included a painting in the kitchen. Whether it was an oil created by Van Gogh or a piece of lined paper scribbled on by my niece in a kindergarten class, hanging original art in the home appealed to me.  One painting that I definitely wanted to use in our kitchen was of a huge turquoise coffee cup.  A dear friend of ours, Grun, had painted it for Mr. Wonderful when my husband came home after a long directing gig of an animated feature, which had kept him too busy for Grun—and out of town—for a year longer than the production schedule had initially planned.  Our friend is that kind of gift giver.  Grun knew I loved flowers so one year for my birthday he gave me a painting of a bouquet of flowers.  I still have it and after several years, I’ve never had to freshen its water. 

Having friends who give gift paintings is a perk to having artistic friends.  Having Art Center graduate friends who work in the Art Departments of Hollywood studios on blockbuster movies who give self-made paintings is a fabulous perk of having awesomely talented artistic friends.  I wanted a blue paint to go with this coffee cup painting.

So I needed a blue to complement stainless steal, white and turquoise, which would hide the dirt and that I wouldn’t tire of looking at for the next 10 years.  Easy task, right?

So easy. 

The next day as the sun shone into the kitchen I spread out all 750 paint samples on the table much to Mr. Wonderful’s chagrin.  Then I let my eyes flit over each one briefly.  Within five minutes I narrowed my choice down to… one blue.  I held the sample card up to my oven, my refrigerator and the coffee cup painting.  Bingo. 

“This is what I want,” I said waving the card sample at Mr. Wonderful. 
“What about all the others—?”
“I know what I want: and that’s you.  And this blue.  In my kitchen.”  Then I danced across the floor twirling the paint card in front of him.   

I didn’t fix any problems; I didn’t cure cancer; but I made him comfortable enough to laugh.  Sometimes complementary colors are as important as complementary partners.  And I respect that.