Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hallelujah Tomatoes!

They're doing so well.
They're coming out of our ears.
They're overtaking our home!
It's the invasion of the tomatoes!

I'm not complaining. Before I've complained of poor tomatoes and lousy weather and not winning the lottery, the Mega Millions version. But not today! Oh, no, now I am rejoicing in the tomatoes we are harvesting from our tomato patch! They are beautiful, gorgeous and delicious. Hallelujah!

With them I've made garden salads, Greek salads and medium spicy tomato salsas.

I've made tomato pasta, tomato soup and--last night--tomato gazpacho. Although I don't know what other type of gazpacho one could make except a tomato gazpacho.

We've got so many tomatoes we could form a new country, if tomatoes could talk, walk or vote.

In the mean time I'll just enjoy this tomato time and declaim: Tomatoes, Hallelujah!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tomato Town

"It's gone?" I said looking at the empty bowl.
"It was good," Mr. Wonderful said wiping his mouth.
"But you downed... all of them."
"Just the good ones."
"They're all good."

One of the joys of living in a house is having a little bit of earth where I can plant tomatoes. Forget cucumbers, watermelons and squash. After living in an apartment ever since college, when we finally bought The House, the only vegetable I wanted to plant was red, seeded and a fruit. Technically.

Unfortunately in our family I was the only one who felt this way about tomatoes. Mr. Wonderful didn't care for them because whenever he got any at a restaurant he left them untouched and pushed to the side of his plate. Which meant: "They're tasteless." Jackson didn't like them either because whenever he smelled tomatoes he said, "Meow." Which means: "There's not enough fish on them." Meow also means, "Feed me"; "Pet me", "Brush me"; and "Stop touching me!"

But I digress.

While the ink of our signatures was still wet on The House's title, I rushed out to the nursery, bought 600 tomato plants and stuck them in the garden planter. I watered them, mulched them and 90 days later had gorgeous cherry tomatoes. I served them whole to Mr. Wonderful but he didn't care for them because when he sliced into one the seeds squirted across the room like a Jackson Pollack painting. Which meant: "These things are too small for a grown man to eat." Jackson didn't like the cherry tomatoes either because whenever he got his paws on a one that had fallen to the ground, he said "Meow". Which meant: "This is a boring toy." Meow also means, "Feed me"; and "You woke me up for this?"

But I digress.

As the summer lengthened the cherry tomatoes were getting dried out in the planter's raised bed. And soon the cherry tomatoes were poof! gone. So I bought tomatoes at the market and tossed them into a salad and served them to Mr. Wonderful but he didn't care for them for he pushed them onto my plate. Which meant: "They're too acidic." Jackson didn't like them either because whenever he even saw me slicing store-bought tomatoes, he said, "Meow." Which means: "Fur balls taste better than these." Meow also means, "Feed me"; and "Wake me when you have something good."

But I'm digressing from the point.

After removing enough concrete from the backyard to cover the 101 Freeway, I was able to plant tomatoes directly into the ground. Happily I abandoned the cherry tomatoes and planted Early Girl tomatoes and some yellow heirloom ones, which the label described as "mild in flavor." In the ground these plants grew tall and lush, like Jack's Beanstalk, or as I say, like nobody's business.

"What are those plants," Mr. Wonderful said a month ago as he lounged in the pool.
"Tomatoes," I said pausing from weeding to wipe the sweat from my forehead.
"But their fruits are big."
"They like being in the ground."
"The plants are falling over themselves."
"They need to be staked."

He leapt out of the pool, grabbed stakes and some green rubber ties. While still dripping with pool water he staked those plants better than any career farmer, or as I say like nobody's darn business. That evening he shared a secret with me.

"I don't like tomatoes but I'm excited about our plants." Needless to say the former information came as no surprise to me. But the latter revelation did. Technically.

When the first Early Girls were red and smelled like a tomato should I plucked several, washed them and set them on the table for sandwiches. When I told him the tomatoes were from our garden, like a master jeweler, he picked one up and examined it. Mr. Wonderful seemed to care for tomato plants when they were ours, big, and produced adult-sized fruit. But would he like eating them? I held my breath.

Mr. Wonderful cut into a crimson globe and laid a slice on his open-faced sandwich. Biting into it he said, "Mmm." Which meant: "This isn't bad." Showing me that quality tomatoes can change a man's opinion. Meanwhile Jackson held fast. He still didn't like for our home-grown treasures because after sniffing one and said, "Meow." Which meant: "Don't call me, I'll call you."

Which I will happily do because with Mr. Wonderful eating so many tomatoes they're aren't that many for me. Technically.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Giving Vine

It gave me shade.
It gave me fruit.
It gave me something to talk about.
And still! My grape vines kept on giving!

In this world there are three types of plants: 1) The Takers—like Palm Trees and Venus Flytraps; 2) The Givers—like Citrus Trees and Fig Trees; and 3) The Super-Givers like Grape Vines and the Tree that Money Grows On. As a kid I read that book The Giving Tree by the talented Shel Silverstein, which tells the story of how an apple tree gave a boy apples to eat, branches to swing on, wood to sell and a stump to sit on. The apple tree did everything for this kid including letting the kid chop down the tree—his only friend!—to hawk the tree’s dead body to give the kid—now a man—money. Note to the kid/man: That tree was much nicer to you than you were to it. Second Note to the kid/man: If you have to cut down your friend for cash, clearly you haven’t managed your life finances well. Third Note to the kid/man: If you love something let it go, don’t chop it down!

Like this giving tree, my grape vines kept on giving. However unlike the kid, I tried to be respectful of my vines. Yes, my grape vines provided a shady spot under their leaves, offered me delicious fruit and gave me serious bragging rights. But in my summer of Greek cooking, they also presented me with stuffed grape leaves.

CORRECTION: It provided so many leaves I harvested some of them to make stuffed grape leaves.

I love stuffed grape leaves—the rice filling with dill and parsley, the rich extra virgin olive oil and the “This is good food!” taste! So I consulted my Greek cookbook of the summer, It's All Greek to Me by Debbie Matenopoulos, and followed her recipe. Other stuffed grape leaf recipes I had seen only explained how to make them with store-bought grape leaves. But Debbie’s recipe explained how to make them with your own vines, just like her family has done. And this recipe was a winner!

First I trimmed some leaves that were far from the main plant’s canes. Them I boiled the leaves for three minutes then let them sit in cold water.

I made the rice filling with dill, parsley and beef, wrapped the grape leaves around the rice filling and snuggled them into a pan. All lined up like that they looked like little pillows of gastronomical delights.

I filled the pan with olive oil and cooked them. Then I ate them! VoilĂ ! They were delicious! Even Mr. Wonderful was a fan. In fact he would like me to make more stuffed grape leaves, which I still can because unlike the kid/man and his giving tree, I still have many, many more leaves to harvest because I didn’t chop down my Giving Grape Vines.

Here’s to homemade Stuffed Grape Leaves! Here's to my Grape Vines! And here's to high hopes that they keep on giving!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


“Your backyard is peaceful,” my friend Anne-Marie said dipping her toe in the swimming pool.
“Thanks,” I said floating on my back.
“It looks good with all the plants.”
“Wait—Are those grapes?!”

I’m not a show-off or a flashy person. I like simple things and minimal decorations. I relish practical items that serve a purpose. I prefer straightforward talk to lots of blah-blah-blah… blah. Which is another reason I like growing grapes in my backyard: they’re beautiful and highly functional. Plus they blow the socks of visitors! Not that I care about showing off or being flashy. 

The other day my friend visited for a pool day. Mr. Wonderful was working on yet another project in his studio, so rather than be a weekend widow I invited Anne-Marie over for a dip in the pool. Anne-Marie lives near the ocean, has a job and laughs at all my jokes. She’s a great friend. She also likes grapes and is a dramatic speaker.

“How did you get these grapes to grow in your backyard?!” she said leaping from the pool to the vines. 
“I put them in the ground,” I said twirling the beach ball on my index finger like Michael Jordan.
“But how did they get so huge?!”
“It’s the Valley.”
“They don’t grow in Santa Monica!”
I went on to explain that while the coastal areas of Los Angeles weren’t great for growing grapes because of their  sandy soil, frequent marine fog and gnarly surfer dudes, things were different in the San Fernando Valley. The Valley is surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains, the Angeles National Forest and a dozen freeways with rich soil and sun, sun, sun. All of which made it an ideal climate for growing produce. Before World War II The San Fernando Valley was known for producing quality fruits and vegetables on its farms and orchards.“In fact,” I said “There’s a major thoroughfare in the Valley called ‘Vineland’ which makes me think that back in the day, they were growing grapes near where that street is located.”
“Get out!” Anne-Marie said “I live off Vineland! Wow!” 

Her socks were blown off, which would have made me happy if I were the type of person who liked to be flashy or show-offy. 

The next day our subdued rose-growing neighbor stopped by.
“Jerry, Come in,” I said opening the gate. 
“I brought you the name of the pruning clippers I use,” he said handing me a yellow sticky note.
“Thank you.”
“Are those grapes you’re growing?”
“They look real nice. What fertilizer are you using?”
“But how did you get them to look so good?”
“It’s the soil.” 
I went on to explain how our neighborhood—before subdivision, pools and even before Harold—had been a large orchard which had orange, grapefruit and lemon trees. If those plants could grow in our area, grapes would grow well too. Jerry scratched his head and adjusted his 49ers baseball cap.
“Our neighborhood was an orchard? Grapes like orchard soil? Wow.”

He was a subdued man but I knew from his reactions that deep down his shorts had been blown off! I could tell he was amazed to learn some history of our little corner of the Valley, and I was happy to share it with him. All of this would have made me happy if I had been a show-off, flashy, braggy sort of person. 

After Jerry left with a bunch of our grapes, our 86 year-old neighbor appeared.
“What did Jerry want?”
“Hey Harold. He was just marveling at the grapes we have growing in our backyard.”
“I know. I can see them. They’re big.”
“They are, aren’t they?” I said tossing him a totally non-flashy, non-show-offy, humble smile. 
“You must have some serious green thumb to grow them so well.”
“You could say that.” 
“Well keep them on your side of the fence.”

Harold is a grump but I know deep, deep, a million miles down that he was really impressed with my grapes and that they had blown his mind to smithereens! But I don’t care about blowing people’s minds or being a braggy, grape-growing show-off. Thankfully.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Grape Expectations

“I love grapes,” I said sitting at the breakfast table. 
“Hmm,” Mr. Wonderful said sipping his morning espresso.
“Tomorrow we’re having fresh grapes for breakfast.” 
“Why tomorrow?” 
“They need one more day on the vine.”
“What’ll we eat for breakfast today?”
“… I have no idea.”

Ah, July. That glorious time of the year Charles Dickens wrote about in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of… grapes. 

I’m not going to delve into the whole David Copperfield saga of how my grapes came to be. But I will say that after planting the grape canes last year, cutting them back last fall and watching them grow like gangbusters this spring, the end was now near and I had high hopes of how delicious these grapes would be. Yes, I had Great Expectations. 

It is well known that I love grapes. In fact I wrote a whole book about my evolving affection for vino, Evolution of a Wine Drinker. What is less well known is that I am fond of many grape products, from red wine, to white wine, sparkling wine, champagne, brandy— But I digress. 

Let it be known that I am not a wine snob. Oh, no! my Vitis affection goes beyond the fruit’s liquid and tasty libations and extends to its edible form of table grapes. After planting a couple vines of table grapes in the old back 40, the fruits had grown so much they looked like pearls, rubies or the plastic fruit bunches hanging from a cheesy Italian restaurant in New Jersey. The vines have taken over the backyard in lush, leafy ropes making an oasis of my formerly Bleak House! 

The only problem with the fruits of my labor was that the grapes weren’t ready yet. Nope, they needed one more day under the sun, on the vine, in the garden patch duking it out with the tomatoes. Not being able to eat them today was going to be difficult for Mr. Wonderful and me. Actually it would be Hard Times: For These Times.

Oh! But tomorrow! How grand it will be to eat grapes from my own vines for breakfast! Receiving the gifts from the vine will be like Christmas day! Like A Christmas Carol!

Bless my Dickens! What Great Expectations!

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Fourth Wish

Every Fourth of July I re-read the Declaration of Independence to remind me of our struggle for independence and the importance of being one American people. I've read it so many times I now know it by heart.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to celebrate their independence with a barbecue, fireworks and a crazy display of red, white and blue decorations--

Okay, maybe I don't know it by heart yet. So here's the real Declaration of Independence.

Wishing you a very HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Summertime Squatters

“Have you seen our new neighbors?” I said laying the mail on the buffet.
“There’s a house for sale in our neighborhood?” Mr. Wonderful said pouring a glass of water.
“Oh, they didn’t buy a house.”
“Are they renting?”

“Nope. They’re squatting.”

It’s Summertime and the livin’ is easy. Or at least that’s what Bess told Porgy; Clara told her baby; and tons of bands have told everyone via countless covers of that Gershwin tune. But with dear old summertime comes summertime squatters. You know the type: the ones that appear out of nowhere with stingers and wings. Yes, Virginia: the wasps.

In May, Harold sounded the alarm. I saw our 86 year-old neighbor walking around his house one careful step at a time.
“Did you lose something, Harold?”
“My peace of mind.”
“I’ll let you know when if I find it,” I said.
“Very funny.”
“Hey, I saw a piece by your lemon tree.”
“Less funny.”
“How about: you have a mind?” He gave me a disparaging look. “Where’s your sense of humor?”
“When wasps make nests on the outside of my house, I don’t joke around.”
“Wasps have to live somewhere. And didn’t we build our houses in their territory?”
“You’ll see,” he said shuffling around the garage to continue his wasp nest inspection.

In June, his 85 year-old spouse appeared holding a broom aloft with the bristles brushing the eaves of their house.
“You’re a thorough cleaner, Norma.”
“It’s the only way to get rid of the freeloaders.”
“No dear. The wasps. They build their nests in the tiniest nooks and crannies.”
“But they have to build their nests somewhere.”
“Sure. On someone else’s house,” she said returning to her aerial sweeping. “You should check your own house.”

In July, I parked the car in our driveway and a wasp buzzed past my head. It was even with my eye line and I saw its bugged out eyes and rapid wings. Sometimes nature is beautiful and sometimes it’s… downright scary looking. I watched the wasp gain height to the roof of our house and enter a wasp nest hanging from one of the eaves.
“Welcome home, Mr. Wasp,” I said in a non-threatening, neighborly way. Both we and Nature need to live together. Just then a second wasp buzzed by on its way to the nest so I gently waved my arm to carefully steer it toward the nest when BAM! The wasp stung me! Right in the hand! Then BA-BAM! It stung me again! On the arm!

Unlike bees who die when they sting you, one wasp can sting you multiple times. I know, from personal experience.
“Better you than me,” Mr. Wonderful said as he laid bags of frozen blueberries on my swollen hand and arm.
“I love your sympathy.”
“It’s just, I’m allergic to wasps.”

Ten minutes later I grabbed the broom, swept away the wasp nest and deposited it into the greens bin. I didn’t mind getting stung and I still believe we and Nature need to coexist. But with Mr. Wonderful just one wasp sting away from an Emergency Room visit, the wasps can live on someone else’s house.

You’ll see.

Summertime and the liven' is wasp free...