Saturday, February 28, 2009

Best Soup Ever

I realize I appear to be on a leek soup kick, but I can't help myself. I'm allowing myself to indulge in this so that I can move on. You read my insane rave about how good Jonah Lisa's "Leek and Potato" soup is and how I planned on making her Leek, Chicken and Apple soup. I've bought the ingredients for that soup many times, but they always end up getting eaten before I can prepare it. Someone always eats an apple and I end up using the leeks. Yesterday, I decided to outsmart my family and bought the ingredients and made it right away.

Three words:




Not exaggerating. Not being dramatic. Just being honest. Unreal.

I know it was good because my boys both ate it and didn't leave a drop in their bowls. Neither of them particularly like eating soup and so far the only soup I've found that they'll both eat is a super-yummy Tomato-Peanut soup - and even though they like it, they never finish their bowls.

The little one is about as picky as they come and when he gobbled up every single bite of the Leek, Chicken and Apple soup, I knew we had a winner. This is the first time I've seen the bottom of the bowl with this kid. He's a wily one for sure. He can go a full week without taking one bite of his dinner, so seeing him eat this soup was captivating.

Aidan was iffy at first but when I bribed him with bread for dunking he was willing to take a bite. He ended up loving it and said "You have to make this soup again! It's making me strong!" Ahhh grasshoppa, you have learned well.

Aidan prefers the hover over your bowl to keep your shirt clean approach.

Farmer B came home from work early and managed to get some soup while it was still warm on the stove. He had two huge bowls and said it was one of the best soups he'd ever tried.

This will get prepared at our house often. I can't wait to make it for company now. Readers - you make this soup now! You make soup now!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Leeks are for Lovers

Did you see that little patch of green in my garden of death? Over there on the left… Yup. That's my pride and joy. That little green patch is my Giant Musselburgh Leek crop and I'm crossing my fingers that I get a good leek harvest this year. Leeks are by far the most-used vegetable in our house.

I've found that most Americans don't have the leek love like I do. They're much more common in Europe, but they're like the red-headed stepchild of the onion here. People are confused by them and just don't use them.

I know that my assumptions are valid because 9 times out of 10 when I buy them the cashier in the grocery store turns them around about 4 times before crinkling up her nose and saying "What ARE these?" I'll admit to wanting to say "really big scallions - crazy huh?" since scallions so much cheaper than leeks, but I always sigh and say "They're LEEKS" with contempt in my voice. I don't know how you can go through life leek-less.

If you have someone in your life that can't handle onions due to a digestive malady, they can probably manage leeks just fine. I can think of two people I know that have digestion issues with onions, but can suck down leeks like a charm. You can cut them up and use them as an onion substitute in any recipe. They are also great by themselves with a nice white sauce and they make killer, killer soups.

I know this because my friend Jonah Lisa over at The Toby Show is a lifetime member of the leek-lovers club. She has two leek soup recipes on her blog that are simple, wholesome and a perfect introduction to leeks for a newbie.

I just made her "Leek and Potato" soup and it was so dreamy that I sucked down an extremely gargantuan bowl and completely forgot to dip my bread into it. I let Aidan take a bite and he declared it "Great! It's 15 89!" He likes to yell out random lottery numbers when something is really good. He's like a walking fortune cookie, that kid.

(It's quite clear that I do not have a career in food photography waiting for me. No props. Bad lighting. Too impatient not to eat right away.)

Jonah Lisa also told me another little tidbit about the Leek and Potato soup - it's also good with another under-used vegetable - the elusive parsnip. She said to replace the potatoes with parsnip and cook it a bit longer and viola - parsnip and leek soup. I'm a HUGE parsnip fan - their woody taste always reminds me of Christmas dinner. I can't wait to try this again with parsnips. The oh-so-holy union of two uncommon vegetables into one creamy concoction makes me quiver with anticipation.

I'm going to try her Leek, Chicken and Apple soup next. I am giddy with excitement because I've never tried a recipe from her blog that I didn't love. She swears that the Leek, Chicken and Apple soup will cure what ails you, so it sounds like the perfect elixir of health.

Do you SEE why I'm babying my leeks now? I have the leek love. If you've never cooked with leeks, grab a bunch, some taters, some broth and some cream and print out JL's recipe from The Toby Show - you won't regret it!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hoe No!

I had a major gardening incident tonight. I'm still trying to mentally recover as I write this. Aidan and I were in the garden for the long-overdue corpse removal session and he was hacking away with the long-handled 5-pronged rake-thing while I was lightly hoeing the soil and pulling up weeds. I realized that I'd fallen away the Extreme Hoeing Workout Plan and figured as the founder of Extreme Hoeing I owed it to my followers to pick it back up now that we're getting ready to plant again.

I spent several minutes stretching out appropriately so that I wouldn't get injured. I did some hoe squats to make sure my back and legs were up to it. Then I stood in the appropriate stance and started a very intense session of Extreme Hoeing. Soil and sweat were flying, weeds flinging through the air, when CRACK! TING! THUMP!

My hoe fell into three pieces. I killed my hoe. My trusty hoe. Dead. The handle cracked, the hoe head fell off and the metal connector shaft fell to the ground.

I never knew Extreme Hoeing could be so dangerous. I think I'll have to re-evaluate my plan and add some warning labels. You just can't be too hard on your hoe...

I'll be shopping for a new hoe this weekend. I hope I find one that I bond with.

Edited: Farmer B came home and saw the dismembered hoe. Said it's a Craftsman so Sears will replace it for free. It's already in his car and I should have a brand-spanking new shiny hoe in my hands tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My garden: dead, naked, exposed.

I'm sure that avid blog readers have run across blogs where the writer shows the "real deal" behind the blog. This can be a photo a woman in the morning before make-up, a mom's toy-strewn living room or even what the inside of your fridge really looks like. Well this is officially a gardening blog, even though I'm allowing myself to follow a much looser path these days, so I thought I owed it to you to show you the horrid truth that is now my garden.

Remember how nice it looked before?

All green and perky.

Potential blossoming daily?


Well here is the wicked truth. You really need to click on the picture to see it in its full glory.

It's brown. Dead. Weedy. Overgrown. Plants left to go to seed. Did I mention dead? It's downright embarrassing. I feel so exposed. It's all sooooo "out there" for the world to see. My big weedy failure. The splashes of green might fool you, but they're either weeds or plants that have gone to seed.

Shall we talk about the photo? Let's see…from right to left we have the following:

Dead green beans and dead peas
A long row of tomato plant cages with brown sticks in them
Behind them an overgrown mint plant that no longer smells minty
To the left of the hose are some killer weeds and an overgrown broccoli plant
On the far left is a dead pumpkin plant and a group of overgrown lettuces
Against the left fence are 2 pots from my Great Garden Experiment with brown sticks in them.

I started to hoe the garden about 2 weeks ago, but I fell short of Extreme Hoeing and gave up. It's on my to-do list for next week: an extreme hoeing session and a mass disposal of the brown withered corpses that taunt me every day. I think I'll let the boys pull up the dead plants. There's nothing that screams "boy task" like the removal of dead things from a pile o' dirt.

There is an ounce of life in the garden though. All the way in the back corner behind the overgrown lettuce. Can you see it? It's my favorite vegetable growing in two rows and looking strong. So maybe there is hope...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Later, Gator

When you live in an area for a long time you take for granted all the typical things that make your area unique. Tourists visit Florida and are in awe of the palm trees and white sandy beaches. They get fired up over alligators and dolphins and manatees, but when you live here, you take them all in stride. But today we decided to get out of the house and let the boys get close up and personal to one of the Florida creatures that we normally tell them to avoid like their life depends on it - which it does. The Florida Alligator.

We took the boys to Gatorland, which is Central Florida's oldest theme park. It was built in 1949, long before Disney and Universal, and is still owned by the grandchildren of the original founders. It's a 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve and is known as the Alligator Capital of the World.

Our first stop was the Alligator Wrestling show where two guys dressed like Steve Irwin, but with pants and whips, pull a four to five foot gator out of a pit onto a sand platform and perform various stunts with him. They crack the whip and tell you that the crack of the whip is why natural-born Floridians are called Florida crackers. Florida used to be the second largest cattle-producing state in the U.S. and they'd crack the whips to get the cattle moving. Alligator wrestling started when alligators would pick off cattle and ranchers would hire wrestlers to catch the gators and move them away from their precious herds. We saw all the good tricks: jumping on the gator's back, holding his mouth open and laying him on his back to put him to sleep.
Then we went to the Alligator Jumparoo, which is a crowd favorite, but not quite as exciting in the cooler weather. Since alligators are cold-blooded and it was in the low 60s today, they were doing what we were doing - looking for a sunny spot and trying to get warm. You can tell that jumping up for a piece of chicken wasn't as exciting in that cold water, but one alligator was up for the challenge, so we got a photo op and the boys found it exciting.

Gatorland also has the world's largest collection of albino alligators. I'm convinced they aren't true albinos though, since they have blue eyes and not pink. I'll have to look into that. I quite enjoyed seeing a gardener being led into one of the albino alligator enclosures with one of the alligator wranglers. He was picking out weeds from the plant beds, but started moving like Flash Gordon when the big white gator started hissing and baring his teeth. We all got a good giggle out of that one.

A highlight of the trip was when the boys got to eat alligator meat for lunch. You can choose alligator bites, alligator ribs or a combo of both. We chose the bites because we've eaten them before and they're not too messy. Both boys were very intrigued and enjoyed eating the alligator. People always ask what gator tastes like - of course it tastes like chicken, but I'd describe it as a tough chicken with a little bit of a fishy vibe to it - almost like if you mixed shark and chicken together. Doesn't sound appealing, but it's not bad at all.

A highlight for me was seeing the big bull gators performing their impressive bellowing behavior. They do it to attract females and show other males how imposing they are. You really have to see it to believe it. They fill their chests with air and raise up out of the water. Their heads point upward and the bellowing is so intense that the water on the gators back literally jumps up and down like a tiny dancing water show. If you ever hear that noise and you're near a lake in Florida, it's a very good time to run. Fast.

It was just an all-around good day out. We all needed to get out of the house together as a family and the boys really seemed to soak it all in. If you ever come to Central Florida and want a break from the commercialism of Disney World, give Gatorland a visit.

To make it a learning experience we're bringing out Suzanne Tate's book "Izzy Lizzy Alligator" from her Nature Series. We have quite a few of her books and we love them. They're simply written and illustrated and all have a great message. Izzy Lizzy Alligator follows the story of a mother alligator and how pollution affects her hatchlings. I know the boys see this book in a different light after visiting real live alligators at Gatorland.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On the loss of my best friend...

My dog died last night. She was old and not in the best health. She was on borrowed time, as they say, and probably didn't have the best quality of life for awhile. But when the inevitable happens it still hurts - a lot. She was my girl. She was one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs that some people are just lucky enough to have come into their lives.

I got Baillan when I was a 21-year-old college student. She was one of those dogs that was just meant to be. I actually got my first dog as an adult when I was 20 years old -a young Golden Retriever called Haley. But Haley died in a horrible accident late at night on June 5th when she was only a year old. I never thought I'd get another dog, but while at work one night only a week after her death I was thumbing through the Classifieds and came across an ad for Labrador Retriever puppies. There were about 15-20 ad's for lab puppies, but this one stood out to me.

When I called and spoke to the woman she was very nice and told me all about the large litter of puppies. When I asked her about the mother of the pup's, she started crying. Apologizing she told me that the mother dog had died in her sleep late at night on June 5th. When I told her what happened to me on June 5th we both ended up crying. We both felt profound loss for each other. I asked her when the puppies were born. She said about 8 weeks prior, April 17, 1995. I remember my heart feeling like it sank into my stomach. "Are you kidding?" I asked. She was still teary, but confused by my question and said no, she was not. I told her that a year ago to the day, April 17, 1994, I had been in a very serious hit-and-run accident where I was riding my bicycle and was hit by a car. I suffered a short-term amnesia from the incident, but that date is forever etched in my mind as one of the most horrible dates of my life. I don't believe in fate, but it's the closest thing I've ever experienced.

The next morning I drove a very long drive on a very rainy day to the other side of town to see the puppies. I remember wearing cream jeans and a purple shirt and carrying a blue and white polka-dotted umbrella - a very odd combination for me. It's funny because I can't tell you what I was wearing at any other point in my life, but I remember that day so vividly.

When I got to the house the owner had a photo album of the puppies with the mother on a table along with AKC paperwork and a framed photo of the mother. I thumbed through the album quickly and looked immediately at all the puppies playing on the patio. There were black, brown and yellow puppies and they were muddy and messy and quite lost without their mother. I went out there to play with them and was immediately attacked by 11 muddy puppies who were crawling up my legs and chewing on my hair and trying to lick my face. I saw a very fat yellow puppy with a pink nose sleeping on its back in the middle of the fracas - her legs were flopped very awkwardly straight back and her pink belly was huge. I thought it was hilarious that she was sleeping with all the yipping and squeaking and paws everywhere. The owner explained that the pink nose is called a "dudley" - a genetic defect, meaning that she could never be a show dog.

I knew I had found my puppy. I laid down $350 that I had borrowed from my mother on the table and went home with her. I left my umbrella at the woman's house in my excitement to leave. My cream jeans were literally black with muddy paw prints and I had to throw them away when I got home. My heart was pounding. I drove home in the pouring rain with this fat yellow lump curled up on my lap fast asleep. I remember smelling her sweet milky puppy breath and feeling her chest raising and falling on my lap as she slept. That's how I ended up with Baillan.

When I was 21 I lived alone in a crappy duplex in a not-so-nice neighborhood next to my university. I think my parents were quite happy that I had bought a dog - a big one at that. When I was a kid in England, I grew up with a yellow lab called Lady, so having another yellow lab just felt right to me. She was a great dog. She was easily housebroken. She ate everything she could get her lips around. She was never vicious and always had a low, slow, waggy tail.

I had a boring summer job that year working in the janitorial office at the university. I just hung out behind a big old wooden desk and answered the phone. I read magazines, spoke to the janitors, waited for the phone to ring and went home. When I got Baillan I couldn't bear to leave her at home alone so I'd sneak her into work and stash her in the leg space under the desk. I only worked a few hours a day a couple of days a week so sneaking her in through the back door and letting her sleep under my desk worked out great. Sure, the janitors eventually busted me, but she was so sweet that they never told a soul she was under there.

I did all the things a responsible pet owner should do. We went to puppy school. We went to Advanced Obedience school. We even took a 45-minute drive to go to a pre-competition obedience class, but we eventually quit. To pass this class the dogs needed to do the "long sit-stay," which meant you'd tell your dog to sit and then walk 20-feet away and turn your back and wait 5 long minutes before turning back around and walking back to your dog. The dog is supposed to stay statue-still during this event, anxiously awaiting your return. Baillan always ended up falling asleep and laying down. She would start to snore and distract the other dogs. So, we quit that class because staying awake wasn't her specialty.

She suffered with a bit of a weight problem throughout her entire life. She was one of those dogs that literally could and would eat anything if she thought it might be food. She was absolutely attached to her plastic blue dog bowl. When she was young we often went for walks with her carrying the dog bowl in her mouth the entire time. She'd leave the house with it, go on the walk with it, set it down while she did her business, pick it back up, and carry it home.

When she was over 90 lbs once, a vet suggested mixing green beans in with her food so she felt like she was eating more, but wouldn’t gain weight from it. We ended up going through so many green beans that I had to order restaurant sized cans from the local grocery store. The manager would see me coming and say "hey - we got in some big green bean cans for your dog!" We eventually gave up that diet, but she developed a love of green beans.

She had a few close calls in her life including eating roach motels and half a bottle of Advil, both which required me to induce vomiting and rush her to the vet. One time my dad and my husband were assembling something in the living room and my dad had a handful of tiny screws and saw Baillan's bowl laying in the middle of the floor. He tossed the screws into the bowl so he wouldn't lose them. Dad turned around to get the screws and Baillan had already licked the bowl clean.

When she was about three I noticed her hips seemed to be bothering her. I saved up my money and got her hips x-rayed by the vet. He called me in quite solemnly to give me the bad news. I remember him saying that he's been a vet since before I was born and that Baillan's hip x-rays were some of the worst he had ever seen. He said if she didn't get a double hip replacement that I could expect her hips to worsen until she eventually became lame. This would drastically decrease her life expectancy. I shouldn't expect a dog with hip dysplasia this bad to live to more than about age 5 or 6. But, his final encouraging words were "Dogs will do what dogs want to do - just let her be and she might surprise you."

Like a good Lab she loved swimming and it was the best thing for her hips. She loved to swim, to bring back a stick, to walk in the woods and just to sleep upside-down on her back just like she was the day we first met. She just kept on trucking day after day and the years went by and Baillan kept persevering. As the years passed I moved house two more times, got married, had two children, lost my grandfather and my father and the one constant in my life was Baillan. That never changed.

She was diagnosed with a possible stomach cancer over a year ago after she threw up blood a couple of times. The vet said she might not live more than a few weeks or months, but that since she was eating and greeting me at the door that she probably wasn't in too much pain to go on. So she went on…In the end she couldn't see very well. Her legs often gave out and she'd collapse on our wood floors. She couldn't hear a thing. But her nose was as sharp as the day she was born and could sniff out the tiniest morsel of food even though she couldn't see it. No matter what, every morning she'd greet me and lay with us as the boys played in the playroom. She always ate, always went outside to do her business and if she woke up to hear us coming home, she always greeted me at the door with the thump of her low, slow, yellow waggy tail on the wall.

So here we are now almost 14 years after I brought her home. I have an empty dog bed under the window, a scratched up faded blue bowl in the kitchen, a dirty tattered dog collar in the laundry room and white clumps of dog hair under the dining room table. After Baillan passed away last night after what appeared to be a massive heart attack, the emergency vet pushed her paw into a flat coaster-sized piece of clay for us to keep as a memento. They imprinted her name on it and embellished it with a tiny red heart. It's sitting here next to my computer now.

What really hurts is the empty spot in my heart. When I came home today my husband's dog greeted us, but there was no low, slow, yellow waggy tail thumping on the wall this time. That will be very hard to get used to.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Just how cold was it?

I got an email from a friend who read my last blog entry about the cold weather in January calling me thin-skinned and saying "Come on…how cold does it really get in Florida?" Well the answer is pretty damn cold. We had temperatures in the 20s with wind chills in the teens and no one here has any clue how to deal with this kind of weather. Our tv shows are interrupted with our excited weatherguy issuing freeze warnings, frost warnings, wind chill warnings and repeatedly reminding us to bring in our pets, cover our plants and put jackets on our children.

While driving my son to school in January I snapped some photos of the vigilant Floridians who covered all of their tropical plants and trees with sheets - unlike me. I know these are not great photos, but you see the lengths to which people go around here.

Here's a home with over 20 sheets wrapped around things in their backyard. You can't appreciate the photo until you view it larger. It's funny seeing who's got flowered sheets and who's still hanging onto some mustard and pea-green paisley numbers from the 1970s.

Here's the backyard of another home near some sheds with more sheets than I can count wrapped around some low-lying ground plants.

Can you imagine the laundry these people dealt with after the cold snaps? They obviously don't have small children because if they did, they'd let their plants freeze rather than add that many sheets into the laundry mix.

The weirdest thing for me was seeing frozen palm trees. I will admit not knowing that palm trees actually froze. I've lived in Florida about 27 years and had never seen a frozen palm tree - icicles sure, but never a fully frozen palm tree. Here is a photo of a house near us with frozen palm trees. They're like that all around here now. You're supposed to trim off all the brown leaves, spray them with a copper fungicide and fertilize the bejezus out of them with palm tree fertilizer. I read that it can take four to six months well into the summer before they'll come back. (Since taking this photo, all the brown leaves have been cut off and they're just palm tree trunks now).

The saddest thing for me was seeing all the dead banana trees. Newsflash: banana trees are apparently more thin-skinned than I am. Every single banana tree in our neighborhood is a dead slump of brown leaves now. Some of them were 15 feet tall before and are about 3 feet tall lumps now. If any of the banana trees in our neighborhood come back, I'll be surprised. Here's a pic of one of our neighbors banana trees that used to be a good 10-15 feet tall.

So yeah, that's what we dealt with. We don't know how to dress in cold weather, we cancel outdoor playdates when it dips into the 50s (so with temps in the 30s forget it), and all of our tropical plants turn to dust.

It's no wonder that a new gardener like me was so easily defeated...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A return, a re-awakening and a re-vamping

I recently searched through my old emails and found an unopened email from EG over at Our Engineered Garden asking if my family and I are okay. Besides the guilt of somehow missing this email when it came in, it dawned on me that I never posted a "we're taking time away from the blog" message. So consider this an after-the-fact one.

I knew the blog would slow down in January, but I didn't imagine it would come to a complete halt. I have two little boys who both have January birthdays so I knew we'd dedicate the month to them and their parties. And then we had the Big Freeze. Florida had colder weather than I can ever remember. Everything froze. The cars froze. The grass froze. And yes, my beloved garden froze.

When I told my mom that every single thing in the garden had frozen and died, except for our leeks she said "you didn't cover everything with sheets?" She has a good point. That is what responsible Floridians do - they go out every night and cover every dainty tropical plant with a sheet and then uncover it during the day so it doesn't overheat. It turns out that a) I'm not that responsible and b) I'm too thin-skinned to go outside in the cold at sunset with an armful of sheets to start dressing up my garden like a white-trash toga party and c) Using all the sheets in the garden means more laundry and I can barely keep up with what we've got.

So it all froze. Solid. Dead. Brown. Horrible…save the leeks, of course.

Not that things were great before the freeze. I missed the boat on the one successful broccoli plant and it went to seed. I used a lot of the lettuce and then forgot about it and it went to seed. I never found a way to successfully peel all the peanuts and never made peanut butter. I grew one nice looking green bell pepper, then put it in the fridge and forgot about it until I found it withered and forlorn in the back corner of the produce drawer. I just plain did not do well.

Now I'm supposed to be replanting and fertilizing, but I'm feeling a bit uninspired. I knew I'd never be an expert gardener, but I never anticipated it would be this hard and this much work. Our poor little garden survived so much in its first few months from microbursts to flooding to hurricanes and insects and the freeze just took me over the edge.

So I will pull up all the brown corpses littering the garden. I will replant. I will hoe the damn thing and get it looking pretty again. But I think I'm going to take a different approach this time. I'm going to plant more of one thing and less variety. If you plant two squash plants and they all die, that just plain sucks. If you plant 20 and one lives, well then maybe you can say you're a success. I just need that kick in the rear to get cracking with it all again.

And I'm revamping the blog. With two boys and two home businesses and trying to keep my life organized (which it's not at all right now) I find I have to let some things slide. The cars aren't washed, the dog desperately needs a bath because he smells like a goat, the laundry is in stacks upon stacks in baskets around the house and the blog has been left cold and alone in cyberspace. So I plan on picking it back up again, but I can't focus solely on the thing I'm worst at - gardening. I need to have some days where I focus on the things I am pretty good at and don't fail at on a daily basis - maybe parenting, photography and the like. So I guess I'm expanding my blog horizons and no longer limiting myself to my failed pursuit of gardening.

Not that this big announcement matters. I have about 5 readers, 4 of whom are family, so I didn't have the pressure to continue like I would if I actually had any readers hanging on my every word. So all 5 of you out there, I will be back. I will post again. I will replant. I'm just waiting for that kick in the rear to get going again.

And EG - thanks for caring!
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