Early in the Year But Plants and Seeds Are in the Ground

Planted on February 9th, these small tomato plants have a long way to go before they begin producing, but they seem happy to be in the ground and out of their small containers.

Planted on February 9th, these small tomato plants have a long way to go before they begin producing, but they seem happy to be in the ground and out of their small containers.

This is my sixth year of living in my house, and one of the reasons that I wanted a home with a yard was to have a vegetable garden.  The overall yard space isn’t so large here, but I’ve made a space behind the garage for a small plot, and every year I’ve planted tomatoes and some other veggies.

I had thought about not putting in a garden this year and had delayed tilling up the plot.  However, one day this past week, I had some extra time and decided to get out the tiller, spread the compost that had been brewing, and dug up the garden space.  I hadn’t really planned to  plant anything that day, but with the sun so warm I dredged a few rows and dropped in carrot and beet seeds.  Later, I went to Lowe’s in search of some other items, but wouldn’t you know it, out in front wwe racks of vegetable plants, and I couldn’t resist looking at the tomato plants.  I ended up getting seven: a grape tomato that wouldn’t stop producing last year, three hybrids, and three Purple Cherokees, which are one of the tastiest tomatoes.  I don’t always get good results from the heirloom tomatoes, but if they produce, they are worth the effort.

Here's hoping this small Purple Cherokee tomato plant will produce some tasty fruit in a few months.

Here’s hoping this small Purple Cherokee tomato plant will produce some tasty fruit in a few months.

I also got turnip and radish seeds, and even though, the sun was starting to set, I got the tomato plants set into the ground, putting bone meal and manure down into the holes first.  There was still enough room in the little garden, so I added several rows of turnips and one of radishes.

February is a good time here to put in the root vegetables, but many think it’s too early for tomatoes.  I’ll take my chances by putting them in early.  Once it gets hot here, the tomatoes may bloom, but they stop bearing.  If, by chance, the weatherman predicts a late frost, I’ll cover up the tomato plants.  We’ve had a few nights below 32, but those temps haven’t done much to the flower beds or potted plants.

Anyway, having the photos here makes a way to keep a record and we’ll see how the garden grows!

Stimulated by the Wet Weather, Tomato Plants Get an Early Start

A Better Boy and a cherry tomato just planted get their first taste of rain. (Feb. 15, 2012)

Thanks to a bit of an odd schedule, I got to have some of this afternoon off.  A few free hours mid-week almost feels like a mini-weekend.  Like on my morning commute, I had to put the wipers on a slow intermittent to skim off the little bit of drizzle and the wet thrown up from the road by other cars.  Already after 2 o’clock, I was ready for the tacos al pastor from one of my favorite food stops, El Rey.  Once my appetite was sated, I headed for Lowe’s. 

With all this rain, garden fever has set in big time, and even though many think February is too early, I had already decided to find a couple of tomato plants.  Thinking that the garden is just too wet to use the tiller, on the way home, I decided to put my new plants in containers.  Even though the rain gauge showed no significant moisture in it when I arrived home, as I began the task of mixing potting soil, cow manure, and Jobe’s Organic Tomato Fertilizer, bigger drops started to fall.  In the approximately 10 minutes it took to get the containers filled and the plants set in, I got soaked, and the rain gauge held .20 inches.

It will be interesting to see how these tomatoes grow–one is a cherry (I’ll have to check the spike for the variety when it’s drier outsided) and a Better Boy.  Although they are in a narrow space between the garage and side fence, the east to west trajectory of the sun should give them plenty of light once it moves north a bit more.

It will also be interesting to see how if the experts still show us in a drought tomorrow.  Even though the ground is soppy and many ditches have water sitting in them, they seem determined to keep our area in a drought zone.

A Saturday Morning Adventure To One of Houston’s Well-kept Secrets

Passion Flower--Is there anything other to say than "Wow"?

Because Houston is a city that has experienced most of its growth in the last several decades, it feels pretty much the same, no matter which part of the city that you find yourself in.  Despite the ubiquitous strip centers, fast food restaurants, and housing developments, tucked away here and there are a number of unique places that can make for a fun outing.

Part of the grounds of Jerry's Garden, ready for the 4th of July.

Yesterday morning, a friend and I took a Saturday morning adventure to one of Houston’s best-kept secret’s, Jerry’s Jungle.  No more appropriate name could have been given to this plant menagerie, which is open to the public just a few times a year.  This private garden-cum-nursery is about a 15-minute drive north of downtown off of I-45.  Taking the exit onto Gulf Bank, then Airline, and finally Hill Street, one might feel a bit like they are somewhere in Mexico (as my friend said).

The grounds, very densely covered with all types of flowering plants and trees, occupy, what seems to be, several lots.  Most of the plants are growing in the ground, but when Jerry’s Jungle is open, there are many varieties of unusual plants for sale.  (Check out the Jerry’s Jungle website for the calendar and other offerings.)

This red clerodendron is ahowy plant. There are many other varieties. I wonder if I will be able to recognize them.

I am not good at recognizing nor naming even the more common yard and garden foliage, so I was far out of my league with the myriad of plants yesterday.  However, the beauty and variety were amazing.  Seeing everything that Jerry grows, I realized that the range of plants that we can have in our yards and gardens here in Houston is far greater than I had ever imagined.

Some of the many hardy, acclimated plants available for sale at Jerry's Jungle.

I’ll go back in October when Jerry’s Jungle is open to the public again.  By that time, I will have a better idea about some new beds I want to make in my yard, and the relentless heat should be a bit more forgiving.

After a wonderful time of encountering many different plants, when the Saturday morning heat intensified, despite the shade, my friend and I decided to take a respite at another place she knew of:  My Dee Dee’s Pie Shoppe and Deli.   Just a few blocks from Jerry’s Jungle, this is another business that seems a bit out of place.  Located in an old Victorian house with antique decorations inside to match, My Dee Dee’s was an interesting stop to get inside from the sun.  The lemon chess pie had a nice citrus tang, but was so empalagoso, that a sliver would have been enough to satisfy a sweet tooth.

What a very pleasant way to spend the first morning of a 3-day weekend, a lot more fun than a trip to Lowe’s and stopping at McDonald’s afterward.

Seeing passion fruit actually growing--another first for me.

Like so many others, the name of this beautiful flower is unknown to me. That will be the challenge if I want one to put in my flower beds.

Can’t Get to a Greek Taverna? Get Some Mediterranean Flavor By Making Homemade Tzaziki and Roasted Vegetables

I have fond memories of my Air Force days in Greece (read more here), and especially of going out to local tavernas or finding one near some isolated beach.  Although its cognate in English, tavern, generally conjures up images of a place where men sit around tables with a mugs of beer in hand, sometimes singing chanties, a Greek taverna is the ubiquitous informal restaurant, which almost always has some kind of grill for cooking meat and tables outside, where patron sit under the shade of an arbor or umbrellas.

The typical meal that almost ordered was served in courses.  First came the Greek salad, with chunks of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten, thickly cut pieces of juicy cucumber, and a slice or two of onion, all topped with a small slab or two of feta, several dark olives, and sometimes a tart pickled pepper.  Oil and vinegar were already on the table ready for drizzling.  Next arrived long stripped of battered and deep-fried zucchini and at about the same time, french fries.  But think big, chunky home fries here, not thin, McDonald’s style.  Along with the zucchini and potatoes appeared a small plate with the filled with a puddle of yummy tzaziki (sometimes spelled “tzatziki”), the slightly tart, yogurt-cucumber accompaniment for the zucchini and potatoes, and the soon-to-arrive, grilled meat.

Tavernas didn’t usually offer desserts, although some might have had some rice pudding, or something similar, for the asking.  Usually the meal ended with a small cup of thick Greek coffee (others call this Turkish coffee), which could be ordered three ways:  bitter, metrio (a Greek word I still remember, because this is what I ordered)–medium sweet, and glykos–very sweet.  Some other ways to end the meal might be a small glass ouzo, the well-known Greek alcohol, something I never acquired a taste for.  Generally, if something tastes like licorice, it should be licorice candy!

If there is one thing that makes me immediately think of Greece, it’s tzaziki.  I never learned to make it when I lived in Greece because if I cooked for myself, I didn’t cook Greek food.  However, when I got out of the Air Force and started living out in the plains of western Kansas, I began to miss the taverna food.  Greek salads were easy enough to replicate, though in those days, and especially living so far from any city, finding feta cheese was difficult.  I also learned to make a great pastitsio, which, for those who don’t know this casserole dish, might be described as Greek lasagna.

Because I like tzaziki so much, I have tried, based on various recipes, to make it,  but I’ve never been completely satisfied with the results.  One reason is because the recipes asked that liquids be drained from the yogurt overnight through a cloth in a colinder.  Even when the other ingredients were added, I never felt like I ended up with very “authentic” tzaziki.

I don’t eat yogurt on a regular basis, so I haven’t paid much attention to it in the super market.  However, in just the last several months, I’ve been hearing Greek yogurt being advertised, so I took a look in the dairy section.  Surprisingly, there were several different brands with quite a few different flavors along with plain.

Most of what's needed to make quick, fresh tzaziki.

Just recently, by trial and error with the Greek-style yogurt, I’ve created my own tzaziki recipe that is quick, and I think compares well with that from the tavernas.  I used my palate to do it without even a glance at my old Greek cookbook.  I have never deep-fried anything, so I wouldn’t even attempt to make the taverna-style zucchini and french fries, but I think this tzaziki goes great with the roasted vegetables and any meat from my outdoor grill.

And now it’s grilling season again.  Last year, I went to Lowe’s (read that post here) and became a first-time gas grill owner.  And I have never looked back.  I love taste and texture of grilled meats done on the grill, not to mention, no extra heat or greasy smoke smell in the house.  But the grill basket I received for Christmas has changed my whole idea about grilling.

These roasted veggies will be even better with some tzaziki slathered on them.

I’ve found that roasting on the grill makes for more delectable vegetables than just about any other way of cooking.  I’ve already tried roasting quite a few different vegetables:  potatoes, carrots, onions, yellow squash, acorn squash, zucchini, okra, bell peppers, and broccoli, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.  Like with grilling meat, it’s important to know your own barbeque grill, especially how to regulate the heat and where the food that you’re cooking needs to be placed on the grill so that it gets cooked like you like it, but doesn’t burn.  Here’s what I do:

Roasted Vegetables on the Grill

Make sure the grill grates are clean.  Then light all the burners on high, close the lid and let the grill get hot.

Prepare the vegetables by washing and cleaning them.  For potatoes, cut off any blemishes or dark spots, but you don’t have to eye or peel them.  Trim and cut carrots.  Cut the stem and bottom ends off of vegetables like zucchini and yellow squash.  Clean out the seeds from any type of peppers.

Cut the vegetables into manageable pieces–about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick works well for most vegetables like potatoes, onions, and squash.  More fragile vegetables such as bell peppers should just be quartered.  Potatoes and hard squash take longer to cook that other vegetables, so if you are cooking these together with other vegetables, zap them in the microwave for a couple minutes to give them a head start; however, you don’t want them fully cooked.

To season, put the vegetable pieces in a big bowl.  Splash on some olive or vegetable oil.  Then sprinkle with seasonings you like, such as black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, chile powder, ground cumin, and oregano.  I also add Kroger brand salad dressing and Asian black pepper sauce.  Use a couple of spatulas and gently stir to coat the vegetables with the oil and spices.  I don’t use regular salt either before or afterwards, but you can lightly sprinkle on salt after the grilling.

When I’m to grill the vegetables, I turn the burner which I’ll use for them to medium, but leave the others on high.  Burgers and steaks usually cook faster than the vegetables, so I start the veggies first.  Place the grill basket on the grill so that you can put in the vegetables without burning yourself.  You could also put the basket on a tray before you go to the grill and add the vegetables.  Layer the vegetables with those that need more cooking time, like potatoes and carrots on the bottom.  Scrape any remaining seasoning from the bowl onto the vegetables; move the basket to the back and close the lid.  After 6=8 minutes, use a long barbeque, tong-spatula to start checking and turning the vegetables.  Gently turn them 3 or 4 times throughout the cooking process to get them golden brown and done.  Cooking time can vary depending on the amount and type of vegetables. Using cooking mitts, carefully remove the basket from the grill.

Homemade Tzaziki (Trip to the Outhouse Style)

  • 1 small container of Greek-style yogurt (5-6 oz.)
  • 1 very small cucumber or 1/2 of a larger cucumber peeled
  • 1 clove garlic peeled
  • 1 small scallion (green onion) including part of the top, cleaned
  • 2 tablespoons cottage cheese
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar (you might try lemon juice too)
  • black pepper

In a food processor, pulse the garlic and green onion until very fine.  Add the vinegar and pulse in.  Add the cottage cheese and pulse until creamy.  Add the cucumber that you’ve cut up into chunks.  (If the seeds in the cucumber look mature, scoop them out and discard them.  Don’t add them into the mixture.) Pulse until the cucumber is in smaller bits.  Sprinkle on some black pepper and add the yogurt.  Pulse until all the ingredients are just blended.

Make the tzaziki at least a couple of hours before your meal and store in the refrigerator.  It will keep in a covered container for 2-4 days in the refrigerator.  Serve in a bowl or on a plate with a little olive oil drizzled over the top.  If your meal is more formal, serve on small individual plates.

This recipe makes about 2 cups, which should be quite enough for a 1-family meal.  You could increase the amount by doubling the ingredients except for the garlic and green onion.

View from the Suburbs: Saturday Haircut and Feeling Like an Alien

Driving back into town this morning, I was wondering whether I was ready to give up my regular haircut place.  In fact, I’ve been going to Visible Changes in the Galleria for more than 25 years, with a few detours here and there, when my haircutter had left or I had heard there were greener pastures in some other salon.

It’s a long trip in on a Saturday, when I could sleep in and just head to one of the places that I’ve seen out here in the strip centers, rather than retracing the better part of my Monday through Friday commute to work.  This morning, though, with the weekend morning’s light traffic,  from the gas station just down the road, where I had to fill up, to the corner of Westheimer and Post Oak, only took 15 minutes.  That meant I had extra time to spare.

That meant extra time to wait.  Unless I’m the first cut of the day, waiting is generally par for the course at the salon.  For a long time, I hated the wait, felt I was being cheated out of my time.  The past couple of years, though, I have come to embrace the time I spend waiting for my cutter to be ready.  Time just isn’t so urgent any more;  savoring the moment is more enjoyable than worrying about hurrying on to some other task on the “to do” list.

Sunk down into the comfortable give of the salon’s sofas, I can take in what is to me a metropolitan atmosphere, the edgy look of some of the haircutters, the even-on-a-sleepy-Saturday-morning, casual sense of style of the customers, the tracks of new and old club music playing, and, in particular, a painting of a tree, that I want, some day, to mimic in a quilt.

There’s a feeling of homecoming for me, a return to the old stomping grounds.  I’m one of these people.

I’m comfortable now in my house out here 25 miles from the Galleria.  I have no regrets about buying it, and I’ve met nice, welcoming neighbors, but I have to admit when I go to my neighborhood Kroger or HEB for groceries or Home Depot or Lowe’s for items for the house and yard, I generally feel like I’m in alien territory.  After living in the suburbs for 6 months, I can’t say I feel like I am one of these people.

Maybe, though, like my feelings about time and waiting, this too will change.

What the Heck’s Going on at Lowe’s? or, “The Saga of How I Got This Big-ass Grill”

The Grill That I Never Asked For

I had never owned my own barbeque grill, having lived in apartments most of my adult life.  Even though it’s against the law to use grills on balconies or within a certain distance on the ground floor of apartments, a lot of people do it.  And, it’s not unusual for fires to start for that very reason.

Silly as may seem, I have on occasion run an electric cord outside and attached a toaster oven in order to cook a burger or two outside.  I really don’t know how safe that is either.

The alternative is broiling hamburgers or steaks in the oven.  The problem is  because of the high heat and burning grease, there’s a lot of smoke, and the smell remains for at least another day.  I don’t know if that’s because of poor venting, but I always had that happen in the apartments I lived in, and now I’ve found the same thing occurs here in my house.

Thus, I decided to get an outdoor grill.

I wanted something that wouldn’t take a lot of effort to use or clean up.  I saw an electric one that I thought might fit the bill (maybe I was reminiscing for my old toaster oven days).  It was small, and, I thought, would just be the right grill for me on a regular basis, or for a few guests from time to time.  Then I remembered Hurricane Ike.  The majority of the people in the Houston area were without electricity after the hurricane, some for just a day or so, but many for a week or even weeks.  However, those that had gas water heaters and gas stoves could at least have a nice shower and something warm to eat.

My house has a gas water heater, but the cooktop and oven are electric, so in the end, I gave up on my initial choice and decided to look for a gas grill.  Getting charcoal started and going just takes too much time, so that wasn’t an option for me.

After looking around–both online and in various stores–I found one at Lowe’s that I liked.  A 2-burner, in the Char-broil Quantum line, it seemed to be better made than others of similar size that I had looked at.  I read several positive reviews online.  Some recommended having Lowe’s assemble the grill, which they do for free.  I measured the hatchback opening of my car (How many times had I done that before in moving or now that I’m in my house, buying larger items?) and decided I could transport the assembled grill home without problems.

But last Wednesday, I never anticipated the problems I would have getting that grill after I went over to Lowe’s, made the purchase, and happily was told that they would assemble the grill and it would be ready in two days–on Friday afternoon.

Until I bought my house, I was a very infrequent customer of the mega hardware stores.   My previous idea was that Lowe’s was more expensive than Home Depot, and perhaps the merchandise more of the high end type.  Now that I have the two just down the road next to each other, it’s really good to shop and compare both quality and price because Home Depot is not necessarily less expensive, nor are Lowe’s products that much different.  In fact, sometimes, I find exactly what I want, by turning the corner and driving a mile further to Sears Hardware.  However, most of the time, I head for Lowe’s because it’s the quickest to get to.

One thing I’ve noticed though is that my neighborhood Lowe’s seems very loosely managed.  The staff are nice enough, but they also seem to be having a good time amongst themselves, rather than being focused on their jobs.  This is just a generalization, and not something that I see from all of the employees, nor all of the time.  There are also quite a few people who are called managers, but from my viewpoint as a customer, how managers are different from the rest of the employees is unclear.

All this “lack of a system” came into play when I went back Friday evening to pick up my grill.  When I went with my receipt in hand, the customer service person made a call to the outdoor department and then, looking a bit perplexed, told me to wait.  After some time, she got a call back from the department, and then told me one guy couldn’t find it, but another one had.

After more waiting, a “manager” came and told me that my grill hadn’t been assembled, gave me no explanation why it hadn’t been, took some time entering information into a computer behind the Customer Service Desk, and then assured me that the grill would be ready if I came back the next afternoon (Saturday).  I told him that I wasn’t in a hurry to get the grill, but that I just wanted to know when to come back to pick it up.  Putting his hand on my shoulder (as a gesture of honesty?), he said again that it would be ready the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to call before I went back.  After playing “forward you to that department” for a bit, the guy who answered in the outdoor department told me, “Oh, I looked for that grill yesterday” and said he would check.  When he came back on the line, he said, “I can’t see it.  Let me check with the manager, and I’ll call you back in 2 minutes.”  Two minutes ran into 2 and a half hours, so I decided to get in the car for the 3-minute jaunt to Lowe’s.

When I returned this time to Customer Service, the representative looked at my receipt and saw that I was supposed to have gotten the grill on Friday.  Right behind her was the “manager” who had told me to come back on Saturday.

(Oh, god, this narrative is getting too long.  I think I’m even boring myself.)

Anyway, they told me to come back on Monday, and they would discount the price.  I went back on Monday, and it still wasn’t ready, but they wanted to upgrade the grill and went and got a floor model.  I didn’t mind that, but the upgraded model was too big for my car, so they said they would deliver it for free, which they did at a little before 9 AM today.

First Steak on the Grill

It’s a nice grill–a big ass grill, at least for me–with 3 burners on the grill and a side burner to boot (in the same Char-Broil Quantum line).

I read all the instructions, got the gas tank hooked up, did all the first-time tasks, including seasoning the grill, and finally this evening slapped on a very nice steak that I had bought just for the initiation.

I have to say it was a delicious–very delicious really–steak, all seared on the outside and juicy inside, just like the promotional information says.

I guess I’ll never know why Lowe’s was unable to get the original grill assembled, and this grill makes a bigger statement on my patio than I was planning.  But, hey, now I can cook hamburgers and steaks without smoking up the house, and I’m definitely ready to cook if a big storm knocks out the electricity.

The Plot Thickens, or Why Do My Fingernails Have This Much Dirt Under Them?

Rough little garden plot and tools--a guy can never have too many tools!

I have nothing but good things to say about Daylight Savings Time.  Getting home from work with still more than a good hour of useable light makes the entire evening seem longer.  Having a yard and being able to plant what I wanted was one of the big reasons that getting a home of my own was important to me.

The plants in all the pots that suffered from the move and then the colder than usual winter are now beginning to look like they are enjoying their new place, quickly putting out new shoots and bright blossoms.  I’ve also added  bedding plants in the neglected bed on the sunny side of the house.  It’s amazing after throwing quite a bit of money at Lowe’s for some great looking plants, how sparse the bed still looks, but I’m hoping they’ll grow and spread.

Far in advance, I’d picked up a variety of flower bulbs,  gladiolus and irises, and they are now shooting up green spikes from the pots.  I still haven’t conquered the moles.  So far I’ve gone the repellent route, trying to avoid sinking spikes filled with poison down into the yard where Annie plays and sometimes nibbles at the tender green grass.

Along with the flower bulbs, I found that I had purchased (maybe even back in December or January) some onion sets.  The smallest amount I could get was a plastic bag of 80 of the small starter onions.  I finally decided that maybe I could make a try at a small vegetable plot behind my garage.  There’s a space of about 12 feet by 20 feet that with care and a lot of mulch might finally work.  But I was determined to get the onions put into the ground.  Even though there were roots from a tree that the back neighbor had cut down, digging up the soil wasn’t all that hard.  It’s very sandy, and like much of the Houston area, it’s not very far down until you start hitting clay, about 10 inches down, where I was digging.  I mixed in some rotting leaves and raked over the soil, dug a small trench, and dropped in the onions.  For good measure, I covered most of it up with some more leaves.  Only a few days after I had put in the onions, my co-worker kindly gave me a couple of squash plants.  I’ve put them into the ground too but dug a hole and put in some good shovelsful of potting soil.

Will the trellis be an incentive for this little squash plant?

The little squash plants are growing new leaves, and today when I went out for the obligatory inspection–lo and behold–there were two onions sending up little slivers of green, seeming to say, “Hey, this may not be the best soil, but we’re going to try out best.”  In answer, over to the spigot I went, ready to give these new little green guys and all of their plant amigos a drink.