Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Plum tuckered out

Our yard has a total of nine or so fruit trees, not counting the pecan that desperately needs a girl pecan tree to be fruitful. Even after knowing about the issue with the fruitless pecan tree that towers over our backyard making worthless, empty nut shells, we just might have planted some dud cherry trees too. Who knew that trees were so picky in the fruit making department - aren't the bees supposed to be taking care of all that pollen stuff?

Two trees we never have to worry about are the plum trees. One sour and one sweet, they certainly know how to make fruit. This year all the fruit came a bit early and furiously, so we were busy plum processors. Ernst was the resident picker, fruit washer, pitter and juice processor. I just gave moral support and occasionally was chief bottle washer.

The majority of the plums went into making our now infamous Hungover Hound Plum Cider. To make plum cider, you need to make plum juice, and do we ever make the plum juice. While some might make plum juice by squishing up a bunch of plums and then straining the liquid, we have the juice-making contraption that puts the fear of plum-colored kitchen walls in me. I come home to scary scenes of a giant pot bubbling on the stove, with plastic tubes and crimping devices holding back the burning purple liquid. So I usually just go outside in the shade of the infertile pecan tree and hope for the best.

After the plum cider is taken care of, we have quite a bit of gorgeous plum juice left. It really could not be easier to make jelly than when someone hands you a large amount of clear and beautiful fruit juice that you didn't have to juice yourself. Making jelly is quite simple. It's all in the attitude. If you tell yourself it's easy, it's easy. But that might be the plum cider talking.

This juice, besides threatening to stain the walls plum, is slated to become cider.

Now this is plum juice for plum jelly.
About six cups is all you need.
I won't say how much sugar is needed because it's a disgusting amount.

I must have this brand pectin.
Must have the SureJell.

I usually let the dishwasher do the jar sterilizing.

But I don't trust anything except a pan of boiling water for the lids and seals.

Learn. From. Me.
Put. Down. Big. Towel.
And get one of those things that looks like a fat funnel. 
OK, I admit, there are lots more steps I'm leaving out, but they are all included in the easy directions that come with the SureJell. All you need is fruit, sugar and SureJell. And plum cider. And that weird funnel thing. You'll be making jam or jelly in no time. Or lots of ice cream topping if for some reason it doesn't work, but that's really tasty too. If you try to forget how much sugar you added. 

Plum Jelly!

Plum Jelly off to the California State Fair!
The little guys won first place.
Which is given to more than one person or jelly.
The Orange Jelly won too.
So did the Orange and Lemon Jelly.
First place.
I think the judge got a hold of some plum cider, but I'll accept.

This Friday is the Orange Marmalade Competition.
And that will be it for canning, until next year.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Orange you glad it's Summer?

I was born and raised in California, the land of citrus, and I had no idea there are orange trees that produce a crop in early summer. Summer oranges? That's about as strange as a homegrown tomato in February. Simply preposterous!  

Our neighbor Steve has such an orange tree. He says he hates them, they're a pain, full of seeds and did we want them? Never being ones to turn down free food, Ernst went over and picked a bushel or two. I'm not really sure exactly what a bushel is, but if a bushel means a giant amount of produce that you can't believe just entered your life, we did indeed get a bushel or two. 

What's a person to do with so many oranges? First, and this is the easy part, we tasted them. Yes, they had more seeds than maybe the average person would prefer. But we are far from average and we kept eating. And eating and eating because these were the sweetest and juiciest oranges I've ever had in the middle of the beginning of summer. I dare say they are better than our oranges, but it may just be the excessive amount of Vitamin C in my body talking.

The enormous load of oranges made their way to the back patio where we could start dealing with them, Then Ernst picked another bushel or so, because by then he too was a bit loopy on Vitamin C. This was serious, it was hot, our patio was covered in citrus, oranges don't last forever and we had to start preserving these things. Here's what we did.

A very small portion of the very last of the bushels upon bushels.

I sliced them thin and dried them in the dehydrator.
They came out tasting like candy.
Yummy, orangey, chewy candy.
I have to limit myself to a small mountain of them each day.

We ate lots of this amazing Orange Olive Salad.
Looks weird, tastes great.

I whipped up some Orange Smoothies.
This had bananas, oranges, and a cucumber, with water.
It took me to the moon and back, all before 8 am.

We filled the fridge with orange juice for making Orange Cider for the California State Fair.
We sadly missed the deadline for the entrance fee.
Very sadly.
Tragically is not too strong a word.
We may have to drink Orange Cider to drown out our sorrows.

Having missed the deadline to submit our Orange Cider and Lemon Cider for judging at the California State Fair, I knew I had a mission ahead of me. Make Orange Jelly, and do it right. My goal is to better my performance of my Plum Jelly from last year's fair, no pressure of course. The jelly I had made from our oranges this January turned out too stiff and solid and the marmalade was just not that great. Here with these summer oranges, I was given another chance. I really took my time and measured the ingredients perfectly (well, is anything really ever perfectly perfect?).

The first batch turned out great, so I decided to do a second version with oranges and lemons. That one's even better. But we still had oranges left, and by then I was on a roll with this whole canning process, so I made some orange marmalade too. I cut off the rind, leaving the white pithy stuff out. I sliced the rind up into really uniform slivers, like I was on a cooking show. Then I came up with my secret weapon, my most amazing technique, like I was some sort of marmalade expert and this wasn't only the second batch of my whole life. It worked. It turned out yummy. I hope the judges agree. Maybe we can get them all liquored up first with Orange Cider. We've got bushels of it.
Lemon Orange Jelly

Secret Weapon Orange Marmalade!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Weight of a 4 X 6 Glossy

Back in the day, the cost of travel was never quite complete until you got home, took your vacation photos to the drugstore and waited to see if they turned out as well as your memory of the actual events. When it came time for pickup, the disappointments piled up. Eyes closed, blurry, too light, too dark, finger on the lens, pigeon flew across at the worse possible time - the photo disasters were ready to be revealed, in living color and in duplicate. Or sometimes even panorama.

I'd say we took the average amount of photos, and some turned out really well. Definitely photo album worthy if not frame worthy. For the first few years of our marriage, I tried to keep up with the albums. I'd sometimes have a couple of years of photos piling up, but then one hot summer day I'd crank up the AC and get the pictures in albums, all in perfect chronological order. No labels or dates, because just getting them in albums was reason to celebrate. It always felt so good, I'm amazed I never took a picture of those backed-hunched-over, legs-cramping, forgot-to-eat-all-day photo album filling sessions.

Then I stopped and the photos really started piling up. I would always put an album together after an International Convention in Europe, but the everyday photos stayed in their packages. I would separate the negatives and store them at my Mom's house, in case we ever had a fire and all our photos burned up and we decided to spend the money to reprint every last blurry one to once again not put in albums.

Then I discovered photo boxes! You know, those cute lightweight boxes that are great for stuffing in huge amounts of duplicate blurry pictures of pigeons with their eyes closed. It was a procrastinator's dream! I bought lots of them. I labeled the little tab in front PHOTOS or MEMORIES and stacked them up on shelves. And moved them from house to house. They were great boxes, truly adorable and did I mention stackable?

After getting our house in order in so many other areas, I was feeling the need to attack the photos. I'd have to be in the right mood. Not too sentimental, but not too brutal that I would throw out all the fat pictures lest I forget. Here was my process. 

Find a nice open space to see what I was up against.
Futon to the rescue!

Open the scary end of my closet.
Open it wide.

Take out every album, every box and every container with photos in them.

Give my shoes a place to look cute.

Start by emptying each photo album.
Toss all the "Why did we ever save this one?" photos.
Don't let those blurry, squinting pigeons load on the guilt.
Toss them and don't look back.

Realize that keeping the negatives was really dumb.
Throw them out.

Take the empty albums to Goodwill.
17 pounds of photos lighter, not including the albums.

Pile is smaller.
More work to do, but it's a huge dent.

Stop sorting when I come across a very special photo.
You know, one of the precious ones.
This one photo, this brief encounter in Germany in 1998 was a life changer. We had stayed behind at the International Convention in Nuremberg to sing with the Hungarians. We were some of the last to leave the stadium. Who do we pass by but this adorable Polish family. We took their photo and exchanged addresses.

We wrote them and sent them our duplicates. They wrote back and did the same. Then a few more letters. Then a few nights spent with them on our next trip to Germany. They came to visit us in California for two weeks. More trips here with just the girls. More trips to see them in Germany, a trip together to their home country of Poland. Our friends in Tahoe met them, fell in love with them just as we did. A trip out to New York when their daughter married an American. We met more of their friends, who then met our friends from Tahoe. They introduced their brother to our Tahoe friend. Another wedding! That is one powerful little photo. 

Now the decision comes - what to do with all these loose photos? Now that we know how many we have, the sheer size of these loose photos, it's easier to be a little more ruthless each time through. I have an idea to make a few very select albums with the best of the best of the best. By category, not by chronology. I'm tossing some of the possible categories around.

  • International Conventions
  • The People We Love 
  • Dog Photos, Volumes I and II
  • Camping With Candace
  • When We Were Young
  • When We Were Fat
  • When We Thought We Had Lost Weight But Were Still Fat
  • Blurry Pictures With Our Eyes Closed Because We Were Still Young But Not Yet Fat
  • Dog Photos, Volume III

That ought to do it!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tomatoes, by George

Somewhere in my Mom's big suitcase of photos, there's a picture of me sitting in this wheelbarrow, being pushed by my Dad. Or maybe the image is just in my head, but it's so clear it might as well be a photo. When my Mom moved back East, we got the wheelbarrow of my childhood, and we still use it in the yard. I'm sure it's been through a few tires in its day, but structurally, it's as good as new. Counting back to when my parents bought their first house, if my Dad bought the wheelbarrow soon after, that piece of equipment is about 60 years old. That's a lot of dirt hauling. 

My Dad wasn't a gardener when he moved into their house in Arden Park, but he soon became one. My memories of that backyard are fuzzy, because we moved away when I was six. The way back of the yard is where my Dad's garden was. The neighborhood men all chipped in and bought a rototiller and would share it between them. I just vaguely remember being afraid of the rototiller and that the crows would steal all the cherries from the tree before we got to them. 

The house we moved to was in Carmichael. The neighbors on each side opted for no fences, so we had a wide open view of the garden of all gardens, Mr. Gull's garden. He grew everything you can think of, the crows didn't steal his cherries, everything as neat as a pin, he even had a huge boysenberry patch along his back fence. It was a marvel. It was perfect. 

My Dad's garden was not too shabby either, with raised beds and all the usual Sacramento vegetable crops, minus the berry bushes. But every gardener knows that when it comes down to it, all that really matters are the tomatoes. If your tomatoes aren't the best on the block, you might as well just go inside and let those crows steal all the cherries, and while they're at it the boysenberries too.

My Dad's tomatoes were better than Mr. Gull's. That's right, Mr. City Boy had Mr. Gentleman Farmer beat in the tomato department. How do we know this? Did we sneak into the unfenced yard and do a blind taste test? No, we had something better - the word of the Avon Lady. Yes, the Avon Lady let it be known to all her customers that my Dad's tomatoes were the best on the block, in fact they were the best on her whole route. That was worth a bucket of cherries right there, and really who needs dumb old perfect rows of everything when you've got the best tomatoes in probably all of Sacramento?

Sadly, I had no interest in my Dad's garden. I just didn't get the fascination, why he would want to be out there on hot summer nights, going back to the old neighborhood to borrow the rototiller, hauling in cow manure from his friend Mr. Butts (I kid you not) and trying to choose between which tomato varieties to plant that year. The names of those tomatoes did stick with me, and they are the old standbys. Early Girl. Big Boy. Better Boy. Ace. There were no striped or yellow or purple heirlooms in our garden. No, my Dad stuck with the basics, why confuse the Avon Lady. By now those varieties he planted are heirlooms, they've been around so long.

My Dad's been gone for 25 years now, and each year that has passed has seen my love of gardening grow. I wish he had kept a garden journal, I would love to know what he fed his tomatoes, when he planted them, how often he watered. Did he have a drip system? Did they even have drip systems then? What was his secret? 

I wish he could see how his love of gardening did develop in me after all. I don't grow the best tomatoes on the block, far from it. But I do find myself drawn to those same varieties of tomatoes he planted. He spent so much time out there, after work, on the weekends, and it seems the only ones in the family that really understood the joy of gardening were the dogs. They were his faithful companions out back, with Holly the pack leader and Ralph herding the chickens as they ate the slugs. I get it now, and if I could just have one more day with him, it would be in his garden. 

The new addition to our garden plot.
We hauled these old deck pilings from the back of the yard with the old wheelbarrow.
Still rolling along after all these years.

Ready for planting.

Got to have the essentials.
Shovel, trowel and caffeine.
And after, a beer in honor of my Dad.

The canine could look a bit more interested, but she is loyal and keeps me company.

T is for tomatoes!

Mr. Gull might not be too impressed, but I bet my Dad would be proud.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dog Sitting Blues

Leaving the house and having a house/dog sitter come is the best way to discover your home's idiosyncrasies. They pile up in droves for the uninitiated. If we had to write a user's manual for our own home, it would include information such as:

  • Things that require a good slam of the hip to open and/or shut
  • Potential risks of burning the entire house down
  • Potential risks of the entire house floating away
  • Stuff that leaks
  • Stuff that clogs
  • Stuff that spews 
  • Stuff that is installed upside-down
  • Annoying noises
  • Scary noises
  • Don't dare open this or sharp items will fall on your head
  • Scary places you don't want to go
  • Appliances that don't work, so don't even try
  • The entirely separate manual on how to work the 5 remotes to turn on the TV
"What will happen this time we leave town?" is the question we ask when having someone stay at our house, without full knowledge of its evil ways. We have a particularly literary house sitter who leaves us amusing notes when we come home. Here is her latest.

It was time to feed Molly. "Why," I asked myself, "do I walk all the way around to go out the sliding doors to outside when I can go out this cute little back door that is in a direct line between Molly's food bin in the garage and her food dish on the back patio?"

So I scoop up her food, unlock all the locks (so I'm thinking) and go out through the cute little back door. I give Molly her food, check her water, breathe in the beautiful spring day. I then turn around to go back inside the house, but the cute little door won't open. It's locked.

I stand in stunned silence. How can this be, I've been so careful. Because I know (I hate to say this) this house has evil doorknobs - always lying in wait for the unsuspecting, unwatchfull, untrained person who naively thinks that because the inside door knob turns freely when one tests it, this means the door is unlocked. Not so.

Even knowing this about both the front door and garage door (always checking both knobs, inside and out), I let the cute little back door sucker me in. It had worked its evil wiles and triumphantly locked me out.

I have to say I will never look at or feel the same about that door again. I'm trying to install a permanent alarm in my head about that door so that I will never cross its threshold again. "Evil - Danger, Danger, Don't approach - Go back, Go back!"

As I stand at the door that has locked me out, ringing in my ears is the story I heard just 20 minutes earlier from my sister Lisa. She also deals with a set of evil door locks at one of her housesitting jobs. Last summer they locked her out - keys inside - no way in. She had to call a locksmith ($75) to let her in. He told her he had calls that summer from several, also locked out, house sitters.

Hmm, maybe it's a conspiracy of locksmiths, breeding and distributing locks that guarantee return business. Hmm. But $75? I don't want to do that. Surely I left the sliding door opened - nope. Man, oh man, what to do? 

Then I remembered, I had opened the corner kitchen window because it was such a beautiful day. Could I get in that way? Yes! Up on the chest, pop off the screen, slowly push table away from window sill, ungracefully wrangle my body through and over window sill and I'm inside!

Welcome Home!


We need to get a hide-a-key that looks like dog poop!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Good fences make for poorer neighbors

The first thing people say when they see our backyard is usually "Wow, it's huge!" I would so rather they say "Wow, it's simply gorgeous!" or "Who did this fabulous landscaping?" or even "Lovely, simply lovely." 

While it may never hit gorgeous or simply lovely, we are working on it. The huge part we can't really do anything about, it is what it is. A big yard. A big yard that was initially owned by a man whose landscaping plan was to plant a series of trees and bushes all up against the fence, like a police lineup for oleanders. 

Besides the largeness factor of the yard, there is the odd shape that continues to puzzle us. From the front, our house looks like all the others, but out back it's like the survey people just threw up their hands one day and said, "You know what, let's just leave this one house with the funky yard as-is and call it done." That's how we ended up sharing our property line with five different neighbors. That's a lot of fence drama.

The original fences in the neighborhood were a bit short, but quite charming and amazingly long-lived. They look like this, what's left of them. If you're aiming to put in a fence that with some TLC can last over 60 years, here's your design.

A sample of the original fence.
It looks to be a popular place for birds to hang out.
Our neighbor we know the most, enough to go over and shoot the breeze with on his front porch, the one who loves our dog and looks out for our well-being like a member of the family - I'll refer to him as Neighbor S. He's the perfect neighbor, keeps his house nice, knows everyone, the kind of guy the UPS driver slows down to chat about football with. Neighbor S should be cloned and sprinkled throughout the world.

He told me the other day the reason why the fence between our property has the "bad neighbor side" facing us the whole length. The original owner of our house was a bit of a cheapskate and didn't want to pitch in when that part of the fence was falling down. Maybe he thought all the trees and bushes planted up against it would prop it up, when in fact it was probably all the trees and bushed planted so close to it that was its downfall. So Neighbor S footed the bill for the whole fence and made sure he got the pretty side facing him, the "good neighbor side."

Our fence with Neighbor S.
Nice. Sturdy. No drama.
In the way back of our yard, where there used to be a big pile of brush the size of a beaver dam, is the tiny bit of fence we share with Neighbor R. We don't know him too well, and we're just vaguely aware we shared a fence with him. We recently cleared out the beaver dam, and we hope to make this "The Melon Patch'" Doesn't that sound so cute?

Patiently waiting to become a much cuter area.
Neighbor D is an amazing gardener. He has a potting shed that is cuter than our house, and he grows lots of food in his garden, which I heard is the whole point. Neighbor D loves the old original fence, and since he doesn't have a dog, this hasn't been a problem. The old fence can stay, and it gives me some places to peek into his vegetable garden when I'm feeling the need for a bit of horticulture envy.

Potting sheds should not make my house look bad.
That is just not very neighborly.
The neighbor we share the longest stretch of fence with will have to be referred to as "Neighbor ?" because we have never met her. We have never even seen her. It's a mystery. But she doesn't have dogs and that's a good thing. Because that fence is a hot mess.

"Do not adjust your screen, the fence is leaning, not the dog."

And last, but unfortunately standing upright the least, we have the fence on the very back part of our yard. It's original, but has not benefited from the loving care of an owner like Neighbor D. It has peek-a-boo holes the size of small dogs, such as a chihuahua. The house was empty for a time and we hoped and hoped the new owners would not have dogs.

But they do. Molly doesn't get along one little bit with New Neighbor M's dog Tucker, and they haven't even dared let their chihuahua out. It became evident very quickly we would have to get a new fence, and while we're at it we might as well get that part by the Future Home of the Cute Melon Patch all dolled up too. With lots of talk between the guys, we agreed to have the fences replaced, everyone paying their fair share. It's the neighborly thing to do.

"Can we please stop talking about fences? I'm all Tuckered out."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Food pics and food picks

There is nothing worse than a person who talks about all the stuff they can't eat. They're not fun people to be around, especially when everyone's eating. Did you ever see that old episode of Saturday Night Live of the Whiners? "We can't eat that, we've got di-ver-tic-u-li-tis, we can only eat macaroni and cheese."

One of my goals in life is to not ever become Mrs. Whiner. But another equally important goal in life is to feel good. Namely to not wake up with a spine that is all cramped up and fingers that look like sausages. The list of foods that do this to me is long and I certainly don't want to bore you with it. But, in my attempts to not wake up in the shape of a sea horse with puffy appendages, I've tried some different ways of eating. 

One of the most successful diets for me has been eating raw vegan. It's expensive, it's a lot of hard work, the raw vegan community is full of nut jobs and eventually you start craving entire chocolate cakes. But while I'm eating raw and spending the money and chopping the fruit and being annoyed with the nut job raw vegan community on social media and before I start craving entire chocolate cakes, I feel fabulous. I wake up with a spring in my step and my wedding ring is practically falling off my finger. 

But there is that money thing. And the issue with the nut job chick with the icky long hair and her ongoing feud with the raw foodist known as Banana Girl and all the drama behind these people who eat nothing but raw food. I can't believe I'm typing this, but personally I don't think they're getting enough protein. (Kidding, just kidding.) And then there is all that chopping, the food chopping that is. And washing and soaking and chopping and washing. Excuse me, I'm whining and I promised not to.

What is a puffy person to do? Keep looking until they find something that works, and that's what happened. I stumbled upon a way of eating that is so completely not nut job, or at least it isn't to me. It is vegan if you want it to be, which I do. It's raw if you want it to be, which I don't. It's strict if you want it to be, which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn't.

The first two weeks I went on this eating plan I dropped seven pounds like it was butter falling off a hot roll. I have kept up my coffee habit, but most mornings I toss half out, not feeling the need to chug down the rest. Best of all, we don't need a new mattress, I don't wake up with my back locked up in pain. What am I doing with my Whine-Free Mornings? Making Glowing Green Smoothies from Kimberly Snyder's The Beauty Detox Solution.

Every morning, rain or shine


More yum!

Red Yum!

OK, this one was really bad. Too much kale.

Big ol' salad for lunch! 

More yum!

Kale salad with tomatoes and cukes. 

We've got a lot of greens going on.

Collard greens have got it all wrapped up.

And cooked food for dinner!
Potato Soup, so hearty and filling.
Take that Banana Girl.

Some more filling and wonderful Potato Soup.
My tummy is warm and happy.
Salad just can't beat soup.

No whining here.