Monday, May 15, 2017

Growing tomatoes, not tomato plants

I thought I knew tomatoes.
I've been such a sucker.

When it comes to my vegetable garden, I don't have terribly high expectations. My goals are simple:

I don't think that's asking too much. I'm not some kind of urban prepper who is trying to live off the land, avoiding the grocery store as if it were an evil empire. I have no desire to "put up" vegetables, sweating over a canning stove set up in the garage, hoping to line my pantry with gloriously colored jars of goods.

No, I just want to grow a few vegetables, mostly tomatoes. This should be easy, it really should. I know how to do this, I live in Sacra-Tomato for beet's sake. Speaking of winter gardens, I'm not that interested in kale, and collards and massive cabbages. Just give me some nice fat and juicy red tomatoes. Please!

I think this is the year. I don't want to set myself up for too much disappointment, but I think I'm on to something. First, we got rain, and we got lots of it. It rained so much our front yard started to flood one evening, and that is a physically impossible phenomenon. But there I was, staring out the window from our bedroom, yelling at my husband, "The front yard is FLOODING!" Amazing year, that it was. So I'll have no guilt giving my tomatoes the one thing they really love, lots of water, twice a week.

It's now finally warming up, and tomatoes love that too. They don't like it too cold, but they won't "set fruit" when it's ghastly hot either, so we are good on that front. This has been one of the loveliest Springs I ever remember in the Sacramento region. It's halfway through May, and I have not once felt the least bit hot and bothered. It's truly been glorious.

And now, on top of all that water and perfect temperatures, I think I've finally discovered what has been alluding me in my quest to grow tomatoes. 

I've been growing tomato plants, not tomatoes.

Yes, that has been the sad fact for many years now, and I discovered this by typing "How to grow tomatoes in the Sacramento Valley" into YouTube. Trying to work past the many odd people who post badly filmed and blurry tomato videos on the Internet, I came across something amazing and profound about tomatoes.

You have to pick the suckers off them. Tomato plants grow suckers, which to the untrained eye (that would be my eye) look just like they belong. They don't belong, they must go, the sooner the better. Now these suckers are not some random occurrence which comes up once in a blue moon, Oh, no no no. Suckers come up between every single horizontal stem coming off the vertical stalk. They shoot up like the cutest little thing, usually at a 45 degree angle. They used to make me so happy, I thought I was doing everything right as my tomato plants grew to amazing proportions, with these big offshoots growing from the main stalk at 45 degree angles. My what a good urban farmer I am, I would think, as the plants grew and grew, giving me hardly any tomatoes. 

Never again, I'm all over those suckers this year, I'm tearing them off like mad. Take a look again at the photo up top. See the sucker? This one isn't exactly at a 45 degree angle, but no matter, it was a sucker and it is now gone. Once you tear off a sucker, that's not the end of it, it will want to come back, but just keep at it.

My tomato plants don't look as big and full as they usually do by now, with all this hacking away on my part. But another thing the tomato people on YouTube say is that tomato plants need air circulation, and suckers suck air along with water and energy. My plants are putting out the blossoms, and have the cutest little green tomatoes already. This is the year. The Year of the Tomato, not the plant.

Monday, May 1, 2017

SpringCo into Winco!


Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.



We've been going heavy on the Mother Hubbard cupboards lately, making sure of course that our poor dog has her bones, and her treats and her kibble.

No, it hasn't been the dog's food we've been running completely out of, it has been our food. But it was on purpose, all part of a long delayed plan. In September of 2016 we did a little food experiment. We bought food exclusively from the 99 Cent Store to see what it would be like to eat a whole food plant based diet, if regular stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Raley's were not available to us. We live on the edge of a food desert, but we of course have the luxury of food shopping in a variety of different places.

Our "99 Centember" went very well, I was surprised how much produce they carry. The grand total came to $3.33 a day for each of us. The next month we were ready to go straight into Winco October but my Mom's illness took me back east, and the rest of the year was just foggy and sad.

Spring is now in full swing here in Sacramento after a very long and wet and windy winter. The flowers are blooming, the lizards are leaping and we have frogs croaking in our backyard for the first time in four years. Rain, it's a lovely thing!

April was the month to really start cleaning out the cupboards in preparation for this SpringCo WinCo ThingCo. What's my advice for clearing out your freezer, refrigerator and pantry? Just stop grocery shopping. Period. Don't go. If you think you need to go buy more food, look again, there is still food hiding in your house. Now it may not be that favorite thing you love to have for dinner, there is a reason it's sitting uneaten in your home after all. But try to not imagine it as a box of sadly tasteless quinoa. Think of it as a box of money, the money you spent when you bought it. A can of money here, a box of coins, a carton of dollar bills, our cupboards and freezers are just brimming with cash. The Bank of Bad Food Choices right there, ready for withdrawals if you can stand a few menu withdrawals.

After we'd used up every single possible bit of food we had left, I would find more. There was a box way up high in the cupboard that I assumed was a box of party utensils. It wasn't, it was some of those really fast-to-cook see-through noodles, also known as Box-o-Bills. I found that box and I knew there was a meal in there somewhere. I took a can of coconut milk, a can of tomato paste, some curry powder, a squeeze of ginger in a tube and a spoonful of basil in a jar. I mixed that all up and tossed it with the clear, slightly jellyfish-like noodles and sure enough, it was really good. Like make again good.

Another benefit of going through all the food you have is finally using up those odd bits of condiments you might have lingering in the refrigerator. Because when you're desperate to find things to eat, those little jars of dibs and dabs of this and that suddenly become flavor jewels. Squeezable ginger and basil in a jar? Priceless!

But there did come a time when even I said enough was enough. We were down to garlic, rice, tomato paste, quinoa, mustard and pickled beets. And of course the ginger and the basil, but still. It was time to hit the stores, or shall I say store, the same store for the whole month of May.

Perhaps a squeeze of potato on your lemon?

Is it technically even a veggie bin if it has no veggies?

The Last Mango in Paris?

Mustard! We have mustard!

The really good rice noodle stuff I would have never discovered. 
It's May 1st, 2017 and I finally went shopping again. I grabbed some grocery money and headed over to our local WinCo Foods to load up on whole food plant based vegan foods. It isn't hard at all. They have a great produce section, although I wish their organic selection was much bigger. The bulk section is amazing, they have the best looking mayacoba beans I've ever seen. They have Dave's Killer Bread and the only no salt black beans in a can I've ever seen. 

I tried to buy about one week's worth of food, but it was hard to judge because I was starting from almost zero. The rules of the game are we eat exclusively from WinCo for the whole month of May. We'll tally up the results at the end of the month and see if we go over or under the $3.33 a day we averaged at the 99 Cent Store. I'll keep you posted!


Our shopping bags were brimming with wholesome goodness


We are back in business with some produce.

The veggie bins are veggie bins again.

The mango sorbet has some new dance partners.
What have I learned going from incredible abundance food-wise to next to nothing in our house to eat? Nothing, really. Because at any time I could have hopped in my car and drove down to Trader Joe's and stocked up on all my favorite foods - all washed and chopped and diced and packaged up just like us busy people like them. This was a fun experiment, and one that saved us tons of money by using up those weird bits and bites instead of just tossing them out. But it's not deprivation when it's self-deprivation. The one thing I have learned? Keep tomato paste on hand at all times. It can stretch food like nothing else. That little can of tomato concentrate is worth its weight in gold.





Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My One Hundred Item Wardrobe


Imagine walking around a room quietly, watching people take a test. Walk. Watch. Walk. Watch. Look awake, but don't bother anyone, they're taking a test. Walk. Watch. It's called proctoring and I used to do it for extra money. I do it now for regular money. And since I enjoy people watching, it's quite an interesting job for me. It gives me lots of time to think of very deep, soul-searching topics that I can meditate on while moving quietly about the room. Thoughts such as:

"If I got home and all my clothes had been somehow destroyed in a small and highly contained natural disaster in my closet, how much would it cost to replace them? All of them."

I came up with the figure of $1000, because let's face it, proctoring pays OK but it's not like performing brain surgery. With that wad of money, I would step into my favorite thrift store, flash my thousand dollars around and ask to see every single Talbots, Jones of New York and Ann Taylor item in the place. I may shop at thrift stores, but that doesn't mean I can't be a brand snob.

"If I had $1000 to spend, I wonder how many clothes that would buy?"

Assuming (thrift store prices here) jackets are $12, dresses $10, suits $20, coats $15, tops $8 etc., I came up with the number. 100 items of clothing.

"Forget the money, forget the closet disaster, can I whittle my clothes down to just 100 items?" 

So after proctoring a 12 hour day, I came home and took everything out of my closet and sorted it according to categories. I had a burst of energy that lasted all the way thru the skirts. While I hate summer, it became apparent that I love summer skirts, because I had quite a few. Mostly Talbots. But instead of following the rule from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up of Does it spark joy? I decided on another brilliant criterion.

Does it fit?
Does it look good on me? 
If I took off the Talbots label would I still like it?

I eventually tried on every single item in my wardrobe. And then I stood in front of the mirror, because really, that's a big part of the trying-on process. I got another mirror and did the Does it still spark joy from behind? test also. Lots of clothes went bye-bye.

I got my wardrobe down to 96 items, including the pants I like to refer to as loungewear rather than yoga pants, jeans and other things I would wear in public if need be. I was so jazzed, there was room for four more summer skirts! Then my husband started riffling through my discard pile and pulled out 3 tossed tiems that were making his lower lip stick out with sadness, not joy. I relented and took them back into the fold, because I was still under the Life Changing Number of One Hundred. Then I remembered my four coats in the hall closet. Drats! I was at 103 items in my wardrobe. There is positively nothing magical about the number 103. It has no flow, no style. But that's where I'm at, 103.



The Spring/Summer Keeps!

I was ruthless last Fall with footwear, so shoes were easy.

The Blue Bags of Shame, off to be donated.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Windy City Eats

We don't eat out much. Between our strict plant-based diet, our strict budget and the fact that I enjoy cooking (most nights), we probably eat home-cooked meals 95% of the time, if not more.

We try our best to eat on the cheap and healthy when away from home too, and that creates some challenges. Let's see, what are our options?

Chipotle has vegan beans, yippee! Some Mexican food places can deal with our tweaks, which means hold the cheese, the meat, the sour cream and hey, do you have any whole wheat tortillas by any chance? Another option is Thai, most restaurants can accommodate my husband's need to keep his food from being drenched in oil. So that puts us where? Bean and bean burritos with a side of beans, and some Thai dishes served with brown rice, but please hold the salt. It sure isn't easy, and travel adds a bit more baggage to the question of What's for dinner? 


At the beginning of the month we were off to Chicago for another work weekend at the McCormick Center. This was the sixth time for me, the fourth time for my husband. I don't count the time he flew there with me to enjoy the hotel room, the city and the sights, while I limped around proctoring for days on end. No, I don't count that time. 

Working the job we have there has its advantages. There's the fact we get paid, and the hours do add up. We get to stay in a great hotel, work with some super people and see more and more of Chicago each time. There's just one minor detail that makes it hard. It's those horrid wake-up times for the days we work. I didn't get the rooster gene, so any alarm set before 5:30 AM seems positively barbaric. 

Gulp! That's 1:45 AM Sacramento time.

But I get through it. The food helps. It really helps.

Even though we live in the Farm to Fork Capital, Chicago has it all over Sacramento when it comes to vegan food options. A regular Mexican restaurant that has an entire section of the menu devoted to vegan food? Chicago has it. None of this, "Can I have some extra beans on my nachos to make up for the fact I'm not having cheese and sour cream?" La Cantina Grill has a menu that makes us swoon. While Ernst is making his more serious dietary issues known to the server, I'm just going hog wild ordering off the plant-based menu.


Oh. My. Word.
Chili rellenos stuffed with vegan cheese. It made that 3:45AM wake up call all better.

"Meat" tacos.
It didn't taste like meat. That's not the point. It just tasted wonderful.

We were in Chicago for four nights. We went to the Cantina Grill twice. One night we ordered three entrees between us. Let's see - two people, two visits, five entrees. Yep, we love this place!

Our friend Lorena also did her homework for us, and brought us to some great places. One was The Chicago Diner - Meat Free Since '83. This place didn't just have one page of choices, the whole menu was plant-based. Well, maybe that's a stretch, I'm sure some of the entrees had stuff that we would never eat at home. But when in Rome and all that.

My yummy sweet potato burger.

Ernst had the "meat loaf".
He was a happy boy.

I kept myself to only one entree.
But I did order the "milk" shake.
I was a happy girl.


The highlight of our resturant adventures in Chicago was definitely a visit to Revolution Brewing. We planned on just stopping in briefly for a tasting and a brewery tour and then we were headed with Lorena to a vegan-friendly Costa Rican place she'd found. While Ernst and Lorena were going to look for parking, they dropped me off street side. "Beware of the man in the red cape" our hostess warned me as I exited the vehicle. And sure enough, a very interesting man in a red cape was walking down the street. When he entered the brewery ahead of me, I had no idea what was in store inside.



I walked into a brewery full of people in red capes! We had come to the place on a pre-Comicon Kickoff Night, and it was full of interesting characters. It was hilarious fun! There were people in all kinds of costumes, there was a drawing for prizes, and best of all, there was a buffet! A free buffet, or at least we think it was free. And they had vegan burgers in this seemingly free buffet. We never made it to the Costa Rican place.

Beware of the man in the red cape!

Lorena, Hop Head Woman, Ernst and me.
Chicago, we will be back.
We still need to try the Costa Rican place.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Doggie Blanket for Oliver


When I got home in October after my Mom's death, I went into two months of heavy brain fog. Heavy. Brain. Fog. If I compare the grieving for my Dad years ago to grieving my Mom's death, it would be like comparing a marathon to a sprint, a sprint over burning coals. It was incredibly intense, but at least the worst of it was over much quicker.

During the two months of brain fog, I clearly didn't have all my synapses firing. I would forget very simple things. One day I could not bring up the name of a friend of ours. You know one of those couples, let's call them Bob and Sue. You call them Bob and Sue almost like saying Bobbinsue. You can't say the one without saying the other. Well, one day I couldn't remember Bob's name. I said "Sue and........" Nothing. Bob had left my brain. Gone. No Bob. Sue was there, but she was alone. Finally a few minutes later, about to lose my mind over losing my brain, Bob was back, right there where he belonged in my brain with Sue.

Another day, I couldn't remember the name of the Vice President. Of the United States. This wasn't the new one, this was the one we had for eight years. I am a total news junkie. I know who people are. But for a very long period of time, which felt like forever but was probably only about 20 minutes, I couldn't come up with his name in my head. Finally....Joe Biden. Joe and Jill Biden. Barack and Michelle, Joe and Jill, Bob and Sue, I started going through the names of couples, making sure it stuck. Whew, that was scary. My doctor said it was stress, and thankfully she was right because I think I got my brain back.

As Spring approached, I had both some time and cognitive ability to finish the Doggie Blanket for Oliver. Oliver was the pup my sister was dog sitting when my Mom died. That very intense night back in October, Oliver did what dogs do best - they give unconditional devotion and comfort. What happened with that sweet dachshund became Oliver's Story, a Tail of Love. The last photo we have of my Mom is her hand on Oliver's head. He wasn't her dog, but at that point my Mom was Oliver's human. I wanted to make Oliver's owners a little doggie quilt for their amazing little guy. 

I had searched online for dachshund-themed fabric. There are a lot of dachshund lovers out there, that's for certain. I looked and looked, but couldn't justify buying fabric from halfway across the globe for not even a yard of fabric. I don't know what the carbon dog print is for an Etsy purchase from Sri Lanka, but I preferred buying locally. Then I found this, and the Etsy sellers were right here in Rancho Cordova. I could pick it up and save on shipping.


Dachshunds galore!

I had the rest of the fabric, including some cats.
Oliver can chase them in his dreams.
All Squared Up and ready to sew.

Polka dots for a dog with personality.

The furry side.

I rolled it up and sent it off to Connecticut just in time
for the Stella Snowstorm.
And here is loyal and sweet Oliver with his Doggie blanket.
His specialty is burrowing and heart melting.
He excels at both.
Now, what to do for this little bundle of joy?
She clearly needs a coverup.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Things Spring Brings

Spring, glorious spring. As the Winter of 2017 ends, and with it the pounding rains, blasting windstorms and the near catastrophe at Oroville Dam, the Sacramento Valley is in its best shape in a long time. The Sierra Mountains got their snow, the tree roots got their water, the reservoirs will have enough water and we can all flush our toilets whenever they need to be flushed. Life is super.

The irises are popping up, the daffodils did their thing and the tulips are next. Last fall on a particularly hot day, I dug up all our irises and daffodils and redistributed them all over hin and yon. Halfway into that project, with the sweat dripping off my face like water off a dam's spillway, I wondered if it was really necessary. But I'm glad I did, because nothing says hope like spring bulbs. And nothing says garden laziness than iris beds, because long after the blooms are faded, we are left with spiky green plants that need no care. I say cover the world with irises, and I'm doing my part part to make that happen.

After the ground dried out a bit, it was time to do a little walkabout the yard and see how things fared. Not too shabby. There is still a lot of work to do in getting this place in shape so we don't have to do so much work. But that takes work, and the window of opportunity to do that in nice weather is closing soon. Soon it'll be my most dreaded season, summer, when that sweat spillway on my face is in full swing.

First up was weeding. So far I've only tackled the front yard and the fountain yard in back, where we put down mulch. The places in the yard that have yet to receive the mulch treatment are just too scary. I'm just pretending for now the property line ends where the weeds start. It's a coping mechanism, and it works for me. All told, even with the thick layer acting to suppress weeds, I filled a large green waste bin. You can see clearly from the pictures below what a huge difference this made.

Before I weeded
After I weeded.
OK, maybe not worth all that effort after all, it looks just about the same. Moving onward.

The back patio - otherwise known as The Place We Put Stuff That Doesn't Belong. This winter, in trying to avoid the mud pit of the backyard, a lot of stuff ended up on the patio. It was time to tackle it. You can see clearly from the pictures below what a huge difference this made.


Before I cleaned it.

After I cleaned it.
Now there are some good Before and After pictures, wouldn't you say? We had exactly one meal out there, and then the weather turned a bit cooler and we gave up on that for now.


The Alligator-Lizard-Monster Thing
This thing, this abomination of nature, did not appreciate me cleaning the patio. He stared me down. He glared at me. He won that battle. I went back inside. But it's going to be a long summer, Buddy, and we will use our patio. Go live in the weeds for now, the ones in the way back.

Not interested one bit in lowering the Alligator-Lizard-Monster population.

With spring comes the plans for an abundant and amazing veggie garden. All the hopes, the wishes, the visions of cabbage-sized tomatoes ready for slicing, zucchini-sized zucchini that don't go all Lizard-Monster on me, and luscious fruit free from bugs, worms and squirrel bites. It's spring, let me have my dreams. 

A few years ago we planted two cherry trees, and wouldn't you know it, they weren't the kind that, ahem, get along, if you catch my drift. Cherry trees need certain other cherry trees to set fruit, and of course the two we bought weren't the right kind. They needed some cherry romance, another tree with the goods. So we had to buy a third cherry tree, and we're hoping that between the birds and the bees, their pollen all gets to where it needs to be and we get some fruit from these trees. But of course it will - it's Spring and all things are possible.


Don't be shy, come on over and talk to her!



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A very long February



February is a chocolate lover's delight. It's everywhere. And after February 14th, it's still everywhere - but now it's half-off! Yummy and cheap is the best combo ever invented, after chocolate and peanut butter, that is.

I blame my decision to give up chocolate for the month of February on just that combination, chocolate and peanut butter. Namely, Dark Chocolate and Peanut Butter Cups from Trader Joe's, First, they're delicious. Second, they're pretty cheap, even if they never go to half-off. Third, they are in a reasonably sized container that doesn't make one feel like there's too much chocolate in the house.

It's that easy-off lid that becomes the kicker in the behind. With just a flick of the wrist, that ever-so-nimble lid can be easy popped off for a "just one more" moment. You know, that moment that happens about eight to ten times. Before dinner.

My sister visited in January, and being the generous guest that she is, she bought lots of groceries from Trader Joe's. This included lots of the aforementioned peanut butter cups, the ones don't need to ever go on sale because they are already so reasonable. Did I mention the easy to remove lid?

By the end of January I had consumed enough chocolate for an entire season. It was time for drastic measures. I decreed a No Chocolate February!

Now some balanced folks would say that I just needed to put a lid on that overconsumption, that it was high time to show a little moderation. Those are the same folks who find sad, old cartons of ice cream in their freezers, as in they forget they have it and never finish it. I'm not one of those folks.

So come February 1st, I packed up all my chocolate (there wasn't much left) and gave it to my dog sitters. And I began the Month With No Peanut Butter Cups. No chocolate covered anything. Not even that sesame seed treat pictured with the little bit of chocolate drizzled over it. I was strict as strict can be. 

So here we are on March 1st. A new month. The rains and winds have stopped. It's sunny outside and the bulbs are emerging. And somehow just having that tiny chocolate-drizzled treat sitting right where I put it in the freezer is good enough. How long does it take to break a bad habit? Some folks say two weeks. I'm not some folks. For me it took twenty-eight long days.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Daddy Shirt Quilt for Baby Oliver



I make upcycled rag quilts. That means taking gently used clothing, unused fabric from the thrift store and donations from crafty friends to stock my supply of fabric, waiting until I get enough of one style or look to make a quilt. My sister sends me boxes, her friends have sent me boxes, my friend Jill of Dolls For Friends sends me fabric, and sometimes I'll come home to boxes of fabric sitting on our porch. The pieces stare up at me like a puppy at the pound. "I'll be good. I'll be cute. Keep me."

Try as I might to keep my quilting supplies neat as a pin, from time to time it's necessary to pull everything out and get it all organized, again. It's then that I find some piece of fabric shoved where it ought not be shoved, I find colors stacked up together that should not be in the same room together, let alone the same quilt, and I usually end up with a few pieces to donate to the thrift store because I decide I'm just never going to grow to like them. 

Last summer was one of those days. And what did I find? A bag of ever-so-perfectly rolled up dress shirts from our friend Jeff. If you can imagine a dress shirt rolled up into a compact shape about the size of a collapsed umbrella, you have the picture. Jeff goes through shirts like no one I know. First, he dresses really well. Second, he's a teacher who dresses really well. Third, he does volunteer work where he dresses really well. Fourth, he likes to eat messy Vietnamese sandwiches that tend to spill on these nice shirts, adding to the pen marks that come with correcting school work all day. These shirts are a rag quilt maker's dream come true. My only complaint is that even with all those Vietnamese sandwiches, Jeff stays slim. If he put on a few pounds, I would have more fabric to work with from his dress shirts.  :o)

The discovery of this stash of shirts coincided with the news that Jeff and Myra were to have a baby! I didn't need to be on my second cup of coffee to put it all together - those shirts were going into a Daddy Shirt Rag Quilt for Baby!

What do you need to make a Daddy Shirt Rag Quilt? 


Cotton shirts from Daddy.
Lots of them.

You need a template, rotary cutter and some scissors.

Avoid the pen marks.
And the sandwich spills.

You may need to press the shirts first.
Oh, the "iron"y.

Cut off the buttons, the many many buttons.
Save them for a purpose yet unknown.

Now normally I would trudge headfirst into sewing the quilt, not finishing until I'm hunched over in pain, the sink full of dirty dishes, the clothes hamper overflowing, the dog feeling like an abandoned shelter puppy. But this time I did it right. I cut out the squares of fabric, threw away the scraps, vacuumed up the mess and put it all away for a rainy day. Or rather a rainy vacation day. 

One of the prettiest settings I've ever sewed in was this little extra nook at a house in Sea Ranch, CA. The weather was perfect for sewing, drippy and wet - wet and drippy. This was the start of the incredible drought-busting Atmospheric Rivers of 2017 that dumped so much water on the state we don't know what to do with it. That weekend away with some friends, I sewed up two quilts and finished crocheting a baby blanket. Storms are great for getting stuff done.

What a view.

What a table! Perfect for doing a layout for the Oliver Quilt.

And I got it done.
The colors were so nautical, so fresh.

Very Ralph Lauren,
Very Old Navy.
Very Jeff.

And we had ourselves a Daddy Shirt Quilt for Baby Oliver!