House Party!

As previously mentioned, both Ian and I recently received our final occupancy permits for our houses.  It could never have happened without the help of our friends and neighbors, so as a thank you to them, we threw a party this weekend. It was very successful by rural standards — nearly 30 people!

It was a pretty standard barbecue of hot dogs, burgers, and side dishes. But to make things fun, I decided to decorate in a  “Construction” theme.  I have a few pics below, although the first one — which was supposed to show the overall decor — turned out poorly. I’m looking around to see if anyone else had a better one.

Anyway, some of the things I did:

  • Tarp “tablecloth”
  • Saw horse table
  • Fuseboxes filled with watermelon slices and pitas
  • Paint trays of deviled eggs, brownies
  • PVC bowls of hummus, olives, pickles, and dips
  • Cement mixer filled with ice and soft drinks
  • Hardhats (lined with gallon ziplock bags) used as bowls for baked beans, pasta, and potato salad
  • Home Depot 5 gallon bucket, lined with mylar and filled with Sangria
  • Caution tape streamers

Overall, everyone seemed to be pretty amused by it, and I thought it turned out well.

The decorated dining room – a terrible pic, so I’ll try to find a better one from one of the attendees
Sawhorse table, sink filled with burger and hot dog buns
Containers made from PVC pipe, fuse boxes, paint trays, hardhats, and a wire sculpture centerpiece
Cement mixer filled with soft drinks and ice
Home Depot bucket, with a mylar liner..
… filled with Sangria!

Homemade Pumpkin Pie

As we swing into fall, my CSA has begun adding pumpkins to the harvest. I’ve always wanted to make pumpkin pie that didn’t come out of the can, so here was my opportunity. Due to the size of the pumpkin I actually made a total of four pies, 2 using a traditional recipe and two using low-calorie modifications of my own design. Recipes for each are as follows:


3 cups pureed pumpkin
1 cup sugar*
2 Tablespoons pumpkin pie spice**
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cans (18 oz total) of evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)

* You can use any sweetener (honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, etc) in place of the sugar; just look up the equivalent amount to substitute for 1 cup sugar. A syrup will make a heavier pie than sugar.

** In place of the 2 T pumpkin pie spice, you can use the following spices combined:

1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Mix together thoroughly with a whisk or blender (standard or immersion). Pour into 2 9″ deep dish pie crusts. Bake at 425 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 45-60 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a butterknife. If it pulls out clean, the pie is done.


3 cups pureed pumpkin
24 packets of Stevia powder*
2 Tablespoons pumpkin pie spice**
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
9 egg whites
1 large egg
1 1/2 cans (18 oz total) of fat-free evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)
120 individual Trader Joe’s “Ginger Cat Cookies” (or a total of 900 calories’ worth of graham crackers), processed to fine crumbs in a food processor or blender.

Mix together everything but cookies thoroughly with a whisk or blender (standard or immersion). Spray 2 9″ pie plates with cooking spray. Divide cookie crumbs between the two plates. Gently pour the filling into the plates, being careful not to displace the crumbs. Bake at 425 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 45-60 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a butterknife. If it pulls out clean, the pie is done.

Makes 2 pies. Nutritional content for 1/8 pie:

123 calories
2 grams fat
2 grams fiber
6 grams protein
21 grams carbs

* You can use any sugar substitute (Equal, Splenda, Sweet-n-Low) in place of the Stevia; just look up the amount equivalent to 1 cup sugar.

** In place of the 2 T pumpkin pie spice, you can use the following spices combined:

1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Cooked pumpkin slices, peeled
The finished pies!
The pumpkin puree – definitely more yellow than the stuff from the can.
Pureeing the pumpkin

Organic Gardening Arsenal

I’m still battling aphids and other pests in my garden. In the process I’ve developed quite an arsenal of organic sprays and other treatments for killing and repelling insects and fighting fungal diseases.  Here’s just a few of them (hat tip to “How To Garden Advice” for a good number of these recipes and suggestions):

Bug Spray 1 (Insecticide)

  • 2 cups water
  • ½ tsp dish soap

Mix & mist directly onto plants. The soap causes aphids to dehydrate and die.

Bug Spray 2 (Insecticide)

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tsp dish soap

Mix & mist directly onto plants. The oil will clog aphids’ pores so they suffocate and die.

Bug Spray 3 (Plant diseases)

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/8 tsp liquid soap
  • 1 quart water

Puree garlic in 1 cup water. Add remaining water and puree again. Strain & add soap. To use , mix 1:10 with water and mist directly onto plants.

Bug Spray 4 (Repellent)

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • Seeds from 2 hot chili peppers (jalepeno, Serrano, etc)
  • 4 cups water

Boil together for 40 min. Cool and strain. Mist directly onto plants. Keep in fridge when not in use. This mixture repels insects.

Bug Spray 5 (Insecticide)

  • 2 tsp neem oil
  • ½ tsp liquid detergent
  • 1 quart water

Use warm water if possible. Mix the warm water with the soap first! Then slowly add the oil while stirring vigorously. Fill the mix into your sprayer. Keep shaking or otherwise agitating the mix while spraying. Use the mixture within eight hours.

Bug Spray 6 (Insecticide)

  • Diatomaceous earth

Mist powder directly onto plants. Slugs and caterpillars are cut up by the sharp edges and die.

Bug Spray 7 (Repellent)

  • 1 handful basil
  • 1 quart water

Steep basil in water in fridge for one week. Strain. Mist directly onto plants as a repellent.

Bug Spray 8 (Plant diseases)

  • Vinegar

Fights fungus diseases, some insects, and kills weeds

Bug Goo

Mix equal parts mineral oil, liquid soap, and petroleum jelly. Spread on plants to trap insects.


Other Odds & Ends Ideas for Organic Insect Control

(again from How To Garden Advice)

Aphid lions are attracted to borage. Aphid lions are one of the friendly insects in your garden, dining on many other pesty garden insects.

Canola oil:
Smothers insects

Cinnamon powder:
Is an antifungal and repels ants

If you have a problem with cutworms, try sprinkling cornmeal around the plants. They eat the cornmeal, but can’t digest it.

Essential Oils:
Use 10 drops of a very fragrant essential oil like mint or pennyroyal mixed with 1/8 tsp liquid soap and 1 qt water.  Use as a preventative measure, by spraying on the leaves of plants that are most likely to get attacked by insects.

Fireflies are very heavy eaters of some of the most pesty garden insects (larvae, mites, slugs, snails, cutworms, etc.).  You can attract fireflies by leaving an area near your garden that’s not mowed (and that isn’t treated with chemicals!).

Petroleum Jelly
To keep ants from eating your plants, spread a thick layer of petroleum jelly (even Vicks will work!) around the plant’s stem or trunk

White Flour:
If you have a problem with cabbage worms or grashoppers, go out in the morning while there is still dew on your plants. Sprinkle them with flour. Then the next day, wash off the flour and the dead bugs.

Helpful Little Critters:
Salamanders, toads, turtles and lizards all help your garden by making meals out of insects. Attract these garden friends by leaving small piles of rocks or wood for them to hide in.

Most snakes are quite harmless and are even helpful in your garden, in that they eat insects and rodents!

As much as spiders give us “the creeps,” they are so important in helping to keep the insect population under control in your garden. You can encourage spiders to patrol your garden, by building little shelters out of mounds of twigs or rocks. I’ve also heard of those who take terra cotta pots and turn them upside down in the garden, leaving them as “spider houses” around the garden.

Sugar water sprayed on plants infected with aphids, scale, whiteflies or mites, can attract ladybird beetles (who will eat these pesty critters for you). Spray the sugar water onto the plants, but don’t spray any on the ladybird beetles.

Why are my friends so gross?

I was digging in one of my raised beds the other day and found a giant white grub — nearly 2″ long with a dark brown spot on one end, and 4 or 6 claws on that same end.  Grossed me out, but before I did anything to it, I did a little Googling to make sure it wasn’t anything beneficial.

At first, I thought it was the Japanese beetle grub, which eats plant roots.  So I tossed it into an empty plastic Folgers coffee can for later disposal and continued to dig.   I found another. And another. And another. The Folgers can was now half full of giant squirming maggots, and I could hear the damn things scrabbling at the sides and bottom with their little claws desperately trying to get out.  Worse, I estimated I had only gotten about a quarter of them out of the bed, if I was lucky.

Back to Google to learn how to organically nuke the suckers.

Turns out further research was a good thing. According the the University of Arizona, as of July 2011 the Japanese beetle has not yet come to Arizona. What I found are actually Bumble Flower Beetle larvae, which are beneficial.  They tend to pupate in horse manure and compost, which is what makes up about 2/3 of the “soil” in my raised beds (the other 1/3rd being rotting straw).

So I dumped the squirming coffee can back into the garden soil, took a shower, and had a drink. They may be beneficial but … ew.

Seriously, that is one ugly bug.

Learning to Cook Creatively

In reference to cooking, I often hear, “I’m just not the creative type” or “I just don’t have the talent.” Both of these things can be easily learned in terms of food.  Below are a couple of pointers:

I often browsed through recipe books or websites, only to find that I was missing a specific ingredient. Rather than dismissing the recipe altogether, try to find a substitute. Google has made this particularly easy; simply search for “substitute for xxxxx”. Some results from a recent search:

Agar-Agar | Gelatin
Bamboo shoots | White or green cabbage
Bok Choy | Celery or swiss chard
Chili sauce | tomato sauce + brown sugar + cinnamon + vinegar + cloves
Hoisin Sauce | ketchup + molasses

… and so on.

Chili recipes are an especially good starter to experiment with, as you can add or replace ingredients with pretty much any edible substance. Chili powder covers a multitude of sins.

Secondly, draw inspiration from common foods. One of my fallbacks tends to be pizza. I take the basic format of crust + sauce + toppings and internationalize it. For instance:

Mexican pizza: masa (corn) flour + water for the dough, top with salsa as the sauce, then sprinkle on cheddar cheese followed by cooked shredded beef or pork, black beans, chopped onions, green chiles, minced garlic, tomatoes, and so on. Bake at 350 for half an hour or until cheese is bubbly and brown

Asian pizza: cooked sticky rice mixed with an egg and pressed into the bottom of a casserole dish for the crust. Top with peanut sauce or teriyaki sauce, then a mild white cheese, followed by bean sprouts, scallions, shredded carrots, cooked chicken or pork, garlic, etc. Bake at 350 for half an hour or until the rice forms a lightly browned crust and everything is cooked through.

Greek pizza: pitas topped with hummus, red peppers, olives, etc

You get the idea.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette — a book by Amy Dacyczyn that I highly recommend — has a similar formula for casseroles:

1 cup main ingredient (tuna, chicken, turkey, ham, etc)
1 cup second ingredient (celery, mushrooms, peas, carrots, etc)
1-2 cups starchy ingredient (potatoes, noodles, rice, etc)
1 1/2 cups binder (cream souce, sour cream, cream soup, etc)
1/4 cup goodies (seeds, nuts, olives, water chestnuts, etc)
Seasoning (rosemary, garlic, tarragon, chili powder, curry)
Topping (potato chips, cheese, bread crumbs)

Basically mix everything but the topping together, dump it into a casserole dish, blanket it with the topping, and bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes.

She also has another template-style recipe for muffins as well.

So as you can see, it’s not necessary to have precisely what you need for a specific recipe, or even have a recipe at all. Draw inspiration from what you already like and don’t be afraid to experiment. If it doesn’t work, toss it out and try again (by the way, Cucumber Melon Gazpacho doesn’t taste nearly as good as I thought it would).

Prickly Pear Wine Update

The prickly pear wine is still far from transparent, so I decided that it’s time to try helping it along. Fruit wines (and melomels or other fermentations that use some portion of fruit) offer become hazy after fermentation due to the natural pectin in the fruit setting. Pectin is a compound found in plant cells that acts as a thickening or gelling agent – it’s generally added to fruit jams and jellies. In alcohol, though, it forms a haze that is reluctant to clear naturally.

The best way to avoid this problem is to use a pectic enzyme (readily available at any homebrew supply shop) in your initial must.This will break down the pectin in the fruit and prevent a haze from forming in the first place. I didn’t do this because I didn’t think the pectin would be a problem in prickly pear fruit – several times I’ve made jam from it, the problem was always too little natural pectin and a lack of gelling. But I was wrong – there is definitely enough to be a problem in the wine.

Well, sort of a problem. Pectin doesn’t actually pose any health problem, it just makes the wine hazy. The last tasting of the wine also revealed a slightly thick texture, which I think might be a result of the pectin.

Anyway, my first plan was to add pectic enzyme to the aging wine. I figured it might be able to break down the haze even after fermentation. So I added the recommended dose (3/4 tsp per gallon), and gave it about 24 hours. The result? Nothing – no visible change at all. The wine has been undisturbed in the carboy for about 2 months, and had not shown any accumulation of lees at all.

So my second plan was to use Super-Kleer. This is an additive also available at any homebrew supply, added to a finished wine (or mead, etc) in two parts. Basically, it bonds to suspended yeast and proteins in the must and then forms large clumps that will much more easily fall out of suspension (for a more detailed explanation, take a gander at this article from Winemaker Magazine). I added the first part, waited an hours, and then mixed the second part into a bit of warm water and added it to the wine. Literally within seconds strings of yeast and haze could be seen forming and falling to the bottom of the carboy. Eight hours later, there was a layer of lees between a half and three quarters of an inch thick at the bottom of the carboy. The wine is still not transparent, but this is an excellent start. My reading on a couple brewing forums suggests that it’s best to leave it sitting for about two weeks to make sure as much as possible falls to the bottom. Hopefully in the next few days I’ll start to see some visible change in the clarity of the wine!

First Frost

First frost of the winter:

Frosted broccoli
Frosted chard

Since I put in so much work, though, I’m trying a technique I heard about on the Survival Podcast: inverting a fish tank over the plants to act as a mini greenhouse.

Covered spinach
Covered chard

You can see in the last photo that I have quite a few spinach plants growing at this point. I decided to cover some and leave some uncovered. That’ll give me a decent idea of how tolerant the spinach is of low temperatures.

Plus I ran out of fish tanks.

Basil Frittata

Monday night had an even harder frost than Sunday night, and my basil plant finally gave up the ghost. I suppose I should have covered it, but it was going anyway, so I wasn’t too distressed. In retrospect, though, I probably should have checked to see if basil is a perennial or annual. If the former, I could have brought it inside for the night

Poor dying basil plant

I pulled off all the still-good leaves (about 2 cups worth altogether), sauteed them up with a bit of olive oil, and add a scrambled egg to make a basil frittata. Warning: you need to really like basil  to enjoy this!

Added the egg, covered and cooked on med-low heat until cooked through.
Sauteeing basil leaves

Basil’s a lot like chard or kale in that you need to cook it longer than, say, spinach, or else it’s pretty tough.