Attack of the Green Tomato Hornworm

I often leave for work before the sun rises.  This means that I often water the garden before the sun comes up, so I occasionally miss a pest problem in the early stages.  This week was no exception.  I went outside to pick the first of the beefsteak tomatoes and a handful of cherry tomatoes and found that both plants had been decimated by a hungry critter.  As I reached down to look at the half of a tomato dangling from the vine I saw a huge caterpillar.  I'm talking about a 4-inch long green behemoth as thick as my thumb clinging to the stem below the fruit.  Green Tomato Hornworm.  After further inspection I found at least one more, and a few other tomatoes that were likely harboring smaller versions of the buggers.  I removed the worms and the infected fruit by hand and fed the worms to some hungry birds.
The tomato in the back of the picture has been hollowed out, and contains a fat green worm.
A bird swooped down and nabbed the four inch long big greeny in front while I was working in another part of the yard so they must be tasty to the right customer.  I did some research and supposedly hot pepper and dish soap in water will keep these guys at bay, so I'm mixing up a batch and will return to my plant with spray bottle in hand this evening.

Update: I routinely sprayed my tomatoes every two to three days with the hot pepper-garlic-soap mixture all season, and wound up not getting to eat a single tomato the whole season. Everyone was infested with hornworms and hollowed out before it ripened.  I probably threw out 50 cherry tomatoes and 15 massive beefsteaks.  I'm still looking for a non-toxic solution for pest control on tomatoes, but won't waste my time with the hot pepper soap mixture again.


City Review: Ann Arbor Michigan

I recently spent the weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Coming from the desert climate of Southern California, I often forget how green and lush other parts of the country can be.  Ann Arbor is the perfect small college town where local businesses thrive and there is an emphasis on locally farmed food.

A few recommendations:

Need a big breakfast?  Head to Cafe Zola.  Giant portions of tasty breakfast foods are what you will find.  Sweet or savory crepes, pastries, omelettes, or Mediterranean olive and veggie breakfast platters, no matter how exotic or eclectic your breakfast desire Zola's got you covered.  If you are in an adventurous mood, try the Moroccan coffee, it is Turkish coffee made with an espresso grind with mint, cardamon, and toasted almonds mixed in.  The coffee is strong and unusual, but in a good way.  Come hungry.  

Everything that hit the table was excellent.  I had Parisian gnocci with goat cheese and fiddle heads.  It was my first time trying fiddle heads, and they were so good that I will do a follow up post as soon as I can find some to make myself.  The menu is constantly changing depending on the season and availability of foods from local farms.  The farms that provide the produce you eat each night are listed on the menu.

A locally owned and operated comic/game/geek toy shop.  Prices on some games we were looking for were lower than anywhere else we had seen them (including Amazon).  It was well lit and well ventilated and was not at all intimidating to those in our group who do not frequent comic shops.  The selection of off the beaten path games is great and the employee I spoke with knew what was in stock and offered to order a copy of a game that I have had my eye on but was not in stock.  


Experimental Cooking - Pork Tamales

This week's Can you make it/is it worth it challenge:  Pork Tamales

I frankensteined together a couple of recipes because I also wanted to try making my own mole sauce.  You can use really cheap cuts like neck, bones and all.  Talk to your butcher or stop in at a local carniceria. Boiling the bones adds flavor to your stock, which will make the masa dough more flavorful.

1. I boiled 2 pounds of cheap pork with an onion, and orange, 2 bay leaves and 3 garlic cloves for about 2 hours, until the pork was fork tender.
2. I shredded the meat with two forks, and strained the solids from the broth.
3. I made one batch of mole as seen here, tossed it on the shredded pork.
4. We used this recipe for the masa, using the pork broth in place of the chicken broth.  2 lbs of pork uses up about a double recipe of the masa recipe so we did supplement with some chicken broth for the second batch when we ran out of pork broth.  They were both delicious.

Notes for next time:

The flavor was awesome.  I'd do it the same next time.  I was a bit worried that the meat/mole needed more salt, but the amount of salt in the masa dough made balanced the flavors really well.

From start to finish, this was a 6 hour cook-a-thon (granted most of it involved leaving a pot set to a low boil and doing something else for a bit).  The amount of time you spend making these means it is worth doing in large quantities and freezing.  We easily made enough for 5 dinners for 2.

The mole recipe I used was quite spicy (perfect for Mr C and I), if you like it on the mild side I'd use 1/2 a can of diced chilis.

We used 1/2 a bag of corn husks for this batch.  No need to soak the whole bunch.  Also, the corn husks at my supermarket are kept in the produce section under the apples.  I can't tell you how many other places I looked before giving up and stumbling upon them as I went to get some apples to use with the pork.

Also, use the big corn husks.  Save the little ones for making dessert tamales like pineapple flavored ones.

Summary:  Can you make tamales at home?  Absolutely!  The main ingredient was patience, and even two people who have never seen a tamale made figured it out really quickly.  Is it worth it?  Yes!  I'll do this again for sure!


$1 Gourmet - Carbonara Challenge

We hosted a dinner party with the goal of serving a meal that would leave everyone satisfied and cost approximately $1 per serving. Each dinner guest was to provide $1 worth of ingredients. We had 2 late additions so they were assigned bread and dessert. We started with one of the easiest and cheapest meals you can make - carbonara. It is also super tasty, so I knew we'd get repeat dinner guests.

For 6 guests the price break down was as follows:
$1 box of angel hair pasta
$1 worth of eggs (3)
$1 worth of bacon (Approximately 4 strips)
$1 worth of bread (most of a cheap loaf)
$1 worth of cookies (2 store brand chocolate chip cookies per guest)
$1 combined - butter (2 tbs), garlic (4 cloves), salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese

The recipie:
1. Boil a large pot of water.
2. Chop bacon and mince garlic.
3. Once the water boils, salt the water and add the pasta.
4. Immediately after adding the pasta to the water, start heating the bacon and butter in a large frying pan. Add pepper and mix continuously until the bacon browns. Once the bacon is browned add the garlic and turn the heat to very low or off.
5. Cook the pasta al dente, turn off the heat on the bacon. Then drain the pasta and throw it in the pan with the bacon and butter and toss frantically for at least 60 seconds.
6. Mix the eggs in a separate bowl and pour slowly over the hot bacony pasta. Continue mixing frantically. The goal here is to get the eggs to coat each strand of pasta rather than scramble as it hits the side of the pan, so a slow pour while mixing is crucial. You really don't need the heat on the stove to get the eggs to cook, the pasta is still about 200 degrees F and will do all the cooking you need.
7. Once the eggs are mixed in and the pasta looks shiny but not wet top with a few shakes of Parmesan and toss to coat. Eat while hot.

This is a dish that does not reheat well, so only make what you can eat. All of the $1 gourmets had 1 slice of bread, a couple of cookies, and we had a little pasta left over. Reviews were really positive, even from two of the more doubtful participants. 


How to Survie the Heat - Try an Aperol Spritz or not if you don't like bitter drinks

Rendezvous Aperol Art Print
August and September are typically super hot and dry here in Orange, and this year has been no exception. It is also the first year in at least six years that Mr C or myself have been without air conditioning. It is frequently over 95 in the living room, and the indoor temperature typically stays in the high 80's overnight. We have been, in a word - melting.

Hot and lazy Sundays always make us crave a simple drink that cools and refreshes.

We have been frequenting a new wine shop in town that has a huge selection, 10 cent wine tastings, and obscure liquors. Last week, I stumbled upon a bottle of Aperol in the aperitif aisle. I tried Aperol while traveling in Italy in college. A friend of mine was studying abroad for the year and some of our group went out to visit. He had been told that when in Venice, we must try a cocktail called a Spritz al Aperol. We had several rounds of them in Venice and I remember the drink being refreshing and tasty. I also remember it having an olive floating in it. It sounded like the perfect drink to cools us off this evening.

I bought the supplies to make a Spritz al Aperol (but forgot the olives) and followed the recipe on the back of the bottle.

Experiment 1
1 1/2 oz Aperol
2 oz dry sparkling wine
a splash of sparkling water

Mrs C says - "The drink is more of an orange color than I remember, and really good until the bitter aftertaste catches up with you."

Mr C says - "Refreshing followed by a bitter explosion"

Experiment 2
1 1/2 oz Aperol
2 oz sparkling wine
a splash of sparkling water
slice of lemon

Mrs C says - "I think that helped make it better- Oh no, no, here comes the bitter again"

Mr C says - "I think that made it worse."

Experiment 3
1 oz Aperol
2 oz sparkling wine
2 oz sparkling water

Mrs C says - "Better. Less of a shock to the taste buds, although still a bit rough on the aftertaste"

Mr C says - "Still bitter. I don't like bitter. At all."

Mr C's final tally 1 out of 10 taste buds

Mrs C's final tally 5 out of 10 taste buds


$25 Victory Garden?

Joe Lamp'l is trying to feed his family of four from a $25 victory garden.

This is an interesting experiment. I applaud his use of freecycle.org; however, he does get a LOT of seeds from loyal fans. While it is possible to trade seeds with other locals in many areas, these were given freely with no strings attached. If he were anyone else he would have cleared his $25 budget on seeds alone. Still he does provide great tips on how to start a garden on the cheap.


The suprises keep on coming

How is yardwork like scientific research? Sometimes you set out to accomplish one goal, and find something new and amazing in an area you expected to be mundane.

After months of intentional neglect and lack of watering we have successfully killed off the white clover infestation in the backyard. The plan for this weekend was to till the backyard, remove the cheesy pink scalloped stone border, add some curves with a new border, and re-seed the grass. Ambitious for two people? Yes, but was a long weekend.

Soon after we started tilling the soil we realized that the ivy and shrubbery along the back fence had snuck out into the yard about 3 feet while we weren't looking. We set to work pulling ivy, and trimming back the hedges. We filled up both of our green waste bins in about an hour and made it about halfway across the yard.

In the center of the back wall were a massive bush, a small palm, and a large agave. The palm and the agave had been strangled by the ivy and were mostly dead, so they both came out. We began pulling the ivy out of the bush, and discovered that the bush was not a bush at all. It was just a vine draped over an 8 foot tall metal arch. That's right, we had an 8 foot tall metal arch along our back wall, and it took us 6 months to find it. In the center of the arch was a large jade plant which we also didn't know existed. During the two years of neglect (a year an a half as an empty house and the 6 months since we moved in), the vine spread and grew so that the arch was completely hidden. We now plan on keeping the arch where it is and using it to support some fruiting vines and are rethinking how we are going to set up the rest of the yard.