It's Winter Solstice Day!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Old Man Winter!
A Happy Winter Solstice to you! As well as a Happy First Day of Winter. And why not throw in a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays while I'm at it?

Ah -- the time you have when you're unemployed. I suppose I'd better enjoy it before the honeymoon ends. And it will end -- trust me.

It better!

This day is an important event for many gardeners. It's time to put 2010 behind us. It's the shortest day of the year (for certain parts of the world) -- and it also means that -- from this day forward -- we'll start to see more sunlight.

Those long days of summer are closer than you think.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice? For that answer -- we turn to people who are much smarter than me (anyone and everyone). This fine bit of information is provided by

"The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.

...for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or traveling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year."

For gardening FANATICS like me and the wonderful Wife that is Venus? It means the official kickoff to planning next year's spring and summer gardens. It's a time to place an order for certain -- selected -- varieties of seed. It's time to drag out and piece together ye olde seed starting rack.

In other words? There's lots to do.

Pit River Bridge at Shasta Lake
It's also a time to reflect. We've been incredibly fortunate so far this winter season in Northern California thanks to an early series of storms that have dropped a near-record amount of rainfall in the valley and boatloads of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Reservoirs that hold this bounty -- like the bathtub known as Lake Shasta -- are nearly full as the picture to the left indicates.

Water inflow is so strong at other storage facilities like Folsom Lake -- for example -- that dam operators are releasing record amounts of water into the American River below. River levels on the Sacramento -- American and Feather Rivers are at or near all-time highs.

Recently Transplanted Artichoke Plants
The rainstorms we've received so far have been so strong and so furious that they've overwhelmed the drainage system in the front and backyards. I have a series of small lakes to prove it -- and water flow from that drainage system has been strong enough to blow off the plastic drain caps in the front yard.

Merry Freaking Christmas!

Despite all of that good news -- we're not out of the woods just yet. But we're off to a mighty fine start in the wet weather season.

Although I don't personally enjoy this time of year (who enjoys getting pelted with rain?) -- there is one plant in the Bird backyard that can not only "take it" -- it absolutely cries out for more.

You might remember that this was the state of my poor artichoke garden (pictured above) last month when I decided to transplant some new plants from one overcrowded bed to another that wasn't so crowded. How do artichoke plants react when they are dug up and planted somewhere else? They flop down like they're dead.

One Month Old Artichoke Transplants
But they're not -- not really. This is the same bed about five weeks later. All of those plants that had FLOPPED have suddenly sprung back to life and are soaking up this cold and rainy weather. Artichokes do best in coastal weather conditions -- and we've had a lot of that in Northern California during the past couple of weeks -- with a lot more yet to come.

By this spring? It will be Artichoke City in the Backyard of Bird. And there is nothing quite like the nutty flavor of home-grown artichokes.

But -- don't worry -- all of those artichokes will find a good home. The phone just rang while I was typing this blog posting.

My days of "House Boy" for the Wife that is Venus are coming to an end. Unemployment is over. As of next week? It's back to the daily grind.

I hope the new boss likes home-grown artichokes and other home-grown goodies from our backyard. She has most certainly earned them.

It's Great Straight! (Or -- With Vodka)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fresh Squeezed Pomegranate Lemonade
Ah yes -- time for another glass of Juice from the Gods...

Our newest -- and most favorite mixer I might add -- comes straight out of our own backyard -- with an assist from from Roseville Gardener/Blogger Greg Damitz. After all -- it was his generous donations of lemons -- combined with our own modest production -- that make the magic happen.

That magic is located to your immediate right. It's a half gallon of lip-smacking Pomegranate Lemonade -- and let me tell you -- this is one FINE combined taste.

Bird Pomegranate Tree
But it does require a bit of work -- careful work at that. Let us not forget that pomegranates can be messy -- and we don't want any fresh stains in the kitchen of the wife that is Venus.

I've been reading up a bit on squeezing fresh juice out of pomegranates -- and much to my chagrin -- it appears that a normal juicer does too much of a good job. The idea is to get the juice out of the pomegranate seeds only - not the pith that surrounds them -- as that can be quite bitter.

Unfortunately -- the normal juicer not only gets the juice out of the seeds -- it also squeezes some of that bitter tasting juice out the pith.

Not a good thing.

Simple Juicer
The reccommended product then? A simple juicer like the one you see to your right. There are fancier varieties of course -- which carry a price tag far higher than the simple juicer than the one I used. But -- the bottom line is this: It doesn't matter which juicer is used. It still results in a bit of a mess if you're not careful.

You'd like for those streams of pomegranate juice to head straight down. But -- sometimes -- that doesn't always happen. And there's nothing quite like taking a squirt of pomegranate juice in the eyeball!

I learned -- through experience I might add -- by breaking the pomegranate into seven or eight chunks -- and placing the seed side down with the rind facing up -- you experience far less in the way of "mistakes."

This is the third year of production from the Sweet or Wonderful Pomegranate variety we have planted in the side yard (we're not really quite sure which variety we have). Last year our small tree churned out about 25 pieces of fruit. This year it was closer to 100. I wonder what next year will bring?

Pomegranate overload anyone?

The process of making Pomegranate Lemonade is fairly simple. Once you've finished squeezing the juice out of three pomegranates (and hopefully getting most of that juice into a bowl) -- your strain the finished product into a half -gallon container. I then fill said container with enough freshly squeezed Meyer Lemon juice to just below the one-quart mark.

Combine one cup of sugar (or less depending upon your likes) with the juice mixture -- stir vigorously for about two minutes -- and allow the mixture to sit until the sugar is fully disolved. At that point? Add enough water to make a half gallon (two quarts) of juice.

Improved Meyer Lemons
The next step is the absolute most difficult. Ignore the temptation to drink a half gallon of Pomegranate Lemonade on the spot -- and stick that wonderful concotion into your refrigerator.

It really best to serve it chilled -- if you can ignore the temptation...

Christmas Punch anyone???

Merry Christmas to ME!!! Merry Christmas to ME!!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Bird Casa
Everyone knows that the best Christmas gifts in the whole wide world are those that you buy for yourself.

That's a Bill Bird rule. I just made it up. Live with it.

I always overdo it at Christmas. That's especially true when it comes to the Christmas light display outside. Like Clark Griswold -- my feeling is -- you can never have too many lights. It may take the better part of a Sunday afternoon to set it up and string out miles of extension cords -- but it's a house that Santa Claus cannot possibly ignore come Christmas Eve.

This is also the time of year to look for specific gardening "deals." I've already explained my love for all things citrus in a previous post. Although I've got two Improved Meyer Lemons and a Bearss Lime growing in the Bird Back 40 -- I'm always looking to expand upon my citrus plantings.

When it comes to citrus -- there are deals to be had in the month of December -- if you know where and when to find them.

Dancy Tangerine Tree
I figured this out -- quite by accident - three years ago. That's when I stumbled upon this gorgeous Dancy Tangerine sitting in a neglected aisle of a very wet -- and very empty I might add -- Home Depot garden section. It stood four feet high and was loaded with bright orange tangerines.

The price? $20. I couldn't buy it fast enough. Sure enough -- as I swooped in on what would be the citrus deal of that year -- so did about three other shoppers who attempted to beat me to the punch.

They weren't fast enough on that night three years ago.

Today -- that Dancy Tangerine is planted in one of my wide side yards. It's now about eight feet tall and is once again loaded with about 40-50 bright orange tangerines. They are ripening a tad quicker this year than last -- which means three or four just might be ready for harvest on Christmas Day.

Dancy Tangerines
A Mimosa for the wonderful wife that is Venus on Christmas morning? I think so! And -- perhaps her husband as well.

My point is -- this tree was a steal of a deal. I don't often shop for fruit or citrus trees at Big Box stores like Home Depot or Lowes. Not that I'm a snob or anything like that -- but you tend to get better quality fruit and citrus trees at nurseries like Don Shor's Redwood Barn or even Capital Nursery.

Are they more expensive? Of course! Better quality trees cost a few extra bucks. But they tend to be better quality fruit and citrus trees -- and don't come with the myriad of problems that the "$14.99 Big Box Deal" can bring. Trust me -- I've lost a few of those trees to disease. I've learned my lesson. From now on -- it's nursery stock and nursery stock only.

The one exception to this rule? Citrus. If you know what you're looking for -- you can get a STEAL OF A DEAL. But this is only true if you know where to shop -- what to look for -- and when to buy.

Improved Meyer Lemon
Case in point: the month of December.

I know -- from experience -- that for some odd reason -- the North Natomas Home Depot ALWAYS gets a shipment of citrus trees in from Four Winds Growers -- the premiere supplier of citrus trees to Northern California. But -- much of that stock that you find at your local Big Box store isn't worth a second look.

In other words -- it just isn't worth it. Many of them are dwarf varieties. Nothing against dwarf fruit or citrus trees mind you -- but I've come to discover that small trees = small harvests. If you do happen to find a full-size tree -- it's often priced to the point where it's better to shop for your desires at a local nursery.

Owari Satsuma Mandarin
But if you arrive at just the right time -- right after the truck has been unloaded -- you're going to find a little gem like this one to your right. That -- Ladies and Germs -- is a citrus tree that I've been trying to get into my backyard for the past two years. It's an Owari Satsuma Mandarin -- the absolute best tasting mandarin you can find anywhere on the planet. But -- I'm not alone in this opinion.

Farmer Fred Hoffman -- of KFBK Garden Show fame on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK and Get Growing on Talk 650 KSTE -- has proclaimed the Owari Satsuma as one of his personal favorites. I've been looking for the right kind of tree for a very long time now. But everything I've found just wasn't what I was looking for -- or it presented too much of a hit on ye olde wallet.

Wet North Natomas Home Depot
Until now. I spotted it yesterday during a heavy downpour in the very back of the North Natomas Home Depot. It had just been delivered the previous day. It just stood out from the rest. It was a thing of beauty. And it's now in my backyard. As I wheeled it inside (dripping wet I might add) -- many a customer asked where I'd found it. Sure enough -- despite the heavy rain falling outside -- many of them beat a path to where I had just been.

Of course -- I failed to tell them that this was the best looking tree of the lot by a MILE.

It is six feet tall. It has been meticulously pruned and cared for. This will eventually grow into a full size mandarin citrus tree that can grow to a height of 20 feet or more and will yield hundreds of tasty Satsuma Mandarins once it reaches full maturity.

Purchased at a local nursery -- a tree like this would run anywhere from $100-$125.

I didn't even come close to paying half that amount.

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Merry Freaking Christmas to ME! 

Winter Means It's Time to Say Goodbye

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Charlie Brown Christmas
This is probably my least favorite time of the year. Despite the holiday madness -- Thanksgiving turkey with far too much stuffing (not to speak of the butter) and the task of setting up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree -- it's also a melancholy time for me.

I'm a gardener. I like to see things grow and nourish. And you just don't get much of that during the months of December, January and February. Oh -- sure -- the break does give you some time to start thinking about next year's garden. But it's a wait that is far too long for me.

Perhaps we need a new law? Perish the thought!

The wonderful wife that is Venus and I always wait far too long to tear out the summer garden. Here it is -- December 4th -- and I'm not too proud to admit that we still have a couple of dead and dying tomato plants that I still haven't stuffed into the Green Waste can yet (hey -- it can only hold so much).

Heirloom Tomato Plant Monsters
It wasn't the greatest year in terms of tomatoes -- for anyone that I know of. It started poorly with sickly starter plants in the spring -- we never did get the Sacramento summer heat needed to produce a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes and then ended a lot quicker than I imagined with a couple of frozen nights in early November.

Heirloom Tomato Season: Exit Stage Left!

Don't be fooled by the extra large heirloom tomato plant crop to your left. It may look big -- but this was one disappointing year. This one bed produced one tomato blunder after another -- ranging from poor production to a nasty run of Blossom End Rot (BER). Nearly every German Orange Strawberry that came off the vine this year was stricken with BER.

Yet -- the Black tomato to the left -- Evil Seed -- and the Brandywine planted to the right suffered no such BER problem. They were not overwhelmingly productive -- no tomato plant was this year with the exception of the Reliable Reds -- but why just one plant would suffer from BER problems while others planted a foot away did not continues to vex me.

There are no answers here -- just questions.

So -- the goal this one fine, fall day was to move these plants into that Green Waste can pictured to the immediate right of the tomato jungle. This was easier said than done. A gallon of water cannot contain five quarts. It can hold four. And I had far more plant material than space. And this was just one of THREE beds that had reached the "end of the life cycle."

You can see why we're still tearing out portions of the summer garden.

I'm certainly not going to repeat the same mistake I made three years ago -- when I was told by a certain, high-ranking, Sacramento City employee that I could order a "special pickup" from a Green Waste Truck. I thought that was a wonderful idea -- so I spent an entire weekend day piling up my entire summer garden in the street.

Imagine my "chagrin," when I called for a "special pickup" and was informed on the other end of the line that these "pickups" were limited to three to four times per year. "So, when's the next pickup," I asked. "We'll be there in six months," the cheery voice on the other end of the phone replied.

Great...My neighbors were just THRILLED with that pile of garden waste that slowly vanished over the course of six to eight weeks. As soon as that Green Waste truck emptied my Green Waste can -- I packed it full again.

My method of removing tomato plants is fairly simple. I attack the outer edges with a long-handled pair of garden shears (which are also used for cutting back roses). Once the growth around the PVC cages has been cut away -- I employ the "tug and rip" method -- which removes the vines from inside most of the cage (you'd be surprised how far these vines can travel). At that point -- I remove the cage from around the still-visible base of the plant -- toss it aiside -- and dig up the root system with a well-used shovel.

Rip, Tug, Shred!
Removing the eight plants from this bed -- plus the numerous volunteers that sprung up around it (they kept the Vole population well fed) -- took about four hours.

Getting all of those tomato plants out of the backyard and into a Sacramento City Green Waste truck is a process that may last well into 2011.

So -- why go through all this trouble and effort? I thought you would have figured it out by now.

It's because we're gardeners. Which means -- we're quite insane...

No Thyme Left for Youuuuu....

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"On My Way to Better Things...
I Found Myself Some Wings!
Distant Roads Are Calling Me..."

Please forgive the blatant pun if you will. It's the Thanksgiving Holiday. The trytophan-laced turkey still hasn't quite worn off yet. It is nice to see though -- that the "old guys" can still get the job done. And heck -- if anything -- they sound a lot better today than they did 40-something years ago...

Add “The Guess Who” to the “I’ve got to see these guys in concert” list – one of many I’d like to see (I did finally get to see Fleetwood Mac a few summers ago at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre).

I put this song up because the tune kept playing and playing through my head while I was out hunting for fresh thyme and other herbs for our always popular – and always in demand – Best Way Brined Turkey. It’s fast become a Thanksgiving tradition – and always draws a big crowd to our North Natomas home for the holiday.

Fresh herbs turkey base
In fact – as I write this – the wonderful wife that is Venus is busy boiling what remains of the carcass to be used as stock for traditional soups like turkey noodle soup and the non-traditional dishes such as “Turkey Pho.”

I’m really looking forward to that one.

The smell of fresh thyme still fills the household from the brining session we undertook earlier in the week – and the fresh herbs that Venus has put into the stock pot pictured above. There’s nothing quite like having a fresh herb garden in the backyard – which we raid with impunity for holiday occasions like this.
Although the recipe that we use for Best Way Brined Turkey calls for only one fresh herb (thyme) – why not more? We had more – a lot more at the moment – thanks to a spurt of Sage growth that took place earlier this fall.

Fresh herbs from the backyard herb garden!
The small rosemary starter plant that Venus came home with earlier this summer – the very same plant that had suffered through the indignity of getting dug up time and again by That Damn Dog – had produced enough fall growth to yield two fat stems for our brining adventure. Add in large handfuls of marjoram, oregano, rau rum, garlic chives and yes – thyme – and you have a brine concoction that comes out looking just a tad green.

Green turkey for the holidays anyone?

There’s a strange satisfaction I get from using fresh herbs for any kitchen creation we concoct – whether it be just for us or a holiday gathering. Perhaps it’s looking at the price that supermarkets get away with charging for what I’m growing in my own backyard? Perhaps it’s looking at said bowl of fresh herbs and realizing that I would have spent a small fortune for the same thing at my local store?

Herbs Ready for Grinding!
Perhaps it’s the cornucopia of tastes and smells that result when grinding up the mixture of home-grown herbs in our food processor? Most herbs grow extremely well in our Sacramento climate and survive in thrive in the hottest of summer sizzlers or the coldest and darkest of winter seasons.

Or – perhaps it’s just that indescribable taste that results from the combination of fresh herbs, and home-grown garlic and onions that combines with salt and sugar and is allowed to marinate and permeate a Thanksgiving turkey for 24-48 hours.

Whatever the answer is – the end result is an oven-baked turkey that tastes nothing like the Uncle or Aunt or whatever family member hosted Thanksgiving “back in the day.” Yes – it’s the same old turkey. Yes – it’s the same old way of cooking said turkey. But the results after brining are dazzling. You can keep the deep-fried turkey for yourself. Brined bird beats the deep-fried game every time.

Plus – it’s a tad healthier.

Best Way Brined Turkey
As for what herbs work best in a brine like this – the answer would be – “what do you have?” Although the recipe in question calls for fresh thyme and bay leaves – we use that and whatever we have growing in the backyard garden. Two years ago? French Sorrel had taken over the herb garden – which made our choice for the dominant herb rather easy. This year? Three different types of fresh sage were ready for plucking.

Nothing beats the backyard herb garden. You can get a lot out of a very small space. All you need is a little determination – and the desire for experimentation.

One Garden Project Leads Too....

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ronald Reagan
Former President Ronald Reagan once remarked that; "Regulations are like spores of a fungus -- they settle anywhere and everywhere and create more spores..."

Now -- despite how you may feel personally about the 40th President of the United States and the 33rd Governor of California (he does tend to elicit the best and worst out of people) -- he could have just as easily been talking about gardening.

Replace the term "regulations" with "gardening projects" and you have a statement that is probably more truthful than Reagan's original quote.

How do I know this? From experience of course!

New Artichoke Bed?
Case in point? The gardening "bed" located to your immediate left. This "bed" is the latest edition to our backyard garden. Constructed from CHEAP Home Depot brand Redwood fenceboard (did I say CHEAP?) -- Venus and I filled this bed with planter mix from Hasties Capitol Sand and Gravel just this past spring (I think the planter mix may have cost more than the box).

What was the new box for? I'm glad you asked. I had intended to move some artichoke plants from the overcrowded artichoke bed to your right -- over into the new box. But there was just one -- small problem.

Overcrowded Artichoke Bed
You really shouldn't attempt to transplant artichoke plants in the spring. I've learned that failure of a project through experience. Nope -- your best bet is to "divide and conquer" in the fall -- after the main artichoke plants have succumbed to the harsh Sacramento Valley summertime heat -- and the root systems are sending up replacements by the dozens.

So -- what to do with the new box then? Venus and I let "the kid" -- nephew Marquitos Stromberg -- plant the new box with a variety of spring seeds ranging from carrots to parsnips and anything and everything in between. Not just any carrots either. Normal carrots are boring. The boy was into those funky carrots called "Atomic Red" and those fancy yellow types named "Solar" or "Sunshine."

The nephew did a better job than I expected. Because when it came time to pull up the nephew's seed starting project -- well -- the wife that is Venus and I encountered one small problem.

Sunshine Yellow Carrots
Call it a monster sized carrot and turnip harvest. When I say monster -- I mean MONSTER. I've never grown carrots THIS LARGE -- nor in this LARGE A NUMBER.

"What am I going to do with this pile of produce now," I wondered. Remember! The original project was to transplant artichokes. Suddenly -- an unforseen gardening project leapt onto Bill Bird's radar screen. Life had given me carrots -- a fair amount of parsnips and some fat turnips hidden in the back.

Lastly -- as I grabbed a whithering basil plant that had clearly reached the end of its season -- a friendly reminder buzzed by my ear. It was a bee. But not just any old bee. It was one of MY BEES -- a bee from the Hello Kitty Hive. And -- as I stared intently as the basil flowers protruding from three fading basil plants -- I spotted another -- and yet another -- and yet one more.

Surprise! You've Got Parsnips!
I suddenly realized that I was about to pull out an important pollen source that bees from my backyard hive were utilizing at the moment. It's the Fall Season folks. Pollen sources are drying up fast. Bees are flying longer distances and in greater numbers in the quest to store up pollen and honey in time for the winter season.

I just couldn't pull those basil plants out -- not now anyway. So -- they stayed -- which created yet ANOTHER garden project for the day.

See what I'm getting at?

The job of transplanting artichokes from one bed to another is actually quite simple. It's almost impossible to kill an artichoke plant. I know because I've tried. They didn't like that one encounter with the lawnmower (a mistake) -- nor did they appreciate a spray-bath of Roundup (another mistake).

Divide and Conquer!
Oh -- sure -- they'll look unhappy at first. But they always seem to bounce back. The scientist who predicted that only cockroaches would survive a nuclear holocaust obviously never had an artichoke plant in the backyard. These things are rather indestructable.

Another tidbit that I've discovered through the years is that artichokes LOVE room. The more you give them -- the bigger they will get -- which leads to larger and more tastier harvests. Many people have asked me how much room an artichoke plant needs and my response has always been; "how much room do you have?" Because an artichoke will fill up that space rather quickly and rampage into other areas where you may not want them.

Clean Bed Ready for Winter!
The best way to remove an artichoke is to remove a portion of the root system that the plant protruding above the ground is attached too. This is easier said than done -- and can require a bit of tugging and maybe a stick of dynamite or two before you hear that satisfying CRACK!

From that point -- you simply move that chunk of root system and plant over to the new bed -- dig an appropriate-sized hole and plant. Make sure the root system is buried under an inch or two of soil -- with the plant still above ground.

How will you know if you've taken the right steps? Trust me -- the plant will let you know. For -- if you return the next morning and find your transplants DEAD and FLATTENED just like this -- you've done the right job.

Unhappy Artichoke Transplants
Seriously! Those plants that had been so full of life and vigor the previous day will droop to the ground and fall over flat. They'll give you that accusing "Why Did You Move Me" look -- and will let you know they were much happier where they had been before.

Don't despair kids! It only looks like you've killed it. In time? New sprouts will begin to emerge from the center of the plant. By this December? I'll have artichoke plants loving our cool Sacramento winter weather. And by next spring? Hopefully -- a record artichoke harvest from not just one bed -- but two.

Two is twice as nice!

Gimme the #4 -- With Some Extra Rooster's Beak Please!!!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fresh Pico De Gallo
Today's entry children? Fun With Translations!!!

That lip-smacking entry to your immediate right is the result of what we've been pulling out of the garden lately. Yes -- we always wait until it's far too late to pull out the last of the tomato and pepper plants -- which means we wear four layers of clothing to do the job because it's the DEAD of WINTER.

But there are some advantages to this little game of ours -- as evidenced by the garden fresh bowl of Pico (Peek-Oh) De (Day) Gallo (Guy-Yo). What is Pico De Gallo? Good question. Also known as "Salsa Fresca," this is a close cousin to the normal canned salsas you will find on your supermarket shelf -- except it's fresh and made with fresh ingredients.

Tomatoes & Jalapeno Peppers from the garden
The best Pico De Gallo -- by the way - comes straight from what you can whip up from the old backyard garden. Our Pico De Gallo contains fresh tomatoes, cilantro, rau rum (Vietnamese Corriander), green onions, chopped yellow onion, garlic chives and most importantly: a sliced, diced and very-well chopped up Jalapeno pepper. Finish the dish off with a sprinkling of salt and some freshly squeezed lime juice -- and VOILA!!! You have fresh condiment that spices up just about any meal or snack.

Venus and I have been making this dish quite a bit recently in response to three Jalapeno pepper plants that are still producing during this cold and wet fall weather plus a hidden tomato or two plucked from the still producing -- but slowly dying -- backyard tomato garden.

Rau Rum (Vietnamese Corriander)
While creating this dish the other night for a meal of Chicken Fajitas (also utilizing bell peppers and onions from the backyard garden) -- the wonderful wife that is Venus casually mentioned: "do you know what Pico De Gallo means?"

I thought for a minute. Fresh tomato salsa maybe? That was a stab in the dark. I really didn't know. The bi-lingual wife had stumped me again. I had no idea.

"It means Rooster's Beak," she said.

"It does not," I retorted! I had a hard time believing that --and for good reason. The lovely wife may be lovely indeed -- but she also loves to tease. She did -- after all -- tell me once that the word "Menso" meant "helpful."

Pico De Gallo & Radishes for Dinner!
I thought she was just calling me "helpful" for all of these years...

Still not trusting the wife -- I hopped on the computer to check the always handy and always dandy Google Translator. Sure enough! The wife wasn't telling me another story. Pico De Gallo translates directly to "Rooster's Beak." Why? I don't know!

I only know that this Rooster's Beak is some good stuff! It's even better when you can pull everything you need for this signature dish straight from the backyard garden. I've come to discover that the key ingredient for this dish is the pepper that gives it its signature kick: The Jalapeno pepper.

Venus and I have grown a wide variety of hot peppers through the years -- ranging from the mighty Habanero to the Thai Red peppers. They have either been far too hot for our needs -- or haven't delivered enough of a kick to keep us coming back for more.

Rooster's Beak? Really?
But the used and abused Jalapeno? It's perfect for just about any signature dish. Scads of them have found their way into our canned salsa creations and Venus wound up canning a few jars of peppers with carrots utlizing a recipe that came straight from the trusted Ball Book of Home Preserving.

Fresh or canned -- nothing beats the Jalapeno pepper. It has found its way into numerous dishes. A bowl of Vietnamese Chicken Pho -- for example -- isn't complete without four five slices of Jalapeno. And -- if you find yourself ordering any Subway Sandwich with "everything," you'll find a few slices there was well. It delivers just the right bite -- without burning your lips off.

That's a plus!

Our recipe for fresh Rooster's Beak -- ahem -- Pico De Gallo (it just sounds so much better that way) is printed below.

Bill & Venus' Fresh Rooster's Beak:

2-3 tomatoes
1/2 yellow or red onion
1 green onion
Garlic Chives (if you have them)
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or rau rum
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 Jalapeno Pepper
Juice of 1 lime (or lime juice)
Salt to taste


You can use a food processor for some of the chopping -- but the tomatoes must be cut with a knife. I use an ordinary bread knife for this job because the serrated edge allows you to cut the tomato into thick slices without bruising. I use a "three slice" method when chopping tomatoes for Pico De Gallo. I first cut normal slices -- similar to what you might place on a hamburger. I stack these slices and slice carefully again -- then rotate for a third slice. This will produce small, bite sized pieces of tomato without bruising.

I will also defer to a food processor for the onion -- garlic, cilantro and Jalapeno pepper (because I'm lazy). You want the onion chopped into small pieces -- but not mutilated (which a food processor can do). I also use the processor to cut the garlic, cilantro and jalapeno into small bits. Cut the top off the pepper before processing -- but don't get rid of the seeds. It adds to the KICK!

Venus uses a pair of kitchen shears to cut the green onion and chives directly into the bowl holding the Pico De Gallo creation. If shears aren't available? A butcher knife will do the job just fine. Again -- the end result should be small, bite-sized pieces.

Every yard in America should have a Bearss Lime Tree. This should almost be a law. This dish is SO MUCH BETTER with the juice of one fresh lime. But -- if you can't get fresh -- ordinary lime juice will do. 2-3 tablespoons will do the trick.

Sprinkle your creation with salt and do a final taste test. It might be a tad too hot to start out with -- but give the mixture five to ten minutes to incorporate the myriad of flavors. It will cool down nicely.

Trust me on this. Remember, I'm "helpful." The wife says it is so.

The Glow That Will Not Fade

Monday, November 8, 2010

Venus at San Francisco City Hall
"Let's do this," she said.

"Are you kidding," I thought. "Do you know how many things can go wrong? Do you realize how many people are going to this? Do you understand how early we'll have to get up for this? The kind of traffic we'll have to fight through? Do you understand?"

"I don't care," she responded. "Let's do this."

This -- in a snapshot -- of why I so deeply love the dear wife that is Venus. Because only she can make me do things that I would not ordinarily do. Bill Bird doesn't take a lot of chances. He normally does not "jump without thinking."

That's what Venus is for I suppose.

Giants Win the World Series
The day was Election Day, Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010. I was walking precincts in my hometown of Modesto, CA for State Senate Candidate Anthony Cannella -- and also doing my level-best to fight off a world class headache caused by drinking far too much celebratory champagne the night before following an improbable and joyous San Francisco Giants WIN in Game Five of the World Series.

I kept repeating it to myself the next day: "We did it. We are World Series Champions." I kept repeating that line as I walked through neighborhoods where I had grown up as a child -- where I had listened to play-by-play radio greats like Lon Simmons, Joe Angel, Lindsey Nelson and Hank Greenwald on KNBR describe how Johnny "Disaster" LeMaster booted yet another ground ball.

No matter how many home runs would spring from the bat of "Stretch" McCovey or Jack Clark -- it would never be enough to account for the creampuffs that John "The Count" Montefusco or Jim Barr would lay over the plate in response. The Giants were lovable losers in the 1970's. And I loved each and every one of them.

It did not matter that my older brother -- who laughed with glee when Atlee Hammaker gave up the first and only GRAND SLAM in the 1983 All Star Game -- and tagged him with the cruel nickname of "Atlee Grand Slammaker." I still loved them. Each and very one.

And so -- while basking in the glow of an improbably World Series win in five short games -- came the email from Venus: "Giants are holding a victory parade in downtown San Francisco tomorrow! Let's go!"

There were so many things wrong with this idea -- I can't even begin to tell you. How would we get there? How many people would wind up attending? Could we even get into The City by The Bay?

"Are you sure," I texted back? "How will we get there?" Her response? "Plane, train or automobile, it doesn't matter. We've got to be there."

Slowly -- on the ride back to Sacramento from Modesto -- I warmed to the idea. I informed my immediate boss of the "wife's plans." He encouraged me to go.

And so -- at 7:00 AM the next morning -- Venus and I found ourselves boarding the Capitol Corridor train from Sacramento to Richmond. From there -- we would catch the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) line into the City.

Or that was the plan at least. And what a plan it was. I could not have worked out any better. Because -- on the day after walking precincts in Modesto -- I found myself pressed into a crowd of hundreds upon thousands of delirious San Francisco Giants fans in front of San Francisco City Hall for a Victory Parade and Salute that I will never forget.

Best Giants T-Shirt EVER!
We ran into this lady on the BART trip on the way into The City. This was -- by far -- the most imaginative Giants t-shirt I came across that day. The lady in question (we didn't get her name) didn't have any Giants merchandise. So -- instead -- she did the next best thing. She took an orange shirt that contained the words "Everything is Bigger in Texas," and scrawled the words San Francisco in black pen across the middle.

Seriously? Could anyone say it any better than that?

Packed like sardines on BART
Venus and I were packed into that BART line like sardines by the time our train finally arrived at the Civic Center -- a stone's throw from City Hall. We emerged into a world of orange and black. The streets were closed for several blocks around us -- and although the streets were packed with Giants fans -- the fun was yet to get underway.

We made it. We made it straight through. Thousands of fans would have trouble accessing BART into The City on this day. Despite a record number of trains dedicated to getting people into downtown San Francisco -- thousands would be disappointed. More than a half million people were able to board trains to this event -- a BART record for one-day ridership.

In Front of San Francisco City Hall
Who knows how many got left behind? For some reason -- we made it while so many others were stuck in stations from Berkeley to Oakland. Some arrived late. Some not at all. There's no telling how many just gave up at the sight of one hopelessly packed train after another.

The first order of business? Taking care of a weak bladder. Fortunately -- the powers that be in San Francisco are used to events like this one. Portable restrooms set up by the hundreds on either side of the streets beckoned. No waiting.

The second order of business? Getting used to that rather OVERWHELMING odor permeating through the streets of downtown San Francisco. Closer Brian Wilson put it best during his presentation after the Victory Parade: "I'm kind of having a mini heart attack. Not sure what it's from, maybe the electricity in the crowd, maybe the smell of Prop 19."

I wasn't smelling heirloom tomatoes -- that's for sure.

Rally Towel Toss!
We knew it was "our day in the sun" when barriers that had been holding the crowd back suddenly opened in front of us and we rushed -- with thousands of others -- toward the main stage. Organizers were tossing Giants Rally Towels into the crowd by the hundreds -- and I was lucky enough to snag one of the first.

Our improbable run of luck continued moments later when someone tossed a pack of six towels into the air and they landed directly into the wife's outstretched hands. She was literally mobbed from that point on -- despite my best efforts to keep the throngs at bay.

One couple = seven towels. We did wind up giving some away to others around us -- but came home with our fair share for the GarageMahal of Sports Memories.

One by one -- our heroes took to the stage of San Francisco City Hall. Manager Bruce Bochy, pitching LEGEND Tim (TIMMAY!) Lincecum, Wilson, Juan Uribe, Andres Torres, Aubrey Huff -- a parade of stars. My legs -- after about four hours of standing in the same spot -- finally started to give out.

Venus stayed behind while I fought my way out of a throng of thousands -- two solid blocks of wall-to-wall people (who did not move out of the way easily). It was a rare hot day in downtown San Francisco -- made even hotter by the masses around me.

Once I could find a place to sit -- and perhaps enjoy a bottle or two of cold water -- all would become right again. I did finally find that spot -- some two blocks away. And although the wife and I were separated by a crowd in the tens of thousands -- we managed to find each other after it was all said and done.

Venus with FOX 40 Photographer Dan Slack
We're former news reporters -- don't you know. When in doubt? Meet at the site of where all the satellite TV trucks are parked. Although we both haven't worked in the media for an untold number of years -- we still have friends who do -- like FOX 40 Photo Journalist Dan Slack.

This is an event that is hard to describe. I almost titled this "Two Gardeners: Our of Their Element." I've never been a part of anything quite like this before. I'm not sure I'll ever see anything like this again in my lifetime.

For -- if this is the only Giants Victory Parade that I will witness in my lifetime -- at least I can say this much.

I was there. The Glow Will Never Fade.