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.

Back to the Beginning...

Monday, November 1, 2010

My friends -- I've been gone too long!!!

Do not despair. I did not fall off a cliff (as some of you might have hoped). I did not fall through a Black Hole or Space-Time Loop thingy (so much for sounding smart).

The reason for my absence is that nasty six-word letter that is clearly demonstrated to your immediate right:


This is actually our first home. Our "Beginner's Permit" into the world of gardening and heirloom tomatoes if you will. This is where it all got started. And no -- it didn't always used to look quite this bleak. But -- this is how it looks today. It looks a tad lonely -- doesn't it? In need of a splash of color? Perhaps...

But if I had been relating my gardening experiences five or six years ago -- here is what the same area would have looked like. This is where the first foray into gardening experiments took place. The first heirloom tomatoes planted by Bill & Venus Bird in our postage stamp sized backyard were planted here.

It's here where I learned about a Brave New World called the Brandywine. It's here where I discovered that not all tomatoes are red. Some are green with yellow stripes. You could have knocked me over with a Better Boy starter plant when I learned that tomatoes come in every color of the rainbow and a whole lot more.

The picture to the left is the same area -- taken five or six years ago I believe. Quite a difference in color and attitude -- wouldn't you say? We didn't have a whole lot of room back then. I called our little backyard experiment a "postage-stamp sized backyard" because it was barely enough to contain everything I wanted.

But it wasn't enough. We managed to outgrow it rather quickly. Once I discovered -- and the wonderful wife that is Venus also discovered -- her magic green thumb -- well - it didn't take long before we started drafting plans to move our garden exploits into the front yard. And we would have done that too -- had not fate intervened with a new backyard for the ages.

It's a backyard that is still a "work in progress."

It hasn't received much attention lately either -- but that's another story for another day. The focus today is on the first yard and the first home -- because that's where Venus and I have been buried under gallons of new paint and cleaning supplies.

We never wanted to be landlords. The housing market decided that. We never wanted to open up the house to renters -- because some renters leave behind a royal, bloody mess. Our last renters did just that -- which forced us into action.

There used to be a time when I would encounter people who owned two homes and thought, "oh, you must be rich." HA! What a silly, terrible joke that is. The fact is -- joke is on me. We might have the slips on two pieces of property -- but we are right back where we started at square one: struggling to make ends meet at the end of every month.

Still -- there are renters who do believe that "Bill and Venus must be rich," which might explain the layer of crap they left behind. How two dogs could leave behind a 20-year layer of dog drool on a window after just one year of occupancy is beyond me.

But that was just the start.

The landscaping and drip irrigation that Venus and I had patiently installed through the years had been dug up and chewed on in various places. Every sprinkler that went into every raised bed -- or led to a tree or bush had been chewed up and digested. The only thing left was a scrap of tubing here and a scrap of tubing there. It appears that some attempt had been made to repair the damage -- with duct tape no less (it can fix anything, just ask MaGruder).

Oh -- yes -- lets not forget the mini-geyers that erupted in every corner of the backyard everytime the drip system was turned on. Those open holes can shoot a stream of water 20 feet high or 20 feet wide.

And they did.

But the damage to the backyard was only one part of the story. The previous renters loved nails. At least I think they had a love affair with them. I found them pounded by the dozen into nearly every wall. How many pictures or crap could two people hang in the course of a year? Where did those bullet holes come from? Are those really bullet holes?

I think that -- because of the misguided perception that rental owners are indeed "wealthy people," the previous renters may have mistakingly believed that we could just hire someone to patch and paint every square inch of 1600 square feet of space.

Well -- they're right! The painters are named Bill N' Venus. Nice to meet you two. Our painting experience? Yes -- we painted a beehive in the bright color of "Hello Kitty" pink. Any house painting experience? Us? Really? Uh -- no.

But this is what happens when you deal with perceptions that have no connection to reality.

Now -- I can tell you good people -- that Bill and Venus are indeed "house painters." Not good house painters mind you -- not hardly. It's why this blog hasn't been updated in a solid month.

But I can tell you that we now own the experience of painting an entire house from top to bottom -- from the ceiling to the baseboards. And I can tell you this much:

Kids -- don't do this at home.

Hire it out instead.

Remember -- you're a rental owner. Which means -- you're rich.