Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pasta e faglioli.

You know how, after a bit of a blogging break, it's customary to explain how busy you've been?

Well, actually, I've been spending my evenings watching bad glorious television and eating popcorn* with butter and brewers yeast.

So, yeah, I've been really busy. Eating.**

Tonight I made one of my favorite recipes, and I thought it would be fun to share it here. It's kidney bean and orzo soup with carrots, a variation on pasta e faglioli. This recipe comes from the book Italian Classics. Have I mentioned that we are devoted  followers of the Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen folks in our house? Okay, so their recipes are often a bit involved (as my friend Melissa once joked, "It calls for the sanctified tears of the Mother Mary? Well ... okay ... if America's Test Kitchen says so, sanctified tears it is."), but the results are really reliable and the cooking-nerd-delight factor cannot be beat.

Anyway, this recipe is not that involved. It's actually really easy. I can make it on a weeknight after I get home from work. I love this stuff, and I don't even like kidney beans (don't ask me how it works, but it magically transforms kidney beans into yummy). And while it's pretty healthy, it's not health-foody: Even my carnivore husband and ridiculously picky toddler ask for seconds of this soup/stew.

It can be easily made vegetarian by substituting vegetable broth for chicken broth and skipping the pancetta.

But, um, big shocker: it's really good with chicken broth and pancetta too (and has a higher rate of success with the carnivore husband).

This recipe makes enough for my entire household to have seconds with enough leftover for me to bring to work for two or three days. Those thrifty Italians!

Peasant food.

Kidney Bean and Orzo Soup with Carrots 
(from Italian Classics, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated)

3 tbs olive oil
3 oz pancetta, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
4 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
2 14.5 oz cans of diced tomatoes
1 parmesan cheese rind
2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups chicken broth
1 tsp salt
8 oz orzo
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Ground black pepper
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

- Heat oil in dutch oven or other big pot, add pancetta and saute until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onion and carrots and cook until softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes and scrape any browned bits from the pan. Add the cheese rind and beans. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add chicken stock, 4 cups of water, and salt. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add orzo and cook until tender, 13-15 minutes.
- Off the heat, remove and discard cheese rind. Stir in the parsley and season with pepper and additional salt if needed.
- Ladle into bowls and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and parmesan cheese.

Now please excuse me, I need to go make some popcorn.

* We use a cool, old-school, stove-top contraption to make our popcorn. It's awesome.

** Well, in addition to completely ripping out our backyard, starting a new garden from scratch, chasing an almost three-year-old, holding down a day job, and growing a new life, that is. Back off.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Raised beds.

I'm considering renaming this blog "Inder Works On Her Backyard."

Um, so building raised beds and filling them with soil is a huge amount of work. Who knew? I can feel every muscle in my body right now ... separately. But thank goodness for three day weekends. We were able to order all of the supplies for, and then build and fill three large beds this past weekend.

Here is Steve, trying to figure out how to build raised beds without having a level surface to work on. Luckily, I married a really handy, resourceful guy. (Most of the work was done with the beds up on their sides.)

Building raised beds.
Joe thought the lumber was perfect for pushing trucks on.
Steve and Harpal built the first two boxes, and positioned them, but then we had to dig into the slight incline in our garden to get the beds level.

Empty raised beds and toys.
Beds in place but not level yet.
Then we lined them with plastic, hoping that this would protect the wood for a bit longer and prevent water and dirt from seeping through the cracks.

Plastic to help protect the wood.
Level and lined with plastic.

Then there was a long interval that I have no record of, except the memory currently imprinted in my shoulder muscles. It took ten wheel barrow loads of topsoil to fill each bed. Harpal and Steve filled up the wheel barrow and dumped the dirt, and then I tried to flatten it out (they gave the pregnant girl the comparatively "easy" job). By the end of this, we were all sweating and gasping a bit. We only had to move the topsoil from our driveway (where we got a big delivery of soil) to the backyard, but this was definitely the hardest part of the whole process.

Raised beds.
This is so much harder than it looks.

Public Service Announcement: Do not try to fill raised beds of this size (or even much smaller beds) with bags of soil from the hardware store or garden center. I can't even imagine how many bags of soil it would take and how much that would cost. Each of these beds used about a cubic yard of topsoil. Getting the big delivery was definitely the way to go. And I hear the soil will settle a lot over the first six months or so and require even more soil to really fill it up.

I do love Oakland, even though I did have a narcotics task force in my yard last week.
Tired pregnant lady, squinting.

We're also going to add some boards to the short ends of these boxes to use as little benches to sit on while gardening or watching the kiddos. It's going to be sweet. 

(And yes, I do love Oakland. Most days. Even though the Oakland Narcotics Task Force were swarming all over our yard just last week looking for someone who bolted when they tried to serve a warrant on him. You won't catch me saying "hella," however.)

Building raised beds, 18 weeks and change.
A belly shot where you can't really see my belly. I'm a little more than 18 weeks along now.

We also built and filled another bed in the very back of the garden, but at that point, I was sweating and gasping too much to bother photographing the whole process. I'm sure I'll be sharing photos of all of the beds later.

Back raised bed.
The final bed, in the back of the garden.
So very tired. But pleased too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fence and postage stamp lawn.

We worked incredibly hard this weekend, trying to create some order in the chaos that is currently our back yard. It has been one of those weekends that leaves you begging to go back to work as soon as possible.

Steve "built" a new side fence. It's exactly like our old fence, only newer. We were able to find pre-made fence panels at Home Depot that exactly matched our old ones, and just needed to be fitted into the same holes in the ground.

New side fence

One day, we'd like a more sturdy, more interesting fence, maybe a few feet father back, but this will keep the dogs and Joe from wandering from the back into the front yard, thus making our lives five million percent easier. A cheap, quick fix.

We even kept the gate from the old fence, as you may perceive from the difference in patina. Meh. We believe in doing as little as possible reusing whenever possible. We did seal the fence with something reddish in color, just to make the gate look older and crummier.

We also put down a little bit of sod in the front part of the yard (where our lawn was before - I guess we're pretty predictable). We are not big lawn people (we have no lawn at all in the front yard), but a little bit is nice for the dogs and kiddo.


This, plus some mulch, will hopefully reduce the amount of mud coming back into our house on feet and paws.

Future garden

The sun finally came out this weekend, so we can see that the middle of the back yard gets lots of light (yay!). Right now, our plan is to put beds of flowers, herbs, and some shrubs around the lawn, with a raised bed vegetable garden behind it. While I have never been one to tout raised beds as the answer to all vegetable gardening issues (raised beds require more water than regular in-the-ground planting), I am seeing the benefits of raised beds when you have dogs and children around.

We'd like to do a little play area to the right, which is the shadier (North-facing) side of the garden. In the very back, I am dreaming of a raised bed beneath that wall with berries and fruit and who knows what else.

This still leaves us with a lot of space to fill. It's a bit overwhelming, really. Luckily (?), we have a great little helper.

To tire out your toddler, encourage him to push this cart around the yard repeatedly.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Clean slate.

Here is our backyard as of this morning, stripped bare, minus almost a foot of topsoil.

Backyard, no topsoil
Down to two trees: A loquat tree and a gingko.

Our guys came by this morning with a dump truck full of clean top soil. Amazingly, they were able to back the big truck up our narrow driveway, straight into the back. These guys know how to drive. See how we still have a gate to our side fence, but no fence for it to latch to? Classy, huh?

Backing up our driveway

It's not everyday that you see a truck this size in the back of your house.

Dump truck with topsoil

Dump truck with topsoil

We still haven't decided how we will use all of this space. Honestly, after losing so many trees, I'm not even sure which part gets the most sun! Right now, our first priority is to build a new side fence, to contain the dogs for their routine trips outdoors to do their business. Second priority is to get some mulch and perhaps a bit of turf down to reduce the amount of mud going everywhere, especially back into the house on the paws of dogs. I shudder to think how bad it could get if it ever really starts raining. 

Off to peruse gardening books ...

P.S. Our next door neighbor grew up in his house, and he remembers from childhood hearing some older folks in the neighborhood mentioning that there used to be a barn behind our house before World War II (and the accompanying housing boom that filled up our neighborhood). This provides a possible clue to the lead in the soil, because it's likely that any structure would have been painted with lead paint, and a barn could have been used to store cars, tractors, or car parts (all during the time when leaded gas was the norm). Of course, who would guessed this in a million years? A barn? In downtown Oakland? Yeah, sure, dude. But 120 years is a pretty long time in the history of California. I wish I could have seen my "neighborhood" back then.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


So, we figured out the source of lead: The soil in the backyard. Based on our research, this seemed like a pretty unlikely possibility, just because the back of our house was added on post-1978 (so no external lead paint) and there is a concrete patio separating the end of the house from the beginning of the garden anyway. This, plus the internet telling us that lead paint is by far the most common source of lead exposure, had us convinced that we would find lead inside the house, but not outside. Of course, we still submitted soil samples to a local laboratory for analysis.

Things didn't turn out as we had expected. A lead abatement expert actually said our interior paint is in pretty good condition, and found only a few areas of flaking paint. He suggested another coat of paint on our interior woodwork, but found nothing to cause alarm or suggest obvious lead exposure.

Then our soil tests came back pretty high for lead.

Well, fuck. I guess that pretty much resolves that.

Why is there lead in our soil? Good question! We have no idea. Our property has been occupied for 120 years. While our neighborhood has always been residential, there was a lot of open space between homes until World War II and we don't know how our patch of it was used. As a city, Oakland has always been a factory/industrial town and there are, sadly, plenty of contaminated sites around town.

Really, it could have been anything - an old can of paint left out to rust, a car parked there in the leaded gas days, or leaded gas poured out or leaked on the soil. Basically, your guess is as good as mine. We don't know. No one knows. It just sucks.

There are different ways to deal with lead in the soil, some more radical and invasive than others.

But with Joe's elevated blood levels and my pregnancy, we just wanted to the do the job right: We are removing the top 10 inches of topsoil in our backyard, hauling it away, and replacing it with clean topsoil.

We found some (really great) workers who were experienced with this sort of thing and could do it right away. (One good thing about this economy, it turns out, is that it's really easy to find guys who are excited to work for eleven hours straight to completely overhaul your back yard, with two days notice. I sure hope they're home enjoying a beer right now - or sleeping! - they seriously earned it.)

Yeah, it's totally insane. And not cheap. But I want my child to be able to play in the backyard, push his trucks through the dirt, and not worry about him occasionally putting dirty fingers in his mouth (even after all this, I'm still a believer in the hygiene hypothesis). I want to be able to grow food back there and not worry about eating it. I just want to do the job right and worry less, period. My sanity: it's pretty important to me.

Meanwhile, dear readers, meet Joe's new favorite thing in the universe: The Bobcat.

Backyard soil removal.
After hauling so much dirt out, it's impossible to see where the yard ends and the patio/driveway begins.

Joe had a lot of fun watching the Bobcat go up and down the side yard from our laundry room and living room windows (needless to say, he was not allowed outside during this process; the workers kept the soil wet to reduce dust and we kept the windows and doors shut).

Bobcat driving by window.
Carrying out brush (a.k.a. our garden) from our garden.

By the time these guys finished removing all of the topsoil in the backyard, it was dark, so I don't have a photo of project where it stands now.

In the next few days, we'll be getting our giant delivery of topsoil and starting the job of filling up the hole out there.

The guys also demolished and removed the shed in the back of the garden and removed the tangle of blackberries and prickly pear that used to take up all of the space to the right of the shed, giving us another six feet of garden. 

And we removed all but the two biggest, healthiest, and nicest trees. None of the smaller trees were nice enough to keep or healthy enough to survive the loss of a foot of topsoil and associated root systems. (You'd never believe it from reading this blog, but I actually really like trees! Some of my best friends are trees, really! But yeah, okay, I admit, I didn't shed too many tears over our mangy lot.) We're really starting from scratch here. Two nice healthy trees - it's almost like a normal backyard now instead of a stunted orchard.

I'll say this: It looks huge without the shed. And strange. And empty. If we just filled it up with lawn (a most unlikely decision!), you could play catch out there. It's crazy.

So. Wow. I sure didn't expect to start my spring garden with such a clean slate! I'm trying to look at the bright side: The potential is limitless right now. I've never started a garden from nothing before. It's going to be a ton of work really fun! With quite a bit more sun back there, a few additional feet of garden, and ... er ... nothing whatsoever to plan around, we can really do whatever we want with the area.

When life gives you lead, er, lemons ...

So, uh, Meg, can you come down here and help me with the design? I hear you have a new edible landscape business in the works and all?

(Meg, you should know I'm totally and completely broke now. Yeah, sorry about that.)

Lest you think we're eating only ramen now, however, my brother Harpal cheered me and my pregnant appetite up today with some absolutely scrumptious Sriracha egg salad. If you know my brother at all, you know that Sriracha is his topping of choice, for everything from pizza to macaroni and cheese. Yeah, he puts it on Asian food, but that's so predictable. Sriracha egg salad, on the other hand, is anything but predictable.

Luckily, he took pity on his wimpy sister and used only one tablespoon of Sriracha for this recipe (I actually could have handled a bit more heat, but I appreciated his light touch).

Sriracha egg salad sandwich.
I'm no food photographer, that's for sure.

So we made egg-salad-with-a-bit-of-a-kick sandwiches, sat by the window, and watched the Bobcat drive by.

P.S. My blood test came back completely clean, no lead. And baby is doing great.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Good news.

We've had some bad news in the past couple of weeks: A routine blood test showed that Joe's lead levels are slightly elevated (although still below the level where you'd expect to see any symptoms of lead exposure). We are having our soil and water tested, but the most likely culprit is probably lead paint inside our house, which was built in 1896, after all. So we are soliciting estimates from lead abatement professionals. Needless to say, we do not have huge amounts of money to sink into this project, nor can we pretend that any improvements we do will improve the value of our home (which is so deeply underwater that it is questionable whether anything would improve its value).

However, our child's health is at stake, and we'll do what we have to do.

Basically, this totally blows.

Partly because of this drama, I've been sitting on some really good news for a while now. To the point where it's getting a bit ridiculous and I'm getting a lot of sideways glances and comments like, "Do you have something to tell me, Inder?"

Yup. You guessed right. We are expecting our second baby, due sometime near the end of July!

Baby bump
What they say about "showing" sooner for your second child is all true.

So it's been a rough couple of weeks, but we have a lot to be grateful for and excited about as well. I am at 16 weeks today, and I am "quick with child," to use the old fashioned phrase (translation: I can feel the baby move).

Of course, being pregnant means I am a "sensitive receptor" to any lead dust as well, so Joe and I will both have to vacate the premises during any abatement. Gah. I submitted to my lead test yesterday. Fun times.

Well, I've learned that there's nothing like the prospect of extremely expensive and disruptive home repairs to distract you from the minor discomforts of pregnancy. And there's nothing like feeling a baby move to distract you from the prospect of extremely expensive and disruptive home repairs.

Life can be a little nuts at times, huh?

The other pressing issue of the day: How do you play banjo with a giant baby belly?