July 30, 2009

Old Dirt

My indoor garden has been through a lot since I last reported on it. Now the outlook is not so rosy - literally. After several boughts of spider mites (one of which spread to my herbs and required a thorough washing-down of all 8 of my plants, not an easy or a pleasant task when one has no outdoor space in which to do it), it was time to say farewell to my miniature rose bush. I just couldn't get her to stay healthy. Everytime I thought I'd rid her of the mites, they would be back attacking her new growth within a week. So, goodbye little rose bush.

My herbs have not fared much better than my rose bush. There is a reason why plants should be grown outdoors! At this point I have fended off fungus gnats three times. When I first noticed that there were little fruit-fly like bugs in our apartment, I thought it was just the price to pay for having live plants and ripening fruit on the countertop in a small apartment during the warm summer months. After some research, however, I discovered what they were: fungus gnats, whose larvae feed off the fungus that develops in the moist soil required for healthy herbs, and who themselves feed on the leaves of the plants. Blah.

Fortunately, throughout this process, Brian and I have still been able to use the plants. The healthy leaves are still fine for cooking -- and we've recently enjoyed basil pesto, mojitos, lemon-thyme chicken, french country salad, and omelets with goat cheese and tarragon, among other things.

After looking on the internet and calling a couple of nurseries in the area, I decided on K+Neem to fight off the gnats. It is an organic pesticide/fungicide that comes from the oil of the neem plant (which is also used in cosmetics and toothpaste in Japan). I cleared off the top layer of soil and soaked the soil and plants in k-neem. For a while, I thought I had beaten the pests, but they were back a couple weeks later. I drained the first bottle of k-neem and when the gnats were back a week later, I went back to the nursery for more advice.

This time, it was recommended that I repot all the plants, getting rid of as much of the old soil as possible, with as little damage to the roots as possible. I offer the following photos for your consideration.

So far, they've survived the shock and are, hopefully, only slightly worse for the wear. Fingers crossed that they are back to their old (healthy) selves very soon!

As I sit and watch my little plants soaking up the bit of sunlight breaking through this cloudy morning, my eyes are quick to pick up the slightest bit of movement in or around the soil or leaves (the cars whizzing by on the street 6 stories below often cause a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach before I realize that they aren't gnats).

In other plant news, we have a lovely white orchid that seems to be doing very well in the apartment.

July 27, 2009

Benvenuto alla Mia Cucina

Until now, I have been using my husband's and my joint "keep-in-touch-with-the-family-and-out-of-town-friends" blog to write about cooking. More and more lately, I have been craving my own space in which to document and share my culinary experiments and discoveries. And so..."Cucina Girl" is born. Just to give myself a bit of a head start, I've imported some of my previous entries from our other blog...

Buon appetito!
July 18, 2009

Dinners for Two

Warm weather often makes me want light, refreshing meals. I love having salads for dinner. I love the endless possibilities for combining different flavors and textures. Brian always wants something more substantial, so we'll do a salad with some sort of protein. We love to make variations of taco salad. Earlier this week, I was in a salad mood, and Brian decided he wanted barbecue chicken topped with bacon and cheddar. I was also really craving green beans. And then I thought: of course. A green bean salad. A French country salad, to be specific. Well this was my take, using the ingredients we had on hand: I like to call it France’s Country Salad. ;)
France’s Country Salad
printable recipe

Serves 2.

6 to 8 oz fresh haricots verts (or regular green beans), washed and trimmed
8 oz baby bella mushrooms, washed and sliced
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
6 strips center-cut bacon, cooked (pan-fried, microwaved, or baked)
8 oz boneless chicken breast, seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled
Tarragon-Dijon Vinaigrette (see below)

Bring a medium pot of water to boil.  Wash and trim green beans.  Blanch beans in boiling water for 1-3 minutes until crisp-tender.  Immediately drain and submerge beans in ice water for about 5 minutes in order to halt cooking.  Drain.

Heat a large pan over medium heat.  Cook bacon, turning halfway through.  Set aside.  Pour bacon drippings into a bowl and wipe pan clean. (Alternatively, you my choose to microwave or bake the bacon.)

Heat a grill pan over medium heat.  Brush chicken with oil and season with salt and pepper.  Grill chicken over medium heat until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes per side, depending on thickness.  Once chicken is cooked, remove to plate and cover with foil.  Allow to rest under foil for about 5 minutes; slice.

While the chicken is cooking, return 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings to sauté pan for onions and mushrooms.  (Or substitute  1 tablespoon olive oil.)  Reheat pan and fat over medium heat.  Add onions and a pinch of salt.  Sauté onions 2-3 minutes.  Add mushrooms and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until mushrooms are tender and any liquid they release is cooked off (about 10-15 minutes).  Season with salt and pepper.

Toss green beans in  half of dressing and divide between two dinner plates.  Top with mushroom-onion mixture,  bacon (cut into 1/2 pieces), and chicken.  Drizzle remaining dressing over each salad.  Serve immediately.

Tarragon-Dijon Vinaigrette
printable recipe

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Whisk together all ingredients to thoroughly combine. 



Once Brian saw what was going into it my salad, he changed his mind about his cheddar-bacon chicken.


It was one of the best meals we’ve had in a while. And it tasted just like the French countryside. :)

Last night, we finally attempted an entire meal from our favorite new cookbook, “The 150 Healthiest Meals on Earth.” (Thanks to Betsy and Milan for introducing it to us last time we were in New York!) Following the author’s suggestion, we paired Cauliflower Cream (an unbelievably effective substitute for mashed potatoes) IMG_5071
with Haricots Verts (served cold with a pomegranate-mint dressing, so yummy and refreshing),
and Persian-Style Chicken – braised with chicken stock, pomegranate juice, almonds, red onions, cinnamon, and molasses! So maybe it was a little Christmas-y for the middle of July, but it was so delicious that we didn’t mind in the least.
We rounded it all off with a glass of Pinot Noir. (Yes, red wine does qualify as one of the “healthiest foods on earth!”)


July 14, 2009

Independence Days

The first week of July proved to be quite a busy one. We had last-minute, but very welcome, house guests over July 4th weekend. I was really happy to get to cook for everyone!

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And I think they were pretty happy to eat.

The cast and crew of King Lear were invited by a couple of STC donors to attend an Independence Day party at the Capitol Yacht Club and on their yacht! There was lots of grilling, great company, and amazing weather!


We had an excellent view of the fireworks from the boat! (Much better than the reflection we caught off the side of a building last year.)

Later in the evening, our very gracious hosts shared some spectacular wine…complete with tasting notes and even some history.

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The Barolo was pretty unbelievable.
Every sip was a unique and wonderful experience.

We also got to try a fabulous whisky (not sold in the US) from “Scotland’s smallest distillery,”Edradour. It had just the right amount of peaty-ness and a smooth, just-sweet-enough-but-not-too-sweet finish. The website describes it as follows:

“Edradour is a unique, single Highland malt whisky… produced in Scotland's smallest distillery - and is hand made today as it was over 150 years ago by just three men who are devoted to the time-honoured methods of whisky making. Indeed equipment used at the distillery has remained unchanged since the day the distillery opened and is only just capable of producing commercial quantities. Only 12 casks of whisky are produced a week, making Edradour single malt a rare pleasure for a fortunate few.”

We certainly felt fortunate to be among those few. :)

July 8, 2009

June in Pictures

We've gotten seriously behind this past month, so here's a brief look at what we did during the month of June:

I attempted homemade gelato--several batches. Pictured below is my first attempt, cantaloupe, which was my least successful. The best batch so far has been chocolate mint, which was super smooth and dense and creamy and the one attempt in which I didn’t precisely follow the recipe. More experimenting and a final verdict to come…

We had pizza:

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…several times.
Brian had to stand guard over the smoke detector each time because the cornmeal from the pizza peel got all over the oven and burned. We've since self-cleaned the oven (it does wonders) and figured out a much better way to get the dough off the peel and onto the stone!