Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Triple Digits

That's right - they're here.  Triple digit temperatures.

And, yes.  You are astute to notice. That thermometer is not registering 100, it is showing about 99.5 degrees.  But.   It is hanging in the deep shade.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Eye to the Sky

I at least tried to get some sort of a shot of the recent super/perigee moon.  I'm not set up for night time photography here, plus our view of the night sky is (pleasantly) obscured by tall trees for the most part and (not so pleasantly) by haze this particular evening. Those excuses in place?  Here is what I have to throw out there as record of an amazingly close-up (in appearance) moon the other night.
Our first glimpse as the moon just began to clear the hazy clouds coloring the horizon.
A little later, a bit more height in the night sky, and more detail began to emerge.

Past that?  Our weather forecast has returned to all too familiar territory.  It is nearly July after all, so this is nothing if not seasonable, but still.  Sigh....  The slightly cooler summertime temperatures were sure fun while they lasted.

I push my planting "calendar" well into June with transplants and late seedings-in that I would ordinarily get done in cooler Springtime weather.  Unfortunately for me, in that cooler time of year I'm hiding indoors from the slutty awful oak trees and their attempts to forcibly pollinate my nose.

Now that the triple digits have arrived?  Even stubborn folk like me know better than to do anything other than attempt to provide extra water, occasional shade and potential screening off from hungry deer.

Even the weeds get discouraged in July, or so I pretend because even when I get out before the sun is UP to weed, it is quickly too hot by my standards to do anything other than threaten them verbally.  Which I do quickly and then retreat back into the shade.

Iced coffee anyone?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Self Portrait for the Summer Solstice

For the Longest Day

Love the earth and the sun
and the animals,
despise riches, give alms
to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid
and crazy, devote your
income and labor to others,
hate tyrants, argue not
concerning God.

Walt Whitman

I like to think that at least when it comes to the photography here, I mostly stay out of the way. Granted, I am the only photographer for this blog, but the images come from me, they are not of me.  I feel that is a distinction with a real difference.

Today however, as I was attempting to get just the right angle on the sun as reflected on the pool in back, I inadvertently included my own partial reflection, as represented by two arms holding a camera in front of a face (photo below - lower right).  

This writing here is so much a reflection of who I am I figured it was fine, at least this once, to let my actual reflection be part of the picture.

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone. Thanks for reading (and commenting!) here at Austin Agrodolce. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summertime Fun

At the moment the sabal palm trees out back are in full bloom.

The individual flowers are teeny tiny, but the aggregate pollinator action they are getting is epic.

The fragrance drifts around on the breeze, periodically tapping me on the nose to express exuberance in floral terms.

Later there will be palm "nuts" to bother with, but at the moment, it is delightful to be in the general vicinity of the sabals as they are putting on their big show for the season.

And keeping with the "in bloom" theme, our basil plants are bolting big time.  I discovered I didn't have to aggressively eradicate the flower stalks to keep the basil in leaf production.  As I pondered if there was anything I could do with the blooms I recalled they taste just like the leaves.

Only they are smaller and differently gorgeous.

I decided to stick the florets onto a few bites of cheese.  It turns out they are delectable together!  I realize this could fall into a "pretty fussy preparation" category if taken too far, but I kept it very casual, just chopped off a few sticks of organic cheddar and then literally stuck a few rinsed-off basil blooms right into the top surface.

Combined with some grape tomatoes and a little sea salt?  It barely gets any easier than this.  All that's missing is something icy to sip in between bites.

If you've got basil in bloom (or thyme or rosemary) try rinsing a few blossoms to serve atop small pieces of cheese.  Next time I'll drizzle on a little organic olive oil.  Savory, fresh, and fun  - this is Summer on a plate.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Eating Machines

I shot all the following in the span of about 5 minutes, standing in my driveway.  Some of these whitetail deer are foraging across the street, at least two of them were busy working the landscape in my yard.  All of them were methodically working their way through the neighborhood, heads down, munching away.

Below is a shot of the sort of damage they leave in their wake.  Multiply this by several foraging trips through each day, and you get an idea why folks in this area are so keen on plants that are "deer resistant".   They may be picturesque, but these whitetail deer are ravenous all the time.  The plants they like to eat (and a few the young ones haven't figured out yet aren't so good) don't stand a chance.

They especially enjoy the flower stalks of coral yucca.  This plant has had several stems chomped down to stubs multiple times.  Fortunately it won't kill the plant, it just means we won't get to enjoy any blooms.

I try to co-exist peacefully with all the natives in our area.  When it comes to these voracious deer however, I feel no qualms heading out and noisily driving them off.  I realize they'll be back when I'm not out there to shoo them away but I feel obligated to at least try and keep their damage to a minimum.  

New Tricks

Occasionally I discover that some kitchen technique I've avoided obsessively for years turns out to be ridiculously easy.  Typically I'm retroactively ashamed of myself for not trying it sooner.

Case in point?  (So help me if I sense any sniggering in the back seat I will stop this post and come back there...) Blanching almonds.

Yeah, you read that right.  I would read through a recipe and if it called for blanched almonds?  Buh-bye!  This despite the fact that for years my local chain grocer offered up flats of blanched, slivered almonds, 12 ounces per, that I very happily brought home, toasted up and then sprinkled liberally into salads.

The produce section also offered up whole raw almonds, skin on, that I gleefully shunned.  Why wouldn't I?  They were priced identically ounce for ounce only one format had done all the work for me, except for the toasting.  I'm no chump, why do work I didn't have to?

Over the years the idea that I didn't have to blanch my own almonds developed into the idea that it might be hard to do.  That I didn't have to morphed from "I shouldn't have to" all the way over to "I can't".

Inexplicably, my store began only to offer whole raw skin-on flats of almonds.  What!!??  After furtively picking up a half dozen flats to assure the blanched ones weren't just hiding underneath, I reassembled into a false facade of calm and cas-u-ally rolled back over to the baking goods aisle. Steeling myself, I sussed out the teeny-tiny bags of slivered and sliced blanched almonds.  Whoa, pricey plus!  I love me some toasted almonds all right, but I don't love 'em that much.

The price differential between "all the work done for me" microbags and the "can I do this myself style" of whole almonds hit me right where it hurt, somewhere around the intersection of "Lazy" and "Cheap".

Something, and by that I mean something that was not my affinity for toasted slivered almonds, had to give.

Reluctantly, I trundled back over the to produce section and tossed a flat of the raw skin-on almonds into my cart.  Once home I ran a quick online search for blanching almonds and discovered two techniques predominate the blanching-your-own field.

One route involves a pot of hot boiling water and the other utilizes a soak in water previously brought to a boil in the microwave.  I decided to try both, beginning with the more prevalently cited hot water on the stove technique.

It was fast, easy, and worked laughably well.  After a minute or so on the boil almonds are plunged into cold water to render them handleable temperature wise, past which the almond skins could not slip off any more easily.  Popping the nuts away from the skin was pretty close to fun.

The microwaved boiling water soak did not work nearly as well, even when I threw caution to the winds and let the almonds soak past the warned against endpoint of 60 seconds (almonds can get soggy - not much a worry for me since I'm toasting them in the oven after skinning).

So.  Pot of boiling water technique is the clear winner.  After making a batch I put the almond skins out on the ground underneath a bird feeder in the back where the squirrels and doves snarfed them up almost before I got back into the house.  I let the boiling water cool completely and used it to water container plants.

Can you imagine how smug this made me feel?  Don't even try.  Just as smug as you can possibly imagine, plus some.  Then add some more.  I nearly strained my smug bones I was so pleased with myself.

Here's a recap of the process, extracted from multiple versions easily found online:

The Blanching of the Almonds

1) Bring a medium large pot of water to a rolling boil.

2) Place raw almonds into vigorously boiling water.  (I used 1 1/2 cups of raw almonds per batch -more than that took the water temp down too far).

3) Allow the almonds to boil for one minute (I often let them go over a few seconds but I'm oven toasting them immediately afterwards.  The admonishment not to let them boil over 60 seconds to avoid softening was widespread.  Be ye so warned.)

4) Fish almonds out of the boiling water with a small sieve and place them in an ice water bath.  Let stand in water until cool then remove to drain further in colander.  If making multiple batches place next 1 1/2 cup batch into boiling water to process while the first cools.  Rinse, (don't lather!) repeat.

5) (Now comes the fun part.)  Use your fingers to squeeze the cooled almonds to loosen the nut meat from the skin.  Take care with this - if you squeeze too hard you'll be launching almond projectile missiles into the great wide beyond.

At this point you most certainly would NOT want to get into an almond fight with anybody (unless your floors are a lot cleaner than mine which might be a given, but still).  They FLY, guys.  (Then they skitter and they sliiiide).

Perhaps you'll want to fiddle around with squeezing them from one hand into the other until you develop your own technique that combines top speed with corral-ability.   Time trials might become necessary.  Or races.  Or not.  Do stay focused.  They'll all get skinned, right?  That is why we're doing this.  To skin the danged almonds.

After removing the skins spread the almonds out in a single layer to dry completely.  Ta-daaa!  Now the almonds are blanched and ready to use in any recipe.
Not toasted - Toasted
I toast my blanched almonds in a preheated 350 degree oven for around 15 minutes (shaking the pan vigorously after the first ten minutes).

Now maybe I'm the last grown-up around the interweb to figure out that blanching almonds is quick  and easy-peasy.  Just in case I'm not the very last, just in case you or your cousin, say, ever avoided a recipe that called for blanched almonds because you, I mean your cousin, couldn't find them at the store or couldn't find them reasonably priced?  Avoid no longer, friends and cousins.  The (blanched) almond coast is clear.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Morning Fracas

Early this morning, the only thing louder than the sound of grinding coffee beans was the continual scolding of a band of blue jays, gathered in the branches of a cedar by a back corner of our house over a rain barrel.

My indoor cats assumed the same thing I did - that the jays were heralding the approach of the little feral outdoor tuxedo cat we've been feeding.
We've been playing the long game with this cat, hoping to get it tame enough to take it in to the vet and get it shots and neutering, though since a year has passed without a pregnancy, and we are pretty sure it is a "she", it could be an abandoned cat rather than a completely wild one.  She is simply too hungry too often to currently belong to anybody.

Our cats went with me to the deck door and waited...  The stray failed to show and the jays were still going at it around the corner of our house with nary a pause. I returned to the back window to get a closer look.  Peering up in the predawn half-light, I could tell the jays were definitely concerned with something apparently up at their level, perhaps in the tree itself.  As I shifted to get a better vantage point,  I noted the silhouette of a cardinal mixed in with the jays, intent on, something....

The last time there were two or more types of birds fussing in tandem this way it was to protest the presence of a little fledgling screech owl in one of our loquat trees.
That particular morning it was jays and mockingbirds working together and I noted a pattern to their process which repeated this morning.

The jays leaned in and screamed and jumped around, while the mockingbirds, in the case of the owl, hopped up and down and eventually dive bombed the hapless youngster.

This morning was similar.  The jays made all sorts of racket, but it was the little cardinal who determinedly hopped up on the corner of our house, and made several offensive jumps at the following, which rolled off the roof shortly thereafter, lying stunned on the rock walkway below.
Texas Rat Snake
It was a Texas Rat Snake (Elpahe obsoleta lindheimeri), about two-three feet in length, and even though I'm not a fan of the idea of them falling off rooftops or out of trees so close to my personal self first thing in the morning?  I am a total booster of the idea that their presence serves as a deterrent to the local tree rats. Those rats I am even less fond of, under any and every circumstance.  

After the adrenaline rush abated a bit I realized two things.  First up was that blue jays are very effective in giving the signal that some predator is in the area but they don't seem to do much else other than yell about it.  In both cases I observed in our environs, the jays only made noise while it was other birds who made an actual attempt to fend off the predator in play.  

Maybe that is totally cool with the other birds in question, all part of the deal, but really it did a great deal to reinforce my outsider's impression that the local party of blue jays and certain shouty television journalists have much in common.  

The second thing I realized was that I have come a long way with regards to my reactions to snakes.  In the old days I would have realized the worry for the birds was a relatively harmless to humans rat snake after I'd made a major effort to chop the poor thing's head off.  My original approach was that the only good snake was a smashed dead snake, especially when it came down to anything longer or larger than a number two pencil.  

Now, I know all snakes are not created evil equal.  It is better to take a good deep breath and check out the shape of a snake's head. If it is non-triangular, as this snake's head is,  it is a good guess whatever it is, no matter the size, is not a threat to me as long as I keep my distance and don't try to corner or harass it in any way.

Which is fine with me,  I think I'll just take a page out of the birds' notebook and leave all that harassing up to the jays.    

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Abandoning Strong Priors

In a delightful post recently on the true meaning of "derp", Noah Smith utilizes a little side trip down a Bayesian probability theory lane to illustrate his answer.

In so doing he also illustrated a term that is new (for me): strong priors.  As Smith puts it "What does it mean for a prior to be strong?  It means you really, really believe something to be true.  If you start off with a very strong prior, even solid evidence to the contrary won't change your mind."


There are several strong priors I have spent decades basing behaviors upon and as it turns out?  They simply are not true.

Knowing they are not true should then alter my behaviors to reflect my new knowledge, correct?  I mean, that would be the only rational response.

And yet, and yet.  I often find myself struggling not to allow my previous behaviors to snap back into place simply because my priors were so strong.  In other words, despite what I know to be true, I keep wanting to behave according to what I used to THINK was true, even though I now know better.

Two simple examples?

The first occurs in the realm of some of my most firmly held beliefs - the kitchen.  It concerns the proper manner of loading the dishwasher.

For nearly all my dishwasher loading years I always, ALWAYS loaded cutlery in their handy little baskets with the handles sticking UP.  I'm not sure how that tendency evolved, but I'm guessing now it was my mother's way of protecting our younger hands from fork and knife points as my brother and I loaded and unloaded the dishwasher for her.

At some point her safety precaution morphed from a practical way to avoid injuries in her offspring to written-in-stone type law.  Thou shalt not load the cutlery handles down.  Like that.

So even after my husband carefully read the manual for our dishwasher when it was new, and explained to me the manufacturer was very clear on how the cutlery was supposed to go into the machine?

I argued with him that he must have misunderstood.  He probably misread.  That simply couldn't be the case.

Why?  Because, that's why.  Everybody knows you load the cutlery handles up.  EVERY. Body.

As it turns out, cutlery is supposed to be loaded handles down.  Why?  Simple -  so the messy mouthy eaty parts are exposed to the most possible washing action from the machine.  It makes perfect sense and yet to this day I find myself having to stop and reload bundles of cutlery that I mindlessly just popped into the basket with the handles sticking up.

Do I have any other deeply cherished beliefs that turn out to be wrongheaded?

Oh, do I ever.

Next up for disabuse was the idea that if you water a plant during the day and get even a single drop of water on the leaves? That water drop will act like a magnifying glass and severely sunburn the poor defenseless plant.

All along I resisted watering even the thirstiest droopiest plants until after sundown in order to reduce the risk of splashing water on the foliage.  But I went past that - I taught that particular stricture to my kids and even argued with my husband about it when he sensibly challenged my assertion.  When he said he'd change his during-the-day-going-to-ruin-everything misbegotten watering ways only if I could prove to him that there was any basis in my conviction?  I confidently did some checking around.

Ooops.  Turns out established plants aren't all that easily sunburned (with the possible exception of one just moved into a full sun situation from deep shade) even with the presence of water droplets on the foliage.  Now there may be other reasons not to get water on the leaves of a plant, but they have nothing to do with sunburn.  Period.

It reminds me of the story of a recipe that included instructions to "cut off both ends of the roast before placing into pan".  The recipe was well beloved, handed down in a family for generations and had been faithfully followed for the better part of a century before an inexperienced cook questioned, "why?".

Nobody knew why - they'd been following the recipe and it was always delicious.  The question was finally put to the oldest cook in the group. She explained it was because the originator of the recipe had a very small roasting pan and always had to cut the meat to fit.

Strong priors.  I'm afraid I've only begun to scratch the surface of all the ways I'm slavishly behaving according to deeply held beliefs that have no basis in fact.  I'm the stubborn type for reals but I'm determined now to take a closer look to assure at least some of that stubbornicity claims some basis in fact.

Because, that's why.  

Friday, June 7, 2013


This morning I was enjoying a second cup of coffee while reading a blog post by one of my ongoing favorites, Joan at Debt of Gratitude.  

Entitled "On Balance" Joan writes about the necessity of taking a long view when searching for a sense of balance in life.  

At the end of the post she invites readers to comment with a description of their own season of life as experienced "right this moment".

It all got me to thinking.  I'd be hard put to slap a seasonal label to "right this moment", but her words recalled for me the deep wisdom shared by our family's pediatrician, back when rearing our firstborn had every decision every day seeming to be ALL IMPORTANT.

It was a routine well-child check and I was wearily describing to the doctor what I saw as the futility of offering a balanced diet to a persnickety eater, who had recently begun finding it a calling to eat the world's supply of winter squash to supply crisis stage.  

My kindly pediatrician advised me not to fret about any one day's feedings, but rather to look at each week or potentially even each month as a period overall, "on balance".

Taking the longer view was incredibly helpful.  And no surprise, once I relaxed
about his eating, my young son seemed to do the same.  In fact, now he earns his living as a professional chef and is about the most adventurous eater I know.

I suppose the same could be said about a lot of what I all too often waste my time/energies being fretful about, that taking a longer view would provide a lot of breathing room.  

And, potentially, a lot of peace.

I didn't characterize it this way in the comment I left on Joan's post, but after further thought I suppose I'd say the season I am in at the moment is one of "of breathing in deeply and looking on from afar".