Archive for July, 2011

Culvert Troubleshooting

We live on a flat part of an otherwise pretty steep road, and there’s a drainage ditch along our side of the road. Our driveway crosses a culvert that’s aligned with the drainage ditch and allows water to flow under our driveway.

The photo above shows the outlet (downhill side) of the culvert. There are a few problems:

1. The driveway is sinking just a little bit right around the outlet of the culvert.
2. There are cracks in the driveway around the sunken area.
3. It’s hard to see in the photo above, but the culvert looks like it’s partially collapsed.
4. You can’t tell how well the driveway is supported because of all the dirt and wood in front of the culvert.
5. I pulled out a chunk of loose asphalt to the left of the culvert. That’ll need to be fixed!

My big concern was that the culvert wasn’t properly installed. When you put in a culvert, all the fill material around and above it is supposed to be compacted so it won’t settle. I am entirely unconvinced that the previous owner would have done that. If that material is settling, the driveway would sink, damaging the pavement and also collapsing (and eventually destroying) the culvert. There would be no way to fix it without ripping out a section of driveway above the culvert. I really, really, did not want to do that. Since the culvert is still moving water just fine during our winter storms, I knew it wasn’t destroyed, but I decided it was time to figure out what was really going on and tackle any major repairs before any more damage occurs during the next rainy season.

So I started digging. I had to dig out and remove enough stuff to be able see everything. Here are the before and after photos:

That piece of telephone pole wasn’t supporting anything, so I just took it out. You can see where it was used to pour the concrete, but it must have broken away over time. After digging everything out and taking a good look, I realized that things weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. The driveway is well-supported, and the culvert isn’t collapsed at all. The reason it looked like it was collapsed is that it’s about two-thirds full of sediment!

The cracks in the driveway had allowed water to flow under the asphalt and wash away a small amount of the dirt underneath, allowing the driveway to settle a tiny bit, which widened the cracks, which let more water in, and so on. The solution is pretty easy: we’ll just push concrete into the small areas that have washed out, then get the driveway patched and sealed to prevent it from happening again. The existing settling is minor and won’t be a problem.

The bigger problem is the sediment in the culvert, and I think I know why it’s happening. The drainage ditch wasn’t graded properly below the outlet, so the water coming out of the culvert wasn’t moving very fast. Slow-moving water can’t carry much sediment, so the sediment dropped out, right in our culvert! To fix that problem, we have to regrade the drainage ditch below the culvert, but that’s a heck of a lot easier than ripping up the driveway! 🙂

Zucchini Madness (How to Use All That Zucchini)

It seems like everyone I know is overrun with zucchini and summer squash right now. Just one plant in the garden seems to produce more than is possible for a single family to to consume. Every year, I try to think of new and different ways to use it all up, and every year I go back to the same old recipes I know and love. I like zucchini. I don’t want to cover up the flavor, I want to enjoy it! And I’m a lazy cook. I’ve tried my share of complicated recipes, and I generally find that they aren’t worth the time and effort. So, without further ado, here’s an exhaustive look at what we do with all that zucchini: tips, easy zucchini recipes, and how to freeze zucchini to use it later.

Picking Zucchini
Zucchini (and other summer squash) needs to be picked when it’s small and tender. Six to eight inches long is ideal. And make sure to check your plants daily and pick everything that’s ripe. Really get under and around the whole plant – those suckers like to hide, and they get huge before you know it.

You’re going to miss some. Go ahead and shred anything 8-12 inches long to use in baking (more on that later), but compost or trash anything larger. The ruler on the left in the photo below is a foot long…the big zuke on the left is a goner, but everything else can still be used.

Grilling Zucchini
My favorite way of preparing zucchini is to grill it on the barbeque. It’s so easy, so delicious, and it actually looks and tastes really gourmet. Here’s my method for grilling zucchini:

1. Cut your zucchini or summer squash lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Don’t cut them too thin, or they will fall apart when they cook.
2. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Grill over medium heat until you have nice grill marks. I do 45 degree angles on both sides, and spear them with a fork to move/flip.
4. Don’t freak out if they’re good and brown but still not tender! Just put them in a covered dish and let them steam…they will finish cooking.
5. If you’re feeling extra-fancy, drizzle with balsamic vinegar and toss on some fresh basil. Heaven.

Using Raw Zucchini (Pasta Salad Recipe)
You can absolutely eat zucchini raw. It’s mild and has a soft-but-crunchy texture. You can put it in any kind of salad, or eat it as a crudité, but my favorite way to use it raw is in pasta salad. I’m usually not very brand-conscious, but this recipe is very all-American and brand-loyal. The dressing is key, and it just doesn’t taste the same to me if I don’t use Kraft and Best Foods. Feel free to substitute your favorites at your own risk! Here’s my recipe for pasta salad with zucchini:

8 oz. short pasta (cooked, drained, and rinsed under cold water until cool)
1 zucchini (cut in quarters lengthwise and thinly sliced)
1 red bell pepper (diced)
3 scallions (thinly sliced)
1/2 can medium olives (I leave them whole because John doesn’t like them)
2 slices sharp cheddar (cut in matchsticks)
4 oz. ham (diced if you’re lazy, otherwise matchsticks)
~1/4 c. Best Foods Light Mayo
~1/4 c. Kraft Italian Salad Dressing
black pepper

Mix the dressing: it’s just half mayo, half Italian salad dressing. Mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Add the dressing slowly until you have enough for your taste (I hate too much dressing on my pasta salad). Grind a bunch of black pepper over the top.

Simple, right? And infinitely variable. I didn’t have many of the ingredients on hand last night, but I definitely wasn’t going to make a special trip to the store. I whipped up a batch with what I did have: zucchini, red onion, and sharp cheddar. Delish. I really encourage you to experiment with this recipe.

Sautéing Zucchini (Stove Top Method)
Nowadays, my mom grills zucchini (I love you Mom!), but when I was growing up, we only ate zucchini one way: cooked in tomato sauce. I did not like it. The first time I had it prepared any other way was on a trip to Wisconsin, when a distant relative we were staying with sautéed zucchini with butter and basil. It was so delicious, and the first time I realized zucchini could be good. I still enjoy it cooked this way on the stovetop. Here’s my method for sautéing zucchini:

1. In a pan over medium heat, melt enough butter to coat the bottom of the pan.
2. Slice zucchini crosswise into 3/8-inch-thick rounds.
3. Put the zucchini rounds in a single layer in the hot pan and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried basil or marjoram.
4. Cook them until they start to brown on the first side, flip them, lower the heat, and cook until they’re just soft (don’t overcook). I spear them with a fork to flip them.
5. Put the zukes on a plate and (important!) drizzle the remaining browned butter over them.

Zucchini cooked this way is seriously unbelievably rich and delicious. John and I ate the entire pan I cooked in about two minutes.

Shredding and Freezing Zucchini
The National Center for Home Food Preservation doesn’t recommend canning zucchini or summer squash, so the only way to preserve it at home is to freeze it. But freezing causes the texture of zucchini to deteriorate. My preferred way to deal with this problem is to freeze shredded zucchini and use it later in baking (where the change in texture won’t be noticeable). I like to freeze my zucchini in pre-measured blocks so I only have to defrost what I need for a recipe. Here’s my method for freezing shredded zucchini:

1. Shred the zucchini finely.
2. Put it in a strainer over a bowl.
3. Let it drain until it’s a little wetter than shredded carrots, then stir it to make sure it’s uniformly moist.
4. Put plastic wrap down on a cookie sheet.
5. Measure half-cups of zucchini, roll them into rough balls, and put them on the cookie sheet.
6. Freeze the shredded zucchini balls on the cookie sheet until they’re solid, then toss them in a freezer bag and keep them frozen until you’re ready to defrost and use them.

Baking with Zucchini (Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe)
Last year, my good friend J and her family came for a visit. J brought a batch of zucchini chocolate chip cookies that she baked using her version of Barbara Kingsolver’s recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. They were delicious. J’s a great cook, and she also seems to know how to keep every baked good as fresh as the day she baked it. She told me that she always keeps her zucchini cookies in the freezer. In fact, they taste even better right out of the freezer! I now freeze all my cookies, but that’s a tale for another day. I modified Kingsolver’s recipe to use more zucchini and to omit the honey, which I rarely have on hand. These cookies are soft and cakey, not crisp. Here’s my recipe for zucchini chocolate chip cookies:

1/2 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
2 c. loosely packed zucchini (finely shredded, drained like I discussed above)
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. white flour
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat the butter and the brown sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. From now on, be careful not to over-mix. Mix in the zucchini, then mix in the flours until barely mixed. Mix in the chocolate chips. Use 2T of dough per cookie, and make sure there are chocolate chips in every one. FYI, I use a cookie scooper, and I always bake my cookies on parchment on an air-insulated pan. Bake 15 minutes, or until set. After you take them out of the oven, let the cookies set for a few minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. Once cool, put those puppies in a freezer bag and keep them in the freezer! Makes a little less than 3 dozen.

Note: Okay, I know this could have been, like, six blog posts, but I just don’t work that way. I want all my zucchini madness to be in one (extremely long) post for easy reference. 🙂 I would love to hear how you use and store your abundance of zucchini – the easier, the better. Please share in the comments!

July Garden Update

This has been a strange year for gardening. It’s been a lot cooler than normal, and everything got a late start. We had to replant several things that didn’t make it through the cold May nights, and those plants that did survive seemed to stay the same size for the entire month. Here are some pics of the garden just about a month ago. Fortunately, the plants seem to be doing pretty well now, even if they are about six weeks behind a normal schedule! Here’s the garden this morning (you also get a preview of the new irrigation system!):

The tomatoes and tomatillos are going nuts.

We have pumpkin, zucchini, and yellow squash (straight-neck squash).

Japanese cucumbers.

John’s commodity crops (soybeans and corn).

Most exciting, our peppers are finally looking good this year. The past two years, they just haven’t thrived. I think some extra fertilizer did the trick this year, and the mulch may have helped too.

Anaheim Chili Pepper.

Bell Pepper.

Anyone else having a weird gardening year from this weird weather?

What Were We Thinking? (Before Photos)

Looking through the photos we took five years ago when we were buying our house, all I can think is, “what were we thinking?” If someone else showed me these photos and said they were thinking of buying this house, I would tell them, “don’t walk away, run.” Then John and I would privately discuss how crazy they were to even consider it. It looks like so much work…and it was. Today, I love our house and think we made the right choice to buy it – it’s perfect for us, and we definitely saw its potential (we were so young, naive, and optimistic 🙂 ). But it was UGLY. UG-LY. Hideous. Filthy. Dark, dingy, disgusting. I could go on. Let’s take a look.

Here’s the entry.

Here’s a view from the entry looking the other direction. You can see the dining area to the left and the entry to the living room.

Here’s another view looking straight into the living room. This room is really hard to photograph (and the previous owner kept all the shades drawn and lights off).

The dining area.

The kitchen. Here’s how it looks now.

Upstairs bathroom.

“Built-In” in the den. I feel that needs to be in quotes.

Top of the stairs going down to the bedrooms (our living areas are all on the second floor, as is the entry).

Bottom of the same stairs. Yes, those are (filthy, disgusting, who lives like this??) stains on the stairs.

Downstairs hallway. Here’s the “after”.

Downstairs guest bathroom.

Another “built-in” in the master bath (and John, the most attractive thing in this photo…in any of these photos).

Just so you don’t think we’re completely nuts, here’s one of the main reasons we bought this house…the location.

Redbud in bloom.

Amazing sunset, with Mount Diablo in the distance, barely poking through the haze. See more of our sunset photos here.

Making Muesli

I frequently make homemade granola using a recipe from Lorna Sass’s Complete Vegetarian Kitchen. It’s not a “clustery” granola – the oats stay separate, with a light glaze from the oil and maple syrup in the recipe. When I saw ECAB’s recent post on making homemade muesli, I knew I had to give it a try. Muesli’s a lot lighter than granola (because it doesn’t have any added sugar or fats), but also a lot easier to make. I’ve bought Kellogg’s Mueslix cereal from time to time for years, but it’s always struck me as pretty expensive, and I never really liked the corn flakes. I decided to make my own version of muesli minus the flakes – basically a raw granola.

I just used what I had on hand. Here’s my ad-hoc recipe:

2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon

I dumped everything into a skillet and toasted it on the stove over medium heat (stirring occasionally) until it smelled, um, toasty. I really think that helps bring out the flavors in the oats, nuts, and coconut. Once it was done, I sprinkled it over yogurt, drizzled it with maple syrup, and topped it with a few dried cranberries. It was great!

Now I’m thinking of all the other flavor combinations I can make. Rosemary-pecan-cranberry (like one of my favorite Trader Joe’s treats) or ginger-walnut. I think this is going to be a great way to use up all the random small bags of dried fruits and nuts that end up in my cupboard!

Keeping it Cool…and Cheap

I was excited when PG&E installed a SmartMeter for our house, because I really wanted to see where we were spending our energy dollars. We don’t have gas, so all of our heating and cooling is electric. I was really proud to learn that we’re using less energy than most of the similar homes in our area!

We’re not perfect by any means, but we do a pretty good job of cooling our house in the summer without spending a fortune. We’re lucky to have a swamp cooler, which we inherited from the previous owner. It’s a great way to cool the house for way less than it costs to run air conditioning. But even without a swamp cooler or whole house fan (which we don’t have), there are cheap, easy, and effective ways to keep any house cooler. Here are some of our tips:

1. Don’t add heat to your house. Clothes dryers, dishwashers, and ovens/stoves all add unnecessary heat. There are easy solutions: dry clothes on the line, don’t use the “heated dry” cycle on the dishwasher, and use the barbeque/toaster oven/microwave in lieu of the oven or stove. I also avoid using the iron or blow dryer.

2. Keep the light out. This one pains me, because I love having all the windows open and letting the sun shine in. Unfortunately, sunlight equals heat, and heat is the enemy. We keep the curtains drawn to block direct sunlight, and place shade umbrellas to block windows without curtains or shades.

3. Employ psychological warfare. Part of keeping summertime energy costs down involves adjusting your attitude. No matter how good you are at keeping excess heat and light out, when it hits 100, the house is going to get warm. Using the swamp cooler along with these other techniques, we’re able to keep the temperature in our house about 15-20 degrees cooler than outside without using air conditioning. But it still gets into the low ’80s. We keep our clothing light and loose, run fans to keep the air moving, and make sure to have plenty of cold drinks (mainly ice water, but a cold beer never hurts!). These tactics do help keep us physically cool, but they also help make it feel cooler.

Swamp Cooler. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the importance of our swamp cooler, or evaporative cooler, in keeping our house cool without spending a fortune. They’re nicknamed “swamp” coolers because they add moisture (humidity) to the air, and they are way less effective (and way less comfortable) when it’s already humid outside. But these babies work like a charm when the humidity is low, as it almost always is in our area of Northern California in the summer. A model like ours runs about $300-400, and is mounted outside the house with an opening into the house for the fan. They require power and water. Basically, a swamp cooler is just a water pump and a fan. The water pump wets fibrous mats, and the fan pulls air through those wet mats, cooling it off (and adding humidity). Depending on the outside temperature and humidity, our swamp cooler cools the outside air 15-25 degrees before it enters the house. Aaaah.

Like I said, we’re not perfect. We both like long showers, and we both like to cook, and those two habits are energy hogs when your house is all-electric. But we’re definitely not giving those up! I am trying to get in the habit of shutting off my computer when I’m not using it, and unplugging the TV and related electronics when they aren’t in use (most of the time). Those electronics get hot, and I’m trying to fight the heat!

Lazy: Icebox Iced Tea

I pretty much stopped drinking coffee earlier this year (doesn’t agree with my tum), so I’ve turned to tea to meet my hot/cold caffeinated morning beverage needs. But – brutal honesty – I am lazy when it comes to making my own. I’m always in a rush out of the house, and it is just so easy to pop in and grab a cup of whatever to go. I can manage hot tea, but not in this weather. Now that it’s summer, I’ve fallen in love with iced tea. It’s not hard to make, and I’ve tried a few methods: hot brewed and cooled, hot over ice, and sun tea. Instant iced tea is deeply unsatisfying and not an option. Hot over ice is a total failure, but the other two work just fine if I plan in advance, which I never do (because I’m lazy). And I don’t really like putting hot liquids in the fridge – I always have to juggle stuff around so the hot stuff isn’t near milk or meat or anything like that, and it’s a pain (and a waste of electricity cooling it off).

I’ve finally hit on a method to make iced tea that I’m not too lazy for – Icebox Iced Tea.

It’s dead simple: a quart of cold tap water, two tea bags, stick it in the fridge, and let it brew overnight. I use a wide-mouth quart-sized canning jar, but any covered container would work. Apparently I’m able to overcome my laziness for the 30 seconds it takes to prepare it in advance – after all, that’s way less time than it takes to get takeout! It comes out pretty strong, which I like because I have it over ice with a generous amount of milk. Since 100 tea bags cost me less than $2, I get my fix for less than a nickel. Being lazy is always satisfying, but saving money at the same time is even more so!