Photogenic and trendy vegetables

I vividly remember the first time I saw a romanesco.  I was working at my first job in the UK, and our office manager had an organic vegetable box delivered to the office on a biweekly basis.  Usually it was filled with the bog standard UK produce, like potatoes, onions, mushrooms and all manner of root vegetables.  But one day, she pulls out this romanesco and says “wow, take a look at this guys!”  I instantly thought of mathematical fractals like those on the cover of the Soup Dragon’s Lovegod album.  I bought that cassette in middle school and it was my favourite for over a year.  Man, that ages me, huh?

Anyhow, so I have since seen this spiralling brassica in grocery stores, but for some crazy reason I have never bought one until now.  Goodness, what a mistake!  Romanesco is gorgeous, both visually and on the palate. If only my picky eight year old would eat vegetables, romanesco could be a standard dinner dish.  I suppose I could blend it up into a soup and he’d never be the wiser!  But looking at it while eating is not an insignificant part of the enjoyment.  Oh well, perhaps in 10 years he’ll eat veggies!  In the meantime, I’ll have to buy it again and take some arty close up photos (but before it’s been sitting in the fridge for a week, getting browned corners!) to put up in the kitchen.  It’s just so amazingly lovely to look at!

AgrettiRomanesco1

Unbeknownst to me, I purchased a rather “sought after” vegetable today.  I had gone into my local produce store (gotta love Italian produce!) to buy some red grapefruit and tomatoes.  But then I saw this grassy looking plant in the refrigerated section.  The grocer saw my perplexed stare and told me that it was agretti, and that I should try it.  He told me to cut off the reddish stems and roots so that only the green bits are left, to wash it really well, and to throw it into boiling water with a bit of oil, salt and lemon juice for 4-5 minutes.  Easy peasy right?  So I added that to my bill.  It was only €1.81 for a fistful bunch.  I didn’t think anything of it until I started making dinner and thought I should google it to see what folks make with it and what exactly it is.  It appears to have made quite a big splash in the UK recently, due to an appearance on MasterChef and in Jamie Oliver’s restaurant.  The media has been taunting readers about not trying it sooner.  British chefs are apparently fighting over it, and agretti seeds have flown off the shelves and are only on sale in the UK for next year!

Like I said, I didn’t know anything about agretti when I bought it. I had to have the grocer write down the name for me because I was sure to forget it by the time I walked home. But now I feel like a hipster who ought to have an iphone, ear much smarter glasses, and perhaps drive a vespa or prius.  OK, so I really don’t feel like that and am perfectly happy with my old non-fruit phone and way out-of-fashion glasses!  But I do laugh at the idea that my rather inexpensive dinner ingredient is some posh foodie menu item.  In a few years agretti be passée, and I’ll like it all the same.

OK, enough waxing on about the pretension of the food… How did the bloody stuff taste??  It didn’t have a strong taste.  “Un gusto delicato” the grocer had told me, and he was right, like he always is about fruit and veg.  I felt it had a flavour reminiscent of a salty celery, but without any of the horrible strings that celery has.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of celery, and I really really dislike the texture of their strings.  So agretti is a great celery alternative for me.  But I suppose the texture isn’t quite as robust to use as a celery substitute, even if you could get your hands on it easily. It was nice though, and I’ll for sure buy and make it again if for nothing else than the ease and speed to prepare and cook it.  My husband was rather more impressed than me (even before I told him that it was in hot demand in the UK) and lapped up nearly the entire pot in no time. Not bad for €1.81!  How much does Jamie Oliver charge for this stuff in his restaurant????

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Seed success in Italy

Finally, I found a place with decent and fresh seeds.

Hallelujah!

semi4

Every Saturday, there is an amazing outdoor market that is set up in the Prato della Valle in Padova.  It’s not the famous fruit market in the city centre, even though it is bigger and does have quite the variety of fruit and vegetable venders.  There are also more shoe and clothes venders than I could ever imagine too.  But at the far end there are the plant venders.  Ohhh, if I were going to stay here in the long-term I could very easily rack up a huge debt buying the lovely citrus trees they are selling at the moment.  From tiny round kumquats to massive and funky hands of Buddha.  There are also the standard lemon and orange trees too.  It makes me want to plant my own little citrus grove, like the one in Riverside California that is home to one of the largest collection of citrus species.  And kids are allowed to just run through the orchard there, enjoying the trees bejeweled with fruits.  As a parent, the occasional windfallen orange may find it’s way into my purse and then mouth… Although strictly forbidden!

I really need to stop dreaming about my California days!  Gees, I’m in gorgeous Italy for goodness sakes!

So, I did fine two venders that sold seeds at Prato della Valle, and one of them had my trendy purple vegetables.  Yeah! So I shall try out growing my own purple tomatoes and carrots.  Antioxidants here I come!

I also seem to be the only person in the world who doesn’t grow my own lettuce, so I finally bought a package of cut and come again greens.  Now, I can’t wait for summer.

Vecchi semi – Old seeds

So, I realise it’s a bit odd that my last posting is about my long-awaited success in the allotment lottery in Edinburgh, and now here I am looking for seeds in Italy.  But a 6-month sabbatical is being spend here in Italy.  I’ll still tend to my allotment though, and hopefully also to a nice terrace garden.  That is if I can find some good Italian seeds…

Semi1

After scouring the Italian internets, looking for seme and only finding sites selling marijuana seeds, I vented my frustration on Twitter. Thankfully some very nice advice lead me to searching for semenze instead, which was much more fruitful.  The only problem is that after gleefully shopping on a few sites for a couple of hours each, I would get to the payment page, only to find that either the billing address is stuck on Italy, or they won’t let you have a different country for delivery and billing.  Doesn’t anyone buy seeds as gifts for friends?  I guess not.  Eventually I found a few websites that were more promising, but it’s always nicer to actually touch the packet and buy it from a person, or so I thought.

Now ordinarily I could walk into my closest supermarket or home improvement shop and find at least one round spinning display of at least 50 vegetable and flower seed packets.  But not in Italy.  Sometimes I can buy a spray painted succulent (yeah, who knew anybody could or would buy such a thing?) or a pot of forced bulbs in the super market, but seeds for something to grow outside are nowhere to be found.  Again, after a Twitter suggestion to try looking outside of the city centre (centro cittá, but pronounced “chen-tro chee-ta” which for some reason I love saying) and spent a good chunk of time of last night searching online for plant stores, agrarian stores, and garden stores. Armed with an address for a promising sounding Centro Verde (Green Centre) today I went out in search of some seeds.

I came to where the Centro Verde ought to be and found this.

It looked sort of “planty” to I walked down the gravel driveway and into the back poly tunnels which had a few people doing something that approximated working.  They all stopped and stared at me, and since there was absolutely no signage to tell me if this was a place of business or private property, I prepared myself for a phrase to say just in case I was walking into someone’s home, or a private non-commercial nursery.

Thankfully they had a cash register and it appears they do sell plants.  So, I say that I’m looking for semi de verdura (vegetable seeds) and am escorted to small store with lots of dog-eared boxes and dusty bottles filling roughly 10% of the tired looking shelves.  In one corner there is a peg-board with lots of empty seed packet hanger bars.  But only about a dozen of the bars have any seed packets hanging from them.  I say I’m looking for carote (actually I had my heart set on heirloom white or purple carrots, but in this place I would settle for standard orange, heirloom or F1).  No semi de carote.  OK, I also wanted to find big leaved Basil, but again I would have settled for basil seeds of any variety.  I stupidly asked for basilica (very large church) but the lady kindly corrected my broken Italian and said basilico (basil) sí. Score, it’s even the basilica-sized basil I wanted!  There is a single packet of basilico, folia di lattuga (lettuce leaved Basil) so I take that packet.  I had hoped for perhaps some interesting yellow or black tomatoes.  But sadly there are no tomato seeds to be seen. I look for bell pepper, again really hoping for the new purple varieties, but not even a standard green one is there.  They only had cauliflower, spinach and kale, but I’m looking for sexy Italian vegetables.

Determined to try at least one other plant, I grab a packet of nasturizio (nasturtiums), turn over the packet in search of a price to make sure that they aren’t horrendously expensive, only to see the expiry dates!  2011 on my basilico and 2012 on the nasturzio packet! The layer of dust I can feel on the packets should have warned me.  Hmmm, the lady tells me that they are €1 each, so that’s €2 in my hands already.  I’m still a bit shocked at the dates, but I walked half an hour to get here and this is the only place I have seen any seeds in my month and half in Italy, so I decide to just buy them and see how I get on. My fingers and toes are crossed that a few of these old seeds will germinate.

Non-toxic aphid control

Two aphids hiding out in my rose bud

Two aphids hiding out in my rose bud

*UPDATE 30 April 2014* Well, I had read that oil can enhance sun damage on leaves, so to only apply at night.  I thought living in cloudy Scotland would preclude me from taking these precautions.  The good news is that the aphids were dead overnight.  The bad news is the oil solution damaged my rose, and heavily applied leaves fell off!  It’s not dead though, so the new growth is pretty aphid-free and with daily finger smashing, I’m keeping the bugs at bay.  So take the recipe and application recipe below with a grain of salt and spot check first before covering a beloved plant!***

After a month of Great Energy Racing, I finally have some more time to work in my garden.  But before I can get stuck into more planting, there are a few pests that need to be dealt with.  Today’s chore was treating my climbing rose that has been taken over by aphids and ants.  My children love to tell me that the mean and naughty ants are farming the aphids, and that the aphids are sucking the juices out of our lovely rose!  I think they have been reminding me for the past month or so as we have watched the aphids multiply ten fold whilst I have been busy with other draught-proofing and boiler tasks.

Two weeks ago, I did my annual ladybird larvae treatment to both the front containers and back garden, so hopefully somewhere there are ladybird pupae in the garden, ready to come out and continue eating my garden pests.  But the front containers are beyond the ladybird stage, and I’m quite sure that those evil ants have done away with my expensive larvae anyhow.

Ants be gone
So today the gloves came off.  I brought down a boiling kettle to flush out the ant nest.  As I type this, I am suddenly flushed with a bit of guilt… but not too much!  Since I couldn’t be bothered to move my pots away from the stair wall and see where the ants are coming from, I’m not at all sure that I even poured it in the best spots…  I also had some leftover polenta, so put a few piles of that out for the ants to take back to their nest.  I am really hoping that these little measures will make an impact.

Aphids be goneNext I turned to the aphids currently curling my rose and beloved flaming parrot tulip leaves.  I hate getting green aphid goo on my fingers, so I took some kitchen towels to wipe clean the tulip leaves and rose leaves as best I could.  The jagged edges of the rose leaves and stems don’t make it easy though, but it certainly cleared several thousand of the wee pests.  My 2-year old then had a field day spraying our plants all over with a solution of one part vegetable oil, two parts water, and a healthy squirt of dish soap.  It seemed a bit cruel to use a kiddie butterfly spray bottle to do this, but that’s the spray bottle we had to hand, so that’s what we used!  I’ll need to go down and reapply tomorrow evening and finger’s crossed it will do the trick so my rose bush can grow well and finally bloom this year!

My 2-year old ate three oranges this morning, so perhaps I’ll cut up the rind and sprinkle that around the base of the most impacted plants to repel the ants a bit further.  Or perhaps I’ll just make candied orange peels instead!  Hmmm, the joys of deciding what to do while waiting around the flat all day for the Worcester-Bosch repair guy to come and fix my BRAND NEW boiler!!  At least it’s under warranty for the next 8 years!

Saving water in the bathroom

I know what you are thinking, water conservation is important, but it’s not energy related.  Wrong!  Guess who one of the biggest consumers of energy is in Scotland (if not THE biggest consumer)??  It’s Scottish Water!  I’m not pointed them out as being energy hogs or anything, but it highlights just how energy intensive it is to treat and pump water so that it is fit for drinking.  So, while many folks do not have domestic water bills (something that this California native finds mind-boggling and horrifying) like we do for electricity and gas, we are using quite a bit of “hidden” energy when we use water.

There are lots of ways you can reduce your water consumption, and here are a few ways to do that in the bathroom.

Baths

  • Take showers instead of baths.  My kids are 2 and 7, and let me tell you it was an amazing revelation when we realised that we could give them quick 3 minute showers instead of 30 minute marathon baths.  Even if your kids are little, try switching to showers at least a few times a week.  You will save lots of time and water to boot!
    We have a specially insulated bathtub, so on those rare luxurious days when one of us takes a soak, we don’t need to constantly add more hot water to enjoy the experience.  They will cost you a bit more, but in my experience these tubs are well worth the investment, as they really do hold the heat of the bath for a long time.  There is also this amazing tilting bathtub that looks like something out of a Lady Gaga video and gives you plenty of options for water usage.  I’ve never seen or used one in person, but I really really want to give it a try!

Eco Thermostatic Shower

Showers

  • Take shorter showers.  I must confess, I do and have always liked to take long showers.  I can still recall my the sound of my mother banging on the bathroom door when I was a teenager, saying “Robin, are you STILL in the shower?  GET OUT!!!”  Showers are relaxing and lovely – that is when you don’t have mothers or children banging on the door telling you to get out.  But they do waste lots of water and energy.  So, I’ve been trying to take shorter showers at least for most of the week.  If you can reduce your time down to 4 or 5 minutes then you’re doing well!
  • Try turning off the water periodically while you are showering to shave, soap-up, or to shampoo.  I got used to this growing up, and I still keep up the trick.  It really does save water and doesn’t wash away all of your shaving foam or soap before you’ve had a chance to properly shave or wash.
  • When you are installing a shower, you might try picking up an eco unit that uses less water or at least has an option for using less water.  We have had one of these for years, and really love it.  It has two energy saving aspects, one side reduces the water flow and has an “eco” click to keep it at low flow, and the other side has a temperature control with a click to keep the temperature a few degrees lower than a full hot blast.
  • The power showers that for some odd reason are common in the UK use quite a bit more water and energy in pumping and heating, so please, please try to avoid these.  Plus they are just odd and significantly reduce the pleasure of a shower in my humble opinion.  For you Americans, they are these noisy boxes attached to shower walls that heat water in the shower instead of using hot water from the boiler of hot water tank and also pump the water to increase the pressure and water stream.  Yeah, I know, they are weird.
  • OK, a potentially controversial one here… Don’t wash your hair daily.  I know some people will say “eeewwww, gross”  but you know my grandmother was a hairdresser and back in the 1950’s women would do to the hairdresser on a weekly basis to get their hair “done.”  And by “done” I mean washed and dried and set into that helmet sort of look that was so popular then.  This daily washing thing is new and invented by shampoo companies.  Even posh hair dressers will tell you to not wash your hair daily if you are going out and want to style it, as it’s easier with a little natural oil in hair.  That’s natural oil and not “grease” like some shampoo adverts will tell you.  Anyway, it’s food for thought.

Dual Flushing Toilet

Toilets

  • Water efficient toilets are standard these days, but if you have an older model without the dual flush (or if you are in the states with only one flush option) then you can either buy a gadget like a hippo to displace water in your tank to reduce the flow of your flush, or you can do something that all Californians know about – gently place a brick or two in the tank to displace some water.  Job done!  Less water with every flush.
  • OK, now if you thought ditching daily hair washing was controversial, then you may not want to read down….  Again this is something that every Californian knows, and given the current drought doing on there, I know a fair few folks who are doing this.
    If it’s yellow, let it mellow.  If it’s brown, flush it down.
    What in the world does that mean you may ask?  Well, it refers to toilet flushing!  Let’s look at the math for a second before you get all up in arms.  The average household of 4  flushes the toilet about 20 times a day or more when they are home.  That’s well over 7,000 flushes a year.  If the toilets are older model toilets with 13L/2.8gallon flushes, that’s about 95,000 litres or 20,500 gallons.  Low flow toilets would be about 44,000 litres or 9,400 gallons.  Now, if one reduces the number of times they flush the toilet to about once a day, then you reduce toilet water usage by a further 80%.  Like I said, when you live through droughts and see your rivers run dry and reservoirs half empty for decades, you learn to do everything you can to reduce water usage.  So, this behaviour is second nature to me, and needless-to-say my household uses a LOT less water than the average UK household. Not that I can quantify it because there’s no metering here, but that’s a whole other blog!  I realise this concept will be very foreign and likely horrifying to folks in the UK who on the whole have more water than they could ever want.  But again, it’s food for thought and perhaps might make you think before hitting that little silver crescent button.

At the sink

  • The one tip that is grilled into every child growing up in the American southwest, is to turn off the sink tap/faucet when you are brushing your teeth.  Does anyone really leave the water running while they do this?  I can’t imagine, but it is still the cornerstone of water conservation education for kids, so apparently some people still do it.  If you are one of these people, then perhaps you should watch this video and take a lesson from 8-year old Aqua.

 

Children’s Energy Blog Takeover

On this UK Mother’s Day (don’t worry you Americans, you still have a few weeks!) my lovely children are writing today’s blog.  I’m just the translator, and the computer is our spelling checker.

Here are the unedited answers from my seven- and two- year-old to my prompting questions.

 

Me: Why should people reduce their energy use?
7-year old:Because it’s better for the planet.  Because if the power stations use too much, they will pollute the Earth.
2-year old: Give them cuddles

 

Me: What do you think is the best way you can reduce your own energy use?
7-year-old: When you want some energy, you can use solar panels or you create your own energy machine.
2-year-old: Nothing!

 

Me: What about the water from our taps, do you know where this comes from?
7-year-old: The sea.
2year-old: No

After a wee conversation about rivers, reservoirs and groundwater, my 7-year-old says: I forgot it doesn’t come from the sea!

 

Me: Do you know how this water gets cleaned up and delivered to our flat so that we can drink, wash and bath in it?  And do we need energy for this to happen?
7-year-old: Yes
2-year-old: Nothing [then shakes her head]

Me: Yes what.
7-year-old: Yes we need energy

 

Me: Will you talk to your friends about energy use and try to get them thinking about how to reduce their carbon footprints?
7-year-old: I don’t know.
2-year-old: Yes, and put our feet in paint – and our fingers

Me: Why don’t you know?
7-year-old: I like playing with my friends more

 

Well, at least they are honest.  Now my children are asking me if they can invite the neighbours up to play, so it’s time to sign off!

Happy Mothering Sunday to you British mothers, and really to all mothers everywhere!  Keep on educating your children!

 

Top tips for saving energy in the kitchen

Aside from heating, most of my energy use occurs in the kitchen.  And there are lots of little things that can help reduce this.  Here are some top tips that I’ve been testing out with happy success.

Hoovering back of refridgerator

Refrigerator

  • Vacuum the dust off the coils behind the fridge to improve efficiency.  I make this an annual spring cleaning activity.
  • Make sure there is a bit of space behind your fridge for air to flow.  It will let the heat of the motor dissipate more easily, saving energy.
  • Keep the fridge door open for as little as possible when getting food out.  I can still hear my mother telling me “Robin, close that refrigerator door until you decide what you want to get out of it!  You’re letting all of the cold air out!”  Mothers always know best!
  • Don’t put piping hot leftovers in the fridge.  I have a cold flat stairwell that I put my cooking pots out on to cool before containerising and freezing or refrigerating.
  • Use the temperature adjuster in your fridge.  If you buy a thermometer, you can make sure that your fridge stays cold enough (at or below 40° F or 4° C) without wasting energy.  You can increase this temperature a bit when you are on vacation to save energy.

Diced, not chopped 

Stove Top and Oven 

  • The phrase a watched pot never boils ought to be changed to an uncovered pot never boils.  Cover, cover, cover!  Food will cook faster, it will spread less water vapour into your home, and you will save a boatload of energy.
  • Chop food into smaller pieces to cook faster.  This is especially easy and fun for me and my children to do with our new Pampered Chef chopper gadget!  LOVE it!
  • Boil water in your kettle instead of pans to save time and energy.
  • Use cooking pans that just fit the food you are cooking.  If they are too big, you are wasting heating/cooking energy.
  • If you are using heavy bottomed pans or an electric hob (that’s a stove for you Americans), then turn off the heat a minute or two before your food is fully cooked.  If you keep the lid on, the latent heat in the pan and hob will continue cooking your food.

Dishwasher

  • Try not to run the dishwasher unless it’s fully loaded.  Again, I can recall my mother telling me this as a teenager, after she reloaded it to fit more plates than I had initially put in.  You were right mom!!!!
  • All dishwashers work a bit differently, but if you look up your model’s specifications from your manufacturer, you can find out which run mode uses the least energy.  My slimline Boch’s “quick” mode actually uses a bit less energy than the “eco” mode, and cleans just as well, so that’s all I ever use.  But most models “should” use less energy on eco modes.
  • When the washing is done, make sure you turn off your dishwasher so it is not left on standby.
  • It seems counter-intuitive, but apparently dishwashers usually use less energy and water than hand-washing.  Lots of caveats on how you wash and which model washer you have.  But the take home message is that if you have a dishwasher, then make sure it’s an efficient one.

Scraps for the compost

General cooking

  • It took a lot of energy to get that broccoli, lettuce, banana and bread from a farmer’s field to your kitchen, so try not to waste it.  Reduce your food waste by making of list of what you need from the grocery store before you shop, composting kitchen scraps and freezing leftovers.
  • Does your kitchen sink have a leaking tap?  Fix it!  Water is treated before it is piped into your house, so wasting water is wasting municipal energy.  That all drives up consumer costs in the long-run and if you have metered water you’ll notice the drop in your bills immediately.

It goes without saying that if you have the top of the line efficient and small appliances, then you’ll be saving energy faster than most.  So next time you are in the market for a new appliances or electronics, make sure to note the energy efficiency rating and compare it to a few of your favourite models.  Even if it’s not your driving factor in appliance choice, try to make it a consideration just as you would price.  Because your operational costs throughout the appliance lifetime may very well exceed the actual purchase price.