The Texas Garden in February

*This is, I promise, not a thumb in the eye to everyone dealing with something rhyming with “bee molar cortex.”*

Winter in Texas is different. We still have to mow- not because the grass isn’t mostly dormant- it is- but because the weeds aren’t.

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It’s only MOSTLY dormant- which means it’s slightly alive!

So the yard is still green, just don’t look too closely because the lushest thickest greenest parts in winter… are the patchiest St. Augustine grass in summer thanks to all this crab grass that looks so great right now.

And in winter I have to weed more than in summer- like I did last weekend in the driveway bed. Seeds are coming up thanks to all the rain (it’s raining now actually)- thing is I didn’t like, plant many seeds, you dig? Most of the emerging plants and seedlings were weeds and got the ol’ heave ho. But there is returning coreopsis and mexican hat- so I’m happy about those old friends returning again for another year.

There are also about 20 reseeded larkspur, which I am so thankful for- they’re one of my favorites and I’ve been trying to grow them for over 15 years! There are gardens right here in Texas full of larkspurs- I’ve seen with mine own eyes 50′ beds of larkspur… but here all I get are a few small stragglers. I am a gardener on a mission though. So while the larkspur are spotty, there are at least some of them, and more than there were last year. In classic “of course they are” fashion- the seedlings are almost all hugging the far side of the bed next to the neighbor’s house. Do I smell or something, larkspurs? Like, rude.

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The one seedling that is on our side of the bed, so it’s the one that got it’s picture taken. We reward good behavior around here, larkspurs. (Also- groan with all the acorns this year…)

I actually do know what the deal is- larkspur like sandy well drained soils- and I’ve almost always been on clay. I’m working on the tithe, constantly, so maybe one day. One day.

It is obviously winter though- so it’s an odd juxtaposition all around- dormant grass and green lawn weeds. Cut back perennials and blooming annuals. Leafless trees and roses in bud and bloom. Dead leaves and new seedlings.

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Give me violas to pansies, any day

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Love me some cyclamen. I always wait till they’re out of bloom at Lowes and then buy them for $1 instead of $4.99 for a quart sized pot- sheesh that people won’t buy something if it isn’t in active bloom is CRAZY to me. To my benefit on the sales racks though, so I shouldn’t bitch. They always start reblooming within mere weeks of buying them.

I should say the trees are mostly leafless (that means they’re slightly in leaf! I’m gonna overuse that quote I swear to god). While all the reasonable trees on the street are bare, our red oak out front is still shaggy with dead leaves- and will remain like that all the way until the new leaf buds start.

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Get a haircut, hippy!

There are new cultivars of red oaks that not only have better fall color (ours is more purple/maroon/brown than red) but they are also better at self cleaning. We’ll continue to have a slow shed of brown leaves all winter, so will never be without piles of leaves on the ground, but the tree will still look just like this. (If it was oil and not leaves it’d be Hanukkah.)

But even with that annoyance- I love the tree. At our old house the entire neighborhood was  Arizona Ash trees- just the crappiest tree the world has ever known- they shouldn’t even count as real trees! So to have a red oak and a nice pecan to call our own… I’ll take them even with the shaggy winter look.

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Seriously though, Red Oak- you see those OTHER trees? Being GOOD trees? I’ll give you a cookie?

The roses are all blooming and setting buds… which poses it’s own conundrum. Like I mentioned, it is extra warm and wet this winter, so the roses haven’t really gone dormant. And while lovely, the deadline for pruning is coming up quickly. Texas rose pruning deadlines are easy to remember- it’s mid February. Roses. Valentine’s Day. Easy peasy. But I’m just going to have to wait till after blooming this year.

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Look at all those buds on the Belinda’s Dream! And a stealthy cat.

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And the Marie Pavie is in full bloom- such a lovely little thing- one of my favorites. It’s a small shrub rose and doesn’t need any heavy pruning. Was a birthday gift from my husband and replaces the one left at our old house when we moved.

As for the rest of the driveway bed, the snapdragons are coming in nicely. Though they are unfortunately in the same spot as some daffodils I forgot about and with a nicotinia that is coming back. I’d call it the french intensive method of packing plants, but the truth is I just forgot the daffodils were there and the nicotinia was a survivor when I pulled the rest out thinking they were dead. D’oh!

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Dead leaves… is like mulch. Soil nutrients, yes yes, that’s the ticket!

And while, if timed correctly, the blooms of all three of these would be lovely together, the daffodils are sure to go first and then the snapdragons will start just as soon as the daffodil leaves start to yellow- and are sure to look like nose hairs sticking out of the snapdragons. And then twenty bucks while the green or white or maroon nicotinia would look lovely with the all pink snapdragons, I just bet this survivor will be the weird dusty pink that will be the only color that’d look weird with the bubblegum pink snapdragons. I guess time will tell and we shall see, won’t we?

And thanks to a question in the comments for a previous post- a taste test has been done to determine if decorative kale tastes the same as edible kale.

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Stop. Standing. In. Your. Own. Light.

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Decorative kale

The results are in:  all children preferring the decorative kale (who wouldn’t want to eat a Dr. Seus plant, amiright?) My take is that it is very bland, but lacking in bitterness entirely, so has a future as a garnish. Maybe a leaf floating on a cocktail served in a coup glass if I was up for that kinda thing? (the garnish, not the cocktail in the coup glass- I am very much up for that.)

And so it may be February, but here is to more wet weather, warm houses, and the coming spring… good things to come!

Fluff that Fraser Fir!

I spent one memorably cold winter at the garden center I worked at in college selling Christmas trees. And I remember EVERYONE wanted a Noble Fir- GOTTA have a noble even though they were THE most expensive. Why? Because they look great right off the truck.

My favorite are the Fraser Firs though. Silvery underside to the needles and way less expensive too. Much more fragrant than the Noble Firs as well, less needle drop, and way less apt to dry out. But people aren’t huge fans… and you want to know why? Because they look like this right off of the truck and out of the nets.

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Underwhelming

Here’s the secret I learned at that garden center though- you have to gently but firmly fluff Fraser Firs. And by fluff I mean push down on the branches until they are as close to perpendicular to the trunk as they’ll go… only takes about 10-15 minutes.

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See what I mean?

It makes SUCH a difference!

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Fraser Firs… Hella good trees

Happy decorating to all and give those Fraser Firs a chance!

So Long and Thanks for All the Tomatoes

We had our first freeze this past week, and some dry days… so this happened:

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No mas tomates

So the tomatoes are done for- we pulled them out and piled as many as we could in the fire pit. We let them dry out a few days and then torched them this weekend, quasi viking funeral style. The youngest actually toasted marshmallows on a dry tomato stem, improbable as that would have seemed before witnessing it with my own eyes.

When I pulled the plants out there were only two quite unhealthy looking tomato tobacco hornworms left; both were yellowish, a little translucent looking, and hadn’t moved for a day- I think the cold got to them. All the others are gone- so what that means for them I don’t know- all I know is I wasn’t the cause nor means of their destruction, so I’m okay with it. (The unhealthy tobacco hornworms got moved to the leaf litter around a climbing rose. I’m sure they’ll live long, healthy lives.)

I have some parsley, Toscano kale, and a new English thyme plant in the spot where the determinate tomatoes (Bobcat and HM1823) were. I put in three decorative purple kale, another thyme, two roses, and a loropetalum shrub in the side of the bed the cherry tomatoes were in. MUCH too crowded, but I’m using it as a nursery bed to carry the plants through the winter easier than the collection of smaller pots in the pot ghetto at the back of the driveway slab.

As I look at the varieties for a final review: I’d grow Bobcat and HM 1823 again- if I had to pick a favorite I’d go with Bobcat- it cracked less, but taste was the same between them. As for the cherries- I will definitely grow Sungold again, but I might finally be moving on from my Sweet 100s for a red cherry… I’m open for trying a new one next year.  It lagged so far behind Sungold and got a bit leathery and less tasty in the hot weather.

Ah my tomatoes… till next year, buddies.

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What a pain in the ass these things are when not in use though! I can only imagine it’s similar to those big light up deer you then have to store year round aside from Christmas…

Speaking of the first freeze, as I’ve mentioned when discussing our old tub and old windows here – we live in an old house. It is crazy cold in the winter, especially in the front of the house- luckily the bedrooms are okay. And we had only yesterday because of wet weather and it getting dark right after work due to daylight savings (thanks, Ben Franklin- I hate you) to finally get some insulation in under the floor in the living room and front room before it rained again.

It was… not an enjoyable job. And yet, I loved every minute of it? It’s hard to explain but these dig in and be capable moments are some of my favorites. My elbows are killing me from abrasions due to army dragging myself around in the 18″ crawlspace- I probably still have fiberglass in my face (is like microdermabrasion?), and I 100% know I have to go and reinforce it more with more supports so it doesn’t sag- but I have to make the damn supports myself because our house having been built in 1910, the joists aren’t the standard 15″ or 23″ spacing so standard store-bought supports won’t work- the jerks are only 22″ spacing on the main house and 24.5″ spacing `on the front/ dining room. Thanks a damn lot, Ebidiah, kinda a pain in the ass there.

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This is actually from a couple of weeks ago when I got under the house to try to fix a broken hot water line. We didn’t fix it and ended up having to call a plumber on a Saturday- but damn we tried first!

Anyway, my husband and I spent the late morning/early afternoon dragging ourselves around under the house stapling up insulation, it was great. I love doing this kinda stuff with him, its fun- even when the job has your nose in fiberglass and your back on cold clay soil that hasn’t seen the light of day in 108 years. Fingers crossed it’ll make a difference because I can’t STAND not feeling warm! Oh well, you know the thing they say, the one thing they aren’t making more of is old houses!

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Pic from when the paint was getting finished… I should take a new picture but its raining now and this bed is warm and the cat is asleep next to me and this coffee is hot…

 

Of Tomatoes and Bugs

Thanks to the recent rains that scourge of the late summer/ fall Texas garden, the red spider mite, is gone. They killed my tithonia and came THIS close to killing the tomatoes before the prolonged recent rains gave them the ol’ Wicked Witch of the West treatment and they melted away. So, when it finally DID dry out enough to pull out the tomatoes I actually found a halo of healthy leaves coming in… so they got a haircut instead of being executed.

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He’s only MOSTLY dead… which means that he’s SLIGHTLY alive!

From this… to this!

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Better looking than I was expecting, honestly.

I was quite pleased with them… as well as with the perfectly formed baseball sized green fruit on Bobcat that I hadn’t noticed under all those dead leaves. So for all the folks who rip out their determinate tomatoes and replant in the fall may I suggest that next year you try laziness? Worked for me.

But then, of COURSE on the last bit of cleanup on that first tomato plant I found this guy:

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Dang you!

Here’s the thing- I grow plants for caterpillars! I like them! My husband got me a book on pollinators for my birthday one year! The striped ones for swallowtails I literally smile at and call my buddies:

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My buddies!

But tomato hornworms!? Agh! Their appetite is HUGE! They can decimate a plant! And I found SEVEN more of them as I was cleaning up the rest of the tomatoes! So I had EIGHT of these massive green caterpillars… on my precious tomatoes. I was conflicted. And yet I couldn’t just squish them. Or throw them away. I actually DID put out a call to a friend with chickens to see if she wanted them for chicken snacks- is like the circle of life, right? She didn’t. That might have been too weird of a 7:30 am text honestly, now that I think about it. And so… I left them on the plants. They turn into the hummingbird moth after all… I just straight up couldn’t kill them, especially when they all seemed JUST about maximum sized and therefore should be crawling off to make  chrysalises soon, right?

And even now, after researching for this post when I find out they aren’t in fact tomato hornworms but are, in fact, TOBACCO hornworms (they both feed on both plants but are different species. Differentiated by markings on the caterpillars’ sides- tomato hornworm s have v shaped white markings and tobacco hornworms have diagonal stripes). And so they DON’T turn into these:

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Hummingbird Moth ( from the TOMATO hornworm caterpillar) cool and all if you could just do something about that oversized abdomen…

… but instead, the tobacco hornworms turn into these nightmares:

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Aw hell.

AND yet… I’d already decided to let them stay! Ugh… FINE. And besides, I remember seeing one of those moths on the front of the house… what if it was their mom? (I fully also see how crazy this all is, don’t think I don’t).

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Turns out they eat ACTUAL tomatoes too. Fantastic.

And so now the Sweet 100 cherry tomato has literally zero leaves from this brilliant decision of mine. But at least I am guilt free and happy in the knowledge I won’t have any angry tobacco hornworm moth parents coming after me.

Besides, it’s the Sungold that is still putting up the real numbers these days and still has enough leaves to see it through.

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So pretty!

So, a bit of a soft spot for insects I guess- which along with liking wandering around in graveyards puts me well over the line of quirky and unique and instead into downright odd territory. Whatever. Life is much too short to worry about anyone’s opinions- do what you like while you have the time. Besides, we’re all weird somehow- anyone who tells you they aren’t must be hiding some REALLY crazy shit.

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Did I mention my pet 2″ spider on the Basil? Yeah…

Cough cough… I also might have had a black and white jumping spider as a pet on the kitchen windowsill and have my second wolf spider pet on my desk… so… yeah. At least my weirdness is only for bugs and graves… imagine if I liked scrapbooking or napkin rings? Shudder.

 

 

The Texas Garden in August aka Picante’s Inferno

The garden in August is a lesson in survival and non-survival. Miss a day’s watering and your three year old spirea is toast. (Not a hypothetical example). It’s cut to the ground and is starting to leaf back out- that was touch and go though, it was in no way a given that it would survive. But, here’s what is going on out there right now…

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You can’t see all the bees in this picture… there were at least 4. Pickings are slim for pollinators these days so we’re all happy to have the flowers we do.

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Tithonia (the Mexican Sunflower) is over 4′ tall now

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Orange, Red, and Purple… I may pass on recreating that in an ice dyed scarf…

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Mexican Olive Tree- gotta be close to 6′ tall now. The Mexican Redbud is doing great too. If I had Mexican Oregano I’m sure it’d be thriving.

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So the days are past that we sit over here for the aesthetic.

The tomatoes are really struggling. Turns out the curled leaves I was concerned about on the Bobcat and HM 1823 is just the tomato response to extreme heat, so NOT a disease as I originally thought. The cherry tomatoes are still producing- though Sweet 100 is doing better on the volume of crop we’re collecting in the middle of this summer, but the Sungold has set lots of new fruit after a couple of week’s lull.

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I’m already needing a stepladder to harvest- gotta be 12′ these days, but it’s starting to curve back down.

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My buddies- the caterpillars for black swallowtail butterflies. We have 7 right now- how I love them!

Lord it’s so hot. We’re all just hanging in there for fall… which usually hits right around late November ’round these parts…

The Garden in July

The garden got some much needed rain and cooler temperatures for a couple of evenings (80s! break out the sweaters!).

And today, with overcast skies still it’s a good opportunity for some pictures that aren’t completely sunbaked and lost in high contrast shadows. So I give you… the dahlias!

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ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!

Here’s the thing. Just like cannas, dahlias are unbalanced on the foliage to flower ratio- which seems crazy because those flowers are huge. Think waterlily sized. Or hell, you don’t have to imagine it, here is a picture.

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Toddler arm for scale, red chair as the only clean backdrop to be found in the house.

So dahlias are glorious for cut flowers, but man are they blah to weedy looking in the garden. No textural or aesthetic benefit from the foliage, such as with Cardinal Creeper vine, for instance.

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Check out those leaves, will ya? It should have been in a month before I planted those seeds unfortunately… but it’s still being a trooper

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Another by seed addition to the garden, which aside from the occasional zinnia is pretty much a first! My Tithonia, the mexican sunflower

The tithonia, I think, walks that absolute knife edge between coarse and weedy looking. I think its awesome, but it’s right there on the edge. It’s supposed to be 4’x4′ at full size, but is already much too close to the Francis Dubriel rose. I’m the worst at eyeballing spacing. This one should have dark orange flowers, so I’ll keep you posted.

As for the tomatoes… anyone want tomatoes? It’s amazing how quickly things go from: “GLORY BE THE FRUIT OF THE GODS!!!!” To: What the hell are we going to do with all these tomatoes? Throw them at people?”

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HM 1823

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Bobcat- leaves are starting to curl, I don’t take this as a good sign

So of the determinate tomatoes HM 1823 looks to be the more disease resistant. The leaves on Bobcat are starting to curl in on themselves. This isn’t bug related (there are some bugs that do that) it’s more like all the leaves are severely concave but not touching in the middle. Fruiting is still good, but it’s days are numbered.

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Dude.

And the cherry tomatoes are huge. The toddler is overdoing it on the tomatoes on a daily basis, but there will be no scurvy to be found on this ship!

It’s Le Hot

It’s BLAZINGLY hot around this place these days, so no new plantings are happening. No weeding is getting done. The watering is done at night, and mostly by sprinkler. And the bermuda grass is creeping in as slowly and methodically as fascism in 2018 America.

The only thing that’s not done begrudgingly is TOMATO HARVESTING!

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HM1823 and Bobcat… they are huge and prolific and delicious and taste-wise I can’t tell them apart. That pot had 10 lbs of tomatoes in it… yes I weighed it.

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Sungold and Sweet 100… two plants and this is just about the harvest each day… as long as we can keep the toddler from eating all of them

As for the plants… The cherry tomatoes are so huge- Sungold has to be 9′ tall and Sweet 100 has to be 6 and a half. They have very different growth habits. Sungold is more abundant, but also easier to harvest since it’s an airier and more open plant. The Sweet 100 is more dense, so much more difficult to harvest as it tends to fruit in the middle of the plant as opposed to on the perimeter like the Sungold. Sweet 100 fruit are also smaller is size, but more tart, which I prefer. The Sungold is awesome though, and I will definitely buy one again next year just to keep up with the volume I want on the cherries.

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It’s too hot to model these, but rest assured we’re pushing 9′ tall these days

As for the others, even the shorter tomatoes had to get 6′ T-posts put in- they pulled their cages over with the weight of all the fruit they’re setting. Yet another first from this year’s crop…

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Bobcat- the heavier producer. Looks a little light on the leaves thanks to a damn tomato hornworm I CANNOT F-ing find… look at those top leaves… I know you’re in there, hornworm. I KNOW it!

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HM 1823… hard to see but that’s a heavy crop there as well. Seems to split more, but it’s been boom or bust on the watering, so it might be my fault.

Ignore the background… that’s the old deck railing that needs to be hauled off. But in the foreground is a 4′ Mexican Olive tree, that all of the sudden catapulted itself out of the bronze fennel.

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Holy cow is the Mexican Olive Tree growing insanely fast… it was a foot tall in April!

In other news, I’m really trying to cut our food budget. I’ve taken over as the primary cook in the household, which is great. But it also means I indulge in WAY too many trips to the store, where it seems I invariably drop $70 a trip- on top of the pushing $200 weekly trip. And we can all agree that’s insane, And it is especially too much since I want to trade in the Honda for a Subaru Ascent here in, like 2 weeks. So to afford the payment difference, I need to shave off about $200 from my personal and food spending. Which, eh, no problem. I could do with less of my “money grows on trees, devil may care attitude” anyway. So let me show you one of my latest moves that direction: FREE MEALS.

Okay, not actually free in the soup kitchen or community food pantry way or anything. God that’d be a dick move to get charity because I don’t want to cut into my TJ Maxx budget but still want to afford a brand new car, wouldn’t it? No, to me free meals are ones that I can make with only what we have on hand and a much more hearty reuse of leftovers. No trip to store or any purchases besides beer for the meal.

So on Wednesday I made a pork loin. We cut it into medallions, pounded them a bit, breaded them and then I made a cheater scaloppine sauce (didn’t have asparagus so I subbed red bell pepper. I do what I want) to serve with it. WAY too much sauce and a ton of the pork was left over. The middle child ate dinner with a friend, but even so it was a big pork loin. Which still only cost $8 so already a pretty budget meal.

Thursday I cooked some pasta, thickened and stretched the sauce from the scaloppine with some flour and chicken broth and added some cooked Italian sausage from earlier in the week- boom. FREE MEAL. And it was good.

Friday we had barbecued chicken thighs and veggie skewers. Plenty of leftovers, chicken thighs cost $7 for the pack.

Saturday day we had chicken tacos with leftover thighs from night before. FREE MEAL.

Saturday evening I cooked up a box of dirty rice I had on hand (Zatarains mix… it almost pains me to buy something boxed or branded these days but it’s exactly that kinda snobbishness that lost the Dems this last election). To it I added finely chopped up left over pork loin and the rest of the smokey veggies from Friday night. I did make a garlic yogurt sauce to go on top and I put minced parsley on literally everything, so it went on this too to dress it up. (crush some garlic in some yogurt and refrigerate for an hour. boom. Garlic yogurt sauce) FREE F-ING MEAL.

And then today for lunch I made up a quick asian soup broth (box of chicken broth (organic. It’s my need to say so that lost the Dems that last election), mirin, miso paste, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sesame oil- dash of this and that, I have no measurements here- along with some minced garlic and ginger. Then I added frozen spinach, some dried asian mushrooms, noddles and sliced in some of the pork loin. Topped it with cilantro and lime. FREE Mother F-ing MEAL!

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Chili paste in the center. I meant to add in halved cherry tomatoes but I forgot.

And I realize, this isn’t breaking new ground here- reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle…  but I’m learning. And that’s obnoxious, don’t I know it. But I’m strolling my merry way towards being more fiscally responsible on food so I can be less so on the car… so yay for coastal elites and being out of touch with the heartland, I guess?

Vote Democratic 2018 folks.