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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gardening at the Top Gun Abode

The garden at our house, aka, The Top Gun Abode, has really taken off this year.  After two full spring and summer seasons here, I'm starting to figure out what works in the landscaping, what comes back each year and what could still be added to the spaces I have.  With all the rain we had this season I'm happy to report my garden is bursting out all over the place.  There are a few spots that need some work - pulling out plants that aren't growing well or are in places not quite suited to the plant's needs.  It's still a learning curve.  The biggest area for me to tackle this year is the odd pocket garden we have in our back entrance corner of our yard.  It's a spot that doesn't get full sun and the edges don't get rain since the house eaves don't permit the rains to soak into those spots.  The learning curve continues….
The garden in May - planted lettuces, tomatoes, beans and some herbs.
One area I really want to make work
Here we are in July! Tomatoes have taken over the plot!

My meager attempt at starting some lettuces from seeds. They grew,
but didn't take off - as I started them too late and then they got dwarfed by other plants.
is the new raised bed I put into the pocket garden.  It's doing very well and I hope that next year, I'll be able to make the raised bed and the rest of the space work and have a strong focus.  Liz bought the raised bed kit for me for my birthday, back in March.  I think I put it together in May - probably right around Mother's Day. I don't tend to put any plants in the ground until then, so that any frost we may have are sure to be done for the season.  I didn't know what to do with the four-square.  I knew I wanted to use good soil, and it seemed like I couldn't get enough.  There were multiple trips to Home Depot and the Garden Center for bags of organic soil, mulch, hummus and other nutrients.  
Spring planting and blooming.  This was before the rain and hot spells
Other areas are doing well.  The yard we have seems to have several "climates" or zones; shady areas under the trees and behind our garage.

Full sun spots towards the immediate back of the house.

The yard is nicely fenced with a large privacy fence.  The entire patio space is cement but there is a two foot border around the entire perimeter that is spaced out with dirt and is filled with plants and flowers.
Hardy Perennial Hibiscus 
A lot of stuff was already in the ground - with many surprises that come up each year.  Hostas. Lillies of the Valley. Day and Tiger Lillies.  Cone or Echinachea Flowers.  Hardy Perennial Hibiscus.  Sea Grasses.  Black eyed Susans.  Roses!  I've added a few plants and shrubs too, plus the huge planters I brought from my South Philly yard.

I turned the wall fountain into a planter.
The fountain motor broke but the rest was too pretty to waste!

While the yard is pretty on its own, one can always touch up and add some more pretty and pops of colour and style!  I love being able to use my Mexican Pottery!  I've added outdoor decorations, other Mexican wall hangings, metal signs, etc.  I'm hoping to get a collection of antique gardening tools to hang on the fence too. Right now I have a series of Nate's plastic beach shovels and tools hanging on the fence near the entrance.  It adds color and a lot of whimsy!
And I'm recycling/repurposing an old magazine rack that's been kicking around from house to house for many years.  This year I found fun succulent plants that were on a mat of coconut coir and mesh.  You can cut it and put it into place in some dirt or dirt substitute called "brownie" which holds 8 x's its weight in water.  Perfect solution for plants that need minimal care and watering!

Tiki Torches in French Umbrella Stands - filled the bottom with rocks and sand,
 topped with dirt and centered a pvc pipe in the center to hold the tiki torch.
Added plants for color and beauty!
Patio tomato plant.  I bought it fairly well-grown and it's gotten 3 or 4 times bigger.
As for the current status of the vegetable patch in the raised bed over in the pocket garden, I came home from my vacation to see the plants were doing very well, despite a week of heavy rains and then a week of hot blazing heat!  I definitely need to plan out the planting and varieties of vegetables next year.  For a haphazard experiment, I think it's doing okay.  I wish things were producing more, or that I had realized how huge tomatoes (even wee cherry and grape tomato plants) would grow!  They took over the spots and my poor basil, chard and lettuces got dwarfed!
Cucumbers! One plant has done well. I think I have 3 or 4 cucs growing now!

Zucchini Plant.  I'm not sure if it will ever produce.
This baby zuc died before it reached maturity.
I didn't even have a chance to pick it and eat a baby "heirloom" zucchini!

My jalapenos are doing very well.  I picked three before I went on vacation and there are three more growing!

My herb garden on my back porch is doing well.  2 kinds of basil;
lemon thyme; parsley; cilantro (not fairing well) and tarragon.
Perfect for popping out of  the kitchen and grabbing a handful of fresh herbs every day.
My Morning Glories.  The seeds are either from my South Philly garden, 2 years old now, or seeds I picked up from plants that I would spot around town.  In either case, once you have morning glories, you have them for life!

My "volunteer" Maple Tree Plant.  6 or 7 years ago, we bough a plant at Bartram's Gardens.
A seedling grew and became a sapling.  Every year I thought it would die come winter.  It was literally growing from a seed and now is this huge "tree".  I even cut the top of it off and cut it back so that I could fit it into a moving van when we moved out of South Philly.  

Strawberry Plants.  At the Food Swap I attended in April, I received a bag of strawberry roots.
I barely planted them in time before they rotted/died.  I guess they were hearty because only 2 died and what looked like gnarly balls of twigs have grown into these lush full plants.  I think next year I may have a lot of strawberries!
Garden Critters - found 4 of these uglies on my tomato plants.  This horn worm with eggs was the first I spotted.  I found three more the next day.  
While I would love to have bushels of tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers and zucchini to pull out of the garden, I'm quite content to get what grows.  There is always next year and with some real planning, I hope that my future gardening endeavors will result in enough produce that I can can my own vegetables and use the farmers' market as my back-up!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer Get Together with the Blogstress Lasses

LeAnne, Denine and Barbara on the Beach! photo by Susie Riley
One of THE BEST parts of my 2 week vacation at the shore was a get-together I attended with my blogging friends, The Blogstress Ladies.  Several years ago, my then, acquaintance through my best neighbor friend, Michele, introduced me to her best friend, Barbara Hammond.  Barbara had started a blog, called Zero to Sixty and Beyond, and she was very interested in promoting it and blogging in general.  She started a ladies blogger group, called The Blogstress Network.  The founders of it were Barbara; Doreen Naughton Creede (Style Maniac); Lee Romano (Madness Mom and Me).  We met a few times, had some lovely cocktail parties and writers' luncheons.  We also met other women bloggers and artists, such as Denise Fike ( and Susie Riley ( among several of her blogs).  My friend, LeAnne Lindsay, of Tinsel and Tine joined us too.  After a year or so we all got too busy and side-lined with projects, families and whatnot to hold meetings.  Which was too bad, because our meetings helpful.  If nothing else we had a local support network of women writers.  We were there to help bolster each other's egos and share blogging tips.  

It took a few years but we finally had a reunion!  Barbara organized a get-together for all of us at her Ocean City beach house.  She has since become a good friend; we meet up each summer  and sometimes in the fall at the shore each when I'm down in the Ocean City, New Jersey area.

Our reunion was scheduled for Thursday, July 18th.  We met in the early afternoon at her lovely OC home and hung out on her porch for most of the day.  We imbibed some delicious Procecco by Cup Cake Vintners and enjoyed a scrumptious lunch that she prepared for us.  And we LAUGHED all day and into the evening.  Good hearty girlfriend laughter.  The kind you can only do with women whom you really love and admire.  It didn't hurt that none of us had an empty glass all day either!  Getting tipsy was a nice diversion to the day!

Doreen and LeAnne - discussing some serious business! Ha - most likely we were all trying to gab about something at the same time and I captured LeAnne mid sentence!  These are two of the  most stylish ladies I know. Doreen is involved in many fashion events and scenes in Philadelphia, blogging about her latest fashion find at Style Maniac. She's also incredibly connected to many top fashion stylists in the Philly area.  Doreen's writing and fashion projects make me want to get out and do more every time I read one of her posts or get an invite to one of her fabulous soirees.  

Leanne is movie and food writer, as well as dear friend of my for almost 20 years now.  LeAnne and I worked together at what was The American Music Theater Festival in teh 1990's, which then became the Prince Music Theatre.  We survived a mad house and a crazy boss at the theater, coming through the experience with war wounds a life time of memories and STORIES!  We've grown up from our mid-20's into ahem, our current years.

Susie Riley - the guest of honor.  Barbara and she "met" online via bloggers forums and became friends and helpers to each other.  Susie created Barbara's new website and helped her streamline her blog.  Susie came down to the Jersey Shore from New Hampshire.  Meeting her was like meeting up with a good friend with whom you haven't seen in years.  It was immediately comfortable and fun.
Lee - she's like a warm hug, you just feel great around her.  She's creative and funny, and has a wild sense of humor which she shares freely.  She writes great stories about her crazy Italian-American upbringing and her wacky parents on her blog, Madness Mom and Me.

 Our day wasn't spent entirely on the porch, we did take a stroll onto the beach.  
Doreen and Lee went swimming while Susie, LeAnne, Barbara and I walked down the beach.
 In addition to the good wine and bubbly we enjoyed, I found a great Belgian Ale with some ATTYTOOD!  Lucifer Belgian Ale.  VERY Spicy!
 Gots to love pretty feet!  Most of these gals are true ladies from head to pretty toes!
 Barbara's beach bungalow is a true get-away cottage.  It's pure beachy vibe and laid back styling is inviting and inspiring.  I love the use of shutters INSIDE the room to use as a place to stash and share beloved photos.
Even her guest towels are whimsical.  
The hooks have a spot for hers and her husband's Dave's towels, 
along with spots for guest towels.
 Happy Little Clams, all in a row.  
I don't remember if this is directly out front of Barbara's house, 
or if it was the neighbor's fence.  Doesn't matter, it's fun!
 Our FEAST! The pasta was a joint effort - Barbara cooked down golden cherry tomatoes,
shallots and butter with some white wine until it turned almost jam-like.  
I sauteed shrimp and garlic in butter and olive oil, then reduced down some white wine. 
We then tossed the shrimp and tomato topping over hot cooked zitti and added some freshly torn basil into the mix!  OMG! The perfect summer meal.
 Colourful Lobster (LOBSTAH!) Salad - Trio of Bell Peppers, Celery and Steamed Lobster, mixed with a mayo, vinegar, celery seed and sour cream dressing.  A terrific summer salad.
Crock Pot Slow Cooked Pulled Pork - Onions, Pork Shoulder, Barbecue Sauce and Jack Daniels.   A little splash from Jack makes everything taste better.
So "Glad" you are here.  
Barbara (and I agree) thinks it's not a summer floral setting without some gladiolas.
LeAnne - a lady meant for leisure.

Doreen, not to be upstaged by a dog, was being upstaged by one of Barbara's dogs.  I think this was Buddy, but it may be Sydney.  Sweet ragamuffin dogs who as soon as they get to the shore, become total "beach bums!"

The Blogstress Ladies - photo by Susie Riley
I hope that another party can be held this fall.  
You need your friends, especially your girlfriends, 
to lend support but also to help you remember to laugh.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Food Finds: Jersey Fresh Farmers' Markets

We've been having our annual 2 week holiday at the Jersey Shore - spending two weeks with our family - parents, spouses, siblings, kids.  It's our third annual family vacation and the second time staying in the same house as last year - with an additional week added for a more leisurely holiday.  I've not been able to do much of anything, as I have a bum leg.  I hurt it a few weeks ago and I can't bike or even walk very far.  Mostly we've/I've been laying about, heading to the beach, relaxing, enjoying the down time.  After spending several years in the same beach town of Sea Isle/Strathmere (we've usually stayed at the end of Sea Isle that abuts Strathmere) it's nice to call our annual vacation a family tradition.
My whole life of vacationing "downashore" in Philadelphia-speak has enabled me to take in the joys and quirks of almost all the South Jersey Beaches.  As a child, I spent the summers in Atlantic City - in a time before the casinos and all the desperation enveloped the town.  I have stardust memories of The Boardwalk in Atlantic City and my memories of those years in the 1970's are Peaches and Cream-filled.
As a pre-teen and teenager, I summered in Wildwood (aka, Childwood, or DooWop City). When times were flush, we went to Cape May.  In my adult years, late 20's through my 30's, Ocean City became the defacto place to go.  The family friendly town with it's five-mile long boardwalk and famous Manco and Manco Pizzas (it'll always be Mack and Manco's to me), Kohr Bros. Ice Creams, and Johnson's Popcorn shops on every block were de riguer eating pastimes.  I camped with a friend's family in a camp ground outside of Sea Isle.  The only places I really never visited were Avalon and Stone Harbor - haughty places not akin to day trippers.  So, after 40 plus years of wandering up and down the Route 9 coastal highway, I thoroughly enjoy calling the Sea Isle and Strathmere beaches ours.  Especially Strathmere, the secret gem of this area.  Shhh! You're in Strathmere - a mile long throw-back town that feels more like Nantucket than the Jersey Shore.
I thought I'd explore more food finds and discover or rediscover the best of the area.  As I said, I'm not physically able to do much, but we have visited the local farmers' markets both weeks that we've been at the beach.  On Tuesdays, the Sea Isle Farmers' Market is held in the center of town, right alongside the tiny Sea Isle boardwalk.  It's spread out on the lawn area this year, having grown enough that they needed more room than the parking lot it took over last year.  I like the new layout - the market is now on the lawn area where they hold concerts, baby parades, movie night and other weekly events.  The market is a combination of local farmers, bakeries, jelly, jam and honey purveyors, hot sauce hawkers, and crafters galore.  It's not overwhelmingly large, but big enough to offer variety and a nice way to shop for an hour or so.  Many of the farmers who come to the Sea Isle market also sell at other markets in the area, as well as have outposts in the Philadelphia area. I recognized Buzbys Farms from Collingswood and Philadelphia.

My favorite finds of the Sea Isle market were the delicious breads I bought from a bakery out of Atlantic City - great rustic loaves of round breads and very good long Italian loaves.  There were also delicious muffins and pies.  Non-food related - was a vendor selling antique postcards of Shore Days gone by.  He had framed original post cards, framed so you could see the front and back of the cards, along with vintage 1920's bathing suits.  I bought a few reproduction cards of the Strathmere area - since that's the shore town we now call our summer home.

On Wednesdays, the Ocean City Farmers' Market is in full swing.  This is at least the 4th year I've headed over to this market.  I like it a lot and I'm delighted to see how big and strong it's grown.  Last year they added a separate area for crafters and non-food vendors.  I was happy to see that is still the case, with more vendors in each arena.  There weren't too many outstanding or new finds, but the great people we met last year were there again.  Momma's Home-Made Applesauce; Tony Baloney's of Atlantic City and his amazingly good pizzas and foccacias; Talk-n-Coffee and their SUPPER Smoothies; Gilda's Biscotti, and my Facebook Friend, Cat Gleason, of Pie Girl fame.  I made a bee-line for The Pie Girl's stand. We caught up, chatted and shared a few stories about our past year and accomplishments.  We also picked up a few pies for dessert.  Pie Girl had a nice write up in the Philadelphia Inquirer about her super venture.  Delighted to be a follower and fan of her successes and good works.

Peaches were in abundance, as well as great Jersey Blueberries.  I wish I could say we've been eating fistfuls of this luscious fruit, but alas, I've been too busy stuffing my face with ice creams and other shore treats.  I have eaten some peaches and blueberries, but not as much as I could and should.  I'll do better once I get home and shop at the Collingswood Farmers' Market.
Hopefully I'll be able to buy huge quantities of all the above and start canning in earnest!  Looking at this photo gives me an idea to add blueberries to my summer salsas and canned goods!
The last, but not least, other great food find of both markets, is Hank's Sauce of Sea Isle.  Our brother, Matt, found the store down around 86th Street in Sea Isle, last year.  He bought a sampler pack of hot sauces and has been raving for the past year about how good this stuff is.  We attempted to get lunch at the store on Monday, but the store is only open, Thursday through Sunday.  I may have missed lunch but I was still able to buy the sauces.  Hanks' parents have set up shop at both the Sea Isle and Ocean City Farmers' Markets.  Hot sauces so good you can drink 'em up and dose nearly all your food with them for a zippy kick.  I'm not sure I'll get to the shop for their tacos or burgers, but I did grab a bottle of cilantro hot sauce for cooking at The Top Gun Abode.  With a day and half left to fill here, I'm not sure I'll find too many other notable eatables, but the point of this year's vacation is to relax.  And that, I've done very well this year!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beach time

Thought I'd take a moment to try out blogging via my new iPhone while on the beach. A sort of dual purpose bragging post!  I'm thoroughly enjoying both the new phone and all it's art photo and online applications as well as being. Away to kick back and relax. 

We haven't been "doing" much of anything which IS the point of vacation after all. My leg is still gimpy, going on two weeks now so it makes it hard to stand, walk and bike any distances. Mostly we are all enjoying the downtime and trying to keep our boys, both 3 1/2 years of age from having too many toy melt downs!  Nate, my son, is not used to shark g his toys so having cousin Dylan around all the time is his personal challenge. Ah, first world and kid problems!  

More posts in food and other finds will be forthcoming. In the mean time  enjoy my photographic offerings!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Food Swap #2 June Recap

We had our I held the 2nd Food Swap - Officially now known as the Collingswood Food Swappers, this past June 25th.  Our event was held at The American Table on Haddon Avenue, in Collingswood.  I've been teaching cooking classes here for the past few months (with a big schedule to be rolled out for the Fall!) and the owner, Cyndi, said that I could use the store's space for my next swap if I wanted.  I'm glad I chose to use the space, as it worked out perfectly for our "inaugural" swap.

Interest is still gaining ground - I'm getting inquiries from all over as well as followers on the Facebook Page.  In addition, the swap was "covered" by the press! Matt Skouflas, of the Collingswood Patch, stopped by at the start of the night and video interviewed me, Cyndi, and some of the other attendees for a video story on the Patch's website.  My friend, Dave, joked with me, asking if I was shooting for some coverage by The New York Times! Well, Dave, I'll work my way up to that level, one news story at at time, sir!

About 14 people attended the swap, from all over the area - many coming from the immediate neighborhood, past swapper friends and neighbors, Susannah and Dave (who brought an ethereal flaky goat cheese, thyme and berry hand pie).

Jodi and her daughter, Eva (awesome signage by Eva and their Family Famous Carlson's Spiced Nut blend); Jamielynn (who's Kale Pesto is a must try recipe. Gives me a new reason to want to eat kale!)
I met new folks from town, Jodi, Jennifer and Linda, three friends and lovely ladies all. Their contributions were all prize winning goods and packaging! Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad; Sweet Berry Hand pies; Salt and additive free Taco Seasoning.

Marisol, a woman who contacted me via the Event Brite page, also joined us.  She  lives up the street from store. She brought 2 items, lavender spray and iced tea.  The iced tea was most refreshing as is the lavender spray.  I love it when you have items that will last for a while and continue to give you joy!

From further away, Mary came in from Manheim, PA - which is in Lancaster County!  She is interested in hosting a food swap in her area, and since she has friends and family in Collingswood, she made the special trip down to our area to check us out, get some ideas and share her delicious Strawberry Margarita Jelly.  I felt so special having a guest drive such a distance for the event!

From the Philadelphia area, fellow blogger and food swapper, Casey, who writes at, came over to our side of the river.  We met briefly at the Philly Food Swap in April, and we've been fans of each other's blogs and Facebook and Twitter postings ever since.  Casey brought a delicious and easy to make Vegan Mustard.  Her mustard and her writing continue to inspire me!
My very dear friend, Stefanie, joined us as well.  She couldn't make my May event and it was a real treat to have her spend the evening with us.  She lent moral support, helped to organize some of the set up and break down for the evening and she also schmoozed and mingled with the guests.  Plus, she brought a killer pineapple sambal.  Great on meat or fish but also terrific right out of the container!

My co-host, owner of The American Table, Cyndi, made a scrumptious paring of Zucchini Bread with home-made Honey Butter.  I think it and the goat cheese thyme berry hand pie were both devoured within minutes of my getting into my house!
My offering for the night was something a bit different for me - I made a big batch of barbecue sauce, using a milk stout beer, along with copious amounts of tomato, molasses, smokey spices, soy sauce and other zesty spices.  I thought I would make it and bring it as a refrigerated item.  Around 10 pm the evening before the swap, I decided to can the sauce instead! It took a few more hours to do, but in the end, it was worth the extra effort.  I canned a dozen jars, two sample jars and still had three pints remaining for future use!

Another successful event, with plans to host our next swap in Early August.  Check out our Facebook Page - Collingswood Food Swappers, for the date and location!  For the next swap, I'm thinking of doing more of a party theme, and making it a beer swap - not necessarily home-brews, rather, one's favorite brews to taste and share.