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The Birthday Dinner


I wish I had pictures to share with you of the dinner my most awesome wife put together for my birthday last night but by the time we even thought of a camera, we had attacked the table like the Fantastic Mr. Fox and his family.

As is the custom in our house, the one celebrating their birthday gets to decide on the menu for dinner that night. As always, I chose my wife’s Crab Cakes. I also requested a yellow cake with chocolate icing. As for the sides and or anything else, I left that up to my wife to surprise me.

When we first got married my wife pored over cookbooks (still does) looking for new things & ways to cook. She had been brought up in a very traditional italian family so her frame of food reference had been somewhat one dimensional. I was brought up on casseroles, baked chicken and hamburger every way you could. It wasn’t until I moved west that I started to think outside of the box and experiment with different flavors & styles. One of the first dishes my wife started to make & perfect was crabcakes. I have always loved crabcakes and I would order them almost every time I saw them on a menu. Now back when we first got married, the budget was bit tighter than it is even now and the crab began with a K instead of a C but they were still good. They were labor intensive but they were a labor of love and I think that alone made them taste better than any Krab with a K should ever taste. as the years went by, they got easier to make and the recipe got tweaked. The biggest change was our shift to the front of the alphabet back to Crab with a C. Well last night my wife nailed them again. She made me crabcakes that were soft, light & melt in your mouth. This time she even served them with a warm & spicy mango vinaigrette that raised them to yet another level. I was in heaven and so were my kids as the crabcakes disappeared quite quickly from the plate in the center of the table.

As one side my wife made an excellent corn & black bean salad from Allrecipes.com (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Black-Bean-And-Corn-Salad-I/Detail.aspx< ) that we have made over & over again over the years. I like to warm it up after mixing it all together and then letting it cool before serving. It kind of let’s the flavors meld together in a real nice way. I think the balsamic vinegar & the cumin help to give it a layer of complexity that you don’t really expect in a salad. It looks great on a plate and it is a great dish to take to any potluck picnic you mat attend this summer. The other side was more of an appetizer but also a favorite of mine and a standard dish for every Super Bowl. She made my Deviled Eggs with Cheddar Cheese & Bacon. The kids absolutely love these. Throw some leftover pasta on the table along with some Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips & Salsa and we were more than good to go.

There was one more addition to the menu that was strictly for me. For as long as I can remember my wife has been making me a cold Mango Cream Soup. It’s silky smooth and goes down like melted ice cream. Sometimes she throws in berries or peaches to change it up a little and I almost always throw in some Sriracha Sauce or some Tabasco Chipotle to, as Emeril says, kick it up a notch. Last night my wife had found two absolutely perfect mangoes for the soup and it was the best I can remember. I can’t wait to get home tonight so I can grab the leftover container and wolf it down while watching Modern Family.

As for the cake, I am traditional. I like a yellow cake with chocolate icing. My mother always threw a box of pudding mix into the cake mix to help make the cake moister and so does my wife. She must have also whipped that batter on high for more than the 2 minutes on the box because my cake was sporting a pouf that would have made Snooki jealous. My kids released their inner Jackson Pollack’s and decorated the cake in a kaleidoscope of colors & designs. The french vanilla ice cream was the perfect compliment to the cake and if I am not mistaken, the cake & ice cream combo is being requested for an encore performance tonight.

And that’s the view for now from Behind The Shades. Stop by again when we talk about how many leftovers you can throw into a tortilla before the kids notice and start to complain….swampy abides… 


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The SwampGarden v20.10

Five days a week my existence on this earth pretty much boils down to concrete, metal, glass and an uncomfortable chair behind an old desk. I answer emails, ignore phone calls and push a lot of paper. If I strain my neck when I press my face up against my office window, I can almost see the sky. On Friday afternoons, if I look down, I can see the Mitzvah Tank. When it rains, I ride the E Train. It’s about as far from a bucolic & serene setting as you can get. That’s why this is such a great time of the year. On my other two days, I can escape into my garden.

I never did have much of a green thumb growing up. In college and for a few years after, the only kind of plant that I could consistently keep alive was a cactus and I think the cactus I had in Denver was just too nasty to die because nothing should have been able to live in that apartment. I’m surprised that I did. Though there are some questions as to whether I was actually living in the mid-80’s. I think I may have been in a slideways sort of existence myself but that is really here nor there and not anywhere near the point I am trying to make. That being said, it wasn’t until I got married that I started to think about growing a garden of my own. We started with flowers & herbs in pots on our townhouse deck. We moved onto to bigger pots of flowers & herbs when we bought our first house but the groundhogs figured out how to climb up on the deck so that ended that experiment. I hacked a garden out of the woods at our next house and despite the fact that we were deep in the woods and the sun rarely made it through, I still got a couple of tomatoes and a handful of peppers each year. Finally we moved to the house I will call “The Final Resting Place” because my next move is six feet under and that is as far as I am going. Here we had a huge backyard with a ton of sun and I knew it was time for me to embrace the notion of becoming a “Gentleman Farmer”.

I didn’t just stick my toe in this time with a couple of pots & a small plot. I had a fence 7 feet high built out in my yard around a 50X30 patch of grass. I tore that grass up and worked that dirt. I added topsoil. I added mulch. I did it all by hand. I decided to go all natural too and just do battle with Mother Nature & her host of creepy crawlies in any and every which way I could as long as it didn’t involve chemicals. Most of all, I overplanted. I bought & planted every kind of tomato my local nursery carried no matter what it looked like. I did pretty much the same with the hot & sweet peppers and I planted more beans & squash than I could keep track of or even use. I figured I could grow them all and I would have basket upon basket of fresh produce all summer. To a certain extent, I did.

You see what I forgot about was that my wife & kids were going to be away almost the whole summer because of the kitchen construction and with the house ripped up & no one home, it meant I was gone a lot too. The plants took their cue and ran away with it. I had plants stretching & growing everywhere. It was a vast web of shoots, leaves & branches. What was missing was any semblance of order or decorum. Plants went wherever they wanted to go and much like my life in Denver in the 80’s, I was their chief enabler. I didn’t know how to say no to a plant and I never cut any of them off or short. What I wound up with was a respectable haul that could have been oh so much more. I planned on being more judicious the following year as I hauled away the dead plants & vines on cleanup day.

I wish I had remembered my end of season vows when the spring approached. I overbought all the same culprits and I was so excited that I planted them all 2 weeks earlier than I should have. Mother Nature took notice of my eagerness and proceeded to whack me with a heavy very unseasonable two day frost followed by torrential downpours. I tried to rescue what I could and backfilled with late starters. That turned into a mistake as a great number of the frost damaged plants started coming back slowly. Of course I had saved them and then compounded my errors by trying to shoehorn them in wherever I could. Which led to even more overcrowding especially when rogue plants from seeds gone by started sprouting up. Throw in surgery on my arm (no heavy work for what should have been two weeks but turned into four), enough rain to float Noah’s rowboat and my garden was once again an underperforming overgrown mess. I was depressed all winter.

So this year I decided on the less is more approach toward the SwampGarden. I planned out my strategy with my wife, who this year has vowed to help, and we began our attack. We were going to take a cue from the wild grape tomato that had sprung up in the middle of the Cayenne & Cherry Peppers last year and completely took over that section of the garden. We were going to give the plants room to grow & flourish. As soon as the ground began to thaw I began to turn the dirt and my wife & children began to rake & pull weeds. We did it again a few weeks later and just like clockwork, the late season freeze came & went but this time there was nothing in the ground but worms. So this past Sunday we went to eat breakfast at the Big Red Barn and then it was off to the local garden store to pick up some plants.

The choices, while not as varied as in years past, still were more than this impulse buyer needed to be confronted with at that time. I agonized as I restrained myself from buying two of everything and one of things I knew hadn’t grown in the past just to prove to myself and the dumb plant that I could make them grow. When all was said & done, I walked out with my smallest start of the year purchase and my plan still intact. The list of plants in the ground this year so far is as follows:

4 – Supersonic Tomatoes
4 – Beefsteak Tomatoes
4 – Sweet Cherry 100 Tomatoes
4 – Roma Tomatoes
2 – Yellow Pear Tomatoes
1 – Grape Tomato
1 – Better Boy Tomato
1 – Early Girl Tomato
1 – Purple Cherokee Heirloom Tomato
1 – Old German Heirloom Tomato

8 – Habanero Peppers
8 – Jalapeno Peppers
4 – Cubanelle Peppers
4 – Sweet Banana Peppers
3 – Italian Roasting Peppers
3 – Red Bell Peppers
3 – Yellow Bell Peppers

6 – Red Sails Lettuce
3 – Iceberg Lettuce
3 – Gourmet Head Lettuce

We also planted seeds for Italian Green Beans, Bush Snap Green Beans, Patty Pan Squash & Italian Style Zucchini. I also have seedlings working inside the house for Tabasco Peppers & Ancho Peppers but those got a late start and probably won’t come through.

When all the raking, hoeing, weeding & planting was finally done on Sunday afternoon, we looked around the garden and we were all pleased. The plants all had room to go forth & multiply. They had room to spread & grow. They had room to be bountiful. And in the back of my mind, I was already plotting & planning on how & where to backfill in the places that I didn’t think there was enough. I am going to need all my strength and a good dose of NO to not give in to those urges.

Get ready for the updates. Get ready for pictures. Get ready to live & die my many victories & defeats as I go toe to toe once again with Mother Nature and her many & varied elements meant to destroy my happiness.

That is the view for from Behind The Shades…..swampy is gardening….


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