Food and Drink

Cayenne Pepper Sauce

Last year I grew a big batch of Cayenne peppers, thinking I would dry most of them.  I did dry a bunch, but I had enough left over that I thought I’d try making a pepper sauce out of them.  I found this recipe and really liked it because it was both simple and easy to extend/modify.

Well, last year’s pepper sauce didn’t last very long, so this year I decided not to dry my extra peppers, but to make sauce from any peppers I wasn’t going to use right away.

Here on the table you’ll see a variety of peppers harvested from the garden and (for a few) picked up at the local farmer’s market.  There are Poblano’s in the lower right, Pimiento de Padron’s (center) that have gotten too big to fry up, in both red and green colors.  There are a few Corno di Italia Italian sweet peppers (lower left), and some Anaheim’s both from the garden and from the market.  And of course, there are the stars of the show: Carolina Cayenne peppers (that big pile of red peppers near the center of the picture).  Go here if you want to get more information on different pepper varieties.




The first step was to remove the tops from the peppers and chop them up into smaller pieces.  I didn’t worry too much about removing the ribs or seeds (where most of the heat resides) because

  • I like the heat 
  • it’s a labor-intensive job
  • they all get strained out at the end

Once that was done, I loaded them into a saucepan.  You’ll see I also added some tomatoes from the garden, since I was already concerned that I had a lot more of the hot peppers vs. mild peppers in the mix.




At this point (departing from the order in the recipe I quoted above), I added the white vinegar to the pan and let the mixture come to a low boil.  Then I added the kosher salt.  This mixture then simmered for about 20 minutes.  At some point I tasted the mixture and decided it was still too spicy.  So I tossed in some carrots (a garden first this year!) to add a little sweetness.  Here's everything simmering nicely.  Be sure to use your vent fan when cooking the peppers, unless you like searing your lungs with hot pepper vapors.




Once the mixture had simmered and then cooled, I blended it in batches.  When I had the whole mixture blended, I started the process of straining the mixture through a sieve.  This is where all the bits of any size get strained out.  You can see from the picture that the mixture is thick enough that it wouldn't just run through the sieve by itself.  So this is a thicker sauce than a red pepper sauce like Tabasco.




I then took a wooden spoon and carefully scraped down the sides of the sieve, pushing the contents through into the bowl underneath and capturing the solids.  I knew I was done when I felt like I was pushing around a golf ball-sized hunk of seeds and skins.




At this point I would normally check the sauce for consistency and adjust, but I liked the consistency just as it was.  If I had wanted it thinner I could have added some more vinegar.  Last year, to thicken the sauce, I simmered a sweet potato in the vinegar and blended up some of that to give the sauce more body.  That also helped curb some of the sauce's spiciness.




As you can see that saucepan of peppers yielded about a quart and a little more of pepper sauce.  Happily, I was able to give some of the sauce to my favorite pepper lovers and still have some for myself.  The other cool thing is that I discovered that the remaining vinegar used to cook the peppers had plenty of flavor.  So I strained all the seeds and solids out of that and bottled it, like Tabasco. 



In fact, an easy thing to do is to just pop a couple of peppers into a bottle of vinegar, with a little salt and maybe a garlic clove.  It will infuse the vinegar with pepper flavor and you’ll have a great accompaniment for your next batch of sautéed greens.  So go out and grow some peppers, so you can try your hand at making some killer pepper sauce!


Product Managers on the Road: DC Summer Edition

It's the end of July and I'm ending the month the way I started it—on a trip to Washington, DC. I'm here to attend the Inside NGO conference, to speak in a couple of panel discussions. A conference in Washington, at the end of July/beginning of August. Other than the possibility of good hotel rates once Congress clears out of town, there's not a lot that's initially appealing about the idea. But you know the Product Manager's code: complete the mission.

Search History Can Tell You a Lot

So herewith are a series of random musings that will give you some idea of how the week went. Let's start where our intelligence agencies would start: my search history.

  • Time in Bonn
  • 1730 rhode island ave nw
  • Washington convention center
  • Crowdsourced funding
  • "siri, how do I get to the Metro?"
  • Clyde's Washington DC
  • Dukem Ethiopian
  • Zaytinya
  • Cisco connected devices

My Dinners with Brian

It's sort of a tradition. Crystal or I visit Brian, he lines up dinners at restaurants he wants us to experience (and/or places he'd like to try), and we pay for dinner. Seems like a fair deal. On this trip:

Zantinaya (link)  Amazing. Jose Andres (I've spent three summers trying to grow Padron peppers just to make his tapa recipe) put a twist on Spanish tapas, featuring Middle Eastern, Greek and Turkish equivalent types of plates. Absolutely amazing. And it didn't hurt that the couple next to Brian and I gave us a bottle of wine to share over dessert.

Dukem (link)  If you've been to DC, it doesn't surprise you to know that there are a number of Ethiopian restaurants. Brian brought me here because Crystal wouldn't go, being unable to disassociate Ethiopian food from some of her more challenging Kenyan meals. You have to get used to the idea that your utensil consists of pieces of a giant crepe. But once you get used to that, the food is quite good.

Kangaroo Boxing Club (link)  A small joint (aren't all great BBQ places like that?) near Brian's house in Columbia Heights. Unbelievably, the signature dish is barbecued pastrami. And of course, it's out of this world. And don't miss the various macaroni and cheese sides—they're worth the extra workout time.

Luke's Lobster (  Shockingly (to hear some of my friends tell the story), I had never actually had a genuine lobster roll. In Boston you didn't bother with the roll, and just ate the whole lobster. I had a few trendy lobster roll send-up's in California, but having missed the family outing to Maine one year, I didn't get to experience the "lobstah" delight. Until now. This was authentic, true to Maine's roots, and completely delicious.

Some Things I Learned at the Conference

  • Why "M&E"—Monitoring and Evaluation—Matters. The "revenue" side of NGO's is the grant money they get from funders like USAID . So it makes sense that they want to show that the grant money was well-spent. For NGO's, no impact means a lower likelihood of obtaining follow-on funding. This also means that data collection is a big deal. No data means you have a harder time describing your impact. And since much of NGO work happens with illiterate people and in Internet-challenged locales, it makes data collection a tricky task.
  • What also matters is accounting. You've got multiple grants, with different reporting requirements and (sometimes) different rules about things like expense reimbursement. Teasing out the sources and uses of funds becomes an important activity.
  • Who exhibits at a conference like Inside NGO? Well, you might not have thought about companies that can deliver fleets of trucks. Or handle security. Or tell you what the going rate for talent in fill-in-the-country.
  • The best leave-behind? The legal firm that set out little "goodie bags" on the tables, with their business card and little chocolates. The chocolates had a QR code on them.
  • I must be good at handling ambiguity. I was presenting on a "future of technology" panel with another person and it was a challenge to get the material together, boil it down, and focus it on a clear set of messages. It seemed like every discussion and slide deck was taking things further and further toward perfect entropy. But we were actually able to focus on some key topics and bring the material back around to support those topics. We talked about order and chaos as one topic, and invited the audience to guess which of us represented each quality. Great fun!

More Random Observations

  • Picked up Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In (buy it here) as a presenter gift.  Now I can see what all the buzz is about in Silicon Valley.
  • Brunch and happy hour: two Washington traditions.
  • Bocce league. Because nothing says, "I'm ready to drink with my friends!" than a game of Bocce.
  • Redskins mania is in full swing. There are multiple on-site stories from… Redskins training camp.
  • Apparently you can measure the state of the economy by the level of indifference exhibited by the bar/restaurant wait staff.
  • Yes, I actually saw a man pulling a cello across the street. The cello had a rubber wheel attached to the base. Very interesting photo opportunity.
  • The conference had a jobs board (the old paper kind) located right next to the entrance to the exhibits.  That seemed a little awkward: "hey, Jim, what are you looking at?"
  • While enjoying a "half smoke" sausage from one of the street vendors outside George Washington University, I see the classic Washington casual outfit for the summer: tan slacks, penny loafers, a blue blazer, blue pinstripe shirt and a tie. Sported by more than one of the high school students on some kind of college immersion program.
  • Live jazz combo at the airport – that's a nice touch.
  • Ordered a burrito in the Dulles Airport. Clearly I am desperate. Perhaps I should've followed Brian's advice and gone to Wendy's.
  • We're delayed an hour, waiting for thunderstorms to clear. I discover this after waking up from my nap, which started the moment they started reading the pre-flight emergency instructions at the gate.
  • Kid behind me spills his drink all over his seat cushion (not much a flotation device now!) Flight attendant asks us to swap a spare seat cushion for the soaked one. Throws in some free wine to seal the deal. Works for me!

Another good trip. I got to spend some quality time with family and friends, met some folks I'd only talked to on the phone or via email, and had great feedback on the panel discussions. And the heat/humidity wasn't bad at all. Either that, or my visit to Houston (link) has forever increased my tolerance level!

Product Managers on the Road, Capitol Edition

One of our largest customers, a group of agricultural research centers, held the annual meeting of their IT Managers in early May, in Washington, DC.  I was invited to attend so that I could provide an update on a pilot Active Directory project we were conducting, and to give a talk on Microsoft's direction with respect to cloud computing.  Naturally, this meant an opportunity for another "Product Managers on the Road" edition!

Travel Day.  Flight leaves at 6 AM... yeesh. At least I have a car taking me to the airport.  Brian's with me, since he came out to make a surprise visit to Sean during Sean's chemotherapy treatment.

After saying goodbye to Brian (he's on a different flight back to DC) I head to the gate.  Okay... it's a 737 with only paid amenities.  Time to stock up on some nuts and dried fruit for the flight. I send a couple of text messages to Sean to see how he's feeling.

It's a full flight, and naturally everyone is attempting to carry their life's possessions onto the flight.  They were taking volunteers to gate-check bags; a great way to check your bags for free.

On the plane. The passenger ahead of me is falling asleep, and keeps snapping her neck as her head drops forward.  Reminds me of me at the opera.

Good news: there's a monitor in the seat back.  Bad news: I can't turn it off.  Welcome to six hours of the same Lincoln car commercial.  Or I could pay to watch network TV shows, with commercials. Wait, what?

Dante, who's traveling with me, finds the oldest Peruvian restaurant in DC.  I get to experience aji, a kind of all-purpose hot sauce.  I stupidly ask Dante if he's ever had Peruvian food, forgetting that Dante is from Peru


Niner fans--you never know where they'll turn up. 

Meeting Day One.  At the IT Managers meeting.  I learn a new term when one of the IT Managers says he is going to “throw a spanner in the works.”

Many of the IT Managers here are European.  Maybe that's why they commented that today's hot meal is "a real lunch" compared with yesterday's cold sandwiches.  I also notice a reluctance to eat in the meeting room, even though there are more places to sit there.  This is certainly different than a startup!  There's also a bit of the "Microsoft as Evil Empire" feeling in the room.  How long until Google attains that status?

Good news: the Golden State Warriors' playoff game is on TNT! Bad news: there's no sound.  I get to watch the entire game, including two overtimes, on forced mute.  Steph Curry's face at the end of the game says, "can we just get this over?"

Meeting Day Two.  During one of the smoking breaks (!) I observe the commotion as a group of people are trying to feed/protect a duck they find nesting in the flowers.  The contrast in attention paid to the duck vs. the homeless guy panhandlng nearby is perfect.


Yes, that's a duck nesting in the planter outside the building I was visiting.

Dante and I get to leave the meeting early.  So I take Dante to see the Capitol Building.  We're walking, and when I feel the first couple of raindrops we head for shelter.  Good thing--the skies open up for 10 minutes or more.  We end up taking a taxi the rest of the way to the Capitol building.  Of course, the rain stops as soon as we arrive.


This is outside the World Bank, one of our customers.  But I took the photo because the logo reminded me of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Huh?

Looking for a cab after out Capitol visit.  Thanks to a kind taxi driver, I learn where to stand (and where not to stand) if you're looking for a cab, in the rain, at 5:00 PM.

Evening off.  Brian and I had planned to go see the Washington Nationals play, but I already have one experience getting rained on while watching them, so we change plans.  We end up getting some great seafood, including, oysters we've never heard of before, at Hank's Oyster Bar in Georgetown.  Then it's over to a 60s style bar for a drink.  I feel like I'm in some sort of James Bond movie.

Day Three.  Visiting another customer, have some time before my appointment.  The weather's cleared up a bit, so I take a stroll near the White House and then back to where I had been staying.  I decide I'd better eat now, since I may use up all my lunch time walking back to my hotel.  I grab a hot dog and find a bench to sit and eat.


I can only imagine the advice McKinsey gave this vendor: "diversify!"

Now back to the hotel, to check out and go to my next appointment. 


I found the food trucks.  Too bad I already ate lunch!

A great meeting with my customer, now on to the airport and back home... As Brian had told me, Thursday afternoon is the worst time to fly out of Dulles; all the Congress-people are headed back home for the weekend.  So everything takes longer, and my plan to change into casual clothes before the flight is for naught.  I have just enough time to get to the gate and hand them my ticket.  And who do I run into (almost literally) at the gate? Jackie Speier.  Brian interned for Jackie when he first went to Washington, so it was great to catch up with her and let her know what Brian is doing these days.

Late-night arrival in SFO.  Fortunately, I have a car taking me home so I can doze off.  Great trip, great fun with Brian and co, great customer interactions!







Product Managers on the Road, Weekend Edition

Note: I started this post a week ago, as I was on my way to New Mexico for a one-day ski trip.  It was written sort of as-it-happened so don't expect too much literary refinement!


So I'm on my way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm headed there to meet up with my son Brian for a day of skiing in Taos, about two hours away. It's my first trip since I renewed my passport, and my first flight in maybe a year. So, on with the random observations…

  • SJC is quite different than I remember it, at least getting to long term parking is different. First, it's called "Economy Parking." OK, that explains the lack of "Long Term Parking this way" signs. And no, I can't circle around the north end of the runways to get to the long-term parking lot I usually go to; that one's only accessible from De La Cruz/Coleman Ave.
  • So glad I printed out my boarding pass on Southwest Airlines ahead of time! I was able to skip the lines and go straight to baggage check (FREE baggage check, thank you Southwest!).
  • Had to be told to remove my shoes before going through the metal detector. Rookie mistake!
  • People are wondering why I'm carrying around my down jacket, aka Puffy or Puff Daddy. Hey, maybe I don't need it in San Jose or Las Vegas, but I will in New Mexico!
  • Our gate is directly across from the Illy espresso bar in Terminal B… torture!
  • I must be like a dog… I never noticed the "order here" and "pick up here" signs at Jamba Juice because they're way above my head.
  • SJC offers free Wi-Fi (after you watch a commercial). The iPass business model continues to erode.
  • So my flight to Albuquerque stops first in Las Vegas. That explains all the bachelorettes, fraternity boy groups, folks trading stories about where to get the best drinks and cheapest food, and the abundance of women with surgically enhanced breasts waiting to board my flight.
  • Judging from her makeup, I'm pretty sure the San Jose gate agent is moonlighting as a Las Vegas showgirl.I'm pretty sure I'm the only person on this flight who won't be getting off the plane in Las Vegas.
  • We haven't even boarded and I've already heard a "lost wages" reference.
  • There are nine of us going on to Albuquerque. So it's guaranteed that the other two people in my row are among them.
  • When the pilot said it would be "bumpy" going into Las Vegas, he meant, "We're going to re-enact that part of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea where the SSRN Seaview collides with the giant sea creature."
  • Always interesting when the airport shares a runway with the local Air Force base, as is the case in Albuquerque.
  • Brian's hotel is full of college students attending an indoor track meet at the convention center next door.  Reminds me of basketball tournaments at the (then) Reno Hilton.
  • Why am I always nervous before I go skiing?
  • Special thanks to my hairdresser for telling me about the Bavarian House in Taos.  It was definitely worth the long ski run to get to it!
  • As we sit outside at the Bavarian House, I realize that my beer is getting colder as it sits waiting for me to drink it.
  • Skied down several mogul runs… not by choice.
  • Perfect timing: we're both ready to stop skiing at 2:30, just as the snowfall picks up and the mountain disappears under the weather.
  • Even at 25, I still have to talk Brian off the ledge occasionally.
  • The New Mexico highway rest stops are nothing to write home about.
  • Bighorn sheep crossing—now that's cool.
  • But our favorite: the "cow crossing" signs with added "UFO crossing" decals.
  • You can't beat New Mexico architecture.
  • Either there are a lot of empty houses around, or there are a lot of people that only spend the summer in New Mexico.
  • It's odd that the food in New Mexico is great, but there's really no "fine dining" experience.
  • There's Mexican food, and there's New Mexican food, and they're not the same thing.
  • Your basic choice: do you want red or green sauce with that?
  • Who knew there was a local New Mexico wine industry?
  • Brian (after we've driven through Santa Fe and the snow is blowing sideways): "Siri, get us the hell out of here!" Siri: you should take up your existential questions with someone more qualified than me, preferably a human."
  • As the weather front descended on us while driving back to Albuquerque, Brian and I both thought of the alien space ships from Independence Day.
  • The turn-by-turn navigation app clearly has not mastered Spanish pronunciation.
  • Why does the female voice in the Albuquerque Doubletree elevator have a British accent?
  • Leave it to Brian to know the names of the New Mexico congressional delegation, and be able to pick them out of the list of people waiting for a first class upgrade on his flight back to Washington.
  • You can't beat traveling with your adult children.
  • The storm has passed through Albuquerque and is headed east. Me, I'm headed west thank you!
  • Ah, San Diago, whales va….
  • I can't wait to do this again.

Garden 2012 Recap

Along with the photo album recounting the various stages of this year's garden, I thought I'd provide a review of what did and didn't work this year.


We tried okra this year, which was fun. It's true that if you pick the pods when they're small and use them right away (that day) then the sliminess associated with okra is minimized. Conversely, if you (as I did) let some of the pods get quite large (more than about 3-4 inches long), they have the consistency of tree bark.

I was able to get some good plantings of radicchio, the "Treviso" type that looks more like Romaine lettuce than a red cabbage. The flavor is bitter, like the more common forms of radicchio, but this variety can be used easily in salads as well as sautee's.

Garlic was a big hit. We planted it in the fall of 2011, and it was ready in the May/June time frame. We had some locally grown garlic as seed stock, which produced a hardneck variety with red paper skins. Drying the garlic was quite important, and those bulbs that we didn't dry thoroughly tended to rot. But the flavor and freshness of home grown garlic is a real treat!

Sweet peppers were largely a hit. We grew a number of varieties, focusing on yellow and red bell peppers, as well as Italian "horn" style red peppers. The peppers we grew under solar mulch did much better than the ones grown without it; the solar mulch peppers had much more well-developed root systems. We ate the peppers fresh and also roasted a lot of them, then froze or canned them. The sweet Italian ones were some of my favorites.

Through random chance, the one hot pepper variety that made it into the bed with the solar mulch was Joe's Long Cayenne. These were a pleasant surprise. First, they plants are prolific: I probably harvested 20 or more peppers off of each plant. The peppers were long, thin and crinkly, with a beautiful red color. Initially I had thought only about drying some of the peppers (for a favorite Cajun "uncle") but I had so many peppers that I was able to make a sauce with them. The taste of fresh cayenne pepper sauce is so much better than anything store-bought! I made some Tabasco-type sauce and then made a thicker version that would be great as a hot wing sauce. How good was it? The sauce was gone long before I had a chance to think about canning it.

One problem we did have with peppers (and some of the tomatoes) was Verticilium Wilt. At first I thought the peppers had been sunburned, so I put a row cover on the bed. But the peppers kept developing soft spots, which is a symptom of wilt.

We were much more judicious in planting summer and winter squash, especially after last year's summer squash overload. We put just three squash plants in a bed (along with hot pepper plants—see below), which gave them enough room to spread out and produce lots of fruit. With the plants not all crowded together it made it easier to find the fruit before they turned into squash baseball bats. The winter squash (butternut) turned out shorter than what you find in the store, but the flavor is still great.

I planted eggplants (having learned how to start them, along with peppers, from seed) in a barrel planter that I relocated to a sunnier spot in the yard. They did well and produced lots of 4-5 inch fruit (a purple variety and a purple/white striped variety). It turns out that the smaller size of the fruits meant that they were more tender and easier to cook up than larger eggplants. It was great to go out and grab a few for a quick stir-fry.

Fava beans did well this year. Planting early helped, as did using the smaller cages (sold for tomatoes) for support. I'd advise you to plant in quantity, because it takes a lot of fava beans to make a meal or side dish. You also have to pick them every day; we didn't, and the crop went bad after spending too long on the vine.

Kale was another hit. We planted both Russian and Toscano varieties; both were great. Kale is getting up there with Chard as one of my favorite vegetables for growing and eating.

We grew basil, since it goes so well with tomatoes. Cheryl made pesto and froze it; I haven't tried that. There's nothing like fresh basil in the summer, and they attract bees and other beneficial insects.

Foul Tips

Broccoli and cauliflower both did reasonably well this year. We got some nice heads of each, more so with the cauliflower. But the heads were on the small side, and letting them grow past baseball size usually didn't result in better size or quality. Using transplants made a big difference; it also helped to plant when the weather was still cool, in the early spring.

Corn turned out to be largely a bust this year, due primarily to not planting it early enough in the season. I selected a "late season" variety (Montauk) that did manage to produce some ears by September-October. But there just wasn't enough sun to get the ears really plump. Still, they tasted great!

We planted onions (Copra, for storage, and Alisa Craig Exhibition, for sweet onions) at the same time as the garlic. Since we planted the onions as seeds, thinning was required. And while I thinned once or twice, I decided late to thin the onions again. The Copra onions that were thinned and replanted early on did great. The Alisa Craig onions did well, but never developed the large bulbs I expected. This variety probably needs less daylight than we get at our latitude. The onions that were thinned late took a while to regain their vigor and grow, leading to under-sized bulbs at the time of harvest. The lesson here: thin early, and be aggressive!

Chard (aka Swiss Chard) is normally a staple in our garden. But for some reason we forgot to plant it early, as we usually do (it's one of the first vegetables ready for harvest). We did plant Chard in the summer, and got some good harvests, but we could have done better if we had planted earlier.

Cheryl and Patrick attended a tomato seed-starting class, and passed with flying colors. And rather than thin three seedlings and keep the best one in a pot, Cheryl kept each. That, together with the unexpected germination of "volunteer" plants from last year in the pepper and asparagus beds, meant that we had over 100 tomato plants in the garden. And yet, the production was not what you might expect with that many plants. The main culprit seems to be lack of soil fertility. Few of the tomato plants were as healthy and vigorous as I would normally expect—the plants looked spindly. They did produce a lot of tomatoes, but probably not as many as they would have if they had been healthier. A lot of the Marzano varieties produced well, but the fruit was small (under 3 inches).

We had wilt problems with some of the plants, and lots of "cat's eye" cracking due to inconsistent watering. The cherry varieties did reasonably well, as did the larger, "golf ball" sized tomatoes. But the oxheart and beefsteak varieties were not so productive and what tomatoes they did produce were kind of sick looking.

That said, the flavor of the tomatoes was fantastic! (One note—you really could only compare varieties in the field, since once they were harvested they all ended up in one basket and you couldn't tell one variety from another). We found a great recipe for tomato sauce that involved just roasting the tomatoes (along with other aromatics such as onions and garlic) and then blending the mixture together and straining. The sauce developed great flavor and couldn't be easier to make. We also dried some of the Marzano's; we would have dried more of them if they had been larger.

After last year's cantaloupe adventure (they really do need a lot of room!) we scaled back our cantaloupe planting to just a few plants. They produced softball-sized cantaloupe… small but still full of flavor. And the second round of plants were put in too late, not producing much before the cold and lack of sun shut them down.

I planted some "Alibi" cucumbers in a barrel planter at my house, wanting to make home-made dill pickles. Late planting and a lack of sun (the barrel is on the North side of the house) meant that the plants went a long time without producing anything. And then one day I was surprised to find a cucumber hiding under one of the plant leaves. I did manage to get enough cucumbers to make a batch of dill pickles (from an Andrew Zimmern recipe), that are delicious.

Cheryl planted strawberries, which took a while to establish. We kept them netted to keep the birds out, but they ended up growing through the netting (as did the weeds) which was a mess. As we move into winter, they've established themselves nicely and I'm expecting a better crop next year. We put down solar mulch to warm them up, but now that they're sending out "volunteers" I want to pull up the mulch so the plants can spread throughout the box.

Lettuce and garden greens did OK. The pelleted lettuce seeds a neighbor gave us didn't produce at all; either they were old or not adequately watered. We did manage to grow arugula (one of my favorites), as well as a couple kinds of lettuce and some Asian greens (mizuno, among other types). Again, the secret is daily harvesting, so that the plants don't go to seed while we're not looking.


I had high hopes for beans this season… which is all I got. We planted two types of shell beans and a dry bean, and had almost nothing to harvest. I got a handful of "Tongue of Fire" beans and no Flageolet. I think inoculating the beans, together with more consistent watering, will help for next year.

Hot peppers (Scotch Bonnet, Bhutan, Hawaiian, Thai) got off to a bad start and never recovered. The transplants were a bit scrawny, likely due to insufficient heat during the seed starting phase. I happened to plant them without solar mulch, which further slowed down their growth. I actually got a couple of Scotch Bonnets in November as I was pulling summer plants, but that was it. Next year, I may try starting these types of peppers in the greenhouse, as it will be nice and warm in there by late spring.

Like beans, the peas we planted grew but never produced much. I think inoculants will help here as well.

I tried planting a little dill to use in pickling, and got one or two snips but that was all. I need to choose a sunnier location next time!

Likewise, I tossed a few beet seeds in one of the tomato containers, but they were always too shaded to really get started.

Some Lessons

Feed Your Soil

While the weather this year was more in line with normal patterns of cold and warmth, many of our plants didn't grow as well as we had expected. Some of this might have been due to irregular watering, but I'm betting that our soil was just tired. At my garden on Canada Road, it was easy to keep the soil fertilized: I had an active horse manure composting operation going and needed to do something with the compost about every three months. This year, the garden at Hubner Hallow didn't get the benefit of horse manure compost, and the impact was evident. Many of the tomatoes, despite being in half-barrels with ample water, were just not as lush and full as I have seen in other years. To further back this up, the tomatoes that I did plant in one of the original beds—which came with composted soil from Canada Road—grew like mad, and had well-developed root systems.

Help the Bugs

The good bugs, that is. This was the first year where we had a deer fence around the entire garden area, vs. fencing off each bed. One of the unexpected side effects of that seems to have been an increase in the number of lizards in the garden area. We also made an effort to grow plants that would attract beneficial insects (such as basil) and/or discourage the bad bugs. I noticed a marked decrease in bug infestations, especially aphids and flea beetles. All of the produce looked a lot better!

2013 Focus

Thanks to my friend Cory at Neuscapes, we now have a reliable basis for irrigation in the garden. It's time to set up separate irrigation zones, and also to figure out watering frequency and duration given the kind of drainage the soil has.

We've also started addressing the soil fertility issue, planting green manures in the beds. The green manures will grow into the spring, at which time we'll cut them and plow them back into the soil. We're also working on horse manure compost.

We're already looking at what we want to feature in next year's garden, what's new that we want to try, and what we can't live without. Time to review seed catalogs and get ready for seed-starting early in 2013!

Product Managers on the Road, Hollywood Edition

I recently had to make an emergency visit to a customer in Los Angeles. They were having some messaging problems and we decided that it would be best to observe the issues first-hand so that we could resolve them. Here, in short form, are my highlights from this one-day trip.

  • It's 4 AM and I'm getting up so I can leave at 4:45 AM for the airport… Why do Product Managers always get the sucky travel assignments?
  • 4:45 AM: "Hi I'm Josh, I'll be your driver." Thanks Josh. Don't think I'm rude as I try to get a little sleep on the way to San Jose airport.
  • In the security line. Some people carry an awful lot of gadgets with them.
  • The one redeeming virtue of traveling out of SJC this early is that I get to go to the Illy Espressamente coffee bar. My body needs that cup of coffee, even if it is decaffeinated (don't ask me how that works).
  • At 6:20 AM passengers are getting anxious, as the flight leaves in 15 minutes and there have been no boarding announcements. The Southwest gate agent comes on and announces that, as there are only 20 people on the flight, we will be boarding en masse. Looks like paying for that "go to the front of the line" privilege wasn't such a great idea.
  • We arrive at the customer's site a little before 8 AM. Perfect! Except that the receptionist isn't in yet, the company contact we thought we were meeting took the day off, and most of the people we want to meet will be in an all-morning meeting starting at 9 AM.
  • It's now about 4 PM and we need to get to Burbank airport. On my way out the door I see a sign above a printer: "This printer is named Bob Marley, because it's always jammin'!"
  • Now to find a taxi. News flash: this is LA, home of "if you don't have a car, you don't deserve to be here." Luckily, we're a short walk from Hollywood and Vine, and where there are tourists there will be taxis.
  • Our cabbie swears off taking the freeway to the airport (he can't be from around here)… Turns out, he knows what he's talking about: we get to the airport in half the time it took to go the other direction this morning.
  • Our cabbie likes to talk. A lot. We don't mind, because he seems to know where he's going (unlike cabbies in DC). And he punctuates stories he's particularly proud of by giving me a thumbs-up in the rear-view mirror. OK!
  • Among other topics of conversation in our cab:
    • His solution for handling Chinese drivers
    • What it takes to sell jewelry
    • Why he doesn't allow passengers to have sex in his cab
    • The joke about the white guy, the Jew and the Armenian
  • And—naturally—he's an agent for a singer. Check her out here.

Product Management may be many things, but "dull" is never one of them!

Hot Tip: A Discontinuity in...

... the Toaster market.

This has been bugging me for a while, which should tell you all you need to know about my bizarre mind:  what's up with electric toasters?  As I popped the bread out of our toaster this morning, I realized that I've been putting up with its state of non-functionality for maybe three years now.  To be honest, I'm just happy it doesn't catch on fire while toasting my English muffins.

We have one of those low-priced toasters (I won't mention which one, but it's on the chart below).  All we ask is that it toast the bread adequately, pop it up when it's done, and not catch on fire in the process.  You might say we've set the bar rather low in the requirements department.  Heck, we were delighted that it had a "bagel mode".

Of course, within about a year of buying the toaster, the dial that controls how light or dark you want your toast stopped working.  You can set it to whatever  you like, but the toaster will toast your bread to whatever level it deems appropriate.  It's kind of French that way: "No, monsieur, I will bring your croque-monsieur like so."

Fast forward to today.  I was on a culinary parts website, ordering replacement parts for our Cuisinart food processor.  Once I finished up my ordering, I thought I'd see what they had to offer for toasters.  I searched for two-slice toasters.  I didn't get any fancier than that--four-slice models just encourage overnight guests, and we haven't had a toaster oven since we got married.  What I found is in the chart below.

Toaster Prices

What you see is that there are a number of manufacturers and models to choose from in the sub-$50 price range.  And there a couple of choices in the (incredible) $250 price range. (Side note: are the super-expensive ones really that good? Or should I just buy five of the cheap models and replace one every year?)

But, except for one Krups model, there is nothing in between the $50 and $250 price points!  Clearly there's a gap in the market here, ready to be exploited by some socially-networked, ad-supported, iPad-enabled product.  I'm calling on entrepreneurs everywhere to address this gap in the market.  Take my idea and run with it, I ask for nothing in return... except for a working toaster. Or five.

Home Cured Olives Update

It's been about three weeks since we first picked our olives for curing. Here's an update on the three methods we've used for curing the olives.

Water Curing

This will turn out to be the fastest curing method. I had to change the water used for curing the olives every day. It took about 20 days to rid the olives of their bitter (think mouth-puckering) taste. So the next step was to prepare a salt water and vinegar brine, pour it over the olives, and top with some olive oil. Since I had a lot of olives, I put the olives in two containers and added some herbs (peppercorns, bay leaves and garlic) to one of the brine solutions. Now the olives will steep in the brine for up to a month to develop their flavor. Adding the garlic to one of the brines meant that I have to store that one in the fridge, to prevent unhealthy stuff from "cooking" in the brine. The other container is sitting in our shed, where the temperature is about the same as a wine cave.

Brine Curing

The brine curing has been the easiest method, but takes the longest time. After soaking in a salt water brine for a week, I transferred the olives to individual canning jars and brined them with a higher strength solution. The jars are now sitting in the same shed. I'll change the brine once a month for the next few (up to six) months, until the olives lose their bitter taste.

Salt Curing

The olives have been sitting in a plastic colander covered with kosher salt for a couple of weeks now. Once a week I put the olives in a bowl, re-mix them, and return them to the colander. Then I cover the olives with a new layer of kosher salt. You can tell that the salt is leaching out the moisture from the olives—the salt feels wet and the olives are starting to develop wrinkles. These guys have a few weeks of curing left and then they'll be ready for storing in brine or olive oil.

I'll check in again when we get to the tasting part… with any luck we'll have plenty of olives for those summer evenings on the deck with a glass of white wine, some cheese and a crust of French bread!

Our Weekend Culinary Adventure—Curing Olives

Jan2011 025 comp I am beginning to wonder if my life is going to be defined by the things I used to find disgusting. First, there were tomatoes. To be fair, I didn't find them disgusting, I just had no interest in eating them. (There was that unfortunate incident in second grade, when I had to eat two tomato sandwiches before Mrs. Robbins—an actual, retired WAC—would let me go play at lunchtime, but that's another story.) Fast forward a number of years, and I'm growing tomatoes for friends and neighbors.

Then there were figs. We had two fig trees in LA, and left them in place when we put in a brick patio in the back yard. From that point on, I only thought of figs as those things that went splat on the brick patio. I could either clean them up right away, or deal with the ants that would find them within hours. Fast forward a like number of years, and I'm grilling figs with prosciutto on the barbecue. Go figure.

And now we turn to olives. I grew up thinking olives in their natural state were poisonous (not true) and at any rate cursed them as they dropped onto the lawn in front of our condo, making a mess of things.

So now, having become interested in canning and preserving, I took note of the olive trees on our property. Our landlord had no plans for the olives (he put the trees in for decorative purposes) and gave us the OK to pick them. So Crystal and I went out before the rains showed up and picked olives for curing.

Jan2011 024 comp

It turns out that the "poisonous" notion surrounding olives (at least for me) has to do with the way they're normally cured. Commercially, olives are cured with lye. UC literature on home curing tells you how to do this without killing yourself, but I went the "don't try this at home" route and opted for the non-lye methods of olive curing. They take longer, but don't have the potential side effects that curing with lye can have.

Having picked a surprisingly large amount of olives, we moved on to the curing process. There are three main methods:

  • Water curing. You soak the olives in water, change it every day for about 10 days, and you're done. The main drawback to this method is the need to slice into the olives in order to allow the water to penetrate. Since we were working with small olives (Picholine, as far as we can tell), this took a lot of time. Fortunately, it was the perfect activity to take on while watching multiple shows on The Food Network.
  • Salt curing. This was the method I was most looking forward to. You pack the olives in salt, and let it draw out the oleuropein that gives uncured olives their (trust me on this, I tried one) incredible bitterness. These olives should be ready in about 6 weeks.
  • Brine curing. This method uses a brine of salt and water to cure the olives. It's the easiest method to do (change the brine once a month) but takes 4-6 months to complete.

Jan2011 028 comp

As it turned out, we had plenty of olives and so we've cured olives using each of these methods. The brine-cured olives are on the far left in this photo, the water-cured are in the middle and the salt-cured are on the right.

We'll let you know how they turn out; if they're good you can count on eating some during aperitif this summer!

Jan2011 028 comp Here you can see the brine-cured olives on the far left, the water-cured olives in the middle and the salt-cured olives on the right.