Italy!

Danielle and I recently went to Italy. Lots of food, walking, looking at old things, having fun trying to communicate in our rudimentary Italian, and daydrinking (the red underline I currently see means that word hasn’t yet made the dictionary). Over the course of 10 days we took a bunch of touristy pictures of the colosseum and the canals in Venice, as well as pictures of people taking those same pictures:

but this is after all a food blog, so most of these shots are food related (if you’d like to see the ruins of Pompeii I suggest Google images). It really is true about the food being good everywhere, from lamb shank pasta with super authentic tiny bone shards, to some  unbelievable restaurants intentionally hidden from the mobs of out-of-towners, to the pizza we had at 4am in the airport on the way out, it was all amazing. Some highlights:

Napolean pizza from some teenage cousins who opened their restaurant in Pompei a half hour early for us (and to watch Cucina Con Buddy AKA Cake Boss).

Spinach pasta and Steak Flourentine prepared by Gabrig, our eccentric airBNB host.

Osso Buco, also in Firenze at tiny tucked in Buca dell’Orafo.

This is what you get when you take a seat outside this restaurant in Venice and say ‘yes’ when the guy asks if you’d like the fish (he also says ‘yes’ to your 60 Euro).

One of our favorite dinners was Trattoria Da Georgio in Florence.

Seafood market in Venice…

…that also offers horse meat.

Our Hotel in Pompei offered us fresh orange juice from their trees out back, they where somewhat surprised when we took one sip and sprinted out back to take pictures.

Oddly enough this deli-bought cold pasta could have been the best thing we had.

Sfogliatelle, the signature pastry of Napoli.

I did my best to research where to go and what to eat in each place we visited. Some places were slam dunks, and some of them were aborted after peering in to see the chef alone on a barstool playing Angry Birds or Temple Run while people were spilling out on the street trying to get a table next door.  Venice being the ultimate tourist destination/trap was a bit harder to figure out where and what to eat with out being taken for a sap (io non sono turista!) until I stumbled on this article from The Guardian. The key is to basically just tiny sandwich’s, raw fish bites, and meatballs as you go from wine bar to wine bar. We ended up hitting 5-6 or these places, the first night just to have drinks, which sounds nicer than just saying to drink, and the second night to go back and get all of the food we missed by being too full after the huge plate of fish. In particular the spicy fried meatballs or ‘polpette’ from Ca’ll D’oro. This we agreed was the best food item of the trip, and perhaps the best food item of all time.

These were the meatballs.

Must have more!

Immediately upon returning home with the taste fresh in our mouths we tried to recreate these amazing balls. We found a recipe that used a mixture of pork and beef, and spiced them with cayenne and tons of pepper. These were pretty amazing, but not quite spicy enough… The search continues.

Other fun pictures:

A brief respite from pasta.

This is actually the church in polish hill…

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Mini Garlicy Scallop Sandwiches

For a while I had a draft post sitting in the cue called “thanks Mark Bittman.” I started writing it when he retired from his full time post at New York Times. I wanted to thank him for all of the inspiration that he’d given me and go through a series of my favorite recipes. The post became too cumbersome. Instead of coming up with a list I came up with one all time favorite, the Fennel Celery Salad (literally fennel, celery, parmesan sliced on a mandolin, tossed with lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper) and then a list of semi-favorites. To my chagrin he may have ‘retired’ but he didn’t really stop working, or so it seems to me. Maybe more of it is legacy than I am realizing, maybe he’s struggling to fully unplug.

I bought a pizza and wine book on one of our vacations up the coast at a winery, it pairs pizzas with different vineyards wines. I bought it thinking I was only years away from a brick pizza oven in my backyard. Oh dreams! I have since realized that it has a very fruit bomb forward central-coast clientele in mind who want to buy cases of bodacious wines and take them back to their tuscan inspired paradises on the ridge. The parings and the recipes both suggest this. e.g. “arugula, bresaola, and parmesan pizza paired with a monticello vineyards estate grown pino” or “caramelized onion, italian sausage, and roasted red peppers with a robert hall rhone de robles”. The bacon wrapped scallops recipe sat on a bed of fava beans, minus the bacon it seemed like a healthy and handsome coupling.

Steve helped me search for scallop recipes that were more adventurous than a light fry in butter and garlic, but less intense than Anne Willan’s ‘spiced’ (basically curried) scallops, and ideally not breaded (not sure why so many people insist on this treatment). He found this Mark Bittman delight, slice the scallops half way through and stuff them with basil, garlic, salt and pepper. I also took a token from the New York Times Cookbook and soaked them in vermoth for an hour and added a touch to the pan along with the olive oil. I fried them slightly (to burn off the alcohol) and then broiled them.

Fava beans were shucked once and cooked in olive oil and vermoth with shallots and garlic for 20 min. Then seperateed and shucked again (to get the greyish layer off) then put back in with the shallots, smushed with a fork and mixed with freshly chopped parsley. In retrospect I would salt these slightly.

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Beer Pancakes & Coffee-off

Picked up this trick over the holidays at mom’s. We always have big family breakfasts with 2-3 random friends and piles of whatever we can find in the fridge. Mom whipped out an old school recipe for Beer Pancakes, which I didn’t instantly remember as such but did remember the result of. Steve fell in love with them, can’t blame the guy, they were undoubtedly delicious. Sundays are usually a big breakfast day for us in Long Beach. I volunteer Saturday mornings at the Marine Mammal Care Center as an animal care giver, and thus Steve is usually the lunch chef on Saturdays. We’ve been through a series of habits for Sundays. For a while we’d bike down to Polly’s, a local coffee roaster, pick up a New York Times, split it in half and then give each other best-of’s from what we read. That tradition made way to a quick fascination with an adorable little breakfast place nestled in the Belmont Heights neighborhood. For a while we went through piles of french toast, then grits, then biscuits, and most recently pancakes.

The beer pancakes I made to spec, but I did learn that fresh baking soda is really important. Maybe more so than usual or maybe I just stretched those tires until they started to chord. Give them a good whisk too, I had a few chunks, but they work their way out and make for some fun, as they exploded little beer bombs in the frying pan (see below).

Heath Ceramics has a retail outlet in Hollywood, without realizing who they were we stumbled in for my love of brightly colored bowls. In addition to picking up some goldfish cracker bowls (no joke), some jars, and lusting over Natalie Chanin place-mats that were $150 a piece, we added a bag of Blue Bottle coffee to the cart. Gasp. We’ve never tried it before. We live in the land of Intelligentsia, it’s not exactly lying around. When stowing it in the coffee pile we noticed that we had a comparably aged and roasted bag of True Beans, a long beach outfit that aspires to be so well recognized. So we had a taste-off of peruvian black coffees with our beer pancakes, a part of the experience which I would highly recommend.

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Stantastic East Southern Feast Part II

Yes its true, I made fried chicken for Stantastic before, but that time was last minute, a desperate attempt to fill the sunday night soul food void in our bellies when all soul fooderies had shuttered for the evening. This time was premeditated. Or at least thought of while Danielle was out and about, and available to stop and get collard greens, eggs, and buttermilk. The other impetus for a Stantastic East Southern Feast Redux was the Paula Deen Southern Cooking Bible that was given to me as a gift by a special guitar student. Who doesn’t love the gift of clogged arteries and secret diabetes? While the recipes for mashed potatoes and braised greens came from Deen, I opted to again use the Bromberg Brother’s recipe for northern fried chicken. The appeal of finally trying out the matzah meal as breading outweighed (pun intended) the concept of cooking entirely fer y’all.

We’ve been making a lot of chicken recently, in part because of these 3 lb whole chickens that can be purchased–at whole foods of all places–for around $5. While this is a steal in terms of dollars per chicken part, there is the added labor of dissembling the foul. The importance of this task for fried chicken is compacted by the need to keep the skin on each piece, and also to try not to have a bunch of shattered bone in the meat. I readied myself with about five instructional youtube videos, and was able to perform by far my cleanest butchering, and maintain the skin on each piece. The wingtips and the carcass promptly went into the oven to begin the process of gravy making.

At this point I’d like to quote Paula Deen:

!?!?!?!?!
Seriously, we had to try this and you know what? It was pretty good. It turns out that bacon grease and melted butter, with salt and a little bit of hot sauce makes for a delicious, nutritious drink. The remaining pot liquor is still in the fridge, and I may go get a mug full of it right now!

We Also made the ‘Buttery Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes’ from the SCB, and they were pretty outstanding as well, I think we used a bit less butter than she called for, not for health reasons but because we ran out. You know your making a good meal when you run out of butter.

I’ve been all about making gravies since getting a crash course in dripping based sauce making from our good friend David. He did spout some hogwash about acids and emulsifiers, but the main take away was just to keep stirring adding and tasting until it tastes good. The Bromberg Bros. method of roasting the wingtips and carcass for an hour before simmering it in stock seemed to work great, as did they’re suggestion to flavor it with a boat load of thyme, this could be the Colonel’s secret weapon.

Occasional Stantastic collaborator and Great Chili Cook-off runner up Alex Ruck added a salad to contrast the hedonism of the rest of the meal. The salad ended up with a couple of fried eggs and potatoes in it, because who can let hot frying oil just sit there and not deep fry anything?

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Beef & Broccoli, Because Alex Only Likes The Tops

This super quick and delicious Beef and Brocoli recipe from Steamy Kitchen is for those, like Alex, who prefer just the ‘florets’ of the broccoli. Which I’ve always wondered….What is your take on dim sum style Gai-Lan Al? It’s pretty much topless. I always find myself waving wildly and getting up and walking across the room to make sure that the broccoli cart swings by the table. Once I finally get it, which always feels like it’s 1/2 way through the meal I then completely struggle to eat gracefully. I haven’t been able to figure out if I truly like the dish or if I appreciate it as the only hearty green vegetable in the sea of porky, gooey, oily, bready, noodly ….. I’m not sure what….. What is it that I eat at Dim Sum? Besides chicken feet.

I am an asian faire freshman, unforgivable for a long term resident of LA who has enormous cuisine-specific grocery stories of cheap authentic ingredients at my disposal. For example when we realized salmon ‘caviar’ was $29 at whole foods it took one trip to a korean grocery store to get five times the amount for half the price. Beef and Brocoli is a pretty smooth first gig though, I had to buy a couple of ingredients but nothing super exotic, and the prep was smooth sailing. I get the feeling that a few times through might code it to memory. Which I’m sure Steve would be a big fan of. Or maybe just a giant plate of beef sauce would suffice?

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Leftover Tamale Omletes

Oh how I love omelets. I’ve been making them since the first day I was old enough to touch the stove (I think I was 17). My style of omelet creation has been through many changes, funnily, each time I learn a way of making them I never go back. My first method was to put a greased pan on low and pour the eggs in early, as they cooked I would lift up the edge with the spatch and let the liquid part run underneath. When the egg was thoroughly scorched on the bottom and still somewhat raw on top I would put the ingredients (mostly if not entirely cheese) in the center, fold it and half and scorch it some more. This is how I made them when I somehow tied omelet making into our novel group in High School english and made 24 omelets during class on a burner in the back. There was also bacon.

One day Megan showed me that our Mom had this tiny little pan that made the omelets small and thick instead of wide and flat (mind-blowing). She also taught me to start with the ingredients in the pan so that they would cook or heat up and than be cooked into the eggs instead of folded in the center. Finally the cheese would go in the middle and the omelet folded in half and served. Thick as these egg slabs were, they had to be flipped once before folding. Megan’s method was to use a spatula, but I ended up training myself to flip it in the air with a deft flick of the wrist. A little egg splatter never hurt anyone.

Eventually I discovered Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and have ever since been attempting to perfect Julia Child’s rolling technique, which she says to practice with some dried beans in the pan. I’ve instead opted to practice with lots and lots of omelets, making plenty of them into scrambles on the way. I like this technique for a few reasons:  First off its fast, you heat the pan up all the way and your omelet goes from cold eggs in a bowl to being stuffed in your face in under a minute. Second the filling can be nearly anything, which is always the case, but since I’ve adopted this method I’ve become much more experimental, plus the cooked in method seems to tame a lot ingredients in my humble opinion. I’ve made omelets with leftover pizza, pasta, fish, hamburger, and eggplant parmesan.

Julia Child’s technique is unbelievably simple. Crack two eggs in a bowl, add a tiny bit of water, salt, pepper, and optional herbs and beat. Heat arguably too much butter on all the way high until its just about to burn, then dump in the eggs. If they don’t immediately begin to bubble and hiss the pan isn’t hot enough. Wait about 10 seconds and then start sliding the pan back and forth gently, you want to keep the egg mass loose on the pan, but not tear it. Before its cooked all the way through (about 20 seconds in) put the filling in and shake the pan violently fore and aft so that the omelet slides up the wall of the pan and folds over on itself, then roll it onto a plate. Here’s me trying to perform this technique:

As you can see I’m close, but not all the way there. I started to move it a tiny bit too soon, as evident in the small tears that you see form on my first few jerks. Then on the finish, I wasn’t quite violent enough, and couldn’t get it to roll all the way over. This is any easy fix as you can see, you just have to roll it as you put it on the plate, but a true master wouldn’t have this issue. Yes, I DID go back and eat that bit of egg that landed on the stove if you were wondering.

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Dietastic West

Counter to typical expectations of Los Angelinos, Steve and I have not yet participated in a master cleanse, nor have we lived as vegans, attempted to eat raw, gluten free, or local only. We do live on a California diet thanks to osmosis of living in an area where salad is always on the menu and our friends serve us roasted vegetables. But Stantastic East definitely took a hard swing at us with their liquid-only cleanse so I feel an urge to rebuttal.

Dietastic West has been based on the philosophy of Michael Pollen’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and a few rare sane bits from Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Body. In general we tried to add proteins, eat plants, and reduce breads early in the day and/or in general. ‘We’ is also over generalized, I firmly believe that diets should be thought of in terms of lifestyle rather than event, so ‘we’ was really only based on meals that we both wanted to consume. For example, when I felt like eating tofu, turkey bacon, and sprouts for dinner, Steve opted for a BLT.

A few easy and delicious dietastic dishes:

Spinach + Eggs (+/- yolks)
– Omelets made with spinach fried in macadamia nut oil, then coated in egg whites, flipped, and folded over a pile of bousin or feta cheese

– Baked eggs made by throwing fried spinach (and sometimes mushrooms and shallots) in ramekins with eggs (modified from this recipe)

– Spinach salad (not cooked), tossed with shallot, lemon juice, olive oil vinaigrette,  with two fried eggs laid on top

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Simple Guide to Post-Detox Retox

While detoxification is an intense process that challenges your sanity, creativity, and self discipline on a number of levels, the retoxification diet is actually quite simple:  Pizza.

Pizza contains nearly all of the things that were strategically avoided these past 21 days. Without pizza it may take weeks to reintroduce gluten, dairy, nightshades, pork, grease, and more depending on the toppings of your choice! Couple it with a Beer (for its healthy levels of alcohol and sugar) and your well on your way to the healthy state known as “tox”, and perhaps gaining some of that precious weight back.

Sadly, these are not the pizzas that I got to pop my clean program cherry with (It was actually a burger from Fatheads). These where made on the eve of the cleanse as a temporary farewell to food. Several had gathered to decide whether or not to take the plunge, and we decided that the ultimate no-no food would be just the thing. Although its possible it made most of them think twice.

As we have only one oven, we had to churn out theses ‘zzas one at a time. Since they took about 10-15 minutes to cook, that meant over an hour of pizza eating time. Couple that with the fact that someone had brought two giant pepperoni/pepper discs from Bites and Brews and I think it made not eating pizza for 3 weeks a little bit easier. We tried to make each pizza more bizarre and elaborate, here’s what we had:

Mock Buffalo Chicken Pizza

  • white crust
  • red sauce
  • onion
  • red and yellow peppers
  • chicken precooked in hot sauce
  • cilantro
  • mozzarella

The Green Monster

  • herb-ed crust
  • pesto
  • chicken
  • halved artichoke hearts
  • minced garlic
  • spinach
  • mozzarella
  • olive oil

Pepperoni Asparagus

  • white crust
  • red sauce
  • pepperoni
  • asparagus
  • cilantro
  • mozzarella

Greens ‘n Beans

  • whole wheat crust
  • red sauce
  • chopped chard
  • spinach
  • black eyed peas
  • half garlic cloves
  • mozzarella
  • curry powder

The Cheese-less Wonder

  • whole wheat crust
  • red sauce
  • pesto
  • sliced onion
  • quartered pepperonis

These were pretty great, and definitely gave me my fill of pizza for the month [if that’s possible (its not)].  Although I must add in that the clean program cleanse was pretty easy to stick with, although we did crack on the last day, what’s that they say about ninety percent being halfway? But If you’d care to know, I feel pretty good.  Perfect time of year for some strategic weight gain.

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Stuck-to-Pot-ers

One day when I’ve ruined 10,000 dishes I dream that I’ll be a learned speed chef. 30 min flat. Fresh pasta, soufflé, ice cream custard… Somehow the learning and the speeding are not building upon one another in the way that I originally imagined. Too often what we end up eating is a rushed and oddly reminiscent rendition of what was originally intended.

Gyoza should be an amazingly fast dinner. Pop an Asahi, done. Unless of course you try to make 35 instead of 12 and cook them all at once so that they stick and puff and turn into one huge Gyoza. Unlike an omelet that is so easy to turn into a scramble, I wasn’t sure how to fix my Gyozilla. We ate conjoined Gyozas that refused to be separated in groups. As a rule I’d start with a row of 5 so that they can all fit on a spatula.

Blend together:

  • Ground Pork (or shrimp)
  • Green Onions (and/or cabbage)
  • Ginger
  • Sesame Oil

Drop dollups into pre-made wrappers…..Wet, pinch, and fry.

Ideally they fry in a row so that they are just lightly connected on the fry side.

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Working Through the Grudge Against my Garden

A synopsis of container gardening and why it’s totally worth it even though it drives me mad. I started assembling a container garden a few years back. I think it was right after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and not so long after Steve and I started dating. Probably it was both of these things that made me feel capable and domesticated enough to dare try to keep living things from dying. Or maybe it was the sheer reality of the 2008 recession and a ping of fear that I couldn’t live a day without grocery money even though my mother and grandmother were judicious gardeners. More than half of the backyard in my childhood home had been carved up into a garden. In the early spring mom’s basement dark room was transformed into a nursery where flats of tiny seedlings lived under white light. Once planted the garden was absolutely full. The whole back fence was a line of peas that I remember picking and shucking and gobbling up. This might honestly be the reason that when nobody is around I tend to eat a bowl of peas for dinner. I’ve also grown a funny affinity for sunflowers, they make me happy, and mom used to grow a row of enormously tall ones that symbolized the start and end of summer.

Thinking back to that garden I have no idea how we ate everything that she planted and I have no idea how she managed to run this extensive operation. We were young wild and fussy and somehow or other everything managed to be planted and watered and weeded and harvested without the help of elves. I imagined (fairly) that gardening was not that hard. Shit was I wrong. I’ve probably bought two plants for every one that survived.

I can’t say I’ve harvested enough to make any of it financially justifiable in the least. I don’t honestly know what’s wrong with half of the plants I have growing right now even though I’ve monitored them like crazy, watched them start to show bad signs, googled everything I could about them, torn off leaves and taken them to the nursery, and not ever found myself at a point of realization. I still don’t know what’s wrong. It’s taken a while to become ok not knowing what’s wrong and also not knowing where to get answers. It’s a grudge at this point that I’m always chipping away at. I can’t talk to my plants they can’t reason back with me and worst of all I can’t seem to google them. I usually end up with advice from New England, Colorado, or Florida. Or a bickering debate on a discussion forum.

The first big thing I learned was that “dead” is a gray area. Plants that I was absolutely convinced were already dead were not always dead. Weird things like…..maybe if I move this pot 5”…..could have a powerful affect on how dead or alive a plant was. Although the dill above was never saved, some things have completely re-bounded from the grave. I had a cherry tomato plant in 2009 that showed a yellow blithe streak within a week of growing. My grandmother told me to rip it out because it would never survive. I replanted it, gave it some nutrients, babied it, and it went totally wild. The blithe never did completely go away, she was right. However it struggled to keep up with the positive growth till the very end of the summer and was amazingly productive and delicious.

The winter growing season (a big benefit of living in LA) is about to start, but I find myself procrastinating. I’m trying to figure out what to grow, or re-grow. My step-mother gave me some fantastic lettuce seeds, but I’ve fought snails so many times that I’m reluctant. I’m also at a stage where I learn a lot in the first season and the second is much smoother. I’ve only got 12 containers to play with, so the natural inclination to try new things fights with the need to improve my gardening skill year over year. Not sure which strategy I’m going to take yet, but here are some of the things that I’ve learned from my garden:

Containers Have Unique Requirements
“Life On The Balcony” is a community of container gardeners, has been super helpful in providing a potted perspective on problems. http://lifeonthebalcony.com/community/. From this forum and my dad I’ve learned about rooting and filtration. At the end of the first two planting seasons I was able to remove a wad, that included the plant, roots, and dirt in one dense container shaped form. These wads were wound so tight that I could stand them up. After this dad gave me a hot tip. “Put a ~2″ layer of rocks in the bottom of the pot, cut a screen to match the circumference of the container at that height, and then put the dirt in.” This has helped tremendously. The water leaks out when I’m watering, the roots can reach down but not clog the water’s escape hatch at the dirt can’t mingle with the rocks (at least not too much). This worked so well that I re-planted everything (including the lime tree) last year. Bad move, the darn tree has never recovered, I think it was too young for such a shocker.

Organic = Fighting w/ Your Neighbors
I’ve always thought that organic gardening was a personal choice. I’ve learned that when an organic container garden is less than 12′ from someone else’s, less than 8′ from a bush deeply infected by aphids (so badly that it’s 1/3 dead), and less than 4′ from a snail haven hedge… that you’re really taking on the whole area’s ecosystem. A couple things that have worked for me:

  • Neem oil in a spray bottle for aphids on tomato plants and mites on the lime tree
  • Fly paper for gnats (but I also learned that this was likely my fault for overwatering)
  • Cheap beer for snails (but, one too many times we’re out of snail beer and they get a shot of Fat Tire. I should also note that Steve likes to drink PBR and Highlife, so we struggle to agree on what gets to be snail beer)
  • Plucking things I see off by hand, which is completely laborious, gross, and frightening, but also somewhat effective




Companion Planting Is Awesome… For Herbs
When I first started reading about companion planting I was excited to double the capacity of my limited gardening space. This would finally allow me to grow strawberries and onions in addition to the already jammed 12 containers of herbs, citrus, and lettuce. I bought double the plant count. I put a lavender bush in with my lime. I put onions in with my strawberries. I put oregano in the jalapeno pot. If there was an extra 4″ of dirt, it got planted. In retrospect I had way too much fun with the match making process. A couple of my favorite dating sites:

In the end, the herbs lived in harmony but most of the others had a bitter fight. The frisse shot up wildly and eventually went to seed , the cilantro splintered (due to heat) and took down its companion with it, a lavender plant nearly choked my already ailing lime tree. I felt like Darwin. Every time a clear winner was emerging I would try to trim him back to keep a fair friendly fight, but often found myself uprooting the shriveling loser a week later. I ended up divorcing my lavender which has since thrived and my chives who kept getting TKO’d. I still have a couple of great pairings. By far the best bunch is an herb pot of marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and sage. The four take turns being the gold medalist during rotating seasons. The rosemary wins in the winter, the marjoram wins in the summer, the thyme in the fall, and the sage in the spring.

The Best Part & The Biggest Limitation- Growing Food
Every time I don’t buy a 3 oz of packaged herbs at Whole Foods for $2.50 I am glad to have a garden. On the other hand nurturing and growing a tomato plant that produced 1 grocery run of fruit wasn’t as delightful or efficient. 3 years of lime tree growth has provided ~12 limes. However, the concept of growing limes was still fun enough to inspire the purchase of a lemon tree, which has been growing for a little over a year and is just now starting to yellow its very first fruit. A fruit that we’ve been watching grow for a solid 6 months now. I can’t imagine how tart a 1.5″ yellow lemon that took 6 months to grow will be. Surely irrational, but I can’t help but look forward to trying it.

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