Sunday, August 18, 2013

Beginner Gardener's Fight Against the Spider Mite

It's only about 2 months since I started gardening on my small balcony, but I've been having a protracted war with one of the most persistent pests ever: the spider mite.

The spider mites invaded my coriander first rendering it totally useless so I had to throw it all away (it was bolting anyway). It infected my other plants but at lower levels: the holy basil (high infestation), sweet basil (low), and black peppermint (very low).

I was at my wits' end so I opted to use a pesticide I found at the gardening store (ベニカ・ファインX)which seemed to work with only one application. I didn't see the spider mites come back for weeks.

But NOW they are back.

I'm really tempted to go the easy way and just use the pesticide I used before, but as I'm growing mainly herbs for consumption, I'd like to minimize use of pesticides. I tried using neem oil and I'm not sure it really works (it requires continuous application anyway and does not kill on contact). The neem oil does work wonders for my itchy scalp though.

Reading about spider mites on the web made me realize these are tough little creatures that easily adapt and have very short life cycles, making it very hard to get rid of them completely.

My current ideas on how to control the problem:

1) Buy コロマイト which is usually effective and is even counted as 'safe' for normal use. But applications are only limited to 2 per year to prevent the spider mites from developing immunity. This option is very appealing, but I don't know if I'd like to spend money on the product + shipping on top of all the money I've already spent on gardening supplies and whatnot.

2) Throw away all infected plants. I just did that with the holy basil (it has run its course anyway). I'm having second thoughts with the black peppermint (the most infested one this time) because it's still thriving and I'm attached to it -- I grew it from a lanky nursery plant with all but 4 tiny leaves into a lush plant that has already crowded its container! And I thought peppermint was a natural repellant? The spider mites seem to love sucking on its juices! The black peppermint variety is particularly strong, and the unfortunate thing for me is that I associate the peppermint smell with the insecticide BAYGON. So every time I eat the peppermint leaves, I feel like I'm drinking insecticide!

The red rubin basils also seem to have light infestations -- though I can't really tell because of the yellowish bottom leaves. I think I will get rid of them anyway because they have totally lost their purple color and their strong basil-y smell. (I suspect due to lack of sunlight).

Thankfully, the spider mites have stayed away from my eau de cologne mint.

3) Diligent spraying of neem oil 2 times a week for prevention.

I found a few stray spider mites on my hydroponically grown kangkong (water spinach) but I don't think the damage is extensive yet. I want to prevent it before I am forced to take extreme measures on the kangkong!

Fall will be here in a few weeks just in time for me to grow new plants so I don't feel so bad throwing some of them away. I plan to do a thorough cleaning before planting my new batch of seeds. I've decided to start everything from seed from now on to prevent contamination. I'm also going to stay away from the brand of potting soil I first used, which seemed to harbor insects right out of the bag.

Goodbye, Holy Basil. 頑張ったね。

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I can sauté!

I tried the sauteing procedure from 'How to Cook Without A Book.' I was nervous, but it was so easy! In no time at all, I was able to have some nice and juicy chicken breast, without it being tough and stringy. And, a pan sauce to boot! (The pan sauce was a balsamic vinegar one).

Sauté procedure:
1. Place the butter and oil on the skillet at low heat while preparing the meat.
2. Season the meat with salt and pepper, then dredge with flour. 2 minutes before actual frying, turn the heat up to medium high and wait for the butter to turn golden and smell nutty.
3. Cook the chicken breasts for 3 minutes on each side, turning only once (since my pieces are on the thin and small side, 2.5 minutes may be better). I covered the pan by the second turn.
4. Make the pan sauce reduction + whisk in butter after liquid has reduced to half.
5. Done!

Easy-peasy. It's even quicker than stir-frying! And the chicken breast did taste good... I'm a happy cook!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Soft Wrap Flatbread Sandwich

Flatbread fresh from the skillet

I've always wished I could bake at the apartment but alas, I do not have an oven. However, my wish came true when I found this recipe at a blog. It was a flatbread that could be baked on a skillet. After some investigation, I found out it came from none other than the KA baking site! However, the blog poster mentioned that she used whole wheat flour instead of the original AP flour, so I decided to use WW flour as well. And what else did I use but the very nice White Whole Wheat Flour (Bob's Red Mill) that I found (finally!) at Healthy Options in Greenbelt. It was quite expensive (they only had organic WWW), but the sight of organic white whole wheat flour was quite exciting. It looked a lot like whole wheat pastry flour.

The first time, I did the recipe to the letter, but halving the ingredients so I came up with 4 flat breads. Putting boiling water at the start made a big difference in the manageability of the dough. It was very easy to knead and work with, I hardly needed to knead at all! I had to add more water (about 1 cup), though and a little bit more after I added the other dry ingredients. I dry-fried them on the wok soon after the 2nd proofing and they turned out great! I thought they were a bit on the salty side, though (I used a bit more than 1/2 tsp of salt), but I didn't find the breads salty the next day. Weird.

Tuna soft wrap sandwich with a dash of vinegar and pepper. It was quite good...

The next time (this morning, actually), I decided to be smart-ass and do my own variation. I wanted something creamy like naan, so I decided to put in some yogurt. And I wanted to freeze the doughs so I would always have fresh baked flat breads. The initial variations I made were:

1. 1/2 tsp of salt
2. 1 tsp of sugar
3. slightly heaping 1/2 tsp of yeast (for freezing)
4. a pack of yogurt (1/2 cup)
5. divided the dough into 5 pcs instead of 4

Unfortunately for me I may have made a recipe for disaster right from the start. Looking back, the answers are obvious: I didn't thoroughly read the recipe because I thought I already knew what it was about. I was a stingy with the boiling water because I wanted the yogurt to take center stage (I was planning to mix it after adding the dry ingredients). I didn't mix the boiling water and flour until it was smooth (a major oversight)!

I was wondering why the water-and-flour mixture was still sticky after the 30 minute rest, but thought it was just a quirk and proceeded to add the 2nd dry ingredients. Here is where another bumble took place. The dough seemed too stiff so I kept adding more yogurt, until the whole pack was gone! Really, I don't think that 1 1/2 cups of flour would need that much yogurt. Everything was a sticky mess that wouldn't come together. The previous dough was a dream to knead, but the new dough variation was a nightmare! I struggled and struggled until I ended up adding about 1/4 cup more flour and more potato flakes. I relented after many long minutes of kneading and let it rise for about half the time for the first rise, cut it up into 5 pcs (I could've made it 6), and tossed the shaped dough into the freezer. Here's hoping that the dough could be saved. I hate to throw away perfectly good ingredients.

I baked the frozen-and-thawed dough. The dough was very sticky so I had to roll it between 2 pieces of cling wrap. Baking took considerably longer. The bread also did not develop wrinkles and bubbles. When I fished it out of the pan, it was very soft - extremely so. Still, I used it for my standard soft-wrap. It was passable, considering that the taste is mostly from the filling, but the taste and texture of the bread itself was a disappointment. Obviously, adding all that yogurt did not affect the taste at all (it was bland), and the texture is shot. It was too mushy and squishy. I'll be sticking to the original recipe next time, adding just a tsp. of sugar.

Dubious chicken teriyaki, Decent stir-fry

Overcooked chicken with a too-watery sauce

I tried my hand at a chicken teriyaki recipe from my Japanese recipe book last week. I bought the chicken breasts and even separated the breast from the bone myself (tough job, but I somehow managed thanks to my new and sharp knives). However, I should've known there was something fishy about the recipe since the sauce (which is cooked together with the chicken) contained no thickener whatsoever. I found it very strange but went ahead with the instructions. The result? Overcooked, slightly tough chicken breast with watery sauce. I can't believe my recipe book would let me down. Since the chicken cooked with the liquid, the searing and browning went to waste too (the chicken got boiled instead). I'm trying out a different recipe next time for chicken teriyaki.

Oyster sauce stir-fry from odds and ends in the fridge.

But at least I had a decent dish next time. Using the vegetable odds and ends from the fridge, I was able to make a decent oyster sauce stir-fry yesterday. I used the standard 'How to Cook without a Book' technique and for the sauce, used the first recipe in my new Periplus Simple Stir-Fries cookbook. Just great, though it's a pity the kangkong shriveled up the next day when I reheated.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New Cookware!

In an attempt to be healthier and improve my cooking by using the right tools for the job, I bought some cookware today. Shopping for the right cookware was much more of a pain than I expected.

I first went to Gourdo's. The store personnel, Ryan, was very attentive and listened to my rants (though I overstayed in the store). It just takes me too long to decide anything. I actually found the perfect size and shape of skillet at the right price - unfortunately, it was coated in Teflon, the very thing I wanted to avoid and the main reason I decided to shop for a new pan. I also found the cast iron cookware that they had very interesting (and the price was lower than I expected!), but they were just too heavy to haul back home.

Omelettes, frittatas, pancakes, crepes....

In the end, I bought an 20 cm (8 in) frying pan, branded Green Pan which is supposed to be heat resistant up to 450°C or 850°F and uses Thermolon non stick technology instead of Teflon. Apparently it's ideal of shor high heat searing, frying, or flambeing. One has to be careful when using it though: warm it first (don't let it get too HOT), then pour in the oil, then wait about a minute for the oil to heat. The pan shouldn't get too hot. I bought this pan thinking it would be convenient for omelets and pancakes.

A wok, which I found out later has the same diameter at the bottom as my other smaller frypan! Oh well, I think it would be great for saucy/soupy dishes.

I couldn't find the perfect skillet at Gourdo's so I went to Landmark instead and ended up with a 26cm (10 in) wok from the maker Neoflam. It's made with ceramic so apparently it's non-toxic and heats evenly. I really wanted a saute pan, but I figured a wok is versatile enough, and I'll be searing meat in batches either way. (I still wish I had an 11" skillet, but alas it is not to be). I find it strange though, that the pan recommends low to medium flame (and I thought woks require high heat?). Oh well, at least this means I don't burn my food.

Other new gadgets that I found myself having: a Microplane(!) and a set of smallish knives and kitchen shears.

The thought has been simmering at the back of my mind for a while, but this was definitely an impulse purchase. Do I really need to grate that much? O_o; But yeah, it would be great for zesting.

I really hope these new pans and gadgets (that I paid a tidy sum for) would help push me to the next level.


I ate lunch at New Bombay Greenbelt 4 (didn't realize they had a new branch there). The paneera and spinach was good though I'm surprised the chef didn't make it spicy enough! The lassi was GREAT. The naan was so-so. The best naan for me can really only be found at Pokhara....

For dessert, I went to the new French Patisserie called Bizu. It's only now that I fully realized that Japanese pastry shops are different because they follow the French style! I skipped the luscious-looking Operas and other mini cakes and opted for the Macarons instead (Php 35 each). I'm interested to know what all the hype was about. I had the mint, chocolate, and pistachio. It was sweet, but not in-your-face sweetness of local stuff, which was good. I think I should've stopped at the 2nd macaron, though. The sugar was starting to overwhelm me by the third piece. The chocolate flavored one was divine.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Conquering the Stir-Fry

First attempt: Pork with soy-sesame sauce

This week marks my first TRULY serious attempts at cooking, armed not only with a vague recipe but a clear idea of the technique. In fact, I concentrated solely on one technique: the STIR-FRY.

My idea of cooking has always been the image of stir-frying: the cook tossing meat and vegetables around, then placing it atop some hot rice. It looked simple enough, and the technique and taste was distinctly Asian, my preference. However, until now, none of my attempts have even come close to the stir-fries I've had in restaurants. The reason only became apparent to me after way too many failures: I needed technique if I was to create a proper stir-fried dish.

Lemon chicken with asparagus and mushrooms

So when I decided to put 'How To Cook Without A Book' (my new textbook that I'm planning to cook through) to use, it was a no-brainer for me to start with the Stir-Frying section even though it was halfway through the book. As it turned out, Stir-Frying was simply following a simple technique and formula:

1. Marinate the protein in a tbsp each of rice wine and soy sauce for a short while
2. Cook the protein in batches in a very hot skillet to sear the meat and prevent it from boiling,
3. Setting aside the meat, then tossing in the onions,
4. Then putting in the minced garlic and ginger
5. Then the vegetables, in the proper order they should be cooked
6. Put the meat back,
7. Toss in the flavoring sauce prepared beforehand
8. and then some cornstach in chicken broth to thicken.

And that's it! Following the formula, I was able to make some very decent stir-fries. I have a problem with the book's flavoring sauce recipes though. The Soy-Sesame sauce was too salty for me. The Lemon flavoring sauce was too lemony and lacked depth of flavor. The third time, I decided to make my own original sauce, and it turned out the best of the three. The protein and doneness of the vegetables were spot-on, though. I was surprised how juicy the chicken breast turned out. For the first time, I was made aware of the importance of texture in cooking food. I always thought it was just about taste.

Third time's the charm: tofu and ground meat with an original sauce concocted out of sake, shoyu, hoisin sauce, worcestershire sauce, and sesame oil. (I think I'll replace sake with mirin next time. I also didn't add the ginger).

I think I have come close to mastering the stir-fry! Next on the list: Sautéing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Condensed Milk Pound Cake

This week, I decided to try out recipes using simple and easily available ingredients, so I tried out this Condensed Milk Pound Cake recipe. The recipe came from here.

tight crumb, simple but delicious flavor.

My variations are as follows:
1. I lessened the sugar from 45g to 30g, and increased the condensed milk a tad (about 1 tbsp to account for the whole wheat flour).
2. The original recipe called for cake flour. I used my Whole Wheat Pastry flour.

Doubling the recipe makes 3 mini loaves. I put a lot of vanilla extract (1 1/2 tbsp) the first time, and I thought the vanilla flavor was slightly overpowering. So next time (for 2 loaves) I put in only 1 tbsp but this time I miss the vanilla flavor!

For the bigger pound cakes, I had to tent them with foil (20 minutes in for lesser browning). The top of my oven really is too hot.

Nyan said it was too buttery(!?) Never mind, I don't trust her judgment much. The cake did taste better and was moister the next day. I find it a tad too dry, though. It wasn't as soft-looking as the original blog pic. But it's not bad either, (tastes quite good out of the oven actually), so I'll definitely be making this again next time I need a simple pound cake recipe.