Monday, June 30, 2014

Landscaping made easy, Part 12: Incorporating planters

I take the idea of incorporating "large planters" to an extreme in our landscape plan, using stock tanks for vegetable gardening in our tiny subdivision back yard.
One of my favorite stock tank pics from 2011 before we stained our fence and incorporated stone edging around the mulch beds.    
But this is not a landscaping aspect where you need to "go big or go home".  Smaller planters of the type that are found in any home improvement store make wonderful additions to the landscape, especially when grouped together.
Here is an example.  To the left of this waterscape are hibiscus, asparagus fern, and a strawberry cultivar spilling out of that pot in the foreground.

See this post for information on constructing the waterscape, which includes the basalt fountain visible in this photo and a kettle pond to the right of this photo.  
You can see that this available space would be too small to hold multiple in-ground plantings.  Furthermore, from an artistic standpoint, a couple of rounded containers are helpful in softening the hard stone edges of the house corner and waterscape.  

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind from a design perspective when arranging a planter configuration:
  1. Remember the rule of cross-referencing (repetition of elements).  In the example shown above, there's stone in the waterscape and also stone "mulch" surrounding the planters.  The color of the fountain is very close to the color of the strawberry pot, which is an ordinary $17 Mexican-style clay vessel from that I got at Home Depot and spray painted with a metallic Rustoleum to make it look more modern.  The form of the large hibiscus flowers is repeated in the art glass flowers in the middle of this grouping.   
  2. Plants in close proximity look best if they incorporate extremities of color and texture because otherwise, they blend together and don't look distinctive.  In the grouping above, you see a strawberry plant sending runners over the side of the pot, an upright, dark-leaf'd hibiscus with bright red flowers, and a light green airy asparagus fern with tiny white flowers.  Furthermore, there's an extremely tall bamboo in the background.  These plants could scarcely be any more diverse.  
  3. Particularly in greater Houston where the land is flatter than a pancake, the attractiveness of any given grouping is maximized when the heights of the plants are staggered.

It creates interest because your eye moves from one level to the next.  And again the cross-referencing - the staggered heights of the plants repeat the staggered height of the chopped stone in the waterscape.  
There's another advantage to using pots.
Keeping plants within pots initially can help you to determine if they are going to do well in your chosen locations.  This hibiscus is really too large for a pot like this, but with the tall bamboo behind it, I wasn't sure if it would receive enough sunlight to thrive.  But after a month of being plopped in this location, it is still showing good form and good flower production.  Therefore I will go ahead and plant it in the ground here (after our daytime temperatures fall by about 30 degrees, that is).  The other two of this grouping I will retain in planters to maintain the visual interest.  
The only downside to using planters in a landscape setting is the degree to which they dry out in hot weather.  In greater Houston, you're basically on the hook for watering planters daily in the summer months, unless they contain cacti or succulents which can withstand our temperature extremes.  If you don't water daily, your plants simply won't survive.  
But there's always room for hibiscus, isn't there??  Potted or ground-planted, they are worth the maintenance hassle.  Nothing else has quite the same visual impact.  They are relatively hardy and flower readily if they are given proper soil, fertility, sun exposure, and watering.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to clean a birdbath

The simple delight that they generate is unprecedented.
I have my front-yard birdbath up against my home office window.  The birds can see in, but they are so acclimated to the situation that unless our dog rushes at the window, they don't mind the human and canine proximity.  They come and enjoy, every day at dawn and dusk like clockwork.  
I explained how to attract birds to a birdbath in this post.  If you live in modern suburbia, it's really a no-brainer.  We now engineer subdivisions to drain rainwater so efficiently that a residentially-installed birdbath will often be the only source of standing water for quite some distance.  Birds have little choice but to use them.

These shots were taken from inside my home, through my front window.  Camera info here.  
Other critters will visit the bath as well.  Here a brown anole does his best to look ferocious.  This particular species is invasive on the upper Texas coast, but anoles are generally indispensable in a southern suburban garden because of the number of harmful insects that they eat.  Brown anoles tend to remain close to the ground whereas the green Carolina anole will climb.     
However, if you keep birdbaths on your property, eventually you're going to have to deal with a build-up of algae and lime scale.
My back yard birdbath, looking rather yucky.  I keep an additional bath in our back yard because I find that, on hot days, birds will peck open my tomatoes to get at the water within.  In other words, they aren't so much interested in eating the tomato itself as they are in getting hydration.  Therefore, I offer them this option.  Those are volunteer tomatoes growing to the left of this bath.  
Even if you flush out your birdbath(s) daily with clean hose water, every couple of weeks you're going to have to scrub them to get rid of this gunk.  It's easily done, as this photo sequence shows.
Detach the bowl and set it on the grass.  Use a plastic bristle brush to remove the loose stuff.  
I use ordinary vinegar to remove lime deposits (it's cheap - about two bucks a gallon or less at the grocery store, and you'll only need about a cup for any given birdbath cleaning).  I add a bit of vinegar to the bottom of the bath, swish it around with the brush, let it sit for five or ten minutes, then scrub with the brush again. 
Repeat as many times as needed with new applications of vinegar until all the scale is loosened and/or dissolved.  You can't always see scale when the bowl is wet, but you can feel it with your fingers as you are scrubbing (it feels rough to the touch whereas the cleaned ceramic of the bath will be very smooth).  
Then simply replace the bowl and re-fill until next time.  
And there will be a next time.  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What's wrong with the USDA Myplate?

Answer:  The federal government's ChooseMyPlate campaign compartmentalizes food choices in a way that is no longer realistically attainable or reflective of prevailing American culture.
People really did eat like this a hundred years ago when 39% of American people worked on farms (virtually all of them family farms) and this kind of food assemblage was readily available to them, with most of it being in fresh, palatable forms.  That number of workers has since fallen to 2% and the farms that they do manage are mostly factory farms and monoculture installations where you wouldn't find much taste in the end product even if you were to harvest a bit of it for immediate personal consumption.  

Screengrabbed from this USDA site.  
OMG, that looks like PRISON FOOD!!  This is an example of what I mean by "no longer realistically attainable".  Yes, you can "attain" a situation in which you've procured all of the elements of the USDA plate.  However, each and every one of them shown in this picture is highly processed - the bread looks mass-produced, the fruit looks canned, the meat looks pressed, and the green beans have been cooked half out of existence.  You can tell just by looking at the photo that none of those components have much taste.

Screengrabbed from a "post my plate" contest announced by Oregon State University.  
One glance at that pic above and it's easy to understand why so many folks choose junk food over USDA's suggested "plate".  It's simply not realistic to expect people to eat the likes of that for as long as there are other more satisfying (if profoundly less healthy) choices available.

Fortunately there is a workaround.  All you need to do is "think outside the wedge" and capitalize on the best information that is available to us here in the 21st century.
Sambar combines the nutritional intent of three plate wedges into a single dish.  Recipe here.    
Where that sambar is concerned, some folks may wonder why I'd choose to post such an exotic and somewhat challenging recipe instead of something more "American".  The answer is, because Americans have historically done a crappy job of leveraging the value of vegetables and legumes in their style of cuisine.  Most Americans envision vegetables as being something boiled or steamed and simply topped with a bit of butter and salt.  That worked, taste-wise, a hundred years ago when vegetables were maximally fresh and non-factory-farmed.  But because of the situation in which we now find ourselves, that approach is no longer workable, and therefore we need to develop a better strategy.  Asians have historically been virtuosos where the preparation of vegetables is concerned - it's a far more prominent part of their culture than ours.  They have already invented that particular wheel, and therefore it simply makes efficient sense to adapt some of their techniques in our own lives, to compensate for what we have lost through mechanized food production.
Garden porn, the stuff of the sambar pictured above.  I refer to it as "the best food that money can't buy".

My husband and I had one of those classic "You didn't disclose this part of yourself before we were married" conversations the other day.  I didn't disclose to him the fact that I was going to devote a fair amount of mental energy and time to gardening and developing recipes that make use of what gets produced in our tiny back yard.  I didn't disclose that because I myself didn't realize that it was going to happen.  I started doing a little gardening as a hobby, and all of a sudden, the positive feedback loop initiated.  Now there are plenty of days when I simply don't feel like devoting a few minutes or an hour to the gardening tasks at hand.  But if I don't garden, we don't eat the same quality of food.  My husband is 6'1" and 170 lbs.  I (at the age of 50) am 5'6" and 130 lbs.  Our teenage daughter is 5'6" and 115 lbs.  If I stop gardening and cooking, some of that benefit is going to be forfeited, not to mention the loss of the enjoyment we derive from superior food taste.  Thus far, I haven't found the trade-off to be worth it, and so I keep digging in the dirt.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What happened to the League City dog park plans?

After an initial wave of publicity and a resoundingly positive response via an on-line poll, there has been nothing but radio silence on the prospect of a League City dog park.
Screengrab of the poll results from the morning of April 18, 2014, which in terms of total respondent volume was probably closer to the end of the poll than the beginning (meaning, these numbers should be generally reflective of final results).    
I haven't heard a peep.  Local nonprofit park advocacy group Bark9 tells me that they haven't heard anything either.  After the April 8, 2014 Council vote that directed city staff to develop the on-line poll whence the screengrab above originated, there's been nothing.

I do remember hearing a vague complaint that the polling mechanism (Survey Monkey) was unable to read the IP addresses of some or all of the voters, so there was a concern that some of them might not be actual LC residents, but I don't know if there's any truth to that.  Based on my limited knowledge of such systems, it should have been easy to read the ground IPs (I'm assuming that the City was using a pay version of the program).  Cellular / mobile devices can be more tricky (said the blogger who is no longer sure where a lot of her hits are originating because they are materializing out of thin air, literally).

So what up, League City?  Galveston County Daily News?  Council?  Where will this initiative go from here?
More accurately in this case, where are you taking us?  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Successful composting in the suburbs, Part 2

I am so sick of seeing the likes of this:
A League City grocery store, pic taken within the past few weeks.  Apples, oranges, squash, tomatoes - you name it, straight into the trash.  It's a twofold atrocity - first the fact that the stuff is wasted by lack of human or animal consumption, and second the fact that the stuff is totally wasted by not composting it.
That is money being thrown into the trash above.  Pure money.  It is organic matter that represents a sequestration of energy, and every form of energy has a price attached to it.  And at long last, people are starting to wake up to the magnitude of that squandered energy and the profit that could instead be made from it.
Economist featured a high-tech solution in this article (may be paywalled depending on who and where you are).  Screengrabbed from Facebook.    
Screengrabbed from a New York Times article published yesterday.  Once again, the aim is to turn the food into compost to be sold, i.e., for money.  
The potential for profit is not just limited to the institutional realm - it can also be realized on a much smaller scale.  In 2012, I published "Successful composting in the suburbs", which showed how I used a crappy five-foot building setback to house my Earth Machine which generates high-quality compost that I'd otherwise be forced to purchase at ten to fifteen bucks a bag.
Here's the picture that tells the thousand words.  There is very little trick to composting, supposing you follow a few simple rules as I described in that post.  You throw pretty much everything non-protein-based and non-fat-based (except St. Augustine clippings) in the top, wait a few months, and then you shovel really good compost out of the trap door in the bottom.  Greater Houston's subtropical climate, with its heat and humidity, is superbly suited to the biological process of composting.

Good compost is extremely expensive to buy, and every homeowner needs it.  Even if you don't grow fruits and vegetables as I do, you will have raised landscape beds somewhere around your suburban dream home.  You won't realize good plant health unless you augment the soil with compost.  Synthetic fertilizers are not capable of adding necessary organic bulk to your poor quality Houston clay gumbo soil.  And mulch alone tends to suck too much nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes.    
As thoroughly disgusted as I am with every useless leaky rain barrel I ever bought, I can't tell you how pleased I've been with the Earth Machine.  The design is really optimal and it has withstood a lot of my abuse (such as me repeatedly hacking away at the inside with a shovel, trying to carve compacted compost out of the interior).

My only problem at this point is that my gardening and landscaping endeavors have expanded to the point where I need at least one more Earth Machine for the volume of organic waste I am generating, and Earth Machines aren't easy to buy.  They are available through Amazon (what isn't?) but as of this writing, the price was four times what municipalities typically charge when they host mass distribution events.
Unfortunately I accidentally missed the last City of Houston distribution event, which reportedly was held in late 2013.  Wildly popular fellow Houstonian Blogspotters Two Men and a Little Farm were wise in purchasing two at one time.  Screengrabbed from one of their posts.  
Of course there are other devices on the market and other ways to compost, but I'm hesitant to mess with success (especially after my rain barrel debacle).  I lined the underside of my Earth machine with metal hardware cloth, which has proven effective in keeping rodents and opossums out of it.  Very often when municipalities do distribution campaigns, they offer both rain barrels and composters...
Old City of Houston announcement, screengrabbed from this site
  ...however when the City of League City did its recent campaign, for some reason they chose to distribute rain barrels only.  Maybe next time they'll do both, which would bode well for conservation PR especially given the failure rate of rain barrels versus the near-automatic success of composting.  LC guys, make a note for future reference - the Earth Machine is a good product.  Please choose it for your next campaign.

For those of you who are not familiar with the logistics of composting, typically what happens is that you combine both non-lawn-grass yard waste with kitchen waste.  You can accumulate your kitchen waste in any kind of bug-proof container, but the best option I've ever used is this attractive "cookie jar" type offering from Delafield Pottery, shown here in the center of this countertop grouping.  Every few days, you just walk your kitchen scrap bin out to your composter and dump your fruit and vegetable waste, rinse and repeat.

I designed my kitchen (especially the backsplash) around my existing stoneware collection which was hand made by a very skilled potter named Marilyn Farrell of New Brunswick, Canada - I used to import the stuff and she'd personally pack and ship it to me in big wooden crates.  Unfortunately Ms. Farrell passed away in 2007, and there my collecting ended.   However, Delafield uses a number of glazes which coordinate quite well with my existing collection, as this photo indicates.

Delafield sells out of the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market and other locations.  Mr. D. has mentioned to me that, when he Googles his own products, my blog posts show up prominently in his search results.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Centerpointe home burglary: Keep eyes open

Online records indicate that a residence in the 700 block of White Oak Pointe was burglarized on Friday June 13.
Screengrabbed from Crime Reports.  Petty crimes such as theft of goods from unlocked cars and open garages do occur routinely here but actual home burglaries have been extremely rare historically.  
The online reports contain little detail, other than the facts that possessions were stolen and the perpetrator(s) were unknown.  There's no indication that they have been apprehended.  The POA reported to me this morning that they currently have no additional information on this event.

If these criminals have been led to believe that Centerpointe represents easy pickins, they might strike here again, and so everyone needs to be vigilant, especially those of us work-at-homes and stay-at-homes who remain in the neighborhood during daylight hours when most adults are at work and children are in school.

Please do us all a favor and email a link to this blog post to your friends and neighbors in Centerpointe.  The neighborhood has an email list (maintained by current-but-not-always POA Board member J.H.), but it is incomplete and tends to be weighted toward people who have lived here longer.  This blog has a Centerpointe readership but that tends to be weighted toward people who have moved here only recently and who may or may not receive J's email blasts.  In other words, because of the way this subdivision evolved, no single entity has optimal or complete coverage for reaching residents quickly when messages like this one need to be spread.  The more people who know about both of those options (email blast list and blog), the better off everyone will be.

Thanks and please report any suspicious activity to the League City Police Department via 911 for emergencies or 281-332-2566.
If you've ever been through it, you know that it's a nightmare.  Even if you are insured, you never recoup the monumental amounts of time and energy that you lose dealing with a burglary, not to mention the sense of violation.  Been there, done that, have no intention of going through it again.  

Why do I have moths in my kitchen?

I actually don't have moths in my kitchen, but I used to have a bad infestation before I figured out what was causing it, and my post title is a nod to the fact that when people search the internet for solutions to their issues, they usually pose their inquiries in regular speech (as opposed to more technical phrases such as "possible reasons for moths in kitchens").  I can see this quite clearly from blog stats and search strings.

OK, so now the answer.  If you've already taken all of the steps that I outlined in "How to keep bugs out of your kitchen pantry", including removing food from manufacturer-issued cardboard and thin plastic packaging and placing it in chew-proof containers, and after all that effort you are still having issues with flying insects (moths and/or beetles), try this.
Check the crumb tray in the bottom of your toaster and clean it.  For some reason, moths seem to be particularly drawn to toasters.  It is extremely easy to forget to clean the crumb tray in a timely manner.  I do it all the time, as this evidence suggests.  
Don't just empty the tray.  Shake all the crumbs out of the entire appliance.  Toasters have many nooks and crannies where crumbs can accumulate.  Particularly if you use breads that contain seed products (e.g., flax seed, sunflower seed which are very nutritious), all it takes is a bit of accumulation and insects will be off to the races.  
This is not necessarily an obvious troubleshoot.  Most folks assume that toasters get so hot that insects could not possibly survive in them even if crumbs are left in place.  That may have been the case years ago when toaster construction was much simpler, but now with the elaborate designs on the market, insect refuge space has been made available in many models.
Or so that we can see whether or not bugs are moving in??

Toasters fall into that annoying category of "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em".  There are plenty of frustration-generated memes out there that reflect this love-hate status.  
In my personal experience, the insect problem is particularly pronounced in toasters advertised as remaining cool-to-the-touch on the outside (they usually have a plastic outer casing).  I had one of those when my child was a toddler and more likely to burn herself by grabbing the outside of the toaster when my back was turned.  Well, the same design that kept tiny hands safe also kept the moths safe.  They congregated inside of it against the cool outer wall, basically setting up their own little ecosystem in there.  Toasters cannot be washed, and I couldn't keep moths out of that toaster for the life of me.
Ha ha.  
I had to discard the cool-to-the-touch toaster and get the stainless steel one you see in the photos above, because the metal ones do get hotter on the outside and therefore minimize the insect problem.  But insects can still survive in the crumb tray.
What was the old joke?  We can put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth, but nobody has figured out how to make a reliable toaster yet?  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ghost bike, ghost warehouses

I came upon two eerie sights this week near one of Houston's most iconic intersections.  This was the first one.

Where a single road is torn asunder, so too was a human being.  
It's a ghost bike.  It stands for this January incident in which a man was struck dead on the nearby bridge and thrown into the confluence of Brays and Buffalo Bayous.   
Tap to expand.  Ghost bike explainer screengrabbed from
The Houston ghost bike map confirms the identity of the person and the hit-and-run circumstances of his death.

I wonder why none of the deaths on the southeast side of town have been memorialized?

Also see Bike Houston for information on local efforts to reduce fatalities such as these.

Screengrabbed from Google. 
The other eerie sight was located almost within eye-shot of the Harrisburg ghost bike, and was this:
Those ghostly old warehouses that are sandwiched between the train tracks and the Houston Ship Channel are being torn down.  View from East Navigation Blvd., which is lined with live oak trees such as the one in the shadowy foreground here. You can see a yellow excavator behind the tank car, as the end of this warehouse is removed.    
One wall still standing.  I was sorta hoping that at least one Jackie Chan-type movie would be filmed here before these unusual warehouses met with their demise.  
What are (or were) these buildings?  It might be nice to learn something about them in the thirty-six remaining seconds that they have here on earth.  I know from casual conversations with folks that they are informally referred to alternately as "the old coffee warehouses" or "the old cotton warehouses" (I suspect the latter is closer to the truth), but I can find very little of their history on the internet, other than some nonspecific references and old aerial photos that include them.
One thing is clear - they are older than old, older than most other development in this area.  This is a public domain pic of the Houston Ship Channel (available via the UH archives). The warehouses are those solid masses roughly in the center of the photo.  That straight diagonal line you see to the left of the warehouses is East Navigation.  
Unfortunately, the curator hasn't done such a great job of estimating the age of that photo, narrowing it down to a period of 106 years (duh).  But with the north side of the channel still being partially forested (!!), the actual age could be closer to the first date than the second.  This reference has a similar photograph (partially view-able in Google Books) suggesting it was taken around 1930. 
Very roughly what the same view looks like today, showing full development all along Rio Buffalo.

Tilted, screengrabbed, and rotated from Google Earth.  
Warehouses (center of photo) as seen in a recent photo on Google Earth.  
Anyway, unless an investigative source such as @HoustoniaMag decides to look into it from a history / human interest perspective, we may never know the story of what is now crashing to the ground in a poof of ghostly dust.
Well, you could, but you wouldn't be very successful.

Chan had a talent for identifying movie scene locations that were as exotic as they were decrepit.  These old warehouses would certainly have fit that bill.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sambar from suburban gardens

Sambar is a lentil-based vegetable stew that furnishes yet another example of how back yard gardeners can put their copious crops to optimal use.
The top pic shows the vegetables that I harvested on one particular day, but the beauty of sambar is that it can be made with whatever you happen to be harvesting at the time.  
Here's Wikipedia's vegetable line-up.  Very different from mine.    
If you've ever eaten in a south (not north) Indian restaurant, you most likely had sambar and maybe didn't even know it.  It was that surprisingly-flavorful orange thing that you probably wished you knew how to make.  It's vegan, it's gluten-free (double check the ingredient list on the sambar powder listed below), it's kosher, it's consistent with many popular diet programs (for example, it appears to be consistent with Ornish Spectrum Group 1), and it's no accident that it's a dietary staple for millions of people.  I'm going to present my own somewhat Americanized sambar recipe in this post because this dish has all these things going for it:
  1. Despite its Asian origins, it tends to be liked even by folks whose tastes are more toward Western traditions (my Houston-born meat-and-potatoes husband gobbles it up).  
  2. It is extremely healthy and furnishes nutrition from the legume category, which is underrepresented in the typical American diet.  
  3. It is easy to make, although it does require certain specific cooking implements and non-mainstream ingredients (shown below).
  4. It freezes beautifully with no detectable loss of taste. 
  5. It pairs well with other foods (vegan or non-vegan).
  6. It can be fashioned out of almost any vegetables, as long as the base ingredient list (especially the herbs and spices) is adhered to.
  • You'll need a pressure cooker, which is a device that most Americans don't use any longer.  If you've got Grandma's old cooker stored in your garage, go dust it off. Mine is an old Fagor Multi-Rapid; the Rapid Express is probably the closest modern-day analog.  If you plan to cook in big batches and freeze your food, get the biggest pressure cooker that you can afford.  Mine is 7 quart, which is too small, but I had not yet developed my food management strategy 15 years ago when I bought it, so I didn't know I'd need a larger one.  
  • You'll also need three of the typical stainless steel inserts that go into a pressure cooker - one with steam holes, two solid.   
Regardless of where you get your pressure cooker, you can buy inserts at any Indian store.
Photo screengrabbed from this blog site.  
Here are two of the better-known Asian grocers in Clear Lake Texas.  I use them both.
Screengrabbed from Yelp
  • A selection of vegetables similar to the following in quantity:
Everything here is from our back yard, but grocery store stuff will work just fine.

Regardless of what vegetables you pick, I do recommend that you include plenty of onions and squash.  The squash that is traditionally used in sambar is upo or opo which is also called sorakaya or just "bottle gourd".  But here I used plain old ordinary yellow squash (summer squash), the kind that grows so well in our part of Texas.  You could also use calabaza (Mexican squash) or zucchini - squash doesn't have much flavor and its main function in this dish is to give body and convey the taste of spices, so substitutions don't make a big difference.  

Those nubby orange things are carrots, by the way.  I haven't figured out why my carrots grow stunted like this (their taste is excellent despite the bizarre appearance).

The only tricky ingredient in this photo is the curry leaves shown at lower right.  They are often grown hydroponically and sold in little plastic bags in the Asian grocery stores (produce section, refrigerated case).  I grow my own curry tree and that's an option if you really like Asian food and need a reliable supply.

Curry leaves are an indispensable ingredient responsible for much of the sambar's taste, so if you can't find them, ask one of your Indian American neighbors where to get them.  And if you live in greater Houston, don't tell me that you don't have any Indian American neighbors, because you do, by definition.  They will be glad to help you even if they've never spoken to you before.  I've yet to meet an Indian American who didn't love to discuss their native foods.  
  • Black mustard seeds.  They are sold in small packs at Asian stores.  
  • The following four additional ingredients from an Asian grocery store (if you buy your fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds at the Asian store, count six ingredients total from there):
Toor dal and sambar powder, which is a spice blend - get this exact brand if you can.  

Urad dal and tamarind concentrate.

If you have an Indian neighbor, you might ask for a few tablespoons of urad dal, because it would save you from buying a whole bag.  The recipe does not call for much.  It's the Asian variant of, "Can I borrow a cup of sugar?"
  • Coriander seeds or ground coriander if you don't have a grinder. 
I prefer to grind my own coriander seed. I don't drink coffee any longer, so I use my old coffee grinder as a spice grinder. 
  • Light olive oil.
  • Cumin seeds.
  • Turmeric powder.
  • Chili powder (ground chili peppers).
  • Salt
  • Drumstick vegetable (moringa) if it is available as a frozen food in the Asian grocery store (it is seasonal and often not available, and is not shown in this photo series).  If you add drumstick, note that only the inside of the sticks are eaten.  The outside is tough and woody and is discarded after scraping out the highly-nutritious interior, analogous to removing a clam from its shell in a seafood linguine, for instance.  
Put about 1.5 inches of water in the bottom of the pressure cooker.
Put the steam tray upside down over the water in the bottom of the pot.  
Put 1 to 1.5 cups of toor dal in one of the stainless steel inserts and lower that into the pressure cooker on top of the inverted steam tray.  Fill the insert to the top with water.  Forget about the onion pieces and few curry leaves here - they fell in by accident.  
I depart from Indian tradition at this point by pre-cooking my toor dal halfways prior to pressure cooking the whole lot together.  I put the cover on the cooker but I don't bring it to pressure.  While I'm chopping the other vegetables, I simply bring the cooker to a boil to get a head start on the dal.
Coarsely chop all the other vegetables and put them into another of the inserts with a few of the curry leaves.  Lower that one on top of the toor dal insert.  Add about 2 tablespoons sambar powder, 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, and about a quarter cup of tamarind paste loosened and dispersed in about cup of water.   
Cover the cooker and bring to pressure.  If your cooker has multiple settings, use the lowest one and cook for about 15 minutes at that pressure.
While the pressure cooker is doing its job, add about 2 tablespoons of mustard seeds, 2 tablespoons of urad dal, and 1 tablespoon of cumin seeds to a large stove-top pot. I use a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok but any large stock pot will do.    
Add about a half cup of light olive oil, maybe a bit more.  The oil is key to transmitting the flavors of the dish, especially the spice flavors, so don't skimp on it.  
Fry the spices in the oil (this is called 'tempering').  The mustard seeds will pop, so using a screen can help contain the mess.  Be careful not to burn this stuff, as olive oil scorches at a low temperature.  
Throw a few of the fresh curry leaves in near the end of frying.  
Once your pressure cooking is done, run cold water over it to condense the steam and release pressure.

The obligatory art shot, close up of tap water spilling onto the lid of the pressure cooker (camera info here).    
Now you can open up the pressure cooker and see the cooked vegetables.  

Carefully spoon the cooked vegetables into the oil.  Be careful - the oil will be hotter and you'll have some splatter from flash boiling.  
Next, dump the pressure-cooked toor dal into the mix.  Tongs help with this task.  
Don't discard the water in the bottom of the pressure cooker.  During the cooking, it turned itself into tamarind-rich vegetable stock.  Pour all of that into the pot as well.  
Add water to bring the level up to being a soupy stew.  
From that point, you'll adjust the stew according to your own taste.  I usually add the following:
  • About 2 tablespoons of freshly-ground coriander seed.
  • About 2 more tablespoons of sambar powder.
  • About 2 tablespoons of medium-hot ground chili powder.
  • More fresh curry leaves.
  • Salt to taste.
Even though you've pressure cooked the heck out of this stuff, I recommend at least one additional hour of simmering so that all spices and tastes blend well.  
Serve with rice cakes or mix in some cooked rice when ready to eat (in this pic, I have poured it over brown rice).  Or eat with sliced bread.  Or tortillas.  Or pita bread.  Or quinoa.  Or bulghur.  Or cooked pasta, for a south Indian interpretation of vegetable noodle soup.  The fusion possibilities are endless.

Doesn't have to be that way.  All it takes is learning some new recipes that make good use of what gets harvested.  

Gardening meme screengrabbed from Cheezburger.