Saturday, March 29, 2014

Five Corners futility

Y'all know how I love writing trilogies.  This post completes my first and second on the subject of the notorious Five Corners traffic intersection in #LeagueCityTX, the so-called third worst intersection in the Houston-Galveston area.  (Update April 3, 2014:  I spoke too soon and have since added a new blog category called Five Corners because it's becoming more apparent that this issue is going to persist).

Here's the biggest issue that I have with the modifications that are being done thus far:  I simply don't think they'll improve traffic flow at this intersection.  I suspect they'll make it worse, and I explain why below.    
Just for openers, they ain't even finished yet, and they're already broke.  The end of this curb was sheared off sometime around March 23, and I noticed yesterday afternoon (March 28) that another one seems to have been snapped off maybe within the past 24 to 48 hours.  
Close-up.  What's going to happen here is that drivers are going to hit these things over and over and over until they're worn down to not very much.  There's going to be a lot of people upset over damaged tires and ruined alignment.  Have you paid for an alignment  job recently?  I have.  It sucks.  
So there's the breakage problem just for openers, but for another thing, I don't think that FM 518 was ever originally designed to take these kinds of improvements.  That's why they're being built with such a thin, tire-disrupting configuration - there's so little room available here.
Look at this poor guy in the dually.  He's in the EB FM 518 left turn lane waiting to head north on FM 270, and he's barely got any room at all on each side of him.  There's little margin for error.

This is just a dually - this is not a full-sized bus or a delivery truck.  I personally do not think that we can afford to sacrifice a couple of feet of right of way to a concrete barrier here.  
And speaking of which, why is that particular concrete barrier so wonky in the first place??
It bumps out unnecessarily into the turn lane, and to this unexplained wander we lose about another precious foot of space.  You can already see that this hump is covered with black tire marks from folks who have hit it, and it's only been there a couple of weeks.

It's like a shallow S-curve when it should instead be a nice smooth curve that follows the expected lane trajectory.  I believe this causes a degree of visual confusion among drivers.  They expect to see a regular curve and instead they see this obstacle that they need to be mindful not to hit.  And when they're paying attention to that little inconvenience, they're paying less attention to the rest of the intersection.

This is a subtle distraction, sure, but every bit of attention counts when you're navigating Five Corners.  I got distracted by the thing enough to take this phone pic and draw a curve to suggest what it should look like instead.  My point being, it's noticeable to drivers.  
I'm not a traffic engineer, but I do have 31 years of accident-free driving to my credit and I do have an energetic obsession with details of all kinds.  I don't always agree with what @TxDOTHoustonPIO does.  I tend to look at right-of-way segments not the way they should be driven, but the way they actually are driven, and I think I know how people drive through Five Corners, having done it about three billion times myself.  One of the biggest challenges with Five Corners has always been that there are too many mental transactions that need to take place within a frighteningly short period of time.  On top of that existing burden, we have now overlain an absolute maze of new concrete lane restrictions.  What I already see happening in response is that a lot of drivers' eyeballs are pointing down when they should be pointing up.  They're looking twenty feet ahead of themselves trying not to hit concrete barriers in overly-narrow spaces when they should instead be taking holistic stock of the massive intersection that confronts them.  Either that or they are looking up and some of them are smacking the barriers as a result.

I think I understand why the engineers decided to try adding these barriers (for brevity, I won't go into that in this post), but I'm not so sure that what we'll gain from the restrictions outstrips what we're losing.

I guess we'll have to see the whole picture before the full story makes itself apparent.  Unfortunately, the degree of public outreach has been so poor that the whole thing might end up being built before any of us really become aware of what it consists of.
This is a partial screengrab from this map which was published on this undated LC webpage as of March 2014. The map itself is dated 2011 (three years old) and if I'm understanding this correctly, it doesn't appear to show the same improvements as are actually being built right now.  For instance, left-turning onto FM 518 from the Kroger parking lot has been eliminated via the questionable concrete improvements shown in pictures farther up in my post, but I don't see anything drawn on the left side of this map to indicate them.

Furthermore, the LC page states that "TxDOT eliminated the bypass".  So what does this whole present-day picture actually consist of??    

Friday, March 28, 2014

Where's the beef in Clear Lake?

Have you ever had this happen to you?  I bet you have.  You spend a whole bunch of time and energy searching for a particular grocery item that you like and that fits your needs, only to see it either disappear from the grocery store shelves, or get replaced with a different product that doesn't work for you.
That's the ongoing story of me and beef.  I started out a few years ago using local producer Georgia's (which was available at Erma's in Nassau Bay and also at the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market), but I found (in my opinion) that their quality really tanked to the point where it was no longer worth purchasing (perhaps that had something to do with the untimely passing of Georgia herself).

 I then switched to the Strauss brand which is pictured above, and which offered a very special qualification.  
It was grass fed AND grass finished.  
That may seem like a minor semantic point, but it's actually not.  Much of the so-called "grass fed" beef that's on the market is actually "corn-finished".  In other words, the producers let the beeves graze on grass, but then they do the final fattening up for market by stuffing them full of corn.  The result is beef that tastes like it was corn-fed for the duration of its life, for which you (lucky sucker that you are) pay a substantial grass-fed premium.

To which I say, no thanks - not at an average of about nine bucks a pound for ground beef.  This effective bait-and-switch practice is widespread, and I suspect it's because the grass-fed grass-finished producers are having trouble meating the market (pun intended) due to high demand.  Retailers such as Whole Foods may extol the virtues of grass-fed beef, but at times I've walked into their stores, tasted samples prepared by in-store chefs, and said, "That's corn-finished, isn't it?"  And they've had to admit that it is.

It's easy to taste the difference.  Because so much American beef is produced on feedlots, by this time most Americans don't even know what "real" beef is supposed to taste like any more.  But if you sample the two side by side (grass finished and grain finished), you'll immediately get it.  You might suspect that you're tasting two different species.

Anyway, you can imagine my dismay when I walked into HEB Bay Colony the other day and found no Strauss ground beef on the shelf.  Upon questioning the butcher staff, I was told that Strauss negotiated a re-branding with HEB, and that Strauss ground beef will now be sold under the HEB label.

There's currently nothing on HEB's meat page about this, however, and I was skeptical.  The butchers also pointed out that there was another grass-fed brand on the shelf, that being Panorama.
Here are the two of them.  
There was a problem, however.  Neither one of them specified that all-important parameter of grass-finished.
This is a close-up of the HEB brand.  This label would seem to contradict itself.  "Grass fed" and "Vegetarian fed" are not the same thing.  

The Panorama label just said "grass fed", with no elaboration.  
I was able to call up Panorama's web page on my telephone while I was still in the HEB.  Even though the label on the product is ambiguous, the web page is explicit:
Screengrabbed from this site.  
So I had confidence in purchasing the Panorama product.  However, just to make things interesting, I decided to do a taste test, so I bought a pound of each.
I made the Panorama burgers round, and the HEB a bit oblong, so that I could tell them apart post-barbecuing.  
There was no detectable difference in any of the physical qualities of the brands.  The Panorama are on the right, and the HEB are on the left.  
Here's what I can conclude about this experiment:

  • I found both brands to be higher than average quality (better than feedlot).
  • Both brands did indeed taste like grass-finished beef.
  • There was no substantial taste difference between the two.  I had a weak preference for the HEB, and my husband and daughter each had a weak preference for the Panorama.

Unless there's further information to be forthcoming on the HEB brand, I'll probably keep buying the Panorama, simply because they are explicit on their website about how they are raising their animals.  The problem with a store-branded product is that you can never be sure how many sources are feeding into that label.  So while my first package of HEB Organics ground beef was worth the money, I don't know if the next one would be on par.

It's an important question - I often buy $40 of ground beef at a time, so I don't want to get stuck with substandard quality.  You can't tell the quality until after you've cooked it, and it's a bit hard to return it to the store after it's already entrained in twelve quarts of home-made spaghetti sauce.  If I buy the wrong stuff, not only will I have wasted forty bucks, but it will also seriously degrade the dish that it goes into.  Been there (with Georgia's), done that, don't plan to make the same mistake again.

I don't know if either of these brands are available at any of the other local HEB stores, but good luck with your shopping if you're a grass-finished aficionado like myself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How will the Baybrook expansion impact mobility?

The proposed Baybrook Mall expansion might be of concern to some local residents who could be negatively impacted by changes in rights-of-way and mobility.  As a distant early warning, I describe this potential in the post below, based on the very incomplete information that has been released to the public thus far.

A couple of news outlets, including Houston Chronicle (paywalled), KPRC, and Bay Area Citizen reported on this expansion yesterday.  In conjunction with that story, the developer released this artist's rendering, which was republished by all of those news outlets:
Screengrabbed from this source image.  
Those of you who are familiar with the Baybrook area may find this to be a bit of a head-scratcher.  From this rendering alone, it is difficult to understand where the improvements are in relation to the rest of what currently exists.  My first question was, "What happened to IH-45?" because intuitively, I couldn't put the spatiality together.  My second and potentially more important question was, "What happened to Baybrook Mall Drive?"

So out of curiosity, I decided to yank together a few other aerials to see if I could make sense of this.
The artist's rendering shows an oblique angle whereas the Googlemaps image is taken from straight overhead.  I rotated this Googlemap image so that it would approximate the oblique rendering.  This seems to be very roughly where the new improvements will sit, if I'm interpreting things correctly.    
For reference, here's the artist's rendition annotated with two of the spatial markers that are the easiest to spot:  The iconic water tower next to the Texas Art Supply building, and Baybrook Mall Drive.  
Here's why this is important:

Here is the obvious question:  If we really are going to lose Baybrook Mall Drive, what compensatory measures are being included in this design to offset that loss?  Are there one or more new rights-of-way being included in the overall design to relieve congestion?  This expansion will make Baybrook into one of the largest shopping complexes in the greater Houston region - but how are we local residents going to be able to drive around it?

Anyone who is familiar with this area knows that Bay Area routinely gets gridlocked in front of the mall.  There are subdivisions and other developments on West Bay Area Boulevard that can only be accessed efficiently during peak times according to the diagram above.  You can't cut southward from El Dorado Boulevard, for instance, because El Dorado also gets severely congested near IH-45 due to its own retail density and also because there's a CCISD middle school a short distance from the freeway.  And you can't cut northward from NASA Road 1 because the route is just too circuitous and long.

Bottom line:  I personally think we need to retain Baybrook Mall Drive or add some other right-of-way which serves an equivalent mall by-pass function.

Hopefully the mall owners and developers will be able to furnish more complete design drawings and some answers to these questions in the near future.  Additionally, I'm assuming Baybrook Mall Drive is a full public right of way, which means that there'll probably be some kind of a public notice process before it can be condemned.  That would be the time for potentially impacted parties to speak up.  I would think that the retail owners on the far northwest side of this complex (on West Bay Area Boulevard) would also be interested in the answer as well, as these mobility issues would be expected to impact the ability of shoppers to get to their area.

I've based this post on very limited information, so these interpretations are subject to considerable uncertainty.  If anyone has additional details that could help correct or clarify my guesstimates, I'd appreciate receiving that information via the Comments section below or via at gmail.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Colony collapse disorder: A bees vs. no bees analogy

I'm unleashing a meme upon the world with the hopes that it will help to educate people about what happens when bees are not thriving.  I have pinned the meme to this blog post so that interested searchers can come here for the full story behind it.
This is not the meme - this is one of my favorite honeybee pics from this 2012 post.   Every spring, I let a few of my back yard winter garden vegetable plants bolt (go to flower) just so I can watch the bees.  This is a broccoli.  
You've no doubt seen headlines regarding colony collapse disorder on the internet and maybe you've even read a little about it.  But if you're like the rest of us, you've had to fight your way through endless streams of propaganda and political rhetoric (on the subject of bees, duh) and you've probably found it difficult to arrive at a perspective about what it all means in the grand scheme of things.
Mounds of dead bees, skulls and crossbones, predictions of the End Times, impenetrable statistics... it's all out there on the internet, just waiting to foul up your perspective.  
That image above is what results when you Google 'colony collapse disorder'.  Despite all the hype, there's nothing whatsoever in that material to give the average non-technical person a simple clear sense of what happens when there are no bees.  And without a grasp of the physical realities that result, how is a reader supposed to proceed into a contemplation of what it all means or how important it might be?

So my meme (given at the end of this post) addresses this by visually incorporating imagery depicting two very practical end-member results:  Bees vs. no bees.

In my case, it wasn't colony collapse disorder that gave me an opportunity to photograph these extremes - it was the 2014 polar vortex, which wreaked havoc on our normal seasonal progression into spring here in greater Houston Texas.  Basically what happened is that, by sun angle and calendar date, many plants concluded that it was time to flower.  But by prevailing severely cold weather, the wild bees decided that there was no way they were setting foot (or wing) outside their hives.
And this was the initial result for my blueberry plants.  What you see here is one bedraggled blueberry on the end of a stalk that contains mostly withered brown flowers, which are the ones that did not get pollinated.  Only one flower of many got lucky because this little portion of the plant happened to flower while it was still too cold for the bees to come out.

Blueberries are particularly sensitive to pollination.  They don't self-pollinate, they need different varieties available within about 100 feet of each other so that they can exchange genetic information, and bees need to do the work.  Commercial growers achieve good pollination by bringing bee hives to their fields while their plants are flowering.  They typically don't rely on natural bee populations like we hobby gardeners do in the suburbs.  
I sat on my patio and watched that initial early flowering, waiting for any sign of six-legged life, and there was none - it was an insect wasteland out there in my own back yard.  At times I would mutter to myself, "Houston, send me just one honeybee, Africanized or not - just one might be enough to turn this situation around."   It was very frustrating because blueberry plants also need cold weather in order to produce berries, and cold weather is something that we are not guaranteed to receive on the subtropical upper Texas coast.  So here I was in a unique situation of having had ideal polar vortex weather conditions which stimulated a profusion of blueberry flowers, followed by no pollinators to service those flowers.

Fortunately, blueberry bushes flower over the course of several weeks, and the weather warmed up enough in the intervening time for the bees to finally come out, which they did in abundance.  And this was the typical result for portions of the bushes that flowered later:
Blueberry bonanza!!  Quite a contrast, isn't it??  These two pictures in this post and in my meme were taken of parts of my two bushes which are separated by about five feet.  It's going to be a happy, happy day at my house when these things ripen and we can eat them.
Yes it is quite a contrast, and that's the point of my meme.  I wanted to show that bees vs. no bees does not mean better crop vs. worse crop.  It actually means something a lot closer to crop vs. no crop, and that holds true for many plant species besides blueberries.  And that's the message that you don't necessarily grasp right away by looking at the propaganda on the internet.

Again, I want to stress the fact that no actual colony collapse led to the differences you see in the photos above.  Our local wild bees initially stayed away because of the unusual cold weather.  But a lack of bees due to widespread colony collapse would be expected to produce a similar effect.

Memes away:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Five Corners flaws

I'm still waiting for some kind of explanation of what's happening right now at Five Corners.  Meanwhile, I thought I'd piggyback on my first Five Corners post to draw additional specific attention to one of my long-term least favorite subjects, which is the lack of pedestrian access in our area, and the fact that Five Corners is not safely navigable for anyone traveling by foot or bicycle.  And this has serious ramifications for many local families.  Case in point.
Willie Sutton robbed banks because that's where the money is.  Street Smart Driving School set up shop near Clear Creek High School because that's where the driving students (and their moneys) are.  

Screengrabbed from Googlemaps.   
If you examine that map grab, you'll immediately see that the distance across the Creek campus itself (that pile of development to the northeast, wedged between Marina Bay Drive and FM 518) is not much different than the distance from the southwest corner of the campus to the driving school.  It should be a very easy and quick walk from one to the other.

However, given the ill-conceived configuration of this area, the only way to get from the high school to the driving school is through Five Corners.
And Five Corners is simply not safe for pedestrians.  There are umpteen lanes of intense traffic and virtually no pedestrian improvements.  You can see white crosswalks painted on the road itself, but they largely don't connect to sidewalks or other non-motor vehicle conveyances.

Screengrabbed from Googlemaps.  
I'm not one of those overprotective parents who wants to pamper my child with chauffeur service and 24/7 climate control.  I raised her free range, and she describes herself as having "grown up playing in the streets".  She's not the kind of helicoptered kid who can't handle normal challenges presented by her surrounding environment.
We are not one of these families.  Screengrabbed from TIME magazine's seminal article on helicopter parenting.  
But I can't allow her to traverse either Five Corners or FM 270 on foot - without supportive infrastructure, it's simply too dangerous.

So what happens instead??  Sixteen times thus far, either my husband or I have had to leave work in the late afternoon on weekdays, drive several miles to the high school, pick her up, and drive her the whopping 3,500 feet (as the crow flies) from the high school to the driving school.  Sixteen times, and we're not nearly done with it because she hasn't even started the behind-the-wheel portion of the training course.

Now, mentally integrate that impact over time and space.  If you check the driving school's class schedule, you'll see that they have new classes starting every other week.  Each one of those classes is typically so chock full of students that most of them must queue up for class by waiting outdoors on a series of benches that the school has set up to handle the volume.  An enormous number of local students use this resource, but none of them can drive there under their own power because, duh, they're all in driving school.  I see a few of those students walking from the high school, but most do not because of the safety issues I've described.  Most get driven by family members.

Integrate mentally and what you come up with over time is thousands of impacted families, tens of thousands of hours of lost productivity due to the driving burden, and who knows how much extra money spent on gasoline and per-mile automotive depreciation.  

And that's just from that one isolated Point A to Point B transaction.  The amount of money squandered locally on the sum total of all student-schlepping simply boggles the imagination.  And a lot of that is done because parents correctly deduce that their kids can't walk safely around here for lack of infrastructure.
And then all of a sudden, lo and behold, we've got THIRTY-ONE THOUSAND CARS PER DAY traversing the area in question.

AADT stands for "average annual daily traffic" and this table is screengrabbed from this report.  However, this is probably way out of date because it's ten years old and League City's population has almost doubled (!) in the past ten years.  Today's AADT number is probably much higher than 31,000.  
So what seems to happen in public policy is that the decision-makers say, "Ah, we will eliminate sidewalks, curbs, shoulders, and other safety features from our new roadway project and this will save the taxpayers money."  But then what happens in response is that we have all this extra driving and we have to start spending major money to handle the extra driving that develops because there's no other safe option but to drive.  Right now they're apparently in the middle of spending another $5.5 million trying to fix the mess that is Five Corners, but what would it have cost them to have included sidewalks in the first place?

I'm not even remotely suggesting that sidewalks would be the total answer to all of this, but hopefully I've been able to make the point that they would be an integral component of any sensible solution.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep doing my part to help congest Five Corners multiple times per day because I don't have a viable alternative.
This is what it looks like when Clear Creek High students walk north on sidewalk-less and shoulder-less Egret Bay Blvd.  Tell me that this is even remotely safe or sensible.  Who designed this jack-ass right of way, and according to what hare-brained justification?!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Five Corners frustration

If you drive on FM 518, you've no doubt experienced what's been transpiring at League City's infamous "Five Corners" intersection these past several weeks.
Traffic has been even crappier than usual as new turn lanes and new turn restrictions are installed.  I had plenty of time to snap cell phone pics such as this one, given that it sometimes takes me three light cycles to get through the danged intersection.  
BTW, how did a Minnesota contractor get this job?  If we had a local newspaper, we might see stories on that kind of thing.  
I haven't heard commentary of any kind on this latest Five Corners project.  There's this City of League City page, but I have the following concerns with it:

  1. It's undated.  The relatively new League City website rarely adds dates to any entry, making it pretty much impossible to verify whether the information presented is the latest and greatest.  There have been so many detailed historical accounts of what may or may not happen at Five Corners that I can't be sure this information is applicable to what is occurring present-day.  Other official documents such as this one are similarly un-dated.  I have to go back to commercial news stories such as this one in 2010 before I can even get a sense of where we were (past tense) on this issue.  
  2. It's nebulously written, without context, and with a lot of stuff undefined.  "A new design that reduces the turning movements through this acute angled intersection was adopted and approved by TxDOT eliminating the bypass".  Really?  Adopted by TxDOT when?  Why?  And what happened to this "bypass" idea and why?  Context, anyone?  Frame of reference?  Timeline?  Rationale?  
  3. It lacks visual aids (diagrams, maps, photographs) that would help the reader to comprehend the full scope of work.  A total of $5.2 million will be spent here??  Surely a few concreted turn lanes do not add up to that kind of money?  What else can we hapless League City motorists expect?  

If I had the time, I'd pay more attention to this issue because it affects my family greatly.  It is not uncommon for me to have to drive through Five Corners a mind-numbing six times per day (three traverses in each direction).  If that sounds bat-sh*t crazy to you, then you probably don't have a young high-schooler in your household.  Even if my child takes the morning bus alleviating a need for me to drive her to school, I still need to pick her up at Clear Creek High School following afternoon tutorials and club meetings, and then drive her to her Drivers Education program, and then pick her back up from Driver Ed after class.

Hopefully this post will plant the seed in the mind of one of our local journalists to do a piece on this latest realignment work, because I haven't seen one yet (hint, hint).

Monday, March 17, 2014

A teacher's teaching moment

I was wrong about what I said yesterday - spring has not arrived.  It was only a momentary illusion followed by a forty-degree let-down.
Last night as I once again blasted the new fire logs that we bought to commemorate this unusual winter, my husband raised an eyebrow and asked, "Are you enjoying spending forty dollars on natural gas in a single evening?!"  I replied, "Yes I am.  It's a small price to pay for subtropical sanity."  
Given that you won't be spending much time in the frigid outdoors today, you might have a little extra time for elective reading.  If so, I recommend this op-ed by a recently-resigned HISD rookie teacher.

In the endless wrangling over public education, which suffers from hopeless distortion inflicted by polarizing duality just like every other debate topic in the American repertoire, that piece resonates and rings true for me because the author and I have a few important things in common.

I, too, put myself through university because my family did not have the means.  I, too, worked endless hours to support myself while simultaneously graduating from two of the best universities (top 3 in my home country followed by one of the top 20 American universities for graduate school).

The amount of work that goes into that kind of lifestyle choice is beyond the imaginations of most people.  Cognitive capacity for academics is not nearly enough - it literally takes an Olympic-level dedication to hard work - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (Edison's "99% perspiration" comes to mind).  

For this reason, when a self-made high-GPA Cornell graduate says that teaching conditions are untenable, chances are good that this is objectively true, because this is not a person who would be likely to have unrealistic expectations about what "hard work" does or does not entail.  This is not a person who would be likely to have problems prioritizing tasks, either.  

It's a good read.  Check it out if the state of our public education system is of concern to you.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tomato planting frenzy

Get your tomatoes and other spring vegetables into the ground now.
Tomatoes have a very narrow window of opportunity in our geography - you basically have to get established plants into the ground in the month of March because they cannot tolerate extremes of cold or heat, both of which we tend to have in abundance.

Here is a link to this planting guide PDF.  
I mention tomatoes specifically because they are probably the most popular vegetable.  Even folks who do not garden will grow tomatoes in large pots.

Where possible, I buy my tomato starts from Farmers Market vendors, but they often don't have as much stock or selection as my hands-down favorite vendor:
Maas Nursery in Seabrook.  This is one row of tomato hybrids and heirlooms, as it looked yesterday...
This is another row of tomatoes...
...and this is yet another row of tomatoes.  The selection is unparalleled.  
Even with all those tomatoes for sale, Maas will often sell out. Last year, I was too late to the party, and I wasn't able to buy grape or cherry tomatoes, which are the only kinds we grow.
The stock sells rapidly.  This is what the Maas check-out lines looked like on Saturday around 11 a.m.  There's a time-compressed buying frenzy this year in particular because the winter was so cold, which means folks are now playing catch-up.

Do you see at photo center that there's a shopper wearing a goose down winter jacket?  In Houston, in the middle of March!  It was about 65 degrees outside when this pic was taken, but by this point in our unusually cold winter/spring, bundling up has become force of habit for many folks.

A long line at Maas is not necessarily a bad thing.  It's not a lower-end retail destination, so there are always plenty of hyper-educated and interesting people to talk to as you wait.  
Given my failure to get to the stores on time last year, we did harvest probably five to ten pounds of tomatoes, but they all came from volunteers that had sprouted up randomly in our yard because I compost most of my organic waste, including expired tomato plants.
We grow the miniature varieties exclusively because we place them whole in gallon-sized freezer bags - no blanching, no work, no hassle factor.  And then I use them in dishes that I prepare for months afterward.

This is all we have left from our last harvest, which ended in June of 2013.  Eight or nine months is really too long to keep frozen vegetables, but these guys actually still taste very good.  This last bit of frozen tomato dregs will probably go into a near-future omelette.  
Volunteer tomatoes still taste really good, but the plants are not as prolific and the tomatoes are not as sweet as the pure hybrids.
This year, there will be little if any harvest from volunteers.  Most of the tomato plants I bought at Maas were the Sweet Million variety, which I chose on the advice of a couple of local Master Gardeners.

This is one of the two oblong stock tanks into which we usually put our tomatoes.  About a year ago, I wrote a post called "Landscaping around utility boxes and lines" which describes the development of this encumbered space (that's a utility box sandwiched between the tank and the concealing hedge of POH Yaupon).  It has become one of this blog's most popular posts, with thousands of hits.   
Despite the rain we've had this weekend, I managed to get some other vegetable starts into the ground as well.
This is what one of the existing larger stock tanks looks like with winter garden plants still going strong.  It is overrun with Swiss chard, celery, dill, bunching onions (which are obviously taking over the place), bulbing onions, carrots, and some gratuitous weeds.  
In sharp stage-of-growth contrast, here is that tank's spring garden mate.  I use the rocks to suppress weeds and slow evaporation.  Because the stock tanks are elevated, they tend to get warmer during the day, increasing evaporation.  
Happy planting, and welcome to spring.  I think it might be here, finally.  Maybe.
Our tomato count from the 2012 growing season.  Yes, I was nerdy enough to jot down each day's harvest.  


While we're on my favorite obsessional subject of Clear Lake grocery stores, the Kemah Aldi opened a few months ago and I finally got to drop in yesterday to check it out.
It's a grocery store.  A very unusual one.  From Germany.  
You may have heard from the news stories that there's a 25-cent deposit for use of the shopping carts.  This is how that works.  You insert a quarter into the slot, and it releases the chain and frees the cart.  Your quarter remains embedded in the slot until you return the cart and shove the dangling chain back into the other end of the locking device, at which time it releases the quarter.  Pretty simple.  And guess what, duh??  No shopping carts drifting around the parking lot conspiring to give you door dings.  
I don't think we're in America any more, Toto.  About three quarters of the brands for sale were unfamiliar to me.  
My verdict is as follows:  While I wouldn't eat most of what's for sale in that store, I wouldn't eat most of what's for sale in any grocery store.  Aldi would probably never become my sole-source grocer because of the lack of variety - it reminded me of grocery stores I've seen in rural Canada in its acutely no-frills presentation. But I will definitely stop there again the next time I'm driving down to the far east end of FM 518.

One thing was clear - if the cost of groceries is a significant concern for you, this might be your place to go, because some of the prices appeared to be lower than even Sam's Club or Walmart.
My Aldi haul-di:
  • Two six-packs of applesauce (an inefficient, expensive method of buying applesauce, but they fit neatly into my husband's lunch pail).
  • A package of whole wheat spaghetti
  • Three garlic heads
  • 8 ounces of Swiss cheese
  • One flat of fresh blueberries
  • One flat of fresh blackberries - and they were the most delicious that we've had in a long time
  • A bottle of German sauerkraut, because there's always room for real sauerkraut
Total price for these eight items:  $12.01.
Not bad for including cheese and fresh fruit.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Name that Clear Lake grocery store

Did you watch Nat Geo's "Live From Space" special last night?  If so, you may have caught a glimpse of this:
Photograph of my TV set as the unusual show was being broadcast live.  
The line at the top of that wall undoubtedly reads "Thank you for shopping your Clear Lake..." but then the name of the original store appears to have been pulled off the wall, probably because the store changed hands and the new chain never bothered to add their name.  So which store is this, and where is it located??

I was extremely surprised by the show's suggestion that ISS astronauts are fed regular grocery store food (albeit prepared via a complex process usually involving freeze-drying).  I've known a few people who have worked at McMurdo in Antarctica, and they explained to me that the food there was exceptionally good quality (e.g., this post, although I don't know that particular person).  The reason behind this was very simple:  it costs so much to transport the food to the station that the cost of food itself becomes negligible in comparison.  Therefore, it might as well be the best possible quality.

I was assuming that the same is generally true of the Space Station.  Do they really eat mainstream Clear Lake grocery store food?!  If so, maybe they should be getting extra hazard pay.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

SHARING: League City PD request for assistance

Please see the following information sources as the League City Police Department works a fatal hit and run accident that occurred this morning.

Link here.

Full URL here:

Direct Youtube link:

I cannot embed the Youtube on this blog post because it's not yet indexed.


Update Friday March 14, 2014:  LCPD posted this on Facebook just before midnight last night:

Recipe for the unofficial dish of Centerpointe Section 9

Requiem for a Meme:  This post is dedicated to whoever crafted this anonymous gem:
There's no attribution, which makes it even more powerful, because this guy could be any one of us who still knows how to cook real food in a fast-food universe.  
As Section 9 of our subdivision is now turning four years old (!), I'll mark the occasion by presenting a well-received recipe in the sections below.  I am presumptuous enough to declare this to be our dish.  And it's a heck of a lot better for you than birthday cake.

The good news, and the specific reason I chose this dish, is that everyone can eat it regardless of ethnic, religious, health, age, or other lifestyle restrictions.  Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus have all eaten this and declared it to be worthy, and if I could find some Jews in here, I think it could be made kosher also.  Vegan and non-vegan neighbors have both approved it irrespective of their ethnicities.  It is gluten free (I think - see notes below) and none of the ingredients are particularly allergenic (that I know of), so no limitations on that dietary front either.  It's also very simple as recipes go, so cooking skill is no bar.  And furthermore, it costs only pennies per serving.  In sum, I can identify no resident for whom this would not be a suitable healthy dish to make and eat.

The bad news is, on the day when I last made this, I was preparing three dishes simultaneously, and so I was a bit distracted when I was taking the prep photos.  My photo spread is a bit disjointed as a result, but here goes.

Cuban Black Beans

(This ingredient list makes 7 to 9 quarts - cut recipe down for smaller batches)

  • 4 cups dried black beans (Whole Foods organic from the bulk section are good)
  • 2 cups dried kidney beans (ditto)
  • Approximately 6 large Spanish onions
  • 1 to 2 full heads of garlic (depending on taste), split into cloves and minced
  • Approximately 0.5 to 0.75 cups of virgin olive oil
  • 4 large bunches of cilantro
  • 28 to 36 ounces of canned diced tomatoes
  • 0.5 to 1 cup of British malt vinegar (any issues with gluten or kosher?)
  • Salt to taste (usually a few tablespoons)
  • Water

Like many dishes that include only simple ingredients, the taste derives from proper preparation, which is a 3-day*, multi-step process that goes something like this (*the good news is that you can freeze this which means you don't have to cook batches of it very often).

Start on the evening of the first day, perhaps before you go to bed, putting up the dried beans to soak in water.
First pour out the dried black and kidney beans onto a clean, flat surface such as your dining room table.  Inspect carefully and remove any small rocks, wood chips, etc.

Then, put them in a large pot and cover with several inches of water.  They're going to swell up considerably, so they need a lot of water.

In this photo, it looks like I have many more kidney beans than black, but that's only because the kidney beans tend to float better.  
On the afternoon of the second day, after the beans have soaked for at least 12 hours but perhaps as long as 14 or 16 hours, begin the cooking.

Turn the heat on under the soaked beans, making sure that there is about 1.5 inches of water remaining over the top of them (bean purists debate whether the soaking water should be discarded and replaced with fresh water for cooking... I tend to retain the soak).

Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer with the top of the pot on, but cracked open.  Add some salt.

Then dice four of the onions and most of a head of garlic (depending on your taste for garlic).

Fry in at least a quarter cup of the olive oil.  The olive oil is the only real fat in this dish, and there has to be enough of it to transmit the tastes.

In this photo, I also threw in a handful of frozen tomatoes from our garden, but you can ignore that part (I make it a point to include something I've grown myself in each dish I make).  This isn't my full four onions, either.  I added more after this pic was taken.  
After the onion/garlic mixture is sauteed, add it to the pot of simmering beans.  I don't have a pic of that step.

Allow this initial mixture to simmer for several hours before moving on to the next step.

OK, now for the potentially novel part of this cooking experience.  What distinguishes this bean dish from others we know more commonly (e.g., Texas pinto beans) is the inclusion of a concoction known as sofrito.
Screengrabbed from Google.  
To make a black bean sofrito, continue with the following steps.

Chop the other two onions, the rest of your garlic, and saute in more of the olive oil.

After you get done sauteeing, you'll need to add a great deal of chopped cilantro.
I make such large batches of these beans that I get lazy with the cilantro.  Cilantro tastes best if you strip the leaves off the stems, but if I tried to do that here with the volume of cilantro needed, it would take me about a week.  It's easier for me to just buy four bundles and cut off the top sections, discarding the stem-rich remainder.  That still gives me four large fistfuls without having to do a lot of work.

By the way, I've since built for myself a much more effective chopping board.  You can see that here if you're interested.  
The cilantro is one of the two main components supplying the aromatics to this sauce.  You actually throw all that cilantro in there and cook it down - you reduce it, but somehow that does not totally kill the taste of the cilantro - don't ask me why not because it seems like it should be more fragile.  
After the cilantro has had a chance to reduce, you add the canned tomatoes.
Bean purists often used canned rather than fresh tomatoes in cooked beans because they claim that canned helps keep the dish from spoiling.  It prolongs the refrigerator life, in other words.  Or so people say.  But if you freeze most of your beans like I do, that shouldn't be an issue either way.  
So here's what the intermediate stage of sofrito looks like.  You'll need to cook the heck out of this one, too - at least 45 minutes.  
After the above sofrito ingredients are well-reduced, you add about a cup of malt vinegar.  This is the other component that supplies the aroma.
I like this brand.  A little maltose goes a long way - it's a very distinctive taste (Negra Modelo beer is an example of another product that has a lot of maltose in it and people tend to either love it or hate it).  If you're not sure that you like this flavor, start with a half a cup and then later add a bit more to the bean pot if you feel like it.  I use a full cup.  
Keep cooking the sofrito until the liquidity is again reduced.  Another 20 minutes at least.

Then, the sofrito is added to the main pot of cooking beans.
This is one of those moments when I wish I didn't have an over-the-range microwave oven because it's hard to get it in there when the pots are so large.  
Stir thoroughly and (you guessed it) continue to cook on low heat (barely simmer) for another hour or so.  Taste to adjust the salt if needed.

This is where I cover and turn my pot off and go to bed, leaving it on the stove overnight.  This is a 15-quart pot you see here, so the beans are still warm when I wake up on the morning of the third day.  I then turn the pot back on for another hour or three on very low heat.

The cooking duration sounds extreme, but it's really hard to screw this dish up by cooking it too long.  You'll be able to tell when the beans are done by the texture when you taste them - they should be slightly firm but not stiff, and generally smooth.  If you're using conventionally grown beans, the litmus test is to separate some beans from the sauce and blow on them to see if their skins split.  Yes, you heard correctly:  if the skins split, they are sufficiently done.  However, I've found that Whole Foods organic beans have skin that either barely splits or does not split at all no matter how long they are cooked.  I don't know why this is so.  With those beans, you sample them to taste for texture and smoothness to tell if they are done.
They should look something like this at the end of the long, long cooking process.  The surrounding liquid becomes like a thick gravy. 
Into the freezer for multiple future servings.  
The advantages to this incredibly long cooking period are as follows:
  • Optimal taste.  Ask numerous of my neighbors.  This recipe is unexpectedly good.  No other home cooking that I share around here is met with as much enthusiasm.  
  • Little (if any) gas.  Long cooking times help break down the indigestible cellulose that causes gas.  If you eat beans and a lot of gas results, one or more of these three issues is at the (f)heart of your problem:
    1. Your beans were not cooked properly.  Most commercial sources (restaurants, packaged food manufacturers, etc.) simply cannot afford a two to three day prep cycle, and so this has a lot to do with why beans have a bad reputation.  The preparers cut corners and poor digestibility results.  
    2. You don't eat beans often enough.  If they are a regular part of your diet, your body gets used to them and doesn't react by producing gas (that whole beneficial gut bacteria thing again).
    3. You eat beans as too large a fraction of your total meal.   They need to be a component balanced out by other servings.  I like to have mine with a hearty brown rice and maybe a piece of grilled chicken breast and a small salad.  Diluting the beans makes your body better able to handle any indigestible components that may remain.   
If you abide by those three pointers above, you should have no problem.  Happy noshing.  And Happy Birthday, Section 9!
Four years ago almost to the day, we were regaled by these genius tradesmen.  Rather than carrying the drywall up all those stairs, they cut a tiny slit in the wall of the house and simply passed it in through the side.  Texas ingenuity!!!