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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

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Q. My husband and I are considering replacing the vanity tops in our two bathrooms. We have heard a lot about "synthetic marble" and "synthetic onyx." Can you tell me what these products are and the differences between the two?

A. The products to which you refer are called cultured marble and cultured onyx. These happen to be two of the most popular finishes for bathroom vanity tops. Although the products are very similar in construction and equally durable, there are distinct differences in appearance. Cultured marble is a material composed of a mixture of natural stone and polyester resin. It has a gel-coat finish, which provides a nonporous, stain-resistant surface. No two pieces are ever the same. Cultured marble products have a deeply veined colorization throughout the substance, not merely on the exterior, which results in the appearance of real marble. Cultured onyx also is made of natural stone and polyester resin with a gel-coat finish. However, onyx products have a radiant translucence, giving it depth, which is produced by superior materials.

GARDEN

Season extending devices such as cold frames, hot beds, cloches and floating row covers will allow for an early start to the growing season. Start onion seeds indoors now. Run a germination test on seeds stored from previous years to see if they will still sprout. Don't work garden soils if they are wet. Squeeze a handful of soil. It should form a ball that will crumble easily. If it is sticky, allow the soil to dry further before tilling or spading. Sow celery and and celeriac seeds indoors now. Sow seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage indoors now for transplanting into the garden later this spring. If soil conditions allow, take a chance sowing peas, lettuce, spinach and radish. If the weather obliges, you will be rewarded with extra early harvests.

KITCHEN

Historian Ken Albala spent more than a year eating a different variety of beans every day as research for his recent book, "Beans: A History." Here he shares 5 things you may not have known about beans. Peanuts aren't the only legume in disguise. Licorice, tamarind, fenugreek, jicama and carob also belong to the bean family. When the ancient Romans shipped an obelisk across the Mediterranean from Egypt, they packed it in lentils. The bright yellow zolfino bean from Tuscany has become so sought after that it can cost $20 a pound. The humble navy bean, which is the same species, costs about 69 cents per pound. Despite the name, coffee is not a bean, and on the bush they are called cherries. The botanical name for the "winged bean" is Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, which means four-sided noisy fruit. But it's not a scatological reference. The pods apparently "pop" when they open.

Ken Albala's "Beans: A History," Berg Publishers, 2007.

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