Thursday, December 31, 2009

Farewell 2009


OK. But believe it or not, Saint-Tropez itself once looked just like this. It's a start!

We end the year 2009 doing what we've been wanting to do since we bought this little piece of watery paradise in North Carolina last February: clearing the waterfront so we can enjoy the view. Why did we wait until now? Because winter brings winds out of the north and winds out of the north blow the water out of the creek so we can walk on the beach. We have wind tides here, not lunar ones. When the cold north wind is blowing, we know we can once again take up a task we've become very, very adept at in 2009: clearing brush.

This job is a little different from the summer version we learned in July and August. It's colder, for an obvious start. More significant: that's mud you're walking on, "walk" being chosen politely and advisedly; it's really more of a slog. If you're lucky you only sink to your ankles, and you don't know where the weaker spots are, where you sink to the tops of your boots, until you're standing on/in them. And then there are all those little pointy things sticking out all over the place. They are cypress knees, federally protected. Between them and the occasional mud hole, you're lucky to remain upright as you drag your felled wax myrtle across the mucky obstacle course to the pile you're creating (seen right foreground) to be burned later. (Yesterday I fell once and I'm sure it won't be the only time. It's OK. Everything is washable.)

But picture this same scene in the summer. The mud will once again be under 2 or 3 feet of water. Cattails, wild irises and roses of Sharon will grow. Those old cypress trees will be full of green needles and hung with limpid Spanish moss. It'll be idyllic. And that's the whole point. Break an egg, make an omelet.

We knew 2009 would be a life-changing year--a challenge we prepared ourselves for and indeed were ready to take on as circumstances around us crumbled. January was bleak; we found ourselves strangling on a dream gone bad in Delaware and faced with Steve's imminent unemplyoment. The instinct for survival kicked in: we took control of our own destiny, and once we did that, things happened fast. By sheer grace, we were able to sell that gorgeous Delaware albatross for almost what we paid for it four years earlier, despite a tanked market. We settled that sale on the first weekend in February; the following weekend we came here to North Carolina for our first and only foray into real estate shopping, and just like that found that door that always opens when another one closes. In the ensuing months we worked hard, but we also had equal measures of good luck never expected and help never asked for, given by more big-hearted people than we ever knew existed. Once we finally settle, we have a lifetime of cheerful paybacks to perform. Not a bad thing to look forward to, and we can look back proudly on a big accomplishment. When both your future and your immediate past are pleasant vistas, you're in a pretty good place. I'm not complaining.

Thank you for being with me through all of this--your support and interest have contributed not a little to making this journey worthwhile. "Transition," indeed!
One of my real hopes for 2010 is that I will be able to get back to more regular visits. I do miss those empty morning hours in Arlington that gave me the time for them, but by now that feels like a former life, not to be retrieved. A new life is on its way--we're officially told by our builder that move-in will be late February or early March, about a year after all this started. We'll still be busy with flesh and blood life, but I'll also still be here, I hope on a more predictable schedule.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rudely interrupted


I'm on something of an enforced vacation these days. Current work at the property (fooling around with the boat, removing old seats and carpets to make way for new) is of the type that doesn't require two. Steve says when I'm along on a job like that all I do is "hover," and it's true. There's nothing worse than somebody standing around just watching, hoping to be useful. So this week my mornings are at home. Yesterday I intended to use the down time to play around in the blogosphere. I got waylaid.

When I booted up my computer yesterday morning my McAfee security app notified me that my subscription, which had been free to me as a Comcast customer, had expired. Since the Comcast freebie was a vestige of Arlington and the relationship no longer exists, that meant the time had come to take advantage of another free McAfee promotion, this time through my bank. It was a simple enough operation on the face of it: uninstall the old Comcast McAfee so that a new download wouldn't recognize a twinned image of itself and abort, go to the McAfee site and establish a new account via my bank, and then download and install the new virus protection. Even at my middling wireless speeds the operation would take an hour at most.

Wrong.

The McAfee installation refused to finish. It would go through every slow-as-molasses step, checking my computer for old versions and viruses, downloading the six components of the "security suite," and then trying to install them. Always, at the very end of the process, the word "failed" would appear.

I made my first call to McAfee tech support at around 10 am. I would make 5 more such calls over the course of the day. Until 6 pm I was mostly sitting in front of this screen, either explaining my situation to unfailingly courteous Indian citizens whose accents ranged from Simpsons Apu-esque, fun and totally understandable, to the utterly incomprehensible, or watching the slo-mo progress of another ultimately failed installation. At the end of the most frustrating phone session--the one with the diligent and hardworking man 95% of whose words escaped me--I thanked him for his hard work, congratulated him on his knowledge and his seriousness, and urged him to get training in American English if he intended to stay with McAfee so that all that knowledge could be put to its intended use.

In the end it turned out that somehow my computer had become infected with Trojan horses, applications that appeared normal to a virus scanner but were really spyware, and that my Windows security settings were wrong. These discoveries were made when I turned over control of my computer to the technician on the phone with me in India. I watched as the cursor drilled into the nether regions of this piece of machinery I so take for granted and discovered rafts of stuff that shouldn't have been there. It was an eye-opener to learn that even though I may be conscientious about scheduling regular virus scans and emptying temporary files, the control a lay user really has is limited. I always wondered why so many temp files remained after I "emptied" the folder. Still don't know why, but the removal yesterday of all of them doesn't seem to have hurt my computer.

It was on one of the earlier phone calls that I had the fear of God struck into me about using Firefox. The fact that I was trying to download through Firefox was the first theory about why installation was failing. McAfee, I was told in no uncertain terms, does not like Firefox. I dutifully uninstalled Firefox and worked all day only through Internet Explorer, which only added to the fun--IE is exponentially slower on this computer than Firefox. It was a relief to put Explorer back to bed and welcome Firefox back as my default browser.

How's that for a boring day? Geeze, we can blog about anything, can't we? For relief I put up a picture I took a couple of months ago of the beautiful Perquimans (rhymes with "persimmon") River, one of the great, completely unheard-of streams that water this part of the country. It's brackish, doesn't taste salty but has enough salt to support a very healthy population of fish and blue crabs. The picture looks south, towards the river's mouth (not visible) at the Albemarle Sound. We make this crossing every day on our way to the property.

Steve just called to tell me the electricians are back, putting in light fixtures and switches. One more step. Electricity to the house can't be too far behind....

Friday, December 4, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!


BRAISED BEEF SHORT RIBS

Here's yet another recipe from Cooks Illustrated that must be shared. It's a perfect meal for a cold day, with its lengthy braise creating wonderful aromas through the house, and a stick-to-your-ribs (no pun intended) finish. I offer the recipe here exactly as it appears in the magazine. Unflavored gelatin is called for because no bones are used in this recipe; therefore the thickening effect of the natural gelatin found in bones is lost. I didn't have any gelatin on hand, so I skipped that step to no noticeable detriment. The sauce is already so rich and delicious (and yet so simple--it's all about reduction and strengthening flavors) that the additional unctuousness of gelatin would be a cherry on an already over-the-top cake. (You can use bone-on ribs if you want, but they take up a lot of room in the pan and produce at least six times the fat as their boned counterparts. Substitute 7 pounds of bone-on ribs with at least an inch of meat on the top.)

I used rice as a starch to carry the sauce just because we were mashed potatoed-out after Thanksgiving. The peas added sweetness to the whole. But accompaniments, of course, are up to you.

3 1/2 pounds meaty boneless short ribs, at least 4 inches long and 1 inch thick, trimmed of excess fat
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions , peeled and sliced thin from pole to pole (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
6 medium garlic cloves , peeled
2 cups hearty red wine such as cabernet
1 cup beef broth
4 large carrots , peeled and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 teaspoon unflavored powdered gelatin
Instructions

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat until smoking. Add half of beef and cook, without moving, until well browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn beef and continue to cook on second side until well browned, 4 to 6 minutes longer, reducing heat if fat begins to smoke. Transfer beef to medium bowl. Repeat with remaining tablespoon oil and meat.

Reduce heat to medium, add onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. (If onions begin to darken too quickly, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water to pan.) Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until it browns on sides and bottom of pan, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Increase heat to medium-high, add wine and simmer, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, until reduced by half, 8 to 10 minutes. Add broth, carrots, thyme, and bay leaf. Add beef and any accumulated juices to pot; cover and bring to simmer. Transfer pot to oven and cook, using tongs to turn meat twice during cooking, until fork slips easily in and out of meat, 2 to 2½ hours.

Place water in small bowl and sprinkle gelatin on top; let stand at least 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer meat and carrots to serving platter and tent with foil. Strain cooking liquid through fine-mesh strainer into fat separator or bowl, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard solids. Allow liquid to settle about 5 minutes and strain off fat. Return cooking liquid to Dutch oven and cook over medium heat until reduced to 1 cup, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in gelatin mixture; season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over meat and serve.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Carolina Mudpie for a Crowd

Before I get to the local specialty promised in the title, I bring your attention to the new masthead photo. It's what you see at the driveway entrance as of today. Our imagined concept of seeing a lovely house peeking out of the woods is becoming a reality. The color looks a bit drab now, but it's the effect we were after: a large-ish structure that looks like it belongs in its environment. We will add splashes of bright color to bring it to life after we move in.

The siding guy must have a sadistic streak, because he came the other day and finished the entire job except for the shutters on the room above the garage. The box containing the shutters is there, waiting to be used. It means he'll have to make one more trip all the way out there just to hang two more shutters. We don't get it. He's not paid by the hour. Sadistic, like I said. Has to be.

The piles of brush in the front yard are the leafy, twiggy parts of five trees that had to come down to make way for the septic field. If it ever dries out enough, we'll have bonfires to dispose of them. Outdoor fires are legal here with a permit that is free and downloadable. (All of a sudden we are once again savoring the spicy aroma of burning leaves--an experience I haven't had since the practice was outlawed in my suburban Virginia neighborhood when I was a teenager.) We dodged rain yesterday to get the trees cut into logs; we ended up with at least another cord of firewood, and we decided it was just too much for us--we already have enough wood to last a couple of lifetimes. We found a young couple on Craigslist who needed it to heat their house, so we let them have it for free.

CAROLINA MUDPIE FOR A CROWD

1/4 acre sandy clay
10 dumptruck loads sand
Rain

Before rain begins, dig six trenches, each 6 feet deep by 4 feet wide by 50 feet long, in the quarter-acre. Fill each trench halfway with sand, then place porous PVC pipe on top of sand in each trench and surround with heavy-duty styrofoam popcorn held together in huge mesh bags. Cover pipe and styrofoam with sandy clay originally dug from trenches; keep adding clay to come to top of each trench. Smooth remaining clay over entire surface of the quarter-acre and leave to settle. This is a septic system, but that's not the point.

Do a rain dance if necessary to summon 3 (three) days of Biblical, torrential downpour.

Invite friends over. Wallow.



Saturday, November 21, 2009

In a hiatus

We've reached the point we knew would come: we've temporarily worked ourselves out of a job. The last big project was splitting the firewood, which we completed a couple of weeks ago. There is still much clearing to do, but it's on the waterfront. The waterline backs up sufficiently for us to walk on the shore, enabling us to do that work, but not until deep winter, when there is a more-or-less permanent north wind blowing water out of the creek. (Our tides here are almost entirely driven by the prevailing winds instead of the moon.)

And so, what to do? Psychologically we are are not permanent yet because we really don't "live" anywhere--this current roof over our heads is a mere way-station, populated with as many of our things as necessary to make life possible, but it's not really ours. We have done all the day trips in the region that can reasonably be done between sunrise and sunset, and haven't really discovered anything anywhere that makes us want to return. Our two home bases, Edenton and Elizabeth City, are well served by restaurants, but very poorly by movies, so we are well fed, but other entertainment comes mainly via either Netflix or DVR'd movies off the TV. We do scare up the occasional odd job: we're working on the boat and dock at the moment, preparing to install new seats on the boat and making the lift run more efficiently. We want to paint the wicker furniture we've found in antique stores--the pieces are in excellent shape but their white needs touching up, and it makes sense to have that done before we move. It seems to be staying warm enough here well into autumn for us to be afforded the occasional 60-degree day that makes that outdoor job possible.

Otherwise, strings of empty days loom ahead. I'm more OK with that than Steve, who was not raised for introspection or a life of the mind. He does welcome the occasional day off, but usually as a reward for some just-completed hard work, which is his normal medium. When he gets down to spending hours playing Monopoly on the computer, it's clear he's scraping bottom.

We've been in one stage or another of "move mode" for about two years now, from the disruption of preparing the Arlington house for sale, going room to room dismantling and re-creating (remember that?), to the emotional roller-coaster of the selling process, to the physical move itself, to making ourselves ready to hit the ground running when we finally take possession of the new house, free to tackle all those new chores with the big exterior work behind us. We're very smart, very efficient.

But we've been living in anticipation all this time. Our present has been completely filled with preparation for the future. I'm the first to acknowledge it could be a hell of a lot worse--at least we have a future, and a very bright one at that, to prepare for. But what I wouldn't give for a group of friends who were a mere phone call away for an invitation to dinner and conversation. That day will come, I know. But it's not here yet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ida Comes Calling

We are all warm winds and driving rain today as what's left of Hurricane Ida makes herself felt. She'll be here today and tomorrow, another house guest, less welcome than the ones to whom we've just bid farewell, but here for a shorter time. Since we can't work outside on anything, a big chunk of computer time is available. And that leads me to some random musings.

I was recently found on Facebook by one of the boys who made my first couple years of high school (high school for me was grades 8-12) a living hell. He actually "friended" me. Like all bullies, he appears totally oblivious to the havoc he wrought all those years ago, and comes to me all friendly-like. I took him up on the friend offer just so I could take a look at what he considers worth sharing about his life today. There he is, those familiar features now encased in rolls of fat, smiling out at me, the happy grandfather. His interests and his politics are the polar opposites of mine, which is not surprising. I'm pondering taking the opportunity to thank him for teaching me some important lessons in life--patience and perseverence in the face of extreme unpleasantness being the most important--but will likely instead simply ignore him. Still, it was a shock to get the message, and interesting how those ancient insults to the soul still resonate. It's also remarkable to reflect on how far behind I have left that life and those people.

We bought a canoe! One of the houses we pass every day on our drive to the property suddenly had this shiny red number in the driveway with a For Sale sign attached. It's a fiberglass 2001 model in very good shape, and we got it for less than half of what it would cost new. The creek we're on is ideal for a canoe and we had been toying with the idea of getting one, especially since Gary, our builder, actually designed a large, overhead space in our garage specifically for hanging a canoe. So now we can fill the space. Can't wait to take her on her maiden Lunker's Creek voyage. A canoe was pretty far down on our list of needs/nice to haves, but when you're faced with a deal like that.....

This is harvest time. The ubiquitous soy and cotton fields we pass everywhere in this part of the state are beyond ready to be relieved of their burdens, and little by little they are being emptied by combines and their fruit hauled away. Farmers actually defoliate (and kill) the plants in order to prepare them for picking, making it easier for the machines to do their work. And we're learning that mechanical harvesting is a labor-saving but inefficient process--right after picking, there seem to be as many cotton bolls left in the fields and scattered by the side of the roads as there are packed in tractor-trailer sized bales, and the birds are enjoying a bonanza of fallen dried soybeans.

And speaking of birds: lately there is amazing activity among the starlings here. Thousands upon thousands of them are flocking, flying in a westerly direction in the mornings and then coming back eastward at dusk. They stop to rest in the trees surrounding the property and create a racket that requires you to raise your voice to be heard. I've checked the obvious websites, including the Cornell bird program, to find out what's going on, but so far have come up dry. Since starlings have colonized the entire continent, there isn't much migration really going on. So what gives? Maybe they're flying from soy field to soy field, gorging during the day and returning to their home roosts at night? Whatever it is, Alfred Hitchcock's imagination had nothing on this spectacle.

Collards and hamhocks for dinner tonight. Yum! Am I in the South or what?

Friday, October 30, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!


PORK GOULASH

I'm making time today to get this into the queue so I won't forget to tell you about it. It's a real winner that I had tucked away for a good 25 years before I ever even tried it, just last week. (One more reminder that it pays to go off the beaten path and try something "new." Obviously, since I had gone to the trouble of collecting the recipe in the first place, I must have thought it had possibilities. I just never got around to making it.)

Once I decided to post the recipe, I had to figure out a good name for it. I collected it as "Rindfleisch und Schweinenfleish-Gulasch" but that seemed pompous, and besides, "Rindfleisch" is beef, and I left the beef out. I thought about "Hungarian-Style Pork Stew," but "goulash" is a word everybody knows (and it was part of the original name), so that's what I settled on.

Goulash is usually served over buttered egg noodles, but I put it on mashed potatoes and it was scrumptious. Do whatever you want!

2 lbs. pork shoulder, cut into cubes for stew
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup Hungarian paprika (smoked, if you can find it)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 15-oz. can mushrooms stems and pieces, undrained
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
6 thyme sprigs, tied in a bundle
salt and pepper
10 oz. frozen peas
1 cup sour cream (can be low-fat but not nonfat)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat oil in a dutch oven until shimmering. Add pork in batches so it is not crowded, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and brown thoroughly on all sides. Set meat aside as it is browned. Add third tablespoon of oil to same dutch oven, then add onions and carrots and stir until they begin to deglaze the pan and turn brown. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant.

Sprinkle paprika over onions and carrots and stir to coat vegetables, then sprinkle flour over all and stir to combine. Add the broth, the wine, the mushrooms with their liquid and the Worcestershire and cook, scraping bottom of pan to completely deglaze, until sauce begins to simmer and thicken. Stir in thyme bundle, along with reserved pork and any accumulated juices. Cover pan tightly (using foil between lid and pan if necessary) and bake in oven for 2 hours or until pork is fork tender.

Remove goulash from oven and set on rack. Remove remains of thyme bundle. Stir in peas, cover, and allow them to cook in the hot sauce for 10 minutes. Just before serving, stir in sour cream and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle parsley evenly over all and serve over mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In which I discover life outside The Project


This backyard visitor may be the most exciting thing that happens today. There's still hope, since it's only 8:30 in the morning, but rainy days like this one cause life as we currently know it to screech to a halt.

I think I've either created a false impression that we are constantly busy with The Project, or maybe it's a kind of vicarious fantasy life that my reading friends have conjured for us because of the things I usually write about these days, but allow me to set the record straight: we have no life whatsoever outside The Project as long as it remains a "project" instead of a home. We are in limbo, in purgatory, in-between, and a rainy day like this one makes that abundantly clear. Even after a rain, when the sun is back out and the weather is dry, we still can't do much because where we "do" things is on a construction site where there is only dirt. Dirt becomes ankle-sucking mud after a rain. There is nothing. to. do. I suppose that should make me happy because it gives me a chance to write here, but look: all I'm doing is complaining!

But even as I write those words, I am reminded that we actually are getting a few other things accomplished during these waiting days--things that we had almost given up hope of ever doing. For one, we're having my chair re-upholstered. The current upholstery is showing its 25 years of daily use; the chair needs a face-lift to feel comfortable with whatever sectional sofa we eventually buy for the new great room. Our Deep Creek neighbors came through once again for us, this time with the name of a favorite upholsterer up in Elizabeth City, and we took a picture of ther chair to her last week. We're waiting for an estimate.

Another long-put-off project was the repair of our three antique clocks. Over the years in Virginia they had all stopped working, and because of prices there we despaired of their ever again being more than beautiful but non-functional conversation pieces. (The repair of just the clock pictured in the linked post would have been $300.) Once we got here and started haunting antique stores, we asked the proprietors if they knew of anyone who repaired antique clocks, and always came up empty. So in a spare moment I simply googled "antique clock repair" in eastern North Carolina, and came up with two local shops, one, again in Elizabeth City, and the other on the Outer Banks. I called the E. City guy and he came all the way down here to look at the clocks and give us his estimate. He fixed all three clocks, the one pictured, a companion to that one, and an Emporer grandfather clock, for less than the price of the one clock in Virginia. Repairing the grandfather clock had special meaning because my father had made it from a kit, his first retirement project, back in the 70s. So now we have three lovely clocks ticking away here, keeping (more or less) accurate time. We already know where they will go in the new house.

It's now an hour later than it was when I started here, and guess what? There is something happening today more exciting than the goat visit. We got the estimate on the chair. We're off to Elizabeth City!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Life's a beech


Among the scores of trees on our 2 1/2 acres was a magnificent and ancient beech. It stood at least 50 feet tall and had a circumference at the base of over 6 feet. It stood within touching distance of our spanking new garden shed and, alas, it was rotten at its roots. Huge holes had been dug into it by everything from microbes to insects to, no doubt, snakes. With regret, we had to face the fact that it must come down.

Dwight was the man for the job. He was the foreman on the framing crew, the man who directed all the very intricate carpentry that made all those peaks and valleys on our roof a reality. He's a master carpenter and also a nice guy who's always hustling a few extra bucks. That's what we paid him to cut the tree down--it was on the ground, cut into immense, even logs, when we returned from our Nags Head vacation in September.

It goes without saying that the eventual destination for this wood bonanza is our fireplace. To get it ready for service, the next step for us was to split the logs into hearth-size pieces, and Dwight said we could borrow his gas-powered hydraulic log-splitter to do the job. We still had to finish building the shed and then siding it, so the task had to wait a few weeks. And in those few weeks Dwight, that sterling character of a master carpenter, made like a contractor and disappeared. "Oh, yes," he said, when we called him to confirm he would still lend us the splitter. But he never showed up on the appointed day, and he stopped returning our calls. He'd gotten his money and had no sentimental need to continue the relationship.

So there we were with many many beech logs to split and nothing to split them with. We looked at renting a splitter and were prepared to do that, even at $69 a day, because we thought we had no choice. Then our Deep Creek Shores neighbors stepped into the breach. One of them stopped by for a chat and in the course of the conversation he mentioned that another neighbor had a splitter we could probably borrow. Relieved, we called that neighbor to talk log splitters. He said we were welcome to his, but it hadn't worked in months and he'd trashed it. He'd ordered a new one, but it wouldn't be delivered for weeks.

Back to the rental idea. Since these splitters are big machines that have to be towed, and none of our vehicles has a trailer hitch, our plan was to borrow the truck and trailer from the same guy (yet another neighbor) from whom we had borrowed them to clear brush. But he had major qualms about letting us drive the rig all the way to the rental place in Elizabeth City. Insurance concerns. He was very apologetic and it was clear he felt bad about leaving us in the lerch, but we understood, probably would feel the same way if we'd been the lenders. We went back to square one with our plans, preparing to actually rent a trailer to pull the splitter down from E. City, when the truck-and-trailer neighbor called us to say he remembered yet another neighbor who had a splitter! That was the middle of last week. We called neighbor number 4, and we got the response with which we were becoming depressingly familiar: we were welcome to borrow his splitter, but it wasn't running at the moment. The difference this time, however, is that this guy is a whiz-bang mechanic who can make anything with a carburetor run. He said he'd be able to fix the splitter over the coming weekend (this previous one), and we'd be able use it for as long as we needed it after that. Since it rained all last week anyway, no untoward time was lost. We found other things to do on the property while it rained.

Finally, last Sunday, Mr. Mechanic delivered the splitter. A noisy monster that applies 14 tons of hydraulic pressure to split the biggest log we'll ever see (and that's not even the biggest, which comes in at 20 tons), it will be our boon companion all week. It took us a mere two days to reduce the mighty beech tree to the stacks of wood you see in the photo above. That is about 132 cubic feet of wood, slightly more than a cord. It will last us several lifetimes. And we aren't even finished. Tomorrow we'll tackle this pile, which was saved from the original land clearing. It's oak and cypress, and there's at least another cord there.

Need some firewood?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An update


Accuweather and NOAA are unanimous in stating that at this time, clouds are supposed to be gathering for a coolish, rainy Saturday in these parts, but you couldn't prove it by the clear blue sky, brilliant sunshine and delicious, cool breezes we are enjoying as I write. This would be a perfect day for the beach, but it would be our luck to get there just as the rain started--for it's bound to start. It's just a little late. Last night was incredibly beautiful. We sat on the deck and looked at the sky, so clear that the Milky Way was literally just that: a cloud of light so dense that the stars in their indistinguishable billions looked like nothing so much as milk spilt across the sky.

The clearing work is done! That's Steve up there in the picture, standing on top of the last load we took to the dump yesterday. (There is actually still quite a bit of clearing to be done on the waterfront, but we can't get to that until mid-winter, when the water recedes and we can walk on the shore. We're so good at this particular job by now we ought to have the beach done in a matter of a few days, and then, North Carolina being a state that allows such things as long as we get a permit, we will burn it. So we can truly say our huge yard-waste dump runs are over!)

I just wrote an email to a friend with an update and realized everybody else may be hungry for the news, as well, so I thought I would share the interesting parts:

The house is coming along, mostly on the inside, so there hasn't been much in the way of photos to share. The HVAC rough-in is done, plumbing is about 3/4 done, and wires for electricity are being pulled now. It's at times like this that we are so glad to be here to watch the process closely. We can talk to the guys on a regular basis, establish relationships with them, learn a lot (especially good for Steve, who has the technical basis to build on) and catch errors, sometimes of judgement but mostly of omission on our part. We forgot a few things when designing the kitchen, for instance: a place for trash, and dedicated lights over the sink and over the cooktop. We've been able to add those things on the spot by talking to the right people. And then Gary, our otherwise sainted builder, took it upon himself to assume that the deck along the back of the house would be a step down from the house, instead of mounted flush with the interior floor. That to us was a series of accidents waiting to happen, with people having to negotiate a step as they went outside, lawsuits in the making. Plus, the big deck off the kitchen will be a dining area. Can't you see someone (me, of course) armloads of food or dishes spreading dinner all over the deck because I missed the step? We fixed that.

Since electric is in process, Steve and I have been focused on fixtures: deck, dock and driveway lights, lights on either side of the garage door, a doorbell, and various interior lights that aren't part of the standard package. (And we're talking a lot to the electrician about outdoor electrical needs: trenches for the lines to the dock, to the driveway, which at 450 feet needs plenty of lighting, and to the garden shed. Since we're here, we can easily stay on top of all those things.) The Lowe's down here in Elizabeth City is pretty good in the electrical department, and after looking at all the specialty stores, we ended up buying all of our fixtures there. Their selection was huge and the bill was a fraction of what it would have been at an electrical supply place. We actually like everything we chose, didn't have to "settle" on anything. (And no, I'm not being paid for this plug!)

Siding is going on the house now. It's a painstaking process because of all the peaks and soffets, but it's looking beautiful. The next good pic to share will be of that job when it's finished.

Steve and I are fine--I'm OK once I just accept the fact that this is a limbo time, and for now I can't do some of the things I love, like listen to music and write. The luxury of those couple of hours a day just doesn't fit into the current schedule. Also, I'm in the worst physical shape I've been in for years because there's just no place to take my walks and our days are often so busy, lunchtime is just too much food--salads, mostly, but big restaurant ones with a lot of extras that I of course finish. So I'm putting on a few pounds. (Nobody else would notice, but I do, and so does my blood pressure.) Again, I quell those worries with the reminder that this situation is just temporary.

And now, sure enough, the clouds are beginning to gather, and it's becoming humid and more uncomfortable. The rain is on its way, just in time to do whatever the day demands in the form of errands. If I play my cards right, that may not amount to much.

Sorry for the weird font and color changes. They come from copying from the meail format to this one. I did what I could to fix it, but it isn't perfect, because Blogger isn't......


Monday, September 28, 2009

Still in limbo, still busy


Here's a picture of what the house looks like today. The most recent additions are the roof shingles and all the doors and windows. Inside, plumbing and duct work are being installed, and the electrical rough-in should be done by Friday.

It used to be that when our September vacation was over, that signaled, essentially, the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one. It was a throwback to the school calendar mind-set, I guess. Maybe next year it will feel that way again, but for now, in this limbo state, I don't feel as though I'm on some sort of threshold, except for the very long one before us as we wait for our new home to be finished. Another analogy: it feels like my old Peace Corps job, at the change of presidential administrations. While we waited for the new political appointees to be installed at the top, all initiatives and pending projects came to a standstill. We couldn't do anything until the new folks, charged by the president with new initiatives based on his platform, had a chance to review what was currently in process. I'm in the land of in-between, treading water with work that needs to be done but doesn't represent anything new, just maintenance. I know how to live here but I don't like it very much.

The routine we established in early July continues. Early every morning we make the 25-mile drive up to the property and take up chores that still need to be done while the house is a-building. The clearing is mostly finished, at least until the winter, when the water recedes dramatically from the beach front and we can actually walk there and do some much-needed clearing. What has been cleared must be maintained, which is done with a combination of mowing, weed-whacking, and herbicides. (There is a very aggressive, thorny vine called greenbrier that can only be controlled with chemicals. If you cut it down, it simply pops back up, in multiples of what you cut down. The irony of naming this noxious weed after the luxurious, palace-sized resort in West Virginia is not lost on me.) Steve continues work on the garden shed, now putting shingles on the roof. A big job ahead, this week and next, will be dealing with firewood: we had a couple of very large trees taken down and cut into logs, which we will now split into pieces for the fireplace. Steve will split with the gas-powered log-splitter loaned to us by the guy who cut down the trees, while I stack. And these are only temporary stacks. They'll be moved when the construction project is finally over and we can grade and landscape the land immediately adjacent to the house. When that's done, we can determine the spot that is most convenient to the fireplace, and move it all there. Oh, there's no dearth of things to keep us busy.

So busy, of course, that I am still unable to transcribe my jottings here with any regularity, much to my continuing regret. I am still not complaining about the work. I just wish there were more hours in the day so that I had the two or three I need to do this well. But I don't, so there we are. I'll try to check in again in less time than it took me to get here today.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Life is a beach


We are back to whatever passes for normal these days after a great beach break with DC friends who were in Waves, one of the tourist villages far down the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. The house was nothing short of palatial, with, in addition to the usual great room and decks, 8 master bedrooms, a media room, a Viking range in the kitchen in addition to wall ovens and two, count 'em two, refrigerators, and a dining room table for twenty. We were 12, but we weren't just rattling around in the extra space. Nature abhors a void, and so does a crowd of gay men. We filled the spaces. It was a great break--a teaser for our own week in South Nags Head beginning the 19th of this month.

The hosts in Waves were Jim and Kemp, friends from DC whom, when we were living there, we'd see a couple of times a year for dinner if we were lucky, because of the distance between our homes. It was great having a chance to spend some extended time with them, and fun and interesting to watch the dynamics of this group of people we became a part of. Just as we have a set of "Nags Head friends" with whom we now get together almost exclusively when we are at the beach (though we met at work or through mutual friends), and with whom we have built up a rich history over the years, they have their set of close friends from college and other earlier days, and their stories and memories are every bit as funny and/or intense as ours are. It speaks well of the group that we never felt like we were horning in on their special times--we were welcome. And we even found time for a card game--that's a picture of me learning (for a second time) h0w to play euchre. I like it!

This was the first time we drove "home" from the Outer Banks and were still in North Carolina at the end of the trip. What used to be a 5 1/2 drive was just 1 1/2 hours. And we aren't really "at home" in this rental house. The whole situation brings home to me state state of limbo in which we find ourselves now and the mysteries still ahead. Steve has yet to have to deal with the fact that he is retired. We went from one way of life in which he worked and I stayed home to this, in which he is still working, but on different things, and I am working again. At some point all this house-related hyperactivity will be done, and a new "normal" will make itself known. I hvae no idea what it will be, but I look forward to that day.l Until it comes, though, we just roll with the very strong flow.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I miss you!


Life has changed, folks. This is me riding a symbol of the new times. Our new mower was necessary to stay ahead of Mother Nature's abhorrence of a weed vacuum. Time was when we used a little electric mower to cut the grass and the job was done in 20 minutes. No longer.

If we aren't clearing land, we're building in the garden shed. The bottom line is, my nine-to-five weekday bachelor mornings, when I had the hours to indulge my love of music and the written word, are a thing of the past. They may come back when this construction/moving adventure is done early next year, but for now, we get up and go to work every day. We're back home around noon (too hot to work past that) but then I find myself occupied with the other important mundanities that keep life rolling.

Honestly, I'm not complaining, but this new reality is keeping me away from you and this place and I regret that. I still swear I will not give up this blog, but really, I don't know how often I'll be able to write anything. For now there is no news on the "transition" front except that the house continues apace. I've shared weekly updates with many of you via email--if any of you are curious to see what the transition is literally about, visit here occasionally. It's really all my life is about these days. If you save the website you'll see weekly updates, usually on Saturdays.

I'm still following all of you, my friends, and enjoying your words and pictures. I'm with you in the ether like always. I'm just not contributing to it as much as I used to (or would like).

Friday, August 21, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!


AUSTRIAN POTATO SALAD


I think I've said elsewhere that potato salad is one of those things I'll always try at a home-style restaurant because how cooks deal with potato salad tells me a lot about how they'll deal with more complicated dishes. Granted, there are as many ways to make potato salad as there are cooks (and I'll bet you've never seen this one), but that implies, along with democracy, that there are good ways and bad ways. Undercooked, overly vinegared potatoes swimming in a "sauce" of only mayonnaise, which by the time it reaches your table has turned into a soup because of juices released by other ingredients, is a desecration and does not bode well for whatever else may be on the menu.

Here's a potato salad you're not likely to find on any menus, at least here in the States. It's the latest can't-miss from Cooks Illustrated, and I'm happy to share my adaptation of it. I've made it twice, and the second time was even better than the first, because it sat in the fridge overnight before we ate it. The flavors--very simple, really--blended wonderfully into a rich, sweet/savory whole. The magic is that the "dressing" is made by coarsely mashing a few of the potatoes and mixing them into the flavored potato cooking water, which you've reserved. The affect is something like the pungent German potato salad we all know, but there is no bacon, it's served room at room temperature instead of warm, and it's more mellow.

My own adaptation: the magazine couldn't find the German pickle (sauergurken) used in Austrian kitchens, so they substituted French cornichons. Well, I couldn't even find them down here, but I can get capers (in the "foreign foods" section of the Food Lion, mind you), and they add the sharp, rather briney flavor I think the cornichons would. I guess you could also use crispy cold-pack dill pickles, too, but I do like the sharpness of the capers.

If you do as I did and refrigerate the salad to develop the flavors, bring it to room temperature before serving.

2 lbs. Yukon gold potatoes (about 4 large), peeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, divided
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 small red onion, chopped find (about 3/4 cup)
6 cornichons, minced (about 2 tablespoons) or 2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Black pepper to taste

Bring potatoes, broth, water, salt, sugar and 1 tablespoon of the vinegar to boil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and cook until potatoes offer no resistance when pierced with a paring knife, 15 to 17 minutes. Remove cover, return heat to high (so cooking liquid will reduce) and cook 2 minutes.

Drain potatoes in colander set over a large bowl, reserving cooking liquid. Pour off and discard all cooking liquid but 1/2 cup (if you have less than 1/2 cup, add water to make 1/2 cup). Whisk remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, mustard, and oil into cooking liquid.

Add 1/2 cup cooked potatoes to bowl with liquid and mash with a potato masher until a thick sauce is formed (it will be slightly chunky). Add remaining potatoes, onion, capers, and chives, folding gently with rubber spatula to combine. Check salt and pepper, serve at room temperature.

Simple, huh? Enjoy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

All the news...

It is beastly hot. Hot, hot, hot. It's not 100 degrees (it's only in the mid-90s) but when the sun hits your skin it feels like it's being concentrated by a magnifying glass. It burns on contact. It's this hot in DC every summer; the difference between there and here is that in DC I had the sense to stay inside out of the heat. Here, we're working like dogs right out in it.

Clearing continues, sporadically. It rained so much last week and there was so much mud as a result that we couldn't maneuver truck and trailer into locations that were easy to reach with arms or barrows full of cut trees, bushes and weeds. So this entire week until today, we've been working on the garden shed. We decided today, since it's been dry the entire week, to get back to clearing. After a false start caused by Steve spending an hour trying to figure out how to take the string-trimmer attachment off the weed whacker and put the saw blade on, we tackled the back yard. The back yard really is the most important space on the entire 2.5 acres--it's what gives the water view we paid for, when it's cleared. And those are the operative words: when it's cleared. We purchased the land in February, after last season's growth had died back and obviously before any new growth could take place. That's how we know there's a view...by the looks of things now, you'd never guess it. After we clear the land, we'll keep new growth under control with a mower. (See below) We'll still have several yards of actual waterfront to clear as well, but that will have to wait until winter, when the water has receded and we can walk there. Little by little....

The big news is that we found a riding mower! We've been looking since we got here, waiting for prices to fall on the models on which we had narrowed our search. We finally found one at a Lowe's all the way up in Virginia Beach (yes, that's another state), and they won't deliver it to our "home" store in Elizabeth City. So tomorrow after the clearing work, we'll empty the trailer of the yard waste and then borrow it and the truck that pulls it from our neighbor and go get it our wet and smelly selves. Having a mower finally means we can stay ahead of re-growth in all the areas we've worked so hard to clear, and we won't have to do it again. In our brave new life down here, this is a red letter day!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A day off

The weather has switched on us. We've gone from the early-August heat wave everybody else here on the Eastern seaboard has experienced to a series of rainy and (relatively) cooler days. Rain means mud, and mud means we can't do much clearing at the home site because we either can't maneuver truck and trailer through the mud to where they need to be, or we can't get into the boggy wetland areas because they're too boggy and too wet. We went up there anyway this morning to check out the remarkable progress on the construction (floors are down on the first storey and most walls will be up by the end of the week), and then I left Steve to do some easy, one-man work on the shed while I came back here. Later we're treating ourselves to a trek to the Outer Banks to see a matinée of Julie and Julia and then dinner. We may have to travel an hour to see a good movie (well, Bruno, of all things, made a brief appearance at the local theater in Edenton--so brief, in fact, we missed it) but that's OK. Gives us an excuse to splurge occasionally.

Sorry for no Food Fridays these days. I do have one new recipe to share, but it still needs perfecting and a picture. So, no recipe tomorrow, but next week, I promise there will be.

Just checking in because I can....

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Service with a southern smile


Our new house is being built in Perquimans (rhymes with "persimmon") County. Local lore tells us that "perquimans" means "the land of the beautiful women" in the language of the Yeopim Indians who once dominated this area. These beautiful Yeopim women and their menfolk were part of the Algonquian nation. Their name lives on in the name of the road on which we are currently living, not to mention one of the huge rivers that water this place.

Perquimans, with an area of 329 square miles, was accommodating 12,856 souls as of July, 2008. Just for comparison's sake, Arlington County, Va., from whence we uprooted ourselves, stuffed 210,000 people into its scant 26 square miles during the same month. You see the sort of expectations we may have of county government.

Our garden shed needed a permit. We thought it didn't, but when the inspector came to look over the foundation of our new house, the shed, which by that time had two walls up, caught his eye. We grimaced at the thought of the impending bureaucratic hassle and asked our builder to take care of it. He punted it back to us, saying the shed would have a "lower profile" if we did it. That made sense, so we bit the bullet and set off for the county seat, Hertford, to take care of business.

We first went to the inspections office, where we were greeted by the same guy who had informed us at the property of the need for the shed permit. He's a friendly type who remembered us and was prepared for our visit, whenever it may be. We happened to arrive around lunch hour on a Friday, so he was alone in the office--the receptionist was out. He looked at the paperwork he had at hand and told us it wasn't enough; we needed something else from the zoning office, which is located in the 1852-vintage courthouse pictured above.

We strolled over to the courthouse, checked the building directory, and then headed up the creaky stairway to the zoning office. On our way there, we passed and nearly knocked over a young man dressed in slacks and polo shirt. He was engrossed in a document he was reading as he walked and we were barging along in our Arlington County way. We apologized, had a friendly chuckle over our clumsiness, and continued on.

When we got to the zoning office, no one was there except an extremely friendly young woman who apologized up and down for her colleague's absence. "I wish I could help you," she said, "but I'm the finance officer." That is, the county CFO. She shares office space with the zoning commissioner. She told us we could probably get everything we needed from the County Manager and directed us to that office, at the opposite end of the hall. It seemed rather outlandish that the County Manager would bother him or herself with such minutiae--a permit for a garden shed--but figured the receptionist would be able to take care of it.

But there was no receptionist. We walked through the open door directly into the County Manager's office, and there at the big mahogany desk sat the same young guy in a polo shirt we'd nearly felled a few minutes earlier. County Manager Bobby Darden looked up at us with a friendly smile and asked how he could help us. We rather sheepishly told him we were directed to his office to take care of a permit for our garden shed. Without further ado, he got up, walked down the hall to a file, extracted the appropriate papers, initialed them, xeroxed them for our convenience (!), and sent us on our way. In the course of about 30 minutes, which encompassed a block's amble from the inspections office to the courthouse and back and talking to a total of three very friendly people (two of whom were top-tier county executives), we had our permit in hand. It cost 25 bucks, and we learned yet another very pleasant lesson about small-town life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More life in the country


Little by little I'm learning. I uploaded the photo above two days ago in anticipation of today, when I knew I'd have the chance to post. I started uploading the song about a half-hour ago, ran some errands in town, and it was done when I got back. Anymore, if a daily posting depended on two songs (my old pattern and still my preference) and a picture every day within a couple hours' time, it would never get done. It would take my entire allotted two hours just to get the songs. Forget about the picture.

Speaking of the picture, this is of the little cactus that is really spoiled in the warmer (oh, hell--hotter!) weather we have here. For it, the warmer the better--you can see a bumper crop of blooms is on the way. Always a silver lining--our using the deck of an evening is out of the question, but the cacti love it out there in that bright and hot all-day sun.

I have this morning off. Recent rains have made the terrain on the property so muddy that moving the truck and trailer around for the continuing clearing job is impossible, so Steve's using the time to make progress on the equally important garden shed. The sooner the shed is done, the sooner we can get a mower to store in it, and the sooner we can get ahead of vacuum-resistant Mother Nature, who is as I write working very hard to undo all the clearing work we've completed so far. I hate to say it, but a gasoline-powered noise factory is the only thing that can make co-existence possible.

I think I've discovered the essential difference between this place and Delaware, where we almost ended up. In various places I've talked about bigger distances here and the lack of emphasis on seafood and the seeming lack of importance some public eating places seem to place on the quality of any food at all they may serve. The difference is that little Suffolk County, Delaware, is essentially driven by the resort economies of the coast. The beach towns of Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany have become magnets for the relatively well-off vacationing crowds from DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia and their money. Over the years, many of those visitors have ended up settling there (as we almost did), and their expectations eventually drive an upgrade in goods and services in general. The tourist economy has raised the standards for everyone, native and transplant alike. Add to that the relative smallness and resulting convenience of the place and you have a tourist paradise. You're never more than 30 minutes away by car from a first-class restaurant, or by boat from the ocean.

It's different here. The three counties that make up this inland northeastern tier of North Carolina could swallow in one gulp the entire state of Delaware. The Chowan River, which is the next tributary down from us feeding Albemarle Sound, is a river the world at large has never heard of but which dwarfs the Mississippi in most places--it's literally miles wide. Despite all this water and recreation potential, tourism and its benefits have emerged almost exclusively on the ocean-bound Outer Banks. We who move here looking for water recreation can find it easily--the fish and blue crabs are huge and plentiful (the crabs so much so that they are routinely caught here and then shipped north to be marketed as "Chesapeake Bay crabs"). But the other amenities we may have been looking for are largely missing. This is not a tourist economy; it's mostly a farm economy, a laboring economy. Indeed, for a DC native for whom "work" meant nothing but sitting in a chair an office my entire life, it's a revelation to be surrounded for the first time by people who actually work for a living. No quotes around that noble word. They work, with their hands and their backs, demonstrating the original meaning of the word.

Now, I'm not going all "noble savage" on you, but I like these people. They're simple. They live life where the rubber hits the road, producing things the rest of us either eat or use. The political intrigue of Washington, which I still find fascinating and which does effect their lives directly, means less to them than the bottom line--am I better off now, or worse? The recent Yankee-baiter notwithstanding, I've run into no ideologues who mount soapboxes to spout off their "beliefs"; in fact not much overt political or religious symbolsm at all, in the form of in-your-face bumper stickers or vanity license plates. I'm sure the people with whom I've had the pleasure of passing the time of day do have beliefs, but whatever they may be they haven't gotten in the way of any conversation that I've had. All I've found is common ground and the same concerns as people the world over: they want to be able to feed their families and have a little fun.

So we have to travel a bit to get to a good restaurant. We still get good food. You can't beat the peanuts we buy every week from the very guy who grows and roasts them. He's happy for our business and we're happy to support him. Sounds like a good relationship to me.

Friday, July 31, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!


PORK TENDERLOIN WITH GARLIC-HERB MARINADE

We had a couple of adventures last night. First, we bit the bullet and got our hair cut. This was something of a signal event, because our friends Frank and Rick in Arlington had been coming to our house every six weeks to cut our hair and hang out for more than 20 years. We hadn't set foot in a hair emporium of any kind--hadn't even thought about it--in all that time. So many questions came to mind. Do guys down here go anyplace but barber shops? If I went to a barber shop would they snicker if I gave them a few directions about what I wanted done? (Thin the sides so I don't look like a Kremlin dome, among other things...) Finally I discovered Edenton Hair Solutions "for Gals and Guys" right downtown and made appointments. A matronly lady named Anita, who, she told us, has been cutting hair since 1964, welcomed us to her one-chair operation.

There was a slightly shaky start when she asked us what we did for a living. When I told her I was retired from the Peace Corps, she said, "So. The military." It's been so long since I explained what the Peace Corps is to another American (have I ever?) I wasn't quite sure where to start. I told her it was a government program that sends people to live and work in poor overseas countries to help them. No glimmer of recognition from Anita--not even a perfunctory "that's nice." I had no idea what reaction the word "Kennedy" might elicit and wasn't particularly anxious to find out, so we left the Peace Corps and moved on.

Anita was clearly grateful for our business and chatted about how things in Edenton are changing. She bemoaned the fact that most of her customers are newcomers anymore, replacing the old timers who have either moved away or passed on. More and more businesses are catering to tourists instead of locals, and that can be hard...and I agree it's ridiculous that people in this relatively prosperous little pocket have to travel more than 30 miles to get to the Elizabeth City Super Wal-Mart to get cheap groceries, or to Lowe's...and the nearest Home Depot, if that's your preference, is all the way up in Virginia. We asked her about the county fair, coming up at the end of October. She told us she's with the American Legion and is there every day cooking. We used to love the Arlington County Fair and visit it to sample the various ethnic foods available. Now, down here we aren't expecting satay with peanut sauce, not even kielbasa with peppers. But chili dogs? Not a word about barbecue in this literal hog heaven. But, strained conversation aside, Anita did a good job on our hair for less than half what we used to pay Frank and Rick, so we'll stick with her until we move up to Hertford. Then we'll probably find someplace else for our haircuts in (relatively) urbane Elizabeth City. (We hope once we're in our house we can entice Frank and Rick down for an occasional weekend visit. Maybe every six weeks???)

Speaking of barbecue, our other adventure was a barbecue dinner at Captain Bob's, a big roadhouse on US 17 we pass every day on our commute to the property. There's always a lunch and dinner crowd there, so we figured it must be the place where the locals know they'll find the best BBQ around.

The official name of the joint is "Captain Bob's Barbecue and Seafood" (emphasis mine), and its sign has a picture of an old salt with a parrot on his shoulder, so we should have been clued in to the preponderance of seafood on the menu. Yes, they do have barbecue: minced or sliced pork, which is done with vinegar-pepper sauce, the way I like it, and sliced beef barbecue, which is also not too bad, at least not cloyingly sweet. I ordered a plate of the minced pork with coleslaw, potato salad, and corn bread. How's that for a great sounding Southern spread? My mouth was watering.

Well. Ever had potato salad so soupy you needed a spoon to eat it? I drank it out of the bowl. (Yes, there were a few lumps of potato, but clearly the stuff had been sitting around so long the vegetables had given off all their juices and watered down the mayonnaise to the consistency of soup.) Same with the cole slaw, whose main ingredient besides cabbage was sugar. (I poured it over the pork to moisten the meat a bit and it wasn't too bad.) The meal was served with a golden-brown hockey-puck thing sitting on top of it. That turned out to be Captain Bob's version of Elvis Presley's death-wish corn bread. What they do is take a slice of perfectly presentable corn bread, and then they dip it in batter and deep fry it. Is this some regional specialty the rest of the country has never heard of? If so, I understand completely the South's desire to keep it a secret.

We figure we'll give the place one more chance for the seafood. At least we know what to stay away from next time: the potato salad, the coleslaw, and the "corn bread." Steve had an order of onion rings and they were good, light and beer-battered. And the pork wasn't bad. But mine's better.

So far I'm amazed at the lack of imagination--or local pride, really--we've seen in restaurant food here. We're not looking for gourmet and certainly don't expect it from roadhouse food. But freshness doesn't seem too much to ask for. We'll keep looking. (And I have to admit that the three sit-down restaurants in downtown Edenton are not bad at all.)

Today's recipe is a very simple but delicious treat, made with the same marinade I use for shrimp kebabs, but with a little brown sugar added. I like pork tenderloin, but I don't often grill it because it cooks so fast. After firing up the Weber and waiting for the coals to heat, the 20-minute cooking time seems anticlimactic. But it's good to eat, and perfectly suited to the faster gas grill.

Herb-Garlic Marinade:

6 large garlic cloves
1/3 cup packed fresh thyme sprigs
1/4 cup packed tender fresh rosemary sprigs
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup brown sugar, light or dark, whatever you have on hand
Pepper to taste

1 package pork tenderloins, 2 1/2-3 lbs.

Mince garlic, herbs and salt together in a food processor. Woody stems on the herbs are OK--they will not be eaten. Add lemon juice and olive oil to herbs in processor bowl and process until emulsified.

Remove tenderloins from shrink-wrap, run under faucet to remove moisture, and pat dry with paper towels. Place meat in large ziplock bag and add marinade to cover. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight, turning meat occasionally.

Remove meat from marinade and pat dry. Discard marinade. Allow meat to air-dry at room temperature while you prepare grill for the indirect roasting method.

When grill is ready, place meat directly over coals (or burners) and sear for 5 minutes to develop surface carmelization. Turn and repeat to brown other side. (The sugar will brown quickly, so mind well the size of the flame on a gas grill.)

Move meat to opposite side of the grill, cover, and continue roasting with indirect heat another 10 minutes. Remove meat to a cutting board, allow to rest about 10 minutes. Slice into inch-thick pieces and serve.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Learning along the way


I've had the picture and my song ready to go since early Saturday morning, but this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write something. Between playing tourist and taking care of business both on the construction project and everyday living, there has been little time for this. Today is different because Steve went to the property by himself to work on the garden shed, which I'm not much help at. We'll start clearing again tomorrow or Thursday, and the morning labor routine will begin again. We're almost finished with that job; now we have to get a tractor mower to stay ahead of Mother Nature, who appears to abhor an underbrush vacuum. When the shed is up, we'll have a place to store the mower. You know how it is, one thing leads to another....

The picture above is a closeup of the Roanoke River at Williamston, NC, about 40 miles south of here. As you drive south on US 17, you cross the river at that point on an enormous bridge, and you see what appears to be a complex of walkways. In the same proximity along the road are signs bringing your attention to the Roanoke River Wildlife Sanctuary. A stranger to these parts can be forgiven for putting two and two together and concluding that the walkways are part of a walking tour of the Sanctuary. At least, that was our conclusion, and we set out Saturday morning to take a trek and see some wildlife. Wrong. Turns out the walkways you see from the bridge are all there is; they don't "go" anywhere. They're just part of a small park. Interesting enough, for about 5 minutes. We drove into the town of Williamston itself to check out the tourism center. On this sunny summer Saturday, when tourists may be expected out and about, it was closed. Weekdays only, 9 to 5. What, one may reasonably ask, is the point?

We continued on to the town of Plymouth, whose name we had seen on road signs since we've lived here, and was intriguing. It's a harbor town, it has the same name of the more famous town in Massachusetts, and there might be something there to explore.

We discovered another barren little viilage, hanging on by a thread. We stopped for lunch in the only place that was open, the Plymouth Bakery and Café. The owner/hostess/waitress, an older woman, turned out to be a transplant from New Jersey who engaged us enthusiastically once she found out we were new to the area and from "the North." She asked us what we were interested in, and we said activities like antique stores, walking tours... she became a fount of information about out-of-the-way restored plantations and emporia. Plymouth is trying hard to rejuvenate itself, but like so many places we've seen in this depressed pocket of the state, it has been hit hard by the economic crash. People like us are bringing a little cash in, but it's a mere trickle at this point.

It wasn't my intention to write something depressing today, but this is what came out as I followed the words. We still like it here very much, but as is to be expected, we are discovering things we hadn't anticipated, such as these dormant local economies. In Edenton we find ourselves in a capsule of relative prosperity, and when we move, our little neighborhood will be the same. Our "big city" then will be Elizabeth City, and collectively we will be contributing to that economy by spending our retirement pensions there on restaurants and good grocery stores. Little by little.....

Friday, July 24, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!



SUCCOTASH WITH TOMATOES AND BASIL

I was hoping to get this done before we went out into what is now our workaday world this morning but the picture took so long to upload I didn't have time for anything else. It rained buckets last night, and I thought maybe we'd have a day off, but the sun came out in the morning, so we went ahead and continued the clearing work on the property. The eye-popping "before-and-after" views are all created now; we're down to nitty-gritty places that aren't as attractive but still need to be done. And when it rains a lot of that forest floor turns to shoe-sucking, tire-burying muck. It's so hot so early in the morning that before long all those long sleeves and long pants--necessary to keep away the bugs--are sticking to you as if you'd been wading in the water. There is no way to put a "whistle while you work" spin on this uncomfortable drudgery. Its only reward is its completion, and the fact that what you've done has made a visible difference. Next week the foundation bricks will be laid, so I'll have more pictures to share.

We are still enjoying the bounty of all the little vegetable stands nearby. When I saw baby limas at the place down the road I knew I'd have to make some succotash with them and some of the sweet corn I still had on hand. There's nothing very complicated about the succotash I've always known--corn and limas--but to make sure I got the proportions right I went to Epicurious to find a basic recipe. What I found was this instead, a great variation on the classic standby that uses two more gifts of the season: tomatoes and fresh basil. And it happens that this is a dish that truly does improve with a few hours to let the basil flavor develop fully. I liked it the first day and LOVED the leftovers the next day. If you think succotash is a plain-jane side, you may change your mind after you try this.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
Coarse kosher salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
3 cups chopped red tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 1/4 cups corn kernels cut from 4 ears of corn
2 cups fresh lima beans (from about 2 pounds pods) or 10 to 11 ounces frozen lima beans or baby butter beans, thawed
3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil

Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sprinkle with coarse salt. Sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, corn, and lima beans. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until corn and lima beans are tender and tomatoes are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stir in basil and serve.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"A bunch of Yankees"

First: take a look at the new masthead photo. Since we're all about transition here, I thought it was time to get rid of that tentative image from the time we were merely hoping to be able to make the property into something, to an up-to-the-minute representation of what it looks like now. We finished clearing the land all the way to the house site today and now you can actually see where the house will sit the at the end of the curving, shaded driveway. Lovely, if I say so myself!

I'd always heard there are southerners for whom the Civil War never ended. We saw one such soul today. It was at the dump. The guy was at a distance and he must have heard us say hello to the attendant in our accents, which mark us as not from these parts. "A bunch of Yankees," he said to no one in particular, was filling up the yard waste bin with pieces that weren't cut down to four feet. Huh? After at least a dozen runs to that same bin at that same dump, the people working there have never said anything to us about a size limit. But leave it to us "Yankees" to fill up the waste bin too fast and make it harder for an honest Reb tryin' t'do the rat thing.

Steve and I have probably been called much worse, of course, but never to our faces. We had an epithet--Yankee--actually thrown at us! You think of all kinds of snappy comebacks later, of course. (My immediate reaction was what I wrote above: "huh?" because we didn't know about any four-foot rule, and as far as we're concerned, until an attendant at the dump tells us about it, we still don't.)

I could have said, "I'm no Yankee, I'm from Virginia, but I outgrew the accent." But it would have been too subtle for such a sledgehammer brain. You think about a possible conversation with somebody like that and you mentally ascribe all the worst prejudices to him because he called you a Yankee. Jews, queers and n-words are what's wrong with this country. Can't you just hear it?

I think the reason I'm so taken by this incident is that it was the first negative vibe we've received in the month-plus we've lived here, and in all the visits we made before moving here. Steve and I aren't the most obvious gay men swishing down the trottoir, but we figure it has to be clear to anyone with two eyes that we're more than just good friends, the way we finish each others' sentences and appear together everywhere. And yet we are welcomed everywhere we go--indeed have at times been overwhelmed by the kindnesses we have been shown.

Ignoramuses like that "Yankee" slinger have been around since long before I set foot on the planet and will no doubt continue to reproduce. God bless America because they can say and think what they want. As long as they remain under their rocks while I'm out cutting my 6- to 8-foot brush, I'll be fine.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Progress

Arrgh! Between Blogger taking its more than sweet time to upload these pictures and the new, slower speed I still need to get used to, my attempt at the proud papa act of pulling out photos to show you is being short-circuited. Just these two photos took 20 minutes to load. The other two I wanted to share just weren't moving at all. So I'll settle for these today and try for the other two another day.

Our days are falling into a routine. We are still clearing the front couple of acres of the property--the subject of these photos--so we get up there at around 8 o'clock so we can work while it is still relatively cool, quit around noon, come home, have lunch, and then tend to whatever town or home chores await. It is very hard work I would never do for anyone else, even for money. But it's also fantastic cardio exercise over a period of a couple of hours, so I'm not complaining--I'd be getting the workout somehow, anyway. And the pride of accomplishment and ownership is worth every drop of sweat--which is profuse, bundled up as we are in long pants and long sleeved shorts against the chiggers and ticks.

Here's what the area to the right of the driveway looked like this time last week: The camera's back is to the road and it is looking towards the area cleared for the house and the septic field, which is just barely visible through the thick grass and the tree suckers. Here's how we left it today: it's the same view taken from pretty much the same viewpoint. It's starting to look like a yard! The clearing in the distance is the septic field, and the house site is behind the last clump of trees on the left. We have a total of 2.5 acres and I'd estimate that the house will take up the .5 or perhaps .75. The rest will be cleared forest land. The initial clearing is by far the worst part. Maintaining it should be fairly easy with a riding mower,which is inching up to the trop of our list of things we need. We have a backup generator scheduled for delivery this week (that's in case a hurricane knocks out power, and also to operate our boat lift before the house is finished), and then next week our garden shed will come, just in time to keep usn busy after the clearing job to be done. The shed is coming as a kit, which we'll put together ourselves. (When it's built, there'll be room for the riding mower!)

Initial ground breaking on the foundation happened today; that was the subject of the other two pictures. We now have trenches with re-bar in them. (I hope to show you on Wednesday.) Next step: inspection, then concrete in the trenches, then some actual carpentry.

We're on our way!

Friday, July 17, 2009

FOOD FRIDAY!


ANDRÉ'S CORN, TOMATO AND BLUE CHEESE SALAD

I'm really pushing to get this done within the next 20 minutes; otherwise the day will take off and leave Food Friday in the dust. According to the weather forecast, we have only a couple of hours to do some more brush clearing on the property before the heavens are scheduled to open with heavy rain for the rest of the day. We'll work until we are rained out, then come home and get cleaned up. Then we'll be off to the big city to see about a dock permit. Yesterday we took a one-day trip up to Delaware and back to get up some things for the boat we had left in storage there. Four-and-a-half hours up and the same back, with about two hours in Delaware itself eating lunch and loading the car. We took the time to look at the old property and see what has become of it. You won't believe it. Traces of our idyll there have been completely erased. I'll post pics tomorrow. No time now.

Our friend André Miller brought this scrumptious salad as his pot luck offering for our Farewell to 12th Street party. Anything André makes is a treat; this stuff was gobbled up before many people even had a chance to sample it. It's a perfect way to showcase some of summer's bounty. Try it once and I guarantee you'll be going back to it again and again as long as corn and tomato season lasts. I used the last of the delicious corn we had bought from our neighbor.

Notes: you don't have to grill the corn. I just cooked mine conventionally on top of the stove, and it came out fine. The blue cheese is an unexpected addition and absolutely makes the dish. Substitute at flavor's peril.....


1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon sugar
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 ears corn, grilled in the husk, kernels removed
1 sweet onion (such as Vidalia or Walla Walla), halved
and thinly sliced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
Fresh basil sprigs, for garnish

Combine the vinegar, basil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4
teaspoon of pepper and oil in a blender and blend until
smooth. Can be made 2 hours in advance and refrigerated.
Bring to room temperature before using.

Combine the corn kernels, onion and tomatoes in a large bowl.
Add the dressing and toss to coat, season with salt and
pepper. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before
serving. Top with crumbled blue cheese and garnish with
basil sprigs just before serving. Salad can be made 1 day in
advance and served cold or at room temperature.



Monday, July 13, 2009

It rains here too....

We had torrential downpours last night that left everything wet this morning, which means if pavement is wet, then the clay at the property is muck, so what we thought would be a working morning is turning out to be something else. We've both been sitting at our computers all morning long--another unexpected luxury. Not sure I'd like a whole string of days like this, looming fairly empty, especially when we have a house to build, but a few are just fine.

One of the perks of living in North Carolina, of course, is all the furniture that you can get here. I took a preliminary gander at that scene this morning. It looks like the place to go is Hickory, about 6 hours away, and it'll be a trip of a couple of days because there are at least 25 big-name outlets there, not to mention any one-off local places we may find lurking when we get there. We'll need a sectional sofa and maybe a cabinet for the TV, although there is still discussion about the final location of that dominating but necessary appliance. We've never had a television in the living room until now, in this rental, where lack of space demands it. Practice proves the theory: neither of us likes the look that a huge (42-inch plasma TV) piece of technology gives to a room that is supposed to be a comfortable refuge. Add to that the all TV paraphernalia--the magazines, the remotes, the wires, the DVR and DVD and what-all else, and you've got a room that looks more like a computer lab than a living room. But. We eat dinner in front of the TV and it sure is convenient to cross a single threshold from the kitchen. At least, that what Steve keeps saying. And that's where a TV cabinet comes in. He thinks it would be fine to have a nice-looking cabinet to hide all that stuff when we weren't using it. But as far as I'm concerned we're used to carrying plates of food around the house from 28 years of doing it in Arlington. As far as I'm concerned, that's what we can do in the new house, too. Just have to find a painless way to make it happen.

The sun is trying to make a soggy appearance. The pavement has dried. It's time to stick my head out the door and seek some inspiration.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Transitions, changes, evolutions....


Well, for a while there I thought it would be easy to start doing regular postings again, but what I call the "f & b world" (for flesh and blood) keeps getting in the way. The bottom line discovery I'm making is that I'm living as two now 24/7; I'm no longer a 9 to 5 bachelor with a lot of time to stare at the computer screen. And between the move, settling in here at the rental and working on the property, we're busy. I have these few hours this morning as we wait for the dump to open at 1 PM. I can do laundry and write. It's a luxury. I find that I plenty of interesting things to share but less time to share them.

The hours of the dump figure into today's plans because when it's open is when we can fill the car with the brush we're clearing off the property and take it to the yard- waste bin at the dump. (Here they call it a "convenience center.") The property is 2.5 acres total. About half that acreage will remain a neat-but-natural looking woodland. The driveway will meander through it to the house, which will be visible in the distance through the trees. The photo above shows Steve with his brand new toy, a weed-whacker with a serious, rotating saw blade at the end, that he's just finished using to clear about a quarter of the property of warm-season growth. He cuts it all down, then I cut it further into car-sized pieces and drive it to the dump as the car fills up. Made just three trips yesterday--the stuff compacts. (The clearing for the house is in the distance above Steve's left shoulder.)

Here's the the exact same view taken just before the weed-whacker magic:

Quite a difference, no? In that picture, the gray area in the lower right corner is the driveway. We'll be working on the other side of that over the next few days.

All the work in these pictures took about 4 hours, in the early morning, before the heat of the day sets in. We must suit up up for the job--the first innocent walk we took through all that brush in sandals and shorts we both came home one giant chigger welt, and I found a tick on me. So we put on clothes with legs and sleeves--long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and we tuck the cuffs of our pants into our socks and then tape them together so nothing can get in. We sweat a lot as a result, even before the heat sets in. But that discomfort is a hundred times better than 20 chigger bites. (We hear there are also snakes in those woods, but so far we haven't seen any. Steve will drop his weed-whacker and go running for the next county if he does.)

So there you have it, the latest chapter in our grand adventure. I will try to be more regular but can make no promises. Just rest assured I'm not stopping this blog. I have way too much fun with it and enjoy your company too much. I'm still around. I even have a couple of things ready for Food Friday!