Friday, January 30, 2009



If I tell you that polenta is Italian corn mush, you'll go on to the music right now and not even give it a chance. But if you read the recipe, you'll discover the truth for yourself anyway, so I might as well address the issue right up front. But I hope you'll stay with me. While it's true polenta is basically made from corn meal that's been cooked in liquid and then allowed to solidify into a sliceable mass, this luscious concoction is to corn mush what turkey dressing is to bread soaked in water. It cooks into a rich cake whose corn nuttiness will consort with all sorts of flavors, and it's a tasty and easy carbohydrate when you've had enough mashed potatoes or pasta but still have some terrific sauce you want to complement. And the leftovers make a great snack. (Take it from me!)

This recipe is based on one from Ina Garten, Food TV's "Barefoot Contessa." I took her basic Rosemary Polenta and made my own additions. I'll also tell you that this was the very first time I ever made the dish, after being curious about it for a long time. It came out perfect--that's how easy it is. The only thing you may not have right on hand is parchment paper, which you should use because it makes things a lot simpler. And you need not worry about "authenticity" when it comes to buying the corn meal. It doesn't need to be an expensive import. I used the standard yellow American stone-ground product you can find anywhere. Just one precaution: refrigerate or freeze the the corn meal package after you open it. As with any whole-grain product, the oil in the seed germ can go rancid after a prolonged stay at room temperature in the pantry.

If you're feeding a crowd, the recipe doubles easily.

1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/8 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
salt and pepper to taste--go easy on the salt
1½ cups chicken stock
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
1 cup yellow corn meal
1/4 cup good Parmesan cheese, grated
1/3 cup seeded black olives, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and coarsely chopped

For frying:
Flour for dredging
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, rosemary, salt and pepper and heat one minute, or just until fragrant. Take care that the garlic doesn't brown. Add the chicken stock, half-and half, and milk and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly sprinkle the corn meal into the hot liquid, stirring constantly, taking care to get into the corners of the pan. Return to low heat, stirring constantly, for two or three minutes or until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Off the heat, stir in the parmesan, olives and tomatoes. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary.

Line a shallow rectangular pan with parchment so that the paper overhangs the edges to form a handle. (Press parchment completely into corners of the pan.) Add the polenta and smooth the top. Refrigerate until cold and firm.

Lift the chilled polenta out of the pan by the parchment and place on a cutting board. Peel off parchment. Cut the polenta into squares, as you would brownies. Dust each square lightly with flour. Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan until shimmering and cook the squares in batches until browned and slightly crunchy on the outside and warmed through, adding more oil and butter as needed. Drain on absorbent paper and serve.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A busy guy!

I've been as occupied this morning with "office work" as I ever was when I was actually doing it for a living in a real office. It's amazing how all those old traits and skills just come back without even trying to conjure them, they're just there. I'm a fixer by nature, efficient to a fault. Responsive. Ask me a question and I'll answer it fast, even if the answer is "I don't know." I'll tell you that immediately, with a promise to get back to you. And if I have a job to do, I don't stop until it's done and done right, because I basically "don't like" work and do it so it will be over with.

I have to admit it's kinda fun.

All this activity, of course, has to do with real estate. What else? We're in touch with an agent in Delaware and we need her to look into some things for us. We need to know the details on the settlement of the land sale, like how much of a bite out of our proceeds the fees are going to take. (Knowing that is definitely not fun, but we need to know.) The agent handling the sale of this house and his business partner need to come here with some staging advice. Busy, busy, busy. And I haven't even done my Thursday chores yet.

We will be off-task as far as the house project is concerned for two weekends in a row in February while we do real estate business: settle the land sale and empty the trailer in Delaware (and probably shed a final tear or two), and then the following weekend go to North Carolina to meet with an agent there and look at property. It will push back the timing for marketing the house, because there's still the kitchen to drywall and paint, but so be it. We're taking care of business. And the change of scenery will be good, even if it is all about business.

Off to the races.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Change: that old thing?

I had a pleasant email exchange with a friend this morning about what I've always known as "second sight," a kind of ESP some people have that tells them of impending events. In my Kentucky days I knew several people who were so gifted. They were just plain folks who every now and then got "visions,"-- strong premonitions that usually turned out really to predict an important happening, either in their own lives or those of their loved ones. I was attracted to these people, had a special affection for them, even before I knew of their unusual ability. They seemed relaxed in their own skins--what we now call centered--and accepting of circumstances and people on their own terms. I don't know why there should be so many such folk in Kentucky; the only thing I know they all had in common was a strong grounding in the charismatic churches of Appalachia. They weren't Bible-thumpers by any means, and all of them had stopped attending regular services by the time I knew them. But their earliest memories were of people "getting the spirit." Speaking in tongues, having the ability to run in the woods, eyes closed, without crashing into anything, breaking into wild, spontaneous dance literally when the spirit moved them, were common, even mundane occurrences for them. They were completely at home with the possibility of other realities. At a very deep level, I envied them and was fascinated with them, while at the same time having no desire to develop whatever potential I may have had in a similar direction. One of my favorite expressions begins, "In my next life I'll........". I say it as a joke (late for the bicentenntial celebration in 1976, I swore I'd be on time for the tricentennial) but in truth I'm completely open to the possibility that my facetious bon mot may actually be true.

So while I don't have second sight and don't particularly want it for myself, my earliest experiences and even the circumstances of my adult life did prepare me for at least one important thing: the inevitability of loss. I've often had occasion to compare my reaction to negative events--the loss of a beloved friend through a move or death, a sudden health emergency--and found myself wanting. But then I realize that I've "lost" friends for as long a time as I can remember and just got used to it.

Even though I have a sister, she is 10 years older than I am and I was raised essentially as an only child. Circumstances taught me to value companionship. Before I started school, Don, the boy who lived across the street, was the kid I hung out with. I clearly remember looking forward to going to school with him and being in the same classroom. We'd lend each other support. Alas, his parents sent him to another school and we were separated. That was my first loss. I had to face school alone, and I shed some tears. But then I learned something about myself: with no one else to lean on, I could do just fine.

Since our neighborhood was only a few minutes' drive from the Pentagon, lots of young military families passed through it as the fathers did their obligatory 2-year DOD tours. The Rosackers were one of those families. So well can I see Mrs. Rosacker standing at our front door with two little boys in tow. She came to introduce herself to my mother and see if I could play with her kids. One of them, Gus, was exactly my age and we quickly became fast friends, closer, even, than Don and I had been. Gus and I did everything together, finished each others' sentences, laughed at the same jokes. Inevitably, though, in two short years, he was gone. Over the years this happened so often that all of us permanent kids on the street simply became inured to the eventual loss of these special friends, and learned to savor their presence while we had it. As we got older, these boys and girls had lived all over the world and gave us provincial hicks who had never left the neighborhood a window on other lives and realities. I never left Meadow Lane and yet I became pretty cosmopolitan in my outlook. I was so accustomed to imagining alternative possibilities with alternative people that the idea of the Peace Corps wasn't outlandish at all to me when the time came to consider it. And then, lo and behold, I had an entire career at the Peace Corps, where there is constant staff turnover because of the five-year employment rule. I realize I've lived with never-ending change for my whole life, resulting in a huge cast of memorable, well-loved characters, some of whom are now distant, but others remain close and dearest friends.

And so the loss of this dream of a new life is hard to take but I'm not broken by it. Thinking of alternatives is hard-wired in me, and already we are optimistically exploring new possibilities. There is always fear of the unknown, and these are especially scary times. But we'll make it. We always have, and besides, we have no choice. That alternative is one we can do without.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Well, I said I'd probably have some big news today. I do.

We're selling the land in Delaware. We won't be building a house on Hopkins Prong.

The year 2008 was rough on a lot of people, Steve and me included. It began early, when we learned that Steve's company was reneging on policies in place when he was hired but changed without notice: his pension would be drastically reduced because of California state retirement programs they opted out of. We had no recourse, these programs were not part of any employment contract, just perks the company decided it could no longer afford.

OK. We could still make it on the new income, reduced as it would be. And we still had this little Arlington gold mine we're living in. We own it free and clear; a second mortgage against it was paying for the land in Delaware, but selling the house would clear that and build a dream house as well. If we had to take a little loan to make it work, maybe $50K, that would be OK. We continued with our plans and enjoyed our summer weekends in the trailer.

Then came the real estate crisis. DC and its close-in suburbs have taken hits with the rest of the country, but not as big. Well, at least in some places. It so happens in our Zip code, however, 50% of home sales over the past 12 months have been foreclosures. Fifty percent! Home appraisals are not supposed to be influenced by a nearby foreclosure or two, but at that rate, all home values are affected.

We were starting to sense clouds on the horizon but had heard that Arlington homes would lose only 2% of their assessed value "on average." We could live with that. But we turned out to be above average and lost 10%--a distinction we could definitely have lived without. (No, county assessments are not the be-all and end-all in pricing a house. But they play a role. Banks look at them when deciding on approving a loan. Your price can't be too far afield.) The new numbers made it clear that after paying the $330K second mortgage, we wouldn't be able to build a house we'd want to spend the rest of our lives in, and at that point, that beautiful scrap of land whose picture you see at the top of the page became a liability. Paying for it became the obstacle to building on it. As much as we love everything about the place, the debt was no longer a manageable inconvenience, but a monster. In order to do anything at all with the profit from this house, we would have to retire that second mortgage, and the only way to do that was to sell the land. But that had potential problems, too.

The prospects for getting what we needed for the land were by no means bright; its value has diminished by one-third since we purchased it. We knew that selling it on the open market would be useless, but we had one possible place to turn. Our neighbor, whose land adjoins ours, had always wanted our parcel. In fact, just before we made our purchase in 2004, he had made a cash offer to the previous owner. The owner accepted--until his daughter-in-law, a real estate agent, talked him into putting it on the open market. He did, for a few dollars more, and we bought it at that higher price. (We of course had no idea of these dealings at the time.) Our neighbor was disappointed, to say the least, and told us repeatedly over the years that if "anything ever happened," and we decided we wanted to sell, we should go to him first. We kept that in the back of our minds, but never really believed we'd have to take him up on his offers, and they gradually subsided as our building plans firmed up and we shared them with him. He seemed to be resigned to never having the land; we had no idea if he was still interested, or what he would offer if he was.

Well. He offered us $300,000. He originally said he had $280,000 in cash and didn't want to go into any more debt but then, as he spoke and we merely listened, he talked himself up. I was flabbergasted. This was what's called grace, an unexpected, undeserved gift. I'd say it was from heaven if I believed in such a place. We will never be able to thank that dear man enough.

Still, all is not roses here at the moment. Steve is still dealing with the shock of losing this dream. He is, after all, the one who has been absorbing sucker punches for over a year: the loss of a good pension and then a forced retirement because of the loss of his job. When the job ends, so will his medical insurance, except for COBRA, which is prohibitively expensive. If our dear Barack doesn't change the rules and allow federal retirees to include domestic partners in their health coverage, Steve will have to get some kind of job just for insurance, but he can't think about that now. He's working hard at the office at a job about to end, and then working hard here at home, too. From his standpoint, the future doesn't look very bright, and he is depressed. I can only pray that soon he will be able to see the silver lining that I do, which is:

In about two weeks we will be clearing the better part of our huge debt. We hope to be able to restructure the remainder to improve our cash flow as Steve's job ends in June and we begin to live at about half our current income. The plan, at least now, is to go ahead and put the house on the market and see what the offers are. If they're high enough, we'll proceed, take full profit, and start looking for new places. If we deem the offers too low, we can take a breather from all this and stick around for another year or so to see if conditions improve. We feel like Delaware residents by now and would love to stay there, but we're open to anyplace that has nice land or nice homes on the waterfront that we can afford. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

May it all come true....

As I said yesterday commenting on numerous other blogs, we spent all day yesterday glued to the TV watching history being made. (If presidential inaugurations would be re-scheduled for the spring instead of the dead of winter, the thought of camping out on the Mall for a front-row seat would have been more appealing!) For a white Virginian who remembers the civil rights movement if the 1960s with both pain and pride, the inauguration of an African-American whom so much of the country could get behind was a promise fulfilled. Not, I hasten to add, a promise of the movement, but a promise of our country, which that movement forced us to acknowledge. We are finally living up to the ideals written into our founding documents. For that reason alone we can hold our heads high among other nations. For all our faults, we got this one right.

So yesterday was a time of justifiable pride. But it also signaled, for most of us, a time of enormous relief, and we can only hope in the long run that will be justified, too. For now, it appears the extremists who highjacked our national discourse for so long are in retreat. With the leadership of this extraordinary man, Barack Obama, and with our own diligence, may the unreasoned voices of extremism remain muted and may they become irrelevant. This crazy-quilt collection of disparate groups we call America, this experiment, can only succeed with understanding of and respect for our differences. If everyone is "right," no one can be.

"Hubris" is a word with which we've become all too familiar over the past eight years. Let's put it back in the dictionary of seldom-used terms where it belongs and replace it with another. It's from the same book. Tolerance.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Most of today's post will be music in honor of Martin Luther King and the things he stood for and fought against. How fitting that the observance of King's birthday is today, the day before we inaugurate Barack Obama, who's jubilant elevation was made possible by King's work, among others. It's very satisfying to celebrate both men at the same time.

It was a good weekend. The stairs are refinished and stunning. We spent Sunday afternoon watching the spectacular concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We didn't wish for a single second that we were there among the crowds, as happy as they seemed to be. The show was made for TV and we had better seats than the Obamas, enclosed as they were in bullet proof glass. The show was extremely well done considering the short preparation time allowed, and it was a good mix of great celebratory music and civic religion. These things can be hokey, but this wasn't.

I had two back-to-back "what are we coming to?" experiences at stores yesterday. I went to the Home Depot looking for tack cloth. I'm sure you know what tack cloth is: cheesecloth impregnated with sticky stuff that you use to remove dust from surfaces you've just sanded. Well, the lady at the Home Depot, who even spoke English as her first language, didn't know what it was. I repeat: a harware store employee had never heard of tack cloth. Now, she had heard of sandpaper, and she was quite agressive in her repeated suggestions that I buy that, as she led me all over the store looking for this other item she'd never heard of. Maybe she wanted me to praise her for knowing about sandpaper? I finally found the tack cloth myself and showed her what it was. For all her concern for my welfare, in the end she couldn't have cared less.

From there I went to the grocery store, where I tried to get my customary amount of cash back at the do-it-yourself checkout. I wasn't allowed, the limit having been suddenly drastically reduced. I asked the cashier on duty at the DIY stand if this was some new policy or if, perhaps, there was a temporary cash shortage. This question was, however, apparently much too complicated. With great pride she explained to me all the wonderful services the store provides, never once understanding what I asked her, even in my best English for foreigners. The only way I'll get an answer will be to try again. Aarrrggh. I welcome immigrants. I was one myself in another country. I know their trials, I feel their pain. But please.........

Friday, January 16, 2009



I posted this one very early on, nearly a year ago, only to lose it last summer when I was trying to pre-post several repeat pieces for my vacation break and ended up deleting them instead. It's so good it deserves a repeat, especially since several of you are new visitors since I first started. (I've gotten a little better at food photography since I took this!)

The inspiration for this dish came from the fact that macaroni and cheese is Steve's favorite meal. It wasn't something I made much before I met him. I didn't dislike it; the traditional recipe was just very filling and replete with high-fat ingredients I always tried to stay away from. I decided if I was going to work it into our regular routine, it had to be thinned down considerably and that it also needed some meat and veggies to make it a convenient one-dish meal. Precooked smoked sausages were just coming on the market at the time I started experimenting. Smoked sausage and cheese are natural buddies, so I knew there was some potential.

I use the low-fat or non-fat versions of all ingredients except for the butter in the cream sauce. Real butter adds a smoothness that can't be duplicated with anything else. Of course, you can feel free to add or subtract calories any way you wish. A full-fat version would be delicious as an occasional guilty pleasure, but this de-fatted take is just as good on its own way.

1 lb. low-fat precooked smoked sausage or kielbasa, sliced on diagonal into ¼-inch discs
1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 10-oz. package 2%-fat extra sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup (half a stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups skim milk, heated
1 tsp. salt
black pepper to taste
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 heavy tsp. yellow mustard

10 oz. dried pasta of your choice

¼ cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350º F

Fill a pot with water for pasta, add salt to taste and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions.

Grate all the cheese into a large bowl and set aside.

Spray large non-stick skillet with cooking oil and add sausage, peppers and onions. Sauté over high heat until all ingredients are well browned, almost charred. Remove pan with meat and vegetables from heat and set aside.

Place butter in large saucepan over low heat and melt, taking care not to let the butter brown. When bubbling subsides, sprinkle flour over melted butter and whisk to combine thoroughly. Add warmed skim milk in a stream, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Increase heat and continue whisking until sauce comes to a boil and thickens. Add salt and pepper, Worcestershire and mustard, switch to a large spoon and stir to combine. Add half the grated cheese and stir until cheese is melted and thoroughly incorporated into sauce. Stir in sautéed sausage and vegetables, turn off heat, cover and set aside.

Drain pasta and return to cooking pot. Stir meat-cheese sauce into pasta and combine thoroughly. Pour all into standard rectangular casserole. Cover with remaining grated cheese and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Remove from heat. Increase temperature to broil and move oven rack to the broil position. Place casserole under broiler for 2-3 minutes or until well-browned. Remove from oven and let stand on a cooling rack 10 minutes. Serve.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My own vision thing

The temperature will plummet as today progresses towards a low tonight of 12 F, a high tomorrow only in the low 20s, and a low tomorrow night below 10. This is good weather to stay inside, but I must go out at least once because (trumpet fanfare): my new glasses are ready!

Oh, the little things that can make life worth living. I've been working with only one pair of prescription glasses for much too long, the ones for distance. The prescription is way out of date, but my eye doctor situation has been in disarray and I had been procrastinating at remedying it. (Cost is a major factor. I knew I'd be shelling out hundreds for all the glasses I need, and I had to wait for a hole in the budget.) My reading glasses, which I really need to do the work I'm doing at this moment, are long gone, lost somewhere. (I think they fell out of my pocket at the Rufus Wainwright concert at Radio City Music Hall a year ago. Thank you Rufus.) I've been making do with a series of drugstore glasses that are slowly blinding me, I'm convinced. And the prescription sunglasses I so dearly loved were ruined beyond compare when on them.

So today is a red letter day that warrants my stepping out into the frigid gale. I've forgotten what this site really looks like. Can't wait to find out. And out of all this I got a great new eye doctor, that one I told you about last week who plays the great music and whose office is a happy place to visit. Every cloud......

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I'll be running around outside today while the temperature is still in the relatively civilized low 30s. (I trust my Canadian and Brit friends can translate.) There is shopping that needs to be done, both for ongoing house projects and for food, and now's the time to do it.

This area has always gotten only a moderate amount of snow. We can go several winters without receiving any at all, though our winters can be quite wet. We are just far enough south that precipitation that falls during the cold months is more likely to be rain, which becomes snow the further north the system travels. No measurable snow has fallen yet this year, and there is only a minimal chance that some may accompany the so-called Alberta Clipper as it descends upon us over the next few days. (They usually bring only air, very clear, and very cold!)

We get so little snow that when some does arrive, the city goes nuts. The mere sight of a couple of flakes can set the entire emergency road clearance system in motion, people crowd the stores for toilet paper, milk and booze (not necessarily in that order), and workers use their sick days so they can stay off the roads. The fact that it's usually much ado about nothing doesn't change our behavior. Mass hysteria sets in at the mention of a snowflake. It's one of the things that defines Washingtonians. It makes us a national laughing-stock, but God knows there are worse things about D.C. that we could be associated with. I'll take the snow.

When we do get a real snowstorm, a holiday spirit takes over. The last really major snow event I remember was in the winter of 1995-96, which happened to coincide with a historic showdown between Newt Gingrich's Republican House of Representatives and the Clinton White House. First we heard the weather report. We were ground zero for two major snowstorms headed for us back-to-back, so this loyal Fed knew he'd have at least one day off. But then came word of the Congress-White House budget standoff. A big game of chicken came to its logical conclusion, they refused to deal with each other, and the entire federal government shut down for a week. This was unheard of, certainly the first and only time it happened in my experience. It meant that only "essential workers" were allowed in their offices. While it was a bit deflating to be considered non-essential, (heck, it's just the Peace Corps!), I was grateful not to have to go out in the mess, at least for a couple of days. Once roads were cleared and the weather improved but the offices were still closed, though, things got a little antsy. All in all, between the weather and the government's shenanigans, I didn't enter my office for two weeks. That's a record I don't think will be broken any time soon.

The street I grew up on, Meadow Lane, gently curved down a long, steep hill, at the bottom of which sat our house. Our little suburban street was among the last to be plowed or salted, so that meant on a string of good, cold days our hill was the place to be for sledding. As was the case with my bicycle, my sled was an ancient hand-me-down, big and bulky, with all the finish worn off by the squirming bodies of my older relatives when they were children. It was a little creaky, but it worked. My father kept the runners smooth, and the steering bar still did its job. Since the sled was so big, I could give rides to other kids, and that was fun. I'd sit up and steer with my feet while somebody else, who may not have had a sled at all, sat in front of me. Depending on who was with me, I'd either make it a smooth ride all the way down or I'd run into a snow bank at full speed, forcing a crash into a cold, wet pillow. We'd do that all morning, then head back to our houses for a hot bowl of soup or some cocoa, and then start all over again.

If I lived on a hill now, I'd actually wish for snow. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Born Foodie

The story in my family is that before I was six months old, I cried all the time. My mother took me to the doctor, who had a simple verdict: "He's hungry." So to shut me up my mother cut the ends off of rubber nipples and gave me oatmeal from the bottle. It worked, and food has made me happy ever since.

Of course, we've now fetishized food to an extent that was unimaginable when I was growing up. I'm as guilty as the next pampered boomer, but I come by the trait honestly. My mother was a good cook for her time and took great pride in what she put on the table. Both my parents having grown up in Washington in families that took their vacations at the beaches either on the Chesapeake Bay or the brackish Bay-fed rivers of Virginia's Northern Neck, and my mother having been raised Roman Catholic to boot, we had our share of fish. Dishes that were commonplace on our table are now either rare or downright unheard of. We regularly had smoked finnan haddie (smoked haddock steaks poached in milk--it made me gag) and oyster stew (indescribably delicious). A lunchtime standard was sardines on crackers, which my parents washed down with beer, and there were innumerable all-day crab feasts and fish fries.

Aside from fish, my mother loved eggplant. She was a lonely minority of one in the family until those breaded french-friend eggplant sticks came out, and then nobody could get enough of them. (I don't think they're made anymore.) I loved her stewed tomatoes, sweet, with bread broken up into them, and her succotash. Her salads, made with simple iceberg lettuce and the standard chopped raw vegetables, were delicious, especially with Kraft French Dressing, which I called "red stuff." (I have never figured out what was "French" about it.) I especially liked the lettuce when it was slightly wilted--a taste I later discovered would not be found unusual at all by those self-same French, who serve braised lettuce as a standard green. (OK, the French would only bowl with a head of iceberg lettuce. But that's all we had.)

One day for lunch my mother bought a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli and gave me some. I was hooked for life, I devoured the things at first bite. (I still do when I want to indulge in a guilty pleasure.) I discovered another lunchtime treat one Saturday afternoon when my parents made a "grownup" sandwich full of strong flavors: smoked Lebanon baloney, sharp cheddar cheese, mustard, dill pickles, onions and lettuce on pumpernickel bread. They gave me a bite and for years that's all I ever wanted for lunch. Can you even buy Lebanon baloney any more? It's a Pennsylvania product (from Lebanon, PA), made with beef and garlic.

I was just about the only kid in the school cafeteria who willingly ate what was offered. Lunch was 25¢; for me that was a real bargain because I usually ate what my classmates didn't want as well as my own food. I especially remember the Willston Elementary School version of pizza: a slice of white bread covered with American cheese. The cheese was topped with a dollop of tomato sauce in the middle, and some dried Italian herb, either oregano or basil, was sprinkled over it. The whole thing was run under the broiler until the cheese was soft, and there you had it: pizza! (Since there weren't any pizza joints yet, we didn't know any different.) Yet another lunch favorite was peanunt butter and jelly sandwiches served wth tomato soup. I've no idea why, but one day I tried dipping the sandwich in the soup. Again, hooked imediately. I anticipated the sweet-salty-sour combination I'd later find in Asian food by decades. If I ever indulge myself these days with pb&j and soup, I still dip.

My mother and my own appetite encouraged adventure and I'm still game for just about anything at least once. The late explosion of food as a cultural phenomenon has been great fun for me as well as for our dinner guests. Steve has his garage and his workshop; I have my kitchen. I've cooked most of our dinners for the 30 years we've been together and enjoyed the exploration required to avoid monotony. Of necessity, I've broadened Steve's culinary horizons. When we met, spaghetti was ethnic food for him. Macaroni and cheese is his favorite thing, so I took that and made a one-dish dinner out of it and it's now a staple, which he enjoys. He's also learned to love Mexican food, at least the version of it available in local restaurants. He's not a fish eater (though he likes shellfish), so my early exposure to our local fish hasn't opened any culinary doors for me, and a gag-reflex aversion to cilantro keeps him away from Thai and Vietnamese food. I can indulge that occasional yen from one of the many carryouts within a stone's throw of our house, but I haven't bothered learning to cook it. That's small potatoes, though, to keep the food trope going. We're pretty well fed as it is.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Still the same

It was another weekend of working on the house as we furiously try to get things done to start marketing the place next month. As hard as Steve is working and as industrious as he is, February may be pushing it a bit. He finished painting the upstairs hall and the stairwell this weekend. Sounds simple, but it's time consuming to put up painter's tape, then paint the ceilings, walls, and trim. Unbelievably, all that got done this weekend. There's still cleanup work to do, which will keep me busy this week, and he wants to put a new coat of polyurethane on the hardwood stairs to make them look better. It needs to be done, but that adds time before he can start on the basement. The basement is a relatively small paint job, but it involves taking down wall paper, a time-consuming step. Then will come the kitchen. Mostly trim to paint there, but there will also be substantial drywall work. The kitchen will be the last indoor job. Then will come the front porch, which needs a major re-do. I'm thinking maybe March, if I think of it at all. I've come to the realization that the less I think about the meaning of "days of transiton," the more sanity I can maintain.

We're headed for another big cold snap here, but at least there's no snow in the picture as there is for our brethren further north. I'm wearing several layers of clothes to stay warm, even with the thermostat turned up to 70. I don't remember the house I grew up in being as cold inside as this one is. Maybe because the old family house (actually younger than the one I'm living in now) had radiant heat instead of forced air? A fall ritual, one of the fun things my father and I did together, was bleeding the radiators. There was a special key that turned a valve on each radiator. Opening the valve would release air pockets that had formed in the pipes over the summer. You let the air out until dirty black water appeared, then closed the valve, knowing that the radiator was full of only water. Each year, the first time you turned on the heat, the radiator pipes would protest with clanks as they expanded from the unaccustomed heat of the water inside. The noise stayed around just long enough to reassure us that the whole thing was working. I loved that sound. It guaranteed a cozy winter.

Friday, January 9, 2009



Better late than never. I've been caught up this morning in taking care of my eyes. I had my first eye exam in 1 1/2 years. Got a clean bill of ocular health and a couple of new prescriptions, which I am having filled at Sears, using their current "2 for $99" promotion. If I were only buying two pairs of glasses, that would be quite a deal, but I added a third pair, prescription sunglasses, which always break the bank. I'm paying twice as much for them, so I'm getting out of this for a total of about $300. I don't know why eyeglasses are so frigging expensive, but they're a necessity.

The doctor I went to is new to me and I had one of those rare, very positive experiences you sometimes get in a doctor's office. I'd almost make the trip back here to Arlington every year just to keep him as my doctor. He was an older gentleman, with an Arabic name spelled in the French manner, so I'd guess he is originally from Lebanon. I noticed as soon as I walked into the waiting room that everyone was smiling. All the patients and the two ladies handling the paperwork behind the glass panel seemed happy to be there; the latter two were quite welcoming and attentive. I felt like a real person throughout the entire experience, the doctor smilingly invited me to speak and voice my concerns and was thorough in his explanations. Even his background music was remarkable: a mix of soft French café music with accordion, piano and bass, and Brazilian. I complimented him on his choices and he told me he mixes his own CDs for the office, staying up into the wee hours working on it. I liked the music so much I'll probably buy some of it and share it here. Finding a doctor you like gives truth to the old idea of finding a needle in a haystack.

Today's recipe is another Tyler Florence special. I made it last weekend. It's your basic meat and tomato sauce, but the milk, the puréed aromatics and long cooking, combine to render this basic sauce almost as soft as baby food, very succulent, especially on those fat tagliatelle noodles. Tagliatelle are called for because this is the "official dish of Bologna," according to Tyler. The mayor's office of the city even has a sculpture of a nest of dried tagliatelle over the front door. But spaghetti would do just fine.

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, wiped of grit
1/4 pound pancetta or slab bacon, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 1/2 pound ground pork
1 1/2 pound ground beef
2 cups milk
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 cups dry red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dry tagiatelle pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving
1 handful fresh basil leaves

Reconstitute the mushrooms in boiling water to cover for 20 minutes until tender, drain and coarsely chop. Retain soaking liquid.

Puree the mushrooms, pancetta, onion, celery stalks, carrots, garlic, together in a blender.

In a heavy-bottomed pot add olive oil, bay leaves and herbs and cook gently until fragrant, then add vegetable puree and continue to cook for a further 5 to 10 minutes.

Raise the heat a bit and add the ground pork and beef; brown until the meat is no longer pink, breaking up the clumps with a wooden spoon. Add the milk and simmer until the liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes, the mushroom soaking liquid and the wine. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat. Slowly simmer, uncovered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring now and then, until the sauce is very thick. Taste for salt and pepper.

When you are ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until done to taste. Drain the pasta well and toss with the Bolognese sauce.

Serve with grated Parmigiano.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I'm having an adventure this morning. Between answering the phone and emails, and uploading music for today's posts, I'm playing with Winamp, the free, all-the-bells-and-whistles media storage facility that outstrips Itunes in so many ways, sound quality not the least. I'm in the midst of learning how to sync my Ipod with Winamp, and had to stop because I wanted to put something here. (If any of you have experience with Ipod-Winamp interface, I'd love to hear about it.) Must keep the writing gears lubricated!

I've also had some fun the last couple of days making a new e-friend, somebody who chanced upon a song that struck a chord and got in touch to thank me. He's thinking of starting a blog, and that gave me a chance to tell him how I got into it nearly a year ago via Kat, and about the unexpected bonus of finding a new category of friends--people who know me only by my written word and the music I choose to play--and I know them the same way. In some says we reveal more of ourselves here, both consciously and otherwise, than we do in our flesh-and-blood existences. You see what's in my mind, but not how I move and react in the physical world; others see only that and none of what you see. All this makes for an existence more rounded and richer than was once available to the run-of-the-mill, non-published writer, and it's a net plus, in my book. Far from alienating people from each other, I've found the computer to be a boon, a means to enrichment previous generations could never have dreamed of. Aren't we lucky?

The sun is finally coming out today, but of course with it comes cold winds. We're expecting another dip in the temperature over the next few days, but even this early in the year the days are lengthening visibly and the promise of more clement weather is there. I'll be going out in it in a minute or two to collect provisions for the evening meal....

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Progress report and miscellany

As promised, here's the record of the work done over the holidays. Since I never took any "before" pics, you can have no real idea of the utter transformation that's taken place, but I can try to describe it: first, the beds in both rooms have been moved as far away from the doorways (the position of the camera in both photos) as possible, to emphasize depth. Before, the beds were right next to the doorways. In the room on the left, my desk and its jumble of computer and office mess were where the bed stands now, under that window. The walls were a busy pink and white floral print above the wainscoting (oh, don't ask!) and a very warm terra cotta, close to the color of the bed ruffle, below. It was a claustrophobic jumble. (The desk and computer are now where the bed was, in an alcove behind the camera. They're invisible if you're just passing the room, and take up no usable space. We should have thought this arrangement years ago. True, I have no window to gaze out as I sit here now, but I do have a nice African batik on the wall in front of me.)

The room on the right had a less-objectionable wallpaper of vertical stripes in shades of green above the wainscoting and a dark, forest green below. These new colors are much more soothing, and the position of the bed makes the room look huge. We put smaller rugs in both rooms, again, to emphasize openness, as well as the rich floors. All in all, we're pretty proud of this new look. Gee, maybe it'll add $10,000 to the price of the house! (Right!)

The temperature outside is currently 34 and it's raining. We're promised a high of 35 and continued rain for the next 24 hours. My walk was curtailed this morning when I started getting soaked. I am fighting a tendency to sprout greens and turn into a parsnip. I was completely inert yesterday, a blank slate. This is not good--boredom begets boredom. It's times like these when the thought of going back to work is the strongest. But all I have to do is think that notion through completely in order for good sense to return. I'd enjoy the company, there's no doubt. But having to go out in this mess just to fill a chair? I don't think so. (Still, I'll do it if I have to, or if that proverbial offer I can't refuse knocks on my door.)

I've been given an assignment that'll keep me busy and give me a sense of accomplishment: take some medium-grade steel wool to the stairs to clean them and rough up the finish a bit so a new coat of polyurethane can go down. I'll put Diane Rehm on the radio and start that after I finish reading the paper.

Oh. The paper. Finishing reading it won't take long, I'm sorry to say. The poor Washington Post has lately become a shadow of its former self. The reporting staff has been reduced by hundreds, there are fewer pages to read, and what there is to read is supplied more and more by wire services. Home-reported Congressional and overseas coverage are still first-rate, but the paper is obviously hurting. It's sad to see this former bastion of aggressive investigative reporting so reduced. The spunk is still there, but it's been diminished.

Thanks for all your faithful visits while I was off in the vacuum yesterday.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A fresh start

No recipe today--my schedule is knocked out of whack by the holiday and the fact that I haven't been doing much adventurous cooking lately. We'll be back in the groove next week, I promise.

And so we begin a new year. Wouldn't it be great to have completely a clean slate, and not have to deal with the detritus of the previous months? Alas, life doesn't recognize these man-made thresholds. We were dealt a hand that we are still playing, be it December or January. But as one of you remarked to me over the holiday, there is always hope. There's a French song that says, "tant qu'il y a de la vie, il y a de l'éspoir"--as long as there's life there's hope. I'll drink to that as the best alternative by far.

We had a very nice New Year's Eve with three friends. The idea was for them to get here as early as they could so we could play a game before sitting down to dinner at around 8 pm. The game turned out to be "History of the World," a war game, all strategy and planning. The others got the hang of it right away, but I was too busy tending the fire and dealing with kitchen issues to strategize gaining territory from the mountain redoubt in China I had been dealt. (And I'm really bad at strategy games. Bridge and chess both leave me scratching my head, and I found myself very much in that mode as the rules to "History of the World" were being explained to me. Being the host is a wonderful excuse for slipping away diplomatically and avoid looking like an idiot.)

Dinner was delicious and easy, pork and saurkraut, a dish tailor-made for the occasion, and a salad I threw together from the assorted marinated vegetables at the grocery store olive bar: olives (of course), whole garlic cloves, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, thin zucchini slices, peppers, sun-dried tomatoes. A show-stopping raspberry tart for dessert was supplied by our friend André.

We then repaired to the TV to watch Dick Clark ring the in the year. Despite speech problems from his stroke, I swear he must have a painting stashed away in his attic that is aging while his physical self remains youthful, à la Dorian Gray. He looks so good it's almost spooky.....

Painting continued apace yesterday. Steve has finished the bedrooms. Now come the upstairs hall and stairway. Little by little.....