Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A quiet morning

Nothing happened on the house last night. Our potential buyer couldn't meet with her agent until after work yesterday to plot her next move, which means (I hope) that some new offer was faxed to Ron's (our agent's) office late last night, which would further mean (I hope) that our phone should ring with some news sometime in the next couple of hours. I hesitate to call Ron for fear of making myself a pest, since he's given his solemn promise to call as soon as he hears anything at all. Meanwhile I try to divert my mind, lazing on the computer with Facebook, your blogs, and some music.

My earbuds gave out yesterday, and I didn't buy any new ones in time for this morning's walk, so I was forced to overcome my compulsion to accompany my walk with the morning news. It was actually a pleasant respite. Is it OK with you that I've had it with the swine flu? The media (and I include my beloved NPR) get hold of some bone, any bone, and chew it to dust. Things of relatively little consequence, such as Susan Boyle, get as much attention as others of huge import, such as the world economy. Now come a few flu fatalities in Mexico and we are subjected to wall-to-wall coverage of a non-event. Yesterday, according to a clip on that island of sanity, the Daily Show, the inevitable happened: an intrepid reporter asked somebody if this "pandemic" was the result of bio-terror.

The 24/7 news cycle, with all that air time to fill, has dumbed us down, I hope not irredeemably. Media that could have been great educators have mostly sought the lowest common denominator and merely titillated, entertained, and frightened us. I see no remedy but to avoid it as much as I can. I even turned off the last quarter-hour of my breakfast "Morning Edition" today when they started hopping around Europe reporting on an isolated flu case here, three there. All "mild." Are we too polite to point out that the relatively high number of fatalities in Mexico just may be attributed to the widespread, grinding poverty there, or has that not crosssed the minds of the cosseted 30-something producers who suggest these stories?

Best Buy opens at 10, so until then I can't even listen to my Ipod. I have an hour to kill. I'll scan my skinny Washington Post for some non-flu stories and wait for the rain to start. Maybe push around some of this infernal pollen that's covering every surface.....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The dust has settled and it looks like we have one offer on the house. It's too low ($50,000 less than our asking price), but we're at the initial negotiating stages and as I said yesterday, there's wiggle room. Ron, one of the team of two Realtors we're working with, came by last evening to map out what he thinks the strategy should be for our next step. His 25 years of very successful experience is invaluable, but sometimes his advice is hard to take. And in these situations I'm discovering that I'm much more willing than Steve is to be flexible, to see the glass as half-full, and to play the hand we're dealt.

Our original pricing strategy was to ask $20,000 more than the appraised value, knowing we would never get it, but figuring we would negotiate down to the appraised value, or close to it. Ron suggested a counter-offer--$7500 less than the appraised value--which Steve at first adamantly refused to consider, saying it was much too low. It's true that we (Steve and I vs. Ron) are coming at this venture from very different angles: Ron is all about negotiating a successful and quick sale where "everybody wins"; Steve and I want that, too, but of paramount importance to us is the fact that this transaction is purchasing, literally, the next phase of our life, and we want to wring as much out of it as we can. And while Ron may be a technical wizard, explanation is not his strong suit. Nor is it Steve's.

As is usually the case in any standoff I happen to witness, last night I ended up the mediator--the one who translated Ron's approach to Steve (after coaxing some context out of Ron), and who reminded Ron of our concerns, which encompass a quick sale but are also much larger than that. It's Ron's job to massage the buyer and her agent, to make them see that we are giving up a lot (we are) while still asking for a much larger price than the one they offered. But in order to do that, he needs our cooperation in taking slightly less than we were hoping for. I saw that clearly and understood all of Ron's justifications, and as I sat there was already thinking ahead to what we may have to shave off the North Carolina house in order to make this happen. Steve, on the other hand, couldn't get past The Original Number. Finally, after about 45 minutes of stop-and-go conversation, during which I was sure I would have a stroke controlling my strong impulse to bash these two hard heads together, we reached a compromise. It was tiny, but Steve had his principles. He at first wanted to adopt a "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude and reduce our bottom line just to the appraised value, nothing less. Ron said "take-it-or-leave-it" left him no way to demonstrate to the buyer that we were willing to work with her. Steve finally saw the light and agreed to $5000 less than the appraised value instead of $7500. Ron said he could work with that.

And when it was all over, Steve said, "Now that Ron's gone, I can tell you: that's the number I was willing to work with all along."


So we wait. Ron is presenting our counter-offer to the buyer today. We'll see what she does. Ron says, and I tend to agree, that a house that sits unsold for too long and has a "reduced" sign on it tends to stale quickly and lose potential earnings. Much rides on this negotiation.

Until tomorrow...........

Monday, April 27, 2009

I'm Back!

Hello from a house that's had an offer!

Our real estate agent called last night at 10:30, just as we were drifting off to slumberland, to let us know that the couple who visited the house twice and spent two hours here each time, then had another hour here yesterday with relatives during the open house, made us an offer! It's 'way too low, below the appraised value, but there's wiggle room on both sides, we hope. (And besides, we may be getting two more offers this week, if signals left with the agents yesterday are any indication.)

The agent did her best to keep our expectations down as we led up to the big event yesterday. "Open houses don't sell houses," she said to us more than once. She succeeded in keeping our hopes on solid ground, so any good news becomes a bonus, and that's how we're treating this turn of events. These people can even work with us on our timing. They're willing to wait for settlement until June 19, a week after Steve's job ends on June 12. That is our ideal scenario, giving us time to say s proper farewell with a huge party here and find a house to rent in North Carolina, all without having to rent short-term in Arlington until June 12.

Being awakened just at that pivotal moment does nothing for a good night's sleep, of course. My mind started racing with all the fun plans that may soon come to fruition and I'm less than 100% today. But it's a happy daze. The agent will come here this evening, after Steve gets back from work, with the official offer, and then we'll respond. More may happen during the day--if anything does, I'll let you know!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

All Well

Thanks to those of you who have checked in wondering at my silence this week. I should have let you know I'd probably be AWOL. We were in North Carolina from Monday until late yesterday (Wednesday) and I have so much catching up to do today and tomorrow there isn't the time for the luxury of choosing music and running words together. I'll be back here where I belong next week.

Friday, April 17, 2009



That's right, Camembert. If you're thinking "rich," you're thinking right. This luscious dish is another one of Cooks Illustrated's refinements of a dish that could easily go wrong, but here, it doesn't. It's quick and easy enough to make for a good weeknight meal, but its richness may relegate it to "special occasion" category. It's very smooth in texture and flavor, and would go well with a boldly flavored salad. That's how I will serve it when I share it with guests.

Hint: make sure Camembert is at room temperature before you use it. otherwise it will take a long time to melt into the hot pasta.

Table salt
1 lb. bow-tie (farfalle) pasta
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin oilive oil
3-4 large shallots, chopped fine to make about 1 cup
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped fine to make about 1 tablespoon
10 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps wiped clean, and slice 1/4 inch thick
10 oz. cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup frozen peas
1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Ground black pepper
6 oz. Camembert with rind, cut into 1/2-inch squares, room temperature
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in a large stockpot. Add salt to taste and pasta, cook to desired doneness. Drain pasta and return to stockpot.

Meanwhile, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat in a 12-inch skillet until foaming. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and heat just until fragrant, 30 seconds. Increase heat to medium high, add shiitakes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add creminis and salt to taste, continue cooking and stirring occasionally until mushrooms and shallots are golden brown, about 8 minutes.

Transfer mushrooms and shallots to a bowl and set aside. Add peas to broth and pour both into skillet. Bring to a boil and scrape up browned bits in bottom of skillet. Remove from heat, stir in cream and lemon juice, and adjust salt and pepper.

Add mushrooms, broth mixture, softened Camembert and chives to pasta in stockpot. Toss over medium low heat until pasta absorbs most of liquid and Camembert is melted and well-combined. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tax Day!

Of course, I'm sure all of you organized folks have finished your taxes, so I write this as a gentle commiseration, not a reminder.

Actually, we've always done our taxes as soon as all of our 1040s and income statements come in because we just love that refund! For years we've treated our tax refund as an early-in-the-year windfall. We sock it away in an interest-bearing account and then draw on it for mad money during most of the rest of the year.

For just as many years we've been told by friends more bound by logic than we are that the fact that we get such big refunds every year means we're letting Uncle Sam take too much out of our paychecks in the first place. They are, of course, absolutely right, and I hope they enjoy the extra few bucks they get and promptly spend every payday. For us, the sightly-bigger-than-necessary tax deduction amounts to another automatic savings account and we wouldn't have it any other way. And it's patriotic! Gives the government a little extra cash to play around with. Yah!

I've just about had it with this cold and rainy weather. Today is supposed to be the last day of it for a while and we are promised a decent weekend. We were hoping our real estate agents would schedule an open-house this coming weekend, but they have scheduling conflicts which will push that event to the 26th. They're planning a coffee/ brunch to take advantage of our beautiful springtime deck and back yard, so it's probably just as well that it's put off for a week. It means extra time to clean up the maple helicopter seeds that are beginning to fall all over the deck and their millions....

I'm having lunch on Capitol Hill in DC today with Hélène, a dear Peace Corps colleague who is always good for at least one big laugh, so there is at least a little light in this otherwise dreary day. If you're in the Eastern U.S., I hope there is some in yours, too.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's turning into a life memoir....

Read it if you dare.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Busy Monday

Looks like I'll be busy today doing things that need to be done, and that's good. I can only hope that includes showing the house, but I never know about that until the day is well underway, usually in the afternoon. We have decent weather at the moment, but yet another system of rain is due to arrive in the afternoon and stick around through Wednesday. Well, the flowers, at least, are really enjoying this wet, cool weather. Our daffodils all blooming at once now, practically choking themselves out, but they'll survive....they're so cheerful I thought they'd brighten your day, too.

As I write I am also freecycling. Our garage is filling up again with things we don't need, and I am getting the usual instantaneous responses, so every now and then my email chimes and I have to stop writing here to arrange for a pickup. Wish the house would sell so fast! (Hmm....maybe if we gave it away...d'oh!)

One of the things happening today was unexpected and definitely not welcome: the replacement of our furnace. Since we hadn't had our HVAC checked in a couple of years and the house is on the market, I thought an inspection would be prudent. Well. Turns out the furnace motor is leaking oil and the exhaust duct leading to the outside is rotting. The technician showed me where the problems are--merely touching the duct tube brought a cloud of corroded, rusty particles. He stated the obvious, that an engineer doing an inspection would never advise a potential purchaser to the buy the house with the furnace as-is, so we have no choice. It's a wonder we didn't have a case of carbon monoxide poisoning. Four thousand bucks! No sooner did we get our credit card out of the stratosphere than it heads right back up because of a thing like this. And there's no real way we can recoup this expense, since a furnace is a basic necessity. Whaddayagonnado???

So now I'll post my sunshine music and then cut the grass. It's growing like topsy in this rainy weather.

Friday, April 10, 2009



First, the end of my story yesterday about burning the potpourri: our agent got feedback from the agent who showed the house. He said he and his client loved the house, and he (the agent) was especially curious about where I got that potpourri because it was "fantastic." I had to laugh. Well, first you take some cinnamon, some orange peel and a few cloves. Then you burn them. But not too much! Just until they smell like molasses cookies. Then get them the hell out of the house before you set off the fire alarm. I passed the tip along...

Oh, and they liked the music. They were just kind enough to turn it off when they left.

On to the recipe. This is adapted by Saveur Magazine from Commanders Palace Restaurant in New Orleans, and is featured in the current issue. I've adapted it further to my own taste. I confess I had never heard of maque choux, but I guess that's OK since I'm not a native of New Orleans. It's a folk recipe that mixes Acadian and Native American elements and therefore is adaptable to the extent that you use ingredients typical to the region. ("Maque choux" is probably a French corruption of whatever the Native American word was.) The ingredients in this version are true to the magazine (and therefore, I guess, the restaurant); I just changed a few quantities. The original was a bit dainty for my taste.

The bottom line is that it's delicious and a unique mixture of easy-to-find ingredients. It's good enough for company, and quick and easy enough for a weekday meal.

One note: given the old-fashioned French influence prevalent in New Orleans, there's more saturated fat (bacon fat plus butter) here than I would normally use. For that reason, quick and easy as it is, I'll probably save it for special occasions.

2 slices bacon, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper. cored, seeded and finely chopped
10 okra, sliced thin on the diagonal (to make about 1 1/2 cups)
1 medium can sweet corn, drained (or a 10-oz package of frozen corn)
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
16 medium shrimp (about 8 oz.) peeled and de-veined
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups cooked white rice

In a 12" skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon, stirring occasion­ally, until crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel-lined plate; set aside. Melt 1 tbsp. butter in hot bacon fat. Add garlic, shallots, peppers, and jalapenos and cook over medium ­high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to high; add okra and corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in scallions and remaining butter and season with salt and pepper; set aside and keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat oven to broil and place a rack 8" from broiler ele­ment. Toss shrimp with oil in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Transfer shrimp in a single layer to an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet and broil, for two minutest, then using tongs, turn and broil on other side an additional two minutes, until pink and cooked through. Add shrimp to cooked vegetables. Serve on top of a bed of rice; garnish with reserved bacon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


We are in "hurry up and wait" mode. We've been so pumped for so long about selling the house that it seems a gross injustice that we should now have to wait for it to actually happen. It's been a whole day! Why isn't the phone ringing off the wall???

As a matter of fact, the house was shown yesterday. I got a call from an agent telling me he'd like to bring a client; he gave me an hour's notice. I ran around turning on all the lights (one of the rituals of showing a house--make it bright!), taking cat-covers off the furniture and generally sprucing things up. One bit of advice I decided to act on is to make the house smell nice. I have a homemade cinnamon and orange peel potpourri in a teapot that I set on the stove to boil for a bit just before anybody comes. I figured a whole hour would be enough to send those mom-and-apple-pie aromas wafting decidedly through the house, so I turned on the flame under the teapot and set about other cleanup business. About a half-hour later I happened back into the kitchen and detected the unmistakable scent of carmelized sugar--oh, no! The potpourri was burning! The water had boiled off! I filled the smoking teapot with water again and set it outside to cool; luckily things never got past the "something's baking" stage, odor-wise. When Steve came home a couple of hours later he was looking for the molasses cookies.

Another hint I tried was to supply soft background music. I chose some very good piano stuff, standards played by my old friend Ron Browning, and set the Ipod to "play" just as I left. When I got back, I noticed the Ipod was still playing, but the sound on the Bose had been turned off. Hmm.....did I have it too loud? Or is the music a bad idea? I'll try it again next time, softer......

To kill time while the agent showed the house, I took a ride out to Falls Church and the neighborhood where I grew up. I do that every now and then; the street just gets more beautiful as new owners re-model the old houses (mostly very tastefully) and the landscaping matures--it invites me to idealize even more the already pleasant memories I have of the place. All is well on Meadow Lane except for our old house, which, alas, has received additions that render the place almost unrecognizable. The back yard, where the Winesap apple tree once stood and my parents planted their gardens, and where our dog Peanuts is buried, is completely taken up with an extension on the house. The graceful brick and stone front stoop has had a totally inappropriate two-storey portico added to it--"McMansion" springs to mind much too quickly. The house has been given a faux grandeur it that looks nothing but uncomfortable. Interior changes, while I can't see them, must be as drastic as those on the outside.

It's a desecration of the old place, but in perverse way, I'm grateful for it. The house as it was remains in my memory, and that's really the only Meadow Lane house I'll ever know, anyway. There is no longer a physical structure for me to want to return to. It's a concrete affirmation of the notion that you can't go home again, and that's a healthy and realistic antedote to nostalgia. Onward and upward is the only direction that remains.

Monday, April 6, 2009

All over but the shouting...

I know the photo above doesn't look much different from the one I've posted in that space, but believe me when I say you're seeing new things. All those colors are newly applied, and they are different. We simplified the paint on the spindles, making them all one color instead of banding them with all the colors on the porch, as they had been before. But more than that, this represents the culmination of all the work I've been telling you about for over a year now. We'll never paint that porch again. There are some small things that we still have to do to finish the cosmetics, but we're ready to go. That "For Sale" sign was a long time coming!

I'm waiting now for our agent and his partner to come and make it all official. A lockbox must be put on the front door, and then the house will go on the MLS. Ron and Kelli (the agents) tell us they've had inquiries already, just from the sign being there. And, as we were on the porch all day yesterday working, we saw the traffic, the people stopping by on their walks (one woman asked, "are you giving up that beautiful porch?" I smiled and told her we couldn't take it with us.), and the cars slowing down to take a look.

The house is as shiny as it's ever been, inside and out. Here's hoping it all goes quickly and smoothly.

Friday, April 3, 2009



April has appeared with her showers. Not that I was around for the original to know for sure, but Mother Nature has been serving up what must be a flood of biblical proportions since last night, and it appears it will stay with us at least until this afternoon. Our back yard has water standing in low spots; the grass is a wildly exuberant shade of green and you can practically watch it grow. I have nothing pressing to do outdoors today. The big job will be scrubbing the kitchen floor, and I do mean scrubbing, hands-and-knees work that will make the floor look like new and be THE thing that sells the house. (Of course, after I'm done, nobody will be allowed to walk on the floor....)

Today's recipe is an adaptation of a rare thing: a recipe from The Washington Post that actually worked on the first try. The salty-sweet interplay between the raisins and the olives is a treat, and the texture of the healthier ground turkey actually works better, to my taste, than the standard ground beef, which in a dish like this can cook down to crumbs. It's a good, quick weekday dinner, and you can be as loose as you want with portions in the recipe. It calls for a "small" red bell pepper, for instance, but in my grocery store these do not exist, so I just cut up the entire monster that I had to purchase and it was delicious. Also, the original recipe calls for 3/4 pound of ground meat. Who can buy that odd amount? And if you only use 3/4 pound, what do you do with that little bit that's left over from the entire pound the store will only allow you to buy? I just used the whole pound.

Note: I left salt out of the recipe on purpose, because the canned tomatoes and beans have enough of their own. If you choose the unsalted variety, add salt to taste when you cover the Picadillo to simmer.

1 small red bell pepper
1 medium red onion
2 cloves garlic, or to taste
1 lb. lean ground turkey
2 teaspoons olive oil
Handful of stuffed green olives, coarsely chopped
One 15- 16-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 14.5-oz can Mexican-spice diced tomatoes
Handful of dark raisins
Cooked rice

Stem and seed bell pepper, coarsely chop and place in bowl. Coarsely chop onion and garlic and add to bowl with pepper and set aside.

Heat oil in large sauté pan, crumble turkey in and cook until pink begins to disappear. Add chopped vegetables and continue to cook until all trace of pink is gone from the meat and vegetables begin to soften. Add cumin, sugar, and pepper flakes and cook until the cumin is fragrant, then add the drained beans, the tomatoes with their juice, and the raisins. When bubbles appear at the edges, turn heat to low, cover, and simmer 10-15 minutes, until flavors have blended.

Off heat, stir in chopped olives. Serve immediately over cooked rice.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Facebook reward

It's getting so my mornings are filled now with reading. Well, they always were--back before I entered this cyber-world with my concrete clodhoppers I read my trusty newspaper in the morning, but now, sitting down at the computer, catching up with Facebook, reading the blogs, all yours and the ones on Peace Corps Worldwide, and giving them thought and commenting where I will, is taking up a couple of hours a day. I feel I have to do it all at once so I can the get on with my resposnbilities in the F&B world, which indeed do call. Today's an overcast day and wettish day so far, but there are a couple of things with my name on them that I must get to. As to the poor old Washington Post, wraith-like as it now is, I'll get to it sometime today....

Speaking of Facebook, it's done me a huge favor by putting me in touch with one of my best friends from high school. We met for lunch yesterday after not having seen each other in over 30 years. Jane was a year behind me, and seeing her, sharing memories and comparing updates about mutual friends reminded me that I actually had more friends in her class than I did in my own. She has put me in touch with two more of my favorite people from those years, and in May, assuming we are still in this house, I hope to have a little get-together for them, maybe a brunch.

Yesterday's reunion was the perfect kind, where you slip into conversations and attitudes as if no time had passed at all. If I tell you Jane is a Hospice nurse, I think that's the most description you could need to know what kind of person she is. She's both a talker and a listener, bubbly but not sugary, naturally upbeat. Delightful. She and her husband Eddie have been married 40 years, have two kids and are starting on grandkids. And yet they're both still the "kids" I remember from 1964.

What fun!