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



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 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.