Thursday, December 31, 2009

Farewell 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rudely interrupted

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009



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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Carolina Mudpie for a Crowd

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

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

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


1/4 acre sandy clay
10 dumptruck loads sand

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

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

Invite friends over. Wallow.