Friday, September 29, 2006

House Hunting in Austin

We're in Austin. Yesterday we looked at eleven houses. That doesn't sound like much and at first it was just a great adventure. Met a shitzu named Ryno at one house who was curled up on the master bed trying not to be noticed. At another house we met Fang, a sweet gray cat. We discussed flow, tried to imagine where our furniture might go (Bob? Can you put your drawing table, your desk and your drum set in this room?) We gave the houses nicknames to remember them. (Circular fireplace. The Indian-Icelandic house.) By about house eight, though, I'd say to Bob, "Where would you rate this?"

And he'd say, "I dunno, fourth or fifth?"

I'd say, "What was second?"

He'd say, "Circular fireplace?"

I'd say, "Not Indian-Icelandic? Didn't Circular fireplace not have enough storage?"

He'd say, "Wasn't Circular fireplace the one with all the French stuff in it?"

I'd say, "No, wasn't that the one with the kitchen office?"

"No," he'd say, "French had the cool blackboard on the island in the kitchen."

"Are you sure?"

"I think."

"Check the pictures."

We'd peer at the pictures on our digital camera. Bob had come up with the brilliant idea that we would number the houses we were going to see and before each house he'd take a photo of a page of my notebook with the house number. That way we could figure out which house went with what pictures. But it appeared that our digital camera had been stolen and replaced with the digital camera of someone else looking at houses because the pictures seemed to be a utterly different houses than the ones we remembered.

Or didn't. Or maybe they had just been shuffled, since we did remember some things in the pictures--a dining room, say. But the bookcases in the next picture seemed in our minds to be from a different house, didn't they?

So we're out looking again today.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Le Bete Noire

I couldn't think of anything better to do than make one of these so I did. I'll let you know tomorrow if it is any good.

I can't figure out if moving is going to be a good thing or a bad thing. I suspect I'll bake less.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

5 - 7 Servings

One of the neat things about pumpkin pie is that you can count it as a vegetable.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Comfort Food, Bob Style

Bob is coming down with a cold. Probably stress. You know, you get through the stressful times fine and then your system just says enough. I asked him today what would be comfort food for him. He said Thai Shrimp in Peanut Sauce. My idea of comfort food is mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, and to give Bob credit, if the cold gets worse, what he'll crave next is matzo ball soup from the deli. But I think its weird that someone who has lived all his life in Ohio--and who was born of the children of German and Hungarian immigrants--craves cilantro.

My Thai Shrimp in Peanut Sauce is not even remotely authentic. It's also highly variable. Bob asked me one day if I had a recipe for it and I don't. But I do have a set of techniques and it is my feeling that technique will get you through times of no inspiration a helluva lot better than inspiration will get you through no technique. The recipe actually has three separate stages. It can take some time to prep, but once you start cooking, like a lot of Asian style dishes, it comes together fast. It's secret is not in the ingredients so much as the use of a paste as the cooking base. A really fragrant and spicy paste is the first ingredient in a lot of dishes in Southeast Asia, but we don't do it here. It's really, really astonishing what the paste does to the dish. It's magic. Really. Try making the paste and adding it to stir fry once, just once. You'll be amazed.

Maureen's Shrimp in Peanut Sauce

(makes 2 very generous servings)

1 clove of garlic
1 one inch cube of ginger*
two inches of lemon grass
grated lime zest to taste, maybe a teaspoon**
1 serrano chili***
1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt
mortar and pestle****(very opinionated footnote below)

Stir Fry

vegetable oil to coat bottom of pan
assorted vegetables for stir fry (green beans, onion and red pepper tonight)
8 oz of shrimp, chicken, pork or beef. Slice up the meat for stir fry


1/3 to 1/2 cup of creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1/4 cup of soy sauce
(you could add fish sauce if you like, sometimes I do)

chopped cilantro

white rice or lo mein noodles to accompany

1. Make your paste. Put the salt in the bottom of your mortar and add the garlic. I usually crush it with the flat of my knife blade first. Mash it to paste. It will dissolve most of the salt, but life is never easy. Add the other ingredients and grind and mash them to pulp, one by one. I chop the pepper a bit. It will take awhile. Like all things, it will take less time as you get used to doing it. And the aroma. As you mash the garlic, the essential oils get released and the garlic and the ginger and the rest of the ingredients release aromatics. Anyone walking onto your kitchen will know that the cooking here is not for the faint-hearted. I don't always have all the ingredients for the paste, and if I don't have lime, I just make it without grated lime zest. If I can't get lemongrass, well now I have freeze-dried lemongrass in the freezer but it's not as good as fresh lemongrass. I've even made it without the ginger, although I think the holy trinity of the paste is probably garlic, ginger and pepper. Sometimes I add chopped cilantro stems. Cilantro stems are used a lot in Thai cooking.
2. Mix the ingredients for the sauce and set aside. It's not really a sauce. But the peanut butter will liquefy in the pan.
3. Heat your wok or pot until very hot, add cold oil. When the oil is hot, add the paste. The capsicum in the pepper might make you sneeze or cough. That's okay. Stir fry just the paste for about thirty seconds. My paste begins to disintegrate and even look a little stringy but that seems to be okay. A real southeast Asian cook probably makes a much smoother, more even paste, but Bob never complains.
4. Stir fry. Add your onions and/or carrots and/or bell pepper and/or green beans. Cook until they start to soften and then add the next group of vegetables if you've got them--stuff like egg plant and/or little corns and/or cabbage. If you are doing meat, add it now. Then last if you are doing quick vegetables like mushrooms, add them, and if you are doing shrimp, add them. You know the drill on shrimp? Take it off the heat right before you're completely sure it's done? At that point do step 5.
5. Add sauce and heat until it softens and coats everything. I throw my noodles in now and toss them around so they get a bit of sauce on them.
6. Plate and garnish with chopped cilantro and peanuts to taste. We like a lot so we garnish a lot. You could also add hard boiled egg.

*If you can get galangal, so much the better. I can't.
**This is because I can't get kaffir lime leaves. If you can get kaffir lime leaves, they would be a lot better, but don't tell me, okay? I'm hoping for galangal and kaffir lime leaves in Austin. Along with a consistent supply of lemongrass.
***If you can get Thai chilies...yeah, yeah, yeah, you know. Ohio. If you like you food hotter and more Thai like, add two serranos. One gives you a good flavor and mild to medium heat.
****a mortar and pestle. Why pound away at stuff in a mortar and pestle? Besides feeling cool and stuff? It used to feel cool but now I've done it so often that half the time I do it with the television on because basically it's kind of boring and it takes awhile--about five to ten minutes for me now. You can do it in a mini chopper if you want. It will turn out fine and still be better tasting that most Thai recipes you find but when I learned how to do this from a magazine article years ago, I happened to have a little mortar and pestle that someone had given me. It's was mostly decorative and I have since bought a plain one at an Asian grocery. After I had done the mortar and pestle thing a few times I tried the mini food processor and it gave me a much more even paste. But I think cutting garlic instead of mashing it gives it a different, slightly bitter taste. I've since read that they recommend making pesto in a mortar and I believe them, but my mortar isn't big enough and I don't make pesto often enough to get a bigger one. I also prefer my pesto with pecans over walnuts but that's another religious argument. So you can skip the salt in the paste and throw it in a mini prep and I won't tell, okay?

So that's it. Amaze your friends and family. The neat thing about the dish is that it has that intensity of flavor I associate with Thai. And it's good for a cold.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Real Estate Celebration

We accepted an offer for the house. Tonight we went out and celebrated and I had two Manhattans. Then we came home and I committed a MWCWI--Making Whipped Cream While Intoxicated--and we each had a piece of the pumpkin pie I made earlier. It was a very good pumpkin pie. They were very good Manhattans. We're pretty happy people.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I <3 Craig's List

Why put stuff out on the curb and hope someone takes it when you can put it on Craig's List! We have an old, but still working gas grill. It's rusted, and we grill a lot, so we made the command decision that in Texas we would buy a new grill rather than try to haul this thing. Besides, moving companies are funny about propane tanks. Usually, what I would do with something like this is put it out on the curb early the day before garbage pick-up with a sign that says 'Still Works' and hope someone picked it up. We live on a dead end street, but stuff still disappears much of the time.

But now I can put it on Craig's List with the two empty propane tanks for $25! And someone who wants one will get a grill and we don't have to worry about sending it to Texas! In fact, someone may pay me not to have to take it to Texas! This is so cool!

I am now prowling my house looking for things to post on the list. Make a little cash, reduce the amount of stuff I have. It's a win-win, right? There's got to be stuff I can get rid of.

Think $10 is too high?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Real Estate as No Exit by Sartre

A friend of mine says that living with a house on the market is about as fun as having the stomach flu.

We are actually having a very easy time of it compared to the horror stories I keep hearing. Having a house on the market does seem to compel people to tell horror stories. I imagine it's a little like being pregnant, since it seems to me that when someone is pregnant, people tell horrible labor stories. "And my sister-in-law's best friend's ex-husband's second wife was in labor for twenty-seven hours but she thought it was just bad back pain and then she gave birth in the living room and the baby had two heads! But I'm sure you'll be fine."

Unfortunately, I have a couple of close friends who have first hand less-than-delightful real estate stories.

I am consoling myself through baking. I went to Michelle Swiniarsky's for dinner (actually, I called Michelle at work and begged her to let me bring my husband and two dogs over, offering to bring Chinese, because we had to be out of the house for four hours on a rainy evening for showings) and Michelle served us the most incredible brownies known to man. They are made with Scharfen Berger chocolate. I made them for a picnic on Saturday and they disappeared almost immediately. I think I'll make them again today.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

More Dessert Coming But For Now...

Everybody but me has probably seen this, but its fun for anyone who ever took chemistry. When I was in college, there was always the story of the unwitting foreign graduate student who put sodium in the sink...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It's a Dessert Kind of Week

Apple Tart. From tonight's dinner.

Lemon Budino

I've done my fair share of cooking and I can say with confidence that while what I make will almost always taste good, if I'm making something I saw in a magazine, it won't look as good. Celebrity food, like celebrities, has stylists. They coordinate the serving pieces, worry about the grill marks, arrange the food, mound the pesto, use a blow torch to lightly brown the bread for bruschetta, hand arrange the greens in the salad, angle lights, arrange for the glasses to bead up decoratively and in short, provide all the requirements for food to look too good to eat.

I haven't been doing a lot of cooking of late because I was told that if you can smell it, you can't sell it. The house must smell perfect. And not just to people like me who think garlic is sublime, but to Vedic Indians (who don't eat garlic or onions) vegetarians or anyone else who might wander in. I live in Twinsburg, but the people who live across the street from us are from India. (Although clearly not practicing Vedic since they grill out a lot and the fare is meat.) In my paranoia I decided I would risk nothing other than cookies. It's possible that someone won't like the smell of cookies, but I thought it was a fair risk.

This weekend I couldn't stand it anymore and so I made beer can chicken on Saturday with a paste of garlic, lemon rind, honey, soy sauce and hot pepper rubbed under the skin. I started it on the grill but ran out of propane, so I finished it in the house. The house smelled redolent of garlic. It was wonderful. Yesterday I made sausage stuffed shells, and for desert, a recipe from this month's Bon appetite called Meyer Lemon Budino. The magazine described them as a kind of cross between custard and cake. The picture was a little ramekin of yellow goodness with just an ooze of whipped cream. They looked almost too good to eat.

Meyer Lemons are a type of lemon that are sweeter than the commercial lemons usually sold in groceries. I've seen them for sale here, but not often, and they weren't for sale when I went shopping. So I bought regular lemons. The recipe is pretty simple and will be available on Epicurious next month. It's a custard of egg yolks, lemon juice, milk and sugar, with a meringue folded in and just a little bit of flour. I mixed the custard ingredients, then whipped my eggs whites with the last two tablespoons of sugar and a little salt, and folded them into the custard mixture. Then, following the recipe, I just plopped the stuff in the ramekins. I put the ramekins in a metal roasting pan, and poured hot tap water into the pan until they came halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (When you do that, put hot water in roasting pan you are using to bake something, the roasting pan is magically transformed into a cool cooking thing called a bain-marie. I love when that happens. A double boiler is a kind of bain-marie. The technique comes from alchemy and is named after Mary the Jewess, a legendary ancient alchemist.)

Then I wandered around the house wondering if it would work. I'd used regular lemons, would it be too tart? After fifteen minutes I checked and found that the stuff inside the little ramekins was rising a little like a souffle. At the 25 minute mark, I decided the tops were brown enough and pulled the roasting pan out.

They were as beautiful as the photo.

This, of course, worried me. Often beautiful food doesn't taste good. Besides, I had six glass ramekins of little lemon souffle-y looking things sitting in really hot water and I didn't know how to get them out. I used a set of tongs, fearing that I would dunk them in the water, drop them, or make them fall. But the little things were not souffles, and they were sturdy little pikers.

They tasted great. Like little lemon meringue pudding cakes. Light and delightful and delicious. Pure alchemy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Capitalism at Home II

On the other hand, going into someone else's home is a little like boarding the Andrea Doria. I haven't walked into a house where the lunch dishes and a half-eaten lunch was on the table, but there's still the freakish sense of a life interrupted. Or a stage set.

A couple of the places I looked at in Austin were empty and an empty house feels like, well, an empty house. One of those houses had a slightly unorthodox floor plan and all I could think was, 'what were they thinking when they bought this?' What they were thinking, of course, was 'cool!' and the fact that it is not selling is probably a complete astonishment to them. But I don't know. Maybe they are now thinking, 'we were such idiots.'

The furnished houses are stranger. Like mine, many of them have tables set. Either for a little tete a tete. Or for a dinner party that isn't going to happen. I tend to open linen closets, although not bedroom closets. The realtor often opens the closet in the master. And often I see all the stuff that they shoved away because they were having a showing. When they have very small children or a baby, then I feel horrible. I can imagine them driving around with a child or two, mildly anxious about the showing. I suspect they spent the morning cleaning. I wish to God I could have said to them--I'm just looking to get an idea of the area. I don't count. But of course, I do count. I might fall in love, even when just looking to get an idea of the neighborhood.

Houses smell like candles. They have candy out with a sign to take some. They are polished and spiffed. One house had a Lone Star in almost every room. The wrought iron head board had a big five pointed star. The walls were painted a deep red, the colors were bold. It was a very Texas house. Out on the back deck, a very wet black lab sang to us, unclear as to why we had come to see him but weren't opening the door. (It was my favorite house, not because of the star or the wall color but because of the layout, but its location is wrong.)

Every house I saw, I thought wistfully, I hope they sell.

Capitalism at Home

There is something essentially creepy about selling my own house.

I mean, my house is as much a monument to consumerism as your average American middle class house. We have incredible amounts of stuff. Look at most of the rest of the world, or go back 100 years, and the amount of stuff we have would have indicated almost kingly wealth. But I have this illusion that the house isn't about commerce. It's where I live. It's not a house, a commodity, it's a home, a sort of physical extension of my identity. (I have a similar feeling about my writing.) It's safe. Close the door and there is the world out there and the safety of in here.

Now there's a key box on my front door. I am asking the world out there to come into my house, please. Love my house. Buy my house. Oh, and don't notice the nick in the wall in the foyer where when we were bringing in the armoire we hit the wallboard. I make beds, fluff pillows, put roses in the foyer, turn on all the lights, take every bit of evidence of the dogs, including especially the dogs themselves, pile into the car sweaty, middle-aged, over weight and disheveled, leaving behind a clean shining house with a table set for an elegant dinner and everything suggesting a life of ease and beauty. I think of the illusion we've worked so hard to create. People walking through the house, hopefully feeling that if they lived here, there would be some beauty and elegance, comfort and cleanliness in their lives that wasn't there in the old house. While the dogs and I are splitting a bag of French fries and then going to the dog park. I sit there with my dogs. I'm wearing a t-shirt with paint stains on it, and I need a haircut so my hair is beginning to have that long, scraggly unkempt look I personally associate with certain kinds of working class women who don't cover their gray, wear polyester and have gone to seed, so to speak. Not exactly the person I think the house is projecting. The woman of the cream colored roses, the 100 year old antique china, the polished wood floors.

It's a lie conducted in the interest of making money which is a particularly egregious aspect of capitalism. It's not a lie on the order of, say, concealing a toxic waste dump or selling a house I don't own. Nothing I am doing is even remotely against the law. But it is still creepy. And I fall so easily into it. The beautiful dairy farm behind our house is being sold to developers. We don't know what's going to happen, but there is every chance that the view of trees and cows at the end of my backyard will be replaced by the backs of houses. I find myself hoping that the prospective buyers don't know that. Legally I am not responsible for anything I don't own, so I have no legal responsibility to say, hey, that all might go away. It was in the newspaper, it's public knowledge. But still, the whole sense of deceit, of hiding something, makes me miserable. But it doesn't make me leave a note that says, 'FYI, this view is at risk.'

I think my house is a great house, by the way. I think that whoever buys it, and we have some interested parties, is going to get a good place. But it still feels as if I am selling something personal, some sense of myself, and that I am tarting it up a bit.