Tag Archives: Renovations

It’s Just a Day

No birthday-feast-at-home cooking means the kitchen stays tidy until the real photographer arrives.

No birthday-feast-at-home cooking means the kitchen stays tidy until the real photographer arrives.

Our birthdays have passed.  I worked ridiculous hours on hers, and she worked a very long day on mine. On both, we spent what little “free” time we had working on the house, since the real estate photographer was scheduled to visit this morning.

Of course, the Creator of the Universe having an occasionally wry sense of humor, that didn’t happen. The photographer quit his job yesterday, and the company he worked for didn’t tell our realtor–so there she was, first thing in the morning, setting out the jars of lemons and the sale-bait throw pillows. I’m hoping that neither cat sheds a single hair between now and the rescheduled appointment–and hoping that the agency keeps the new photographer happy long enough to get the job done.

On her birthday, we had great burgers on the way to the theatre. She dropped me off at the theatre for the matinee, went for a hair appointment, and came back to see the evening show.

On mine, I left my studio to meet her train, and we went for a Japanese performance-art dinner at a restaurant on the way home. We had the place almost to ourselves, which was fun in its own way. We got the chef’s undivided attention–as well as all the flying broccoli.  We oohed and ahhed over the onion volcano, and tucked into speedily grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, vegetables, fried rice and noodles.

In both cases, we got home and finished our chores too late and tired for cake, but we can have cake another time. Life is sweet without it.

It would be nice to have an entire day to ourselves, to celebrate, or maybe just to sit.  It would be nice to think that’s how we can spend our birthdays, but that’s not the way it is yet. Or maybe ever. But a birthday–it’s just a day. A celebration can be deferred so long as the event isn’t forgotten.

While replying to birthday messages this morning, I saw this recipe I’d written up and posted to Facebook years ago.  I don’t think I forgot to cook the fish, or if there wasn’t time for it, or just decided not to. It could be an unconventional belated birthday feast sometime.  Or maybe

Not the Special at Ocean Grill

My meat-and-potatoes Dad would be pleased that I can feed myself, but probably would shake his head at this one.

Pierce a spaghetti squash (about 2 lbs.) all over with the point of a knife.  Microwave on high until tender (about 15 min.)

In a heatproof measuring cup or bowl, soak a handful of dried mushrooms in a cup of boiling water.

Film a skillet with olive oil and set it over medium-low heat.  Sweat in it:

3 shallots, sliced thinly

1 t garlic, minced

1 rib celery, sliced thinly

After a few minutes, add to the skillet

1 carrot, diced

Clean and remove the tough stems from

1/2 bunch collard greens

Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid; slice them and set aside.  Strain the liquid to remove any sandy bits, then pour the liquid into a saucepan over medium heat.  Add to the liquid:

1 envelope bonito flakes (or 1 T miso)

1 t soy sauce

Stir to combine, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.

Cut the greens into thin strips, add to the saucepan; cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the greens are tender but not mushy (about 8 minutes).

While the greens are cooking, add to the skillet:

2 T tomato paste

1 t balsamic vinegar

the sliced mushrooms

Stir until combined. Then remove half of the vegetable mixture to the bowl of a food processor and puree.  Add a little olive oil and some of the greens liquid to thin the puree if necessary.  Return the puree to the skillet and stir to combine.

Slice the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, then use a fork to separate the flesh into “spaghetti.”  Salt and pepper the squash to taste, and add a little butter (or olive oil, if dairy is forbidden).

Top the squash with the greens and vegetable sauce.  Sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese (or soy substitute).

The tilapia that was supposed to perch atop a mountain of vegetables?  Serve that another day.  Maybe with the leftovers, if there are any.

Not a bit of clutter in sight. Mostly because we're not home long enough to do anything but sleep...

Not a bit of clutter in sight. For the moment, anyway.

Know-How

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I don’t know when it became clear to my father that I was going to be a musician, but when it did, he gave up any thought of my taking over his garage door business. Some of their parts, and the tools used to install and service garage doors and openers, are dangerous if an accident happens. Dad didn’t want to risk my losing the ability to play while I was learning a trade, so he simply never invited me to go with him on a service call again.

I barely noticed. I wasn’t drawn to his business. I enjoyed being with my dad, but I didn’t especially like being in other people’s dirty garages or handling the heavy tools, door parts, and hardware. It wasn’t until long after his passing that my mother told me about that decision. Dad knew how to do things, and how not to press an issue.

My hands were safe from the big stuff, but there was a lot Dad didn’t have the chance to teach me. He instilled in me a respect for electricity, and I knew abstractly how to use a hammer and screwdriver, but the rest I’ve had to pick up on my own. I don’t want to install my own garage door, but I’d like to rewire a light switch or a door bell, or maybe repair a leaky faucet.  Do-it-yourself manuals and YouTube videos have been my friend.

We’ve hired a contractor to do most of the work of getting the Country House ready for the market, but I’ve tried to do small things on my own. The light switches are pristine white to match the pretty walls. New smoke detectors are mounted and hard-wired into the house’s system.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I'd seen in ages; and, although the cat who'd been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children's laughter.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I’d seen in ages; and, although the cat who’d been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children’s laughter.

I’d like to think Dad would be pleased, even if he would also have been amused at my floundering. If he would have been frustrated by what he didn’t get to teach me, I’ve been at least as frustrated at what I didn’t learn.

There’s a faucet I want to replace, but I simply can’t get the old one out. Maybe it’s a question of strength or leverage, or maybe there’s something I just don’t know. Same with some electrical outlets that are supposed to be controlled by a wall switch. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but the switch is, literally, out of the loop. One of the lessons Dad didn’t get to teach me was lessons was probably When to Call a Professional.

I re-tightened the old faucet’s supply lines. I put covers on the outlets to protect them and turned turned the power back on. I baked a loaf of bread, and a batch of brownies for her birthday celebration. I’ll spend the rest of the day teaching children to sing, writing a choral piece, and conducting a performance of a musical. There are things I know how to do that my dad didn’t. I try not to beat myself up about the things I don’t.

That might be the most important lesson of all.

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The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn't brown as much as I'd hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn’t brown as much as I’d hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

Making (Someone Else) a Home

"White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities." --Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

“White. A blank page or canvas.
So many possibilities.”
–Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

Getting a home ready to put on the market is a challenging proposition. We’ve done lots of work on the Country House–and had even more done by professionals. There’s been new flooring installed, new carpeting, and new ceilings. There’s new paint everywhere. We’ve done enough de-cluttering to stock several thrift stores, and filled the recycling bin nearly to bursting almost every week.  I’m finishing the last of the electrical work, and alternately being amused and incensed by the thought that a prospective buyer might lose interest in a home that had almond colored light switches and outlets rather than white ones. (Ew, almond!) She’s artfully arranged furniture and stored small appliances in cabinets in a way that makes rooms and cabinets look big and uncluttered. We’ve made the house a blank canvas on which someone else might picture their life.

Until that someone is found, we’ll live as if we don’t live there: no family photographs on display, no dishes left in the sink to wash when we get home from work, no laundry left to fold later. It’ll be tricky. But, yes on the prize, as they say, we will do what we need to do in order to make it possible to find the City House we both want.

This morning, she admitted to being cranky and hungry. She worked so hard last weekend to get the kitchen counters perfectly clean that she can’t bear the thought of using them to prepare a meal.

That stops now.

I put off changing the last outlets and switches until tomorrow, and made a batch of pineapple fried rice that she can reheat in the microwave. I washed the dishes and wiped down the countertop when I was finished.

Dinner is still served at the Country House. Even if we use paper plates and keep our toothbrushes out of sight.

House-on-the-Market Pineapple Fried Rice

Mix together:
1/4 cup teriyaki sauce
2 T brown sugar
2 t lime juice
1/2 t minced garlic
Pour into a zip-top bag; add two pork chops and close, squeezing out as much air as possible. Leave overnight, or at least a few hours.

Remove the pork chops and discard the extra marinade. Dry the pork chops with a paper towel; tuck this immediately into the trash. (Resist the temptation to empty the trash right away; there are vegetables to clean.)

Brown the pork chops in a hot skillet, then set them aside. Add a little oil to the skillet and sauté:

1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1/2 bell pepper, in strips
1 cup grape tomatoes

Remove vegetables; add to the skillet and brown slightly:
1 cup pineapple chunks

Meanwhile, slice the pork thinly.  It will not be cooked through yet, and that’s all right. Return pork and vegetables to the skillet, along with:
2 t soy sauce
2 T pineapple juice
2 t ketchup

Toss the meat and vegetables in the sauce until coated, and until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add:
2 cups white rice, cooked and cooled.

Stir a bit until rice is slightly coated with sauce. Add:
1 egg, lightly beaten

Stir and cook another minute or so.

Remove from heat. Refrigerate and reheat when ready. Wash the dishes and empty the trash.

Perch, Pouch, Poach

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I spent most of the weekend perched on a bench. I wasn’t made to sit out a game while the rest of the team played for the championship–although there’s almost no team sport in which that wouldn’t be an appropriate place for me. It was a very busy rehearsal and performance week: performances of a school play I directed and accompanied, Palm Sunday masses at the church where I’m the music director, and rehearsals for a musical at a theatre a few miles north. Everything went well, if not perfectly.  The kids were pleased, and so were their parents; the masses went off without any significant hitch; rehearsals were productive. Lots of time on piano and organ benches, though. By the end of it all, I could not have been more fried if the baptismal font had been full of peanut oil.

Meanwhile, she barely perched for a moment. Now that the last of the major renovations are complete, she’s been working on the house: re-setting rooms where work is completed, making lists of small things yet to be done, storing items we won’t need while the house is on the market, and making the closet transition from winter wardrobe to spring clothes.

(Of course, that last item may have been tempting fate; it snowed this morning.)

Amid all this musical and domestic activity, there wasn’t much time in the kitchen. We took a visiting collaborator out for dinner after the show on Friday–nothing fancy, just a quick bite at a diner before her train back to NYC. I brought home Awesome Burgers after the show-and-church extravaganza of Saturday. It was time for Sunday dinner before we knew it. Daylight Saving Time had kept us going on our afternoon chores until mid-evening. Fortunately, we had a plan. (And, even more fortunately, her afternoon errands had included a trip to the market so our plan could be executed.)

Salmon Pouches with Cilantro-Lime Rice

Preheat oven to 400F. Toast 1 cup white rice in a dry saucepan; add 2 cups boiling water and 1/2 tsp salt. Cover and keep on low heat for 20 minutes.

Rinse and trim 3/4 lb. green beans. Place a third of the green beans in the centers of 3 12-inch pieces of aluminum foil.

Lay on top of the beans a 4-oz portion of salmon fillet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little dried dill. Add a thick slice of lemon. Gather the foil and fold each pouch to seal. Place pouches on a low-lipped pan or cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

While the fish is in the oven and the rice is steaming, zest a lime, and heat 1 tbsp oil in a small skillet. Rinse, dry, and chop some cilantro–maybe a quarter-cup.

When the oil is hot, sauté a cup of grape tomatoes until soft and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Lower heat and stir in 1 tsp dijon mustard; stir to combine, then remove from heat.

Remove pouches from the oven and rice from the heat.  Quickly toss the lime zest into the rice and re-cover. Wait 5 minutes, then open the pouches and fluff rice with a fork. Stir in the cilantro, and a little lime juice to taste

Serves two, with leftovers for somebody’s lunch.

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I probably should have opened the leftovers-pouch when I plated the others; the other portions of salmon were more pink and the beans a brighter green–very spring-like. These are probably a little overdone, but they’ll still taste good.

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Cilantro-less rice.

She was so excited about seeing fresh herbs at the market that she bought mint instead of cilantro.  I didn’t add that to the rice, but she put it in a pitcher of rooibos tea.

Rooibus

“But I was supposed to make you dinner,” she said. I reminded her that she had made lunch. And done the marketing. And arranged the flowers I’d been given after the shows. And all manner of other making-the-house-beautiful chores that are much more challenging for me than spending some time in the kitchen. She could do the dishes if she wanted to, but with the fish in pouches cleanup was a snap.

I’m a fan of big, meaty fish steaks much of the time, but this salmon came out sweet, delicate, and very tender. It was the perfect, gentle dinner at the end of a weekend so busy there hadn’t been much “end” at all. This week will be just as hectic, but we’ve built in a break to see a friend’s show on Wednesday night. Tickets are already bought, and we’ve already got dinner plans: no last-minute fuss. Like a little pouch waiting to go into the oven. IMG_0039

Chore, Sweetened

We rented a storage unit when we combined households. It’s been enormously useful during renovations. We haven’t been there recently, though. She had suggested that we spend a couple of hours there this morning–taking stock, photographing items that we want to sell, and removing anything we know now that we don’t want to keep. Saturday morning arrived, rainy and cold. I really just wanted to stay in bed, but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

I went to the kitchen to brew coffee and tea while she got dressed. Waiting for the kettle to boil, I looked around for something to snack on–I figured we’d have brunch later. I sliced a banana and peeled a clementine. The latter did not become part of our shared snack, though; I gobbled it down in no time flat. Seeing a partial loaf of banana bread, I had an idea and changed course. Maybe I would cook a little after all.

Banana Bread Foster

Put a small non-stick skillet over medium heat.
Toast 4 slices banana bread.
Melt 4 tbsp butter.
Add one banana, sliced into thick rounds.
Sprinkle with 2 tbsp brown sugar and 1/4 tsp vanilla extract.
Toss occasionally until the sugar is melted and syrupy and the bananas are caramelized and slightly softened.
Mix together 1/2 cup ricotta cheese and 1 tsp sugar.
Spread sweetened cheese over the toasted banana bread.
Spoon bananas over the cheese.
Top, if you have some, with a little whipped cream.

There are still boxes and boxes of books and CDs and files and some small pieces of furniture that we love but aren’t in current use, but the unit is well-organized now, and a trunk-load of items have been sent away. We’ll face the rest another day, but we did good work. It wasn’t such a daunting task as we’d feared–or perhaps we were just well-fortified.

The sliced apples are on the plate to suggest that this was a healthy, nutritious breakfast.  They are fooling no one. It was, however, delicious.

The sliced apples are on the plate to suggest that this was a healthy, nutritious breakfast.
They are fooling no one.
It was, however, delicious.

A Different Story

“What would like to do with the day?” she asked.

It was a perfect Saturday. The sky was blue and warmer than it had been in weeks. I’d done a little tidying and made breakfast. She read aloud the first chapter of a novel we were sharing. We planned dinner, and some chores afterward while we listened to a podcast: nothing too strenuous. I’d have to go to work for a while in the late afternoon, but in the several hours before then we decided to have an adventure.

We’ve been doing a little shopping on-line, looking for an apartment in NYC (or at least closer than we are now), and have found what appears to be a wonderful neighborhood. Friends of mine, and relatives of hers, even live there. But so far we’ve only been virtual house-hunters. Now, we had time, and decent weather, for an actual reconnaissance mission.  We’d drive to Yonkers and walk around to see the place for ourselves.  We could have lunch at a little café before driving back.

In that moment of calm after the decision was made but before the activity of getting organized to go, she froze.

“What’s that sound?”

I didn’t hear it.  Then I did.

Water. Dripping.

Well, sure.  It’s sunny. The ice is melting outside.

Except the drips were inside.

Ice dams had formed over the gutters. Now starting to melt in this bright sunshine, the water was forcing its way in. There were drips along the windows, and a huge blister above them where wall met ceiling.

Where the freshly painted wall met the just refinished ceiling, that is.

We threw out our plan for the day and spent it instead on the phone trying to find a roofing company to remove the ice and repair the damage, filing a claim with the insurance company, washing and drying all the linens that were lying on the quilt rack and had been soaked by the drips, hooking up a dehumidifier, and re-organizing the spare room so we could use it as a bedroom during construction.

I cleared the deck of snow and slush and ice so that it would be safe for a roofer to place a ladder there. I couldn’t reach the roofline at the front of the house, but I could lean out a landing window with a shovel and push snow off the porch roof, clear the resulting snow and slush off the front stairs, and get most of the frozen crud cleared so the trash can and recycling bin would sit level for the first time in weeks.

She called me in to lunch–a pasta dish she and her friend had talked about when they were at dinner on Friday–and, sitting comfortably while we ate, we saw more water.

There were stains and blisters on the living room’s just refinished ceiling, too. Which meant that there was also damage to the bedroom’s brand new flooring.

The contractor has been working on the powder room–laying pretty new tile and installing a new sink. From there, he was going to lay new tile in the laundry closet and the front entryway and we were going to be done.  Our search for a buyer for the Country House could start, and our search for a new City House could begin in earnest.

Not yet, apparently.

It’s just a setback.  Setbacks happen. Nobody was injured. Lots and lots of homes in New England have ice dams and wall and ceiling and floor damage.

Just a setback. A disappointment. An unexpected turn. A different story. Our intrepid hero and heroine will carry on.

Turn the page.

Pre-Catastrophe Breakfast.  Since it's an English novel we're reading. English Muffins stood in for crumpets, toasted and spread with preserves, honey, and applesauce, with sliced apple alongside.

Pre-Catastrophe Breakfast.
Since it’s an English novel we’re reading. English Muffins stood in for crumpets, toasted and spread with preserves, honey, and applesauce, with sliced apple alongside.

Picture This

“Drunken Chicken Marsala?” she asked, showing me a photo on Pinterest.

The photo was beautiful.  Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, and a silky-looking brown sauce.  “We could have it with polenta,” she said, “and green beans.” I thought the recipe sounded good, but she had said the magic words.  (As far as I’m concerned, the recommended daily serving of green beans is How many are there?) We added the few items we’d need to our shopping list and headed off to do errands.

First stop: the Big Box Home Improvement Store. Clamps and glue to repair a dining chair were easy to find. Tile was a little harder. We need to replace flooring in the entryway, powder room, and laundry closet, and to create a  kitchen backsplash. I’m getting more at home in home improvement stores–I no longer get the sense the greeter wants to take me by the arm and say, “Here, sir, let me help you so you don’t hurt yourself with the sharp things”–but I seldom really feel like I know what I’m doing.  Being faced with the myriad choices of the tile aisle only makes things worse. (Don’t even get me started on the cabinet door pull options. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this difficulty; there’s a lot of science suggesting that more choices makes things harder rather than easier. But she’s gently helpful, and very decisive, and in far less time than I would have taken alone, I had a handful of samples and we were headed for the checkout.

There’s a wine shop across the road from the Big Box Home Improvement Store. I don’t have any particular store loyalty, so we went there for a bottle of marsala. We should probably develop a relationship with a wine seller, someone who knows our tastes and can make useful suggestions. (Come to think of it, maybe the wine seller would have tile recommendations, too.) Fortunately, the wine devotes more shelf space to flavored vodkas than dessert wines, so I wasn’t paralyzed with indecision. We checked the recipe to make sure we were looking for a dry marsala rather than a sweet one, and picked a half-bottle in the middle of the price range.

Our final errand was a trip to the supermarket, where I felt thankfully and entirely at home.

This was her recipe, so she took the lead; I chopped vegetables and pounded chicken breasts and then made a salad and stayed out of her way. It wasn’t going well. There was much concern that the chicken wasn’t browning properly, that the wine was being absorbed too quickly, that dinner was going to be a mess and we would die of salmonella poisoning. (Actually, she wasn’t concerned that we would die; only that would. I think this means she was afraid of killing me with a single bite, but it might mean that she would know enough not to take a second taste.)

I did my best to assure her. I know that chicken breast at this thinness takes a very short while to cook completely. If the pan looks dry, she could add more wine. The tomatoes would provide even more moisture. Most importantly, I hoped to remind her that food stylists make every dish look more beautiful than we can.

The rounds of polenta had lovely crisp bits on the outside and soft centers. The green beans were crunchy and healthy and altogether wonderful.  And the chicken marsala?  Not only did it not kill us, but it was savory and a little sweet, earthy and hearty and warm. And, for a couple of home cooks, picture perfect.

Marsala is, apparently, a dessert wine. Does it pair well with chocolate chip cookies?

Most definitely not a food stylist’s plate.