A gaggle of guests

Last night, my mom passes through and mentions that my aunt and uncle will be stopping in to spend the night on their way to points south to take care of some business.

No problem. They do this from time to time, spending the night here, taking care of their business a bit south of here, then driving straight through back to Atlanta.

Not this time. We have a load of birthdays in September, including my mom and one of my aunts. My aunt and uncle (and cousin, who came with them), decided to stop back and spend the night Saturday night, then return to Atlanta Sunday instead so they could visit a bit with the fam.

Which means, of course, that everyone gathered here tonight. Which means food.

Unfortunately, I got no pictures of the food. After cooking, slicing, and plating, people loaded up their plates and went off to chow down.

The menu:

Roasted chicken (two roasted chickens, actually)
Mashed yukon potatoes
Baked beans
Sliced tomatoes
Pan gravy
Baked apples with a brown sugar-apricot reduction
Cake and ice cream, and a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”

As I type this, most of the fam is crowded into the dining room, yakking at one another. Some of us are in the living room watching OSU take care of business with Iowa. Some of us are also cursing the pain in their back and wondering if tomorrow will offer the opportunity to drive out about 30 minutes west of here to look at properties, or if that will have to wait until our return from San Antonio. Twenty acres…

House hunting stress hell

When we first started looking at houses, and I prequalified for a ton of mortgage, I never really considered the process to be all that stressful (except for the prequalification itself, which was nerve-wracking, since I’ve never owned anything as large as a house). It was tedious sometimes, and sometimes it was nice looking through those houses, but I wasn’t terribly concerned with where I wound up as long as I liked the house and grounds.

Then we started looking at properties.

For most of the day, I’ve been dividing my attention between work that needs to be done for month end and property listings. Two and a half acres here, 14 acres over there, and 20 acres out yonder. Here’s nine acres, there’s ten over there. Some have houses, some have mobile homes. Some are fully cleared, with pasture land, some are half cleared with wooded areas running wild.

And then, there’s the one I want, which no one wants to touch to finance, it seems – at least no one that we called today. We’ll be calling a few more places tomorrow. Having something at your fingertips that remains just ever so slightly out of reach for the moment is the worst sort of aggravation. It reminds me of the itchy sensation that crawls up the numb left side of my neck, which cannot be scratched and which jolts me from that rare, deep sleep I manage to get sometimes: annoying, and not much that can be done about it except let things take their course. Just like those episodes, though, it’s stressful and leads to worrying.

I’ve read memoirs and writeups from people after they’ve successfully gone through treatment for cancer and come out the other side. Many of them are poignant, with a new outlook on life, a new appreciation of all the little things. I find myself wondering, sometimes, why I am not so poignant, why my outlook on life now – while appreciative that I didn’t die – is fairly the same as it was before, with the same kind of worries, the same kind of joys in my family and friends. I have no touching tales to tell about how I found myself, how I found others. Is that a sign of being too self-absorbed, or a sign of not caring? Either way, it can’t be good.

Ah, and the dentist. Nice guy. Referred me to an oral surgeon with more experience treating patients who have gone through radiation treatment and all it entails. That oral surgeon also has a panoramic xray machine, so we can get some good xrays of my jaws and choppers. The visit will have to wait until we return from San Antonio, though, so our look to see if there really is anything suspicious in the left mandible will be then. My surgeon, recently returned from New Zealand, doesn’t think there will be anything out of the ordinary, but as they say, always better to check than to let it go.

A friend of ours is a bus driver – Greyhound, not school – and called the other day to tell us that he’s moving to Wyoming to drive trains loaded with coal instead. He’ll be joining us for half the trip to San Antonio, and will leave us when we get to Baton Rouge. I’ve always loved trains, and many years ago thought it would be the height of fun to work with them. Instead, I content myself with knowing that one day, the train sets I have packed away will be happily chugging around tracks near the ceiling in some room in some house. Everyone needs a hobby, right? Or three or ten.

Walking the property

“You want to live where?”

“A bit further out than I live now.”

“How much further out?”

“About eight to ten miles or so.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?”

“This is why.”

We went to the property Wednesday morning. Our realtors, patient people that they are, appeared on our doorstep just after 8 AM, awakening me from a strange dream whose details continue to escape me: all I know is that I was happy, once my feet had hit the floor, to be awake rather than asleep. Our appointment to see the property and the buildings on it was for 9 AM. We had another appointment after that to see a different property, but everyone knew we were seeing the second one just to see it, and that the first was really the only one that interested us.

As I had a dentist appointment scheduled for 11, I drove myself in the event we went to the point that I would have to haul ass to have yet another party poke around in my mouth. We arrived just before 9. It was a stunning morning to look at the place and walk the grounds.

The evening temperature had bottomed out around 70 degrees, and by the time we got to the property, it was only 75, with dew still glistening on the grass and the sun making its climb into the sky from behind the rear treeline. We met the lady of the house, who said her husband – a transplanted Nebraska farmer – was off at the doctor, but she’d be happy to show us the two places, although not walk the property, as her health was not up to the task. No problem, said I, I’ll walk it alone – which is my preference, without someone blathering on in my ear to disturb the flow of thoughts in my brain and disturb what is almost a frightening stillness in the morning air. I requested permission to take photos of the grounds. “Certainly,” says Fran. “Just don’t set us on fire,” she added, smiling. We laughed, and I left the four of them talking while I walked the entire perimeter of the property.

First stop? The rear of the property, at the far eastern corner. This is the view facing NNE from the eastern corner.

I walked north along the fenceline and found this guy digging furiously for bugs while it was still relatively cool.

He was so preoccupied that he didn’t realize I was walking up to him until I was about three feet away. He stopped digging, gave a little hiss, and then ran into a circular stand of trees that sits in the midst of the huge plot of cleared land in the rear of the property.

The owners, over the course of almost 30 years on the property, have done a fantastic job of clearing the property while retaining what few hardwood trees were there and planting additional hardwoods. The man of the house is, by the wife’s account, the gardener of the two, and up until a few years ago, had quite the garden going. Now he has what seems to be a million pots of sago palm starters.

The green line is the sagos, to the right is a pile of brush and branches – this is the sort of thing that happens when people continuously occupy a property for a good number of years: piles of stuff – and in the rear behind the marching line of sagos is what used to be a compost pen and what was destined to be converted into a chicken coop, but what is now a receptacle for more brush and some odds and ends. Behind that is the circular stand I mentioned, into which my armadillo buddy escaped my intrusion.

I walked to the front of the property and looked back to the ENE along the fence/hedgeline.

There is also a line of baby sago palms at the front of the property, along the front fenceline near the road.

We found more sagos near the little greenhouse, along with assorted other plants awaiting their fates. From the front of the property, I took another shot facing one of the two homes.

It’s amazing what people will tell you if you let them. The second home was for the woman’s mother, who died last November (in her 90s, no less). They were still working on clearing out the last remaining items, and of course this is hard work – not physically, but emotionally. As she said, though, you do what you have to do. There is a very nice fishing boat on a trailer on the property; this belongs to one of their sons, who also fishes in the annual kingfish tournament held on the shore here. The husband and wife are leaving the property for something a bit smaller as they’re both getting older and both have some health problems.

The stovetops in both homes, along with the water heaters, are gas. This would be a welcome relief from living entirely on the local utility teat, especially since the utility bills in the current place are exceeding $400/month, primarily because the air conditioning unit is too small for a house this size and runs constantly.

“Tell me again why you want to live here. There’s nothing here except a few piles of junk, a bunch of grass to mow, and a couple of trailers. They look nice and all, but come on – it’s trailers, when you boil it down.”

“Yes, I know. But tis is not to say that I’ll be living in a trailer for the rest of my life. It’s a temporary waystation. See all that land in front? Perfect for a new house, lots of room, no worries about spacing, facing issues on the lot, or anything else. And the land won’t need mowing everywhere – there’s a rather large garden area envisioned on the back side of the property, about where the man had his before he gave it up. The piles of junk? A dumpster costs $50/day: you load it up, they haul it away and dispose of it. This is what happens when you eye a piece of property rather than just a lot where they’re going to toss up a house with no yard and no room for much of anything at all. And there’s this, too.”

Now, the fun begins: finding someone to finance the damn thing. Random statistic found during research: one of every three homes in Florida is a mobile (or, rather, manufactured, as they call them now) home. The problem is that a lot of banks and mortgage brokers – including my own, where I prequalified to buy just about any existing or new home construction I would want otherwise – don’t want to touch anything like that these days. This sort of sent me into a tailspin after I took myself off to visit the dentist – and weighing myself three times at Publix while waiting for a prescription to show myself that I was really seeing 102.5 didn’t help – because I don’t want to see this slip away for this reason. But there has to be someone out there to finance this sort of thing, because the people living on the property just refinanced three years ago, and that random statistic up there means that someone is backing all these people. I just really, really want the next person they back to be me.

Technical difficulties

Here’s a tip for those who have ever had their home wireless networks suddenly start dropping off when their cordless phones ring: change the channel on the wireless router to something other than the default (11), especially if the problem has just started or if you hit the channel button on one of the cordless handsets. This will save you a ton of aggravation when you’re trying to work online and the phone is constantly ringing.

Mucking about

I spent a good deal of time this afternoon sitting around in the waiting room of yet another medical office, waiting to see the surgeon who had thoughtfully extracted my gallbladder and freed me from constant worry about doubling over in agonizing pain after eating something. Followup visits have been the story of my life this past year.

Luckily, I had a book with me. In the 40-odd minutes I waited, I read 140 pages and engaged in some side discussion with the woman sitting next to me, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who was there to schedule her procedures. My discussion and visit with the very kind surgeon lasted less than ten.

Which is fine, really. After all, the surgery went well, I’ve had no complications, and the worst I feel of it now is when I try to lift something heavier than I should be lifting, or try to push or pull something at waist level. The cement used to patch the incisions is starting to flake and peel off, and underneath one patch is a very thin, light scar. The other three will probably not be quite as thin or as light. But as I am not a belly dancer, I imagine this will not cause me any sleepless nights.

After I finished up at the surgeon and came home, thunder started rumbling in the distance, and the clouds swept in, blown by a quickly-moving cold front that promises us temperatures only in the upper 80s instead of the lower 90s. I wasn’t expecting any rain, but suddenly the wind shifted, the chimes out back started tinkling as they rocked back and forth, and the clouds opened up, draining themselves as they scurried along.

That made it a good time to go take a look at the property that has been keeping me up nights.

The reason for the look during torrential downpours is because – as our realtors keep reminding us – the front half of the property is in a flood plain, or so it says on the city’s maps. The owners say the land has never flooded, something I believe but our realtors don’t, but the best way to find out is to go look during a storm in progress – especially down here, where we can go a long time without significant rains, which makes the soil hard, which in turn can lead to minor flash flooding when a good storm rolls through (or major flash flooding, if the conditions are right).

So, I gathered up my mom and we rolled out another eight miles or so and turned down the road to what I hope will be my new abode. What we found was absolutely nothing: no water pooled anywhere except in the parking lot of a dead convenience store on the corner and in the ruts of a couple of unimproved gravel or sandy driveways leading back to other homes. Other than that, there was no standing water anywhere. That’s rather heartening.

Besides, I’ve pretty much decided I don’t care what our realtors say: that property is calling to me unlike any of the other places we’ve seen in the past two and a half months of looking at house after house. Must be the inner farmgirl coming out, or maybe it’s the anticipation of building the house I really want instead of settling for something already built but without all the pieces falling into place.

I’d like to walk the property before I leave for San Antonio for a week. I’d like to see if what’s in my head for planning matches what’s available on the land. I’d like to be able to continue my planning of putting in tomatoes with basil and mint around them; strawberries and borage nestling together, with squashes coming in after the strawberries for the high summer months; nasturtiums and marigolds all around. I’d like to continue my recovery and rehabilitation in a place where I can make things grow, where I can touch new life.

A cyclical feast

Food, food, food. At times, I believe that’s all I think about. There was food to be had for the people cycling in and out of the house today. Alas, two of our guests could not stay, as one was sick (and the other nursing him along), and one of my sisters never showed up at all and wouldn’t answer her phone. Too bad for all of them, because the food we had was quite good – and I finally took a taste of ribs that I smoked. Boy, are they tasty.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, and since I could easily go well over a thousand waxing lyrical about the food, I’ll just proceed with some of my less-than-fabulous photos.

I made pitas and hummus on Saturday in advance of the feeding of the masses. The hummus is simple enough. Toss some chickpeas, tahini, salt, pepper, roasted garlic, and lemon juice in the food processor.

Pulse it a bit to get it going, then start with the olive oil.

Adjust the seasonings and the consistency, and in the end you have a great spread that cries out for fresh pitas.

To make pitas, though, of course you need dough. Put the ingredients together, scrape the dough into an oiled bowl, and let it rise awhile, dimpling it down every so often if it threatens to crawl out of the bowl.

Divide and conquer – I mean, divide, roll into a ball, and flatten out slightly. Let the dough rest for about 20 minutes.

Roll out each dough portion and let them rest for about 10 minutes.

Bake on a stone for a few minutes, and you have UFOs in the kitchen. Or at least nicely puffed pitas.

The pitas turned out very nicely indeed, complete with a great pocket into which hummus (or anything, really) could be stuffed. Next experiment for pitas: whole wheat pitas. My sister also wants me to make some regular flatbread wraps.

Sunday I was up at 0730 after a few hours of sleep, ready to get the ribs out of the brine, rubbed, and ready to go on the smoker. With that prep out of the way, I dashed off some guacamole and made some barbeque sauce while mom made some deviled eggs.

And some lemon bars. Start with the mix.

Prepare the bottom for the bars.

Put it together, bake it off, and sprinkle with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

These are great. Chewy, light, lemony. Perfect.

The ribs went on the smoker just after 1100 and came off around 1530 or so – about 4.5 hours on the smoker in total, and tender to the point that a couple of the bones slid out of the slabs as I was pulling them off the grates.

The smell in the house with all this cooking going on was fantastic. While the ribs were smoking, I had made the dough for my mushroom, caramelized onion, and feta tart, rolled it out, and pressed it into the tart pan.

The mushrooms were sauteed, the onions nice and soft from their stint on the stove, and the feta was mixed with an egg and bit of heavy cream. The tart shell was blind baked with my favorite kind of pie weights – beans.

After about 15 minutes, the weights were pulled, the shell was docked, and it was put back in for another 10 minutes or so. It was then time for assembly: the mushrooms, onions, and feta mixture was poured into the tart shell and the pan put back in the oven to cook for about 30-40 minutes.

This was my experiment for this dinner: I’ve never made a tart shell from scratch before, and have never made a savory tart before at all. It turned out incredibly well.

Nicely done inside, and tasty.

I had some dough left over after rolling off the excess, so I freeformed a smaller tart with some of the onions, a sliced tomato, some more feta, and a sprinkling of basil. This also turned out very well.

The ribs, meanwhile, had rested and I cut them into individual portions.

Together with the Italian bread, the roasted red peper-sweet potato soup (which is gone now), and some brownies and biscotti (courtesy of a guest who couldn’t stay), it was a full and satisfying meal all around. We sent doggie bags home with people as well.

In other news, I am seriously leaning toward buying some land – a large enough plot to do some light farming (gardening, perhaps a dairy cow and a few chickens for eggs) and build a house. We have seen a lovely, cleared piece of property with a few buildings on it, including a couple of manufactured homes, which would do quite nicely to let us get started, have someplace to live, and do some appropriate planning for a house raising. For a long time, I’ve considered living on a farm, or at least in a farm environment, and ever since I saw the property, I’ve been thinking of all the things I could do with such a property. We’re planning to go and actually look at this particular property (4.77 acres) this week sometime, before we head out to San Antonio for a week.

The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that I would absolutely love to be able to grow my own vegetables, fruits, and herbs to feed the family and put some away, if only to know exactly what is going on them and how they are being grown and harvested. My sister is adamantly opposed to raising stock for slaughter – she would get too attached to whatever animals there were, and couldn’t bear the thought of killing them for food – so any stock we would have would be for their other benefits only, like milk and eggs. Personally, I think people should know where their food is coming from, and they should see it at least once, but for now and for some time into the future, the nicely packaged meat from the grocery (or Costco) will be that view of where food originates. Still, I could easily live with buying meat from elsewhere if I could grow most of the rest of what I need. It would be quite nice to grow my own red peppers for roasting, for instance, instead of having to pay exorbitant prices for peppers from Mexico. Having other vegetables year-round, via greenhouse and hydroponic growing would be quite nice, too.

I can’t wait to see the property and walk around on it a bit. I wonder if the current owners would object to any photos…

The staff of life

That’s bread, of course.

I’ve said it before: I love baking bread. I just wish I had more time for it. My plan today was to put together the biga for a couple of Italian loaves, let it retard overnight, then make the dough, add the biga, and bake them tomorrow. Instead, between emergencies and bouts of moving people between servers, I let the biga sit for about four hours, then went ahead and assembled everything, to take a break here and there from watching the processes spin.

I’m pleased with the way it turned out. Since I’ve managed to make it consistently, this will probably remain my standard recipe for this particular bread.

As one loaf will be going home with someone leaving tomorrow after a visit, I’ll be making another batch tomorrow, I suppose, to ensure there’s enough bread around for the eaters on Sunday (and those who like to take goodies home with them). Or perhaps we’ll skip that and just go with fresh pita bread. Indecision is a terrible thing.

What is certain, however, is that I have an inordinate amount of work to do – both real work and food work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, really, and of course there never will be. It took all day Thursday to make soup, since we had to meet the appraiser at a house in which I’m interested in the morning, and then we had mom’s birthday dinner that evening. In the between time, I worked, roasted a lot of peppers, and wished my back would stop the aching in the middle of my shoulder blades.

To make soup, you need a lot of peppers.

They need to be roasted and then sweated.

And peeled, of course. But with the right roasting and the right handling, the skins slide right off.

My sister said the peeled peppers looked like a pile of livers.

Cook the peppers with the other ingredients, puree it all, and soup’s on. A lot of peppers turns into a lot of soup.

Saturday’s plan is to make the hummus, the guacamole, pitas, and break the ribs out for a soak and rub. I think I’ll try to assemble the tart as well, and maybe go ahead and make the lemon bars. Rather ambitious, to be sure.

Care for a bite?

I was dwelling on food yesterday, coming up with a menu suitable for a small crowd of people who will be arriving at various times throughout the afternoon. Planning for something like this raises a bit of a challenge, as the goal is to have food that is not going to take a great deal of last-minute prep and finishing and to have food that can stand being at room temperature for a bit as people drift in and out.

We had planned to have people over for the early game, but it turns out that everyone but us seems to have plans for early afternoon. Fortunately, football season affords us an afternoon game and then an evening game on Sundays, so there will still be football for those arriving later. The upside of people not coming until later in the afternoon is that I don’t have to get up with the sun to smoke ribs. As I told someone via email, given the problems I have sleeping, this is probably a good thing.

The menu:

Smoked ribs (homemade rub, homemade bbq sauce or sauces, depending on how ambitious I feel)
Roasted vegetables
Caprese salad
Mushroom, caramelized onion, and goat cheese tart
Roasted red pepper and sweet potato soup
Deviled eggs
Fresh, homemade pitas
Lemon bars

I am thinking that we need another veggie or side to go with the ribs, and I’d like to make some of my cinnamon bread (cinnamon raisin for those weirdos who eat cooked raisins in their bread).

That should be plenty for about a dozen people moving in and out. There’s always room for one more, though, so as always, if you’re in the area, feel free to stop by.

It was a dark and stormy night

Literary license, that: it is not quite dark just yet. But it’s getting there, and it is stormy, and writers tell half-truths anyway, so it’s as accurate as anything else that springs from a fevered imagination.

I’m sitting here having the first (small) bowl of ice cream I’ve had in a couple of months. It tastes like…well, nothing much at all. At a minimum, I suppose I should be thankful that it doesn’t taste truly awful, as other things do since the gallbladder surgery. A friend of the family, who happens to be a nurse, says that’s likely the result of the anesthesia, and should pass at some point. The story of my life: this will pass. That will pass. With time, it will get better. I must admit, I’m getting pretty sick of hearing that refrain over and over, especially since progress, such as it is, is so minute that it can barely be measured.

But I will finish the ice cream. Calories have to come from somewhere, and at least this has the semblance of normalcy, unlike the routine of pouring a cup of formula down the tube, followed by a cup or so of water. There is reason behind this, too: today’s weigh-in at the doctor’s office was 104 pounds. I’m surprised that I only lost two pounds while stuck in the hospital, but still, that weight is – as my family constantly reminds me – not enough. Sometimes I wonder just what target weight they have in mind for me.

I’m continuing to heal form the gallbladder surgery. Coughing still hurts, and if I move too quickly on my right side – if, for instance, I pump my fist after a particular good play by the Jaguars defense at a Monday night football game against the Steelers – it can be rather painful. As everyone tells me, though, this will pass and I’ll be as good as new. Or as good as new is when your body has been wracked by rounds of fighting cancer.

And I must admit to feeling quite uninspired about things of late. No doubt all the crap that’s been happening in the past year and a half is starting to catch up here. But I thought today that perhaps it’s time to rattle some of those pots and pans again, at least, and get some people fed. Sunday, the Jaguars are away at Indianapolis, and a smoking session – of the meat variety – may be just the ticket. Food, friends, family, football: even if it doesn’t break me out of the funk, it will at least be a diversion. Now just to figure out what to feed the vegetarians amongst us, who have some unfathomable idea that a big ol’ slab of ribs isn’t something suitable for eating…