Friday, February 26, 2010

A Highly Reluctant (yet quite French-Canadian) Chef

I’ve been thinking about cooking lately. (Of course, I’m sure Brian will be quick to point out that thinking is clearly as far as I’ve gotten.) I’ve been musing about this cooking subject because we’re going to have to do a lot of it when we get out voyaging. While I’m sure there are some fantastic cheap fish tacos to be had in Baja, it won’t be possible for us to simply pick up food on a daily basis from our local Thai restaurant or Indian-Pakistani place once we’re out there. We won’t be able to pop into Mr. Gyro and buy delicious lamb and chicken wraps from some of the nicest humans on earth. No, to make our voyaging dreams work, we’re going to have to provision our boat with up to one or two year’s worth of food, and to maintain a reasonable budget, we’re going to have to cook—pretty much everything we want to eat.

So, I’ve been thinking about the fact that it would be great to test out a bunch of recipes on land, determine which are our favorites, and categorize them based on how quick and easy they are. Because when we get into rough seas, I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be interested in working on a menu of stuffed Cornish game hens, twice baked potatoes, and baked Alaska for dessert. However, having some tested recipes both on hand—AND preferably committed to memory—could likely keep us off of an all Cliff Bar diet.

Flipping through books about cooking at sea is the biggest stride I’ve made so far. Brian is definitely ahead of me in this regard; he already has a limited but very pleasing repertoire of meals he’s mastered. There are a handful of recipes he makes on a regular basis including delicious chili, chicken and rice, and his very popular Cuban pork roast with rice and beans. Brian may not be a full gourmet, but he does cook on a far more regular basis than I do, and he even seems to enjoy it—(perhaps nearly as much as he enjoys teasing me about my lack of interest in all things domestic). I actually remember coming over to Brian’s old apartment in Ballard one night early in our relationship. He was cooking a recipe with cranberries and cloves, and the scent was like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. He had a dishtowel over his shoulder, Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from the speakers, and he was dancing around the kitchen singing and cooking. I remember feeling quite smitten because not only was he cooking a fabulous meal for us, but he was also clearly having fun and doing it all in style—doing something he actually wanted to be doing.

Recently, I’ve not been able to find anything like that kind of joy associated with cooking. Now, many years ago I did cook--somewhat. I even cooked for a summer on a Windjamming Schooner in Maine. The recipes we made were simple, and of course, anything can be good when you leave in all the old-fashioned butter, cream, and sugar. But, when I moved to Seattle and realized that after a full day at work I could buy a really top notch burrito for about a dollar more than dinner ingredients would cost at the store, my cooking interest dwindled. I also became addicted to Thai food, which when ordered properly would provide me with two meals at only a slight premium over heading to the grocery store, and it saved me all the chopping, measuring, and sautéing.

But before we head off voyaging, somehow I need rekindle (or develop anew) a passion for cooking. I certainly like the eating part, and apparently the love of eating is where Julia Child’s passion for cooking came from; however, I must confess that as much as I really am all about the eating (a bit too much so during these lazy winter days), thus far I’m really not at all interested in the cooking or even the cleaning, which, were I interested, might be a good bargaining tool for convincing Brian to do the cooking; although, with my current cleaning track record, I doubt he’d bite.

Now one advantage Brian has over me when he cooks is that he has one of the least picky audiences possible: me. I eat pretty much everything: meat, fish, poultry, veggies, tofu, baked goods, you name it. About the only thing I don’t like is mint, and if the mint is fresh, even that’s negotiable; in a Mojito, mint becomes a completely different character altogether, so, mint, rum, and I—we get along just fine.

Brian on the other hand, is a tougher customer, and he doesn’t get excited about pasta dishes sans meat, which I love. He doesn’t care for fish or shellfish, and he has been less than effusive about some of my faves such as spicy peanut soup; although, in his defense, my sister thinks the peanut soup sounds disgusting, and I’ve been unable to convince her to even try it.

So, what’s a gal to do? Brian is well on his way to being competent in a galley, and since we’ll be sharing the messmate duties, being a terrible and very reluctant cook aboard will likely lead to problems, frustration, and a rather boring culinary repertoire of lazy-man’s pasta and cold sandwiches.

Perhaps our friends, John and Genevieve, who recently invited us to a Patrick O’Brian (of Master and Commander fame) –inspired Admiral’s Feast have the right idea. Perhaps I need to take my inspiration from 19th century sailors. Genevieve said the books contain all sorts of information about how sailors managed without refrigeration and about how they stored their dry goods to avoid weevils and other critters. And at the Admiral’s feast we were introduced to grog, which, containing rum, seemed an absolutely fine beverage in my opinion. Maybe I just need to imagine myself cooking in a different age—perhaps even in costume! You can ask Brian, I’m already well versed in the sailorly language. Perhaps I just need to curl up with some more books and learn about Treacle Pudding, Cold Duff, and Stewed Boar. Hmmm, curling up with a book definitely sounds better than heading to the kitchen—and I suppose if, despite my search for inspiration, my cooking never becomes outstanding, I can always resort to extra rations of grog for my crew!

Bon Appétit!

Monday, February 15, 2010

What’s it worth?

For, I-can-no-longer-count-how-many weeks now, Brian and I have been demoing, painting, grouting, selecting, installing, sweating, cursing, and from time-to-time, arguing—all while getting ready to sell my house. It’s not an easy business this house selling; it’s emotional; it requires enormous patience, and far too much of it is beyond our control.

Despite some similarities, it really feels like the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from buying my house more than five years ago. After moving to Seattle in 1999 and discovering housing prices that seemed beyond absurd, I became resigned to the notion that I would never afford a house in Seattle. But sometime back in 03 or 04, a friend encouraged me to consult a mortgage broker. My friend said, “You’d be surprised what they’ll let you borrow.” Sounds awfully prophetic now that the big housing bubble has burst, but my friend’s urging motivated me to fully explore the possibility of actually owning a home.

Once pre-approved, the house hunting came next, which, like house selling, was emotional—and in my entry-level price range—was also downright comical. I’d see a listing and think, “Eureka! This is the one! I’d mentally paste myself into the online photos and imagine myself there—becoming adept at cooking in that kitchen or sunning (during Seattle’s scant summer) on that patio.” Then I’d drive by and realize that the house shared a driveway with a muffler repair shop, was directly under high-voltage power lines, and was within whispering distance of the high-school football field.

I even looked at one house that I now call the “hobbit house” because it was clearly built to a scale that would not accommodate normal-sized humans. The attic was billed as the “master suite,” and just getting up to it required a low fifth-class climbing move. Without removing a wall, there was no way anything other than a rolled up futon could have been shoved up there. Like in most attics, the slope of the roof was profound. I’m 5’4” and could stand up in the center of the so-called suite, but one large step to either side, and I was ducking; since those were my single days, I was probably thinking, “No tall boyfriends if I live here.”

When I first saw the house I did buy, there were so many pros and cons my brain was nearly doing flip-flops: While driving up, I thought, “It’s so close to the expensive neighborhoods I really like. But, it’s just one street back from the substantial intersection with the unsightly underage dance club. The neighboring house looks like a dump, but the house itself is so cute—almost like a real Seattle bungalow! But, the price is too high—can’t get my hopes up.” Walking in, “Kinda smells like dog. Strange layout, but the master bedroom has it’s own bathroom. It doesn’t have a basement, but it has a big closet that could hold my gear.” And then, “The back bedroom would be great for a housemate. The rooms are big. It has a garden. Everything is starting to bloom.”

Originally, the price was too high for me, but when it came down several times within a month, I thought, “hmmm, maybe now it has become a bargain I can afford.” Once I moved in, I learned to be highly suspicious of bargains. The smell of dog didn’t leave with the dog. Removed furniture revealed doggy (and potentially kitty) urine stains. The house was filthy, and all of this was before I discovered the fleas; or should I say, before the fleas discovered me.

I know now that when people and pets live in a house with fleas, the people may not be fully aware of the extent of the problem because the fleas prefer the pets. But, when you move into a house and are the only warm-blooded creature within, the fleas will make do. Dealing with a full-blown flea infestation is a trauma-inducing experience that I would only wish on serial killers, terrorists, and rats. And, if you ever find yourself in this hell I somehow survived, just call Flea Busters, and save yourself a lot of therapy.

However, despite the filthy, stinky, buggy start, over time, I reclaimed my house, and I turned it into my home. The carpets were ditched, the fleas finally poisoned, the walls painted, the lovely old-growth-fir flooring uncovered and refinished, the cabinets painted, and the bathroom tile re-grouted. From floor to ceiling, little improvements slowly made my little house cute, clean, and cozy. And, once Brian moved in, the real improvements started: new lights, new switches, new faucets, new thermostat, new master bathroom, and more. So, five plus years later, I will honestly be sad to say goodbye to a home that warmly welcomed friends and family (once I evicted all the fleas).

I think the main thing that differentiates the house buying from the house selling is that the buying is all about hope and possibility and what you can do to turn a sour hovel into a sweet little home. And so much of that is in your control. It may be hard and trying, and it may take way more time, talent, and money than anticipated, but, if you’re willing to peck away at it, you can make the difference. You can take that unloved, uncared for, so-called bargain and claim it for your own by seeing the potential.

With house selling, it feels like it’s all about judgment, fear, and worry that somehow all of that hard work and effort won’t measure up to someone else’s expectations. Once you’ve put your own sweat and tears into it, it’s no longer just an investment and a place to stay; it’s a piece of you, and someone is going to let you know just how much that is worth.

I’d like to tell them, it’s priceless.

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