Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: English Passengers

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is the book I always mention when someone asks me for a recommendation.  It's a many-layered story that manages to be hilarious and tragic at the same time.

It's 1857 and Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is convinced that the original site of the Garden of Eden was Tasmania.  He organizes a pilgrimage and charters a ship, which the good reverend is unaware is run by a group of smugglers from the Isle of Man.  The first part of the novel is told from the point of view of the ship's captain, Illiam Quillian Kewley, and taught me everything I know about Manx culture, which is admittedly still very little.

Reverend Wilson gathers a group of people to travel with him to Tasmania, one of whom has unorthodox opinions about race, viewing people of Saxon descent as superior to all others.  He looks down on Normans and despises the Celts, and his views become less and less enlightened, the further south a group originates from and the browner their skin.  Also in the group is an unpromising youth, who's forced to join by his father as a way of curing him of being flippant and drinking too much.  The journey gets underway, with a detour off the coast of England to steal someone's silver. Later, there's a wine smuggling caper in Capetown.

This is all very funny, but then the perspective shifts to Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine in the 1830s, as well as prisoners in the Tasmanian penal colony and the governors of the colony. Tasmanian Aborigines were hunted like animals, raped and abused, and eventually herded into a supervised colony where every single one of them died.  Peevay's story moves forward in history, while the expedition approaches Tasmania, for their inevitable collision.  It's been years since I read this and I don't remember exactly what happens, but I do know that there's a dramatic conclusion and that the unpromising, dissipated youth, turns out to be the hero, while the racist Saxon enthusiast is one of a host of villains. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Civet de Mouton

I wanted to make something nice with the lamb stew meat that I bought at the farmer's market and found a recipe for Civet de Mouton in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  "Mouton" translates to sheep or mutton.  (And now we know why mutton is called mutton.) The only people I've ever known to eat mutton are characters in Victorian British novels, and they don't seem particularly enthusiastic about it, but lamb is very nice and seems like a luxury meat to me.  

Civet de mouton is really just boeuf bourguignon, only with lamb instead of beef and a slightly shorter cooking time.   You will want to prepare this on a day when you have plenty of free time, because it takes hours, but is well worth the effort.

You start with some thick hunks of bacon, which you must boil and then drain and pat dry. I'm not sure why Julia Child wants you to boil the bacon, and this isn't the first recipe of hers which calls for this.  Once boiled, the bacon is browned in an enameled casserole.

Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside.  Turn the oven on to 450, turn the heat under the casserole to high and brown the lamb in small batches. Our lamb was very fatty--so fatty that the farmer gave me an extra package for free.

Set the lamb aside with the bacon after it's browned and cook a sliced onion and a sliced carrot in the same fat.  Return the meat to the casserole, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with flour.  Bake in your hot oven for about eight minutes, until the flour has formed a crust around each piece of lamb.

Reduce oven temperature to 325, add lots of red wine and some beef broth and bake, covered, for about three hours.  Here's how it looks when it comes out of the oven.

Strain the meat/veg from the sauce and let the sauce sit for a bit so you can skim the fat off the top.  (Julia makes you wash the casserole at this point.) Brown some mushrooms in butter and braise some pearl onions in more beef broth, add to the stew, reheat the sauce, mix it all together.  We served ours over egg noodles.  Delicious!  And probably the last stew we will eat until next autumn.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Blogger friends weekend

Here's how it looked on pinterest:

Here's my attempt.

Ian helped me to string a wire diagonally across the new patio.  I was a little nervous about this, as the wire is practically invisible and I would prefer not to garrote anyone on my property.  Still, we hung it as high as we could, and it is well above Ian's head, and at 6'2" he's the tallest person around.

Homemade mason jar lanterns were just not happening.  The example I photographed above looks far better than our original attempts, which I failed to capture for the camera.  I could show you some pictures of tortured wire, but why would you want to see that? We found ready-made glass lanterns, loaded them with candles, strung them on the wire (and from a nearby tree) and the effect is magical, though I say so myself and obviously this shitty photo does not do it justice.

This was a very exciting weekend because Melissa came to town to visit Jen and we all got together at Becky's house for drinks and delicacies, including bacon jam on freshly baked bread and fancy chocolate from Gearharts. I just finished reading Melissa's novel, Whipped, Not Beaten, which is a fun and surprisingly sexy story about one woman's experience with the home party business. It was great to meet Melissa and lots of fun to hang out with the other ladies. I like how we're all a part of a larger blogging community and I hope we can get together again someday, maybe with some of our other blogging friends.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Dorothy Sayers

Times like these call for books that take you utterly away from our grim world.  Dorothy Sayers' books are just the thing. Are you familiar with Sayers?  If yes, good for you.  If no, what are you waiting for?  Sayers was a master of the mystery genre and Lord Peter Wimsey is her mystery-solver.  He also ranks on my list of sexiest literary characters.

The Nine Tailors is the first Sayers mystery I read.  It was our first, unbearably hot, summer in Virginia, when my mantra was "Virginia is a synonym for Hell on Earth."  I literally used to say that to myself every evening as I dragged myself to the trash cans behind the garage with the day's offering of uneaten soggy cereal and melon rinds.  I was in the morning sickness stage of pregnancy (Seamus) and half dead from lassitude and loathing, but The Nine Tailors saw me through one particularly miserable weekend.

The plot:  honestly, I can't remember much about the finer points, fourteen years after reading it, but I do know I could hardly tear myself away.  It's set in the eastern part of England in the 1930's.  There's a dead body, of course, but the mystery isn't just about who killed it, but how the victim died.  It kept me guessing until the very end.

Who's a Dorothy Sayers fan?

Monday, April 15, 2013


Our load of dirt arrived late Thursday afternoon and the kids and I worked like crazy to get as much of it as possible into our new planting beds.  It seems we ordered too much, as the beds are full, but there is still a large pile of dirt in the driveway.

The remains of Mt. Crabstick

It's not rocket science to calculate the volume of a cube: length times width times depth.  I divided the total volume of all three beds (in cubic inches) by twelve and then again by three when I learned that one orders dirt by the cubic yard.  My result?  Over two thousand cubic yards, which, judging from the size of the five yards we actually ordered would probably fill my entire house.

My neighbor, James, who helped us with the shoveling consoled me by saying you can never have too much dirt, and it is certainly very nice dirt. If I were ready to go forward with the backyard kitchen garden plan, we'd be set, but I am so not ready for that.  I could put it to use in the existing beds in the back yard, which is probably what I'll end up doing, but I'm not strong enough to push the wheelbarrow when it's full, so I'll be trundling around with half wheelbarrows, which means we'll be able to park in the driveway again sometime in 2014.

Taking Suburban Correspondent's suggestion, I went to the farmer's market this weekend to buy some lettuce plants, which can occupy the front beds until I decide what to plant there permanently.

Lovely lettuce

I used to go to the Charlottesville farmer's market every Saturday without fail, but have become less enthusiastic about it in recent years.  Remember when you were in middle school and you'd walk down the hall and see the groups of cool kids who snubbed you, and you felt like a loser?  That's how I feel when I go to the farmer's market.  It's no longer simply a place to buy local food.  It's a place to be seen buying local food.

I bought eggs and eight young romaine lettuce plants and two pounds of locally raised lamb stew meat, which became a civet de mouton on Sunday.  It's unthinkable to come home from the market without a treat, so I bought some pastries from a bakery stand.  I made a point of not buying anything from the booth that's owned by a Montana-based bakery chain, over which there was an outcry last year.  Farmer's markets should be for locally-owned businesses and locally-grown foods and as far as I'm concerned, local ownership of a franchise does not count as locally-owned, especially when that franchise has a shop in town that is open on Saturdays. But I don't know, maybe other people in our community have a different opinion.

It's not against the rules for this business to be at the market.  The application does not specify that businesses participating must be local, only that the food is produced locally on property owned or leased by the seller.  I guess I was too quick to assume that the owners would be gracious and bow out this year since they can sell all the bread that they want in their store, six days a week and the other vendors at the market don't necessarily have permanent retail space.

Two questions:
1. What would you do if you had a pile of very nice dirt + compost. (I'm thinking I should go ahead with a raised bed or two after all.)
2. Would you be pissed if there was a business franchise at your local farmer's market?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Exterior upgrade of doom.

I am pleased to announce that the front yard of neglect and ill-repute is no more.  When we bought our house, the previous owners had compartmentalized the entire front yard into a series of garden plots and raised beds.  It was creative and beautiful, and I loved the departure from the traditional boring lawn, but with a north-facing house, and a large tree that blocks the afternoon sun, most of the plants were doomed.

Here are some "before" shots of the front yard.  Clearly, something had to be done; something that did not involve me becoming a master gardner.

Jon put his "good" motorcycle on the porch to protect it from Hurricane Sandy.  It was a huge project to get it off again.

While we were conveniently away in Lisbon, excavators jackhammered the concrete walk and dug up the front yard to a depth of two feet below the level of the porch.  Remember the portal to the underworld?  It turned out to be nothing.  Our contractor thinks it was a support for a lamppost or other structure that once stood there.  We were seriously worried that it was going to turn out to be an old well.

This is how it looked the day after we got home from Lisbon.

There followed a few very muddy days, although soon our contractors built a mud-free path so we could get in and out of the house without sinking ankle deep in the wet red clay that was piled around the perimeter of the courtyard.  There were several days when it was too cold or snowy to work, and other days when the mortar had to be protected from the cold with a huge, walled tent that enclosed the entire front yard.  A kerosene furnace heated the inside of the tent--of course we didn't leave it running all night, but we'd let it run for a while before we went to bed and fire it up again first thing in the morning.


Now, it looks like this.

We preserved the flowers on the side of the yard.  There's more sun exposure, and these beds aren't nearly as dead and weed-infested as the main part of the front yard was.

The masonry is finished, but we still have a lot of work to do.  We have a tentative arrangement with painting contractors about painting the house. We need an asphalt contractor to patch up the transition between the wall and the driveway.  We need to clean and redecorate the porch, and the front door needs rehabilitation.  Jon needs to sell both of his motorcycles.  I also need to plant something in those embedded planters.  We ordered a load of dirt and compost but I still haven't decided what to plant.  There's still the issue of the shade, although the largest bed gets more sun than the two smaller ones.

We also need furniture.  I've decided that a few elegantly potted topiaries will be just the thing to define the transition from the patio to the porch.  I looked for furniture at several stores, from local consignment shops to Target to the absurdly expensive Restoration Hardware.  We bought a bench and coffee table at the Plow & Hearth outlet and there are a few pieces at Circa that I'm thinking about, although they would need restoration in order to be acceptable.  Let's just hope Jon doesn't come home from Circa with this, the next time my back is turned.

True story:  When we lived on Locust Ave, Jon came home from Circa with a chair identical to the one above--it could possibly be the same chair--and I immediately returned it, to the amusement of the Circa staff.

Most likely it will be a year or more from now before we are 100% finished with this project.  We also need to do something about the back yard, which is pretty bad.  Right now I'm considering turning the entire back yard into a kitchen garden, with raised beds and gravel paths.  Grass is overrated, and with a park across the street, there's no need for kid play space on our property. Speaking of kid play space, Seamus and his friends have discovered that the new courtyard is a sort of miniature, netless, basketball court.

Despite the long to-do list, the courtyard is now ready to use, and a very pleasant place to hang out on a sunny afternoon--much more pleasant than the old yard.  It's almost like we've added a new room to the house.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Cazalet Chronicles

I already wrote about the first two books in Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles.   Last week, I finished the third book, Confusion, and I just started the last one, Casting Off.  I'm in mourning because I have no more Cazalet books to look forward to.

To refresh your memories, this is a family saga set in the 1940s in Great Britain.  In Confusion, the focus is mostly on the teenage girls in the family, but everybody gets bits of the spotlight including the servants, the demented old great-aunt, the noble, pathetic governess, and other outsiders.  The reader becomes absorbed in their stories, partly because all the little plots are interesting and partly because you are so interested in the characters.  Right now I'm into Rachel, the youngest sister in the family.  She's generally "nice" and well-liked, but I realized that her habit of constantly putting others' needs ahead of her own has made her into a bit of a monster. Interesting how that can happen.

If you love to escape into books, but are irritated by poorly-written best sellers, The Cazalet Chronicles are the perfect choice.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Pardon my dust

I may start re-designing things around here, so don't be alarmed if Patience Crabstick looks a bit funny at times.  For about $35, you can buy a code package and paste it into your blogger template.  The resulting look is better than the canned templates that come with blogger, but there's still a certain sameness to them.

I also got a web design for dummies book from the library.  It would be fun to design my own template from scratch, and it's similar to what I already do for a living.  I dabbled in HTML during my old school blogging days so I'm sure I'd figure it out eventually, but there's a lot to learn.  Maybe I'll buy a template AND learn to design for myself.

I bought the domain name, but I keep getting an error message when I try to switch my current address over to the new one.  I'm not going to stress--at least I know that now, no one else can be  Dog in the manger, that's right.

I've considered the blogger vs wordpress thing, and I've decided to stick with blogger.  Go with what you know, and blogger is like an old friend at this point.  I created an invisible test blog, where I can practice playing with code, and then I copied the code of a blogger whose design I admire, pasted it into the CCS box of my new blog, and voila, my blog had her design.  Of course, I immediately deleted it.  I have no intention of stealing.  Ethical issues aside, it wouldn't be much fun.

I'd also like a better camera. My $89-from-Best-Buy point and shoot camera does not cut it.  I don't imagine myself to be a photographer, but when you combine my crap skills with a crap camera, the results are embarrassing.

Talk to me about blog design.  How did you decided on the look of your blog?  What do you consider to be desirable and not-so desirable features of a blog's design?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Funday

"These are really ghetto jelly beans," Grace said, scrutinizing the bag I bought at Kroger on Saturday. They were pretty appalling: slightly smashed and stuck together, and probably left over from Kroger Easter clearance, 2012, but they were the only real jelly beans in town.  By "real" jelly beans,  I mean Brach's or similar and NOT Jolly Rancher or Starburst, or those annoying mini, chemi-tasting "gourmet" beans in unnatural flavors like  bubble gum, peach, or blueberry yogurt. 

We had a brunch. The menu was a schmorgasboard of different cuisines:  Bloody Marys, Champagne, a chard/ricotta frittata (Italy) potato/Serrano ham croquettes (Spain), Moroccan orange salad,  a Swedish coffee cake, German sour cream twists and pain  au chocolat. Everything was delicious except for the Swedish coffee cake--I forgot to add the sugar to the dough, so it turned out like an almond/cardamom pie rather than a cake.  Seamus was in charge of the pain au chocolat--his first attempt at yeast rolls.  He also ably fried the coquettes.

We were contentedly sipping our cocktails after the meal, when a pipe under the kitchen sink burst, which was not optimal, as I'm sure we can all agree.  It was like that scene from season 5 of Mad Men, when the Campbells have the Drapers over for dinner and the kitchen plumbing explodes.

Turning off the water under the sink did nothing, so Jon had to cut it off at the main valve. A plumbing emergency on a holiday weekend is no joke, but our friend Jessreal of  Real's Clean & Neat Plumbing, who was out fishing, dropped everything and came to our rescue.

Today, of course, is Dyngus Day.  Last year, Anderson Cooper, doing a story on Dyngus Day in Buffalo, lost it over the word "pussywillow" and laughed uncontrollably on camera.  I would embed the video for you, but there seems to be something wrong with the code.  You will have to make do with a link.  It's funny, I promise.