Monday, December 11, 2017

Tamale rehearsal and a new house project

I realized that despite the insanity of Christmas, December would be unbearable without it. Imagine how unspeakably dreary it would be, with all this darkness and no frantic busyness or holiday lights to mitigate it. You could argue that it only delays the dreariness until January, but by then, the light is perceptibly creeping back.

Anyway, I made a strong start with my Christmas shopping, validated by my shocking credit card balance. Also, I'm sick to death of the traditional Christmas dinner of roast meat and sides. This year, I'm making tamales for Christmas dinner. I have never made them before, but I made a practice attempt last weekend. It was a disaster, but I think I learned enough from the dry run to achieve decent tamales for Christmas. And anyway, the disaster tamales were delicious. They just looked terrible. Tip: if the recipe calls for stone ground masa, don't substitute instant. (In my defense, instant was the only form available in our local stores.) I'm going to invest in a tamale steamer. They cost $18 at our local Mexican market, and it will double as a canning pot. The dry run involved a Bon Appetit magazine hack that had you prop the tamales on a giant wad of tin foil, which worked, but is too precarious for an undertaking as important as Christmas dinner.

In other news, I've started a new house project. I'm going to take the weedy mess pictured below and turn it into a brick path. This is the side of our house. It's really supposed to be a dirt path to the back yard, bordered on either side by flowers, but it is an endless task to keep the path weeded. Also, we have a huge pile of leftover bricks from when we built the front patio. I haven't made much progress, what with rain and cold weather and a broken wheelbarrow. I hope I'll be able to amuse you with my foray into DIY masonry and ditch digging.

It's back-breaking work. The soil itself is dense, red clay. If I had a kiln, I could just make my own bricks. Not even being facetious. So stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

O. Douglas

I had the good fortune to obtain and read several books by the Scottish author O. Douglas, so I thought I'd do a little profile of her novels. She writes in the vein of the great female British writers of comfort lit. Douglas' novels are less farcical than, say Angela Thirkell's, have less substance than Barbara Pym, and are not as edgy as Margery Sharp's, but are enjoyable in their own right.

O. Douglas is the pen name of Scottish writer Anna Buchan (1877 - 1948). Her brother was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and also governor of Canada.  (I had no idea.) I recently read four of her novels and each one was delightful. One thing common to all her novels is attention to the houses of her characters and how they are decorated. And they all have such lovely houses. She must have had an interest in interior design.

This is the edition I bought on Amazon. The original dust jacket pictured below.

First up, Olivia in India, which is a very short novel about an young English woman spending the cold season in India, which was apparently a thing that wealthy young ladies did in the early 20th century. It's written as letters home to Olivia's fiance in England and is a lighthearted and funny account of a pleasant time in India. There's hardly any conflict to speak of, other than everyday annoyances, a welcome respite from real life problems.

My copy didn't have its dust jacket, but here's a picture of it.

Pink Sugar is about Kirsty Gilmour, a young woman who has been living under the thumb of a querulous stepmother. When the stepmother dies, Kirsty is finally free to do what she wants, which is to move to Scotland and rent a beautiful house in the country where she impulsively decides to shelter a family of young children whose mother has just died. Kirsty is lovely and rich and perennially cheerful, and so incurs resentment from some of the people in her new town. It's that edge, the resentment, the difficult lives of Kirsty's new neighbors that keep Pink Sugar from being a Pollyanna. It's a light, entertaining, comfortable read. 

The Proper Place is about the aristocratic Rutherford family - Lady Jane, her daughter Nicole and niece Barbara who find themselves in financial difficulties after the death of Lady Jane's husband and must sell the family estate and move to a small fishing village in Scotland. The Rutherford estate is purchased by a Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, a mere Glasgow merchant and his wife, who feel it's time they were in possession of a country house. Here's where snobbery could take over, but it doesn't. Angela Thirkell would have mocked the Jacksons, but O. Douglas portrays them as likable and sensible (though Mrs. Jackson has regrettable taste in furnishings and paint colors). Meanwhile, Lady Jane, Nicole, and Barbara become involved with the people of their new community. Like Pink Sugar, The Proper Place has just enough seriousness to save it from being a Pollyanna, indeed, there's a heartbreaking occurrence at the end.

The Day of Small Things is a sequel to The Proper Place. I was glad to get my hands on it, because after the sad ending of The Proper Place, I wanted to know what happened next. The story continues in the same vein, with the doings of the Jacksons and the Rutherfords, although their circumstances have changed somewhat and Barbara turns out to be not very likable - a fact freely admitted by the narrator and the book's characters. 

Also, back in 2014, I read The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas and you can read my review here. I didn't enjoy it as much as these others. There are still quite a few O. Douglas books that I haven't read yet, and I'm going to continue to seek them out. Have any of you read any O. Douglas? If you did, let me know your thoughts.

One note, O. Douglas' books aren't easy to find in the US. None were at my local library and I had to buy them from Amazon UK, which has very reasonable prices and shipping rates. (Actually, Olivia in India came from a seller in the US, but it's one of those dreadful editions that's like a xerox of the original. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving Menu

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving. Brigid flew in from New Orleans, Seamus and Grace came home from Richmond, and Ian was here for dinner, although he had to work earlier in the day. We had no other guests and I was happy to have a quiet family Thanksgiving although Jon and I went to a tiny drinks party in the afternoon while Seamus babysat the turkey.

I'm really happy with how the food turned out. Last year, I was so giddy with having the whole day off on the day before Thanksgiving that I went overboard with a spatchcocked turkey. This year, I still had the day off, but I went with a traditional brined turkey instead. Less effort, but delicious results. I also used a new-to-me turkey roasting technique that I'm going to use from now on. Previously, I would pop the turkey into a very hot oven for a short time to sear it all over and then roast at a low temp until done. This new technique is the reverse: cover tightly with foil and roast at a low temperature first, then remove the foil and roast at a higher (but not super high) temp until done. The result was a perfectly browned turkey, very juicy and delicious from the brine, with hints of orange and rosemary flavors.

I made Wegman's Cajun cornbread stuffing and the flavors were delicious, but it was way too wet. I'd make this again, but with half the liquid. Also on the side, Wegman's recipe sweet-potato gratin with gruyere cheese, which was very good but I think I prefer the New York Times' scalloped yams with chipotle cream. The Wegman's recipe however, has a much less fussy technique. Next year, I think I'll use the New York Times' recipe but with Wegman's technique.  We also had homemade potato/buttermilk rolls and Wegman's recipe roasted Brussels sprouts with carrot puree and pecans. This was hands-down the best green veg side I've ever made. The thing with Wegman's recipes though is that they call for Wegman's products, such as the carrot puree, but most of these are things you could make yourself or find elsewhere, if you don't have a Wegman's. Like a dummy, I didn't photograph anything. Or rather, I posted photos to Instagram stories and didn't save them, so they're gone now. You will have to take my word for it that the turkey was beautifully browned. We ended up with three desserts, but Grace's boyfriend and his brother came over after dinner and helped us eat them.

Here's the full menu with links to recipes, if available

Turkey Brine from The Pioneer Woman

Roasted using The Pioneer Woman's method

Cranberry Chutney - Mel's Kitchen Cafe

Cornbread & Andouille Stuffing - Wegmans

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrot Puree - Wegmans

Yam Gratin with Gruyere - Wegmans

Buttermilk - Potato Rolls - Mels Kitchen Cafe

Pumpkin Pie - old family recipe

One Bowl Chocolate Almond Cake (for gluten-free daughter) from the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook

After School Applesauce Cake, which is more of a weekday cake but Seamus made it because it's his favorite. It does have a superb butterscotch frosting. Recipe from the Applehood and Mother Pie - Junior League of Rochester, NY cookbook

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fun Times in Boston

Jon and I went to Boston last week for the Schwartz Center Compassionate Care Awards Dinner. Jon was one of six finalists for this award. The final winner was Dr. Rana Awdish, a physician in Detroit. It's a huge honor to be a finalist and the dinner was an impressive affair. The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker was there! Jon's mother and three of his brothers came from Buffalo, Pittsburg, South Carolina, and New Hampshire to attend the dinner with us, and Jon's niece who lives in Boston came as well, and also the associate dean of the UVA school of nursing, who came to represent UVA, but who is also a friend. Not only that, my friend Norah, an old classmate from high school and college works in healthcare in Boston and attends the dinner every year. We haven't seen each other in years, so it was great to hang out with her and her colleagues. Altogether a fabulous evening!

But Wednesday night and most of the day Thursday I had to myself because Jon was busy with Schwartz Center activities. Wednesday night, I had dinner with Swati - she and her sister Chitra are my first friends.  We moved to Boston when I was three and my mother almost immediately made friends with one of the other mothers at our library story hour. This other mother had recently moved to the US from India and she and my mom, both new to Boston became very good friends and also became friends with a mom who'd moved here from Germany. So our three families, all transplants, became close and even spent holidays together. My family moved away when I was five, but we continued to keep in touch and visit back and forth. It's funny how after an absence of over twenty years you can still pick up with an old friend as if you'd only seen each other yesterday.

The T red line from South Boston to downtown

Thursday, after getting my hair styled at a blow out bar near our hotel (we stayed in the Seaport area in South Boston) I took the T downtown. First I visited the New England Holocaust Memorial.

Each of the glass towers represents one of the concentration camps. The assigned number of each prisoner is etched into the glass of each tower.

I wandered around the North End, sort of following the Freedom Trail, but I lost it after passing through a construction zone. I ended up at Paul Revere's house, which I toured . The house was built in 1680, and 17th century houses are quite different from the 18th century houses that we usually associate with the colonial era. It is forbidden to take pictures inside, but the house is dark and cozy with stupendous fireplaces and impressive wood paneling and beams. The first floor is furnished with authentic 17th century furniture and upstairs are 18th century pieces that belonged to Revere himself.  I was the only visitor, so maybe that helped, but it was easy to imagine what life might have been like in that house in the 17th and 18th centuries. There's also an adjacent visitors' center with more exhibits, including silver made by Revere, and a gift shop, where I couldn't resist buying their cross stitch patterns. For the modest $5 entrance fee, it's well worth it to visit.

Paul Revere House

The manganese used in glass making would discolor over time, leading to these colored glass panes. People at the time considered it to be a defect. Below are some random North End pics.

I love the old-fashioned letter box. Still in use!

In Copp's Hill Burying Ground

I want to buy this house and turn it into my Fortress of Solitude

It had begun to rain, so, sheltering my hairdo under a hood, I made my way to the Boston Public Market, a large indoor market with everything from groceries to prepared foods and coffee to gifts and handicrafts. Everything sold there must be local. I love, love, love markets and this one reminded me of the English Market in Cork, Ireland. I settled down with a chai latte and then returned to the T and rode back to the hotel, rested for a bit and then headed over to the dinner at the nearby Boston Convention Center. We had a great time, but I made an early night of it since I had a 5:50 am flight home the next morning. (It's totally worth it to get up insanely early and be one of the first flights out. I had no delays and was in Cville by 9:30 am. Jon, on the other hand, had a later flight and could sleep in, but got delayed and wasn't home until nearly 11:00 pm.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Soft Reveal of the Porch

The porch is finished, more or less. There are a few decorating things to settle, but the major components of this project are complete.

First of all, here's how it looked when I started.

I put the basket chair at the curb and the new neighbor next door asked if she could have it.
I'm glad it gets to stay in the neighborhood.

And here's how it looks, as of yesterday:

The tree is intended to be a holiday decoration.
I'll decorate it and dress up the pot later.

Endless potential for seasonal tablescapes. I just threw this together very quickly for the photo.

I bought the green iron star on Etsy.

Now I need to do something about the cafe table and chairs. I bought them second hand ages ago and I don't really want to get rid of them. They're in good shape, just filthy and the chairs still come in handy. I know I said no seating on the porch, but once these are painted, they might look OK on the far end. Maybe we could sit out here for dinner sometimes. 

I'll need to spray paint them but I have no idea what color.

In case you forgot, here's how the dresser looked before (below). Now, the drawers hold small garden tools and other outdoor things.

Also, I'd like to design some kind of attractive outdoor shoe storage solution - mainly for snowy winter boots. I have an old wood crate that might serve. I'd just need to clean and paint it. If I use the leftover primer and white contrast paint, the cost will be $0.

Budget: I didn't track expenses very carefully, but this was not an expensive project. Here's what I had to buy, with cost, if I can remember. The single most expensive item was the black paint for the porch floor. I did spend quite a lot of time, mostly scrubbing the floor, but I really had a lot of fun doing this project. It was so satisfying to turn my embarrassing disaster of a porch into something presentable.

Masonry Patch
All Purpose Latex Primer
Roller Pads
1 Gallon Latex Masonry Paint (Sherwin-Williams Inkwell) ~$50
1 Sample Quart Latex for contrast stripe (Sherwin-Williams Snowbound)
1 Gallon Water-Based Urethane Masonry Sealer ~$30
Set of 8 Drawer Pulls $42 (Wayfair Hickory Drawer Pulls, which I think are close to what was on the dresser originally.)
Cast Iron "Earthquake Star" $23, from Eagle-Eye Finds Etsy Shop.
Wegman's "value" flower bouquet $4.00 (The vase is an old sap bucket that I had on hand.)
Wegman's pie pumpkin and squash - which we will eat
Wegman's mini tree $24
Still need - spray paint for the cafe table and chairs.

I used leftover primer from the floor for the dresser and paint that I already had on hand, Sherwin-Williams Copen Blue. Would I have used this color if I'd set out to buy new paint for the dresser? Probably not, but I'm satisfied and I can always paint it a different color in the future.

*Those are not affiliate links, BTW. I have not monetized this blog. It's really just a hobby.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Furnishing the porch

Except for one last coat of sealer, my porch floor is finished! The application of sealer isn't interesting enough to photograph and document, but I'll say it's an essential step. I considered not applying it, but in the short space of time between the final paint application to the day I added the first coat of sealer, a bit of the white stripe became stained from something rusty that dripped on it. (I don't even know what, there's nothing rusty looking above that spot.) It's in a corner where it's not very noticeable. Anyway, with two dogs and the general bustle that happens at the main entrance to any house, protecting this paint was a must. I used a water-based urethane product that's intended for painted masonry. I ordered it from Amazon because the paint store didn't have a product I liked and I'm not willing to drive all the way to the local Lowe's.

I had an epiphany about the porch furniture - that we really have no need for seating here. If the weather is nice, we sit on the brick patio. If it's raining, this porch isn't deep enough to provide perfect protection from getting wet. And we don't need the shade because the brick patio is already shaded by the trees and the house itself. Anyway, to me, a row of rocking chairs on a porch says "halfway house."

What we do need is a way to contain the clutter. We don't have a garage or a shed, so our porch is a natural dumping ground for gardening tools and other necessary but unsightly objects. We have an antique dresser, a hand-me-down from my sister-in-law who inherited a lot of furniture from her great aunt. We used it for years, but then relegated it to the basement because the drawers stuck so badly. So I put on my cricket-stomping boots and braved the basement to see if it hadn't crumbled to dust and to make sure no animals were living in the drawers.

The dresser was animal-free, although there was a cleverly constructed (abandoned) mouse nest in one drawer. It was quite an undertaking to get it out of the basement, since oak is heavy and Jon is on crutches.

Now I'm trying to decide what color to paint it. I'm hoping that one of the two leftover blue sample quarts I have will do. The lighter color on the left (above) is Copen Blue by Sherwin Williams. I rejected it as a color for my front hall, but I used it for shelf backing and for a cupboard in my kitchen. The darker blue is Raindrop, also by Sherwin Williams. If neither one works out, I can default to the "Snowbound" color I used for the stripe around the floor.

It will probably be a couple more weeks until I have a final reveal post. I have a few minor details to work out. The drawer pulls need to be replaced. They are extremely ugly and are stamped 1976, so I don't feel guilty about throwing them out. I really don't think the dresser itself was built in 1976. The weight of it, the tiny castors on the legs, the locks on the drawers, the curved front all strongly suggest it's from the early 1900s. Not that it's something valuable. It was probably made in a factory for middle class buyers, but it's definitely old. I also need to accessorize a bit more and I'm hoping to design something attractive for outdoor shoe storage.

The ugly 1970s drawer pulls

Monday, October 30, 2017

Porch Project Update #3

First, a reminder of what the porch looked like before I started.

The entire time I spent preparing and priming the porch, I was mentally dithering about what color to paint it. (Or if I should paint it at all. I considered an acid stain.) The floor was red when we bought the house, and back then, the house was tan with a red roof, and no bricks in the front yard. Now, with the yellow house, green roof, bricked-over front yard and cobalt planters, red seemed wrong. I also wanted to do some kind of painted decoration - a stencil or faux rug or something of that sort. It has been my lifelong dream to paint a diamond checkerboard on a floor, and for weeks, I was committed to a diamond checkerboard porch. But that left me with the added difficulty of choosing two colors. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the front of my house is busy enough without adding a checkerboard porch. My final decision on color was black - but not a true black, more of a deep blue-black charcoal. I selected Inkwell by Sherwin Williams which looks quite blue in the can, but dries to black.

After all the work that went into the prep, painting the floor was a breeze.

Very very very very very dark blue.

To add a little interest, I decided to paint a single contrast stripe around the perimeter. Taping off the stripe was pretty difficult. I couldn't manage the chalk line, so then I just hand-measured (and eyeballed in a few spots) a one-inch stripe around the perimeter of the porch. I realized in hindsight that it would have been so much easier if I'd painted a wide swath of the contrast color first, then put down a single strip of tape and painted the black over it. 

The inside corners were particularly difficult.

I was so excited to pull the tape off! I'm pretty pleased with the result. The tape pulled away bits of the black paint, but I retouched it. I know the line isn't perfect, but it's good enough for me. The wider margin on the side closest to the bricks was done on purpose, to clear the posts, but I didn't want that wide of a margin all the way around.

This project isn't finished yet. Now I'm figuring out how to furnish and style it. I intend to use furniture that I already own. Also still need to protect this paint with some sealer.

Also, for those wondering, Jon is recovering. No new health emergencies and he has been able to return to work. Mobility is still a challenge, but he's getting around better than he was at first.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Zen of Power Washing

Progress on the porch continues! After the initial scrubbing, I got the idea to borrow my neighbor's power washer and clean the brick patio and also hopefully blast the dried linseed oil off the porch. Why has no one informed me how much fun it is to power wash? I spent one glorious sunny Saturday blasting all the old moss and dirt off my bricks.  Much of that time, my brain played a soundtrack of an imaginary pharmaceutical commercial for power washing as a remedy for anxiety.  "Call your doctor if you think power washing may be right for you. Side effects include wetness, hand cramps, and destroying entire small ecosystems. May be habit forming."

A post shared by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on



The house faces north, so moss thrives in the front, and everything was exceptionally filthy because of how the city dug up our street every single day for three months.

At last, I could apply primer. We have a back door, but it's inconvenient, and also impossible for someone on crutches, so I had to paint in stages, so we could get in and out of the house.

A reminder of what we started out with.