Sunday, April 22, 2018

House update - April 22

We are what I would describe as “agonizingly close” to receiving the occupancy certificate for the beach house. Which you get when the construction itself is finished, even if the house isn’t furnished and decorated yet. This week the team is back in town and have so far finished the railings on the outside stairs and all the trim except in the study which is going to have to wait since it’s being used as a staging area for some other projects.  The electrician has installed half of the lights and fans - and will hopefully be back tomorrow to finish that up.  The kitchen countertops are half done (which makes a world of difference).  And the tiler is just finishing up the showers.

Yet to finish: flooring and trim in the study, hanging the remaining interior doors, the other half of the countertops, installation of the interior stairs (which have been primed and painted), railings for said interior stairs, railings for two exterior decks, and I guess just finishing work from the tiler, electrician and plumber.

Just a few pictures today but next week I should hopefully get some more. And it’s looking more and more likely that I’ll be there in May for a week or so to add my own final touches and give it the final ok. Soooo excited to visit my own house! Wish there was time for me to really live in it for awhile but maybe next time I'm on home leave.  And as a bonus it looks like I might get some or all of my (immediate) family members to join for a mini-reunion.

Ate logo! (Talk to you soon!)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

15 Skills Every Cook Should Know

And now for something completely different! (No house updates today and I just can't stomach a Portuguese update!)

Instead, this post was inspired by a list I found here which I significantly disagreed with. (How to wrap a burrito? Really?) So, I made my own!

15 Skills Every Cook Should Know

1) Bake a pie from scratch
Ok, this actually is a point I have in common with the linked list. Ideally you learn this from your grandma (thanks grandma!) but if not a regular old soulless pie recipe will work just fine. The real secret is to use shortening, don't substitute butter or margarine. This is the recipe that I use, and if there's more than one pie in your cooking future I recommend investing in a pastry blender, it's cheap and much more effective than a fork.  

2) Make pizza from scratch (including the dough)
Technically also on the above list, so I guess it must be extra essential.  This is seriously not that hard. I don't know why no one does it. While you're at it be like the italians and try putting something other than pepperoni on top.

3) Poach, scramble and hard boil eggs
In short, learn to cook eggs well. They're versatile, nutritious, and work with most diets. Big brunch tip: make your poached eggs in the oven. This turned out to be the perfect tip for the brunch I did in Rome - 12 servings of eggs benedict without hardly lifting a finger...

4) Clean and prepare seafood
I’m still very much working on this one myself. So far from my experience it’s easiest to start cooking things like shrimp or salmon fillets and work your way up.

5) Grill
The hardest part is just getting the grill lit. Seriously, it’s all downhill from there. And if you don't eat meat that's no reason not to grill - grilled vegetables are always great and grilled peaches are one of my favorite summer dishes. 

6) Use a broiler, crock pot, mixer, food mill, etc.
An expert knows the tools of the trade so don't be afraid of those unused items lurking in the corners of your kitchen (or oven!) some, like the crock pot, are lifesavers that you will end up using again and again. And some will just make for interesting stories. 

7) Can vegetables and fruits
This skill is particularly important for those of us who travel a lot and end up in places where produce is extremely seasonal.  Or for anyone lucky enough to have a big, productive garden.  

8) Mix a few standard cocktails
As a person who doesn't drink much beyond an occasional glass of wine this one is hard for me to get good at, but I practice on my dad. 

9) Cook a full Thanksgiving meal
Obviously non-Americans will have a different traditional meal, but the big point is to be able to make the main dishes from scratch, and ideally with enough confidence to put your own spin on them. Cranberry sauce, for example is actually incredibly easy and once you've made it from real cranberries you won't be tempted by the canned stuff any more.  

10) Modify a recipe to make it healthier
The importance of this skill became apparent to me when I read a recipe a few years back for some sort of cheesy chicken casserole - that was basically 800 calories a serving. Not only were the online commenters raving about how much their kids loved it but they were sharing ways to “improve”it by adding crumbled ritz crackers, extra cheese, and butter on top. And we wonder where the obesity epidemic came from? I made the same recipe doubling the veggies, halving the meat, and cutting out 2/3 of the cheese. It still wasn’t a kale salad by any stretch, but it at least resembled something I’d be willing to feed to another human being. This is not hard! With a little practice you can gauge what can be cut or substituted without sacrificing flavor or messing with the chemistry of the dish.

11) Prepare vegetables efficiently.
There are all kinds of handy tricks out there for peeling garlic, washing leeks, chopping herbs, and holding the tears when you cut onions. Learn a few and you’ll be much less likely to avoid cooking with vegetables in the future.

12) Cook rice
This may sound stupid, but it’s actually an art form. Most of the reasonably good cooks I know have struggled with this at one point or another.  And many have just given in and bought a rice cooker.  

13) Learn to make your favorites from scratch.
Not every food needs to be 100% homemade in my opinion - especially if you’ve got a busy life already. But being able to make pancakes, chocolate pudding, tomato soup or whatever specialty item you crave comes in very handy when you don’t have a store-bought version available.  For those of us in the foreign service it’s especially important as you never know which “staple” will be totally unavailable for the next couple of years.  Next on my list for this very reason? Rye bread and bagels.

14) Feed someone with dietary restrictions (at least for one meal)
Whether it’s an allergy, religious prohibition, diet or moral qualm, your repertoire should be large and varied enough to find a suitable alternative. Cooking international dishes can help as it opens up new  ingredients and cooking methods.

And speaking of...

15) Cook dishes that are outside your comfort zone
Maybe it’s more of an attitude than a skill,  but being able to spot a new food at the grocery store and put it to use instills confidence and might just be the route to discovering a new favorite dish. And as mentioned, international recipes are a great way to start as they can often be healthier than traditional American dishes and incorporate new and interesting flavors. New fruits and veggies are another avenue that quite a few Americans could explore.  When I was growing up we didn't eat so much variety simply because it wasn't available in our area.  Now that this variety is available it takes a conscious effort to seek out new options and give them a moment to shine. 

Obviously these will vary a bit based on your level.  When I was back in college my "essential 15" would have included things like 'make vegetables that aren't in a can' and 'boil pasta'.  In a few years maybe my list will be all souffles and lobster tails. 

Either way, I'm 100% sure I've missed something here so let me know what would be on your top 15!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Peak Bloom!

Finally, a day that was nice enough to get outside and enjoy - and to my great surprise it fell right at peak bloom for the Cherry Blossoms. I had really almost given up on this year (with no small amount of disgust) since winter keeps creeping back and the forecast had even called for snow today. Yuck. Luckily the windy weather didn’t whip away the blossoms and while it was crowded, I’ve come to expect and appreciate the crowds if only because it’s nice to see my fellow Americans outside enjoying something beautiful and soaking in the fresh air.

I grabbed a few pictures (not all from the tidal basin) for posterity.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Update March 31

Another week of big progress in Florida (and dubious Portuguese progress here in DC).  It’s been really exciting to see the photos roll in.  Since my last update the team has:

  • Finished most of the porch railings

  • Tiled the bathrooms - very excited about that!

(Ignore the two missing tiles - they're being replaced. )

  • Stained the stair treads and painted the risers

  • And extended the flooring into the kitchen, dining room and living room. There’s now just one more room to go and flooring will be finished. Hallelujah!

There has also been a lot of progress on all the trim which still needs to be finished up. In short, it’s getting really close.  The team had to wrap things up for this trip but they’re headed back in a few weeks and in the meantime we’re expecting the electrician to come and install all the light fixtures and do the final electrical setup, the tiling guy will finish all bathroom tile, and the plumber should hopefully come and install/hookup all the bathroom and kitchen fixtures.  Oh and the countertops will be installed.  Once the team gets back they’ll be finishing railings, interior doors, interior trim, adding a ladder to the bunkroom, installing the risers and treads on the stairs, and installing the last room’s flooring. Then I think it will be time for the big shopping spree to fit the house out with beds and couches and dishes and it will finally (hopefully) be done, done, done! I’m tentatively planning a trip myself in the next few months. Cross your fingers for me that it will work out!  The whole building process has been an adventure and it's gratifying to see it come together but it will be nice to have the spending part over and done with.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Update March 25

First things first - I just realized that I completely forgot to mention the fact that my nephew was born two weeks ago. Welcome to the world little William!  I think his folks are following a no social media policy for both kids, so you’ll have to use your imagination, but he’s super cute and seeing his big sister so excited to have him around has been really sweet as well. I can’t wait until they can all make it up to the States. And even before that, once I’m down in São Paulo I’ll have a chance to visit the whole South American clan in person.

Meanwhile, back in DC, I have something like one month to go with Portuguese. We’ve pretty much got all the grammar now (finally) and it’s just a matter of actually using it speeds that wouldn’t put a native speaker to sleep. The city itself is sloooowly warming up after an actual blizzard this Wednesday.  Yesterday (a very exciting day to be out on the town) the weather was actually quite beautiful. Maybe there’s hope for spring after all.

And in Florida the construction team is working miracles, with several major tasks getting wrapped up this week.  They built the bunk beds for the bunk room - I’m already having fun imagining my niece and nephew staying there - installed the flooring in the entire upper level, painted the railings, doors and trim and started installing them, and finished the decks and outside stair treads. The big items left are the counter installation in the kitchen and pretty much everything in the bathrooms. There was a significant delay in the delivery of our tile, which didn't help things, and unfortunately our tiler hasn't been able to spend as much time at the house as we'd like, but at least he's there now, making slow and steady progress.  Once he's done we can move in all the bathroom fixtures and the plumber can connect it all. I’m also anxious to get the electricity and water turned on so my team can be a bit more comfortable there during the day. At least they’ve moved in a lot of the furniture, for napping and other purposes. ;)

Master bedroom

The hallway upstairs showing MB (left) and guest room (right)

Moving in the appliances

Vent hood is up - and you can make out the dishwasher tucked in near the window

Doors! And trim! It looks sooooo ready.

Bunk room, into the upstairs hall

The bunks! Just need a ladder. And some actual beds. ;)

Exterior stairs

Porch railings, ready to go in and prevent falls off the porches (yay!)

And of course, back in DC... It's so hard to believe this was less than a week ago.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

House Update March 18

We're midway through March and there's a team down at the beach house, pushing hard to get it over the last few hurdles toward completion.  It's agonizingly close now and I so wish I could be there.  (Due to the rules of the PCS lodging program the whole per diem thing would get really complicated if I took leave though, and without a three day weekend any time soon the flight time wouldn't justify a two-day trip. Sigh.)

So far this week, the intrepid team has put together the entire Ikea kitchen (except the two cabinets that need to be swapped out due to a combination of the Ikea software awfulness and user error on my part).  The appliances have all been ordered and almost all either picked up in person or delivered already.  They finished the last of the painting, which I think looks fantastic - well done team!  And, one of my favorite parts so far, the flooring, is going in pretty much as I type.  They did manage to pass along the below photo where you can see the first few feet of flooring in place.  I think it looks great, which is a relief since none of us really had a great sense what it would look like in person. 

There've been two big themes to the construction - both this week specifically, and just in general.  First, things not quite working out as intended.  For example, the Ikea placeholder microwave I planned the cabinets around turned out to be a "mini" microwave, so we had to scramble to find another that would fit in its place and still hold a reasonable amount of food.  And the range which I was so excited to find turned out to have the tallest backpanel ever. You can see it sticking up above the back of the island in the first picture below.  Sigh.  I'd swap it out but it was a great deal and absolutely the only induction range we could find in our price range (we can't use gas since the neighborhood isn't set up for it, and both glass top and coil top ranges got the veto from everyone we spoke to).  We'll need to eventually raise the back wall by maybe 6 inches to cover the back of the range. In the meantime we might just add a back panel. 

Second, everything has required more time and money than intended.  I forget when our original plan to finish the house was - by December maybe?  But needless to say, it's not quite there yet and there are still quite a few small steps to go.  This has been a bit frustrating and even though we tried to factor in plenty of fudge time in the end the process has eaten into that time budget and then some.  And speaking of budgets.... I should really do a whole separate post on dealing with cost overruns.  Even with a contractor that I would trust with my life (hi Dad!) I'm glad that I had set aside a bunch of money 'just in case'.  I was halfway thinking we'd need a cushion for the construction - and halfway planning to spend it to furnish the house.  Let's just say the cushion is getting a bit thin. I'm just hoping we can find some serious areas for savings in the rush to the finish line.  Otherwise it's going to be furnished with whatever we can find out by the curb!

Still to come if you're keeping track: finishing the flooring, tiling in the bathrooms, installation of all the rest of the bathroom fixtures and finishes (which have to come after the tiling), interior trim carpentry (notice the unfinished look of the door and window frames in the photos below), countertop installation, railings and screens on all four porches, some electrical finishing, hooking up the appliances, probably lots of things that I'm forgetting, and then of course a huge rush of purchasing and delivering all the things that will take it from being an empty shell to a house - couches, beds, lamps, art, rugs... my pocketbook is getting nervous just thinking about it. 

Here are a couple pictures to enjoy - faces blocked for privacy of course.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

It’s almost that time of year again...

No, not daylight savings. I’m talking about the Cherry Blossom Festival!

This just happens to be one of my favorite times of the year in DC. I love that the district’s signature celebration has nothing to do with politics and “winning” and everything to do with enjoying the natural beauty of the season.  It doesn’t hurt that the party comes with lots of fun Japanese cultural events and delicious Japanese food (the Cherry Blossom trees around the Tidal Basin were a gift to the U.S. from Japan).  And I’m looking forward to eating all the cherry-themed desserts too.

The only disappointment is that I was hoping to run in the Cherry Blossom 5k but I missed the lottery again this year. Maybe next time!

Supposedly peak bloom happens in the next couple of weeks so I hereby solemnly swear to trek out to the tidal basin and check it out for you. Even if the weather is still too chilly for my taste (by which I mean less than 70 degrees).

Até logo!