A yard once again in bloom, and in new need of work

This morning, the weeping cherry tree that I planted last spring to try to keep myself occupied as the world shut down showed its first blossoms. By this evening, that little tree was well on its way to surrounding itself with a cloud of white flowers.

After years of being a cherry blossom spectator, I feel like I’m being a good local citizen by making my own tiny contribution to one of the D.C. area’s signature spring sights. What also feels good: seeing the work of a previous year come back to life. It’s one of the most satisfying things in all of gardening.

Photo of cherry blossoms, showing base of the tree and my lawn velow

My yard also features a growing collection of daffodils, with lilies making their way out of the ground to bloom again. The redbud trees and a lilac out front are rapidly budding, and the small raised bed outside the back patio has a crop of arugula seedlings planted two weeks ago that should be providing sandwich fixings in another couple of weeks.

And all the time I’ve put in over the last few springs to root out bittercress and chickweed seems to have resulted in far fewer of those pests to twist out of the ground with a weeding fork.

On the downside, an unusually damp February has left large, low-lying swaths of lawn reduced to shoe-grabbing, clay-dense dirt. I would like to think that the grass will make a springtime recovery, but realistically, I need to regrade those parts. And after so many years of low-maintenance lawn care–including 16 years and counting with the same electric lawnmower–it bothers to me think that I’ll have to pay for dirt. But if I do my job right now and them remember to reseed in the fall, next spring I won’t be looking at caked clay in those parts of the lawn. Right? Please tell me I’m right?

My recipe management remains surprisingly analog

All the kitchen time I’ve had over the last year of not going out to eat in restaurants has seriously advanced my cooking, but it has not advanced my recipe management nearly as much.

Yes, I still save recipes on paper, cutting them out of various publications and gluing them into pages in the binder I’ve tended for last 20 years or so. I also keep recipes in digital form–there’s an entire notebook in my Evernote for that–but each time I add one electronically and then cook off of that on-screen copy, I’m reminded of the advantages ink on paper retains in this use case.

Photo of an iPad open to Evernote, showing a list of recipes. Below it sits my recipe binder, showing a handwritten recipe from my mom.

Start with my primary source for new recipes, the Washington Post’s Food section. The Post’s Recipe Finder sites is fantastic, but it provides no way for me to save my favorites like the Recipe Box of the New York Times’ Food section. So each time I hit that page, I have to redo my search or hope the browser’s autocomplete takes me back to a specific recipe page.

As for NYT, my second most-frequent cooking read, it neglects its Recipe Box feature by not providing any obvious way for me to get to it in the Times’ iPad app, much less add a personal shortcut to it. I could fix that by installing the paper’s NYT Cooking app, but I resent the idea of getting a second app from one company to fix a usability problem in its first app.

So in practice, the recipes I find online that I want to keep making go into Evernote. Adding recipes on my desktop isn’t bad, since Evernote’s Web Clipper extension offers a variety of import options that go from pulling in an all of a page to just the text I select. But on the device I use far more often to look up recipes, my iPad, that clipping feature–available via the Share menu–ingests the entire page. Which on foodie blogs mean I get the multi-paragraph opening essay, the affiliate links to buy ingredients or kitchen gadgets, and the comments.

(I don’t mind all that stuff when I’m in recipe-browsing mode–I respect how my fellow indie creators work to monetize their content–but I don’t need it once I’ve got a spatula or a spoon in hand.)

Deboning one of these imported recipes requires an extra, non-obvious step in Evernote: select the clip, tap or click the banner at its top, and tap or click the magic-wand “Simplify & Make Editable” icon. Then I finally have a clean copy of a recipe that I can look up anywhere… well, whenever I’m once again in a position to cook in somebody else’s kitchen.

Finally, consulting a recipe on an iPad gets awkward the moment both of my thumbs get covered in flour, oil, butter or whatever else is going into the recipe–at which point I can no longer unlock the screen via Touch ID once the tablet automatically locks. Unfortunately, iOS doesn’t offer any sort of recipe mode, and it doesn’t appear that I can use a Siri shortcut to keep the screen unlocked for only the next hour or two.

Meanwhile, I have my three-ring binder of recipes. The workflow to add a recipe from the paper is not what I’d call elegant, but breaking out scissors to cut that out of the paper and using a glue stick to attach it to a paper at least exercises arts-and-crafts skills that have mostly gone unused since grade school. (Removing a recipe that’s been added this way is difficult to impossible, so I have a separate folder of recipes that I haven’t yet made enough times to deem them binder-worthy.) More important, this collection also includes recipes that never made it to any screen of mine: handouts from farmers’ markets and restaurant and winery events, printouts from friends, and the occasional handwritten one from my mom.

There’s no search tool in this binder, but it does support a limited sort of favorites functionality that works automatically over time and yet is incompatible with digital storage: stains from sauces and other dripped ingredients.

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.

2020 gardening report card: a very small hill of beans

This year has given me more time to garden than any other in my adult life. Now that the gardening season is officially over, courtesy of multiple below-freezing days and the season’s first snowfall, I’m once again grading myself on how well I did at growing some of my own food–and I’m left wondering how I didn’t make better use of that extra time to play with plants.

(For your reference: my 20192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Beans: A-

The pandemic arrived in the middle of both planting season and my realization that we had a lot of leftover bean seed packages lying around. So we went a little crazy–in addition to planting seeds in the usual spots in the shabbier raised bed in the side yard, my wife and I repurposed a few random pots we had laying around for bean-growing purposes. For a while, we had more beans than we could eat; although the bean plants in the raised bed didn’t make it past summer, most of the others kept growing through fall, if at a slower pace.

Arugula: B+

I can usually count on two growing seasons for this salad green, but most of the seeds I planted in September got washed out by heavy rains, and then the survivors failed to yield more than a few tiny plants. So I wound up spending more on lettuce at the farmers’ market than I’d hoped, which was somewhat frustrating.

Herbs: B

Flat-leaf parsley once again grew like crazy all spring and summer, enabling me to make multiple batches of parsley-walnut pesto, but then it failed to resume growing in the fall. Rosemary made a comeback: After last year’s rosemary died, I planted a fresh batch in a new pot, and those plants are still going strong. Mint was also its usual reliable self. But the sage plants died sometime in late summer, and basil underperformed, if not as badly as last year. I did finally get thyme to grow–indoors, in a pot in a sunny corner of the dining room.

Spinach: B-

I enjoyed modest success with this in the spring–by which I mean, some of last year’s plants hung on until then, and not all of the seeds I planted this year vanished into the dirt.

Lettuce: C+

See the above entry for spinach, but make everything 20 percent worse.

Tomatoes: C-

Unlike last year, I was able to treat myself to the sublime pleasure of a BLT sandwich made with a just-plucked-off-the-vine tomato. Well, once or twice.

Taking stock, one set of leftover bits at a time

I needed a week to cross off a big item on the post-Thanksgiving to-do list: making stock from the remaining parts of the bird. In my defense, the three of us took that long to make enough of a dent in our half turkey before it was worthwhile picking the last meat off the carcass.

Making stock from scratch isn’t hard, but it does demand some time and cleanup. (If you homebrew beer, you may recognize some similarities.) Most of the time, I simplify this procedure by only making vegetable stock, and that’s where I’d recommend you start.

As the Washington Post’s Joe Yonan wrote several years ago, that starts with rerouting vegetable scraps to the freezer instead of a compost bin. Every time you’re chopping up veggies and have some bits you don’t want to eat–like the ends of carrots and onions, the greenest parts of leeks, or the woody stems of cauliflower or broccoli–toss them in a quart bag in your freezer. Once you have a quart’s worth, simmer them with a quart and a half of water for 30 minutes, then cool, strain and use now or freeze for later.

Turkey stock is more involved, and I decided to further complicate it Thursday night by following the advice of Serious Eats and roasting the carcass first. That proved to be an excellent idea, first because it made the kitchen smell amazing and second because it turned the last bits of turkey skin deliciously crispy and crackly.

I sauteed some leftover vegetable bits from the fridge in a pot, added the re-roasted turkey parts, threw in the most recent bag of frozen vegetable scraps and poured in enough water to cover everything.

And then I let the pot simmer for the next couple of hours while I wrestled with Christmas lights on the front porch. Straining it yielded about a quart of stock that after refrigeration, as predicted by the Serious Eats recipe, had set into a gelatinous state. I will admit that the results may look a little gross that way. But I’m sure they’re going to taste great.

Thanksgiving almost entirely from scratch, and on short notice

More than three decades after I moved out, I finally cooked Thanksgiving without parental help. This was not my original plan for the holiday, but the pandemic led us to scrap that a week before the holiday–giving me just enough time to shop and plan a downsized meal.

The turkey was the first item to cross off the to-do list. I thought about buying just a turkey breast, but when I realized that Virginia’s EcoFriendly Foods had half turkeys for sale, I picked up one at the Arlington farmers market on Saturday. FYI, it is significantly easier to carry less than 7 pounds of half a bird–yes, I lived up to local stereotype by buying a left-wing turkey–than 14 pounds of a complete one.

I also came home from the market with a few pounds of potatoes, leaving surprisingly little shopping for other ingredients over the next few days: sweet potatoes, fennel, and stuffing mix.

Thanksgiving itself started a little before 9 a.m. with mixing dough for two baguettes. Julia Child’s recipe from The Way To Cook spans five pages and requires three rises; it’s far more effort than the no-knead bread I’ve done in previous years, but a complete baguette freezes better than half a loaf.

As the dough rose, I made the crust and filling for pumpkin pie from my usual recipe; getting dessert finished before 1:30 p.m. was a good morale booster. The baguettes went into the oven next (accompanied by a head of garlic), while on the stove top I boiled the potatoes.

But what about the turkey, the entree that my brother’s wife had handled when we had family Thanksgiving here last year? I had been tempted to follow Kamala Harris’s advice about wet brining but didn’t get around to that Wednesday, so I limited myself to rubbing butter on the bird and then seasoning it with salt, pepper, herbes de Provence and some diced rosemary from the garden.

I mostly followed the roasting directions in my go-to cookbook, Mark Bittman’s How To Cool Everything, except that I cooked it at 450 degrees instead of 500 for the first 20 or so minutes before backing down to 350 degrees. I stuck the temperature probe for a ThermoWorks Dot into what seemed the thickest part of the bird and set the alarm on that remote thermometer to 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, my daughter helped mash the potatoes as I threw too much butter and some of the roast garlic into that pot while my wife handled the stuffing and crafted some tangy cranberry sauce from scratch, using a recipe she’d looked up that afternoon.

After about two hours in the over–another advantage to getting half a bird–the turkey was done and looked and tasted amazing. Folks, this doesn’t have to be hard; like many other areas of cooking, throwing butter at the problem works. Speaking of which, I whipped up some gravy from the drippings in the pan. I will admit that the results were lumpy, not that anybody cared.

The only real misfire in this entire cooking production was the roast vegetables–putting that dish of sweet potatoes, carrots and fennel on the top rack in the oven meant that I didn’t see it when I took out the turkey and so left them a bit overdone. But roast veggies are pretty fault tolerant, and everybody ate enough of everything that we had to walk around the neighborhood to check out the earliest Christmas decorations before indulging in dessert.

Thanksgiving was not the same with relatives only visible on an iPad’s screen, but at least we did dinner right. And now we’re going to see how long Thanksgiving leftovers last with only three people around to eat them.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.