Monday, November 22, 2010

The hedge maze I've always wanted

I've always wanted a hedge maze. I've teased my wife that it should be the next thing she adds to her already extensive garden, to the point that it's become a years-long running joke. Then we visited Park Laberint D'Horta in Barcelona, pictured below in a photo taken by either Kathy or me.

Park Laberint d'Horta

Just a dream come true. I absolutely loved it. The maze was deceptively large and somewhat difficult, though trial and error would eventually let anyone out without too much trouble. Leaving after you'd found the center was actually more difficult than reaching the middle in the first place. Here's another view:

Park Laberint d'Horta

And another:

Park Laberint d'Horta

When you reached the center there was a small circular area surrounded by tall shrubbery with multiple exits, along with this grotto:

Park Laberint d'Horta

Remarkably, though it's difficult to tell from the photos we came back with, the rest of the park was perhaps more impressive, even, than the portion with the Labyrinth. The place was filled with intimate little grottos like this one brilliantly designed to encourage private moments even when the gardens are filled with a large crowd (as it was for part of the time we were there).

Park Laberint d'Horta

And here:

Park Laberint d'Horta

And here:

Park Laberint d'Horta

And here:

Park Laberint d'Horta

The place was a former estate from some royally endowed late 18th century fiefdom, from whence period the hedge maze and gardens date. I should add that they were only barely keeping the place up to the level it deserved, doing minimal upkeep and watering but perhaps not in the most efficient, effective or professional manner. Having visited Kew Gardens outside of London earlier in the trip, which admittedly may be an unfair comparison, the differences in the levels of upkeep weren't even close, and there were portions of the garden that would have been even more spectacular if they'd been kept in top-notch shape.

That's nitpicking, though. If I lived in Barcelona I'd go to Laberint d'Horta all the time. It'd be a great place to take kids and let them run around, and a spectacular place for picnicking. On the day we went they required no fee, so the whole visit cost us the sum total of subway fare to get there and the cost of a few snacks picked up at a local market for the occasion.

Wish I were there right now.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Local property tax hikes getting a little extreme

Man alive, local property taxes in Austin are rising fast.

This year's tax bill just came in and the property taxes imposed overall for our 1,000-ish square foot house in central east Austin went up 16.3% over last year - most of it from the City (19.46%), the County (21.56%), and Austin ISD (13.75%).

On the back of the bill is a "tax history" from prior years. Before this recent hike, our tax bill went up 12.38% last year and 12.28% the year before, for a cumulative total of a 46.75% over the last three years. Couple that with rapidly rising water rates and planned electric rate hikes for the first time since the '90s, and local government - particularly the city and county - is pretty significantly jacking up the base cost of living in this town.

I don't mind paying for government services, but a 46.75% increase over three years during the worst economic crunch since the Great Depression seems like a little much.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

Thanks to the presence of my granddaughter, this morning at my house we're celebrating "International Talk Like a Pirate Day," with lots of "Aaaarghs" and "Ahoys" and "Yo ho hos." So in honor of the occasion here's the greatest pirate song ever written, and a really cool, old version of it at that:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cool Graff

I just thought I'd post a few examples of cool graffiti we've seen here and there while on vacation. Here's a massive spaceman several stories tall in the Turkish quarter in Berlin:

And here's another cool bit of graff covering a metal door of a quite industrial building in Berlin:

This fun graff can only be seen from the highest point atop Parc Guell in Barcelona, which means only an intrepid few who hike to the top of the mountain ever see it:

The park below the precipice from which this photo was taken contains several buildings and structures designed by the (astonishing, half-crazed) Antoni Gaudi, which is what most people are there to see.

Barcelona has the largest quantity of high-quality street art of any city I've ever visited. There are multiple books available for purchase featuring literally thousands of photos on the subject and there are full-blown graff murals throughout the narrow, winding streets and on every underpass I've seen. Last night (regrettably we didn't have the camera with us) we ran across about 8-9 excellent murals, all apparently done illegally (you can tell the commissioned stuff because the topic relates to the businesses) painted on the metal doors shop-owners pull down over their entrances when they close up at night. Without question, I've seen art in high-class museums on this trip that I didn't enjoy so much.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Loving Berlin

One goes to London to see and learn about things that are old - the history, the architecture, religion, etc.. In Berlin, it's alll about the new: New architecture, art, fashion, attitudes. An aura of individualism, youth and cutting edge ideas imbues the city like exotic spices infuse food from the vibrant Turkish quarter of this extraordinarily international town.

Western developers for years had been eyeing the no-man's land between East and West Germany before the wall fell and and today near what used to be "Checkpoint Charlie" you'll huge, impressive, glass and steel monuments to western capitalism with no trace of the old divisions beyonnd a few out-of-the-way memorials and a bizarre tourist-trap set-up where people get their pictures taken near a mock-up of the old sign, "You Are Now Leaving the American Sector."

This town is full of museums, restaurants, monuments and other touristy spots, but one is most impressed, perhaps, by the city itself - the cosmopolitan crowds, the cutting-edge architecture, and the huge areas of green space everywhere. It's flat as a skillet and perfect for bicycle riding - particularly compared to hilly Austin where biking is great for bulking up your calves but not really a viable way for average people to get around when the weather's hot. While we've been here (in late August and early September) the high temperatures have been in the 60s - a little cold for Kathy but right in my wheelhouse.

Word War II and the Cold War left a scar on this town's psyche which in  many ways still defines the city, if only by what its denizens are AGAINST (which typically defines people much more than what they are FOR.) There's a disdain for conformity and a celebration of diversity and individualism that's striking and rather extreme, even coming from the United States which of course fancies itself the global bastion of individualism. On that score, though, Berlin's got us beat by a country mile. I think it's because the last 20 years in the city have been defined by a reaction against East German/Stasi authoritarism. The folks who brought down the Berlin Wall - and most especially their children, who have never lived under dictatorship - have embraced the "Never Again" slogan, which European Jewry adopted after World War II when establishing Israel, and are building a new Germany here whose values and approach to living is antithetical to Nazi and Communist totalitarian rule. That's an impression from a visitor, not a learned  historical analysis, but it's difficult to otherwise explain the vibrant dynamism we've witnessed in every corner of the city we've visited..

I really like this town. Kathy suggested I might like to come and live here for a while, and (as usual) she's probably right.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Weather gloating

We picked the right time of year  to get out of Austin. When Kathy and I arrived in London this morning it was 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and it probably never got over 72 all day. This evening when I got online, I noticed yesterday's high in Austin was a whopping 104 degrees. Though it rained in London today, I was so thrilled at the 50 degree drop in temperature I could care less. In Germany, where we're going next to visit one of Kathy's close friends, we  were told to bring sweaters and other warm clothes.

London is an amazing city. Like New York, Paris, or Istanbul, there's more to see and do here than you can reasonably attempt in just a few days. When we got here today I took a nap for a couple of hours to combat the jet lag, then we spent the afternoon visiting the city's oldest functioning church, St. Bartholomew's, the Museum of London (focusing on the history of the city), and then stopped off at St. Paul's Cathedral, where we were treated to an organ-accompanied choir. We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant that far outclassed the Middle Eastern food we can get in Austin, sad to say, which of course is one of the reasons you come to a cosmopolitan city like London. Tomorrow we should both be over our jet lag and able to get a full day of touring in.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Easy peach cobbler recipe

We've been eating lots of peach cobbler lately with fresh peaches from the tree in our front yard. After experimenting with several, here's the recipe I like best both for the final product and ease of preparation. In addition commenters over at Grits gave me lots more ideas of things to do with peaches.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meeting Mojave

Our good deed for the day yesterday involved an old, skinny hound named "Mojave" who showed up at our house (probably visiting the small pond in the front yard, which is the only close-by source of water), looking like he was starving to death. He was a sweet, gentle dog and had a collar and tags, so we tried to contact the owner, whose name and phone number were listed.

When I called a young woman's voice responded on the answering machine - the right person, thank heavens - so I left a message. We pulled out one of our own dog's metal crates and kept him in the house for the day, feeding and giving him short walks every little while. (I feared putting a strange dog with my three might start a fight, and the animal wasn't in any shape for a scrap.) The owner's name was quite unusual and in addition to calling the number on the tag, I even was able to find her on Facebook and send her a message that way.

For most of the day, though, we heard nothing. By late afternoon we were beginning to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into (we need a fourth dog like a hole in the head and I was loathe to take an adult animal to the pound for execution), but eventually the relieved owner called and agreed to come get Mojave when she got off work at a restaurant that evening.

I figured this doe-eyed bag of skin-and-bones had been fending for himself on the street for weeks, but no. It turned out Mojave was well cared for, but 13 years old and cancerous, explaining the appearance that he was starving. The dog was not yet decrepit, though, by any means. The owner had recently moved from an apartment into a house with a yard maybe 15 blocks from us, and  she said this was the fourth time in several weeks the dog had inexplicably gotten out, this time, she said, in a blink of a eye while her back was turned. She thinks he's actually jumping the chain link fence, which is pretty good for a cancer patient!

I probably overfed him, wrongly thinking he was starving, giving him about four cups of food split up in small portions over the course of the day. He also drank water like it was going out of  style, perhaps a function of the cancer.

When his owner finally arrived at about 10 pm after her work shift, Mojave couldn't have been more excited to see her - not just his tail but his whole, skinny body was wagging. She was on a bike, and put a muzzle/leash apparatus on the dog to which he was clearly accustomed before taking him away. I imagine the jog home was a welcome, joyful relief for Mojave. He'd not only missed his owner, but he'd been cooped up in a cage most of the day when he's clearly a runner and a jumper.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fruit trees loving the extra rain

All the rain we've received this year has led to an unexpected fruit boon in my household: A peach tree in our front yard and a fig tree in the back have been filled the last couple of weeks with ripe, delicious fruit.

The figs are perhaps the best I've ever eaten, fat, ripe, and full of juice. The peaches are less spectacular and some have been victimized by bugs or squirrels (who take a ripe peach, eat one bite, then throw it on the ground - bastards).

The peach tree in particular is going on ten years old and we've never before had a peach crop that generated edible fruit, partly because of the ongoing squirrel problem, but mostly because the tree never produced much. But this year's rain has the thing loaded with peaches to the point that I'm afraid one limb is about to break from the weight. We've been cutting them up to remove the bug-spoiled parts and using the peaches for fruit salads, smoothies, etc.

Strangely, squirrels have been apparently carrying peaches across our rooftop and into our backyard, where we've found a number of them which immediately become dog toys. One dog (Domino) likes to chew them until getting to the pit, which he then cracks down on like a bone. Another one (Indeaux) will throw them up in the air like a ball and presses me to use them to play "catch" (his favorite trick is for me to throw one up high and he can catch it out of the air).

There's also a pear tree in the front yard that's a little younger, but we're still not getting edible fruit from it. My wife thinks if we get one more round of rain the tree might fully fruit out.

We're really loving all the extra rain since the drought has finally broken, but the fruit trees have got to be the nicest surprise from all the extra water.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

All Purpose Casserole Recipe

Another recipe for Mikel and whoever else might be interested: Here's an all-purpose casserole that's a staple around the Henson household: comfort food that's relatively quick and easy to make, even after a long day's work.

  • Base: Rice or spaghetti. (Instant rice is okay, but long cooking brown rice or,even better, red himalayan rice makes for a tastier, more substantive casserole. If you're using spaghetti, break dry spaghetti in halves before boiling with little olive oil in the water.)
  • Meat: One pound or less of ground hamburger works well. You can also use leftovers, including, for example, scraps from a roasted chicken, holiday turkey etc..
  • Veggies. Stir fry your own if you have fresh you need to use (broccoli is good), or add a bag of frozen mixed veggies (household favorite is green peas; with rice, but not spaghetti, corn works well, but really any bag of mixed frozen veggies will do).
  • Chicken or Beef Broth (2 cups or more, as necessary): You can use water if you're broke and need to skimp - it will still taste good - but broth gives a richer flavor.
  • Flour - just a small amount, a half cup or less, to create a gravy
  • Grated cheesse
  • Spray-on Pam or butter/oil to grease a 13x9 casserole dish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook 1-1/2 -2 cups of rice per the directions, or boil spaghetti (broken in half) with a dollop of olive oil in the water.

If using ground beef or some other meat like sausage that requires cooking, salt and pepper and cook it in a frying pan with a little olive oil and butter. If using fresh vegetables, add them to the meat when it's nearly finished cooking and mix thoroughly, sauteing both together.

When meat (or meat/vegetable mixture) in frying pan appears adequately cooked, take 1/4 - 1/2 cup of flour and sprinkle moderately over all of it. Take spoon and mix it all together so the flour sticks to filling, then pour in chicken broth, stirring constantly. Start with two cups (and don't worry if you run out of broth and need to use water). Stir constantly until the whole concoction begins to boil and simmer. If it thickens to a nice, gravy like texture, great, turn the heat off and you're done with this step. If it's too thick, add more broth or water. If it's too liquidy, put a little more flour in a separate small bowl, mix it with broth or water in a slurry, and add a little at a time, stirring all the while, until the gravy reaches the desired thickness. At that point, turn off the heat.

Spray your casserole dish with Pam or use butter or oil to grease the bottom and sides.

Lay the rice or spaghetti on the bottom of the casserole dish. If you're using frozen vegetables, open the uncooked package and spread the contents over the base. Then pour in the whole contents of the frying pan, meat, veggies, gravy, and all. Mix together thoroughly in the casserole dish so the gravy gets over everything.

Spread grated cheese over the top to taste. I use pre-grated cheddar from the grocery store which is relatively inexpensive and perfectly adequate for most everyday purposes.

Place the casserole dish, uncovered, in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. (It doesn't have to stay in there long because everything has already been cooked once.)

When you remove the casserole, let it sit for ten minutes before serving. If you don't it will fall apart, but if you give it 10 minutes to set up it comes out in nice, neat squares - particularly the version with rice. Feeds 4-6 or makes enough for a family meal with leftovers.

This is a favorite household dish. A family tradition with holiday turkey after both Thanksgiving and Christmas is to make a turkey tetrazzini that's essentially this recipe with spaghetti, leftover turkey frozen peas and a gravy made separately. But the great thing about this is it's a technique more than a recipe, so you can adapt it to basically whatever you have around the house.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shaky NCAA bracket picks barely holding up

As we enter the Sweet 16 in the college hoops tournament, my bracket still looks pretty good. Three of the four teams I picked for the Final Four are still alive, where I have Baylor beating Syracuse for the title in what's only a bit of a homer pick. I didn't think Duke or Kentucky would hold up as well as they have, though - both look stronger than I anticipated - and I've been surprised at how, besides Baylor, the Big 12 teams seemed to all crumble. (I had Texas as a first-round loss, but was surprised Texas A&M didn't get through to the Sweet 16.

Anyway, since they're still alive I'll stand by my pre-tournament pick: Baylor over Syracuse in the national championship game. Somebody's got to win the thing; it may as well be the Bears.

Sic 'em.

UPDATE: Thanks to the Bears' collapse in the final five minutes of their game with Duke in the quarterfinals (the "Elite Eight"), not one of my picks made it into the Final Four this year. The lesson from this: Don't come to me for your sports betting tips.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cedar Waxwings

For the past week or so we've had a flock of several hundred Cedar Waxwings in and around our neighborhood. Both yesterday and this morning I had a pleasant time sitting on my back deck watching them swoop in a huge mass from tree to tree, hovering briefly almost like a hummingbird to peck at their food and then lighting momentarily on seemingly every available branch and twig. They tend to all arrive and leave together in a furious, fluttering whirlwind of activity.

They're quite pretty, colorful birds when they sit still long enough to observe them closely. These are probably the final weeks we'll see them before they head northward to summer in the midwest and Canada. They're really quite lovely, colorful birds and the sight of them swooping in a chaotic mass from tree to tree is really neat to watch.

UPDATE: I should also mention that hundreds of birds leave massive amounts of bird poop, which I've been dutifully cleaning off of Ty's treehouse deck every few days. There are pros and cons to this whole nature thing.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Dessert staples: Banana bread and brownies

In part for the benefit of my goddaughter Mikel, who God help her never quite learned to cook while she was living with us as a teen, I'm going to begin putting on this blog some of my staple household family recipes. Lets start with sweets, since she would. ;) Here are two recipes I've used a long time and that Mikel grew up on.

The first is a simple banana bread recipe my mother scrawled onto an index card when I first go my own apartment at college.
Shirley Henson’s Banana Bread Recipe

1 stick of butter
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 mashed ripe bananas
1¼ cup flour
¾ tsp soda
½ tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar until light. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in mashed banana.

In another bowl, mix together flour, soda and salt. Add to banana mixture. Mix well. Pour into greased loaf pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool for 45 minutes before serving.
Add a half cup or so of chopped nuts if you like. Her instructions envision using a hand mixer, but in my large stand-up mixer I do it in one bowl.

I usually double this recipe and make two loaves because inevitably at our house the first loaf gets eaten within 24 hours and it keeps well wrapped lightly in plastic or foil for several days.

Another standard recipe in the Henson household is a brownie recipe I got from a cooking magazine, probably Cook's Illustrated, at some point in the mid-'90s. I've long ago lost the original text of the magazine article, but have made the recipe many dozens of times from memory. They're incredibly quick, easy and delicious. Here's the gist:
Chocolate Brownies

One stick of butter
8 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate
1-1/4 cups of sugar
3 eggs
1 cup of flour
1/4 cup of cocoa

Put butter in small bowl. Break up chocoloate on top. Microwave for 2 minutes on high. In bowl, beat together sugar and eggs. Add in butter/chocolate mixture. Mix in flour and cocoa until texture and color are consistent. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 38-40 minutes.
This was adjusted slightly from the original recipe, as I recall, which substituted a small amount of unsweentened chocolate for a portion of the semi-sweet. In my experience, this made the already-rich brownies just a little too bitter and intense for children's tastes, but if you want to try it, use 7 oz of semisweet and one oz of unsweetened chocolate instead of 8 oz semisweet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Watch the angels cry

I love to sing and frequently will get snippets of song lyrics stuck in my head, often for days at a time. Over the past few days, this line has been repeating itself from a favorite John Prine tune: "My car is stuck in Washington and I cannot find out why. Come sit beside me on the swing and watch the angels cry."

The tune is catchy and that line cracks me up every time. But it was a difficult concept to explain to the three-year old grandbaby, who piped in from the other room upon hearing me sing this to myself while making supper last night, "Why are the angels crying, Grandpa?" She came into the kitchen looking genuinely troubled.

Why indeed? I didn't quite know what to say. I told her they couldn't find their car.

"But they'll find it, right?" she insisted. I assured her the angels would likely find their missing car very soon. "That's good," she said with a relieved expression. "I don't want angels to cry."

Me either.