BBQ = World Peace

I believe the NH clan did Texas proud Thursday night.  The brisket was tender and the ribs were fall-off-the-bone moist.  Brits, Slovaks, Australians, Czechs and Canadians were gorging on slow-cooked meat saying things like, “So you can get this stuff everywhere in Texas?  Now I see why you like it so much.”  Mrs. NH’s mac ‘n cheese was devoured by the forkful as I informed many of our guests what a brisket is.   Skinny European wives were grabbing nibbles of the tender cut off of the serving tray with no utensils and no shame.

I’m proud.

I’m also glad to have such good friends to come to such a party.  In a moment outside in front of the grill, away from the cacophony of  about 8 kids and twice as many adults, I paused and marveled at just how lucky our family is.  Friends and family are two of the most precious things in life.  Getting to enjoy both while eating BBQ was a trifecta.

Pesto Filled Panzarotti

I totally lucked into the meal pictured above after a morning strolling around the International Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy.  It was probably one of the best tasting days of my life.  Truffles the size of your fist in the morning, Panzarotti for lunch and wine tasting all afternoon long topped off with more pasta and veal for dinner.  But I digress.

The pasta pictured was a delicate, hand-made Panzarotti with a perfectly smooth cheese and pesto mix in the center and a rich, creamy, sauce to coat.  Mrs. NH looked longingly at my plate all meal long – even with her delicious meat-stuffed ravioli in front of her.  I had ordered the best meal.  But, since she’s carrying the 4th member of the NH clan, I gave her a fair share.

Since eating this pasta I’ve been dreaming of it.  Ravioli is hard to make.  I still haven’t found a recipe that I’ve perfected.  But having eaten this dish, I feel the inspiration to try again.  Any hints or recipes to recommend?  Leave ’em in the comments.

Picasso Museum – Antibes, France

About 19 years ago, when I was a foreign exchange student in Madrid, Spain, I discovered Pablo Picasso.  I lived about five blocks from the Prado Museum and spent many days wandering the halls of the Prado discovering some of the mysteries of the art world.  When I was there, Picasso’s master work, Guernica, was in El Casón del Buen Retiro museum, just to the side of the Prado.  I spent hours looking at that wall of terror and the sketches and studies that accompanied it.

Yesterday, I got to see that part come full circle.  The NH family all took a trek to the Picasso Museum in Antibes, France.  If memory serves, the period that Picasso spent in Antibes was after the Guernica stage, but the impact on me and my offspring was not unlike the experience I had 19 years ago.  Imagine Cubism through the eyes of a three-year old – just learning to draw her own drawings.  Those picture blew my mind at 18.  As I explained the way that Picasso pained with his brush and his imagination, I saw the unmistakable light of recognition in Little NH’s eyes.  That’s the kind of spark I live for.

The museum itself is a real treat.  Housed inside a palace overlooking the Mediterranean with bright blue skies framing the horizon, it’s no wonder that Picasso found some great inspiration in this place – even during a time of relative poverty.  It’s a must for anyone with even a passing fancy in the artist or his work.

For me, the museum rekindled an old love of a master painter.  Being able to give my daughter the chance to experience it for the first time at the tender young age of 3 makes me wonder what else is possible for her.

Thanks, Picasso.

Flies at the Picnic

You may be wondering why I haven’t written a single word on this blog in several weeks.  It has to do with a recent series of events that have pretty much sapped the creative energy from my daily routine.  A combination of work, fall colds, and domestic disturbances has shaken the very foundation of my blogging enthusiasm.  The first two, work and sickness are self-explanatory.  The third requires a bit of hyperbolic elaboration.

My apartment is a dusty ruin where bags of concrete, plaster and shoddy Central European construction work go to die.  In the six years we’ve lived in this apartment, we’ve had the ceilings repaired three times.  Each time it is the same.  We move all of our stuff, they come in and throw dust and spew paint fumes around the place and don’t even mop before they leave.  But there is an added bonus this time.  They’re “fixing” the whole house.  Every dang room is sporting furniture draped with plastic.  Plastic water bottles of laborers litter the floor along with boot prints that are grinding the pumice into the thin wood veneer.  Super.

So now, we’re living like the Taliban in an apartment one building over.  There’s no media center, no Internet access and four channels of Czech TV on what appears to be a four-inch TV screen with speakers the size of pennies.  I moved 8 external hard drives out of my apartment for Pete’s sake.  We’re a family that likes its tech and we aren’t getting our fix.

We’re reading and playing games to the biggest extent possible but there are only so many rounds of Disney’s Princess Matching Game you can play before you really come to despise Belle and Jasmine.  Not to mention, it’s raining.  Constantly.  The end of summer is raising its middle finger to our family as boredom creeps in with each passing sunset.

Cooking exciting meals is out of the question as the kitchen is poorly equipped distinctly not ours.  Their knives don’t work either.  (Mrs. NH made a good batch of lasagna, however.)

And it’s not just Mrs. NH and I that are cranky about the situation.  Little NH is peeved as she’s ever been.  We could only schlep some of her toys over and she’s 3.  Some of you may know that the three-year-old attention span often requires hundreds of toys in a day.  The weather has also completely spoiled her recent interest in playing soccer in the grass outside.  Who can blame her?

Consequently, tantrums have become more frequent.  She doesn’t like the bed she’s sleeping in and comes into our room several times a night for hugs, water, and things like, “Um, well, I forgot.”  So add full family sleep deprivation to the equation.

So there are three really bad attitudes hanging around Prague these days.  We all know that we’re extremely fortunate and that things could be much worse.  Dinnertime grace always reflects this.  But what good is a blog if you can’t do some bellyaching.

So, to remedy the situation, we’re hitting the road again.  To where, we don’t know.  It also is dependent on the local Czech mechanic fixing the catalytic converter on my near-antique Jetta.  But I figure, living like you’re on the run should be a whole lot more interesting if we’re at least, well, on the road.

We’re determined to snap out of this rut of inconsequential but annoying spurts of daily bad news.  Like I said, lots of people have it much worse.  But the feeling is akin to flies showing up to nibble on the potato salad at the picnic.  Not to mention, I left the damn fly swatter in the other apartment.

Angelfood Cake from Scratch, Chocolate Cake from a Box, Peach Cream Pie

There, is that better for you?  Cake, cake, cake.  That’s what 50% of you come to this blog for?  That Minnie Mouse cake.  Cake.  There, I said it again.

I’ve spent the last two years slaving over a hot blog, offering my take on the world only to see my readership growing due to something my wife did.  Yeah, she’s great and all but it’s kind of disappointing that the most popular thing on my blog is something I had no part of.

So, I choose to soothe my damaged ego thusly:  Because of my excellent skill in taking and tagging pictures, search engine optimization (SEO) and brilliant prose, that dang Minnie Mouse cake just can’t help but be loved.  That’s also why I tried to get Mrs. NH to blog a bit herself.  She’s interesting or I wouldn’t have married her.

So I guess I should be happy.  Nobody’s threatening to lead me to the guillotine for saying, “Let them eat cake.”

It’s been a tasty couple of weeks around here.

Corn on the Cob

I’m a Cornhusker.  Always will be.  I knew what the PIK program was before I hit junior high, for goodness sake.  I grew up eating more corn in summertime than most people consume in a lifetime – and I loved every bit.  It seems this love of corn has been passed down to my offspring, as well.  The other night, Little NH tried her mother’s and my corn on the cob and proceeded to finish the better part of both of our ears.

There’s something really fun about eating corn.  I still love it and get giddy when we manage to find some in the stores here.  That and the process of slathering an ear with butter really gets the saliva glands flowing.

My greatest memory of sweet corn was when I’d sit out on the picnic table and keep my dad company while he cut the kernels off of grocery bag after grocery bag of corn.  The raw, sweet ones were the payoff.  He’d then bake it with liberal amounts of cream and butter and put it in seal-a-meal bags and freeze it.  We’d have corn all winter long.

I left Nebraska a long time ago, but the Cornhusker state never left me.  Pass the butter, please.

Summer Barbeque in the Oven

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Prague this weekend and our apartment is on the top floor, with lots of windows and absolutely no A/C.  So, you could say that cranking an oven up to 300° for five hours and 400° for another hour and a half would not be in most families’ plans.  However, we’re not most families.  We are meat loving Texas BBQ freaks by nature.  We miss ribs and brisket.  If we don’t get ribs and brisket, we get cranky.  So, heat be damned, we made ribs and brisket.

I’ve been making Coca-Cola Brisket for years but have finally perfected it.  I have a pretty basic dry rub that I use that consists of paprika, cumin, S&P, garlic and chili powder.  It does the trick for me and doesn’t include any weird (to my palate) aromatics like cinnamon or ginger.  It’s what I imagine cowboys using after rustling cattle all day.  And man, it just works.  That, a 5 pound fatty brisket and a few ounces of Coke and it’s cooking time.

Now this is the part I had to kind of tinker with over the years.  For years I cooked it with the heat too low.  It was always tasty but too tough.  Somewhere I saw a recipe that said I should cook it a 225 F.  Little did I know, that wasn’t hot enough to melt all the fat and make the brisket fork tender – how it should be.  So, I did a little more research online and found that fat melts between 275 and 300 and still keeps the meat moist.  That did it.  The brisket we had this weekend was better than many of the briskets that I sampled on my last swing through Texas.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.  There was just one thing missing – smoke.

However, I took care of the smoke quotient on my second dish, ribs, by cheating with impunity.  I used a bottle of liquid smoke that Fredericksburg Flash and Mrs. Flash had imported on one of their recent trips to Prague.  (To see the more traditional, smoky route taken, check out Scamp’s post here.)  For the ribs, I used the same rub plus a couple of tablespoons of instant coffee and a few dashes of liquid smoke on the ribs.  I put them in a baking dish and poured in a bottle of dark Krušovice beer that I had boiled to reduce by 1/2.  After covering the pan tightly with foil, I put those babies in a 400° oven for 1.5 hours and watched as Ma NH put the finishing touches on some ‘tater salad and doctored a can of baked beans.

The ribs were barely clinging to the bone as I took them out of the oven.  Mrs. NH, not a huge rib fan (she doesn’t like things still on the bone – the McRib demographic?), sampled some of the meat that I pulled off one of the costillas.  She was floored.  I don’t even bother finishing these things on the grill.  The beer and rub give them so much flavor that even a quick dip in BBQ sauce is completely optional.

I congratulated myself loudly through the entire meal.  I think it’s time to have our Prague friends over for an oven BBQ.  This meat combo, Mrs. NH’s potato salad, a cooler of cold beer and a peach pie made with my Grandma’s recipe could make any summer heat tolerable.  Even if you happen to also be standing next to a 400 degree oven.

Happy 4th of July!

I equate a few things with the 4th of July.  Fireworks, pride in my country and homemade vanilla ice cream.

I’m in Rovinj, Croatia right now so there will be no fireworks to speak of tonight.  But I do have a huge bunch of pride for the US of A right now and there is a good ice cream shop with tasty vanilla right across the street.  (Two outa three ain’t bad.)

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what my Great Grandpa must be thinking of me.  He beat feet off this continent and I’ve got my heels dug in.  Man, life can be ironic.

That said, I hoist a tall glass of the best Croatian brew to my homeland.  It is a country that has given me so much and I work to do my best to repay.  The debt will never be settled.

To those Americans out there doing the really hard work, thank you.  To the rest of us who are just lucky enough to live in a country that they keep free, Happy Independence Day.

Light some fuses for me.

Ferry from Hvar to Korčula, Croatia

Post originally written June 26th.

We’ve become serious ferry patrons in the last few months.  We were on two in Sardegna and we’re on our second this trip with one more to go before all is said and done.  Ferry travel lends another layer of intrigue to an already interesting trip.

I’m notoriously early to everything and our first ferry with the car in Italy was no exception.  We were several hours early, and actually planned to be, accounting for traffic and delays after a four-hour drive from the Amalfi Coast to Rome.  But when we arrived, we were first in line with no idea what to do.

Lucky for us, it was simple.  Hand the guy your ticket, engage in some “where are you from” banter and then shove off.  If you’re booked in a cabin, wind your way through the parked cars and go up to the reception and check in.  Just like a hotel with lifejackets.

For this particular ferry, Mrs. NH picked up the ticket a day in advance in Hvar from some travel office.  Our hotel concierge knew nothing about this ferry but Mrs. NH did.  Go figure.

Ferry’s are kind of like bus depots, airports and casinos all rolled in one.  Some people even roll out their own sleeping mats and sleeping bags on the top deck and conk out for the night.  That would be much easier without a 3-year-old in tow.

Kind of a backpackers heaven, too.  Seating in the lounges is open and people are on their laptops, iPods, and phones.  Card games are all around.  Right now, Little NH is taking an early morning shot at a masterpiece with some dry-erase markers and her mother is into some sort of book that mom’s read.

I’m just writing this and people watching.  Oh, that and seeing the coast of Hvar fly past outside the windows of the ferry.  If it was a little later in the day, a beer on the top deck would be a must.  But now I’ll just sit here, safe in the knowledge that in about 2.5 hours, we’ll be on Korčula (the birthplace of Marco Polo) and we’ll again board my 10-year-old VW Jetta and set off for some other place unknown.

I hear Marco Polo liked boats, too.

I Worked Today

Believe it or not, I worked today.  As a matter of fact, I’ve worked just about every day on this trip.  Usually, it is from a mobile phone in my hand or a computer on my lap.  Never a full day, but enough.

It is a crazy, connected world.  Which leads me to the point of this post.  It is nice to unplug, but also, if you take as much leave as I have in the last couple months, it is nice to be in touch.  It’s like you’re away, but not completely in another universe.

That way, when I do get back to the office, I should only be pummeled by a brick or two instead of an entire load, all at once.  That’s the plan, at least.

But it was strange.  I was working out a management problem with a runaway co-worker in the States as I stood on a pier, overlooking the Rovinj, Croatia harbor.  Would the old, unconnected way be better?  In some cases, most definitely.  But this way also helps ward off the boogeyman of “What is waiting for me in the office?”  Not to mention, the view from here is eminently better than the one from my office window.

There’s one other thing to consider.  I’ve had more time to think on this trip than I’ve had in years.  Idle time gives your noodle a good way to work on those problems in the background that would otherwise go completely unacknowledged.  You can think about things like, “Why is the guy in Stinkadonia so difficult to work with,” as you’re focusing on the important stuff like, “what am I going to order after this beer,” and “Is Croatia really better than Italy?”

Well, I’ve figured the last question.  Connected or not, it’s a resounding “Yes.”

Father’s Day and Anniversary in Brela

Post originally written June 21.

There are days when things just seem to break your way.  Days when all of those, “Am I where I should be?” type of questions seem to get answered.  Sure, there are the still those days in between to contend with but today was one of those days that you really live for.

I woke up this morning, not knowing that yesterday was Father’s day.  I had sent my dad a Father’s day gift before I left and wished him a happy one in absentia, but nobody wished me a happy Father’s day yesterday and I completely spaced it off.  (Hello, free pass on forgotten anniversary in the future!)  I’m not mad, just setting up the story…  But this morning I got up and there were a bunch of missed calls on my mobile phone, all forwarded from Skype.  Father’s day wishes, I presume.  It’s my 4th Father’s day and I still cant’ get used to the fact that it’s a holiday for me.  Funny, seems Mrs. NH can’t either.

But I digress.  Today, everything clicked into place.  It was a rainy morning, but just after a late lunch, the sun broke out of the clouds and the sea shone like a plate of glass.  We were all ready to hit it with gusto.  We strapped Little NH into her swim vest (a 21st Century version of floaties) and set off into the surf.  She walked around in the shallows for a minute and then, all by herself, said she wanted to float on her own.

An hour and a half later, we got out of the water.  She went from the shallows to the deep with the grace of a walrus and courage of a lion.  Waves and splashes proved no deterrent and she just kept swimming.  I had to remind myself to keep my agape mouth closed so it didn’t fill with water.  Proud?  You bet.

Yeah, my wife and daughter totally forgot Father’s Day.  But I don’t mind.  Late deliveries are always welcome.  Did I mention that today is Mrs. NH and my 13th wedding anniversary?

Things just keep breaking my way.

Brela – Day 2

Post originally written June 20th…

After rising early yesterday, we had a great night’s sleep, with the windows open and the churn of the sea as our lullaby.  I haven’t slept with windows open to the ocean since family vacations in Mexico when I was a little boy, so this was a real treat.

We hit the ground this morning and set forth working in the kitchen.  Toast, soft-boiled eggs, yogurt, fresh cherries, coffee and cappuccino were the order of the day.  It was the perfect base for a late morning breakfast that gave way to an excellent day on the beach.

We spent the day a 20 minute walk from our apartment, at Punta Rata.  There were no rats to be seen but the beach was great.  No pretense, just lots of small rocks, light surf and partly cloudy skies.  We enjoyed swimming with little NH there.  The water is lots warmer here than anything we experienced in Italy last month. The afternoon was interrupted by a quick rain shower, but we sought shelter in the caves in the rocks behind the beach.  10 minutes later, we were back enjoying the sun and wondering what we ever did to get this lucky.

Finally, as I’m writing this, my belly is warm with sour cherry liqueur (Visnjak) and delicious Croatian grappa.  Silva knocked on our door shortly after we got back from the beach to check and see how everything was going.  She then invited us for the aforementioned toddies.  Yum, yum, yum.  And what a neat lady.  These trips always teach you something.  Who knew I’d see a little bit of myself in a Grandmother born in Croatia.

Brela – Day 1

Post originally written June 19th…

This time yesterday, I was sitting in the office working.  Now, 20 hours after leaving Prague, I’m sitting on a balcony, overlooking the Adriatic.  I’ve been through four countries, one time zone, a few downpours and lots of chatter from the back seat.  But we all made it.

We were greeted by the matriarch of the apartment, “Silva”, who had prepared a Dalmatian prosciutto and Pag cheese plate.  To wash it all down she left us a delicious decanter of her home-made red wine.  I’ve been here an hour, folks, and it’s already one of my favorite places on earth.  Sardegna, eat your heart out.

Home in Prague

We’ve logged over 2500 miles on the car odometer (not counting distances traveled on ferries) and now we’re back home.  We made a pit stop in Munich yesterday to enjoy a really sunny afternoon/evening in the English Garden.  It is always a nice way to wrap up a trip.

Now we’re home and unloaded but not totally unpacked.  I whipped up a batch of guacamole and we all had a nice chip and guac lunch.  Tacos are for dinner.

Little NH is enjoying a nap in her bed and I think Mrs. NH is enjoying one on the couch.

For the first time in a week or two, I’m wearing clean clothes.  What a concept.

Bottega Vini – Verona, Italy

We’re fairly unorthodox when it comes to parenting.  We think our kid should adapt to what we want to do.  Some would call that immature, others would realize that no parent, no matter how patient, ever wants to watch Barney.  So, this is our way of doing things.

On an early spring evening in Verona, Italy, Mrs. NH, Little NH and I headed to the Bottega Vini smack dab in the middle of Verona.  It was a beautiful restaurant/wine bar that came recommended on some web site or other that Mrs. NH found.  It was worth the trip.

There is no outdoor seating save for a banqet nestled into the outside wall but once inside, you’re transported to a really cool Northern Italian experience.  There’s vino alla spina (wine on tap), and a chalk board full of several other varieties, ranging from Soave to Barbera. The guys behind the bar were getting ready for the evening dinner crew but treated us well and even found a chocolate filled cookie in the kitchen for Little NH.

We spent our time trying two or three of the wines while Little NH was anticipating the chime of the cuckoo-clock overhead.  By the time our 30 minutes in Bottega Vini were up, great wine had been consumed and a little cuckoo-clock had chimed, delighting a 3-year-old.

In my book, that beats Barney any day.