It must be July. Heat waves are coming in, well, waves. Yawn. I’m not sure why the weather broadcasters are so frantic. It’s called summer, people! Remember when we had all that snow in February and March? I know that farmers in our area hope to save their crops from the deluge of rain we’ve gotten, but I just enjoy the warmth.
Every July, during what turns out to be the hottest weekend of the summer, the arts community in Baltimore throws a three-day festival they call “Artscape,” celebrating art of all kinds, visual, graphic, pottery, jewelry, glass, music, dance, and even culinary. After all, what kind of festival doesn’t need food? Last weekend, there were the usual hot dogs, grilled sausage, pizza, crab cakes, Boardwalk fries (doused with vinegar), funnel cakes, and even Thai and vegetarian specialties.
But I wasn’t there to eat. I went to see my friend, Byron, who was exhibiting and promoting his social enterprise model, featuring a micro-dwelling, or “tiny house” that he developed. His mission is to teach students the skills to build affordable housing for residences, businesses, studios, etc. As Louis Sullivan, the great turn-of-the-century architect said, “form ever following function.”
During Artscape, Byron stayed in his tiny house, even when the temp hit 97, attracting all kinds of people, including a little boy from Honolulu who told me, “I’m going to build myself a tiny house and live in it.”
If you’ve ever purchased anything at Ikea, you get the idea. There’s simple beauty, innovative design, and economical construction. Byron applies this idea to changing the way people consume resources, occupy space, and provide basic shelter. Taking it one step further, he proposes to teach design and construction skills to young people who need it the most. He explains it all on his company’s website, truenorthguidelab.com.
The Veterinarian would have loved a tiny house, which is the size of the first sailboat that we owned but with more headroom. The walls are reinforced canvas over plywood. There’s the usual, large single berth for sleeping, a U-shaped settee and table that convert to another berth, and a three-burner cooktop. Retractable solar panels provide energy for the LED lighting, stereo, and 12-volt fan. As in marine design, there’s a place to stow everything, clothes, tools, food, supplies, cooking utensils. Essentially, it’s smaller than my kitchen, which causes me brief guilt pangs about my carbon footprint.
Maybe he isn’t just educating youth; maybe he’s educating us about the excess of our lives, the flotsam and jetsam to which we’ve become addicted. Friends were astounded when I wrote about my skillet collection in Pot Head. Do I really need specialized cooking equipment that only gets used once or twice a year? Do I really need eight whisks or 50 cookbooks? Seven sets of china? Dozens of glasses with specialized uses?
Could I prepare gourmet meals in a tiny house? Well, yeah. I’ve done it on boats, cooking on two-burner propane stoves with gimballed ovens. I once met a French woman who sold crêpes (savory or dessert) from her 30’ sailboat anchored in the harbor of the Caribbean island of Bequia (one of the few places where the International Whaling Union sanctions traditional whaling with hand-thrown harpoons from small, open sailing dinghys, by the way). In the afternoon, her husband would come by in a dinghy to take orders and return in the evening to deliver them. Crêpe batter requires one mixing bowl, a fork or whisk, a small sauté pan, and one burner. So simple.
On another sailing trip, halfway around the world on the beach of a tiny Thai island, I had the best shrimp tempura of my life, made by a woman cranking them out in one small sauté pan over a single propane burner. Like the crêpemaker in Bequia, she used one mixing bowl for the batter and something to whisk it together. There were a dozen of us gathered for dinner at an open-air grill, and she served us all in an efficient and timely manner, putting so-called “Iron” chefs to shame without a Ninja, Cuisinart, or electric deep-fryer (mine has gathered dust on the floor of my pantry closet for almost 20 years).
What kind of meals could I make in a tiny house with the one skillet? Anything stir-fried (sayonara, wok). Grilled sandwiches (arrivederci, panini grill). Fajitas (adios, fajita griddle). Thinking completely off the top of my head, I probably could make an apple tart, if I topped it with something pre-baked, like shortbread (adieu, tarte tatin pan). I’ve seen recipes in which fresh pasta is simmered in simple sauces, and my shrimp étouffée only takes one pan. Even those old college standbys, hamburger stroganoff and tuna jambalaya (made with Rice-a-Roni — don’t judge it until you’ve tried it — I just can’t cook treats like Tournedos à La Vallière for myself every day, although it, too, could be done, laboriously, with just one pan).
No boat trip or visit to the tropics was ever complete without the Veterinarian’s version of the New Orleans classic, Bananas Foster. In the Caribbean, there were bananas, butter, sugar, and rum in every port. The ice cream was more problematic; it doesn’t always survive the dinghy trip from shore to boat successfully. The same small boy in the Veterinarian’s heart, who would have loved living in a tiny house, also loved setting things on fire, but, for safety, he probably would have stepped outside it to flambé his dessert. In Mexico, he learned the showman’s trick of tossing the nutmeg into the flames to create “stars.” It was pretty spectacular on the back of a boat after sunset.
Flambéing terrifies me, so I light the rum with a long lighter or match, instead of using the stove’s flame to ignite it. As I used to say to the Veterinarian in my best “schoolmarm” voice, “Be careful!” Not only are the flames hazardous, but the hot syrup can produce a nasty burn.
Bananas Don – Serves 6
4 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced lengthwise and then in half, crosswise
¼ cup butter
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Triple-sec
½ cup dark rum
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Vanilla ice cream
Have all ingredients mise en place (ie, measured and ready) before starting.
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in brown sugar and cinnamon until melted, smooth, and bubbly. Gently stir in the orange liqueur. Add the bananas and gently cook on both sides until they start to soften, about two minutes. Turn off the heat and remove from the burner.
Pour rum onto the top of the banana mixture and ignite with a lighter or long match. Toss the nutmeg into the flames. Carefully return the pan to the burner; gently swirl pan until flames die out. If mixture is too thin, remove the bananas and cook the sauce down to the consistency of syrup. Serve over ice cream.
[Note: You can prepare the syrup through the addition of the orange liqueur, and carefully pour into a glass, heat-proof measuring cup or storage jar and keep in the refrigerator. Reheat small amounts in a sauté pan, finishing with the bananas and rum.]