Saturday, December 26, 2009

Riffing On Tuna

As this post will reveal, my recipes aren't really recipes at all - I don't follow recipes well, and find the concept of baking to be absolutely petrifying. (What do you mean, I have to use an exact quantity of ingredients?) Rather I work with themes of inter-relating ingredients that play well together, screwing around with them for my own amusement, hopefully in a way that won't result in a trip to McDonalds at the end of the night.

With that in mind, what can you do with Tuna steaks?
  • Cook them as little as you can stand. If you can get sushi-grade tuna, not cooking them at all would be perfectly acceptable. If you do have to cook them, coat each side with black pepper and maybe some salt or seseme seeds, then cook each side with a very small amount of peanut oil on a hot stainless steel pan. This is sort of a poor-man's tuna equivalent of pan-searing a steak. Cook time varies by how much you trust the tuna, but we're talking minutes, and a small number of them. If the fish is good, I want pink in the center!

  • You can chop up and serve the tuna over vegetables - avocado and cucumber are what I usually go to. Anything that is good in Sushi will do here.

  • For rice, you can simply prepare a small amount of rice, or make sushi rice (that is, pre-rinse the starch off short-grain rice and coat it in a rice-vinegar/sugar solution at the end). See also risotto below.

  • For sauce, I usually make some spicy mayonnaise, which is just regular mayonnaise mixed with Sriracha hot sauce and a small amount of cayenne pepper. (You don't have Sriracha? We must never speak to each other again.) Here my inability to measure things is going to cripple the recipe. Basically you want to use a tiny amount of cayenne pepper - it adds a ton of heat and will make the sauce unmanageable very quickly. Add the Sriracha to taste - it brings spice but also a nice tomato flavor.

    For sauce you can also reduce rice vinegar and soy sauce (perhaps with some stock) into the pan after cooking the tuna. This doesn't quite work like a traditional fond in that the tuna isn't fatty enough to leave the rich drippings you get off of steak. Still, this can bring a salty flavor to the party that isn't as lethally hot as the spicy mayonnaise.

  • I usually serve this mess by doing something silly, like piling the tuna on top of the rice with the vegetables all around, e.g. you can play "New york chef" in the comfort of your own kitchen. The taller you stack it, the more points you get. Duct tape is cheating. The sauce can be poured right on or left on the side or safety. (If I've had a few beers before I start cooking and have been liberal with the cayenne pepper I leave the spicy mayo on the side for safety.)

Sushi Risotto

One of the weirder experiments I have done with this recipe was to make sushi risotto - that is, a risotto flavored with sushi-rice flavors (rice vineger, saki, sugar, although I probably ignored the Saki due to it not being on hand). I'm going to have to make the recipe again to remember what went into it, but the trickiest part is to get the two sets of flavors to play nice together. It can be done. I use Alton Brown's recipe as a starting point for Risotto, but in this case I backed off the white wine a lot (perhaps half a cup at most) to avoid clashing with the sushi-related flavors.

(The recipe was quite dreadful mid-preparation, and I thought we'd be ordering take-out, but as the alcohol cooked off the white wine, the whole thing mellowed.)

Anyway, if you can get a "sushi risotto" going, it can serve as a nice base to the tuna, bringing in some contrary flavors and making the rice more interesting.

Pie in the Sky

There are two other ideas for this recipe that I haven't gotten around to cooking yet:
  • Wasabi cream sauce. I'll have to figure out how to engineer this but the idea is to make a light cream sauce with a bit of wasabi flavor to pour over the rice. (This is a continuation of the whole "sush-like flavors" theme.) Probably this can't be done without using real cream.

  • Tangy sauce. Hell, I don't even know what this is. Basically at the Elephant Walk over a decade ago I had a raw tuna and vegetable appetizer, with some kind of tangy salty sauce that was just astoundingly good. If I had to speculate, there was fish sauce or oyster sauce in there, but cut with something to make it not lethal.

Bob Vila Needs Shrimp!

Lori and I found a good Chinese restaurant, just in the nick of time for xmas: Red Pepper, on route 9 in Framingham.

Disclaimer: Lori and I have become Chinese food snots - we like food that is more like what you'd have in China, rather than Americanized recipes. With that in mind, Red Pepper totally delivers!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bob Vila Needs to Make More Than the Mortgage

Lori and I have entered a new phase of owning a home: we have rented it out. Lori began vet school this month, so we needed to relocate to Massachusetts). Rather than sell the home and buy a new one (or not), we rented the house and are renting a condo near school.

We ended up using a property management company. I spent almost two months in DC trying to rent the house myself and eventually gave up. Given the work that the management company did on the house, it is possible that we could have rented it ourselves. But the quality of applicants I screened on my own wasn't good. What I've been told (and my experience bears it out) is that financially problematic tenants look for owner-landlords, thinking they won't be strict on financial criteria and/or won't do their homework. I did my homework, and what I saw was not pretty.

This is my game theory rationale for why a management company can pull better tenants. The agency cost is born by the landlord, who pays as much as first months rent in finders fees. The tenant pays nothing. High quality landlords and tenants are trying to find each other (or rather, if you are a high quality landlord, you want a high quality tenant, and vice versa). The agency cost acts as a selection signal - that is, if I am willing to burn my first month's rent on agency costs, I must believe that I will be able to sustain a high quality tenant in the long term, because my house isn't falling apart. High quality tenants know I am serious from this.

Since the finder's fee is real money, it's not a signal that can be faked easily by a landlord with a problematic house. But...why should the landlord pay the fee and not the tenant?

My answer is: asymmetric risk. As a tenant in a blue state, my landlord can't do much to me. His business is heavily regulated, the courts are sympathetic, and best of all, since he's sitting on property, he's a sitting duck for lawsuits. (That is, if he won't pay, I can get a judge to put his lien on his house.) I didn't realize how much leverage tenants had until I read the law as a landlord.

The landlord, however, is not in a great position. Give me a bottle of scotch and let me loose in your bathtub, and I can do damages to your house that will cost a full year's rent to repair. Against damage to an insanely expensive asset, a landlord has a few thousand dollars security deposit. And in terms of practical collections on damages, the tenant can skip town.

So it doesn't surprise me that the landlord pays for agency. It's worth a lot more to me financially as a landlord to have a good tenant than it is for me as a tenant to have a good landlord.

(As a tenant in Boston in 1998 I did use a broker, and it was structured where the tenant paid. Perhaps this is consistent with the brutally tight Boston housing market, where landlords can do pretty much whatever they want?)

So, Did You Make the Mortgage

The most common question I get asked when people here we're renting out our house is: do the rental payments cover your mortgage?

The short answer: yes.
The long answer: it's still definitely the lesser of two crappy housing options.

The problem is that the total cost of renting a house goes well beyond the mortgage. Besides the mortgage (which gives you a deduction against income tax on rental payments), you have property tax (a surprisingly big fixed cost), agency fees (in our case), repair and maintenance costs, and return on equity.

To focus on that last one: if you have positive equity on your home, it is not enough to get $1 more in after-tax rent than you spend per month in mortgage, maintenance, property tax, and any landlord-paid utilities. You are also losing the interest income on the money "tied up" in the house - your equity. If you would get cash out by selling, that cash could be sitting in a bank account, so it wouldn't be returning squat right now, but in theory there is such a thing as interest.

I don't know what the long term outcome of renting the house will be. I do know that in the very short term, we're still in the red due to one-time costs to get the house ready to rent. (A lot of that stuff is repairs we could have done but put off as owner-occupiers.)

I will describe the trade-offs of selling vs. renting out in a future post.