Monday, October 30, 2006
I started out in the tamaracks between the new house and the creek; some day I hope to have a trail from the back door to the creek. But I didn't see much there, except for fallen tamarack needles, so I went back through the yard up the driveway and started exploring some of the land south of the pond. This part of the land used to be a gravel pit; I don't know exactly when they stopped digging, but the pit shows up in a 1939 aerial photo. There are some mature trees in the pit area, so I'm guessing no gravel has been dug for at least thirty years. But whatever machinery was used to dig gravel left a nice ridge which is still a clear trail. It is one of my favorite places to walk on our land, but one I hardly ever get to. Imagine living on 40 acres and having my experience on mostly fifteen at the most. Pathetic, isn't it.
gravel pit trail
I found my way from the gravel pit ridge (which, if I ever won the lottery or procured my own backhoe I would proceed to make into a lakeshore, connecting with my existing pond) into the woods south of the house, eventually meeting up with the old barbed wire that roughly marks the south property line. From there it was an easy walk to the old railroad grade, which I have kept clear as a trail, and back to the house.
The only birds I saw were the three or so ruffed grouse I flushed during my ramblings. I actually had six flushes, but the first three may have been the same bird flushed three times. I later saw three grouse flush from the same area, so there are at least three grouse on our property.
I think the best place for birding on my land is right by the house. Chickadees were incredibly active Sunday; I sat on an old tree stump and watched them flit about the feeder for a long time. There were also goldfinches, red breasted and white breasted nuthatches, and an occasional downy or hairy woodpecker. I'm still hoping to see the gray jay or the black backed woodpecker again, just to prove I'm not crazy. Wait, I think it's too late for that. :)
Saturday, October 28, 2006
I just had to run out and take this photo as the evening light lingered across the swamp. And as I was doing so I thought "Damn! I'm lucky to be able to live here."
I'm lucky to enjoy some pretty good meals too. Today The Hermit had some lumber shopping to do at Menards in Duluth, and he called me on the way home to say he had picked up some steaks for dinner. Inch thick ribeyes. Mmmmm... We're getting a quarter of local grass-fed beef in a month, but our craving for steak could not wait.
So I thought about a side dish. Rice...done that last night. Potatoes...had them for breakfast. It was then I noticed the bin of rutabagas and the few parsnips, already starting to shrivel. I guess I have been suffering from Rutabagaphobia: the fear of cooking a vegetable with which you have no experience. I thought it would taste so bad I could not eat it, or that if I could eat it of course the kids would not. What was I thinking?
I went online and found, among the usual bland recipes for mashed, pureed rutabaga, one for rutabaga with caramelized onions. If I'm going to go down, culinarily speaking, at least I'm going to go down fighting. So in the above picture, lower left you see a skillet of onions (from the garden) on their way to caramelization, and, upper right, a pot of boiling rutabagas, along with the parsnips.
To make a long story short, I was impressed. I liked the earthy, nutty flavor the rutabagas had to offer, and they were wonderful along with the onions, salt, pepper, lots of butter, and a pinch of nutmeg and curry.
It's a good thing, because I have a whole bin of rutabagas to go, including the gigantic one I described earlier.
Oh yeah, if the steak and rutabagas weren't enough, we had sauteed mushrooms and onions, and fresh Swedish rye bread from the bread machine. I'm on a heritage kick lately; Swedish bread, Swedish music, I guess even rutabagas are a Swedish thing. Anyway, God natt.
The second bird came when my awareness was still heightened from the first. However, I had put the binoculars down so again it flew away before I got a good look. I did see a very definite black back with white breast, and it was acting very woodpecker-like, so I'm calling it...a black-backed woodpecker. Again, this is a northern species, uncommon in this area, but I have seen one here before a few years ago.
It is partly sunny here today, a bit on the cold, windy side but it's nice to see the sun. I think I'll go out to the cook shed and bottle my beer while listening to two new CD's that arrived today: another Vasen (Swedish group), and Yonder Mountain String Band live. Then maybe play some music of my own; Robin from Dharma Bums has got me thinking about Kate Wolf again.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
This is what three men can accomplish in eight hours, for less than the cost of us buying all the necessary equipment and doing it ourselves. That is to say, we had a local crew come out and do the base of the roof. Hiring out a job makes for good neighbors. By tomorrow, a good portion of the roof should be under cover of 1x6 inch tongue and groove boards.
As I was looking at the end results, I noticed a strange illusion. Previously, when I had looked at the floor layout under open sky, or even under roof rafters under open sky, the interior space seemed...small. But with less than half the roof covered up, the interior of the house suddenly seemed much bigger. I guess if you view something against an infinite sky, of course it will appear to be small, but if you define the space and give it ample height, as our house design does, it suddenly grows on you!
I am so anxious to have this all closed in. I will even do drywall myself, just to be in.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The snow buntings are back for the winter. A bird has to be really far Northern Hemisphere if it considers Minnesota to be its wintering grounds. I don't know if it is called Snow Bunting because it follows the snow, or because the adults, especially the males, in winter are the nearest thing to a pure white bird that can be found anywhere. They are like the horned lark in habit, hanging around roadsides and scattering in flight like snowflakes whenever a car passes. I am told another species, Lapland Longspur, occurs in flocks with snow buntings, but I have never observed a flock long enough to identify one.
The owls are hooting. One of the "luxuries" of living here is I get to go outdoors in the middle of the night at least once. I have heard barred owls calling to each other at all hours of the night in the last few days.
It was a sunny day, finally, and I got to spend some time outdoors at work, enjoying the sunlight. That must have energized me because after I got home from work I took Togo (the husky, the outdoor dog who deserves more blog photos than he gets) for a walk. I have not done that nearly enough lately, and he sure appreciated it. Come next week, I won't have that daylight after work.
All in all, not much to blog today, but then there is so much that goes unnoticed.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Simple explanation: They were a pair of The Hermit's jeans, which look very similar; I had mixed ours up sorting the laundry.
Which also explains why my jeans felt tighter Monday morning. At least now I know I didn't suddenly gain a few pounds over the weekend.
I think I'll just wear his pants from now on!
Oh well. I'm enjoying a laugh at my own expense. :)
Monday, October 23, 2006
Yesterday afternoon I remembered that I had promised someone closeups of tamarack needles. It was a good excuse to go exploring, but I only had to walk a few yards beyond my compost bin to find this tamarack that, unlike most of the others, had a very showy branch close to the ground.
I was only going to use one picture, but I think they both turned out well for being shot at 1/60 at F4. It was a bit cloudy at the time.
So I won't have to make a separate post, I'll say here that Calvin, Starflower and I saw both an immature and a mature bald eagle this morning on the way to work/school, both strategically positioned in trees near a road killed deer. Is this commute cool or what?
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Saturday, October 21, 2006
The Hermit is at duck hunting camp tonight, about sixty miles north of here. There have not been many ducks to be seen lately, but maybe something will show. It's more for the tradition, I'm not waiting for a duck to put in the roaster.
Oh, it's time for The Red Green Show. Gotta go. Maybe I'll even stay up for Monty Python at 11.
Last night we had one of The Hermit's specialties, fried fish (walleye, and no, it was not the "too-large" ones from the walleye ponds!). He essentially dips the cut up fillets in an egg wash and breads them with cracker crumbs, pan-frying them in oil. I made one of my specialties, oven fries, with potatoes from the garden, sliced and tossed in olive oil, and baked until just crisp. Much tastier and healthier than those bags of frozen French fries we until quite recently bought without question. We topped it off with two sliced tomatoes; we're still eating from the garden, although for every one we eat I throw probably two on the compost.
We were listening to the local independent public radio station, but after a while the music took a turn for the blues, not quite what a chilly Minnesota evening calls for. We weren't in the mood for any of the dozen or so CD's in the cook shed, so The Hermit pulled an old Lyle Lovett cassette tape from the several cassettes we had handy. It is one of my favorites of his; I'm not sure if it is his very first album, but it is definitely early Lyle. My favorite song from it is The Front Porch Song, which he cowrote with Robert Earl Keen Jr., another favorite musician. One line goes like this:
This old porch is just a steamin' greasy plate of enchiladas
With lots of cheese and onions, and guacamole salad...
Hmmm...guacamole...it's been a while...sounds good...
"That reminds me, I bought some avocadoes the other day," The Hermit said. "They were cheap at Chris' (grocery store). They should be somewhere in the refrigerator."
"I almost feel like making some guacamole. You think it would be good with fish?"
So I mashed and mixed avocado with picante sauce, and we tried it in place of tartar or cocktail sauce.
It was really good. So good, in fact, I think I'll make guacamole every time we have fried fish.
Who woulda thunk it? Do you have any unlikely combinations of foods you like?
Friday, October 20, 2006
When I arrived home late afternoon, I glanced out the window by the bird feeder just in time to notice a small hawk-like bird alight on a branch. I ran for my binoculars and my Sibley's field guide, knowing it had to be a Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, or merlin from its size and markings. After observing its activity, with it occasionally swooping and going back to a perch with sharp wing beats, and reading about the usual habitats of the species, and deciding it was too small to be a Cooper's, I made the call of sharp-shinned hawk. It was beautiful to watch, but it made the chickadees anxious.
One very good observation of the day, as if an eagle and a sharp-shinned hawk aren't enough, is that I seem to have finally lost some weight, or at least inches, in the last week or two. I put on a pair of jeans that had had a slightly tight waistband before, and they were just out of the wash which usually means extra-tight. The waistband actually had an inch or two of room to spare! This is great news, since I have managed to gain nearly forty pounds in the last three years, during which time I have been extra-conscious about diet. I rarely eat sugars, have no unavoidable food cravings, and my appetite is rather small. My only weakness is beer, but everyone's gotta have an Achilles heel. :) My secret? I have not changed my eating habits except perhaps consuming more bread since I got my bread machine. Homemade, whole grain bread is a real treat. But I have been doing some Internet research into possible causes. I suspect thyroid issues; actually the other night when I thought I might have a fever I was taking my temperature and could not get the digital thermometer up to 97. I thought something was wrong with the thermometer so I gave it to Calvin, who promptly registered 98.8! I have started taking a couple of carefully chosen supplements (not miracle diet pills!). It's probably too early to declare cause and effect, but at least something positive is happening!
A crew is coming on Monday to start working on the roof of the new house. Maybe, just maybe, we'll be in there by the new year. It can't happen soon enough!
So that's what's happening in my corner of the world. I found my copy of Chet Raymo's The Soul of the Night, which had been missing for a few days under some household clutter, so maybe I'll go catch up to the rest of the bloggers at Whorled Leaves. I'd really love to get out an instrument and play a tune, but that may have to wait until morning.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Growing up in the suburbs, I didn't know for a long time that tamaracks existed. I remember my dad getting all excited about "discovering" a tamarack bog in a city park just a mile or so from downtown Minneapolis, on one of his weekly bike rides. I went to college in the southern part of the state, beyond the tamarack's range in this state, and went on to graduate school in South Dakota, where trees are a rarity. ;) When we bought our land here, I was finally botanically aware enough to know that we had some tamaracks around, and from my job I had learned that their wood makes good, long lasting poles.
Still, it has taken a few years of living here, being in touch with the land on an everyday basis, to really know tamaracks. I mean, they are interesting trees; they are the only conifer that completely sheds its needles annually. They do this with quite a brilliant display of gold in the fall, that typically occurs about a week after all the other, deciduous trees have completely lost their leaves. They also turn a unique shade of green in the spring, as the new needles emerge, right about the time other trees are just starting to leaf out. And, there is some variation in tamarack stands; I know of one down on the corner three miles away that is still a light green in color, and last year had shreds of gold at least until December.
Our new house is right in front of a stand of mature tamaracks that extends north to the creek. However, this stand does not show the brightness of gold like some of the younger stands do.
Shine on. Lighten these last days of autumn.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
I spent today working walleye ponds; that is, going to the small natural ponds where we stock walleye fry in the spring, hoping they will grow into six inch or so walleyes to stock into larger lakes in the fall. It's pretty much a hit-or-miss operation; it is essential that the ponds "winterkill" the winter before, their oxygen levels dropping enough to kill off all fish life in the pond, so the young walleye will not have any competitors for food. And this year seems to have been a bad year for walleye production; the fingerlings I saw were very small, not the fat and happy six inchers or more that we like to see.
Our harvest today was pretty dismal, less than fifty pounds, so we decided to pull the nets from the ponds, it was not worth it to keep them in. Of course we ran up against some second-guessing from my boss, but he was not out there walking a boat over mud flats because the water levels were so low.
We stocked what we got into a beautiful lake, one of many that Minnesota has to offer. The public access is located just yards from a small dam and outlet, and that is not the ideal situation to stock fish because they will likely be swept over the dam. So we went to a resort on the lake, deserted for the fall it seemed, and stocked the fish there where they would have a better chance. It was so quiet, no one around, no boats out on the water and the water dead calm. I looked up and down the lake and saw the mist meeting the water and the bare branches of the trees. All dreadful and lovely at the same time.
The fish I stocked today were most likely drops in a bucket. But being out today, being forced to be out, was priceless. Tomorrow I'll be outside, dipping muskies from a drainable pond, not quite the same experience. That's one of the benefits of my job: lots of time outside, and no two days are the same.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
It was a lovely afternoon, sunny with very little wind, high in the fifties, so I spent some time harvesting the last of the root vegetables and planting garlic. I don't know what I am going to do with this giant rutabaga, or if it will taste good at all, but I can always feed it to the chickens. Besides rutabagas, I had carrots, a few parsnips (which is better than I've ever done with them), and Kennebec and Katahdin potatoes, both fairly productive white fleshed, yellow skinned taters. Here's the harvest:
The soil in the garden beds was delightfully cool and moist and earthy smelling. I still have some lettuce, Swiss chard and cilantro that survived the fifteen degree low temp this morning, and my experimental "winter greens" bed with spinach, kale, and lettuce.
There's something so melancholy about putting the garden to rest for the winter, but at the same time planting for next year. This is my second year doing it here, so it's almost a ritual. I was moving about as if in prayer, the sun hanging low in the southern sky and casting long shadows with its still radiant warmth.
Now...anyone have any good rutabaga recipes? :)
By the way...the garden trowel, visible in the picture of the rutabaga, I made in my seventh grade obligatory metal shop class. Still useful, and I did end up getting an "A" in the class!
Friday, October 13, 2006
Anyway, it's been a stressful day, and I hate wind and cold, especially in mid October! and The Hermit called, he should be home tomorrow early afternoon. So I polled the kids, they thought Tombstone pepperoni pizza was okay for dinner, who was I to complain. After dinner I put on...The Big Lebowski. Consensus of two out of three kids, and I was in the mood. Cuss words be damned, the kids can read the whole story better than I can.
Sometimes you eat the bar, sometimes the bar eats you.
I'm just trying to break even tonight. It gets cold, and quiet, and sometimes I wake up praying it stays just cold and quiet.
I could not do this alone, for any length of time.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
This is what can happen in October in Minnesota.
It won't stay long, (I hope). It's supposed to warm up again by the weekend.
I'm feeling a little under the weather today so I'm taking the day off from work. It's a good day to take a nap with a chicken soup in the slow cooker.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
This is the kind of scene that can and should induce heart palpitations in parents.
That said, they had a good time, and no one was injured.
This is at Robinson Park in the town of Sandstone, MN, on the banks of the Kettle River. There is a wondrous pile of sandstone slabs, striking terror into the hearts of many a parent, but nevertheless available for climbing. My kids, well, if there's danger, they'll go for it.
This used to be a real quarry, for the sandstone that lines the banks of the river and that gives the town its name. After the mid-20th century, apparently it became much more cost-effective to build out of cement block, never mind that sandstone buildings last forever and have a timeless quality about them. But the quarrying couldn't have gone on forever either. And so it goes.
Anyway, this park is a wonderful, out of the way place to have lunch and take a walk.
Friday, October 06, 2006
I've been watching the ever changing colors along the river bluffs on my way to and from work every day. I thought I'd better take a picture or two before there's nothing left; leaves can disappear overnight with a good wind this time of year.
At the top of the hill to the right is Calvin and Starflower's school. To the left is Banning State Park.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an experienced, expert brewer. If you want to read a blog by someone who knows what he is doing, check out Floridacracker's friend, Thunder Dave.
The first step was to put a gallon and a half of our sparkling clear well water into a large stock pot. While heating the water on the stove, I steeped some crushed grains in a mesh bag, somewhat like making tea. The grains were several varieties of malted barley. If I were a serious brewer I would start completely from grains, but I have neither the time nor the facilities for all grain brewing...yet. But I like recipes that call for steeped grains, which add fresh flavor and body.
I removed the grains before the water came to a boil. Then it was time for the malt extract, a thick, syrupy liquid derived from malted barley. This particular recipe called for over nine pounds; the more malt extract, the higher the alcohol content in the end. Three Hearted Ale is no "lite" beer! After adding the malt extract, I returned the mixture, now properly called "wort", to a boil.
And now for my favorite part...the hops. These are not whole hops I am holding in my hand, nor is it some kind of rabbit chow. Hops are commonly sold as pellets, which can be freeze-dried and vacuum packed, with a much longer shelf life than fresh hops. This particular variety is called Centennial; there are many different varieties, with subtle flavor and aroma differences. Some are more suited for adding at the beginning of the boil (bittering hops), while some are best suited to add aroma at the end of the boil (aroma hops). I don't know all the details; they all smell heavenly to me. I hear they are good as a relaxing herb. I sleep pretty soundly after a couple of hoppy ales. There are two kinds of beer drinkers: those who don't care for excess in hops, and those who can't get enough of them. I fall into the latter category.
So you bring the whole thing to a boil after the first hop addition, watching to make sure it doesn't boil over with all the converting proteins and oils, then the wort boils for an hour. This, in addition to killing off any wild yeasts or bacteria that might be present, causes subtle chemical changes in the malt and hops. I nearly failed my college organic chemistry course, so I can't tell you exactly what happens. During this time, in the case of this particular recipe, I added even more hops at later times in the boil; the later you add hops, the more "aroma" and less "bittering" they provide. I don't know how they figured all this out.
After sixty minutes, the wort is done boiling, and the objective is to cool it below 90 degrees F as quickly as possible, to avoid contamination. There are many fancy devices on the market now to accomplish this; my facilities and methods are fairly primitive. My well water stays cool, so I just filled the wash tub and ran fresh water in there once or twice. A floating thermometer told me when it was cool enough.
Meanwhile, I added about 3 1/2 gallons of cold fresh water to a specialized plastic bucket with a hole in the lid and a spigot near the bottom. When the wort was cool enough, I poured it into the bucket (primary fermenter) and cold water. At this point, I took a small sample and poured it into the tube on the left. With an instrument called a hydrometer, shown mostly submerged in the sample, I measured what is called the original gravity of the wort. Basically speaking, this measures relatively how much raw stuff you have in the beer that will be converted to alcohol. The higher the original gravity, the higher the finished alcohol content. This one measured out at about 1.060, which means this is going to be a fairly potent brew. Two Hearted is about six percent, so I'm guessing this will be in that neighborhood.
To the left of the hydrometer is the yeast packet. The yeast culture comes in a specialized package; a dry packet of yeast can be used in beer, but these state-of-the-art packets are much more reliable. There are even specialized strains of yeast for different styles of beer. About three hours before brewing, you clap the packet between your hands, which breaks an inner seal and mixes the pure yeast culture with a yeast nutrient. The package swells as the yeast comes alive. The advantage over dry yeast is that the yeast is already actively metabolizing and reproducing when you add it to the beer.
Finally, after the yeast is added, it's time to seal up the fermenter. This is the air lock, which is designed to keep a layer of water between the air and the wort, preventing contamination by bacteria or wild yeast. As of today, carbon dioxide is bubbling through the airlock at a rate of easily 30 times per minute; the yeast is doing its job! I'm keeping the fermenter in my cook shed; hopefully it will maintain the ideal temperature above 50 degrees for an ale.
Why all this work, you may ask? I did the figuring in my head; the kit cost $35, which sounds high, but the price per six pack will probably end up at between 4 and 5 dollars, compared with 8-9 dollars for Two Hearted. And, there's always the satisfaction of learning the process by doing it myself.
This, incidentally, is my 500th post here at SCA. How appropriate, to celebrate the domestic art of brewing a beverage so near and dear to my heart!
Sunday, October 01, 2006
With the recent rainfall over the last week or so, there has been a proliferation of fungi on the forest floor. I'm curious if these are supposed to look like this, or if some combination of freezing temperatures and intermittent rain caused this striking pattern. I don't know my fungi too well.
But I do know yeast, and all the wonderful things it can produce. This is my first loaf of bread from my new bread machine. I decided to go with a prepackaged mix to test things out, but this is no ordinary, white bread. It's a Swedish limpa rye, flavored with anise, fennel, and caraway, with a bit of orange. The machine did its job beautifully, although I think I may have added a touch too much water. The bread was fabulous, with all the complexity and body of a good beer. My entire dinner consisted of bread (dipped in melted butter), wine, and a salad made with red cabbage from the garden, along with walnuts and poppyseed dressing.
I spent the evening browsing through a bread machine recipe book, and now I have all kinds of visions of heavy grain breads, whole wheat buns, focaccia, sourdough...the possibilities are limitless. I think I'll head out right now and get a cracked wheat dough started!