Officially Fall

How do you judge the official arrival of autumn? The first time a southbound gaggle of Canada geese honks overhead? The first explosion of color in the trees? The first time you can rake enough maple leaves to get an aromatic bonfire roaring? The kickoff of the World Series?

All are good candidates, and all serve as good markers that the seasons are really changing. But for us, the ultimate indicator came in the dark, early yesterday morning: the first frost. Once that settles in, it’s the end of the growing season for a large portion of the garden. Oh, sure, there is some cold-hardy produce which can still be harvested even later in the year: leafy greens (such as collards and kale), root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc), and so forth.  But frost means the end of the line for tomatoes, peppers, and many other cold-sensitive plants. If these sensitive varieties are still out there after frost arrives, the produce is lost.

We’ve had frosts here as early as the 20th of September. Yes, that’s before fall has even arrived on the calendar. Get surprised by something like that, and you lose a lot of the hard work that went into growing now-wasted produce. As a result, we keep a close eye on the weather forecast after Labor Day. Fortunately, this year we were blessed with above-freezing temperatures until well into October.

But that doesn’t last forever – and especially not in Michigan. When we saw lows of 30F forecast for Wednesday night, we swung into action. Once his schoolwork was finished, the 15 y.o. hit the garden and began bringing in everything he could. When his two oldest siblings got home in the early evening, they jumped in to provide reinforcements. The three of them didn’t finish until well after it was too dark to see.

Where does one put that mother lode of garden produce until it can be sorted and consumed or preserved? Anywhere you can. Such as, I don’t know … maybe we could stash some buckets of tomatoes in a bathtub?

Harvest2

And maybe some baskets of peppers could be placed in the kitchen entryway? (Note the crates of potatoes that still need to be sorted and taken to the root cellar. That’s what the kids had been working on before the frost warning arose.)

Harvest1.jpg

I’m not even going to include a photo of the living room, the floor of which is now completely covered in butternut squashes (brought in last week, to cure, before going into long term storage).

What’s my favorite part of autumn? Running the wood stove has to be near the top of the list. Thursday morning, the house was the coldest it’s been in a while. I laid a fire, and in no time had a wonderful little blaze going. Absolutely nothing heats a home as cozily as a crackling fire. Note the large kettle, which from now on will provide a near-constant supply of hot water on demand. And the nice warming platform for my French press coffee. Not to mention the hanging string of peppers (far right) getting dried for preservation.

WoodStove.jpg

No doubt about it. Fall is officially here. I think we’ll celebrate by making lamb stew for Sunday dinner this week. And throwing another log on the fire, of course.

Lots of Hot Water

I’m not much of a tea drinker, and never had much interest in tea kettles. After all, who needs a special implement just to heat up water? Why not simply use a saucepan and lid? Even Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, who does make large quantities of herbal and medicinal teas for herself and the Yeoman Farm Children, has tended to agree. Besides, given that she usually makes tea in huge (2 qt) jars…the typical tea kettle doesn’t produce enough hot water anyway.

Sometime earlier this winter, MYF started thinking: we have a woodstove burning pretty much around the clock. We use a lot of hot water, not just for tea and warming up the baby’s milk, but also for cooking. It’s time-and-energy consuming, and a hassle, to heat up a saucepan of water every time we need it. Why not take advantage of that constantly-burning woodstove, and keep a kettle of water on it all the time? We could have hot water on demand, basically for free.

The only problem is that the typical tea kettle is so small, we’d be emptying it too frequently. And then MYF found the solution while browsing a Lehman’s catalog. Behold, super-sized tea kettles!

They come in 5 qt, 7 qt, and 9 qt…and the picture doesn’t really do justice to how big they are. We bought a 5 qt, and it is giant. I can’t imagine how big the 9 qt is. Most remarkable is how beautiful the kettle is, and because it’s made of stainless steel it is extremely solid. And, at less than twenty bucks, surprisingly inexpensive. I highly recommend it.

One of the most amusing things about this kettle, though, isn’t its size. It’s the whistle. I hate the typical shrill scream of most tea kettles. So, imagine our surprise and delight the first time we brought this one to full boil and discovered…its whistle sounds like a freight train! Truly appropriate for the thing’s massive proportions, and actually kind of fun to listen to.

We basically never run out of hot water anymore. And now that plenty of hot water is available any time, it’s become more convenient to make my coffee using a French press. I prefer coffee made that way, and the high mineral content of our water tends to ruin conventional drip coffee makers, but the hassle of heating up a quart of water at a time meant I didn’t use the French press very often. Now I use it every time.

Not to digress too much, but I really like my French press. The thing has a beautiful and elegant simplicity to it. And using it couldn’t be easier: put 1/2 cup of coarsely ground coffee in the bottom, add about a quart of near-boiling water (to within an inch or so of the top), stir with a wooden spoon, and fit the lid / pushrod / circular mesh filter assembly to the top.

Let it steep for at least four minutes, and then plunge the pushrod / filter all the way down to trap the grounds. The result is a wonderfully rich cup of coffee, with all the oils and flavors still in it.

Perfect for a cold Michigan afternoon by the woodstove of an old farm house. Or anywhere else you might find yourself today.

Fall Frame of Mind

Autumn has definitely arrived here in mid-Michigan. Leaves are beginning to turn. We’ve just had a few days in a row of dreary and overcast skies, drizzle, and temperatures that haven’t climbed out of the mid-fifties. On Monday I brought in some firewood, cleared the cobwebs out of our wood burner, and within a few minutes our family room was glowing with the kind of warmth that only a fire can produce. Unsurprisingly, the Yeoman Farm Children have begun camping out on the carpet in front of it to do their school work. Little Big Brother in particular likes to set up shop there, first thing after I fire it up in the morning, before his siblings come downstairs.

The arrival of fall has also led to a change of menu: soups and stews are back. I found a couple of lamb necks in the freezer, added a couple of chicken feet from this summer’s crop of broilers, and let the whole thing soak for a couple of hours with an onion and carrot in a large pot of water with some apple cider vinegar. I then brought the thing to a boil and let it simmer all night. Around mid-day, I de-boned the meat and then added seasonings and a lot of sliced carrots and potatoes (a food processor makes quick work of these). That pot simmered all afternoon, and proved an extremely popular dinner. We had a couple of quarts left over for lunches, but it otherwise disappeared the first night. I made another pot yesterday, and it was again a popular dinner centerpiece.

I’ll probably make lamb stew later in the week. My soups and stews are all basically simple variations on the same theme. With stew, I’ll lightly marinate some lamb stew meat or shanks in the crock pot with a little apple cider vinegar and an onion for a few hours. I’ll then add a bit of water, and let the crock pot run on low all night. By morning, the meat falls off the bone and is simmering in a wonderfully thick sauce. After removing the bones, I’ll fill the crock pot with sliced carrots, potatoes, onions, seasonings, and the cooked stew meat. It then cooks on low the rest of the day. By afternoon, the whole house is filled with an incredible aroma…and by dinner, everyone is more than ready to dig in. We’re usually lucky if there’s a serving or two left over.

With eleven or so lambs going to the butcher in a couple of months, and a whole bunch of laying hens still needing to be butchered, we’re trying to clear out as much of last year’s meat as we can. I have a feeling we’re going to be keeping the crock pot and soup pot full for a while.

Ashes Again

I love heating our house with wood. Particularly up here in Michigan (at least compared to the Illinois prairie where we just moved from), firewood is cheap and abundant. Several people up and down our road, including our next door neighbor (no, not the one with the killer dog), seem to spend their entire summers cutting and splitting mountains of trees. The result is a fairly inexpensive, plentiful, renewable source of American-made fuel.

The house we bought has an oil burning furnace, which is our first experience with home heating oil. Is this stuff expensive or what? Fortunately, the system of baseboards that the furnace pumps hot water up to is pretty intelligently set up. There are three zones: one for the whole downstairs, one for the two childrens’ bedrooms upstairs, and one for the master bedroom upstairs. In other words, during the day, we can use oil to heat just the two rooms where the kids do their schoolwork. The woodburner the previous owners left is one of those sealed fireplace units with a blower fan, and it easily puts out enough heat to keep the whole downstairs comfortable. No, it’s not as nice as the Amish-made wood cookstove we had in Illinois, and the blower won’t do us much good in a power outage, but for daily use it is wonderful. (And we may well replace it with a cookstove next winter.)

Anyway, the biggest problem with this woodburner is the ashes. Our cookstove had slats at the bottom of the firebox, so the ashes would fall through and collect in a long metal drawer underneath. When it got full, it was very simple to pull that drawer out, carefully take it outside, and dump the ashes in a metal can for later use in the garden. In our new woodburning unit, the ashes simply accumulate and pile up in the bottom of the fireplace. Each day, the fire must be built slightly higher than the previous day’s fire. Each day, there is slightly less room for firewood. This is a subtle and almost indiscernable process; you don’t realize how much fire space you’ve lost until you discover yourself struggling to cram pieces of wood into the box.

This weekend, I realized just how much ash had accumulated. We let the fire go all the way out, and then I started shoveling. And shoveling. And shoveling. Had to be careful not to spill ashes on the carpet as I knelt and gingerly emptied each shovelfull into a container. Finally, ten minutes later, the great bulk of the ashes had been removed and we could build another fire.

I’ve been thinking about that process since yesterday, when we had a somewhat different commemoration of ashes. We went to Mass in the morning, and the priest made a large cross of ashes on our foreheads, admonishing us to “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of death; indeed, they are all that’s left over when all the wood’s fuel has been burned. So we put the ashes on to remind us of our own mortality, and that, as St. Paul says, tempus breve est (time is short).

But perhaps the ashes can mean even more than that. Don’t “ashes” also symbolize all the death that we’ve allowed to accumulate in our lives? All the bad habits and self-indulgences? All the creature comforts we allow ourselves? All the duties we procrastinate about fulfilling? All the little ways we waste time at work? Over the course of a year, all these things accumulate and fill the firebox so slowly, we don’t realize how much smaller our fire has gotten as a result. We need to shovel all those things out, and build the fire anew. And that’s what I love so much about Lent.
And you know what really surprised me? When I shoveled the ashes out this weekend, I’d thought the fire had completely cooled. But it hadn’t. Once I started digging deep, I discovered lots of coals that were still burning bright red. Somehow, under all those ashes, with no air or fuel, they had remained unextinguished. As I worked, I moved these coals to the side. When the ashes had been removed, I piled all the coals back up in the middle of the firebox. I then “framed” them on either side with large pieces of wood, and began piling fuel on top of the coals. Paper, twigs, cardboard, and then branches and larger pieces of wood. Soon, the fire was burning again — and bigger than ever.

Under all those ashes we’ve let accumulate since last Easter, I bet each of us still has plenty of nice red coals. Let’s get those ashes out and see what we can do to get our spiritual fires blazing again.

Really, Really Cold

Temps here have dropped through the floor, but that’s not the worst of it: the wind is blowing across the open prairie at 25+ MPH, sending the wind chills well below zero. The air temps aren’t supposed to get back above 20 until Thursday at the earliest. At least it’s bright and sunny outside, but we could sure use some global warming right about now.

Time to hunker down and throw another log on the fire. The wife and kids are out of town visiting grandparents, or they’d be bouncing off walls for sure. My plans: pull up a chair in front of the woodstove and read a J. A. Jance mystery novel I’ve been wanting to get to. No doubt the dogs will follow me in and sprawl out on the kitchen floor. Can’t blame them; it sure beats burrowing into straw in the barn, and they’ve long ago figured out that I’m a softie for letting dogs in the house. Here are Tessa and Scooter, in my office on a recent cold day.

How cold is it? The weekly Saturday night Bingo game at our parish has already been cancelled. Members of our Knights of Columbus council take turns running those games, and this was my week. I’ve been planning to blog about Bingo, with some thoughts I’ve had about these events. Maybe tonight, now that I’ve suddenly got several more hours than I thought I was going to have, and I’ll have the house to myself. But for now, I need to go throw another log on the fire.

Sunday

I have to admit it: for many years, I had a “weekend” mentality. Saturday and Sunday were, for me, a unit of time between work weeks. Apart from Sunday Mass, there wasn’t much difference between the two days. It was like one big block of time off.

I’d read a biography of St. John Vianney which detailed his fire and brimstone homilies against the abuse of the sabbath rest, which had been rampant when he came to Ars. I dismissed those admonitions as being only for 19th century France. This was, after all, a different time and a different culture.

What finally got me thinking more about Sunday, and how it ought to be special, was John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Dies Domini. Even then, however, I wasn’t convinced that our family needed to treat Sundays all that much different than Saturdays. Fortunately, my wife was convinced otherwise. Together, we agreed to try making a radical change in the way we approached Sunday. Going forward, on Sundays, we would do only essential chores and tasks. No more working on cars, butchering animals, building fences, planting trees, or non-critical repairs. Shopping, even for Sunday dinner, had to be completed on Saturday. Exceptions could be made if we were traveling, or if something extraordinary came up, but otherwise Sunday would be kept strictly as a day for family, or for having friends over to visit.

The transition was a rough one for me, and wasn’t without some conflict, but it didn’t take long before I grew to appreciate our family’s new aproach to the Sunday rest. Week by week, we increasingly “took back” the seventh day. We slowed down. We enjoyed the time together, and we enjoyed the liberation from all the bustling around and feeling that we had to be “getting something done.” My mentality changed: I began to treasure the abundance of time-freed-from-expectations we had each Sunday. After we get home from Mass in the late morning, the kids and I read, or watch a sporting event on TV, or go for a walk down country roads with the dogs, or we watch a movie. Today we watched part of the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, and later tonight we’ll read the last chapter of one of the Great Brain books.

We also try to have something special for dinner, and it’s usually my responsibility to select and prepare it. Today, I picked beef roast. The roast came from a pasture-fed cow, raised on a neighboring farm, by good friends of ours from the local parish. Before the cow was sent to the slaughterhouse, we arranged to buy half of the beef that came off that animal. We ended up with a wonderful collection of steaks, roasts, hamburger, and soup bones in our freezer, and it’s by far the best beef we’ve ever had. What makes it even more special is our personal connection to the people who raised it, and knowing just how healthy and well cared for the animals in that herd are.

Temperatures here were in the single digits this morning, and the wind chill was well below zero. We got a roaring fire going in the woodstove, and decided this would be a good day to cook in it. I put the roast in a cast iron Dutch oven, then filled the remaining space with seasonings and thinly-sliced carrots, potatoes, and onions. I added some water, and then put the lid on the Dutch oven. Finally, I slid the Dutch oven into the oven compartment of the woodstove. As this picture shows, the Dutch oven is in the oven compartment to the right; the firebox is to the left. The slot at the bottom left is the combination ash tray / air intake. By opening or closing the door to that tray, we can increase or decrease the fire’s air supply — and thus the size of the fire.

The woodstove kept the house quite comfortable, even though the temperature outside never got above twenty degrees. And the roast was absolutely delicious.

Apart from cooking dinner and doing the usual chores, we didn’t really get anything “done” today. Yet I wouldn’t trade this Sunday time for anything. And just a few years ago, I never would’ve imagined the day when I’d say that.

The Value of a Woodstove (and a wife who insists on having one)

We awakened Friday morning to discover our propane furnace had gone out. With temperatures in the twenties, and snow on the way, it was an enormous relief to know we had a woodstove in the kitchen—and a good supply of firewood outside. It was something my wife had insisted on, and which we’d installed a few months after moving in. As I built a fire, and felt the heat slowly fill our frigid house, I made a mental note to tell her “thanks.”

We got the stove from Lehmans, a supplier of non-electric products. The stove itself was made by an Amish farmer, and is not much to look at, but it puts out enough heat to keep the house comfortable in the dead of winter—and we do cook with it. The oven is especially nice for roasts and other dishes which don’t require a precise temperature.

As I returned to the house from doing the morning chores, there was nothing quite as beautiful as the sight of smoke curling from the oven’s smokestack.

Oh – we did get the furnace back on line Saturday morning. In the city, it probably would’ve taken days to have gotten someone out to look at it. Around here, we’ve gotten to know a local independent plumbing/heating/cooling contractor personally. We called him, not some faceless company selected from the yellow pages. He was able to shuffle his schedule for us, diagnose the problem, order the new part, and get it installed within 24 hours of our call. That’s one of the things we like most about living here.