Drying Chilies

My husband and I like to travel a lot, and wherever we go, we find new varieties of peppers. In India alone we found Lal Mirc, Bili Mirc, Ganesh, a little fiery short pepper from Assam, and a long fruity red pepper with less heat. In Roswell, New Mexico, while my husband was checking out the UFOs, I was headfirst in the hardware store buying every chile seed they had. So what do we do with all that? Well, we chop them over eggs, we pickle them, we make lots and lots of fiery colorful hot sauce, we roast them, sweat them, peel and seed them and eat that, we stuff them with potatoes and cheese, we massage sore muscles with the infused oil of them, and we dry them.

String ‘Em Up

Stringing peppers to dry

Lal mirc

This is really easy. Choose thin-skinned chilies like cayenne for room-temperature drying. Pick only ripe, colorful ones. Get some thread- button thread is nice- and a big needle. Make a sloppy knot at the bottom. Run the needle through the hardest part of the green calyx at the top of the chile- not the stem as it will split, and not into the pepper. At the bottom of the stem where it is thick and the needle has a harder time getting through is where you want to be. For the first chile, go back around and run your needle through the knot at the bottom of the thread, where I told you to make it sloppy. That way the thread runs around the stem and it won’t pull through. Now just keep threading the chilies on, making sure the thread doesn’t tangle around the stems. Make it as short as you like but not more than 2 feet- that gets cumbersome. Hang it up in a decorative place where it won’t get knocked down.

Thicker Chilies

Stringing peppers to dry

Stringing peppers to dry

I noticed that some of my dried chilies tended to have mold inside them when I opened them.  I remembered that I had dried them in the greenhouse, which becomes an oven in summer, but gets cool and damp at night in the fall. Also, notice that chipotles, which are made from a ripened  jalapeno-like pepper, are smoke-dried. I got some amazing ones in Roswell- fantastic mole/fire-butter recipe to come eventually. Aha! So thicker peppers must be dehydrated in a really hot place, like my attic, or a smoker. The attic works perfectly as long as the weather is warm, but the improvised smoker -it remains to be seen. I smoked them with sassafrass leaves in my closed grill with a low heat, then slit them and put them in the dehydrator. We shall see. I did not string them because the last time I tried that the string burnt and the peppers fell in the fire….

To Trim or Not to Trim

At the top you may decide to tie some cornshucks for decoration. Get clean ones from the inside of the husk, tie the string around them, and shred, trim and fluff them so they make a nice top. I have sort of stopped bothering with that. I just hang them all over the house. They are pretty, and you can add them to food any time you want.

Make Your Own Chile Powder

toasting dried peppers

toasting dried peppers

Eventually I  take them down, dust them off, break them to release the seeds, toast them lightly by stirring in a dry cast iron pot, and throw them in the blender to create my own chile powder. I never have to buy it. The challenge is actually to grow chiles that are mild enough to get plenty of flavor before the heat becomes too much.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.

 

Jams and Jellies

How to make jam/jelly:

Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin
Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin

Jelly is just jam without pulp. It is easier to have jam come out right because the fruit can cover for you if it didn’t jell properly, but it’s really pretty easy. You make the juice by straining the cooked fruit through muslin- or an old t-shirt stretched over an upside down chair. Put a chair upside down on the table, stretch thin, clean white fabric over it- we used to have all these old fashioned diapers- I swear they were clean- and attach the corners firmly to the legs with strip of rag, rubber bands, what have you. Make sure it is very firmly tied or you will have boiling hot fruit splashed everywhere. Set a large bowl under the cloth on the bottom of the chair seat. Cook the fruit with water just peeking through the layer below the top layer When it is properly soft dump it carefully into your cloth strainer and let it drip overnight. Don’t squeeze the bag unless you aren’t worried about the clarity of the jelly.

Pectin:

Making plum jam

Making plum jam

Some fruit has pectin; some does not. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies become firm. There is a lot of pectin in apples, the greener the better. It is possible to make your own liquid pectin from green apples, especially what we call the drops- the smaller apples that fall early and don’t really ripen. However I find I am not good at producing a consistent product so I don’t always do it. Yes, it is the right thing to do- we should not be dependent on a bought product if we can make it ourselves. But if my jelly turns out really tough or really runny, it is sort of a waste of my fruit and labor. I need to improve, but in the meantime, if you don’t mix apple juice with a non-pectin fruit like elderberry or suncherries or even hot peppers, there is Surejel and Ball Pectin, Dutch Jel (sold in bulk at Amish type bulk food stores), or many other brands. Follow the recipe, although I often try to reduce the sugar just a little and generally it is fine. If not, either use the runny jam on pancakes or follow the instructions on the pectin instructions for “if your jelly fails…..”

So, procedure wise:cukes and razz jam 004

Have your jars all ready: wash them with very hot water, set them to dry on a clean folder dish towel or thick cloth. Boil the lids for 15 minutes. There are magnetic lid lifters to get them out of the boiling water, or you can use tongs. Have more ready than you think you will need.

Measure your fruit or juice into a very large pot. It has to boil up a lot and you don’t want to boil over. Have your sugar measured out and ready. Bring your fruit or juice to a boil, with or without the pectin, boil for a minute, then add the sugar and bring to a boil. My female ancestors always skimmed the “scum” off, which was delicious foam to little me, but I don’t see why. Some people put a teaspoon of butter in to stop it scumming. I don’t think it matters to the end result. Maybe if you are making a very clear, pretty jelly you need to worry about skimming scum. The important part is to watch for sheeting. If you boil it too long first it will cool tough and stringy, with less fruity taste, and then it will be tough and brown, and pull like candy. Still yummy, but we’re making something to spread on bread here. Get a large wooden spoon. Spoon up a little of the liquid after it has boiled hard 1 minute. Let it cool about 10 seconds, then, turn the spoon over so that the jelly runs off the edge of the spoon. I prefer to let it roll over the back of the spoon. It seems to show the sheeting better. Watch the drips. What you see before it sheets is two  drips running off the spoon separately.  Stir and try again. Now the drips might start to run into each other but still become one normal shaped drip. Try again. Don’t leave it. Finally the two drips will run together but stay wide, like a flat blob, and fall off in a sheet. This is the perfect time to jar. If it never happens, perhaps your fruit was too ripe, you changed the recipe too much, or you went to the bathroom and it overboiled. In this case you can either reprocess your jam according to the “if your jam fails” directions on the package insert, you can just let it be runny and label it pancake syrup, and actually, some pectin added jellies will firm up over time. But it’s not that hard. Usually it is fine. Check out the raspberry jam recipe. That one needs only sugar.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

I haven’t really experimented with methoxy and other low sugar options. I don’t use that much sugar normally and I am an old stick in the mud about new ideas that involve long words. It took me a long time to give in to pectin. My maiden name is Dabney; an old Virginia name. Did you ever hear this one? How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, I’d say four or five. One to change it; the others to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was.

When you pour your boiling hot jam or jelly into the clean jars, having them on an old towel prevents damage to the tabletop.  Use a funnel to prevent drips. Make sure your funnel is clean by upending it in the boiling water you have the lids in. Check the edges of the jars for drips as that can prevent a good seal.

Two ways to seal:

Put the lids on finger tight. I invert the jars for 7 seconds and then set them up right-ways again. You will hear a soft hiss as air superheated by the hot jam exhausts  out of the jar. Then tighten it a bit more- as it is hotter you can do that. If I do this I find I don’t usually have to process in a hot water bath and I don’t get mold.

Or you can put on the lids finger tight and submerge them in a pot of hot water, boil for 15 minutes, then pull out and allow to cool. You can get jar lifters cheaply in the dollar store or many hardware stores. This will allow you to safely remove the jar to a clean towel where it can cool. It will be nice and clean to label and put in the pantry.

no knead bread
This is the “no knead” bread made famous by Mark Bittman.

Yum. Now, you need to make some proper bread to put that on, seriously. Remember I told you

Roasting a Haunch of Venison over Charcoal

venison haunchThere is nothing in this world better for a carnivore to eat than this; a crisp, brown, smoky haunch of venison, juicy, tender, and deep rosy pink, yet cooked, down to the bone, fragrant with rosemary and garlic. The texture of the meat is finer than beef or goat, leaner than lamb, juicier than antelope. The taste is iron-rich but delicate; our Whitetails seem much less gamey to me than mule deer I have eaten from Texas.

Right Eating

This meat feels good to eat. You know that this animal lived free, died suddenly, and is the ultimate in free range and grass-fed. Yes, I worry a little about the fact that she probably ate tender tips of GMO soy, but it’s the best we can do right now. Since we butcher our venison ourselves, we know this meat is clean and we usually know exactly where the deer was killed. Our deer population is too high, but not to the point that we have to worry about disease, so we can feel pretty good about eating this meat. This article is divided in to two parts: the recipe and the cooking method, both of which are important to creating this pinnacle of carnivorous eating.

The Recipe:

1 haunch of venison, see post. Takes three days to thaw in a large pan (Blood will come through the wrappings) in the refrigerator, faster in a 5 gllon bucket of cold water if you are in a rush.

1 head of garlic

1-2 tbs sea salt to taste

1/2 cup rosemary needles

6-8 dry bay leaves, crumbled

3-4 tsp other dried Meditterranean herbs, such as oregano, basil, and thyme, as seems delicious to you.

1/2 c. olive oil ground

1-2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper.

Break up the garlicand peel the cloves. You want a good handful. I said a head but it depends on the size of the head. It could be more or less. You can crush them with the flat of a big knife and the skins will come right off. Throw all ingredients (less the haunch) into a blender or food chopper and whirl. You should have a thick, coarse, rosemary/garlic dominated paste. Rinse the meat and set in a pan. Pat dry if you are that sort of person, and rub the paste all over the haunch. Rub it well into the cut end as well. Depending on whether you planned ahead or whether this is a last minute rush, you can either wrap it up and refrigerate it overnight, or refigerate it in the pan until the fire is ready. In winter I just set it on top of the piano on the back porch….. Either way it will be great.

Cooking Method: The Indirect Method

I remember the first time I tried roasting venison this way, on a round Weber kettle grill in my backyard when we were living in the city. My daughter Crystal, then five, was upset to be eating Bambi, and refused at first, but as her father was later and later for supper she grew hungrier and hungrier, and finally agreed to try a little taste. Her little face became very serious as she thought about it, decided it was probably a wicked deer who kicked its mother, and quickly gobbled two big slices. This is the trick, learned from the owner’s manual all those years ago: You can’t just put the meat on the grill when it is going to be on there 2 hours, because the fat will drip in the fire and burn, and the meat will be deeply charred on one side. The indirect method solves this problem. First, take off the grill and prepare to start the coals as you nomally would.

Starting the Coals

I prefer not to use lighter fluid as it is toxic and nasty. There is a weber coal starter which costs about 15 dollars and starts about the right amount of charcoal with a few pieces of newspaper. It is a sort of metal chimney with a basket in it. That is very easy. Another easy way is to put dried grass, twigs, sticks, and charcoal in a paper bag, ball it up, and light it. Keep an eye on it as you may need to move things around to get it to catch evenly. Yes, bags of briquets are not sustainable or virtuous, but charcoal burning has always been a bad thing in that sense. If you burn brush frequently you can try smothering your fires and saving your own. Otherwise, sigh and continue.

The Pan/Coals Setup

You will need a pan that you don’t care about which is big enough to fit your haunch. It is ok if the shank bone sticks out as the meat will shrink away from it anyway. I have even reused old aluminum disposable pans. Once the coals are caught, put on a heavy glove and get a tool to move the coals into a ring in which your pan will sit. I use a garden trowel to clear a space and then tongs for individual coals. Your pan should be sitting surrounded by coals. At this point, since my present grill is awkwardly shaped for this, I heap more charcoal on top of the caught ones. You want to be able to let it go for about two hours. If it runs out, you will either have to finish it in the oven or move the whole hot greasy setup to the side, probably burning yourself and get soot everywhere, in order to add coals.

Finally, the Meat!

Now, put the grill back in place, put the haunch on top, and close the lid, adjusting the side/bottom and top vents almost halfway open. The meat will be quickly sealed all over by the smoky heat, which will be nearly at its highest at first, and then will gradually go down, so don’t check on it too much as you will be letting out heat and adding to the time. The meat will continue to cook in towards the bone even after the outside has stopped getting darker, which is an added reason for the traditional half-hour wait for juices to reabsorb once it is off the grill. I have tossed a haunch of goat on the grill, gone swimming in the river for two hours, and come back to find it perfect. But I was lucky. Two hours for a haunch is a ballpark figure. I have had a yearly buck’s haunch done in an hour and a half, and an enormous doe’s haunch take two and a half hours. It is pretty forgiving, but I start poking the meat at an hour and 45 minutes. The shank meat will be soft and overdone, and the fattest part will be springy.  The color will be nice and brown, with burnt rosemary and garlic encrusted all over it. I am too Luddite to use a normal thing like a meat thermometer. Generally I just call it done and take it in on a carving board to sit for a half an hour, but put the lid back on the coals just in case I am wrong.

Slicing

roast haunch of venison

My sister did this one very slowly for that awesome even pink- mine are generally darker with some grey on the edge.

When the meat has sat a half an hour, take a large and very sharp carving knife and slice in perpendicular to the bone. Here is a post about how to sharpen a knife. It should be brown on the outside, grey as you go in, and then pink until the bone. That is the benefit of a fast start and a slow end to your heat. You want it to be pink but not raw, although there are many who disagree. Some people want it as raw and bloody as possible, while others fear parasites. I believe our deer are healthy but I like a deep rose pink, juicy but cooked.

Thoughts on Grills

My kind and thoughtful husband has provided me with a grill that looks a bit like a locomotive and has both gas and charcoal grills on it. It is a princely gift. However the charcoal area is only a little bit larger than the pan I use to do my indirect haunch roasting, so I carefully perch coals around the pan. It is a bit tight and a bit precarious. Honestly, for this particular kind of cooking, which, I might add, is also good for smoke-raosting whole chickens, turkeys, etc., a cheap kettle-style grill is easier. But I would never mention this to my husband.

How to split wood by hand

a heavier splitter

a heavier splitter

Splitting firewood is not just a matter of upper body strength. It is a matter of observation, accuracy, and patience as well as the ability to swing a splitting ax. My elderly father is the best wood splitter I know. He can hit the exact same spot every time, and thus can split with a fairly light ax, and he understands the wood.

If you don’t split wood, you have to just use the pieces of wood that will fit in your stove without splitting, and a huge log by itself is very hard to keep going. Women are sometimes intimidated by the idea, and men who haven’t learned from their fathers in boyhood may not know where to start, so they drop several thousand dollars on a gas or electric splitter. Not only is that expensive, noisy, and liable to break down, but in the event of a power failure or some disaster, it may not function. And really, splitting wood is fun. It’s a meditative and satisfying chore, and you can quit when you’re tired.

You need an axe, a maul, and some wedges.

a good axe for women

a good axe for women

I like the splitting axe I bought at Lowes. It is not super heavy, but it has a good shape for forcing open a log, and it has a sharp edge, unlike some blunter splitting axes that really work best for men with powerful upper bodies. The only thing that can be annoying is that the shape sometimes makes it pop up out of a log that isn’t quite split.

A maul is a giant metal hammer, although the link shows mainly heavy splitting axes. I use it a lot, because most logs I can’t split in one glorious smash. I can split cedar in one vicious whack, but otherwise I’m pounding on a wedge or the back of my splitting axe to open the logs. Even if your arms are not enormous and powerful, if you keep driving a wedge into a sound piece of wood, eventually it will split, no matter how big.

Wedges when I was growing up were long triangular wedges of metal, pounded flat on one end like a giant nail. After you made a crack in the log with your axe, you could pound in a wedge and it would split. Sometimes you needed more than one wedge, an sometimes you could pound the wedge into the natural checking (the cracks that appear as the log dries out). But today the new wedges are amazing. I have something called a wood grenade, which as one sharp point and four v shaped edges. You can set the point in your log, longest axis in line with how you want the log to split, tap it in , and all you have to do is whack it with your maul until it splits. Seriously, this wedge makes life a lot easier. I actually found one at the Goodwill for 5 bucks after I mislaid my other one.

When you are cutting up the dead tree into rounds that you will be splitting, look at the length of your woodstove or the breadth of your fireplace, but also look at the structure of the wood. If the piece of wood you are cutting has a straight clean look and no branches sticking out of it, likely the interior structure will be easy to split. If not, cut the piece a little shorter. It is going to be harder to split and shortness makes it easier. For example, cedar is very easy to split. With a determined whack I can cleave a cedar log in twain. But where a cedar tree has had side branches, it’s a tangled nightmare, just flexible enough to trap your wege. I just split of as much as I can and hope I can fit the rest in the stove.  Otherwise I’ll just throw it on the brushpile. I’d rather have it be so short it fits in the stove sideways.

When you have decided which log you are going to split, set it upright/lengthways on a stump or another log. If it is on the ground and you hit it, the ground will absorb some of the blow and the log won’t split as fast. If the ground is soft it’s even worse. Look at the radial cracks in the log and decide how you are going to split it. What pieces do you want to come apart? You can put your wood grenade right in the center, unless there is a soft spot, in which case go off center. Turn the wood grenade so the long axis aligns where you want a crack to open. Tap it in while holding it until you feel it is set, and then stand back a little and start pounding it in.

I try to split logs with my axe, especially with cedar and dry cherry, but often the axe is embedded in the log, and I have to pound on the back of it with my maul to split the log. Also, if the wedge is trapped or I want to guide a crack, I will use my splitting axe blade as a wedge.

As you get used to swinging a heavy metal object that could hurt your legs or ankles if you miss and whack yourself, you will develop confidence and accuracy in your swing. Over time your arms will get stronger too. Soon you will see the crack snake across the top of the log, and hear the slow progressive cracking and popping as the log splits. You will start enjoying it, and learning how to split the halves into quarters as well.

The thing is to go for it. Making sure you aren’t going to hit anything you shouldn’t, like your foot, plant your feet, raise your axe, eye the spot you want to hit, and just bring that axe down hard.  Fling caution to the winds for that instant. Hit the log as hard as you can. If you miss the spot, try it again. But just hitting something as hard as you can, with no hesitation, with all your power, can be very liberating. Try it with a short piece of cedar. You will feel great when the two pieces fly to either side.

Now, if you get tired, here’s another manual option; a manual hydraulic splitter- my DH bought me one for Christmas- better than a vaccuum cleaner or an exercise bicycle! Here’s the link to the post.

Another great idea from guest blogger John McNerney:

As Susan already mentioned, setting the logs you are splitting on something solid is important for effective wood splitting. Otherwise, the soft ground will absorb some of the impact of your blow. I sometimes just line a few logs up on an old 2″x12″ board laid on the ground. If the board rests flat on the ground, it works fairly well. I also often set the log to be split up on top of another log or stump, as Susan also mentioned. Depending on how you like to swing, this higher stand may work well for you.

One problem is that as you split the log (and sometimes even if you don’t split it), the log or piece falls over, requiring constant bending over to pick up and reposition the log. If you lay an old tire on your splitting board or stump, you can stuff it full of logs standing on end, then swing away to your heart’s content. The tire holds the logs in place as you split – no more resetting the pieces after each swing! (I’ve seen some folks screw the tire to their splitting platform/stump, but I’ve never bothered with that). This is a real time and back-saver, especially if you are splitting up kindling.

You can do something similar by standing a bunch of logs on end and wrapping long bungie cord around the whole group. (a rope with short bungie tied on the end will also work). The bungie keeps tension on the loop, holding up the logs, but allowing for some expansion as the pieces are split.

using a tire to split logs

Thank you John

This is John’s son, age 11, using the tire technique. While the young man is clearly sturdy, he hasn’t grown into his full strength yet, but he can do this. This is of particular interest to those of us lacking upper body strength or having a tendency towards a bad back.

Logging School!

Looking around an alumni site on the internet I recently ran across a classmate, John McNerney, who logs in Monkton,Vermont. He had written an article about a wood cutting and chainsaw use course and thought it might be useful to my readers. I agree, in that it lists skills we all need to have with our equipment and in the woods, and also in that it lets you know that there are great classes like this out there. Reading a website is a great start, but it is nowhere near as helpful as a hands on class. Read on:

My experience with the “Game Of Logging” courses:

John McNerney

 

Prior to buying a wooded parcel in 2001 here in Monkton, VT, I had never operated a chain saw. Since I wanted to cut my own firewood, do some wildlife habitat management (applying some of what I had learned in my Vermont Coverts Cooperator class), and open up some hiking trails, I figured it was time I learned. I bought a chainsaw, read the manual that came with it, got my more experienced neighbor to give me some pointers, and went at it. It was not long before I realized that I knew just enough to seriously injure or kill myself or someone else, not to mention the damage I could do to the forest in the process of trying to get a tree to drop where I wanted it.

 

Since I planned on being around to see my kids grow up, and have the use of all my limbs while doing so, I decided it was time to get some serious training in how to work more safely in the woods with a chainsaw. A “Game Of Logging, Level I” course was being offered in my area, sponsored by Vermont Family Forests, and taught by Northeast Woodland Training. I took a gamble and signed up. The class was quite an eye opener. Participants ranged from novices like myself to veterans who had been logging for 20+ years.

 

The Level I course taught basic chainsaw safety techniques, how to handle a saw and fell a tree with precision. The technique taught is quite a bit different than what you may have been doing for years, or what the manual that came with your chainsaw describes. It allows much greater control of when, where, and how a tree falls. A bonus that I had not expected was picking up some great tips on how to work efficiently — which has allowed me to get more done while avoiding fatigue (which can also lead to accidents). By the end of the day, participants could drop a tree within couple of feet of a target stake driven into the ground 30+ feet away. Some of the participants managed to shatter the target stake by hitting it dead on. We did this even when dropping the tree in a direction other than the one it “wanted” to go. A handy talent to have when you are trying to protect that nice old apple tree which would otherwise have taken a beating, or when you need to “thread the needle” by dropping one tree between two others that you want to keep.

 

I had intended to take only one of the courses, figuring that would be enough for my limited needs. I was so impressed with the content and with the instructor, that I went on to take all four levels, and was one of the first to take the “Storm Damage Clean-up” when Northeast Woodland Training added that to their course offerings.

 

Level two went in to basic chainsaw maintenance: Bar replacement & filing, proper chain tension, replacing sprockets, as well as some information and practice on chain sharpening. In the afternoon, we learned techniques for dealing with springpoles, and did more felling practice.

 

In Level 3 we spent the morning learning about dealing with leaning trees, including front, back and side lean. In the afternoon we learned techniques for limbing and bucking

with greater safety and efficiency, as well as practicing felling more difficult trees (including freeing some hung up trees).

 

Level 4 is often customized to meet the interests and abilities of those in the class. In my class we concentrated on ways to safely get hung up trees down on the ground using a variety of techniques. We included some good discussion on selecting the direction of felling: getting the tree down safely and with minimal damage, as well as considering how dropping this tree fit into the overall felling plan for the area in which we were working.

 

In all of the courses I’ve taken, all of the participants, from novice to expert, felt that the course was well worth it. Along the way, I’ve heard comments from participants such as “NO ONE should go into the woods with a chainsaw without taking this course” , and “After working with a chainsaw for 20 years, GOL has changed the way I work in the woods”. I’ve also been very impressed with the knowledge and attitude of the instructors. They run a safe, informative workshop, and make the most of the learning opportunities presented. The atmosphere is fun and supportive with participants often cheering each other on. It’s a great experience for both novice and experienced chainsaw operators. The course material is well laid out and helps you understand the “WHY” of a given technique, rather than just memorizing a set of steps. This understanding has helped me to adapt the techniques to the varying situations I encounter in the woods. It has also helped me to better understand my limitations: I am better able to size up a situation and decide whether I have the skill, experience, and equipment necessary to handle a tougher situation.

 

The “Game of Logging” courses are offered quite regularly in my area. You’d think the market would get saturated after a while and they’d have trouble finding participants. Instead, the opposite has happened. The GOL courses and the instructors from Northeast Woodland Training have gotten quite a reputation. “Word of mouth” advertising and people seeing their neighbors and friends using the techniques learned has generated waiting lists to get in to many of the courses.

Real Egg Nog

Real Egg Nog

Will fell an ox

As my first act of rebellion in the New Year I have decided to give out this very reactionary traditional Southern recipe. This is not the yellow sludge they sell in cartons at the grocery store around Christmas. This is the real deal; the Dabney infamous Nog. I love egg nog; I love making it, and I love to watch people drink it after I make it. It is most definitely only for grownups who are not getting behind the wheel of a car.

My good friend’s husband, a big and tall man of a certain gravitas, liked it and, fooled by the airy sweetness, innocently imbibed five small tumblers of it. He came to the door of the house, smiled pleasantly at me, and went over like a pine tree. Be warned.

Real Egg Nog

Divide 12 good eggs

Beat the whites to soft peaks

Add 1/2 c. sugar, gradually so as not to crush the bubbles.

Beat the yolks with 1/2 c. sugar until pale and thick.

Add 1 quart good milk

Dump egg whites on top

Beat 1 quart good cream as stiff as the egg whites

Add 3 c. Bourbon whiskey

1 c. sherry

1 c. rum

Fold everything carefully together and either pour into a nice silver punch bowl and serve with a grating of fresh nutmeg, or bottle in mason jars for holiday gifts to special friends. It will collapse by tomorrow, whereupon just shake it up, but it will keep for a year. I’m not even kidding.

My Husband Gave Me A Manual Hydraulic Woodsplitter; Better than a Vaccuum Cleaner….

Since we heat with wood and have his and hers chainsaws, you would think we would have his and hers axes, mauls, and wedges. (Here is a link to that exciting article, entitled Women and Chainsaws.) However, my husband pleads his back. After a lifetime of seeing men I care about hurt their backs and walk around like giant commas, I am completely traumatized by the thought of masculine back pain, to the extent that I worry about any man who lifts anything at all. I’m somewhat aware that many men have healthy backs and can lift great burdens with ease, but the emotional wounds are there, and I have in fact developed a regime of hot pepper back rubs, etc. which we go into the moment my husband winces and freezes.

So I don’t mind splitting wood. After a day of it, however, my arms hurt. We have looked at various splitters. Power splitters look great, but for me, since I was doing all right without one, they are expensive, dangerous, require either fossil fuel or electricity, which makes us dependent, and they can break down. I thought about renting one for the weekend and going through a mountain of rounds (what an unsplit piece of wood is called) all at once. We never got around to it though. We bought a Smart Splitter that acts by dropping a wedge that slides down a pole (a slide hammer), but I don’t know what kind of wood that splits. Not our locust, for certain. The guy in the picture looks like he could split wood by spitting at it so maybe it’s me.

best hydraulic manual wood splitter

Work the levers like ski poles

What we like is the Wel-bilt Horizontal Manual Hydraulic Log Splitter – 10-ton (Sportsman’s Guide) that works by building hydraulic pressure with levers that you work like ski poles. One is attached to a larger cylinder, so it’s the smaller gear, so to speak. Once you can no longer move that, you use the one on the right, until the wood splits. There are some limitations; the log can’t be very short or  very long, but for most fireplaces and stoves it’s fine. Really gnarly complicated pieces of wood are sometimes easier to do with the ax. It splits wood 20 inches across, even wet, but some really huge logs I’d rather start with a wood grenade. And I can’t split ash logs with it. The splitter starts making popping noises and I worry I am hurting its back….

hydraulic manual wood splitter

The wedge

Lay the splitter on its back where you plan to use it (it is pretty  heavy) and insert the poles into their sleeves. Ready to use. Turn the knob by your feet to the right until it stops. Put a piece of wood on the splitter and slide it up against the wedge. Start working the poles. The ram will slowly rise and press against the close end of the wood. It will get hard to move the left lever. Switch to just the right lever, which adds pressure in smaller increments. Eventually you will hear a pop and the wood will crack. Keep going until it either falls into two pieces or is open enough for you to pull it apart with your hands. Sometimes I have to smack it with an axe. Release the pressure by turning the knob counterclockwise. The ram will slide back in. If it jams, as it occasionally does, jar the splitter by kicking the log or tossing it over on its side. It will release. If the log just isn’t splitting, split it in half by hand and continue. Smaller pieces are easier. Probably a power splitter would have fewer problems with ash, for example- some of them almost look like they could stack your wood for you, but using the manual hydraulic splitter is way easier than having to split a whole rack of firewood with a maul and wedges, and if you get bored you can pretend you are skiiing!

hydraulic manual wood splitter

There may be a few splinters holding it together at the end

Groundcherries, Native and Peruvian, and skimming the jam….

Husk tomatoes

Sexier than our native groundcherries

Groundcherries are a native plant in the Physalis family which is often overlooked as a forage food. They make those cute little Chinese lanterns which are sometimes sprayed orange and sold by florists at Halloween. They actually look like tomatillos as well. The plant is about 2 feet tall and the leaves are dull green, oval and pointed. Find ripe fruit by squeezing the lanterns. The best ones to squeeze may look a bit faded. When you find a small marble pick it and pop off the jacket. It will be sort of olive green. Taste it. It should be sweet tart. They can be dried, eaten fresh, or made into jam.

To be honest, I have been growing a more abundant and delicious version from seeds I was given by our Peruvian friend Leon in Yarinacocha. He told me that the husks could be made into a tea which is a treatment for the cough which accompanies congestive heart failure. It is also known to Guatemalan friends as Tomate de Sope, and is a favorite of children in South America. The Peruvian ones are sold dried as Inkaberries for an exorbitant sum in our local health food store. They make a lovely snack for hiking as they are so mall and concentrated. I find them hard to dry without a dehydrator because they have a slightly resinous surface, but to me they taste like extra-sweet yellow raisins.  The silver lining to that is that the Peruvian ones fall on the ground, rather than persisting as the North American ones do, but you can still collect them because they are in a little wrapping and they take a long time to rot. They create a carpet of fruit, and I gather buckets, then sit and husk them when I have to sit somewhere for a while.husk tomatoes

I throw them in the blender, then make jam using any ground cherry jam recipe on the internet. It needs pectin, and I have sometimes added a grate of lemon peel, but it has a sort of mild, luscious tropical flavor and a nice golden color.  Very seedy, but the seeds are tiny. They have become a weed in my garden, but a delicious one. I ended up cutting them all down to start the fall garden, but I will hang a bunch upside down in the shed for winter snacks.

The  Jam Recipe, (and how to do all that stuff)

The jam is so yummy- a bit like yellow plum jam but a hint of something tropical. I grated a bit of lemon peel into it. Here’s how I did it.

4 cups husked fruit

3 c. sugar

3 tbsp pectin

1/2 tsp grated lemon or lime peel, organic if available, or just scrub really well and offer a quick blessing…

1/4 cup lemon juice

Throw the fruit in the food processor and chop. Dump in pot, stir in pectin and lemon, bring to a rolling boil for one minute, add sugar, bring back to boil 1 minute, check for sheeting, pour into sterilized jars and cap when sheets.

“Sheeting?” OK, for those to whom all this jam making stuff is new, go to Jams and Jellies. Don’t be scared. You need to know this.

 

Cider time again- and apple cake

Homemade cider

Homemade cider

Well, looks like I’ve been at this a year. The first pictures I took were apples and chestnuts. There is so much more to cover than I thought, and if I’m doing, I’m not writing and vice versa . But here I sit with a fine glass of cider, aged one year, with a perfect head and dry crisp flavor.  Here is the link to last year when we pressed it.

Apples this year are less plentiful. The excessive rain fostered the fungus, and many apples fell before they got any size to them. The watermelons didn’t like it either- they are a peri-Kalahari fruit and after the rainy season they expect a dry season. Nonetheless we persevere. My father and I went out and got a few buckets of apples. I selected the nicest for cakes and we ran the rest through the press. We got about two gallons. This is the first year I had to remind him about Keats’s Ode to Autumn, but he did rally with a few words. My heart breaks. Do not go gentle into that good night.

The best apple cake is this one. Yes, apple pie is a showcase, and if it rains I can elaborate on pie crust technique, but right now I need simple, and this recipe pushes all the apple pie buttons in a tenth the time. You can find it in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a fine old classic we referred to in our house as the Fatty Farmer. She has lots of grand old American farm classics, like Blackberry Flapdoodle, which is essentially a big roll of rich biscuit dough surrounding and surrounded by blackberries mashed with sugar. Baked in a casserole and basted with butter it has all the calories you need to milk cows at four in the morning. I can cut the sugar by a third and it’s still sweet. Mighty fine with ice cream though. Anyway, back to Apple Cottage Pudding. This is a basic 1-2-3-4 dough. Peel and cut into fat slices, like 8ths of an apple, about 16 apples. I never count. I just process what I have and use them somehow. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a giant lasagna pan. Find another pan about coffee cake size and do that one too.

Apple Cottage Pudding

The best apple cake

Apple Cottage Pudding Recipe

Mix dry

3 c.flour (definitely throw in part whole wheat or spelt as you like- makes a nuttier flavor)

1 tsp. salt.

1 c. sugar

4 tsp baking powder

Mix wet

2 eggs, beaten

1 c. milk

2 sticks butter (1c.), melted

1 tsp. vanilla

mix all up together until smooth, dump into pans.

This is a bit tricky. The reason I say that is that you will be pressing the apple slices into the dough in rows, as tightly as possible, since this cake is better the higher the ratio of apple to cake. Over time I have developed a sense of how little cake dough I can get away with, see below. You can do a pie pan with a dough spoonful. I realize that is subjective. Anyway, I start in the middle with a line and march them out in both directions, pushing the dough as I go. Occasionally I have to take a knife and cheat a little, flicking a little dough from here to there. When you are finished:

Mix 1 c. sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 8 tbsp raisins, nuts if you like.   Hazelnuts absolutely rock. Walnuts are also a natural. I have even scattered on wineberries, which I had frozen in season, for color. Mix and sprinkle evenly, getting sugar over all the dough. I know sugar is White Death, but you have a lot of surface area, and the covering of granules creates a very nice crisp surface. Bake until brown and the raisins are puffing. That will take at least 40 minutes. Touch the apples to see if they are soft. As long as the cake doesn’t burn, especially underneath, the puffed raisins give it that bitter burnt raisin flavor which balances the sweetness of sugary apple cake.

I tend to gain weight around this time of year and I finally made the connection. This cake is so delicious and it works all day, starting with breakfast. I also make it if I am going to a potluck, or helping with a bake sale, or a church supper. You can’t beat it with a stick.