What’s Time to a Hog?

Morning glory Grandpa OttOnce in a while I write about something that is not a tangible how-to. This is simply something that has been on my mind. However it is also how you spend your time and how you deal with your fellow creatures that decides the nature of your life, so I think I may have an excuse to tell this story.

The other day my husband and I were in Easton doing errands. We stopped at the gas station where they sell the ethanol-free gas we use to mix our chain saw fuel; it is better for the saw. My husband was wearing a sweatshirt his brother had outgrown which had the name of his Indiana home town on it: Logansport, with a cartoon of the high school mascot, Felix the Cat, embroidered on it. A tentative male voice called out “that’s not Logansport, Indiana, is it?”

I was in the car; I heard the cheerful chattering and my husband’s famous machine-gun laugh but not enough to understand what was happening, so this is second hand. It turned out the man was from my husband’s home town, that his father’s funeral had been at the church where my husband’s father had been the pastor, that his brother had taken my sister-in-law to the homecoming dance, and that he now had a second home nearby.  They were delighted, as middleaged men from the sad sweet rust belt are when they can share boyhood memories of a lost America. The conversation would most certainly have led to the exchanging of phone numbers and an invitation to dinner or something, if a lady in a big shiny white SUV had not pulled up and told them that they must not be from here or they would not be standing there visiting while other people were waiting. Embarassed, they apologized, said goodbye and drove away quickly.

The more I studied it the more it irked me.  This is a touristy area and many folks are what we call “come heres.” This lady could not have been a “from here.” I am from here, -as much as I am from anywhere, having moved around much of my life, but always returning to the Shore. I remember when we would stop behind a car that had stopped on a one lane road because people were visiting by the mailbox, leaning out the car window. We never said a word. Honking would have been unthinkably rude. In small Southern towns (The Eastern Shore is Southern, for better or sometimes for worse) everybody knows everybody, and a slight will be remembered. Bad manners would be impractical. Nowadays those of us who have known each other fifty years cling to each other, but friendliness and tolerance is a habit that feels natural to us. I have been out in the world and I prefer this.

My grandmother, a Texan, had a number of great expressions which I pull out and use tenderly, much as I use her old red woolen gloves in winter. One of them is “as solemn as a jackass in a hailstorm.” This refers to someone who is telling you the right thing to do while filled with a solemn sense of his or her own righteousness, and in the total absence of self examination or humor. It is a good image. Another is the title of this anecdote : “What’s time to a hog?”

I am not saying that the lady was at all porcine. My grandmother said it to mean that she didn’t mind waiting- after all, what made her time, her hurry, her agenda, more important than whatever someone else was doing that was making her wait. She knew, of course, that in comparing herself to a hog, to whom time was merely a dull interval before slaughter, she was giving the person who was making her wait a gentle dig, -but just a little, humorous, self-deprecating dig.

We are all waiting; waiting for the weather to improve, for school to get out, for evening to come, for a child to grow out of a tough phase, for love, for death, for the return of Christ. In our pride and self-absorption we think our work, our hurry, our frustrated wait, is more important than another’s. This is the same pride that medieval scholars called the father of sins- we want what we want and that matters more than the love of God and our neighbor. Humility is the key. Bless that nice lady.

So if anybody knows Paul Killian, tell him to email me his number and we will ask him to dinner at the farm. Claudia, happily married and living in Colorado, was asking after Clyde.

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.


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.

Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

garlic plants

Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

garlic harvesting

from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

Softneck garlic

Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braidStorage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!

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

How to Use a Woodstove

If you have a free or inexpensive source of firewood, a woodstove may be an efficient and practical source of heat for you. However, there are a few tricks to using one. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

Starting a Fire

Starting a fire in a fireplace or woodstove is a little trickier than pushing a button, and since you are doing this inside your house, you will not want to use butane. You will need:

  1. Logs: dry wood cut to fit into your stove easily
  2. Kindling: various thicknesses of very dry twigs and small branches or split wood.
  3. Fire starting materials: something that will catch immediately, like newspaper, junk mail, dry grass, leaves, or weeds.


Laying a fire

Laying a fire

Arrange two logs in a V shape with the point away from you. Crumple the paper or whatever fire starter you have between the two logs. Select the thinnest twigs you have, break them in short pieces, and place them over the paper like a teepee. As you add twigs, gradually go up in size. Once you have a few handfuls of kindling perched over the paper, carefully light it with a match or a lighter, being sure not to burn your fingers.

At this point you may need to encourage the fame with gentle blowing or fanning. Alternatively, if you have a good flame going, you may want to open the vents on the stove and close the door. As the fire sucks in oxygen and the heat goes up the chimney a draft will be created, encouraging the flame. Be sure not to let your kindling burn up, though, before you add thicker pieces of wood.

making a fireSince flame rises, and will be sucked backwards by the draft, you want to place wood on top and behind the flame, so it will catch. Once you have a few bits of kindling laid crossways across your V, and a good fire going, you can put a log on top of them and close the door.


Leave the vents fairly wide open until your fire has reached its desired heat, and then close them down to about a quarter inch. A very helpful and inexpensive device is a magnetic heat sensor which is placed on the stovepipe and will indicate when your stove is dangerously overheated or too cool and forming creosote.wood stove safety temperature gauge




Burning the Right Wood

Split wood dries faster

Split wood dries faster

The most important thing to remember is that wood should be dry. Wood that was alive recently, called green wood, will contain a lot of water, and will not only use up your heat evaporating the water if you can get it started, but will also cause your chimney to acquire a coat of creosote from the cooler burn. Not only does this mean you will need to have your chimney cleaned sooner, but it can actually cause a chimney fire, which is very dangerous unless you have a stainless steel insert in your chimney. Wood that feels very heavy and does not have radiating cracks may be green. Wood should dry for a year before burning.

The next thing to look for is BTUs (British Thermal Units) which means that there is more heat in some woods than others. Hardwoods are the best choice. Oak burns slow and hot, and Cherry and Maple burn hot. Locust and Osage Orange burn very slow and very hot. Softwoods like Poplar, Willow, Mulberry, and Hackberry don’t have too much heat, which is why they are a better choice for spring and fall. Pine burns fast and hot, but is gone quickly, makes soot, and is best in a mix.

One last precaution is that you should measure your stove and its opening so that you don’t buy or cut wood which will not fit into your stove.

Spreading the Warmth

Once you have a good fire going, everyone will want to sit around it and enjoy the warmth, but what about more remote rooms? Newer stoves often have built in fans. Otherwise, one clever trick is to place a fan behind the stove to blow the hot air out into the room. Various small fans can be purchased and attached in the top corners of doorways to move warm air around the house. There are also small stovetop fans which work without electricity. Make sure that you sweep ashes from in front of the stove before turning on the fan.

Keeping It Going All Night

 open vents

You can see the fire through the open vents

By now you will have come to understand how to control the fire by controlling airflow with the vents. If you have a stainless steel chimney insert and are not worried about creosote buildup or chimney fires, you can fill up the stove with logs and cut the vents down to within a half-turn of totally shut, and the fire will burn slowly all night.  If you get up early you should be able to start a fire from the coals. Simply rake the coals to a heap in the middle and lay logs alongside them. They should ignite the logs in ten or fifteen minutes. If you don’t have a chimney fire proof setup, you can still save your coals for an easier morning fire. By allowing some ashes to accumulate, covering the half-burned logs and coals with them, and cutting down the vents, you can “bank” the fire and keep the coals alive all night. Because there is no fire, there is no creosote.

Cleaning out the Ashes

Depending on various factors you will probably need to clean out your ashes about once a week to make room for the wood. If you have an ash grate this will be easier, otherwise you will need a garden trowel or small metal dustpan to transfer ashes into a metal bucket. There are special ash buckets and ash shovels available as well, some quite decorative. What is important is that you remember that the ashes may contain live coals, so you need to be extremely careful in disposing of them. Wood ashes have many uses. Since ashes are excellent fertilizer, you can scatter them on the lawn or into the garden, being sure to watch out for any smoke which would indicate a live coal getting ready to set your lawn on fire.  To be safe, hose the ashes down after scattering. Wood ashes can also be mixed with water and used to make lye for soap making, or to remove hair from animal skins during processing, but it is hard to gauge the strength of the lye made in this way. However, this is not to say that it won’t be strong, so if you choose to try this, wear heavy gloves and eye protection.

Cleaning and Maintaining

High temperature flat black paint is available to refinish woodstoves. Use the same paint used to paint grills.  You will get a smoother finish with the spray can than a brush.  On a warm day when you can leave doors and windows open, prepare the surface with sandpaper or steel wool, removing any loose paint or rust. Place drop cloths or paper around the stove to protect surfaces and spray evenly. You will probably need to go over it at least twice, but the flat paint is quite forgiving. Let the paint dry a few days if you can before starting a fire. The first time you have a fire in a newly painted stove, it will smell awful and you will want ventilation.

Most stoves are lined with firebricks, which are yellow, and protect the stove while holding heat. These will eventually crack and need to be replaced.

stovepipe elbow

An elbow like this can get clogged with burnt creosote.

You should get to know your local chimney sweep. For a very moderate cost, chimney maintenance companies will clean out your chimney (without getting soot in your house), which will make your wood burning safer and more efficient. Until you see how you and your stove work, plan on calling your chimney sweep once a year, preferably before they get very busy in October. Creosote can actually block your chimney, so if you are noticing a drastic decrease in your draft, that may be the problem.  There are also sprays and “fireplace cleaning logs”  known as Creosote Sweep Logs which can help to decrease creosote buildup. People used to throw an aluminum can in the stove, but I have no opinion on that. If you are a real DIYer you can buy chimney sweep tools and creosote removing chemicals on the internet. I haven’t tried those but will let you know if I do.

Do I Have to Buy a Catalytic Stove?

Catalytic stoves are a response to 1988 EPA regulations, and include a ceramic honeycomb which burns uncombusted particles in smoke. They are supposedly longer burning and more efficient, but they are more expensive and many customers complain about maintenance costs and the need to babysit the stove until it gets hot enough to reburn the smoke. Consult with your local dealer, as there are now many non-catalytic low emission stoves available. That being said, many people are perfectly happy with their catalytic stoves. Is it the law? Yes, if you are buying a new stove from a dealer, your stove will need to conform to EPA emissions standards.

Can You Cook on a Woodstove?

Cast iron works well on a woodstove

Cast iron works well on a woodstove

Before there were gas and electric stoves, there were wood stoves, and everyone cooked on them. You can cook on a woodstove, even if it is not designed for this purpose, and not just during a power outage.  The even heat of the top of your woodstove spreads very well to kettles, pots and pans, but be careful not to spill food onto the surface, as it will ruin the appearance of the stove, smell, and be difficult to clean while the stove is hot. Be careful not to fill the pot too full. Cast iron cookware is ideal, and there are some items for sale which enable one to bake inside the stove, on a bed of coals. However, a pot of soup simmering gently on the stove, perfuming the house while you relax in the warmth, occasionally adding a stick or firewood or adding hot water to your tea, is pretty hard to beat. Here is an easy recipe:

Universal Bean Soup

Soak a pound of beans overnight- two days if you can, since this decreases the flatulance factor. Different beans need different spicing and cook up differently. This is for basic red beans. Lentils are faster and work well without meat. White beans turn to cream almost like split peas, but then scorch easily. Black beans need a little cumin, garlic, and red wine!

2 onions, chopped

1 -2 bay leaves

5-10 whole black peppercorns

1 ham bone, smoked ham hock, or turkey wing

(if you are vegetarian substitute a parmesan cheese rind or a vegetable boullion product of some kind.)

1-2 celery stalks, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon oil or saved fat. A. handful of diced ham fat is easy.

1 teaspoon dried oregano and/or thyme.

Sea salt to taste

Add the fat/oil and vegetables to a heavy pot with a lid. Add a pinch of salt so the vegetables will caramelize faster. If your woodstove is blasting, go ahead and do this on the stovetop, but as mine is generally humming softly, I start the soup on my regular cookstove and let it finish on the woodstove. Also I avoid getting drips on the woodstove. Once the vegetables are starting to soften and brown, add the oregano and/or thyme and stir briefly so their fragrance comes into the oil. Drain the beans, dump into the pot, and fill to within an inch of the top with new water. Add the ham hock or whatever you are using, and the bay leaf and peppercorns. Let simmer closed until beans are nice and soft, about 2 hours. If your stove is going hard you might have to crack the lid. Also check occasionally to see if you need to add water.   Be careful not to scorch the beans!

While using a woodstove requires a little skill and getting used to, it is a dependable and deeply satisfying way to heat.

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.


Fresh Naan Bread: A Snap- Who Knew?

Making homemade naan

Chana masala (curried chickpeas) with a salad and fresh naan

I love Indian food! If you do too, check out my recipe for venison vindaloo, bahut garam! If you really want to do it up right, though, for the ultimate yummy Indian food experience, you have to make raita, fresh chutney, and naan bread. Seriously, bhai.

I have found that there are wonderful Indian chefs doing all kinds of jolly YouTubes- some of them seem like they are beautiful young women with multiple PhDs who got married and now do this because they are bored in the house- and some are wonderful aunties like Manjula, my favorite, whose capable brown hands and bejeweled wrists turn out lovely parathas, puris, curries, pickles….but that is not how I got to make my own Naan bread. What happened is that I learned how t make pitas- here is how, if you are interested, -but then I thought, hey, I really want naan, so what if I just try making them in a frying pan, like rotis and tortillas, and see if it flies.

This makes 10-12 naan about 8-10 inches long. Ample for 4 people. First, make a regular yeast dough. Spelt is really better for you- it is less inflammatory, and it is not so boring and white like plain flour, but also not so strong flavored and brown as some whole wheat.

1 1/4 c. water

1/2 tsp rapid rise yeast

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp olive oil

3 c. spelt flour- or any flour really

If you are using a bread machine, and here is my big thumbs up on that– set it at the dough setting, make sure your dough ball is forming well, and go do something else until about 30 minutes before dinner is ready. I use less yeast and let it take longer so you get a nicer flavor. You can also do this in advance and keep it in the fridge until an hour or so before you want it, so it will be soft and room temperature.

If you are making it by hand, if using rapid rise yeast, just mix it with the flour, and if not, dissolve beforehand in the water, add a tsp of sugar or honey to feed it, let sit a few minutes. Make a well in the flour, pour in liquids, stir, knead into a ball, knead until elastic and stops sticking. Take out your agressions. Let it sit until about double in size.

making naan

Prepare balls of yeast dough on a plate.

Either way, start a high flame under a good sized frying pan- ideally a heavy cast iron one. Melt a few tablespoons of butter and grab a basting brush, if you will be buttering your naan.   Flour a board, shape it into a snake about 1 1/2 to 2 inches across, and with a sharp knife cut chunks to make little golf ball sized lumps. Roll them round with floured hands and lay them on a plate.

Making homemade naan

flour your board and roll it out with a rolling pin

Flour your board just like you were going to roll out a pie crust, and roll them into thin oblongs. About an eight of an inch is good. They can be picked up without tearing. The shape is not critical.

Making homemade naan

first side

Your pan will be really hot. No oil. Just throw the dough pancake down flat and smooth it a bit with your fingers if you have to. Wait and watch, but start rolling out another one. First it will make little bubbles, then big ones. After about 2 minutes it should be ready to flip. There should be nice little brown spots underneath, and the edge will be easy to grab so you can flip it. They can burn quickly once they have ballooned up since the dough is then dry and half as thick. Isn’t this cool? When done on both sides, put it in a bowl and cover it with two layers of cloth to keep it warm and steamy. Butter them as you go- it’s tasty, traditional, and keeps them soft the next day. Keep it going. You can see why a huge pan would be best, so you can get 2 going.

Making homemade naan

second side

Serve in the covered bowl, or fold two on everyone’s plate and pass more as people run out. Of course what I did was just for us, but it lasted three meals. So yummy.

Making homemade naan