Archive for June, 2009

“A bad day up here is better than a good day in the city…”

June 21, 2009

The title quote comes from a fellow I got to know at MIT, name of Toby.  He used to teach a hands-on blacksmithing course in the basement for the Materials Science department.  A few days ago I had occasion to drive up into north central Vermont to pick up a piece of optical equipment for work, and my route took me right past South Randolph, where Toby and his wife Elizabeth have set up a homestead.  I had heard third-hand that they had a pretty remarkable off-grid place up there, and had intended to visit all the time we lived in Lebanon but never got around to it.

When I was a kid growing up in the woods with no telephone, there was no way to set visits up on short notice, so it was common practice for friends to just appear unexpectedly in the dooryard.  So that’s what I did – I dropped in on them unannounced at lunch time with a bottle of cider.   From the intersection (not really even a village) of South Randolph I stopped where a quirky fellow was doing some repairs on an old farmhouse (using hand tools and an antique hand-cranked drill press) and asked for directions.  Up a winding dirt track between rolling pastures I found their remarkable homestead.  I had heard that they had spent two winters living in a tent, and had finally built a cabin.  What I found was a tiny timberframe building, perhaps 12×16 feet plus an extra bent on one end to form an open porch.    On the right just inside the door was a bed, then a small heating woodstove.  In the far corner there was a kitchen consisting of a small bench with a sink and an old cast iron wood cookstove.  In the middle there was a table for eating on, and the left side seemed to be given over to storage of various items.  The walls were a single layer of pine planks, and the floor was gravel or rough planks, I can’t remember which.  Lighting was by oil lamps and beeswax candles, which they had apparently just finished dipping.    Water was provided by a hand pump from a deep well that protruded up from the ground at the side of the kitchen, and there was a privy in the woods.

The entire place was furnished in a most agreeable rustic style, dominated by well worn wood, iron, and natural fibers.  A hand-cranked coffee grinder dominated the far wall.  They invited me to join them for lunch, which was excellent and consisted of good bread, various artisan cheeses, a salad of mixed greens including some from their garden, and sparkling cider.  This meal did not seem out of the ordinary for them and they had no notice that I was coming; in conversation it became apparent that despite the outward appearance of privation they were accustomed to eating very well.

The larger setting was 50 hillside acres, with pasture below and woodlot above, vegetable gardens, two workhorses, several head of cattle, and a small herd of sheep.  Despite the distinct rustic feel the homestead was not allergic to technology; they had a bulldozer which had been used to make the roads and the building sites, a battered pickup, and a small WoodMizer band mill for sawing out timber for a more substantial residence planned for the future.  There was apparently even a telephone, though it was half a mile down the hill in an old pre-existing barn on the edge of the property.  This was not a hairshirt existence; they didn’t seem to be preparing for an apocalypse and growing the majority of their food, nor did they seem in a hurry to do so.  Clearly a lot of work had been done on the place, but surely in three years more could have been done, had they been hell-bent on working, but this didn’t seem to be the goal.  They seemed truly to be living what they felt to be the good life.

Something about Toby and Elizabeth’s homestead struck a strong resonance with my memory.  Here was a homestead very much like the way I grew up, not implemented haphazardly by 25 year old hippies freshly moved east from teaching mountaineering, but rather by two professionals who had been living in the city for years and working in the heart of a modern university until they suddenly pulled the ripcord.  Here was a carefully-crafted simplicity executed more out of intentionality and style than governed by economic austerity as in the case of my own childhood.   If Toby and Elizabeth can transition from Cambridge to a hill farm, intentionally and consciously paring away so much of  modern life, subjecting themselves to all manner of physical hardships in exchange for the pleasures of a carefully crafted rustic rural life, then surely all kinds of other arrangements are workable as well.  I’m reminded of a guy named Snowberg who worked as an engineer at Southwest Windpower, all the while living in a cabin tent secreted away against all regulation  in the national forest that surrounds Flagstaff.  He did this through every season for years, showering at a gym, cooking at work, and saving his money, then embarking on a years-long kayak tour of the world.  How much cooler is that than the much more common story of professionals who make piles of money and manage always to spend a little more than they earn, living in constant fear of disruptions and feeling like they don’t have any options?

Visiting the homestead filled me with joy, not because I want to emulate what they are doing (I’m pretty happy to have electricity and the internet, and my ideal setup would involve a machine shop rather than a sawmill), but rather for the reminder that many different kinds of life are possible, and that positive changes can be made quickly and boldly, with creativity and intentionality.  Some aspects of modernity that on the face of it appear no-brainers are not so obvious on consideration.  It seems pretty sensible to hook up a small electric motor to the apple crusher, but then you have no need to throw a party and  invite all your friends to lend a hand.    Life is the most important engineering project most of us will ever execute; it seems a shame never to tinker with the factory settings.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

June 6, 2009

Someone else named Ben asked me to post a recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb pie.  Most of the recipes I’ve put up here are healthy or crunchy in some way, but this is pretty much straight up – good though.  We always had a big patch of rhubarb growing in the garden when I was a kid, it was about the first thing up and it’s not useful for a whole lot besides making pies, but it’s great for that.  It’s at its best before the strawberries come in fresh, but fortunately both strawberries and rhubarb freeze well.  The pie crust recipe is not specific to strawberry-rhubarb, and the detailed instructions are for the benefit of pie neophytes.

Crust:

  • 1.5c white flour
  • 1c whole wheat flour (pastry if you have it)
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, cold
  • 1T sugar
  • 1/2t salt
  • Around 1/2c cold water

Mix up the dry stuff, cut the butter into thin slices, and mix it in, trying to keep it from sticking together back into a big hunk – this makes the next part easier.  The next part is laborious but important:  you need to break the butter into pea-size pieces and integrate it into the flour, but without smearing or really mixing it in – you want distinct hunks of butter, which flatten out when you roll the crust out, making it flaky.  Of course, using whole wheat flour makes it harder to get a nice tender flaky crust, but I find it difficult to bring myself to bake anything with all white flour.  Anyway, I incorporate the butter with two regular dull table setting knives, one in each hand, working them across one another in the bowl with a shearing action.  You want to do it quickly, because once the butter gets to room temperature it starts to smear.    Once  the butter is broken down to pea size or smaller, incorporate the water in little dribbles while mixing the crust with a fork.  The amount of water is not entirely predictable or an exact science, basically you want to add enough so the crust can be formed into cohesive lumps by hand, but no more.  Too little and it will not hold together well when rolling, too much and it won’t be as flaky.  You want to minimize handling to avoid melting the butter or toughening the gluten in the flour – definitely don’t knead it.

When the water is incorporated, form it into two flattened lumps like oversized hamburger patties, and put it in the fridge to cool a bit, wrapped in wax paper or the like.

Filling:

  • 5-6c fruit, fresh or frozen, about equal parts strawberries and rhubarb, cut into grape size chunks or smaller
  • 1c sugar
  • 1/4c corn starch
  • 1/4t salt

If the fruit is frozen, it’s usually a little soupy, so I drain off a bit of juice, maybe a half cup or so, before mixing in the other ingredients.  If the fruit is fresh, you want to mix in the sugar etc. and let it sweat for maybe 20 mins before proceeding.  Either way, at the end you have a bowl with a mixture of gloppy stuff in it.  The main failure mode with strawberry rhubarb pie is that the filling comes out too soupy; pouring off some of the liquid in the case of frozen fruit guards against this, but if you wanted to be sure in the case of fresh fruit, you would dose the fruit with some sugar and let it sweat out, then pour off some juice and try to guess the amount of sugar to replace, along with the corn starch and salt.

Assembly:

Flour a countertop and a rolling pin.  By this point the crust should be just a little bit chilled.  Take half and roll it out to a round a bit bigger than a 9″ pie plate – I use a deep glass dish.  It’s normal for even a properly formulated crust to crack a bit at the edges during rolling, I  weld them together by carefully applying the rolling pin directionally to move material from thicker spots toward the break and manually join the edges before running the rolling pin over to smooth it out.  Meanwhile you want to pay attention to make sure it comes out more or less round.   The same amount of crust will stretch to a 10″ pie plate just fine, though you will want increment the filling by 20% or so.  Lay the crust in the dish and pour in the filling.  If the crust is marginal in terms of structural integrity, it helps to have a large flat sheet metal object to help with the transfer operation.  Some recipes call for bits of butter to be put on top of the filling for certain kinds of pie, but I never do this – there’s plenty in the crust.    For a strawberry rhubarb pie I often do a lattice crust, where you roll out the top crust, cut it into 5/8″ wide strips, and weave it onto the surface of the filling.  But that’s kind of gilding the lily; it’s fine to just flop the top crust over top of the filling and prick some holes in it with a knife.  Then I trim the bits that lap over the edges with a pair of scissors, and form a fluted edge with my fingers to join the top and bottom crusts.  It helps to wet the interface with a finger dipped in water, to keep the top and bottom from separating while baking.

Preheat the oven to 425F.  Bake for around 15 mins, or until the top is almost as brown as you want it to end up.  Then turn it down to 35o and bake it for maybe another hour, till thick goopy filling starts to bubble out in one or two places from the openings in the crust.   To be honest I don’t really time things when they are baking, at least not pie.  Especially for strawberry-rhubarb, you want to let it cool till it’s slightly warm at most before cutting into it, so the filling sets up.

Debugging:  If the filling ends up watery, next time add more cornstarch, or work harder at getting some of the moisture out of the fruit before mixing the filling – see above.  If  the crust breaks up when you try to roll it out, you might need more water, or you might just want to do all white flour till you get the hang of it better.  If the crust is tough and isotropic rather than lamellar and flaky, maybe there was too much water, or just too much mixing in the process of forming the crust.  Often the lower crust is a bit sodden in making fruit pies with uncooked filling; if I were more of a perfectionist I might explore pre-cooking the crust or the filling, but I’m not that serious about my pies.

12″ Morbark chipper

June 2, 2009

What with global warming and concern about releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, I’ve become increasingly hesitant to burn the brush that we generate in the process of creating the new orchard.  Also, increasing the level of organic matter in the soil is a key component of low-input agriculture, which suggests making use of the brush in a productive way.  So last Saturday we rented an 80 hp diesel wood chipper and went to town on the big windrow of slash that Joshua and I made last fall in clearing to the south of the orchard for sunlight.  The 12 inch chipper is a big, heavy machine; about as much as the Kubota tractor was able to move.  Alexis and my mom and dad all pitched in, along with a local fellow named Nick, and we made quick work of the pine and other assorted brush.  The machine has an imposing maw consisting of two big jagged steel infeed rollers, and the upper one articulates up and down to accept branches and even pieces of tree trunk up to the nameplate diameter.  The infeed rollers force the wood against a tremendous steel flywheel with cutters on the axial face, and the resulting chips are thrown with great force out a chute that can be rotated to the desired direction.  Working with the machine is a bit intimidating – there’s two big yellow cables inside the infeed chute that you’re supposed to grab and pull to reverse the feed direction if you get snagged on something that’s getting sucked into the cutters, but it’s hard not to think of that scene at the end of Fargo as arm-sized hunks of wood rapidly disappear into the chute.

When we finished with the brush on the ground, we felled the two remaining trees in the area between the orchard and the southerly stone wall, and fed the brush into the chipper to make another pile, and on the way out we felled a misshapen pasture pine by the upper cabin and fed its branches into the machine likewise.  In all we probably made over 10 cubic yards of chips, which can be used as mulch around trees and under fences, or perhaps mixed with manure and composted.

The expense of renting the big machine for a day and the hassle of transporting it (it needs to tow behind a 3/4 ton pickup or bigger) tends in the direction of marathon sessions, and by the end of the day I felt like I had been run over by several species of ungulates.  It’s tempting to think about getting one of these machines to have around, but the little ones that are more affordable are much less awesome than the big expensive ones, and we probably wouldn’t have enough use for a big one to justify it.  So probably we end up renting one every once in a while, and letting the brush pile up betweentimes.