Saturday, December 31, 2011

The last mill

Several days ago the Swany White Flour Mill in Freeport, Minnesota, burned to the ground.  To most folks who buy their flour at the grocery store, this news is of no great import.  To those of us who try their best to buy local, small farm food whenever possible, this news is immensely tragic.  Swany was the only independently owned flour mill left in Minnesota.  And now it's gone.  The owner says it would be too costly to rebuild.

I've always loved mills.  Whenever we go on a trip I find myself drawn to them.  Grist mills, water mills, woolen mills.  They are a glimpse into the past, a wonder of workmanship and engineering and optimism.  They were an investment in a community's future, a promise of hope.  From the farmer that grew the wheat to the miller that ground it, to the grocer that sold it to the baker that kneaded it.  The Swany Mill was a piece of living history -- built in 1897, it had been running ever since.

It was a convenient place for us to stop on the way to or from St. Paul.  I loved walking into the sales room, looking at the old flour sacks hanging on the wall, smelling the old wood and the particles of ground grain that hung thick in the air.  The mill sold just about any kind of grain, whole or ground, to be found in the state.  Normally I'd just buy two 25 lb sacks of organic flour, either white or whole wheat.  At my last visit I splurged and bought something else--five pounds of organic barley. 

We drove home from St. Paul on Wednesday, the day after the fire.  We took the Freeport exit and drove past the mill site to pay our tribute.  The only thing standing was the chimney and the old miller's house.  The entire milling structure, all of that lovely grain and flour and wood and history, lay broken in a heap of charred rubble.

Today, New Years Eve, I made stock from leftover holiday turkey bones.  Tomorrow I'll add the turkey meat, some carrots and celery and potatoes from my garden, some herbs and seasonings for a heartwarming pot of turkey soup.  And I will add some Swany White barley, and savor the memory of a lovely old mill gone before its time.

Blow wind, blow!
And go mill, go!
That the miller may grind his corn,
That the baker may take it,
And into bread make it,
And bring us a loaf in the morn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


It doesn't feel like winter.  Daytime highs are still in the 20s and 30s.  Just Sunday we had a high of 50, melting the few small patches of snow leftover from November.  The ground is brown and bare and the sun shines bright in the sky.  Not that I'm complaining, mind you.  It's just, you know, odd.  And mildly unsettling.  Like winter is saving all of its gusto for January, when we'll be decked with storm after storm, buried in five feet of snow and ice.

Last year at this time we already had one major blizzard under our belt and another one on the way.  This year, it doesn't look like we'll get any snow before the weekend.  So much for a white Christmas.

We've had a gamut of Christmas programs this month at the boys' school.

Graham was a mouse in a Christmas play.

Owen is taking band this year.  He plays the trombone.

And I have been busy making Christmas gifts.  My sewing plans went awry when I discovered my 20-year-old sewing machine didn't have the right stitch that I needed to complete a project.  So I had to come up with Plan B.  No spoilers!

Two more days to get everything finished and wrapped and packed up before we go to Grandma and Grandpa's house for the holidays.  The kids can hardly wait.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Eye on the ball

A tradition with all of my boys -- playing ping pong with Grandpa. 

Nobody likes a skinny Santa

Hubby made cinnamon roles for the park's muzzleloader hunt earlier this month.  Of the dozen that I brought, the hunters took six.  The following week I ate the rest.  I couldn't let them go to waste now, could I? 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dry spell

Yes, another blogging dry spell has hit us.  No real cause this time, just general putting-it-off-ness.  The kids got sick the week before Thanksgiving, then the holiday weekend stretched out into a very busy period at work, culminating in a muzzleloader deer hunt at the park the first weekend in December.  Then my car broke down to the tune of a $1400 repair bill (sorry kids, no Christmas presents this year!).  Gah.  Writing out that check caused me real, physical pain.

Other than the above, I haven't done anything remarkable during the last three weeks.  One thing I have done in my leisure time, however, is read.  Quite a bit actually, and not just my traditional circle of authors (Ellis Peters, Louis L'Amour, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchet).  I decided to go through and reread all the old fantasy novels I used to adore when I was a youngster.

I started out with David Eddings, then jumped into a bit of Barbara Hambly, and am now going through some Anne McAffrey.  I think I'll head into either Raymond E. Feist or Stephen R. Lawhead next.

Reading these old books is like traveling back to my childhood.  Although I do find myself being more critical of the writing itself.  Some of the authors are as good as I remember (Eddings).  Some, not so much (Hambly).

Sometimes I find myself thinking, 'hey--I can write better than that.'

When I was in eighth grade I started writing a novel.  A fantasy novel, with main characters that I fashioned after the alter egos of six of my friends.  I worked on it passionately for several years, writing and rewriting and tweaking words back and forth.  But later in high school, my priorities shifted.  I tried out for plays, made new friends and got a social life.

Somewhere along the line I set the book aside.  It was packed away in a cardboard box, and as I went through college it moved with me, from my parent's house to my first apartment, to my next apartment, to my first house and then finally to this house.  Right now it is resting high on the shelf in my eldest son's bedroom closet. 

Rereading these fantasy books has got me to thinking.  A tiny seed has been planted inside my brain.  I've begun to think about hauling that old box down--maybe just to take a look through the old typewritten pages, say hello to the characters again and refresh my memory of that world.  See if anything sparks to life.

I think about doing this, and then I laugh.  Like I have the time to devote to writing again.  Writing a novel like that is an all-encompassing thing, eating hours from the day and taking over large portions of your mental energy.  I don't have time to write out my Christmas cards, let alone start working again on that novel.

But, like I said, a tiny seed has been planted.  Maybe there's not enough water or sunlight for it to grow right now.  But at least I know it's there if I want it, ready to break dormancy if the opportunity presents itself.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stove pipe dreams

This morning as I left for work I noticed a few small white bits floating down from the sky.  It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at--the first snow of the season.  Our lovely autumn has lasted so long it seemed it would go on forever.  Glancing back through my blog, I see that the first snow of last winter occurred on November 16 as well.  Well, there's a coincidence for ya.

Those few flakes were all we got today, but we're supposed to get more this weekend.  Four to eight inches, with gusty winds that will drift the dry snow up and over everything in its path.  Good thing the hubby tuned up the snowblower this weekend.

I really wish we had a fireplace.  I think I could deal with winter better if we had a fireplace.  Or a wood burning stove.  At one time I looked into what it would take to install a wood stove in our house.  Our electric furnace uses the only chimney we have, and home insurance companies really don't like it when a wood stove and a electric/gas furnace share the same chimney.  So, a new stove would need a new chimney.

The only room we have for a wood stove is in our dining room.  That means building a chimney up and over the roof of our third story attic. Thirty-five feet of stove pipe at $50 a foot is a no-go.  The cost of installation would be more than the stove itself.

Or, I could move to a dream world and replace our current bargain rate kitchen stove with a beautiful dual fuel Aga range.  Over the kitchen, which is a single story, the stove pipe would only need to be about fifteen feet long.  The installation costs wouldn't exceed the cost of the stove in this instance.  This is mainly because a new Aga costs over $5000.

My husband is not at all disappointed about the lack of wood burning potential for our house.  He knows who would be doing most of the wood chopping.

But I can still dream.  Winter is a good time for dreaming.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My art

Our local foods group is hosting a fundraising Gala this Saturday night.  Local wines, cheeses, appetizers and music, all good things.  In a moment of weakness I volunteered to make soap for the silent auction.  I shouldn't say it was weakness as such, only I've had so little free time and even less energy to do extra projects this past month.  Also, it's been two years since I've made a batch of soap.  I was afraid I would be a bit rusty.

Because of the short turn-around time I had to use the hot process method.  The soap made with the hot process method can be used immediately, whereas cold process soap needs to cure for a few weeks.  Both methods have their pros and cons, but I am considerably more accustomed to cold processed.

Fortunately, I had a supply of lye on hand, ordered this past spring.  It has been my experience that over time lye (especially the stuff stored in plastic bags) will absorb moisture from the air and lose its potency.  A good sign that your lye is bad is caking.  If you open your lye container and instead of seeing fine crystals you see caked clumps, throw it out.  This is the reason why I always order lye in cans, not bags.  I pay a bit more for it that way, but it lasts a lot longer.

I had also ordered some new oils.  Here's a five-gallon pail of coconut oil.  Coconut oil adds lather to the soap.  Every oil has its own particular properties that will affect the final bars.

Because this is a local foods event, I wanted to make the soap as local as possible.  So I rummages around in my freezer and found a few old bags of rendered tallow.  Tallow helps your soap harden nicely, and last longer.

First you create your soap 'recipe.'  Then you gather your equipment, measure out your oils and lye, and combine them together.  Lots of stirring is involved (thank heaven for stick blenders).  Here is the soap mixture at heavy trace after the lye and oils have been combined and stirred well together.  You can see the pudding-like consistency.  With cold process soap, at this point you would pour the mixture into your mold and let it saponify (the chemical reaction that changes the oils and lye into soap) as it cured.  With hot process soap, you speed up the reaction with heat.  I cooked it in a double boiler on the stove top, but it can also be done in an oven or even a crock pot.

After it cooks, after most of the liquid has disappeared and saponification is nearly complete, it turns to a gel consistency.  This is when you put the additives in, such as colorants, scents or botanicals.  I made two different kinds last night: a lavender lime (lavender buds and lime essential oil) and a peppermint (with peppermint essential oil and powdered beet root).  I was experimenting with the beet root, to see if it would turn the soap a nice red color.  It did not.  Instead, I just got brownish flecks.  Oh well, live and learn.

After you put your additives in, you pour it into the molds.  I use plastic drawers from those cheap storage cabinets you can buy at Target.  Let the soap sit for several hours, til it is completely hardened.

Pop it carefully out of the mold, and score it for cutting.  I decided to make large rectangular bars.  I like the look of the larger brick size.  They remind me of soap made back in ye olden days.

One four-pound batch made ten large bars, each averaging six ounces.  The bars will shrink a little over time as more water evaporates out.  The extra bits that I trimmed off the edges will be used in our house.   Homemade soap is just too nice to be wasted. 

And voila!  The final product.  This is one of the peppermint bars--you can see what I mean about the beet root speckles.  It's not unattractive, it's just not what I was going for.

I think that's what I like most about soap making: the experimentation.  The art.  You can choose your oils, your colors, your shapes, your scents, everything.  I don't really do 'art' as most people understand it.  No painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, etc.  Unless you count this blog thing as art, which some people may. 

The science behind soap making also appeals to me.  Figuring out oil to lye ratios, writing a recipe, following precise procedures.  Also, as anyone who has ever used homemade soap will testify, the bars in themselves are fabulous.  Creamy, rich and sudsy--and they won't dry your skin like commercial detergent bars.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy making the stuff.  Now I've got the itch to make more.  I'm thinking something with chamomile next time...

P.S.  If you're interested in making soap, I recommend the 'The Handmade Soap Book' by Melinda Coss.  It's got good info on ingredients and has some really nice recipes.  It focuses, like most soap making books, on the cold process.  And it's got a handy saponification chart.  The book is a little lacking in its description of the soap-making procedure itself, but there's lots of info about that to be found on the internet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's all about the chokes

I cooked some of the sunchokes with supper tonight.  It was really easy -- wash; chop; toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder; saute for about fifteen minutes over medium low and then a few minutes on high for a final crisping.

They were yummy.  Hubby thinks they taste like sunflower seeds, which makes sense since they are indeed a type of sunflower.  The boys weren't big fans, but I didn't expect them to be. Not yet, anyway.  I'm going to try to win them over gradually.  Maybe I'll make sunchoke hashbrowns this weekend.  Monkeys love hashbrowns.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bird of prey

This afternoon I was wandering around the shop building at the park, checking on fuel tanks and fire extinguishers, when I saw two large yellow eyes staring at me from the edge of the grass.  I froze in place, and stared back into the face of a beautiful Great Horned Owl.  It was standing on the ground, motionless, its brilliant eyes gazing at me.

I took a step toward it, then another.  It turned its head, spread its wings, and flapped a few steps away before stopping and listing to one side.  Uh-oh.  A great horned owl resting on the ground in the middle of the day is not a good sign.  A great horned owl unable to fly away is very much not a good sign.  Something was wrong.

I went inside the shop and grabbed a large butterfly net and a pair of leather gloves.  Then I went inside the office and found a cardboard box.  Armed with my accoutrements, I went back out and crept quietly closer to the owl, getting within five feet of it before it started to shamble away again.  Gently I eased the net over the owl's head and held it in place.  Then I reached down and picked it up.  A few wing flaps and a half-hearted bite was all the struggle it gave.

I put it inside the box and brought it in the office.  I made a quick phone call to my friend in Granite Falls, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who works with the Raptor Center at the U of MN in St. Paul and arranged to bring the owl to her house this evening.

Graham decided he wanted to go with me.  We left at 4 pm and got there just as the sky was turning to darkness.  My friend took the owl out of the box and examined it, feeling its pronounced keel bone and spreading its wings.  The bird was painfully thin.  It also objected to having its right wing spread out, which might indicate an injury.  My friend said she would give it an IV this evening and bring it to the Raptor Center for treatment.

One of three things could have caused the bird to become so emaciated and weak.  It could have West Nile virus, which has been killing young hawks and owls (and other birds) since it hit our state a few years ago.  Or, it could be a young male that never learned from its parents how to hunt.  Or, it could have sustained an injury to its wing, which then affected its ability to fly, and thus to hunt.

Staff at the Raptor Center will test it for West Nile.  If the tests are negative, they will try to nurse it back to health.  It might be that the bird is too far gone, too weak to regain its health.  But they will try.  They do wonderful things there at the Center, and I encourage anyone who is interested in birds of prey to check them out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What's at stake

Earlier this fall I was driving past a old farmstead grove when I noticed some familiar green wisps rising out of the dying grass.  Asparagus!  I made a mental note to return to the area with some wooden stakes, to mark the areas so I could find them next spring.

The fall has been fairly busy, so I didn't actually manage to get back out there until yesterday.  The asparagus was still bright and green though, easy to spot.  The ground was so matted with roots and fibers, and the clay soil so dry, that pounding in the stakes was a Herculean effort.  For me, at least.  After four of them I gave up, and instead tried to secure the stakes within the rusted barbed wire that littered the entire area.

I also found a plant laden with small red berries.  I picked a handful and put them into my pocket in hopes of starting some asparagus from seed.  Never done it before, not sure how it will work.

Now I just need to remember the stakes next spring, when asparagus season rolls around again.  Or else all my effort will be for naught!

Friday, November 4, 2011


I've been feeling a little anxious lately, for various reasons.  Not anxious as in 'slightly nervous,' but anxious as in 'psychological illness.'  When I was 23 I developed a anxiety disorder and was on medication for a year.  It was hellish.  Since then I've learned to recognize the warning signs within me, and try (as best I can) to take steps to prevent it from progressing too far.

One of the ways I've learned to appease the anxiety is to spend time outside, forcing myself to recognize nature's simple beauty.  On days like today, it isn't all that hard a task.  We've had some ridiculously lovely weather recently--warm sunny days and cool clear nights.  Geese and ducks are moving in the sky.  Deer and turkeys are moving in the meadows. 

Most of the trees are bare.  Just a few oak and cottonwood leaves still clinging to branches.  Tall stalks of wildflowers and grasses have shed their seeds.  The corn and soybeans have been harvested, and farmers are tilling broad black swaths around the field edges. 

Weathered fence posts and abandoned groves are lonely reminders of farms long gone.  Skeleton trees shine white in the sun along old fields and sloughs. The lake water is clear and blue, reflecting the open sky.  When the wind blows you can sense the distance, the vast oceans and forests and grasslands over which it has traveled.

I'm very fortunate to live here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Our monsters

Our three monsters, trick-or-treating along Main Street, on the Friday before Halloween.

This is what I'm talking about

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

The starlings that fly over our house in the fall look just like this, only in smaller numbers. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Leave taking

This afternoon I walked out beyond our fields toward the yellow hat slough.  I was lured there by the sounds of geese.  I wanted to sneak a peak over the hill toward the water and see how many were gathered.  But as soon as I topped my head over the ridge the birds saw me and took flight.

The air filled with the sounds of honking geese and flapping wings. 

They flew north and then circled back, separating into smaller groups as they pushed on toward the southern sky.  I watched them disappear over faraway trees.  I hope they make it wherever they're going before it gets too cold.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Spot the Hen!

Okay boys and girls!  It's time for everyone's favorite game, Spot the Hen!

Take a look at the picture (of my very messy barn) below, and see if you can find the hidden hen!

Don't see her?  Well, take a closer look ...

Getting closer ...

Here she is!

You found her!  Yes, that's right -- she was hiding in a box of trash!

Now, exactly what instinct is it that tells a chicken the best place to lay her fragile eggs is in a box of rusty screws and nails?  Hmm....  I don't think I have the smartest poultry on the planet.

And yes, as of today this hen's name officially became Spot.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Gingerbread cookies, cut with Halloween cutters.  We'll decorate them after school tomorrow, before trick-or-treating.  Graham asked me to make extra red frosting--it's going to be a blood bath in the kitchen, I'm afraid.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fervent ferment

Ten weeks since we put the cabbage in the crock.  My Ball's Blue Book, the holy bible of canning, says this fermentation thing should only take three to six weeks.  Moose muffins.

At three weeks, I tasted the kraut, and it tasted like soggy cabbage.  At six weeks, it tasted like slightly tangy soggy cabbage.  At eight weeks I could taste the sauer, modestly strong, but the cabbage flavor was still green and crisp.

Finally this morning I said, 'enough is enough.'  The five-gallon crock had been sitting on my counter for ten weeks.  My large canning pot had been hulking in my kitchen, sitting idle on the stove since my batch of plum jelly in late September.  Ready or not, it was time to can the kraut.

I emptied the contents of the crock into a large stock pot, and brought it to simmer.

I filled hot jars with hot kraut, and gave it a boiling 15-minute bath.  Nine pints and six half-pints, about 1-1/2 gallons total.  Now I know that one medium-sized cabbage will make 1-1/2 pints of sauerkraut, when all is said and done.

Hubby tasted the results, and gave it a thumbs-up.  I was too afraid to try it, myself.  I don't know what I would have done if it had been awful.  Much better to have the hubby be the guinea pig.

My first ever batch of sauerkraut!  I feel my German heritage beaming at me, clinking large steins of frothy bier in my honor.  It's Oktoberfest in western Minnesota, loud and strong.  Maybe I'll make Bavarian pork hocks for supper tomorrow.  Served with a heaping pile of mashed kartoffeln and home-made kraut.

Another sign

that autumn's days are numbered.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Garden goodbyes

 The chard is so beautiful at this time of year.  So vibrant, so rich.  If the weather holds, I might get another cutting from them before the first hard freeze.

I harvested the sunchokes, separating out the smaller tubers and replanting them into a new bed.  I think I got all of them out of the ground, but we'll see if I get resprouts in this area next spring.

The potatoes were dug, pulled against their will from the dark clay soil.  Next time I am definitely using the straw-trench method.  I'm tired of dealing with clay.  The pitchfork speared through about 1/4 of our tater harvest.

The last of the zukes and tomatoes.  I will miss them.

The only thing left to harvest (besides the chard) are the sprouts.  I can't wait to roast a mess of these, picked fresh off the stalk.  So soooo yummy.

The garlic has been planted and covered with rotting straw.  I still have to do the fall garden cleaning--pulling cages and trellises, tugging sunflower and corn stalks, mulching raspberries.  The season is almost at an end, and I can't say that I'm too disappointed.  It was a busy year, a good year with all things considered, but I could do with a bit of a rest.