Saturday, November 20, 2021

Winter Animal Tracks + Recipe Saskatoon Pancakes

One of my favorite things to do in winter is to observe and follow animal tracks I find on walks around our property or along woodland trails. No bears sign of course - they are hibernating. Nor do we see moose until mid-winter. I imagine that those huge animals prefer to linger close to the open water of creeks and rivers until they freeze over. After that, they lumber through the deep snow to our vicinity and yank pitifully at birch and cranberry branches for a few calories, and then curl up out of the cold, northern wind. (If there is reincarnation, I do not want to be reborn as a 1600 lb herbivore in the arctic!!!) 

 

The tracks we see most often are the dog-like footprints of coyotes, the big cushioned feet of hares, the narrow tread of martens and slimmer still of weasels (to which they are related). The latter is distinguished by an accompanying tail swipe between the legs. By the length of the stride, we can tell if the animals are strolling or running. Rarely do I see the tracks of voles (small meadow mice) because they burrow under the snow all winter, leaving telltale swales in the spring mud. However, this month, our snow is so shallow (maybe 2-3 inches) that I see their little foot impressions, complete with perfectly defined tiny toes. Their tracks run back and forth across short, exposed distances between tree stumps and the fluffy, insulating tents of dead fern fronds. I also see the tracks of their predators overlaying their own, presumably some hours later. Fast and quiet martens and weasels like the caverns beneath tree trunks, too.

 

Sometimes we catch a peripheral glimpse of a speedy and lithe white weasel or a black marten. These wily predators can sniff or hear the creatures beneath the snow. I have watched a marten run across a field, stop, approach slowly, and then leap into the air to dive into some sub-nivean nest for dinner. With one in his sharp teeth, he trots off for a quiet meal. I also see ravens fly, dive, and then fly off with something dark in their beak. The bottom of the food chain is a vulnerable place to be. 

Moose last winter

 

Only once have I seen a blood trail. If I interpreted the ground signs correctly, an eagle swooped down to grab a hare just before it dived under a tree. The talons drew blood of some volume that pooled at the base of the tree, and then spotted the snow in a linear pattern as the bird lifted off. We found no body in the vicinity. All of this “dog eat dog” world transpires during the summer, too, of course, but it is hidden in the verdant, fast growing landscape. It is winter when I ruminate over clear reminders of the vulnerability of life – for us and other creatures - water, food, warmth, and safety. 

 

Recipe: Saskatoon Pancakes 

1/2 cup each of corn meal, oatmeal, white or wheat flour. 

1 cup sour dough starter or buttermilk or milk "soured" with a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice. 

Add water to adjust texture for thick or thin pancakes. 

1 cup of saskatoon berries (fresh in summer or frozen in winter) or blueberries 

4 teaspoons baking powder 

3 Tablespoons melted bacon grease, butter or oil

 3 Tablespoons sugar or honey

1 egg

Combine. Cook on a medium high, greased griddle. Extra oil or bacon grease will yield lacy, crispy edges. We serve this with homemade rhubarb syrup or honey, but any syrup or molasses is tasty.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

What Size Generator for a Remote or Urban Home?

The European organization, 2000 WATTS, proposes that 2000 watts is the amount of power available to humans if each one of the 7.9 billion people on the planet had access to the same amount.  Their concern is that our power resources are dwindling.

Some of our solar panels


Whether you agree or disagree with their assumptions, it is interesting to consider how much power our frequently used appliances require.  When I lived in a city, I never thought about this.  I just flipped switches and paid utility bills.  However, with so many parts of the country suffering power outages, I imagine that more people are now wondering, “If the power goes out, what do I do?”  What could I run with a generator of this or that size?  How much fuel would that require?”


Here, we built our own power supply so we are alert to power hogs and power sippers that we decided to buy or do without.  And since the generator we use as a backup to our solar panels and wind turbine is a HONDA 2000 (watts), we know how much our various appliances and tools require and which ones we can or cannot use simultaneously without blowing a circuit breaker.


A fabulous resource for prudent people adding up their power usage in order to determine an appropriately sized back up generator is Generatorist.  It identifies the power draw of appliances ranging from full house A/C units to a night light, as well as commercial equipment and RV gizmos!  It also lists products you can buy to measure each appliance in your home.  We have one.


Additionally, home owners will find that many, but not all, machines list their amp, volt, and watt requirements in a plaque on the back or bottom.  


FOR OUR HOUSEHOLD

The power hogs in any home are appliances that create heat and move water. 

Therefore, at our off-grid home, we do not have ANY of the following electric appliances:

  • oven:  2150 w
  • stove: 2100 w
  • dishwasher:    1500 w
  • clothes dryer:  5400 w !!!
  • hair dryer:       1250 w
  • home heater: (highly variable, with furnace and fans or radiators, other)
  • Air Condit:       (highly variable, by BTU size, and window or central).  See Generatorist for examples. 


Instead, I hand wash dishes, line dry laundry (I love that fresh scent),  cook on a propane stove/oven with a manual pilot light ignition, heat the main cabin with wood and warm the guest cabin with a propane heater.  We open and close windows and curtains to impact interior temperatures.  And we have an outhouse, not a flushing toilet, so no power draw there. 


We also lack gizmos that I think rather unnecessary, like electric can openers, bread makers, and TVs.  

  

A few high wattage power tools are important here because we have found no convenient alternative. Most of these function for short duration, and we ensure that we are not maxxing out our power with other demands at the same time, otherwise the circuit breaker turn off all power as a safety precaution.


For example, we occasionally use the following useful electric tools:

  • circular saw:  1400 w
  • disk sander:   1250 w
  • shop vacuum: 1100 w


A very important power tool we use frequently is a 5 ton log splitter, which draws 1500 w.  Bryan turns on the generator almost every time he uses this, which is an hour per day ($1/hour of gasoline) about 4 days per week in summer.  This $16 of gasoline saves his shoulders from hand splitting 11 cords of dry wood to warm our home and heat our hot tub during our long, Alaskan winters.  


For the kitchen, I bought my first new appliance in over a decade: a small air fryer.  I love it, but it draws 1700 w!  So I make favorites like salmon egg rolls or fried chicken as an occasional treat.  (This appliance replaces the need to fly out cans of Crisco (at a $.50/lb transportation cost) and then figure out what to do with the left over oil.) My husband bought a microwave oven as a back up in case our propane oven suddenly died.  I hardly ever use it, but others may routinely use theirs.  This small one draws 1050 w.  The powerful meat grinder that we use when we process bear and rabbit meat draws 575 watts.  Other appliances: a blender/food processor (450 w) and a coffee/spice grinder:  (150 w).  Many  kitchen tasks I do by hand with a mortar and pestle, a nut crusher, a food mill, and hand kneading bread dough.  


Moving water from our well to the house, washing machine, and yard hoses requires 1500 w.  So we tend to time water projects for sunny or windy days, or when the generator is on.  Our on-demand water heaters for the sink and shower are powered by propane, with electric ignition. 


FOR OTHER HOUSEHOLDS

For a household to figure out how powerful a generator is needed to power its priorities, it is important to know that  “running time” wattages can be magnitudes lower than “surge” or “start up” requirements.  Some of the following might be priorities for a house impacted by a power outage in a hot climate, thus requiring a powerful generator:


Appliance                         Run wattage Surge/start up wattage

  • Chest freezer                         500   1500
  • Central A/C (24,000 BTU)   3800 11,400 (!!!!)
  • Elec water htr                        4000
  • Ceiling fan                     60
  • Garage door opener        875   2350


I have not added up all of our routine power uses but they are modest:  two laptop computers, a cell phone, and the freezers in summer.  Is it  at or under 2000 watts?

I think it may be, except when we use the washing machine.  One day we water the gardens for several hours (1500w).  Another day we briefly cut (3 minutes) and sand (10 minutes) wood (to replace planks in steps or the dock. (1250 w and 1400 w each).  A third day I cook egg rolls in the air fryer for 8 minutes.  On a sunny or windy day, with little else on,  I run a high value load of wash (1250 w, but with a high surge + moving water from the pump). 


Within these parameters, we live a low cost, low power life in a lovely setting with low pollution, low stress, gourmet meals, and the satisfaction of  tasks well done. 

Who needs an electric can opener?

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Late Alaska Kayak + 2 Fall Salsa Recipes

Log wall on left almost finished


NOTE:  DB:  Write me through me email address on the right side of home page.  I would like to hear about your first few months in AK.

Despite the early start of winter, Mother Nature pulled a fast one. In late October and early November, temperatures rose to the low 40s during the day!  Never before have we been able to kayak on the lake as late as October 25.  We glided between and crashed through thin ice floes, which I find ridiculously fun.  In prior years, we enjoyed the companionship of river otters when the lake is partially frozen.  This year, none, but a rather sad visitor – a gray, first year swan, who apparently lost track of his or her migrating parents.  I don't think he/she will contribute to the gene pool.

 

Lake Ice Expanding
Despite the warm temperatures, the lake fully froze over on the 27th. Now we are locked in until the ice thickens enough to support walking, snowmachines, or ski planes. Silence. No more lapping sounds against the dock.  No more ducks. Then, a wet snow dumped 3-4 inches of slushy snow that  then turned to a steady rain for several soggy days.


We always have two lists of projects to undertake – outdoors and in.  Outside, we had fun clearing two sinuous trails through the woods to previously identified beetle-killed spruce trees for future firewood.  We identified 26 on one trail and 20 on another.  Each trail is about 6 feet wide to accommodate the ATV and trailer, with one or two wide circles so the vehicle can turn around.  Since this is a first growth forest, many of the trees are old and 2 + feet in diameter at the base.  One reader in Wisconsin wrote me, "Are those enormous BIRCH TREES ???"


Late October Sunset

Blowing snow and sharp north winds are challenges we endure each winter, so in the fall, we set up windbreaks.  We screw in transparent greenhouse plastic panels on the north and south sides of our upper porch, plywood panels on the work room, and create a front wall of firewood on either side of a "door" into the very full wood corral.  This month, Bryan thought of another windbreak.  He hinged a 4 x 8 ft plank of plywood to the north side of our back deck.  When vertical and locked, it blocks the north wind that freezes our faces in the hot tub.  I can still see the mountains, lake and woods to the east and west or I can fold it down for a full view on still afternoons.    If it works well, I will paint it next summer as a permanent fixture. 


Wrapped Chicken Run
Wrapped Run

The chickens get a wind break, too.  Each fall, we wrap the chicken run in 2-3 layers of plastic sheeting to block wind, rain, and blowing snow.  It is simple, cheap, and effective.  Although we always check them two or three times a day in winter, we decided to create a feeder that we could fill less often and that the birds wouldn't tip over.  So Bryan made two feeders out of 4 inch PVC  pipe attached to a wall vertically, with a  45 degree “J” shaped opening at the bottom.  This simple and inexpensive project has worked beautifully.

 

During the rainy days this month, I was inspired to try recipes for the green tomatoes that I harvested in September (we have a short growing season) and then ripened indoors in brown paper bags and boxes. (The ethylene is contained in the packaging and helps to ripen the fruit).

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Enjoy   


RECIPES:  Raw Salsa Verde and Roasted Tomato Compote (thicker) or Salsa (thinner)

SALSA VERDE

Ingredients:  

2 lbs green tomatoes

1 onion

½  to 1 cup of jalapenos (or milder peppers, if preferred), to taste

Juice of 2 lemons or limes plus zest or ½ cup vinegar

cilantro to taste

salt


Directions:


Chop the tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro, and garlic.

Dump in a food processor.

Add the citrus juice and/or vinegar.

Blend to a chunky or thin texture, as desired.

Serve an hour or so later, or refrigerate/freeze.


ROASTED TOMATO COMPOTE or SALSA


Ingredients:

2 lbs red tomatoes

1 onion

½ – 1 cup jalapenos or other peppers, to taste

4 garlic cloves

2 TBS honey or sugar

a drizzle of olive oil

Optional:  can sprinkle with dry herbs, such as Italian or dill.


Directions:

Preheat oven to 400/450 or broiler.

Drizzle the sliced or chopped vegetables with a little olive oil and then spread out  one layer thick in one or more roasting pans.

Since you are going to puree everything, cook until soft.  Depending on the size of your pieces, roast for 10 – 15 minutes or broil for about 5 minutes.

Cool. Pour the soft vegetables into a food processor.  Blend with a bit more olive oil.

Serve it as a thick compote with chicken or pork, or spread it on pizza dough (I do the latter).

Or thin it with vinegar as a salsa. The flavor is darker and sweeter than a raw tomato salsa.


NOTE:  DB:  Write me through me email address on the right side of home page.  I would like to hear about your first few months in AK.


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Fireweed Predicts Early Winter + Alaska Horseradish Recipe

 Folk wisdom here says that when the fireweed flowers die and shed their dandelion-like seeds, count 6 weeks to the onset of winter.  Well, on August 15, the fireweed flew.  By mid-September, all mountains over about 4000 feet wore a mantle of termination dust (initial snow).  By Autumn Solstice, our yard sparkled with frost every morning, shriveling the ferns.  The last day of September, a light snow fell, and gossamer thin ice floated on the lake.  On October 5, 70% of the lake was covered with a thin skim of ice, although the wind and rain that night melted it.  Time to put the polystyrene over the outhouse toilet seat. 



Thanks to the fireweed's clue, we worked busily to ready our property for eight months of winter.  We emptied garden water from 5- 55 gallon drums, cleaned flower pots with diluted bleach, planted bulbs and seeds that require cold stratification (like garlic, poppies and delphinium).  I cleaned and rubbed wooden tool handles with linseed oil, mulched the gardens with fallen birch leaves and mucky chicken straw, plugged in the heated poultry waterers.    



When our hens molt (shed old and regrow new feathers), they do not lay eggs, and subsequently, during a dark winter, they lay fewer than in summer.  So I am pleased to have glassed 150 eggs for winter eating.  This means that they are stored in a solution of water and pickling lime, which coats the shells and keeps the eggs shelf stable at room temperature for many months.  The longest I have stored any this way is 9 months, but Mother Earth News reports 2 years!  


The final vegetables that I harvested were potatoes (100!), horseradish root (see recipe below), and an abundance of green tomatoes in the unheated greenhouse which are ripening indoors now. I look forward to making a roasted tomato/onion/jalapeno salsa.  Sorrel, cabbage, and onions remain outside even when temperatures drop to the 20s.  


One new idea to enhance our winter experience is a bit of a test case.  Like many homes, our door and window areas are drafty.  And drafty in an Alaskan winter is problematic.  So I bought used blankets from second hand stores that I sewed  and strung over rebar rods flush over the window frames behind our decorative drapes as an extra layer of defense at night, which, let's face it, is LONG during this season. This reminds me of my chilly 1904 vintage apartment when I attended grad school at Washington University in St. Louis.  We taped plastic sheeting to the inside of every window because the old, water circulating radiators were so ineffective.  Perhaps the Alaska blanket method will work better at retarding exterior cold and retaining heat from our very effective wood stove. We will see.  Warmth is good. (Update: it works well! At +6 degrees F outside at breakfast time, the temperature just inside our double paned windows but inside the blanket is a chilly +49 F. However, two layers further, past the blanket and decorative drape, the temperature at the kitchen table is a comfy +66 degrees.


Our winter water situation remains inconvenient.  Bryan unplugged the on-demand water heater for the kitchen, filled the 55 gallon interior cistern, and installed our 23 gallon aluminum tank over the woodstove.  We will top these off about twice a week by underground pipes until the temperature drops to about +10 - +20 F.  After that, we string hoses across the yard.  


I think we are ready for winter.

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HORSERADISH SAUCE RECIPE


Combine: 

¼ cup of horseradish root, grated or chopped finely.

¼ cup mayonnaise

¾ cup sour cream or plain yogurt

1 tsp - 1 TBS vinegar  (to taste)

1 tsp - 1 TBS dijon mustard (to taste)

salt and pepper.


NOTE 1:  You can make your sauce MILDER by adding the vinegar to the roots as soon as you cut them.  I waited 5 minutes and this was so.  Vinegar stops the enzymatic process that releases the sulfur compounds.  Similarly, you can make your sauce HOTTER by delaying the vinegar - one correspondent said that he waits 45 minutes!!!  I think that next year, I will delay for 20 minutes. We'll see...


NOTE 2:  You can color your sauce by adding synergistic flavors. Here,  red beets and the green leaves of nasturtium and sorrel  are still growing at the same time that I harvest the horseradish. 

Enjoy!


Thursday, September 30, 2021

Highbush Cranberry Harvest and Alaskan Recipe

My adult version of Halloween Trick or Treating is to gather highbush cranberries when they are red and ripe in the autumn.  In cool weather (40s F), I amble around the hundreds of plants on our property, delicately raking the glistening red fruit through my fingers and depositing them in a bag slung over my arm.

 

Mature, fruit bearing plants range from waist high to 15 feet here, with an airy arrangement of opposite maple-like leaves on slim, upward curving branches. (see photos below)  Both in spring and fall, they are very pretty.  This time of year, the foliage varies in color as far as the eye can see - green, yellow, orange, red, and burgundy - depending on whether their locations are sunny or shady.  I pick a gallon at a time of the reddest fruit, letting the orange ones imbibe their full complement of sunny goodness for a few more days.  


Most bushes prefer to grow in dappled shade under or near birch trees.  But the “blue ribbon” producers thrive in a sunny thicket in front of the lake where no birches grow.  I puzzled over this anomaly for a while until I remembered all of the waterlogged birch trunks we had hauled out of the lake back in 2007 and 2008, to ensure safe passage for docking float planes.  Based on the birches leaning precipitously over the water elsewhere on the lake, I presume that the root balls of those erstwhile trees probably drowned in saturated shore side soil, and tipped into the water.  In the meantime, they created an ecosystem conducive to my beloved cranberries.


As I wander about, kicking yellow birch leaves, I can feel that the cooling land is getting firmer under foot.  I breathe in the musty scent of the woods, and listen to the rasping sound of drying and brittle leaves as they rub against each other.  I pop a few of the tart, juicy fruits into my mouth and feel them squirt out their load of vitamin C.  To me, this is the iconic taste of fall.  What a pleasure these daily excursions are.  They stimulate all five of my senses.  


After each day's harvest, I rinse the berries and sort out any debris before popping them in a bag to store in the freezer until I have enough to go through the process of assembling, using, dismantling, and cleaning my manual food mill.  Unlike bog cranberries, these have a flat seed to extract, so I set up two bowls - one to receive the juice (for people), and the other to collect the seeds and pulp (as a winter treat for the chickens).  Most of the juice I sweeten with our newly harvested honey and drink thick, like a nectar, hot or cold.  Some I set aside unsweetened, to add a wonderful flavor to barbecue sauces, vinaigrettes, and fruity desserts. 


As a child, my exposure to cranberries was limited to canned jelly on Thanksgiving.  Now I nurture the plants for the spring and fall beauty as well as their tasty, vitamin rich addition to my larder.

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Recipe for Barbecue Sauce:

2 cups fresh, unsweetened cranberry juice

2 cups beer

2 cups molasses

2 cups vinegar

1 small can tomato paste

1/2 cup black coffee

Dried orange rind, about 1/4 of a fruit

Herbs and spices to taste.  We like it hot, so add a lot of hot dry peppers and garlic.  I also like a "dark" flavor so I add cloves and cinnamon.  

Simmer and cook down a bit to thicken.  Flavors combine best if consumed the next day or many hours after cooking and resting.