Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wood Choppers

Drew Swinging an Ax
The Growing Pile
Intense Wood Chopper Face
Good Swiss Form
Nice Stack
Warm Dogs Are Happy Dogs
The crack of axes beats double-time as two wood choppers hack at rounds of logs on the knoll above Elmira Pond. Bellies full of pumpkin pancakes, linguisa and mulled apple cider these two men are fueled to work.

I cannot swing an ax. If I did, someone would lose a foot, namely me. Not to be sexist, but I do believe wood chopping is a guy's thing. It takes powerful upper body strength, focused energy and a desire to whack something.

My son-in-law Drew and his friend, Samuel who moved to America from Switzerland, both have that manly desire to chop wood. I have a more womanly desire to have a warmth hearth  which requires someone chopping. My husband loves to chop, too but he's happy to share the chore.

Ax overhead, arms taunt, the axes swing again and again. Wood is piling up and I feel like I'll be able to survive winter in the greatest of comfort. Already we have a nice stack on the south porch and the dogs have their downstairs beds by the fires. Although the huskies seek colder napping spots like on the tiles by the door.

Then the dogs all burst into barking. The wood choppers have returned to the house. Drew says something terrible has happened. Seeing no obvious wounds or fountains of blood, I'm not too worried. He goes on to laments that we are out of wood. It has all been chopped.

What now? Samuel has a splendid idea based on generations of Swiss woodsman flowing in his veins. Drink, he says. We all laugh. There's mulled cider on the stove and that satisfies the post-chopping activities by the warmth of the fire, of course.

Mulled Apple Cider: quart of apple juice with simmering spices of vanilla bean (halved and seeded), 3 bay leaves, 8 whole allspice, 12 peppercorns, rinds of 1 lemon).

Friday, November 29, 2013

O Tannenbaum

Girl Power
Samuel, Drew, Allison, Brianna, Stephanie
Growly Hugs
Dragging the Tree
Trophy Tree
The Cramer-Mills Tree
Romping Joy
Playing With Ilya
Wait for Me!
Skidding sideways, Todd decides we should put the Blue Goose in 4-wheel drive. That means I clamber out of the tall 1991 Ford F-150 in my hiking boots to twist the hubs in place. He teases me that I'm not a "real cowgirl" because I'm in the seat designated for opening fences and turning hubs. I don't mind.

We are halfway up the road to Roman Nose and several inches of packed ice slicks the gravel road. The snow is not so deep, though. It's the day after Thanksgiving and we have a $5 Forest Service permit to cut a Christmas tree. What a better way to expend some energy in the fresh mountain air after a day of feasting.

Allison, Drew and Brianna follow us in their Rav. We have their friends, Samuel and Stephanie, a hand-saw, ax, tree permit and various guns. Drew is hauling all four of our dogs, two huskies and two German Short-haired Pointers. This is something we haven't done since our last Christmas in Montana back in 1997.

Pulling off the road, Todd gets the Blue Goose stuck. Not that he meant to. Our daughters relish the opportunity to turn the tables on him. "Dad says he lives to embarrass," Brianna teases. Another tree seeker stops and we attach our tow-rope and soon our truck is unstuck with a little "girl power" pushing.

The dogs romp up and down the road. Grendel is running too fast and he face-plants, skinning his chin. He shakes it off and continues to run just as fast. The huskies live for snow and they are in frozen heaven. Ilya catches snowballs that Alli tosses to him. Jaspers runs just as reckless as Grendel. Bobo keeps up with the boys and smiles as much as a dog can smile.

Selecting the "right tree" is a lot like arranging new furniture in the living room. Only the drifts are deep. We split up which is a mistake as we call out to each other, "What about this one?" We all converge, discuss pine versus fir, long branches versus short. Drew is looking for one that is "greener." I think we each have a different tree in mind. Being the one who will deck the tree, I call trump on my preference.

Finally we find one up a steep slope. It's Drew's discovery. Allison goes up to inspect. The rest of us stand below and tell him to shake it so we know exactly which one he's eying for the ax. Alli agrees it's a good one. Brianna and Stephanie go up the slope to make sure. Confirmed. We claim the tree.

Echoes from the ax rebound down the canyon. We have a saw but Drew had his heart set on chopping down the tree. And he succeeds. The three girls drag it down the slope, falling into knee-deep drifts and sliding the final embankment.

Like trophy hunters we gather around our tannenbaum for photos. It's a lovely tree, we all coo. It smells so good, so fresh. Part of the reason that I wanted a fir was because they are stronger scented. We take our tree down the slick road, strap it into the back of the Blue Goose and take more photos.

Back at the ranch we realize that the tree is too tall. No matter, we can trim the stump a foot or two. Rekindling an old tradition was just the transition we needed to go from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Despite my family all claiming it's too early, they also know how much I love my tree. And Christmas music.

But I'll wait until they Missoulans leave Sunday to blast "O Tannenbaum."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pre-Cooking Snapshots

Happy Thanksgiving from the shores of Elmira Pond!

Geoscience Grad Student at Rest

Epic Cupboard Door Fail

Journalism Grad Student Hard at Work on Her Masters Transcribing

Dogs are Good at Convincing Grad Students to Rest

Fluffy Dog #1 Ilya

Fluffy Dog #2 Jasper

Daddy-O Smoking His Pipe

Grad Student Baker Extraordinaire! Nice Bread, Drew!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Spice it Up!

Spices Arrive!
Sniffy Good
Favorites Refilled
Just in time for the frenzy of cooking that kicks off with Thanksgiving, the Mail Lady has delivered my box of Penzeys Spices. The dogs and I return from a walk to Elmira Pond where ice clings to dry grass and reeds, to discover a box sitting on our porch. Even at a distance I can see the green logo of my favorite spices.

So fragrant, even the dogs take notice as we bring the box inside. Not only do we have Thanksgiving cooking to attend to, but a house full of hungry, tired grad students will soon be relaxed souls fed over the extended weekend. Butter Chicken. Wild Rice Soup. Breakfast Strata. All require spice.

My favorite "must-haves" include toasted minced onion, Cajun spice, northwoods seasoning, shallot pepper, minced California garlic, sweet curry, Aleppo pepper. I also made sure I had ordered enough baking spices like whole nutmeg, Vietnamese cinnamon and vanilla for the upcoming cookie-baking marathon known as December.

My spice cupboard is restocked. Ready to spice it up on Elmira Pond!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mills Family Salad

Pond Ice
Jello in Cherry Juice
Mills Tradition
Prepping the Fruit
The Mixture
It's Tuesday. The pond is frozen and Bobo skitters across the ice in an excited sprint. The "Fluffy Boys" have arrived from Missoula, Montana--Ilya and Jasper, the husky-mixes belonging to my daughter Allison and her husband Drew. My house comes alive with presence and I am grateful for it.

No matter how full or sparse our home at Thanksgiving, we always have Mills Family Salad. It's a traditional moment for us filled with memories. Kids in the kitchen, helping drain maraschino cherries so they can snitch one, or two, or three. Husband dicing canned apricots and slicing grapes in half, eating one grape for every three he halves. Mixing, whisking, folding, pouring.

There's just a tad too much to fit in the old mint-green Tupperware mold. That goes into a recycled sour cream container, hidden in the freezer. Several years ago, Brianna discovered what had always been the parental stash. Do mergansers hide away frog legs or fish tails?

The salad is a frozen jello dessert. It's unique combination of ingredients makes a tangy-sweet concoction. It is best made in advanced because of the numerous steps involved. From my freezer, to yours, here is our traditional recipe shared.

Mills Family Salad
1 large package of jello (cherry or raspberry)
1/2 cup maraschino cherry juice
1 cup sugar
6 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup Best (Hellman's) mayo
1 cup maraschino cherries, halved
2 cups diced apricots (1 can)
2 cups crushed pineapple (1 can)
2 cups red grapes, halved

Soften jello in cherry juice over double boiler. Add juice and sugar. Chill until mixture gels into syrup (not too long; usually I chop fruit while it is in the frig). Whip cream with syrup. Fold mayo into the cream. Fold fruit into the mixture. Spoon into mold or 13 x 8-inch glass pan. Freeze. Remove from freezer 2 hours before serving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Puritan Adventure

Gary, Julie, Renee and Todd Mills 1960s

Vernon Bailey, Brother of Anna Mills
Anna Mills With Percy, Laura  and  Grace in Elk River, MN
John Mills Family in Fallon, NV 1918
80-Year Old Stata and Edward Mills on Horseback in Nevada
Claude Mills on Horseback in Nevada 1950s
Wild Minnesota Territory in 1854 (St. Anthony Falls)
Dr. A Mills of UM Chem Dept 1949 (seated, 2nd from l)
Staring back at me on my desk, are the smiling young faces of the Mills children: Gary, Julie, Renee and Todd. It is my favorite photo of my husband and his siblings; black and white, teeming with puppy-dog tails, sugar and spice. Todd looks like pure puppy-dog tails waiting to wiggle into mischief. Not much has changed in that regard.

They are all grown now, of course, all with grown children of their own. We even have the next crop harvesting with two toddling grand-nephews and two grand-nieces on the way. When I think of the Mills in general, I think of the words of Todd's great-grand uncle, Vernon Bailey, who wrote to his sister Anna Bailey Mills in 1916, "Everyday you are living the grand adventure."

Uncle Vernon was a naturalist for the US Biological Survey, and he convinced John and Anna Mills to move their young family from Elk River, Minnesota to Fallon, Nevada. Not many would look at this valley in the desert as a grand adventure, especially in 1907. Blows of sand, sagebrush as tall as horses and a new water irrigation system that promised fruitful farming for those who dared.

But the Mills family dared. They did see the adventure  in the natural beauty of mountains that rise up from valley floors to bake in summer suns and catch snow in winter. It was like a science field camp, and the Mills took to it with farming hay, writing poetry, tending monumental gardens, photographing and keying the wonders of nature. PhDs and dairy herds come from this family as each Mills generation has produced both scientists and farmers, as if representing the mind and body that is the Mills spirit.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of the pilgrims because we got to draw their funny hats and shoe buckles in first-grade. Some people think puritans are the same as pilgrims, but that is not so. Both co-existed in the early colonial era of America and both probably wore the same style of funny hats and shoe buckles. But fundamentally they differed in religious perspectives in that pilgrims wanted a new system of worship, whereas puritans sought to purify the existing system. Both upheld education.

The Mills are a puritan family, the direct descendants of those first colonists who dared embark on the grand adventure to the New World, giving thanks over a bountiful autumn harvest and turkey. They settled up the Connecticut River that divided Vermont from New Hampshire in the 1700s. Even back then they adventured into wilderness. The grandparents of John Mills helped to found Beloit, Wisconsin including its college where John's father Edward was one of the first graduates. They moved on to Minnesota Territory in 1852, founding a church and schools in Faribault, Minnesota before taking over a flour mill in Elk River.

Nevada must have been a last frontier for the Mills, a remote basin and range country that even today remains sparsely populated compared to the previous settlements they left behind. They broke sand like sod, rounded up wild horses and preserved nature's bounty in an appreciation that I'd like to think all our puritan ancestors had. Imagine coming to a new place and all that you'd get to learn, exploring river banks and forests.

When giving thanks for the food and the stuff of today, remember to also give thanks for those adventurous hearts that led our ancestors to new places. And give thanks for the places. We all have our own Elmira Ponds; our own daily adventures.

Your ancestors started the story. This is your chapter to write.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Breaking Bourbon

V for Vanilla Bean
Smoldering Sauce in a Jar
Sunset as Colorful as Cranberries & Bourbon
Today I broke the seal on the bourbon bottle. Officially, it is "Let the cooking begin!" This year's theme (thank you, Spokane Review) is "Bird, Meet Bourbon."

But before we get to the bird, we start with the condiment most loved by slices of tender white breast or dark leg. Cranberry sauce. Since my bird will meet up with bourbon, why not the cranberries, too?

A few tweaks to one of my favorite recipes and we have Smoldering Bourbon Cranberry Sauce. What makes it smoldering is the hint of vanilla and cardamon layered among the bourbon infusion. These are adult cranberries (seriously, the alcohol is added after cooking so parents beware).

Cranberry sauce is so easy to make that it is wonder that the canned cran-goo even exists. You can substitute apple juice for the bourbon if you prefer it less boozy. Be sure to use whole cardamon seeds.  Pre-powdered cardamon from the grocery store might as well be powdered sawdust. Except sawdust would be more flavorful.

You can get a jar of whole seeds from Penzeys Spices or try a co-op or natural food store that has bulk spices. Use a mortar and pestle or place seeds in a heavy baggie, set on a cutting board and hammer. A hammer is my favorite way to crush peppercorns!

This particular recipe is super easy because you bake the cranberries. No stove-top stirring. It stores well in the refrigerator for a week and is best made ahead. Thus it was the first Thanksgiving recipe to break the seal on the bourbon bottle.

Smoldering Bourbon Cranberry Sauce

4 cups fresh cranberries (about a pound)
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamon (peel hulls, crush seeds)
3" of vanilla bean
1/4 cup bourbon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dump cranberries into a 9 x 13-inch dish and sprinkle with the sugar, cinnamon and crushed cardamon. Split open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the mixture. Place the bean in the mix, too. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Pull from the oven and mix well with a wooden spoon. Cover and return to the oven for another 30 minutes. Remove, mix once more and cool about 10 minutes. Then add the bourbon (or apple juice). Mix and pour into a large canning jar. Seal the lid and store in the frig and let the flavors smolder.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Oh, Potatoes!

Famous Potatoes
Thriving Plants
Promising Harvest
Dirty Tubers
Scabby Skins
Neighbor's Potatoes
Rosy Skins
When I say, "Oh, potatoes!" I mean "Oh, fiddlesticks!" This is a family-friendly blog, otherwise I'd be finding harsher words to express big disappointment. Big. Let's start at the beginning...

It was odd this past spring, to find seed potatoes scarce in Idaho--of all places. Read any local license plate and you'll find the all-American red, white and blue touts, "Idaho, Famous Potatoes." It's potato growing country, right? So, why couldn't I find any seed potatoes?

Worse, I couldn't order any seed potatoes. All my favorite catalogs printed in fine font, "No shipping to Idaho." No shipping to Idaho? What? But we grow them here. Famously! When I asked why, all the seed company could tell me was "per Idaho  regulations."

But lucky for me, I stopped by one last nursery and nabbed their very last bag of seed potatoes. I planted every single one (there were 10). At first sprout, I grew excited. I love potatoes. By mid-summer, my hills were producing promising plants. All 10 of them. Yes, I was going to be famous for potatoes, too!

Because I was late in planting, harvest came in October. But that was okay. I had extended my garden into a winter trial patch and had a gorgeous fall day by which I dug up potatoes. Over 40 pounds! What wonderful, dirty potatoes I had.

Following instructions, I kept them dirty and laid them out on trays to cure in the entryway to my cellar. So they have been curing. I stopped buying potatoes at the store and when my last store-bought potato was fried, I grabbed a handful of tubers to wash.

And discovered scabby skins.

Oh, potatoes! So I bagged up the rest, knocking off dirt and seeing that they were all so inflicted. Did it happen in the garden? While curing? What went wrong? I was not going to be famous at this rate! I peeled them, fried up a batch and they were rubbery. Bad skins, bad texture. Oh, potatoes!

Coming home from Sandpoint, I saw a sign that read potatoes, so I asked Todd to stop. He did and we bought 15 pounds from a woman who has a lovely cabin on a hill. She's from Germany and her husband was former Air Force. Her reds are dirty like my yellows, but wash up into beautiful, tasty rosy globes

We asked what went wrong with my potatoes and she knew instantly--my soil is too rich. Yellow potatoes are most susceptible.Technically, too much nitrogen in my soil. Great for zucchini, not so great for potatoes. She recommended a sandy spot that wasn't pasture (no manure). We have a great swath of sand where the summer grass dies off and we will give that a try.

If I can find seed potatoes. Else my license plate should read, "Oh, Idaho Potatoes!"