Thursday, June 12, 2014

June Food Porn

I haven't been posting here lately mostly because I've not had the time or opportunity to wander the woods.  That does not mean, however, that I've been shirking my duties in the kitchen.  So here, in case you don't follow on other forms of social media, is a photodump of recent culinary travails.

Enjoy, but remain assured they were much more satisfying in person.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Short Loins: Chain Reaction

Chicks dig scars.  That's what we used to say while gushing blood back when we were young and dumb enough to bring about that condition fairly regularly -- and young and dumb enough to call women chicks.  I said it the time my left ear was half torn off my head in a particularly nasty scrum and the time I was wobbling around like a sot, concussed and bleeding with a ruptured ear drum on the other side.  That ear remains numb to this day, but the one that got yanked off around the top shows no ill effects other than a cool white scar around the crest when I pull my ear out taut.

Men love to talk about their scars.  Spend some time around a campfire with pleasantly tired fly fishermen or upland hunters for a while.  You'll see.  My hide sports the average number of scars for a man my age who, in the course of his life has played the roughest sports with relish, grew up with a pocketknife at the ready, splattered molten roux on his forearms, and occasionally consumed sufficient quantities of alcohol to be rendered incapable of dealing with the force of gravity.

On my left pointer finger, right at the first knuckle, there's a minor crescent-shaped scar that transects about a third the circumference of the digit.  It was earned through devious trickery and a jaw-dropping surprise that nobody saw coming.  Allow me to elaborate.

Roadkill at Lake Wisconsin, near Okee. Circa 1995.
There was a time long ago when Easter weekend meant that Roadkill and I would make a day's ride on our mountain bikes from Madison to either Governor Dodge State Park or Devil's Lake Sate Park campgrounds for some quality time around the fire.  Frisbee and Brian joined us a couple times too.  For the maiden voyage Road and I auspiciously carried all our camping gear on our backs, much to the chagrin of our tender backsides.  In subsequent years we wised up, and had my dad meet us at the campground fully provisioned.

On one such occasion Dad arrived, and I dug the hatchet out of his truck to split up some kindling and get dinner going.  In doing so I was met with the standard half-mocking admonishments from the crew about taking care with a sharp and dangerous implement.

They need not have worried, we all knew the truth.  My father had a great many wonderful qualities as a parent, friend, and outdoorsman.  Found nowhere among his burgeoning skill set, however, was the ability to sharpen tools.  The man simply could not do it.  He'd never owned a sharp tool after its second use in his life.  He was an outstanding mechanic, or so I'm told by people who understand such things better than I (one of my shortcomings being the steadfast, if unmanly, conviction that the internal combustion engine functions solely through some blend of gingersnaps and the prayers of virgins).  But given a dull axe, grinding wheel, and enough time, he could fashion you only a perfectly adequate sand wedge.  And that's alright.  We all have our weak points, and if the inability to properly hone edged tools is our most glaring, we should count ourselves very lucky.

So I took to making kindling for the cooking fire, and with my first mighty hack using the very hatchet I'd known to be dull as a mud fence my entire life, sliced neatly through the slab of firewood and a good portion of my finger.  I stood dumbfounded, reeling not at the sight of my filleted finger, but the fact that Pop had somehow managed to sharpen a tool to a razor's edge.  I honestly could not believe it, and still think he'd taken it to a person more skilled in sharpening, though he steadfastly refused to admit that in all the grinning retellings over the years.

Last week it was time to sharpen chainsaws.  One had grown dull from use in spring brush clearing, the other  larger saw was (and is still) staring a big upcoming job in the face.  I pulled down Dad's battered blue toolbox that houses the sundry little wrenches, files, and accouterments one acquires in the use and upkeep of chainsaws.  I inherited this toolbox from him, and it functions just as much as a touchstone to something we used to do well together -- putting up firewood -- as it does a place to store tools.

All was going swimmingly in the sharpening of the saw until I needed the depth gauge to hit the tooth guides square and level.  It wasn't in the upper tray of the toolbox where it should have resided, so I lifted that up, only to discover a dirty little secret that, when the realization of what I was beholding hit me, made me guffaw aloud.

When I used to come home from Madison, I would often sharpen things for Dad.  Not out of some weak demonstration of  feigned superiority -- it simply needed to get done.  I knew he wasn't the best at it, he knew I was fairly proficient, and so it just sort of became a tacit tradition.  Kitchen knives, axes, scissors, chainsaws... whatever needed undulling.  I failed to consider it at the time, but in hindsight the chainsaws never needed much more than a light touch up, which is odd considering how often they were used in the procurement of winter heat and brush clearing -- chainsaws do go dull fairly quickly.  And now I know why they always seemed to be in good shape.

In the bottom of that toolbox, hidden under the insert tray on top, was a stash of barely used chains.  Apparently Dad had been using them for one season (or less), then retiring them instead of trying to sharpen them.  This was a  man I once witnessed calmly use a metal nail file to get his car restarted while double parked in Chicago Loop rush hour traffic, something I could not pull off with every Chilton guide ever made and divine intervention. (he tore up the console when he smelled that acrid electrical burning/melting smell, and jumped the neutral safety switch, I'd be taught later. Insert serious childhood veneration)  But he'd given up on sharpening chainsaws, and decided to simply purchase a new chain when the one in current use got dull.

Now that may be seen by some as sidestepping a problem, but I (perhaps through the rose tinted glasses of sonhood) see it as a perfectly viable work-around.   It's important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and use whatever you can to get around those shortcomings.

I took a moment to smile and thank him, shaking my head, and got back to the business of sharpening.  Thanks to his inability to do it well, I'm set for chainsaw chains for the next 20 years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Motley Chanteuses and Nanokames

Spring is stuttering and stumbling in slowly, like a drunk after last call having some trouble getting the key in the front door.  I've been there myself, but I always managed to get through the door, and so will spring.

The return of migratory bird species is among the first signs of the impending warm-up.  I was greeted by my first rather frozen looking robin of the season a few days before St. Patrick's Day this year.  The earliest ones always look a little indignant to me when the weather turns back to snow and cold -- as do the rest of us, I guess.

I look forward most to the brightly adorned, wee warblers that will soon make their way through.  These are some of the most musically gifted songbirds we get around here, crooners every one.  They flit and sing from understory to canopy and most everywhere in between, bright little harbingers of spring.  For years I've intended to finally learn how to identify them each by their individual song, but here we sit on the cusp of yet another migratory warbler concert, and I remain wholly unable to distinguish between Yellow-throated, Chestnut-sided, and Blackburnian solely by their teeny chirps and whistles.  Not to mention the near-countless others.  Somehow I'm fully capable of digesting four straight hours of Game of Thrones in preparation for the upcoming season, but I can't get around to learning warbler songs.  That pretty much exemplifies how priorities can sometimes run askew.

The Sandhill Cranes have returned as well, though they've remained hidden from view, betrayed only by their prehistoric clattering calls as they traverse the sky.  Grackles and geese too, the vernal parade begins anew.

Even the birds who never parted for warmer climes are more active now.  There are a couple of male cardinals, for instance, who now pose and posture in front of the single, demure female resident seemingly all day long.  I believe the trio consists of a mated pair and an interloper.  When the uninvited suitor arrives on the scene, the mated male will crouch forward on his branch and spread his wings low and wide to ward off the hopeful bachelor, looking for all the world like he's bowing in some imperial court.  He chases the intruder off time and again, but the unwed male is relentless in his attempts to woo the female away.  Like bar time again.

Nuthatches creep and hop improbably upside down on hardwood trunks.  For such a small bird they certainly do carry on with those surprisingly strident yank yanks!  Last year a pair nested right outside the dining room window in a natural cavity, where I witnessed for the first time their so-called "sweeping" behavior.  According to my extensive research (I clicked on two Google results), Nuthatches will find a particularly stinky bug or other wisp of debris, hold it in their bill, and "sweep" their doorstep with it in order to mask their own scent from predators like squirrels and raccoons.  I knew nothing of any of that until I watched it happen one evening last year, stuffing a Reuben into my gob.

Trickle inspection can be even more gratifying with a partner
I'm a longtime proponent of trickle gazing, and there have been plenty of opportunities for that in recent days.  After the third coldest winter in local history, the snow pack is finally giving in to sun, and everything is a glorious, gooey mess on the ground.  The standard gravel driveway glaciation has retreated in the form of perfectly delightful rills and tiny streams at all sides.

And while I playfully choose to employ the term "glaciation" to denote that the driveway was covered with receding sheets of ice, it's not without a purpose here.  As I was enjoying the last of the ice retreat and cogitating on all things kettle and moraine one warm evening, I noticed a natural phenomenon, writ infinitesimal, coming to fruition directly from the pages of my Earth Science textbooks of yore.  I'd venture it's exceedingly rare to happen upon a demonstration of fluvial glacial geoformation happening right before your eyes, but that is precisely what took place, albeit it on a minuscule scale.

Dundee Mountain, a moulin kame, from afar
Dundee Mountain, though perhaps a bit enthusiastically monikered, rests comfortably nestled in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest not far from here.  More of a conical hill than a mountain, it's nothing more than a pile of glacial till.  A kame, by name and definition.

A kame is a type of hill left behind by a glacier, put plainly.  Sometimes they are irregularly shaped, but to my mind, the most iconic among them are the blatantly conical examples.  Sand and gravel are deposited by a meltwater river in a depression on the top of a retreating glacier.  With further regression of the glacier those materials are deposited in a pile on the ground surface.  Boom.  Kame.

In the case of our vastly smaller example, the depressions atop the driveway "glacier" in question were formed by dark spots under the ice (last year's plantain and lambsquaters, specifically) causing it to melt faster in those areas.

Snow melt runs across and down the driveway in this area, and often forms a surface better suited to hockey than driving, but that's the way it's gonna be until somebody regrades that entire section of driveway and yard.  When the melt happens with enough vigor, the runoff carries with it some of the sand and gravel hurled up into the adjacent snowbanks by the plow.

And when the ice is finally all gone we're left with little piles of sand and gravel, formerly retained in their weedy depressions, deposited onto the surface of the driveway.  When the vegetation that caused the depressions and holes in the first place rots away, we will be left with what, in fact, will be teensy-weensy little kames.  Nano-kames perched atop the very Kettle Range that was formed in antiquity by a glacier which shares a name with our state.  That's some heady Hakuna matata, circle of life shit if you think about it too much.  Especially while standing in the driveway drinking a beer on a gorgeous late winter evening.

I've dubbed this miniature glacial formation The Bucket-head NanoKame Field after the bucket-head dog who kept stepping on them while I was trying to take the picture.  They probably won't last through the April storms, but as long as they do remain I'll be reminded of the immensity and tiny detail of the natural world every time I walk by.

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