Saturday, December 18, 2004
Two Christmases ago my brother-in-law and his wife sent Surenna the first 9 books in Lemmony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Incidents. It took about a year to read all of them to her and was quite enjoyable for both of us. Surenna would ask pleadingly for another chapter at the end of most nights of reading so if it was a weekend and if my voice was not shot I would sometimes comply. I don't want to get into a book review, you can find plenty here. What I liked about the books was that they present the world as a place where bad things can and do happen, which is true about the world but not so much in evidence in most children's literature. Another pleasant aspect of the books is that the heroes of the stories are kids who by being kind, resourcefull and loyal to each other get through all the hardships put in front of them. All good lessons for kids. The books evoke a world which is much like the actual world, but warped in amusing ways and include lots of clever humor which only adults will get. So, on to the movie... We took our eldest two girls (7 & 5) to the movie. There were some intense moments when Dahlia (5) was really scared and she was a bit restless by the end of the film. The dark look of the film and the odd style of cars, buildings and technology fit well with the tone set by the books. Count Olaf--the nemesis of the Baudelaire children--occupied more screen-time than one would have expected from the books. In the books he is at the center of the plot in the sense that he sets up the framework of what the children have to overcome, but then most of the action centers on the children's efforts to extricate themselves from the situation. Had the film followed the structure of the books then this film could have been based on only one of the books rather than on plot highlights from the first three books. Jim Carrey was made for the role of Count Olaf and the little girls who played Sunny steal the show with their cute babblings. Adults will enjoy this film as will children who have read or been read these stories. The film may be too intense for children under 5 or kids who are high-strung.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
You might find that once you have a wood stove and a pile of wood ready to burn, that your plan of just heating with wood on the coldest days or weekends flies out the window. If you are at all like me, you would never keep your house at 75F if you were heating it with oil, gas or electricity. The guilt about wasting money would take all the pleasure out of lounging around the house in pajamas when it is -20F outside. If you cut your own cordwood from your own trees on your own land, it is a completely different story: As long as you are sure you laid-in plenty of fuel to get you through the winter, you will keep the stove stoked and the house warm. The physics of running a stove mitigate for running the thing hot and never letting it go out: First, you burn up a fair amount of fuel just getting a good fire lit and getting the chimney hot etc. Plus, kindling is the most labor-intensive fuel (more splitting). Second, once you have a really hot fire more of the incoming air is involved with combustion and thus less warm room air is pumped out of the chimney. A hot fire seems to need less fiddling with--you just toss a log in and it disappears. When you have a cool fire, you have to adjust the logs a lot and the fire makes more smoke. Because of all the above, you may find that your stove is running most of the time and is especially hot around time for making dinner. Even if you let it go out during the day, once you are home from work the first thing you will do is get the stove going. Be quick about it. Don't let the dreaded furnace come on and start burning dollars! Anyway, you have the thing running in the evening--so why not use it to cook with? Finally to the subject of this posting --We found that when the stove was good and hot, that we could boil water in about the same amount of time on the wood stove as on our electric range. So boil potatoes, pasta or steam anything on the stove that you would put onto the range. --We did fry and saute with the stove and it works fine, but there is a certain amount of splatter so I don't recommend this unless you don't mind how your stove will look: Blacked steel is the most common finish on stoves and it is kind of a mess, although not hard, to reblack a stove. I imagine that enameled stoves would be easier to clean. Cook inside the stove! Yes, the best cooking is done inside your wood stove! --Most often the exhaust pipe goes out the back of the stove but when you look inside the firebox you don't see it. This is because there is a diagonal plate of steel which is lowest in the back of the fire box and ends somewhere toward the middle of the firebox. I don't know the exact reason for this baffle but I suspect that it forces the flame to circulate inside of the stove rather than heading strait for the exit pipe. If the flame spends more time in your stove and less heading up the chimney, it gives off more heat. I point out this baffle since we used it to help us cook inside the stove. We would hang our food on skewers and hooks suspended from the upper lip of the baffle. If your stove doesn't have quite this design, I am sure that you will be able to improvise something which does the same thing--this is not rocket science. You can cook steaks, chops, sausage, whole or pieces of chicken and small roasts by just hanging them up inside the wood stove. First, you need to have the right kind of fire: The lack of flame is essential! Let the fire burn down 'till there are coals only. For steaks and chops you can leave some coals below the food, which will char the surface nicely. For more slow cooked items like whole chicken or small roasts, sweep the coals to the sides and hang the meat in the middle. You can bake potatoes the same way. The food will take much less time to cook than it would in your oven! There will be some trial and error involved. We cooked whole chicken in about 25 minutes, steaks in 5-8 minutes, chicken wings in 12 min and baked potatoes in about 20 min. You can make your own skewers out of coat hanger wire: You will get 3-4 hooks/standard hangar. Please pre-cook the hanger hooks before using with food as they are often coated with some kind of varnish or paint. An hour in the wood stove will clear that up. When you use your wire hooks, please clean them by hand--the dishwasher will turn them into a pile of rust. Steaks cooked by this hanging method will be different from what you are used to: A well-done steak will be much less burnt looking on the outside than one cooked in the standard way and will be more juicy and tender on the inside. The reason is that all the cooking is by radiant heat and hot air, not by being in contact with hot metal. Aside from saving on gas or electricity from using your wood stove to cook there are a couple of other advantages: First, there is some fun and adventure to this kind of cooking. Second, you can have the flavor of bbq in the dead of winter when your grill is covered in snow. The best reason for cooking in the stove is the cleanliness of it. The skewers and hooks are a lot less to clean up than broiling pans and grill racks. All the smoke and cooking smells go up the chimney instead of inside the house. We currently live in a house which is ill suited to wood stove heating and indeed lacks a stove. We do a lot of grilling year-round in the fireplace where we have a little Weber hibachi. We can enjoy grilled salmon in the dead of winter without stinking up the house.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
I tried to use the photo hosting service associated with Blogspot, but haven't had success yet. The program installed okay and then errored out whenever I tried to login to my account. Next, I tried to use the photohosting service provided by Comcast. In this case I was able to post pictures to an account. I could not place the URL's into Blogspot because the addresses assigned to my pictures exceeded 68 characters. Next I placed the URL's of the pictures into my Comcast Website (which is very basic and I have considered it an abandoned project). If you click on these links you get to the login page of Comcast's photo hosting site. So far nothing seems to be working. Here is the URL I used for my sample picture: http://www.snapfish.com/slideshow/AlbumID=18040763/PictureID=388346336/t_=18002182
I just got a Christmas letter from an old friend from high school. He, his wife and kids live in a suburb in the vicinity of Tokyo. He was an exchange student and so there is nothing unusual about where they live. In the letter (which sounded as if it was written by his wife—not due to the English, I think she grew up in the USA) Tad’s wife Susan indicated that they were thinking of installing a wood stove in their home. I had never associated the wood heating lifestyle with typical Japanese living conditions before, but I suppose there must be a fair number of households which live out in the countryside. Anyhow, the letter got me remembering my own experience with wood heating: We were living in a two bedroom flat in Burlington Vermont and my wife, V. (who does not want me to publish her whole name) was pregnant with our first daughter (Surenna--I read this to her and she wanted her name listed). Our original plan was to stay in the condo until I finished my MBA and then buy a house wherever my work took me. We were both making plenty of money at the jobs we had and could easily afford a house, so why wait! There were many reasons for our choosing the place we bought on Camp Kiniya Road in Colchester; one of the big ones was that the house had a wood stove and plenty of trees. Having only owned a condo and never a real house, we were somewhat apprehensive about the costs of keeping a house warm and functioning properly. The place had originally been built with the idea of being heated with wood. It was a cape with an open design and so when the stove was operating, the hot air was able to spread around to all parts of the house without the use of fans. Later owners installed an oil furnace which drove hot water through radiators. We speculated that they found heating with wood too taxing and were unenthused by the electric bills from the back-up heaters. We heated almost exclusively with the wood stove in the four years we lived there. The property was more than three acres and other than about ¼ acre taken up by the yard, driveway and buildings was all wooded. The trees were about 2/3 hardwood (oak, maple, birch and ash) and about 1/3 softwood pine and fir. There was plenty of fuel for the stove obtained by good forest management: Cutting dead trees, sick trees and thinning crowded stands. Cleaning up after the ice storm provided two years worth of heating, mostly from fallen branches. Our house was about 1600 sqf and built in the 1980’s, so well insulated. It took about a cord and a half of wood per winter to keep us plenty warm. Cutting and chopping cordwood was mostly not unduly arduous: The property was steeply sloped and I did not own a four wheel drive vehicle then, so the hardest part was hauling the wood from the lower part of the land up to the house. The house was situated on the highest part of the plot and so the available trees were mostly located lower down. Cutting wood with a chainsaw is heavy work, but if one is careful and systematic, not unduly dangerous. Splitting logs into firewood is actually kind of fun. I would just do a 15 or 20 minutes worth after work most days and found it a good way to unwind. In Vermont (and probably lots of other places) they say chopping firewood warms you twice: Once while you are chopping and once when you burn the wood. Plan ahead: The first wood we burned was not well dried—it was purchased by the sellers of the house for us (we moved in in the middle of winter). You get a lot more heat out of dry wood than green wood, plus it is a bear to get unseasoned wood to light and burn hot. This only makes sense—every drop of water in the wood has to be converted to steam and this takes energy away from the useful heat available in it. I found that wood I chopped and split in the winter and spring was plenty dry by the start of the next heating season. Wood chopped in the summer worked fine by the end of the next heating season. Maple was by far my favorite wood to burn: It burns hot, doesn’t make much of a mess in the house and is easy to split. Oak burns very hot too, but the pieces of wood are a bit splintery. Birch doesn’t burn as hot as the other two and can sometimes be hard to split. If the tree has been growing at an angle, the grain seems to tangle and not want to separate, plus the papery bark doesn’t split and can hold pieces together.