Ramble On

Friday, December 30, 2011

Bourbon-soaked, Hickory-smoked

Well, here in Geezerville, the one thing we've learned is that practice makes perfect.  Nearly so, that is, if you believe the human condition is holding you back.  With that thought in mind I decided that I might try to do another smoked pork loin for Christmas dinner this year.

Using a 1.5 pound roast from Whole Foods, I considered a complex marinade to start with, but then thought that maybe going with something simple was a better plan.  So once I'd let the meat rise to room temperature, all I did to prepare this was to brush it with olive oil, and season it with salt, pepper and garlic.

Then to seal in the flavor, I seared it in a frying pan - I used as couple of ounces of bourbon here for that step in the process.  I'm not sure that I noticed a strong bourbon flavor later when we were eating...I used Maker's Mark, a blend, instead of a favorite like Elijah Craig or Snob Creek.

After the browning, I moved the loin to the grill, where the coals were already white and ready.  While the grill temp said 450+ degrees, I used an indirect method, hoping I had the loins in an area where the temp was more like 350 or so.  I let them roast unmolested for about 40 minutes, and used the meat thermometer to see how things were going at that point.

The only grill opening I did during this phase was to toss in some hickory chips, which I used this time instead of gathering up some sticks and twigs from around the Hawksbill Cabin property - we've got several hickories back in the wood lot, and I do hope to stockpile from them eventually.

Finally, the meat thermometer read 160, and I moved the loins over to the coal side.  I wanted to get some grill marks on them and bring them up to 165 to finish them.  Once they were done, we served them up with some asparagus, and a mix root vegetable side dish, both of which were prepared in foil packs on the grill.

Three photos below show various stages of cooking, and the finished product.  I'll definitely do this again, maybe doing the finishing touches at around 155 and taking the loin off the grill at 160 - they weren't overdone at 165, but the meat does continue to cook for a few minutes after they come off the grill.  So removing them from the heat a few minutes earlier isn't going to hurt anything.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chores Inside and Out

For the most part, the weather during this just passed holiday weekend was tremendous out at Hawksbill Cabin.  We did get some rain, but we had several days of sunshine, like yesterday, when I climbed up on the terrace below the pool deck to take this photo looking up at the house.

For a good part of the fall, Mary had been talking about getting the curtains down and laundering them, so on Tuesday, our rainy day, she took this one on.  One of the most challenging parts of this task is the fact that the windows are ten feet high, so you have to get up on a ladder to take them down (and to put them back up) - so I helped a bit on this part of the task.  Then she went into town to take care of other errands while the curtains washed in a coin-op laundrymat.

With the curtains down, new light was shed on the modern bones of our place.  Here are three photos I took during the chore - first, the view from the living room, unobstructed by curtains; and second and third, two views of the house looking from the outside - first the original, main house, and then, the addition.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hitch is Dead

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
- Philippians 4:8 NKJV

When we had news that Christopher Hitchens had died earlier this month, I was reminded by the articles that his 2007 book, god is not Great, had long been on my reading list. So I quickly went out on iTunes and picked up the audiobook so that I could listen to it on my new Metro commute.

The book opens with the quote above, from Philippians in the New Testament of the Bible. As I heard the words – Hitchens read the book himself for this audio version – I immediately realized the treat that I was in for, as the many descriptions of the man’s work in the obituaries I read shared a common praise of his wit, his intellect, his turn of a phrase, and the irony he could command.

I’ve come to share some points of view with him, although this realization was a long time in the making. I’ve been a fan of Eric Alterman, having read several books, followed his blog, and even had a letter to him posted on MSNBC back in 2003 (my dad also had a letter posted on the Altercation blog in that timeframe).

At that time, Alterman and Hitchens, who had apparently worked together at The Nation, had fallen out with each other…while I am not refreshing my memory with an internet search on this, I seem to recall that it had something to do with a disagreement about whether the Iraq war was justified, with Hitchens coming down in favor and attracting a lot of media attention for, what was for him, a Vanity Fair writer, a surprising position.

At the time, it seemed to me that the emergent Fox News cable channel was exploiting the fear of the post 9-11 era as a way to divide all of us in a time when we should be united in choosing a way forward to confront the new geopolitical situation. Seeing Hitchens on that network from time to time, seemingly arguing for the Fox News point of view (which was essentially a marketing ploy to segment and capture conservative viewers) left a foul taste in my mouth.

So I have to admit that as I picked up god is not Great, I expected that I would find some challenging positions that I did not agree with. But I resolved to read with an open mind.

So, once I made it into chapter four, I came across a summary, a list of three points in the argument that religion poisons everything, more or less transcribed here:

  • “Religion and the churches are manufactured…
  • “Ethics and morality are quite independent of faith and cannot be derived from it…
  • “Religion, because is claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs, is not just amoral, but immoral.”
The book is polemical and, as such, makes a strong argument against not just any single religion, but all religions. True to Hitchens’ style, they are well reasoned arguments and backed up with examples from his research and experience. The force of his argument has the effect of encouraging the reader to look within, to see where these thoughts resonate in one’s own soul – for lack of a better expression.

Most of all, god is not Great is a good read. Hitchens is not at all overbearing as he appeared on those Fox News interviews in the early part of this decade, when he was arguing in favor of the war in Iraq. In fact, he is every bit as well reasoned and well spoken as his reputation makes him out to be. It’s a sad thought that this is a voice and intellect that we have lost, but let’s celebrate his life and legacy as if it were a beautiful daisy emerging from the dust of his grave.

I’m still making my way through the book. But so far, I feel as though I am enjoying a long delayed gourmet meal – and we’ve just sat down, with the palate cleanser arriving to the table.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Love a Tree

See, Mary and I weren't going to have a tree this year.  I started my new job during the first week of December with a road trip, and we thought that our schedules this year just weren't going to allow us this little diversion.

A few years ago our neighbor told us that he had a family property in Wisconsin that he'd managed to keep in agricultural use - growing Christmas trees.  He's what my friend David calls a "weekend warrior" - he runs the farm absentee-style, doing everything during periodic visits.  In his case, that involves week-long trips at various times of the year, culminating with a two-week  trip around Thanksgiving when the trees are harvested and distributed to his various local retail outlets out yonder.

Except that as a favor he brings back about a dozen for the neighbors here on our street.  I figure that this small reserve actually pays for the road trip back and forth, which I have to admit I admire.  As often as not, at this time of year, his trip is made that much more difficult by early winter storms.

So as I mentioned, we weren't getting a tree.  When our neighbor came calling for tree orders, we declined.  When he got back, he found that he had an extra...and he offered us another chance.  Beset by second thoughts, we made room for it - an 8.5 footer, which is esconced in the dining room.  It's shown here behind the dining room table, set for Mary's annual holiday tea for her Wellesley alumni friends.

Yep, we are sure enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Solar Marines

 The Natural Intelligence column in Outside magazine's December 2011 edition, entitled "Charge!" and written by David Roberts, outlines some successes the Marine Corps has had in adapting solar technology to battle.  I did some further research and this has been a hot topic this year, with many articles available on-line, I've also included a link to an NPR article at the end of this post for easy reference.

Roberts' article begins with the lead paragraph:

"The Solyndra solar debacle has some in Congress arguing that government needs to get out of the renewable-power business.  Don't tell that to the Marine Corps, the bravest new recruit in the clean-energy revolution."

After watching the movie Restrepo this year - and visiting a couple of USMC bases - I've grown attuned to how this tactical force operates:  fast moving and overwhelming force, usually at the expense of having to carry a lot of petroleum-based fuels with them, especially as generator power hungry communications and information gear become more and more essential to the success of their missions. 

The Marines have established the Expeditionary Energy Office to come up with ways to address power needs.  In the Outside article, the example given was India Company 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment's deployment to the Sangin District in Afghanistan's Helmand province.  India 3/5 had four portable modules that fold out in two large solar panels each, all connected to power cells to store the energy overnight.  They also have pack stowable gear that the Marines can carry - only 2.5 pounds each - instead of the 25-35 pounds of batteries they usually have to haul on their backs. 

Another highlight, from the NPR article I linked, also featuring India 3/5, is this: 

"By using solar power and placing an emphasis on energy conservation, Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment say they cut diesel consumption in their generators from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons a day."

Three more bullets that argue for more solar power rather than less, at least in the case of the Marines:

  • Fewer Supply Convoys — With less need for fuel and batteries, fewer trucks are exposed to possible attacks on the road.
  • Quieter Is Safer — Units that rely on diesel generators to keep equipment running at night could go quiet while running on batteries, making them harder for the enemy to find.
  • Efficiency — The foldable solar blankets are light and don't take up much space. That should help patrols' mobility, and save space for other supplies — like ammunition, as one sergeant says.
This is the kind of development that is going to help build a mass civilian market for these technologies.

Here's a link to the NPR article:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Page County Grown: Stuffed "Festival" Acorn Squash

This year I picked up quite a few of the "Festival" acorn squash from Public House Produce.  It's a winter squash and when I buy it in October, it typically has been cured (David walked me through the process once, it involves a period of constant temperature once it comes off of the vine) and can keep through most of the winter.  We've had squash as late as February.

I tried a stuffed squash recipe last year, just a savory sausage version, which came from the Simply in Season cookbook, Amazon link below, and again - another tip from Public House Produce. I wasn't too thrilled with those results so this time I decided to try the apple and sausage stuffed squash.  I was probably a bit more careful with the cooking and preparation process this time too, and felt like I had good results:  Mary said, "This is good enough for company."

Basically, I baked the squash at 350 for about 45 minutes to soften the flesh.  I also sauteed the sausage, apples, onions (I added celery and carrots, although they weren't in the recipe) until they were soft, cooking them with the sausage after it was browned.  I also tossed in chopped walnuts and golden raisins, and a tablespoon of bread crumbs (the recipe actually called for bread cubes).

Once this was cooked, I stuffed it into the squash and baked at 375 for 20 minutes.  I should have covered the squash but forgot too - it was getting late.  In any case, we enjoyed this very much...I will continue to tweak the recipe as I have two squashes left.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Berlin Airlift Exhibit

Last month, as I was cruising around the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I came across the Berlin Airlift exhibit.  There's a panel in there with a number of readily recognizable, even iconic, images of this event that happened in the early part of the Cold War.

I saw iconic, because when I arrived in Berlin in October 1981 (just occured to me that it has been 30 years!), one of my first impressions during those ever shorter and colder fall days was that the Berlin Airlift was a signature event for the USAF's presence.  It formed such a strong impression that as I walked around for those first few months the memories that I still hold translate many of the buildings and experiences into grainy black and white images.

This exhibit has 15 or so of some of the more well known photographs from the original reporting, along with some maps and a diagram showing how the Airlift worked.  There is some interpretive material that shows what the whole point of the enterprise was:  to feed the blockaded city of about 2 million people. 

In rediscovering the photos I took at the exhibit, I had a moment of nostalgia (as I always do at the mere mention of the city) that has inspired me to make yet another list in my life - the significant events of my nearly five years there.  At some point I'll have that compiled in a way it's suitable for publication here on the blog.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Luray Caverns CX "Cyclo-Cross"

Photo by John "Major" Nelson.
Last weekend saw the Luray Caverns CX cyclo-cross race return to Luray. Unfortunately, Mary and I had some last minute work and alumni things to take care of in the city, otherwise I would have attended as I’d planned. As far as I know, this is the second of these annual races, which are held on the grounds of the Luray Valley Museum at the Caverns.

Last October I had a few minutes to talk about this event with Chris Gould, the promoter and owner of Hawksbill Bicycles in Luray. He told me that this was a European discipline in cycling that originated in Belgium, involving riding on multiple surfaces, such as grass, asphalt, gravel and mud. There are typically various kinds of barriers that require the riders to dismount and carry their bikes.

Photo by John "Major" Nelson
Also attractive about the sport is the fact that the course is usually designed to wind around a central viewing area, so it’s spectator friendly. At Luray there was a beer garden, and Wisteria Vineyards sponsored a wine tasting. This thing sounds like my kind of event and I really regretted not being able to attend.

As I followed the events on Facebook, I saw that there was a drum line duel between Page County High School and Luray High School. How cool is that?

There were 150 competitors in the event, which is one of four cycling events in Page County now. It’s another great example of the kind of active tourism that our beautiful setting can attract. Kudos to Chris and the other organizers and sponsors for bringing something new and exciting to the community!

Note: I have copied photos here from the Luray CX Facebook Page – the photographer is John "Major" Nelson, who documents most Page County Cycling events in his capacity as the official race photographer!
A web link to the Luray Caverns event page is here:  http://luraycaverns.com/PlanyourVisit/Events/tabid/512/Default.aspx

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Video from Kennedy Peak Summit

When Chris and I did the hike up to Kennedy Peak a few weeks back, I thought I might try to make a video from the observation tower.  Here is the result: it's about three minutes long, done off-the-cuff as I talk about the items you can see from the summit.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Return to Massanutten's Kennedy Peak

A couple of weeks back, when Chris came out for a hike, we intended to get out for one of the “75 at 75” hikes. Both of us ended up having some work chores to take care of first thing in the morning, via email, and that put us behind schedule enough that we ditched the plan for a hike in Shenandoah National Park. As a Plan B, we went to Kennedy Peak on the Massanutten Ridge in the George Washington National Forest.

See, during this time of year, Shenandoah National Park closes the entries on Skyline Drive at 5pm, reopening them at 8am, to prevent poaching during deer hunting season. If you expect that you need more than 9 hours for transit to your trailhead and to complete your hike, you run the risk of being locked in the Park. Although there are procedures for letting you out after hours, NPS cannot guarantee how promptly someone will arrive to open the gates for you.

After Chris and I took care of the emails and on-line business matters, we made our stop to check on the pigs, which I posted on last week. Then it was off to GWNF and the Edith Gap trailhead. We arrived at just about noon for the hike.

I used both the Casio Pathfinder and the “Map my Hike” app on my iPhone on this one. I calculated approximately 698 feet of elevation gain over the 5.4 mile course, which took us about three and a half hours. As with most of the GWNF hikes, the route was well marked, actually following the orange-blazed Massanutten loop for most of the distance before merging with the Stephens Trail to the summit of Kennedy Peak.

Back in January, I hiked the Stephens Trail with the AOA guys. I was stunned at the views from the old observation tower at the summit. I’ve posted three photos here of the views, looking in easterly directions to Page Valley: first to the north, in the direction of Rileyville and Bentonville; then due east across the north stretches of Luray to the Blue Ridge and Thornton Gap; and then to the south, towards Stanley and Big Meadows, where Hawksbill Cabin lies along this line.

I have a video to share, a narrated panorama that I took while on the observation tower, and I will post that tomorrow as I conclude the review of this hike.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

...about that Chanticleer

Funny thing, I exchanged messages with my friend David after last week’s post, “Chanticleer in the Morning.” Turns out, they have a new Barred Rock rooster over there at Public House Produce, and they named him Chanticleer.

Among several meanings of the word, Wikipedia has ‘chanticleer” as meaning “any rooster.” So the Thoreau quote included in that last post includes a pretty spectacular imagery:

"I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

I've just started learning about heritage poultry breeds, so when David told me about the barred rock rooster I dug in a bit to find out more about the breed. From a hatchery website (linked below), I found the picture I included with this post, and the description below:

The Barred Rock is one of the all time popular favorites in this country. Developed in New England in the early 1800's by crossing Dominiques and Black Javas, it has spread to every part of the U.S. and is an ideal American chicken. Prolific layers of brown eggs, the hens are not discouraged by cold weather. Their solid plumpness and yellow skin make a beautiful heavy roasting fowl. Our strain has the narrow, clean barring so desirable in appearance. Their bodies are long, broad, and deep with bred-in strength and vitality. These chickens are often called Plymouth Rocks, but this title correctly belongs to the entire breed, not just the Barred variety. Whatever you call them, you can't beat them for steady, reliable chickens. Baby chicks are dark gray to black with some white patches on head and body.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for Chanticleer next time I’m over. I hear the breed is pretty friendly to people and other animals…but at the same time, I’ve also heard about some ornery ones.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chanticleer in the Morning

Late in the summer, as I was making a stop by to check on the Yum Yums - they were much smaller back then - I came across a curious construction project under the shelter of the barn over there at Public House Produce.  It was a very interesting little building that reminded me of the pool cabana at Hawksbill Cabin, but since the proprieter was away I didn't have a chance to ask what it was designed for...I thought he might be building a little fruit stand to sit out there by the side of the road and vend his sweet corn from.

In the waning weeks of the Luray Page Farmers Market I finally had a chance to ask about it.  David told me it was the "Huntin' Shack" - a small shelter that would serve as a deer blind once the season finally got started.  Thereafter, I wanted to touch base for construction updates, and there were plenty.

Then last week, when Chris and I stopped by for our Yum Yums progress visit, we encountered David freshly returned from the Huntin' Shack, where he'd had a successful morning hunt.  He was in the middle of butchering a buck, but once he finished the chore he offered to take us for a walk to see the Huntin' Shack in the field.

And so we did.  It looks to be a fairly comfortable perch for a hunter to watch and wait from.  It's got good sight lines, and adequate shelter from the cold wind and rain.  There's a rumor of a heater in there, but I didn't see it when I went inside.

No TV in there either, but there were some good choices of reading materials.  Right on top lay a Thoreau tome, a combined volume with Civil Disobedience and Walden.  As David talked about the shack, and some of the events that had taken place there, it was almost as if I could hear him quoting Thoreau - hey, the shack has its similarities to that little place by the pond!

"I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Yum Yums

On Friday, as Chris and I were preparing to go on our hike, I thought it might be good to take him over to introduce him to the Yum Yums at the Sours' place.  Chris is "co-sponsoring" one of the animals with me.

It was a crisp fall morning and the group wasn't quite up and about yet - they were snoozing gleefully in a tight little nest to stay warm.   The pigs always wake up with a start as we approach, and there was plenty of squealing and hopping around the stall and then out into the barnyard.

David was there and walked out with us, explaining what to expect next month (they are growing fast enough we may move the schedule for harvest up to January), and pointing out which pig belongs to whom. 

Our pig is up to about 200 pounds, maybe 220, he said, and the largest of the group is up to 250-260.  I understand that the target weight on the big girl is 350, and that is the metric that will determine what day is the right one for some "next steps."

"Next steps" in this case means "makin' bacon."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Catching up with...Page County Grown

Page County Grown is having a producers forum tonight at the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce Boardroom.  The meeting starts at 6:30 pm, and is aimed at current and potential members, so call the Chamber at 540-743-3915 if you would like more information.

PCG leadership said this meeting is for "...anyone interested in producing goods locally, whether a backyard farmer or a grower looking for additional markets." 

Jared Burner of Skyline Premium Meats will present on the benefits of buying local, and there will likely be some discussion of the organization's results last year - highlighted by the Farm Tour and Dinner last August. 

I'm just sorry I won't be able to join - Page County Grown is already having an impact on the local ag sector in the county, and I expect that the benefits will only increase in the future!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah - New Edition

When I posted about our little day hike to Bear Fence Mountain last weekend, among the things I noticed while writing was that the new edition of "Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park" has been published.  This book, compiled and written by Bert and Jane Gildart, is the 4th edition, and was published earlier this year.  It updates the 3rd edition that was published in 2006; I have an Amazon link at the end of the post if you'd like to check it out.

When Mary and I bought Hawksbill Cabin in 2007, I figured that since Shenandoah National Park was so close - Hawksbill Mountain looms over the drive into our place, nearby Hawksbill Creek draws its source from a spring near Big Meadows, and we can see Tanners Ridge from our brick terrace - that I should make a point of getting to know the Park best I could.  I used the 3rd edition as a guide, setting a goal to complete all of the hikes in the book, an objective I fulfilled in 2010. 

On first review the major difference is the inclusion of 27 hikes in the 4th edition, as opposed to 26 in the 3rd.  Not only are there additional hikes, but some of the old ones have been deleted or replaced.  A district by district review shows that there are now 6 hikes in the North District, where there were five; there are 15 in the Central District, the same as before; and there are 6 in the South District, the same number as were in the 3rd edition.

The additional hike in the North District is Fort Windham Rocks, a 0.8 mile out-and-back with negligible elevation gain.  In the Central District, a second route to the peak at Mary's Rock has been added: "Mary's Rock  South," a 2.6 mile out-and-back that is shorter and has less elevation gain than the traditional "Mary's Rock North" route.  The entry for Betty's Rock and Crescent Rock has been deleted from the Central District list.  The South District list remains the same.

Generally, I'll be interested to get into the individual hike reviews in more detail to check out the updates.  Our Park is dynamic in that it used to be settled and covered by farms; while the establishment of the Park retains some controversy in the surrounding areas, the inevitable progress of nature's reclamation is one of the features of the experience, and that means that the trails are constantly changing.  Where there was a view in the past, there may be a new forest obscuring it now, for example...or some unusual flora or fauna may have re-established itself somewhere, causing the visitor to focus more on the micro-landscape as opposed to the wonderful views from Skyline Drive.

I have my favorites on this list, and at the same time, if the choice were mine, there are a few I would leave off.  But this guide has been very useful to me during my adventures in the Park, and generally I'm very happy to see that it has been updated.  Once I found out it had finally been published I couldn't wait to get a copy for myself.

Amazon link: