Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Provencal Sunshine

I tend to think of the golden, garlicky glory that is aioli as a summer dish--a glistening bowl of it surrounded by raw or crisp-blanched vegetables straight from the garden, or a pungent spoonful melting over a piece of grilled chicken. But when I whipped up a batch recently, and served it with root vegetable oven frites (parsnip, celery root, carrot, potato), then with roast beets and sliced red onion, a sprinkling of toasted walnuts, I found a whole new appreciation for that grand emulsion.

Indeed, mixed-root oven fries with aioli is my new favorite dish. With summer vegetables, the bright flavors of aioli are almost redundant. But with the deep, caramelized, earthy, both sweet and savory flavors of the roasted roots, the aioli is a perfect match and counterpoint. With the beets, something similar occured, though less profound. There the garlic and the lemon tartness mellowed the dirt flavor of the beets, and tempered the sweetness. I owe the inspiration for that salad to our friend Tata, whose Russian version uses grated beets mixed with loads of oil, mayonnaise, chopped garlic and walnuts.

That steak wasn't bad, either, nice pan-roasted porterhouse with a red wine-shallot sauce, and when the sauce bled into the aioli on the plate, well, that was something rather special, too.

And maybe it seems silly to pay homage to a single egg yolk, but I do believe that the Blue Gentian Farm egg that went into that aioli made it one of the best I've ever made. That, and the wonderfully sharp, sweet garlic that we got from a young farmer named Evan (didn't get his last name) near Turtle Lake.

Beets, Menomonie Farmers Market, red onion from Morgan and Ben, walnuts, well, probably from California. We're local, but we're not dogmatic. I really like walnuts.

And in parting, let me offer a couple of aioli-mayo tips, recently discovered though I've been whipping together oil and eggs for years. I use 3/4 cup of oil to one egg yolk, and I like the oil to be 1/2 cup canola, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive. I whisk the egg yolk with a scant teaspoon of Dijon mustard, then start adding the oil. Instead of pouring the oil at the beginning, dip a spoon into the oil, straight up and down, and then just let whatever oil clings to the spoon drip off into the egg yolk as you whisk. Do that a few times until you see the emulsion starting to form. Then you can start pouring in the oil in a slow, steady stream as you whisk. I add lemon juice partway through the whisking, for flavor and to lighten the mix. I add the very finely chopped garlic--at least one very large clove--and salt at the end. Adding a bit of salt to the garlic as you chop it helps to break it down so you can produce a virtual puree of garlic.

Oh, and this time I made my aioli in one of our 8-quart stainless steel mixing bowls, and when I was finished I did not have to spend a half hour cleaning spattered oil from counter, walls, and myself. Ya lives some and ya learns some. Whisk on, friends.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, November 26, 2010


A quiet post-Thanksgiving day of house cleaning, cupboard clearing, no shopping at all--unless you count buying in to the future of some of our favorite non-profit organizations--is that much more enjoyable if it starts with a good breakfast, in this case beautiful local ham, cheese, and egg atop homemade sourdough.

Not that we were ravenous this Black Friday morning, having been fed very well, feted, in fact, at the home of friends on Turkey Day. But by mid-morning we were a bit peckish, so I sliced that sturdy loaf (made with flour from Whole Grain Milling and Natural Way Mills) toasted a couple slices and spread them with Hope Creamery butter, then a shmear of mustard our friend Mala (the crepe diva of Midtown Farmers Market) made, and atop that some fried Grass Run Farm ham, and then an over-easy egg from Blue Gentian Farm, out towards Bide-A-Wee, and then...phew, we're getting there...some grated Roth Kase gruyère. And ran it under the broiler.

I hope this doesn't seem like just a lot of name-dropping, but we're thankful this weekend, and throughout the year, for these wonderful local food products, the people who make them, and who make them available to us--our friend Renée Bartz and her family at Bolen Vale Cheese, everyone at the marvelous Seward Co-op, the farmers market vendors, and many more.

We wish you peace, love, and sanity throughout the mad-cap holiday season ahead, and, of course, many happy repasts with family and friends. Thanks for being friends of Trout Caviar. We truly appreciate it.

Brett, Mary, Annabel & Lily
Saint Paul, Minnesota & Bide-A-Wee Station, Wisconsin


Oh, and any breakfast that includes pickles is good by me. I made the pickles, little cornichons from our own garden cukes in our own apple cider vinegar.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unfussy Fowl (from "Favorite Recipes of Minnesota Meats")

There's no other week of the year during which over-sized poultry products receive as much riveted attention as Thanksgiving week, of course, much of it reaching near-existential levels of agonized scrutiny: To brine or not to brine? Baste? When, with what, butter, stock, orange juice, Dr Pepper? Whole bird or separate the parts? Stuffing in or out (and if it's out, how can it be stuffing...?)? Heirloom or Butterball? Follow Jean-Georges, or Grandma Jeanne? Chuck it all, and go out for pho?

It all gets a bit fraught, to be sure, calling for help-lines, stacks of magazines all taunting the harried cook with images of the perfect bronzen bird, and that big bottle of wine you thought would last through dinner--oops, it didn't make it past the crab dip....

As a bit of an antidote--and not that I think this is going to cause anyone to alter their Turkey Day menus--I offer this elemental preparation, chicken baked with cream and onions. A bit of flour, salt, and water are the only other ingredients.

I brought home this little pamphlet-style cookbook after helping my mom sort through stuff during her recent move:

The moment I laid eyes on this recipe, I knew I had to make it:

The simplicity of the ingredients is compelling; the confidence in the instructions inspires confidence in the cook. And, what the hell, you stick it in the oven for a good while, take it out: Supper. It's the sort of recipe, too, that starts the cook thinking of variations--sure, you could use white wine or cider instead of water; slice some mushrooms to bake along with the chicken, or other vegetables; throw in a couple of sprigs of thyme. But I doubt, really, that you would get something better than this. Get really good, local, natural chicken, certainly (Kadejan is great, always available at our coop); and for us the cream is always Cedar Summit.

The only variations we made to the recipe were these: We used thighs only, instead of a cut-up bird. I salted the chicken, then rolled it in the flour, instead of mixing flour and salt. We baked it at 375 for about an hour and a half--I would have tried Mrs Hecht's long cooking at 350, but we were running a bit late, didn't want to be having dinner in front of the ten o'clock news.... Oh, and I basted it a few times in the course of the cooking.

Alongside we just had a tasty little gratin of butternut squash, a piece of bread, and a glass of cider. We gave thanks.

I love these sorts of old-timey themed cookbooks--I've got another around here somewhere, "Dishes Men Like," I think it's called, put out by the Lea & Perrins folks, and yes, every single recipe calls for Worcestershire sauce. As for the Minnesota meats book, published in 1966, it presents a really fascinating snapshot of where the Midwestern kitchen was headed at the time. For while some recipes show the brilliant simplicity and respect for ingredients of Mrs Hecht's, and others go right back to the farm (a head cheese recipe calls, indeed, for a hog's head, tongue, and heart), plenty of others show convenience foods creeping into recipes--a chicken recipe on the same page as Mrs Hecht's calls not just for two cans of "cream" soup, but for a half-pack of dried soup mix, too.

The section entitled "Foreign Favorites" is a hoot, containing recipes for "Creole Pork Chops (Hawaii)"; "Porcupine Meat Ball Sauce (Italy)"; three preparations of "Meat Balls (Sweden)," two for "Good Meat Balls (Sweden)", and, naturally, just one for "Best Meat Balls (Sweden)".

Flipping through books like this is as much (maybe more) an anthropological as a culinary activity. I find it a bit nostalgic (coming across a recipe very like my mom's sweet & sour spareribs), a bit appalling (the number of cans that get opened), a bit disheartening (I won't name names, but a "recipe" calling for nothing but hamburger, frozen french fries, and cream of mushroom soup, can only mean: "I just don't give a damn; it's food, and if you're hungry, you'll eat it..."), and extremely entertaining, for those reasons and more.

All the recipes, of course, are attributed to women, and almost every one a missus (including one Mrs. Walter F. Mondale, Wife of U.S. Senator from Minnesota, for Minnesota Wild Rice Casserole; if you grew up around here, you've eaten this dish, and you probably liked it just fine. My mom put water chestnuts in hers...).

Favorite Recipes of Minnesota Meats Edition, copyright MCMLXVI, Favorite Recipes Press, Inc., Louisville, Kentucky.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Seasonal Soupage: Potato-Shallot-Sorrel

I "tweeted" recently that I was a-fixin' ta put some fine fresh root vegetables, picked up from some of our Bide-A-Wee neighbors, together in a soup with "snow-kissed" sorrel from our garden. When I came to examine the sorrel bed, I found that I was guilty of a bit of food-blogger poetic license. "Snow-kissed" turned out to be more a case of "glacially-encased." I pried back the lid of crusted snow to reveal the beautiful bed of green above. What about that does not make one think of spring--except the snow, I mean...? In fact sorrel, a hardy perennial related to rhubarb, is at its best in early spring and late fall. It's one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, and then its young leaves add delightful zing to salads.

Through the summer it grows tall and leggy, bolts at a sidewise glance. I cut back the flower heads when I think of it, but that's a purely cosmetic operation. Whether you deadhead or not, when the cold weather comes in, sorrel comes back in style. It's a classic in rich sauces for fish, like this one I made with brown trout. It's also lovely paired with starchy things in soup. After a few frosts the leaves of sorrel become more tender, and also more tart, it seems to me, its lemony quality pronounced. Yet it's a delicate, vegetal acidity these autumn leaves impart. I'm not even sure if you can find sorrel reliably in the stores. This would be another gardener's dish, or friend-of-the-gardener's. Ask around if you don't grow it and can't find it. It grows abundantly, and a little goes a long way, and any sorrel aficionado you find will surely be eager to share.

You could substitute watercress for the sorrel--a different, but kindred taste and concept.

Oh, and the source of all the great roots we picked up last weekend--carrots, parsnips, and potatoes from Kay and Ric in Prairie Farm, shallots, fingerling potatoes, and garlic from Evan near Turtle Lake, gorgeous braids of shallots and onions, and more potatoes, from Morgan and Ben, west of Ridgeland--we found these folks (some of whom it turned out we already knew)through the Hay River Transition Initiative, a fantastic group of people keeping the western Wisconsin countryside alive and lively. As part-time rural residents, we haven't done much with this group yet, but we're really looking forward to getting more involved in the future. It's the sort of grass-roots effort that really gives one hope.

A delicious bowl of soup is another thing that bucks me up:

Sorrel-Shallot-Potato Soup
Serves two

2 shallots, each the size of a small egg, chopped fine
2 large cloves garlic, sliced thin
12 ounces waxy potatoes (two medium), peeled, quartered, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 Tbsp (1 oz.) unsalted butter
2 cups unsalted chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 whole clove
1 small allspice berry
1 small bay leaf
6 whole black peppercorns
1 small bunch sorrel leaves (about 3 oucnes), thick stems removed, chopped (about 2 cups chopped)—hold back a few leaves to chiffonade for garnish
1 small carrot, shredded very fine or grated, for garnish, optional

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, and add the chopped shallots and a pinch of salt. Cook gently, without browning, until they shrink and become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes more. Add the stock, the sliced potatoes, the spices, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and simmer gently for 30 minutes, until the potatoes are very tender—falling apart somewhat, not totally disintegrated.

The soup can be made to this point several days in advance. Just before serving, bring the soup to the simmer, add the chopped sorrel, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for salt. Serve garnished with the reserved sorrel chiffonade, and the carrots if you like.

Note: Mary didn't care for the raw carrot garnish, but I did.

This kind of soup often gets a creamy finish, and a swirl of heavy cream, dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche certainly wouldn't hurt. But this au naturel version would be my preference when you've got really good potatoes and homemade stock.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Best Breakfast Ever...

...according to Mary, anyway, was this here:

Wonderfully fresh and flavorful eggs from a local farm (thanks Don and Joni for passing them along!), delicious gouda with mustard seeds, Marieke, and the main delicacy, in her view, a mixed-root pancake. Her contention: We don't get enough vegetables at breakfast. This is a preparation to right that wrong.

This went from dinner the night before--accompanied by a sort of "ranchy" sauce, preceded by a roasted cauliflower salad--to breakfast the next morning. It became something of a theme of that snowy weekend to keep one meal segueing into the next....

Quite simple, extremely tasty. I've dubbed them pancakes, but they're definitely more in the latke style pancake than the batter-y sort of usual breakfast 'cakes. The eggs and flours just barely hold the vegetables shreds together. You could call them flat fritters, I guess, but that does not seem so appealing... Careful not to grate your knuckles into the mix.

Root Veg Pancakes

1 large potato
1 large parsnip
1 carrot
1/2 small celery root
1 small onion
1 small leek

Peel and grate the first five; slice the leek very thin and add to the grated veg. Add:

2 eggs
2 Tbsp each all-purpose flour and cornmeal
salt and pepper to taste

Mix and let sit for at least 30 minutes.

Heat a heavy fry pan--cast iron is excellent--and add 1/8 inch fat--we used duck fat and a little canola. Stir up the mixture and spoon out 1/2-cup portions into the pan, pressing down with a spatula (alternately, you could make one big, full-pan-sized cake, and cut it into portions, though this will be more difficult to flip). Cook over medium heat for five minutes, then flip over. Continue to cook for a total of, say, 18 minutes, turning often so the insides will cook through without burning the outside--lots of natural sugar in the mix, so be careful of that.

Serve for breakfast just as is, or with a dollop of sour cream; at dinner we mixed a bit of mayo, half & half, cider vinegar, chopped red onion and minced garlic, salt and pepper, for that "ranchy" sauce. Could be a side dish to grilled meat, roast chicken.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Snow Soup Story

Saturday, 13 November, 2010

The first snow of the season came in last night, continuing through the morning in fits and starts, and on into the afternoon. It's extremely heavy snow, carrying twice as much moisture as an average snowfall--heart attack snow, its grisly nickname from the extra exertion required to shovel it. The kind of snow that also takes out tree limbs, hence power lines, and we heard on our battery-powered radio that thousands of homes were without power in the Twin Cities. We are at Bide-A-Wee, and so have no worries about losing power, as no wires connect us to the grid here. But we had our own concerns.

The original predictions said we’d only get an inch or two here, so I la-di-dahed it and didn’t bother moving the car to the top of our very steep driveway last night. Looking out in the morning, then, it was a rude awakening to see a good three or four inches of this very wet, slushy stuff turning the gravel drive into a quagmire. By that time it was nearly too late; fortunately I can stress the nearly. It took a good twenty minutes of up and downing it in the front-wheel-drive Jetta, strategic snow removal and gravel placement, and finally just gritting my teeth, gripping the wheel for dear life, and gunning it until the car surmounted the steepest pitch and I made it to the top.

With the snow rarely ceasing all day, we might have been there till spring.... Well, we didn’t really have anywhere we needed to be, but we were nearly out of candles, our main source of light, and also a friend had called to say he had some fresh eggs for us. I was eager to get those, so I did drive out in the afternoon, and only our town road was at all treacherous by then, the main roads clear. I got the eggs and had a cup of tea with Don, then proceeded into the town of Bloomer, about a 20-minute drive from the cabin. Bloomer has a couple of full-size grocery stores, but those stores yielded all of five white tapers, or tapers of any color, for that matter. I could have stocked up on scented jar candles, however.

With our oil lamp, a propane camp lantern, and strategically placed tea lights we’re sitting in romantically rustic lighting, a picture from more than a century back in technology, except that I am writing this on an Asus netbook, and Mary is reading Huckleberry Finn on her brand new Kindle, the electronic reader.

At least dinner will be a decidedly low-tech affair. Soup on the Haggis, our very basic woodstove, is on the menu, with some Wisconsin cheese and homemade levain bread. I took a downright peasant approach to the soup, and I hope it won’t offend any real peasants out there to learn that I didn’t even start with a clean pot. Last night I cooked up a batch of sauerkraut--choucroute, to give it a tonier Alsatian turn--that made a bed for legs of duck confit. I put some bacon rind in with the fermented cabbage, some carrot, onion, garlic, thyme, and we steamed some potatoes in there, too.

We ate pretty much all of it, but in the morning I saw that there were some odd bits of carrot, scraps of cabbage, and a couple pieces of potato left in the pot, along with the squares of bacon rind. Though we moved the pot to the side of the stove, it started to sizzle once I’d stoked the Haggis, and it smelled so good, well, I just couldn’t bear to toss the remnants out. In China there’s a tradition of master stocks, broth pots that are never emptied but merely added to in perpetuity. Our dutch oven didn’t have that sort of provenance, but I figured reusing that carried-over patina of ‘kraut and bacon fat would get my soup off to a running start.

So as the afternoon light faded, which never had glowed very brightly all day, a leaden November sky right through, we put some more sticks on the fire, gathered an armload of vegetables from the cooler and larder, and slid the soup pot back on the heat. The bacon rind began to sizzle again, and I added another strip of rind and a fat rasher diced. Then carrot, onion, leek, celery root tops and some of the root itself; kale, tomato, garlic, a dried red chili, and a couple of good forkfuls of ‘kraut straight from the jar, unrinsed. A splash of dry vermouth, water, salt and pepper, and last, a few slices of acorn squash.

And there it simmers, while the woodstove chimney ticks, the dogs doze, and sleety snow now and then scrapes at the windows. The radio just turned itself off; it was tuned to Mountain Stage, an excellent music variety show from West Virginia that we listen to on WOJB radio 88.9, “Woodland Community Radio” from the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibway reservation in Reserve, Wisconsin.

So that’s been our day, the first white one of the winter. Oh, add in a nice walk around the newly snow-draped hills, during which our young dog, Lily, covered a hundred times as much ground as the rest of us; senior griff Annabel, now 12, was also rejuvenated by the snow day. That soup, it won’t be any sort of culinary triumph, except that I know it will be perfectly delicious, and exactly what we want to eat. Great food doesn’t have to be complicated, or require too much thought or effort--that's the beauty of wonderful, seasonal ingredients. Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to start with a clean pot....

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Love 'Em & Leaf 'Em

It's a kind of culinary rite of passage, I think, embracing the heartier greens. Now, if you grew up with a pot of collards ever simmering on the back of the stove, that might not apply. In that case, long-cooked greens and pot likker, some cornbread crumbled in, that would be pure comfort food. But if you grew up white in Minnesota, where "greens" meant iceberg lettuce, and even fresh spinach was a bit of an exotic species, the idea of eating kale, turnip greens, mustard greens...well, the idea did not repel, but only because the idea simply did not occur. I'm not sure I even knew what those things were when I was young. Even in my years as a vegetarian, they were outside my ken, just too foreign (perhaps, too flavorful?) to register.

I don't really know when I first came to understand, then enjoy, then relish, dishes like roasted kale leaves or garlicky turnip greens. Certainly by the time I went to teach English in China, over twenty years ago, I was pretty familiar with the deep, slightly bitter flavor of dark green brassicas. In fact, it may have been by exploring Sichuan cooking here in the States, in my college years, that I came to appreciate the flavors of Chinese broccoli, bok choi, et al.

Now I plant several kinds of cooking greens in the garden every year--three kinds of kale, usually, turnips mainly for the greens, broccoli rabe or rapini (is there a difference?). Purple mustard plants itself--I started the ball rolling more than ten years ago in our Saint Paul garden, and haven't had to replant since. Those brightly colored leaves are so prolific, they'll even resow a couple of times in a season. And now that sort of begs the whole question of "greens," since the mustard is purple, regular Vates kale is called blue, the Russian kind is red, and the Tuscan-lacinato-"dinosaur" kale, that's cavolo nero in Italian, black cabbage.

I write of kale and its kindred leaves now because this is the time of year when we enjoy them most. I plant them early in the year and harvest young leaves,thinnings, for spring salads. When they start to become too tough, too strong for eating raw, I ignore them for a few months. I let them outgrow the depredations of the slugs, outlast pretty much everything else in the garden, and come back to them after the first frosts have arrived. That would be now.

Now, not only are those leaves beautiful just tossed with a bit of olive oil and roasted till tender, or dropped into soups, steam-sautéed with lots of garlic. Now, a remarkable thing has happened, which is that the frost has actually tenderized them, mellowed them, so the smaller leaves can be eaten raw again, with pleasure. So I made lunch today out of a handful of lacinato kale leaves shredded quite thin, tossed with a simple, pungent dressing, piled on toast and topped with a poached egg. This is the kind of brilliantly simple dish that always makes me ask, whether silently to myself, if I'm lunching solo, or, sadly, rhetorically if in company: Why can't you get something like this in a restaurant around here...?

Other things I like to do with kale: Add to a long-simmered Chinese dish, like anise-flavored red-cooked chicken; top a pizza, along with some currants, crumbled blue cheese; chop and sauté to mix into a frittata.

Kale will only improve through many frosts. Really, as long as the temperature is popping back above freezing for a few hours each day, you can leave it in the garden and pick as needed. Before the really cold weather drops down, though, I like to harvest bunches of leaves, wash them, trim out the thicker stems, then blanch them briefly in a big pot of boiling water. Just as soon as they wilt I remove them, shock them in ice water, then squeeze them into sandwich bags in single-meal portions, and freeze them. They compress amazingly. It's one of the best frozen vegetables I know, and extremely welcome come mid-winter, when a small bunch of imported kale at the co-op may cost upwards of two bucks, and disappear in a single meal.

That salad, it really is a gardener's delight, best when you have access to the tender leaves of spring, or those frost-nipped leaves of autumn. To make it I took

About 12 small leaves of lacinato kale, rinsed, shredded
1 small clove garlic, minced very fine
1 Tbsp sunflower oil
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 good pinch coarse sea salt
1/4 tsp sambal chili paste
Black pepper
Chives or another fresh herb, optional

1 egg

Mix all together and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Toast some good whole grain levain bread. Butter the toast. Pile the salad on top. Poach an egg (or soft boil, or cook over-easy, or to taste) and top the salad with the egg. Grind a bit of black pepper over all, and snip some chives, or another fresh herb of your liking, over the dish. Sprinkle on more coarse salt, to taste, just before serving.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Meet Pippi

Please welcome the new arrival in the Bide-A-Wee family, Pippi Ulriksdotter. Pippi, as you can see, is an axe, a large splitting axe, to be precise, from the Granfors Bruks forge in Bergsjo, Sweden. Pippi was a birthday present from my dear wife, came my way about a month ago. Mary presented me with a long, flattish, ill-wrapped box that day, and as I opened it I wondered if maybe she'd gotten me the Fender Stratocaster that I have long yearned for. Instead, inside, another sort of axe, the literal sort.... I was not disappointed. (And anyway, with no electricity at Bide-A-Wee, an electric guitar wouldn't be much good out there; maybe next year we'll have power in the country, and I'll be able to plug in and wail some "Smoke on the Water" down the valley, like in that great scene from Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven ...if I get a Strat next year, that is, hint, hint....)

On how the axe came to have the name Pippi Ulriksdotter: We have a Nomenclature Tsarina at Bide-A-Wee, that being Lulu. Tsarina Lulu (aka our "daughter" Melinda, another story...) works remotely, though she visits Bide-A-Wee frequently. 'Twas she who came up with the name Bide-A-Wee for the cabin, and she also named the woodstove Haggis. That's how she got to be the Tsarina. And, uh, those are the only things we've given names to, fortunately--oh, except for the outhouse that holds our composting toilet, and which we call the Tardis, after the Doctor Who spaceship that looks like an English phonebooth from the outside, which the outhouse somewhat resembles, though, come to mention it, the Tsarina pointed out recently that our Tardis is actually sort of an anti-Tardis, as ours looks bigger from the outside than it seems once you get inside, which is true, it's kind of cramped...anyway.... But Tardis is more generic than a specific proper name.

Well, I got the axe, and I tried it out, and man, was I impressed. I've gone through a couple of Menard's axes in the last couple of years. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong in approach or technique, or that our wood was just particularly gnarly, too young, too dry, too cross-grained, something. No: I just didn't have the proper tool. With little ado this axe can knock apart dense oak logs, twisty apple trunks. Maple, birch? Fuggedaboutit. And it does so with style, with attitude. It was clearly an axe with personality, so we decided it should have a name, and so we called the Tsarina, and the Tsarina said she would give it some thought. And then the Tsarina called back, and said she had the perfect name: Pippi Longstocking.

I scoffed. You shouldn't scoff at a Tsarina, but I did. Like I was going to name my magnificent, manly axe after a freckle-faced, red-headed pigtailed girl in striped stockings! The Tsarina was a little miffed with the scoffing, but she continued to make her case: Pippi was Swedish, like the axe; Pippi possessed super-human strength, "the strength of ten policemen"; Pippi for sure had style and attitude.

I was not convinced. I was leaning toward Sigurd. We sort of let the matter drop. Another issue I had, Pippi Longstocking is a name that's already taken--my axe should have its own distinctive handle(!). But the more time I spent with the axe--and I took every opportunity to make my way to the woods where I had chain-sawed some small oaks into sections, to experience that deep satisfaction that comes from efficient wood-splitting--the more my inclination drifted back to Pippi. It wasn't really size, weight, or dint of brute force that made the axe such an estimable tool. It was the design, the thoughtfulness, the Swedishness of it. And, now, I'm not going to go down some weird road to explore the sex roles of wood-cutting tools, but there came a day when I realized, Well, why can't my axe be a girl? A really awesome girl, named in honor of one of the coolest Tomboys in all of kiddie lit? I read all those Pippi Longstocking books when I was a kid, and I had admired Pippi then, but I hadn't thought about those books in a long time. Tsarina Lulu had.

The final piece was hitting upon Pippi's surname. Along with the axe came a booklet, "The Axe Book." It tells you all about where and how the Gransfors Bruks axes are made, and it even tells you who makes them. There's sort of a class picture of the axe-making team, and each axe is stamped with the initials of its maker. Mine was made by Ulrik Nilsson. He looks like an unassuming, tall and thinnish man with a crewcut and a prominent Adam's-apple, standing at the back of the back row.

I called the Tsarina, and told her what I was thinking, and she agreed: Pippi Ulriksdotter would be an excellent name for the Bide-A-Wee large splitting axe, that has already become a cherished, albeit taciturn, member of the family.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw