Monday, February 11, 2013

Wood Fired Up

We closed on the new old  house on January 30 of last year, at the title company's office in Menomonie, a 25-minute drive from the house (as well as from the Bide-A-Wee cabin).  Roughly 30 minutes after the last document had been inked, the last hand shaken, Mary was in the first floor bedroom tearing out the ancient, filthy shag carpeting to reveal fir floorboards that had been painted around the outer two feet (roughly) of the room--presumably an area rug had once covered the center of the room. (While this initial deconstruction was going on, I was moaning under the down comforter at Bide-A-Wee, victim of a stomach bug that had made the closing an excruciating experience; I don't think I'll ever eat seafood sausage again....)

With that initial un-rugging of the bedroom began a year-long cascade of projects that involved wood floor refinishing and installation, taking down an acoustic tile ceiling and a half-wall, paneling of walls and a ceiling, putting on gutters, moving an exterior stairway, replacing an exterior door, finishing dry wall, relining a flue, replacing light fixtures, building a garage, and painting, painting, painting, painting.  A lot of the work we hired out.  Our move to Ridgeland has been very, very good for the local economy.

About three weeks ago, just shy of our one-year anniversary in the house, we marked the culmination of Phase One with the installation of a woodstove, a Pacific Energy Summit model.  It is simply the greatest thing ever.  As I sit at the desktop computer in my office writing this, I'm yearning to be back down in the living room, gazing at the fire--in front of which the dogs have installed themselves more or less permanently, probably wondering in their flame-warmed dreams why on earth it took us so long to welcome this marvelous object into our home.  I feel pretty much the same way.  We're taking the rest of the winter off from major home reno projects; a kitchen re-do looms when warm weather returns, and that will require us to gather a great deal of strength and resolve.

Let me count the ways we love our woodstove:  Well, for starters, who doesn’t love looking at a fire?  The Haggis woodstove we have at Bide-A-Wee is excellent in many ways, but you can’t watch the fire unless you leave the door open, which is dangerous.  The new stove has this big glass door, perfect for fire viewing.  I find it calming, thrilling, and mesmerizing, all at once.  In the evenings I tend to forget we even have a TV upstairs (though I remain a devoted People's Court and Jeopardy fan).

Two, it is age-old technology brought beautifully up to date.  A modern motor vehicle bears really no resemblance to a horse and buggy, except for the wheels.  Modern woodstoves look and work very much like their ancestors—indeed, some new ones are designed to look exactly like the vintage models—but they are much more efficient in every way.

Three, following from above, a woodstove is a pretty clean way to heat.  Wood is a renewable, sustainable, and local source of fuel, and new technology makes these stoves up to 80 percent efficient.  When it’s burning hot with good seasoned wood, you see no smoke from the chimney.  And the fuel to feed it travels all of a couple hundred yards to get here (oh, well, some of it did come a couple of miles, as we recently purchased a cord from our friend Tina, who has a several-years’ backlog of wood in her yard).  Wood is also a fairly carbon-neutral form of fuel; it does release carbon into the atmosphere, but only at a faster rate than was going to happen anyway, as the wood broke down out in nature.  I’ve been harvesting small dead oaks almost exclusively, basically just taking advantage of natural attrition before those trees fall to the soil and rot.  (However, I’m being sure to leave a good number of taller snags for wildlife habitat.)

The woodstove gives us total heating and cooking independence, as long as there’s wood in the box.  I think I mentioned that the house came with a wood furnace in the basement, which we’d been using up until we got the stove.  But even that depended on an electric fan to work properly.  The Summit has no moving parts, but the door.  If the power goes out we'll still be warm and well-fed; the electric pump won't work, so we we'll have no water, but that's a separate issue.

And:  it’s a handy clothes dryer, combined with a simple drying rack.  This also helps, a little, to humidify the dry winter air.

The woolens chest had gone a little musty, requiring wholesale scarf and mitten laundering.

It is fabulous to cook on.  You knew this was where we were headed, didn’t you?  I’ve always enjoyed cooking on Bide-A-Wee’s Haggis, even though it’s a much less substantial stove than this one.  The Summit has a nice wide, flat top, plus a warming ledge behind.  We start putting the stove to use first thing in the morning, boiling water for our tea in the red kettle.  It requires a little patience, since you don’t necessarily have high heat on demand after the fire has burned down overnight.  But I like that about it.  It seems fitting with the slow food type of cooking at which a woodstove excels. 

I’ve simmered chicken stock, and soup, and just last night a marvelously complex venison goulash.  I’ve also pan-roasted a venison leg roast, fried steaks, warmed duck confit and braised cabbage.  The cast iron pans work amazingly well with the steady, even heat of the woodstove.  Mary made pancakes a couple weeks ago that came out better than they have in ages—even browning, terrific height, and thorough, consistent doneness.  Slices of squash slowly browned to tenderness in some duck fat give new life to that root-cellar mainstay, of which even I, a dedicated squash fancier, have been growing a little tired.  Not when prepared this way.

Venison goulash bubbled gently for  hours, filling the house with amazing aromas.

You can’t really bake on it, although I have made dutch oven bread on the Haggis before, and you could certainly do other kinds of flatbreads.  Frittatas and slowly scrambled eggs come out just lovely.  I know it will be perfect for paella and jambalaya, I just haven’t had time to try those yet.

When we redo the kitchen we’ll put in a really nice range, for sure, probably a dual-fuel model with an electric convection oven—that’s what I’ve found to be the best for baking and roasting, though I don’t use the convection fan for bread.  But in the cool months, when the stove is lit, I know I’ll still do plenty of cooking there.

Onions slowly caramelize for the goulash, while a venison leg roast cooks with chile, rosemary, and garlic.  Our downstairs freezer died, so I had to process a whole deer leg all at once.

Oh, and a collateral benefit to the woodstove:  It introduced us to a new skill, laying tile.  We built the pad that the stove sits on, our first such project.  It was surprisingly easy, and really, really fun and satisfying.  I’m eager to do it again.

How we chose this stove:  we didn’t do a ton of research, but we did read up on on-line reviews, and talked to people in person and via our Tell-All and HRTI Share list-servs.  From an email shout-out we heard from numerous people, and nearly all of them had a different brand of stove—Pacific Energy, Jotul, Vermont Castings, etc.—and they all loved them.  I don’t think we got a single non-recommendation.  We picked the PE largely because Tina has this same model, and loves it.  Also, since the PE stoves are steel, not cast iron, they can be placed fairly close to combustible surfaces, within a few inches of the wall.  This allowed us to tuck it in the corner so it doesn’t overwhelm our living room.

In choosing the size, again, we had the benefit of Tina’s experience.  Her house is smaller than ours, and more compact, so we went with the same size she has, the big one, even though it’s said to heat 3000 square feet, and our house is right around 2000.  But those ratings don’t give you any sense of what sort of weather they’re calibrated for; the stoves are made in British Columbia, in a region where it doesn’t get nearly as cold as it does here.  And what we’ve found so far is this:  if the outside temperature is above 30, we don’t need to burn much wood to keep the house toasty.  When the high temps were barely topping zero for a week straight, we kept that baby stoked, and we were not roasted out of the house, by any means.

So that’s the woodstove report.  We couldn’t be more tickled with this new addition to the family.  We only await a visit from Lulu, our Nomenclature Tsarina, to properly assess its character and offer a suitable name.

We got the stove from Stoveworks, with stores in Rice Lake and Hayward.  They were great.


Sharon Parker said...

It all looks so cozy and delightful. I haven't been keeping up, but it appears that you are getting nicely settled in and enjoying your new-old home immensely. Cheers and happy Chinese New Year (a day late)!

Atenderloin said...

He's baa-aack. Wonderful to have you back online, Brett, and with such a great post. I just read it on a tablet in front of my own woodstove- the perfect confluence of technology and tradition.

Again, great to read you once more. I, for one, missed it.

s said...

Not at all jealous here! This is on our to-do list but get prioritized behind a lot of things...Great tips to refer to when we start researching though. Love the dogs camped out in front :)

el said...

Lovely. And to think I was gonna email you asking how country life has affected your food life, and you answered and served.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sharon, great to hear from you. We are feeling very much at home in the country, indeed. Gong xi fa cai to you, too, and all best.

Thanks, Lucas. It is amusing to straddle these diverse worlds, isn't it?

Hey Sara: I highly recommend the wood-fired life. We've had the stove less than a month now, but it's hard to imagine our country home without it.

Yo, El, we are scraping by here, not quite starving. Making big garden plans for spring.

Cheers, all~ Brett

darlene said...

Hey Brett--should have done our homework to get real cooking surface and all that on our latest purchase, but when dealing with small spaces, as you know...anyway can't help but say that the old cook-stove at my shop (do you recall it at all?) was the cat's meow on our home-front. I would still use it if I could, and we still talk about making A ROOM for it someday, not just room! Darlene

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Darlene: Yes, a good cooking stove was a priority for us. And yes, I remember that stove from the cafe very well, a beauty! You should build a shrine to it!

Best~ Brett (not forgetting I owe you an email, I've been very uncommunicative of late, for various reasons, hope all is well)