Happy Perihelion 2014!

Today was perihelion – or, in other words, the day of the year that our earth is nearest to the sun. The best part of today, in my opinion, is that it’s also the last day of four in which the sun rises the latest that it will all year! Though most people recognize that Winter Solstice (on or near December 21st each year) is the shortest day of the year, not as many realize that the sun does not necessarily rise the latest nor set the earliest on that day.

There are countless regional variations, dependent on latitude and longitude, but here in Ottawa, Canada, sunset was actually earliest in the early to mid part of December, arriving around 4:20 PM from December 4 to December 16. By December 17, the sun was already beginning to set later each day! The days were still shortening at that time, however, due to the still-increasing lateness of sunrise – in fact, the sun continued to rise later each day right up to December 31, when it more or less stalled out until today, and tomorrow our days will at last begin to lengthen once more at both ends of the day.

Also interesting to note is that, in the days right around the Winter Solstice, the shortening or lengthening of the days had slowed to a difference of merely a few short seconds each day but already that time has lengthened to a full minute per day and by mid-March the days will be lengthening by over three minutes per day.

 

While there’s still a lot of winter left, things are already looking up!

Life: Constantly Changing

I knew it had been a while but, looking at the date of my last post, it’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years!

Hard to say why blogging fell off my radar but it’s likely that losing my mother and regaining mobility (via hip replacement), both in the spring of 2011, were two big life changes with some contributing factors. My mom had been a very big part of our lives and her passing had a huge impact on all four of us. At the same time, I was experiencing great physical gains from my hip replacement. It often felt oddly wrong to be suddenly feeling so good at that time. Although it was a period of major adjustment for a while – tough for all of us in different ways – ultimately, we have all regained our equilibrium.

Next, in early 2012, my husband took the plunge and retired. Shortly afterward, a sudden turn of events gave me, amidst much workplace turmoil and anxiety for those around me, the option to retire, without penalty, a few years earlier than expected. By the end of September 2012, we were both retired! That too felt oddly wrong at first, to have landed in a sweet spot when my colleagues were sweating over whether they would survive massive workplace cuts, but I’m happy to say that everyone I worked with, other than those also able to retire, survived the cuts.

So, what have I been doing since then? Well, there’s been a brief return to further education, creation of a business plan, some travel and a boatbuilding project, to name a few things – more to come on all of them in future posts.

I’ll end this one by saying I could not have foreseen a few years ago where I’d be today, however, where I am is good! A big part of it is the fact that my hip replacement has allowed me to return to a far more active life. I’m still amazed when I think about it, but mostly I don’t so much anymore – I’m just too busy, in a wonderfully, physically, pain-free way!

Winter Solstice Celebration, Ottawa?

I’ve wondered for a few years now why a Winter Solstice celebration hasn’t emerged in Ottawa like it has in other places and I envy Toronto and Vancouver with their vibrant celebrations.
So, here we are, two days to go, and I’m wondering, could the following plan get retweeted enough on Twitter to make it happen? Up to you, Ottawa, let’s see …
Here’s the idea – starting at 7:00PM on Winter Solstice (that’s Thursday, Dec. 22 this year), a moving column of light along Scott Street, by the transit way, from the Tunney’s Pasture station to the Westboro station.
How? Get yourself, and some friends and family too, if possible, to either station at that time, with whatever you’ve got to light up the night – lanterns, flashing bike lights, glow stix, etc., and move out onto Scott Street in the direction of the other station, till you meet up with the group doing the same thing from the other station! Got a nice portable noisemaker? Bring it!
So then what? Well, you can either head into Westboro or Hintonburg to warm up at your choice of many fine restaurants and bars or simply (and easily!) get back on a bus and head downtown or elsewhere to continue your celebration, or just be done.
It’s pretty simple. And I think it would be pretty awesome.
Ottawa, it’s in your court now …

Unexpected Urban Forage

A number of recipes I’ve been eying in the past few weeks call for juniper berries and though they are common in many European dishes, they aren’t common to North American cooking. Nor are they common on our grocery store shelves.

What is common here though are the juniper bushes on which they grow and as I was walking back to work at lunch today, I found myself staring at a berry-laden juniper right next to the city bus transitway! At first glace, they appeared to be the young green ones that are not useable but closer inspection revealed some mature blue berries ready for harvest. Since I had an armload of stuff, was limited for time and was getting a few odd looks from passers-by, I limited my harvest to a small handful. I’ll go back when it’s not so busy and do a more thorough job. Then I’ll dry them on a windowsill for a few weeks and put them in a jar for future use.

I’ll have a few more urban harvest possibilities in coming weeks – rose hips (for jam), crab apples (spiced and preserved in jars, or jelly) and then there’s the street where black walnuts rain onto the road in the fall. There’s the puffball mushroom growing in the yard … if it survives the foot traffic. The tomatoes discovered recently at the back of the yard, sprouted from one of last year’s wayward tomatoes. And who knows what else?!

I love that there are little nuggets of goodness out there, just waiting for those who take the time to seek them out or just plain see that they’re there. There’s something immensely satisfying in harvesting these gifts of nature.

Merlins High & Low

I’ve had a fascination with falcons since childhood, when I first learned about the art of falconry, and have always thought it would be the most glorious thing ever to have my very own falcon to take flight from, and return to, my gloved hand.

Sadly, though understandably, there are laws that prevent me from keeping a falcon, however, for a few months now, I have had my own falcons, sort of, as a pair of merlins came to nest this spring atop the 60-foot spruce tree at the back of our yard!

Merlins are small falcons, beautiful birds, whose urban population is on the increase, especially here in the Ottawa area. We’ve spent the last few months watching and listening to the rather noisy comings and goings of our resident raptors and were fairly certain in recent days, though hard to know, that there were babies in the nest.

Our suspicions were confirmed yesterday morning when I discovered a juvenile merlin perched just inches off the ground, on a rock under our apple tree. I started to approach, gingerly, so as not to alarm him (it just seemed like a ‘him’) but decided to wait and watch for a bit and went back inside, where I could watch from the kitchen window. When he continued to do nothing, even with his family calling overhead, I went back out armed with a towel and a laundry basket.

It took little to toss the towel over him and scoop him into the basket. I put the basket on the deck in hope that a parent would see him and somehow help him back up where he belonged but it became clear that was not going to happen and so the decision was made to take him out to the Wild Bird Care Centre, where they do marvelous work rehabilitating injured birds and returning them to the wild whenever possible.

Back out in the yard, we had been watching to make sure our poor little guy did not fall prey to a cat or a crow. The neighbourhood is full of crows and we had seen them harass the merlins on several occasions. There they were again, and it was soon clear why – another juvenile, unquestionable a sibling to the poor thing in the basket, was flitting amongst the mid-branches of the spruce tree and two crows were acting as a tag-team against the merlins. Action was needed!

Enter the slingshot, hastily retrieved from the basement. My son managed some well-placed shots that drove off one crow but the other swooped in on Young Merlin in the tree. He took off in an erratic flight – fear, ineptitude or perhaps both – and the crow took a strike. Downy feathers rained from the sky but Young Merlin flew on and disappeared into the maple trees across the street. Mother Merlin gave frantic calls but Young Merlin remained out of sight. But Poor Baby, in the basket, needed attention and eventually we had to hope for the best for Young Merlin and move on.

Poor Baby was silent and still on the drive to the care centre. Once there, they conducted a preliminary examination and said he didn’t look good, but gave us a reference number we could use to call and receive status reports on our bird. We were happy to hear that if he recovered enough to qualify for release, we would be able to pick him up and bring him home for release in our yard! We made a contribution to their donation box and left him in their expert care.

We watched throughout the afternoon and evening as Mother Merlin spent most of her time sitting like a sentinel on the same top-most branch of the tree, calling now and then but receiving only silence in return. It was a sad sight.

And then, this morning, I saw Young Merlin back on the lower branches of his home tree! He called as he fluttered between branches, while Mother Merlin sat in her usual spot high aloft, no longer such a sorry sight.

I came back in and phoned the Wild Bird Care Centre for a status report. Sadly, Poor Baby didn’t make it beyond early this morning.

The slingshot sits ready at the back door and we will be watching, ready to help if we can, as Young Merlin loses his last bits of baby fluff and gets good enough at flying to better fend for himself.

And I will continue to imagine, though a dream is all it will ever be, how cool it would be to raise my arm to the sky and have a falcon swoop in for a landing …

* * *

If you live in or near Ottawa, visit the Wild Bird Care Centre (on Moodie Drive, in Nepean) to see the birds they are continually helping. Please be sure to put what you can in the donation box on your way out – the work these volunteers do is amazing and the need for supplies is never-ending.

Charcuterie: Making Bacon – Part 1


Early in July, I had the pleasure of tucking into a charcuterie plate at Juniper restaurant. I remember only a few things – house ham, duck something – but everything on the plate was wonderfully tasty! Charcuterie dominated my brain in the following days and it wasn’t long till some research on the subject had me searching for the book Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman. A trip to Chapters on Rideau Street put the book in my hands last week and then the hunt began …

I decided to make the first thing addressed in the book – bacon! The required sugar and kosher salt posed no problem but coming up with curing salt and pork belly took some work.

I knew from past experience that pork belly can be had from the local butcher store but has to be ordered and comes at high cost. A Toronto website listed T & T Asian Supermarket as a pork belly source and when I checked our Ottawa T & T store there it was – in approximately one-kilo chunks, at a very reasonable price!

Another site suggested Nicastro’s Italian deli as a source for curing salt and I was able to find it at their Merivale Road location, in a one-kilo bag labeled ReadyCure.

Curing Salt

Now, American recipes (like the ones in the book) call for a product called pink salt or InstaCure, which are 6.25% nitrite. The ReadyCure package didn’t list the percentage of nitrite, nor did the store staff know it, however, the package listed the Toronto manufacturer’s phone number and a quick call revealed it to be 1% nitrite.

After some wish-I-could-say-they-were-quick calculations, I was able to determine that, if I added 600 grams of kosher salt and 675 grams of sugar to my kilo of ReadyCure, I’d have three times the amount of Ruhlman’s basic dry cure (plus a bit more), at the correct percentage of nitrite. So this I did.

I’d picked up two pieces of pork belly and opted for slightly different treatments for each. The first one was dredged in approximately 75 grams of the basic dry cure and sealed in a large Ziplock bag. I did the same to the second one, but added about a quarter-cup of maple syrup. (I’ve a hunch I’ll prefer that one!)

So now it’s a 7-day waiting game, give-or-take a day perhaps, apart from a quick flip of each bag every other day. The meat will leach liquid and firm up over time. Once cured enough, it’ll be time to drain the liquid, rinse the meat, then roast or smoke it, low ‘n slow, to an internal temp of 150 degrees F. I’ve a week to sort out which it will be – while I’d far prefer to smoke it, I’m not sure I have the capability to do it as low ‘n slow as it needs to be done.

Watch for the follow-up to see which method wins and find out how each version tastes once sliced and fried. I sense it’s to be, for me, a rather long week of impatient anticipation. Hope it’s worth it!

Albacore – Out the Door

Recent blog traffic suggests there are people out there interested in my Albacore restoration project so I thought I’d better post sooner than later that – pardon the pun – the wind has sort of gone out of my sails on this one.

I’m not sure which was the mistake – buying a project boat in the first place or moving up to keelboat lessons last year. Having now experienced both dinghy and keelboat sailing, keelboats rule! Had I simply stuck to dinghies, I might have completed the restoration by now and be frantic to get mobile enough (hip surgery) to be on the water. But no. So she will soon be looking for a new home with a more appreciative owner.

And as much as I’d like to jump into a keelboat of my own, this is not the year for it as I likely won’t have decent sea-legs for sailing till at least July. Perhaps some crewing opportunities will appear after that??

Switching gears to powerboats, we recently upgraded from a fishing boat to a bow-rider! I’ve only seen photos so far but I think I may soon be mobile enough for a trip to the lake* and a maiden voyage. The new boat, with a full windscreen, canopy and zip-on-and-off side panels, should make the trips to and from the island much better on rough days. Or any days really – she’s fiberglass instead of aluminum, beamier and about two feet longer (18’-something …) The seating is higher on the comfort scale and the swim platform, ladder and bigger motor mean skiing or wakeboarding is an option … not likely for me, but you never know …

So goodbye Albacore, hello bow-rider, with sweet dreams of a keelboat in a few years’ time!

*The lake is Big Rideau, where we have just over two acres of property on a 25-acre island – alas, no cottage, just a very modest sleeping cabin (OK, shed, really), however, the beauty and tranquility of the setting, the stellar view, clear water and weed-free swimming are all that really matter! The boat ride from marina-to-island is about five kilometers (three miles).