Category Archives: masonry oven

On home vacations

One of the vacation projects was putting cement board siding on the outside of  Loven.  Ick; that cement board is nasty, but the cladding needs to be fireproof.  Now to paint it all and put the galvanized roof on…maybe I need another vacation?

Ah!  A week off from work.  The place looks really spiffed up (projects begun, projects completed, chaos swept away).  And:  I have bruises in strange places.

About a third of my work as an architect is designing second homes for Chicagoans keen to have a spot on this, the better, side of the lake.  You’ve heard about second homes, right?  They are acquired because the first home is wanting.  But me, I find it hard to ever leave my first home!  And why should I?  I would rather be home than anywhere else.

And it is just as well. There’s plenty to do.

Greenhouse #3 is even big enough to have a place to sit.

The new greenhouse layout is perfect for growing long rows of indeterminate tomatoes.  It is no secret that I abhor staking tomatoes; I have devoted many posts to this dislike, yet I still grow and stake them.  So I tried a new method on Thursday morning, as it was the best time to do it:  cloudy, breezy, and the Supreme Court was due to make its final rulings.  Instead of sitting by the radio being pissed off, I took to the greenhouse to change what I can.

This is 17 gauge fence wiring.  There are many uses for a roll of this stuff; in point of fact, I have never set a current to this wire…and I have gone through an eighth of a mile of it since I bought it.  I stretched the wire between the bows, using self-tapping screws held off from the bow just enough to allow a wrap of the wire.  Then, I stake the tomatoes by tying sisal twine to the base of the plant, stretching the twine up and knotting it over the fence wire, then draping it back down (for when the plant gets taller/more unwieldy).  Pretty simple all around.  I have plenty of screws, plenty of wire…but I ran out of sisal.

I trim to one main stalk, and am maniacal about trimming all future suckers until the plant gets about five feet tall.  Wrapping with the sisal is fairly easy.  Up twisty up, avoiding the fruit branches, loose enough to allow it to grow.  At its biggest point a plant might require up to four strings to hold it aloft but sisal is cheap.  The wire shouldn’t bend much under the weight; between the 4′ span of the bows there are only two, maybe three plants.  And they will all grow to hit the roof sooner than later.

And by the time I finished with this task (yes, doing 76 plants takes a bit of time) I turned on the radio and surprisingly wasn’t angry by the rulings!  Ah, a morning well spent.

On listening to the harvest

You certainly don’t need it, but this laser-operated heat gun is a nice thing to have. 

It’s another In-Between Sunday.  Sundays are my busiest:  four of my six CSA subscribers get their deliveries on Monday, the Loven is firing, and there (as ever) seems to be a lot that needs harvesting and processing.

It’s a full-on sensory experience, the weekend harvesting and cooking.  The smells and sights are sometimes taken for granted.  Other things, though, require the ears, and some actually require a bit of sensory deprivation.

So I stand at the butcher block, goggled eyes and gloved hands separating about 20 red serrano peppers from their seeds and membranes.  Today I’m making this year’s hot sauce.  This year, it has peaches in it, because, well, why not?
I stand, listening to Harry Shearer, and think about how much busier I will be next weekend.  I haven’t sat down all day and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon:  it’s, in other words, a fairly typical Sunday for me.  Next week, though, the apples and the grapes will be ready.  I need to put the little crops away like all this hot sauce.  There won’t be time when the juicing and the cidering and the saucing starts.

We grow in pairs (Asiminia triloba)

Little crops:  it was a bit of a surprise, but our pawpaw trees are producing fruit!  Never heard of a pawpaw?  More of us should grow them.  I lovingly took our one ripe fruit to a group event yesterday, passed out some of the creamy flesh, then promptly ate the rest of it myself.  Supposedly they take about 14 years to fruit but ours have been in the ground for only 5.  Black blossoms graced its midsection this spring; I held little hope.  Don’t doubt a native tree, I guess.  We harvested three Hass avocado-sized pawpaws this year.  I can’t begin to tell you how lovely this one fruit was.  They should be more widely cultivated, though I can see why they are not:  the beautiful seeds took up most of the cavity.

As I sit listening to Shearer’s weekly outrages, I am listening to the Loven’s fire crackle.  Five loaves are rising in their pans:  I am thankful it’s cool, slowing their expansion, because the wood is taking a long time to burn down.  There’s not much you can do to hurry that wood, though my husband has stuck a small fan in front of the open oven door.  It happens on occasion, but sometimes the loaves fall before the oven is ready.  Sigh.

I also listen to the Close-Enough Cassoulet bubbling in its pot.  Six types of nearly-dry beans got harvested from the garden early this morning, making a trip in the cast-iron pot with bacon ends and onions/garlic and bundle of fines herbes.  Now it’s almost time to drop in the chicken legs and locally produced Mettwurst.  I set it on the stove to a light boil:  this Dutch oven will get topped with breadcrumbs and stuck into the Loven for our dinner.  It will go in the back, behind the loaves, with dinner’s two baguettes hogging the front section.  It’s a nearly empty oven.  Two pans of tomatoes are waiting to take their overnight turn.  Even if it’s not too busy, it’s still a good day.

Pre-bubbling cassoulet, fallen loaves, and overexposed sourdough baguettes.  Awfully hot to actually adjust a camera, I must say.

On almost-tomato-season plus the masonry oven

The makings of Glut sauce*(including the first ripe extremely cat-faced Brandywine) plus a bit more for peach salsa

It’s not quite full season yet with the tomatoes: we’ve mostly got the little guys going (I frankly no longer bother with cherry tomatoes) and some plums…but it’s COMING.  Goodness is it ever.

Strangely, I am way ahead of the game with the peppers, eggplant and okra.  Tomatoes are usually the herald of the family solanaceae, they’re the first ones reddening up and driving me crazy but this is a great year for the peppers and, especially, eggplant.  I am beginning to wonder if it’s just a good year all around or if it’s because all of these plants are ones that I have saved from good-looking parent plants over the last couple of years.  A mystery.

I wake up ridiculously early on Thursdays (4:00!).  Thursdays have become my Cook Everything Possible In Loven And Then Eat It All Until Next Thursday day.  It’s a bit of a marathon, but then again, I am cooking for (potentially) a week, and cooking bread loaves to sell…of course it’s arduous.  But in the oven, in order of its hotness, goes

  1. Caramelization session in the hot coals:  2 cast-iron skillets with some chopped veg like onions in one pan, zucchini in the other; this requires some frequent stirring.  It cooks from the top and the bottom.  The veg go into bread salads, or frittatas, or on pasta; whatever, it’s cooked! and with a woodsy flavor punch!
  2. Push the coals back and then bake pizzas/focaccias (2 per session, turned around 3x in front of the hot flames)
  3. The fire burns way down.  Tom scrapes it out, mops the floor, closes the door to equalize the oven’s hot spots.  About an hour later, I now fill the oven with the massive bread and roast chicken baking (bread takes 1/2 hour, chicken closer to an hour)
  4. Remove the bread, leave the chicken in there and set a skillet full of frittata, individual potatoes (pierced with a fork, set on the floor), soaked/parboiled beans and/or rice and baked dessert (custard, souffle, etc.) and start on roasting things overnight like the glut sauce or juicy peaches.  Later in the season I will have 2-3 steam table pans* full of tomatoes cooking overnight (the temp. goes from about 200 down to 150 or so)
  5. Dinner happens (if we’re not too stuffed with pizza) when we pull the chicken out.  I made a cold veg salad the day before.
  6. Remove things by doneness, check temperature, and leave the glut sauce and peaches in there to cook overnight.  Also overnight, in goes a glass casserole filled with a cultured milk product (buttermilk, kefir) that…cooks all night to become quark or kefir cheese.  The heat separates the curds from the whey; this lovely sweet tasting caramelized grainy cheese, then, becomes one of my favorite things to spread on my morning toast.

It’s fun!  And…exhausting!  But heck, no cooking the rest of the week…unless we’d like to, of course.

* don’t waste your money on buying a spendy turkey roasting pan this year; 4″ or 6″ deep stainless steel steamer pans will work quite well.  Buy them thick enough and they completely take the heat of my oven, too.  Lasagna, dehydrating veggies, etc. etc. etc.!

On rocket stoves

The outdoor cooking kitchen is complete!  L-R: New built-in table, Loven, rocket stove.  Oh, and camera-shy Penny.

I learned many things at the side of my chef friend Catharine.  The most important thing I learned is “Heat is heat.”

Sure, we can dream of having zoomy gas-fired indoor ranges with ultimate control.  In a past life and if I were a cajillionaire and there was no such thing as global warming (that’s a lot of “ifs”) I might gladly install an Aga or–better–a Lacanche in my kitchen; surely, I would have to reinforce the floor to hold one.  But really, heat IS heat.  Catharine cooked the most fantastic meals on the humblest of kitchen stoves.  And I left my spendy red-knobbed range back in Minneapolis: now I bang pots on a 1967 electric Hotpoint range (maybe $100 when it was new).  It’s not the equipment, therefore, it’s the will.

Emilie is terribly curious about the hole I have dug for the slab.

And heat.  With experimentation, one can cook everything in our outdoor kitchen.  The rocket stove is truly third world technology and likewise was the simplest thing to build:  I used 66 bricks, one 24″ long, 4″ diameter stove flue, one 4″ flue elbow, one bag of concrete and one and a half bags of mortar (as I am a horrible mason; a good one would’ve built it with one bag).  I already had the grill grate, and for a lid I purchased the 16″x16″ red concrete patio paver…this little stove cost me a whopping $65 with had-boughten materials.  Building it stretched two days:  concrete slab on day one, oven chimney on day two, about five total hours of my time.

New potatoes coming up

Like the masonry oven, there is a learning curve (where ISN’T there a learning curve) but this isn’t a steep hill to climb.  It uses skinny waste wood too like all that stuff that falls from your trees after a storm.  Get out your cast-iron skillets, your big boiling pots.  Use it like a barbecue.  It’s chow time!

And it’s even a fire I can set that stays lit!

Notes in the comments!

All hail Prometheus!

It’s so warm!

It is with much rejoicing and carrying-on that I announce the maiden burning of our Loven (wood-fired masonry oven).

Whee!  Of course I paid homage to Prometheus, Hestia, Brigid and Haphaestos:  mortal and immortal tenders of flame.  The patron saint of bricklayers and masons (St. Stephen) and architects (the apostle Thomas) got their due.  While I was at it I thanked the patron saints of bakers (St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Nicholas), winemakers (St. Martin of Tours) and farmers (St. Isidore) and gardeners (St. Fiacre).  It was quite a crowd:  I invoked them all by tossing my flour onto the hot floor of the oven and saying a simple “thanks a lot!” to the whole lot.  Grazie!

In reality, it was just my family here to celebrate.  First out of the oven:  two pizzas, with our cheese and herbs and veg.  Followed quickly by four loaves of sourdough bread (I have a new levain and love it), then in went one small pot of lentils with homemade chix sausage/sage and one roasting chicken, cooked simultaneously.  The oven cooled and I set in it a quick clafouti with local sweet cherries (our milk and eggs) and then, overnight, I let the oven cool completely and roast out some of our new fresh garlic for future garlic jelly.

Watch the smoke!  As you can see, it’s still a construction zone, but…we’ve got a certificate of occupancy so we’re fired up and functional

I can tell I am going to have a LOT of fun with my new toy.

Loven update

Moving right along:  showing arch formwork

The nights have been above freezing so we’ve begun work on the masonry oven again.  I am trying to not get too excited, but it’s hard.  It is fun when it gets to this point:  we’re building the arch of the barrel vault of the oven so it’s really taking shape.

Of course, I had to take a day off of work to accomplish this, or rather, to get all my other work completed so I could take on this task.  But:  peas, potatoes, favas and garbanzos are planted and a lot of other garden grunt work was completed.  Milking muscles work well for weed-pulling!

The arch should be finished this week, and then we’ll begin on the chimney and entry arch.  Then, it’s all concrete work.  I am guessing we’ll fire the thing up by the end of April.  Whee!

Building an arch:  he’s on 2 of 4

On LOVEN (our wood-fired masonry oven)

The time has come:  I have helped make two of these things, so now, after much agitta and self-denial, I bring you (taDA!!) the beginnings of our own outdoor masonry oven.

Truth be told:  these things are not for everyone.  I was already a baker; we live on a farm with lots of trees; I’ve been looking for ways to lower our food-production footprint steadily for years.  And truth be told:  I know how to build things.  That said, feel free to 1.  ask questions  2.  live vicariously.

The Skinny: Modified Alan Scott plan; no, it’s not complete yet, though we’ve passed the halfway point to its first firing.   They can be quick to make it but is certainly not a Weekend Warrior kind of thing…more like 8 weekends, plus.  Easily-found materials.

The Plan: I will use this once or twice a week, year-round.   There’ll be a once-a-week breadmaking day, then the cooling oven will cook things like casseroles, and, overnight, things like dried beans or yogurt.  I will probably be selling some of the food.  It’s also great for dehydrating food, making jerky, drying fruit, etc.  And no, the food doesn’t have to taste like wood.

The Concept: Masonry ovens store heat.  They’re thick:  the thermal mass involved leaks the heat out slowly; there’s a door to the oven that even keeps the smoke from escaping.  You fire it up, scrape out the ashes, wipe it clean and then stick in  your food.  And yes:  leave the fire burning in the back and you can cook pizzas directly on the floor of the hearth.

Mon., 16 Nov:  slabWed., 18 Nov:  side wallsSat., 2o Nov:  formwork/reinforcing

Sun., 21 Nov:  hearth slabs pouredSat., 28 Nov:  hearth fire bricks laidMon., 30 Nov:  back, side walls set2009 December through 2010 March:  Winter!  SNIFF!

On manual labor

Until the weather turned “normal” late last week, I’ve been obsessively building something outside.  It’s something that will bring a lot of my efforts together, not necessarily effortlessly, but certainly enjoyably.  We should all aim to get a lot of enjoyment out of life.

But I wanted to talk about the process of building.  I have mostly LOVED getting extremely sore:  I enjoy this about gardening, too.  Certainly, I haven’t strained myself into a hospital visit, but solid hours of lifting anything is not part of my normal day:  at most, I lift my laptop and piles of drawings, sometimes a book…my normal work is not exactly physically demanding.  But construction!

I am trying to puzzle out what it is about manual labor that is so immediately appealing to me.  We discussed something similar to this over the Thanksgiving table.  My father in law seriously believes I should go into pie-baking as a sideline.  “But once you do it for a living, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said, taking another bite.  So:  is it the novelty of construction?  I build things all the time for a living, and though the same kind of thought process goes into it, doing architecture on the computer isn’t the same as constructing architecture with my hands.  But I think I have figured it out, why I enjoy it so much:  it’s the time required.

I believe I get more accomplished in 3 hours of laying bricks than I do in 3 hours of computer time.  It’s actually productive time, well-spent, with progress observed and felt.

Don’t get me wrong:  if it wasn’t for computers, I wouldn’t be able to work from home.  I wouldn’t have all of you in my life, and life would be a lot less easy in so many respects.  But computers are A HUGE TIME-SUCK.  Really!  This is not a unique observation, nor certainly is it new to me, but this contrast between outdoor work and computer work has been very jarring.  Computers steal time from our lives, minute by uploading minute, autosave by refresh by page load.  Somehow, we’ve acquiesced to this, we’ve agreed to spend a large portion of our lives allowing our asses to grow ever larger, sitting in front of a screen, all because we think these tools are indispensable, and helpful.  And so muscles atrophy, brain synapses misfire.  I’ve always thought the television was bad but now I am reconsidering this damned internet connection, seeing it as the black hole of time that it is.

All the more reason to pick up a hammer.

On the death of summer

I spent the autumnal equinox in my car, driving home from Wisconsin.  I thought mostly about changing seasons and death.

Funny:  most of the weekend was spent wildly reveling in the strength of my body and embracing life.  And food.  Glorious food, the fuel of life itself.  But death has a way of sticking its nose in.  Fortunately, I was able to spend some time at the bedside of a dying friend.  I was able to at least say goodbye.  The rest of the weekend was living the life of the living, and living it with those who remain alive, without him now.  He died Friday morning, at home.

Ostensibly, the reason for my journey was to configure a large screened enclosure to house this thing.  This wood-fired oven has been a labor of love for my friend C on her farm.  It’s been wonderful, helping shape this dream with her:  lots of sweat, edible payoff.  The oven needs to be stuccoed yet, and the concrete legs on the side are to hold up plank tables for easy pizza assembly.  But as you can see it is functional.  I spent much of the weekend playing with its functions.

Here are the tomatoes I brought for her (with some gnocchi I made): we threw these in for an overnight roast in the cooling oven (300* down to 125*).

I adored the quick hot pizzas we would wolf down for lunch, but the oven’s greater wonders for me were in its long-term cooking abilities.  Seeing what it could do with the tomatoes, I threw in unshucked corn cobs, some glut sauce hastily made from what I could find in C’s garden, and sliced apples and pears from two neighbors’ trees.  In different pans, we let them cook all day while we labored…except the corn was just on the oven floor. The glut sauce is now frozen and the apples/pears are now butter with ginger, allspice and sugar.

Sweaty dirty working girly arms, and one should always drink out of canning jars, don’t you think?

And then after digging and hammering, wine would come out, and a walk through the cornfield, then hot outdoor showers in the cool dark in this lovely space.  Then dinner.  Repeat the next day.

Ah.  Life.