As winter wanes

After a great many weeks with more days in the minus twenties than we care to count, temperatures in our neck of the woods have bounced upwards recently. Getting outside for a ski, a snowshoe or just to do chores, has been much more enticing on these milder days, though in the evenings we invariably find ourselves clustered back around the woodstove.

Of course, the pets need no excuse; they curl up by the Ironheart whenever it pleases them, which is often. And when we can, we curl up with them.

The Ironheart in winter

It’s only taken us four winters, but we finally figured out how best to place our furniture in relation to our Ironheart woodstove.

Sofas placed around Ironheat woodstove

Early on in the season we had a fundamental rethink about our main living space, which is one large room with a kitchen at one end and a living area at the other with the Ironheart in the middle. When we moved in, we almost unthinkingly placed our dining table in the centre of the room and next to the Ironheart. It made practical sense, given that meals are served from that end of the room, but somehow it never felt right. It really didn’t make the most of Ironheart and opportunities for enjoying its warmth and the glow from the firebox.

Suddenly, this winter, we realized that the dining table really belonged over by the large windows at the far end of the room and our sofas felt most at home right in front of the Ironheart. Now, we have a room that just makes sense for us, with our dining table still near the warmth of the Ironheart, but able to give us views to the outdoors and abundant daylight, and our sofas ideally positioned to maximize exposure to the Ironheart. It’s where we read, chat, play games, think about work or even get a little work done, snack or enjoy a casual meal, hang out with our furry friends (Petkid’s readers will know that we now have two kittens as well as Reggie the labrador retriever), and just generally live. It has made the Ironheart even more central to how we live, and that’s made this winter that much better.

You can read more about how we decided to physically position our Ironheart in our ICF bungalow in this previous post.

The fuel that keeps warming you

Dead elm tree in segments

We live an area affected quite significantly by Dutch Elm disease and the Emerald Ash Borer. Anyone familiar with pictures from our land will know that it’s dotted generously with dead trees standing amongst the living. For the most part, this represents wood that we will get around to harvesting as and when we can.

Heading into this winter, we were aware of a large elm behind our house that really needed to come down. We also knew we wouldn’t tackle it on our own. It was simply too close to the house and we’re just not that experienced with felling trees. We called the experts in, and one morning they came, felled it and cut the trunk into 16-inch lengths. Sadly, I was out the morning this happened, and I only got to hear about it afterwards from my husband and our youngest son. Apparently, the tree made a fantastic ‘whomp’ when it hit the ground, shaking even our concrete house. I wish I had been at home for that!

Later that day, Reggie had a blast exploring the tree that was now laid out across our back lawn, a broken echo of its former self.

Dog exploring fallen tree


If you’ve never tried to split elm, you don’t know true frustration. It’s a fibrous wood that hangs on and puts up a fight. This was definitely the year to invest in a better axe than the one we’d been using, and my husband put in the research before making a final choice. It’s from Fiskars and it’s every bit as good as the reviews said it would be. Part one of the clear up was splitting those 16-inch lengths into logs for the woodstove and hauling them over to the chicken coop where our outdoor wood storage sits.

Father and son at wood splitting time

Fortunately, our youngest loves to use the handcart for hauling just about anything, but especially wood. Which meant that cutting up the thin branches for kindling fell in large part to me.

Clipping branches

Our older boy came home from a shift at the library in time to help out with branch clean up and raking.

Clearing up after a felled tree

Happy to help in his own way, Reggie snagged bits of branches here and there and generally kept the mood fun.

Dog with a stick in his mouth

Wood is that amazing fuel that warms more than once. It warms when you cut it down, again when you split and haul it for seasoning and storage, again when you carry it indoors (when perhaps you also split larger logs before burning), and finally when it burns. How good is that?

Firing up the Ironheart

Yes, it’s that time of the year. We’re completely overrun by outside jobs to tend to before winter, only more so than usual. The list is long, thanks to our greenhouse ‘collapse’ and a minor invasion of wild parsnip, as well as a serious lack of time for being outside.

In the meantime, we need to look after seasonal jobs that can’t be ignored, like getting our firewood into nicely stacked piles in and around the house for easy access. This year PetKid took the lead with chucking logs down our homemade log chute, while older son helped when he could with stacking.

Young boy tossing firewood

Wall stacked with firewood

Technically an inside job, my husband and youngest also gave our woodstove a thorough clean the other evening, and assessed our Ironheart to see what parts might need replacing this year (gaskets being the obvious choice).

Father and son cleaning out a woodstove

Esse Ironheart with its cooking surface removed

Annual Ironheart maintenance

Thankfully, our Ironheart burns so cleanly that when my husband swept the chimney recently, he wondered why he had bothered. At least it’s another job done.

Slow cooking in the Ironheart: Brown rice and fennel casserole

Baked brown rice casserole

This weekend was all about taking a breather and catching up around the house. Just back from a special holiday, there were a lot of loose ends at home and it was extremely comforting to cook on the woodstove after meals out for two weeks straight. With a fennel languishing in a fridge drawer and thoughts of a comforting baked dish in mind, I went hunting around for an inspiration recipe. The one I found struck me as a touch dull but a very solid starting point.

The combination of brown rice, onions and fennel seemed appealing enough, but the original method just had those scant few ingredients tossed together in a casserole dish along with the liquid and summarily placed in a hot oven to bake. Not a fan of slow-cooker recipes that don’t involve any initial browning of key ingredients due to the lack of resulting flavour, the first thing I did was saute my leeks, fennel and garlic with a bit of olive oil and butter to release the flavours and soften things up. (Note: I undertook this step on my conventional stovetop, as I had my hob lids down on the Ironheart to hasten the heating up of the oven box; normally I’d have cooked on top of the Ironheart as well.)

Leeks and chopped fennel in a saute pan

Into my pre-greased casserole I placed the long grain brown basmati, along with the garlicky leeks and fennel, some chopped carrot and a generous handful of currants, as well as salt and pepper.

Casserole dish with rice and veggies

The original recipe called for a mixture of water and milk for the liquid, and I stuck with this suggestion. When I incorporated the milky liquid I really felt for a moment as though I were making a rice pudding, but I guess a baked rice casserole is much the same thing.

Casserole dish with milky rice mixture before baking

The original recipe called for the milk mixture to be heated before being added to the other ingredients, and I plum forgot this step, which is bound to be one of the reasons why my casserole took much longer to bake than indicated in the original recipe. Where the original indicated 60 minutes at 375F, mine took closer to three hours at the bottom end of the “Very Hot” range on my Ironheart. Which, in fact, turned out to be a nice way to slowly cook this dish. I also found myself needing to add more liquid, which I did roughly once an hour, about a cup or so at a time.

The resulting casserole was nicely fragrant and very delicious in a homespun, comforting kind of way. It was well worth the wait and I enjoyed the anticipation as I got other things done around the house while it baked.

Brown Rice and Fennel Casserole with Currants

(adapted from this original recipe)

1 1/2 cups brown rice (I used long grain brown basmati), dry
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup milk
1 fennel, roughly chopped
2 leeks, chopped (the original called for onion)
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup currants (or raisins)
1/4 cup parmesan cheese (or more if you like!)

Step 1 – Get your Ironheart close to baking strength (low end of “Very Hot” range) or preheat your conventional oven to 375F

Step 2 – Chop leeks and fennel, crush garlic and saute with olive oil and butter for a few minutes

Step 3 – Grease a casserole dish with a bit of olive oil; pour in rice, leek-fennel mixture, and remaining ingredients; stir to combine

Step 4 – Cover with foil and place in Ironheat / oven for 60 minutes

Step 5 – Check rice for doneness and general moistness level; add water if needed, and continue baking as required (see notes above)

Step 6 – Continue checking the casserole for doneness until ready; in the Ironheart this recipe took about three hours to finish baking thoroughly and the cheese was sprinkled on top for just the last few minutes in the oven

Enjoy on its own or with a green salad or another simple green vegetable.

Esse Ironheart burning at low end of Very Hot range