Low Country Boil

I can't believe I've never taken pictures of this spring ritual before. 

With the weather finally (sort of) turning into warm weather here in Maine, we got the itch to have a get together. We've done this spring party several times before, back when we lived in Massachusetts, and this seemed like a perfect way to get our new neighborhood together for a low key way to welcome the change of seasons finally reaching this far north. 

The Low Country Boil is the southern version of the New England clambake. Our version uses mudbugs instead of clams. And spices. Many spices. I'm not sure what Yankees have against flavor, but we keep working to introduce and educate them on the world beyond salt and butter. 

I order live, farm-raised crawfish from a place in Louisiana. They ship them overnight in a cooler, along with a couple of ice-packs. When these guys get cold, they go dormant, and when you first open the cooler, it looks like a mesh bag full of still shells.  But if you give them an hour or so to warm up, they start waking up and writhing around. The kids always love to touch them, and see them try and pinch with their little claws. And up here, it's easier to explain them as a 'tiny, freshwater lobster'. 

In fact, crawfish (or crawdads, as we called them growing up) (or 'crayfish' if you insist on making my ears hurt at the sound of your voice), are native to pretty much anywhere. I am sure we have them in the pond behind our house. I used to chase them as a kid in the creek near where I grew up. We just have more of them in the South. Or we're more willing to eat something that crawled out from underneath a rock in the brook at the back of our property. 


The recipe is pretty straightforward.  I throw small, new red potatoes in a pot of simmering water, along with a bit of salt. They take the longest to cook, so I leave them be for a bit. After 30 minutes or so, I add chunks of andouille and smoked sausage, along with a pack of creole seasoning, which includes paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and some cayenne pepper. 

After ten more minutes or so, I throw in corn (frozen is fine). And in the last ten minutes, I add crawfish.  

I had ordered 20lbs (serving 40-50 people, along with other sides and goodies), and ended up having to do the crawfish in two parts. My lobster pot is big, but not that big. 

It's one of the easiest things to serve.

Step 1) Spread out paper, and scoop out the crawfish and everything else from the pot. 

Step 2) Stand around and eat. 

You're going for the tail meat in a crawfish. Unless you get the occasional monster, there's nothing worthwhile in the claw. Snap the little guy in half, and pop that tail out, and chow down. If you're brave enough, you can 'suck the head' - pulling out the juices from the front half. 

I toss a big pot on the table to collect all the shells - they'll go to the chickens, who enjoy the heck out of the treat. The rest of the goodies on the table (corn, potatoes, and sausage) make for nice treats in amongst the crawfish. 

We ended up with a perfect day for the event. It was a rare 80 degree day in May, for Maine. Perfect blue skies, and plenty of cold beer. And a lot of good conversation. We had most of our neighbors pop round, and several treasured old friends from Massachusetts, as well as a few new colleagues. 

The kids ran around until they were exhausted. The adventurous ones trying the crawfish. Our gardens are just really coming back to life, and we kept the iced tea and lemonade and ready to refresh the kids for another round of whatever game they were playing. 

Even though it was 80+ during the day, as soon as the sun touched the tops of the trees the temperature started to drop. The house came with a huge, fantastic cauldron that doubles as a fire pit as needed. 

Such a perfect day to have folks over, and an easy party to throw any time.

It's definitely starting to feel like an actual home now. 


The Boy & his castle


A few months ago, my son off-handedly said he wanted a "Mike the Knight" birthday cake. Last year, he had a superhero theme - he hasn't traded in his fetish for anything superhero, but I was glad to hear him switch it up a bit. 

I thought for a few minutes about the possiblities. Yeah. We could do knights. I agreed. 

If you haven't spent any time with a four year old lately, you have to understand that their passions can change pretty quickly. So it was just short of miraculous that I was able to keep him excited about a knight-themed birthday party for the months it took to actually roll around.  I think the trick was all in throwing in the word "castle". As in "let's build a castle".   

That set the hook. 


Haybales are an awesome construction material. It's like working with legos. Big, stackable blocks that rise pretty quickly. They're soft(-ish). They're sort of regular in shape. They're easy to get. And they smell nice. Which is a bonus. 

I threw together a couple of platforms on top to give them something to stand on. I had plenty of siding and other materials leftover from chicken coop construction, and made a few ad hoc adjustments to stabalize the whole thing. I was kind of making it up as I went, and a little nervous about how it'd hold up when the kids started climbing on it like a pack of monkeys, but with a few extra braces at the corner, it all seemed stable enough. And three bales high seeemed like a safe number. 


I spent more time making a set of armor for the Boy. I had seen another blogger make a couple of sets of armor for his kids who loved to dress up, and I figured it didn't look too hard. So I got some scrap leather on the internets, and set to it. 

Ok, so I drew a little more from Roman designs than from medieval, but that was my secret love of anything Legion showing through. 


I roughly sketched out some flag designs for my Bride, who threw together the pennants and the flags in the week or two before the party, and we spent a long evening threading all those little pennants onto some twine. It wouldn't be a castle and a tourney without flags, right? 



We had very little organized activity for the kids. This was old school fun. I figured a castle and a little imagination was activity enough. We gave each kid that came to the party a posterboard shield to decorate, and a foam sword I found for cheap on the internet as a bulk order, and pushed them down the hill to figure it out, telling them to come back with their shields or on them. 

They got the hang of it pretty quick. It was like watching a tourney. A tourney full of midgets. Midgets out for foamy, giggly, metaphorical birthday blood.





Look at that footwork! He's a natural, I tell you. If the Picts come calling at our house, I feel safer knowing that I can put the Boy out there on the front line to defend our honor. 

Then we lined up all the kids on the castle. And a few of us ('Team Blue') stormed the bastion ('Team Red') with wet sponge balls and shields raised.




After the siege was over. It was time for cake. And of course, our cakes were in keeping with the general motif.  


Would Sir care to eat the head of a dragon? Or the head of a knight? 




The Critter accompanied the singers with 'Happy Birthday' on the violin. She did this without prompting - she'd been practicing for weeks.

In return, the Boy promised not to slash her valiantly with his trusty sword. 

And he let her have some cake. 

They're good kids.




The kids went back to playing for the rest of the afternoon. Eventually, even the Boy was worn out. I could tell he had a good time from the way he struggled to drag his armor back up at the end of the day. 

But the castle was still standing. And all the kids took home a sword, a cake-pop and a good memory or two. 



OK.  It's possible I got a little over-enthusiastic with this year's theme. And I was gripped by fear the morning of the party, as I surveyed the crennelated fortification in my backyard, with pennants fluttering and buckets of shields and swords ready for the party, that maybe, just maybe, I was about to put the Boy on the inevitable path to a level of Rennaissance Faire geekery that his one-day therapist will be able to pin on me.  

But really, the Critter doesn't let me have too much input into her birthday parties any more (she's 10, you guys. Oh. My. God.).  And knowing I wouldn't have too many more excuses to build a castle in my backyard, it was fun to let our imaginations run a little wild on this one. The Boy seemed to enjoy it, at any rate. I think I'll leave it up for an extra week or so. Just for fun. 

Happy 5th birthday, buddy. It looks good on you. 


Yellow Jacket Cider

What with all the apples we had bought, we went ahead and invited over a bevy of friends and neighbors once again for this year's 'BYOJ' cider pressing party. (Bring Your Own Jug

This always ends up as a fun day, but we never know exactly how the weather is going to turn out. The first year we did this, we had a freak snow storm during October that turned the backyard white. Last year, we managed a perfect, crisp New England fall day. This year was a mix of sharp winds and sudden rain, bookended by warm sunshine. Which mostly just managed to bring out the yellow jackets.  I offset this by opening a few large jugs of last year's cider, which had been fermented into an almost champagne-like crisp hard cider. Soon enough, you didn't really care about what the weather was doing. 

For the first time, I did a proper job of 'sweating' the apples for the week leading up to the pressing, allowing the sugars to concentrate and the cell walls of the apples to break down for better pressing. It's a multi-step process.

Step 1: Buy some apples. Step 2: Dump them in a pile on a tarp. Step 3: Don't bother them for a week or so. 

When you come back and check on them, the apples will be a bit mellow, and a firm squeeze will leave an indentation. Also: all of the creatures in your neighborhood will have found the apples. Mostly, the yellow jackets. And if you're not out there first thing in the morning to gather & wash them, they will have woken up and be buzzing their claim around the mound of ripening apples, and you will have to use a fogger or a kevlar suit to retrieve them. 

Or if you've cleverly invited enough over to your house, you can have the kids go get them.

Traditionally, you would use a hand-cranked grinder set into the top of the wooden press to first grind the apples into a pulp. The kids always love doing this, as it makes a real mess of things, and a satisfying smushing noise as the apples drop through one at a time. 

Last year, however, one of our friends cleaned and re-purposed a small-ish electric wood chipper into a dedicated apple grinder. It's amazing how you can ramp up production with a grinder powerful enough to smash limbs of oak into pencil shavings. And as much as the kids loved the hand grinder, they really seemed to enjoy pulping the cider with the chipper. 

Take the resulting slurry, and slop it into a giant cheescloth sack in the pressing basket. And squeeze. Voila. Fresh cider. No added water. No added sugar. Just pure sweet goodness. Now the challenge is to try and not to let the yellow jackets find it, or you'll be drinking little striped stinging bugs with every sip. 

We ended up pressing about 60 gallons of cider again this year. I gave a bushel of apples away to the friend who lets us use his press every year, and left another bushel or so out for the deer and the yellow jackets to finish off. I've frozen some sweet, fresh cider for the holidays, and put up a bit more than 35 gallons to ferment into next season's hard cider, to make sure that we'll have enough fuel for next year's cider pressing, and our friends and neighbors all took home the rest in a variety of containers. 

This weekend also happened to be my birthday. In a fit of creative cake artistry, my Bride and the kids put together a special cake to celebrate me successfully making it all the way around the sun one more time. 

Note the chickens. 

I only got stung by yellow jackets 4 or 5 times over the course of the day.

I couldn't have imagined a better way to celebrate my birthday.