By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
I get that most folks living in the Midwest, the East and the mountains have been suffering because of severe deep freezes, hurricane force winds, and piles of snow this winter. Some unfortunate souls have even lost their lives. The weather kept families apart during the holidays because of cancelled flights and horrible road conditions. We wait all year for these gatherings and the disappointment of not being together is palpable. My winter holidays tales of woe are of a completely different nature.
As those of you who have been following my column know, my husband Bob and I moved out to the San Francisco Bay area two years ago after building a house in a barn, off the grid, in a semi-rural community. (I add the “semi” because if one can walk to a Starbuck’s from her home, she really isn’t that far from civilization.) We live on a large tract of land surrounded by open fields, foothills, and pastures of sheep, goats, horses, and cows. Throw in a few chickens and we have the country vibe complete.
What makes us off-the-grid is that we are not attached to any city services. We have 100 percent solar power, plus our own well, septic tank, and propane delivered to our propane tank (“the pig”) every few months. We have a back-up generator when the solar isn’t enough to fuel up our barn house, my sister’s house, and our casita.
Choosing to be off the grid was, in a way, chosen for us. We’re outside of the city limits, so we have no municipal services like water or sewage. We chose not to have natural gas because that would be an unwanted monthly utility expense. The solar was a whole other story. The electric company wanted $50,000 just to erect a pole near our property plus we’d have to pay them a huge monthly amount. Going total solar seemed like the best solution, even though we struggle with it sometimes.
Now that I’ve declared what we have to do to keep us comfortable like a city home, I will share with you why being off-the-grid is not for the faint of heart.
I had my whole family from Los Angeles plus a few cousins from back east visiting over the Christmas-New Year holidays. We increased the electrical usage tremendously as you can well imagine. All of the cooking, movie watching, loads of laundry, pots of coffee brewing, heating and so on. Needless to say, the electrical system won the battle. We were in for for a few days of cold rain and clouds, so I assumed the future would not be bright in our home.
The solar power has not been reliable since we installed it two years ago, even though it is rarely cloudy or rainy. It’s a stumper. A brief surge of electrical usage, (like vacuuming!) causes the system to shut down. We wait and hope it fires up again. If not, we go out to the powerhouse where the batteries and brains of the system are kept. Then we run through the paces of eight consecutive steps, inside and out, to refire the system. That usually works. P.S. No power, no internet, another bummer.
The generator is supposed to jump into action automatically. It doesn’t. This requires a manual start/stop out to the generator panel. If this all sounds complicated, IT IS! This suburban girl with a college degree in anthropology and a past cooking career knows squat about electronics and solar systems. I’m ever so slowly learning. Oh, did I mention how LOUD the generator is? B-52 bombers have nothing on our Generac. However, when we’re sitting in the cold and dark and feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little House on the Prairie, and that sucker comes on, one could overlook the noise, in fact, it becomes music to your ears.
Let’s get down to a real off-the-grid problem in the colder months. We don’t have a garage and our cars are parked under a pergola next to a field. During Thanksgiving week, the check engine light on my car went on. My car coughed its way into the dealership, where I learned that rodents had eaten my engine. Almost $2,000 and a week later, I got my car back. A week later, my husband’s car wouldn’t start at all. The same buggers ate his engine. A $200 tow to his dealership ensued. His tab for repairs was $2,500. His car was gone for over a week. The day after Christmas, I started my engine, the check engine lights came on again. I looked under the hood and the rodents had thrown a party, leaving olive pits as proof. (Were they drinking martinis?!)
Another $1,400 repair and we’re at our wits end. Everyone and their brother has thrown in their two cents on how to prevent rats from eating your engine. Moth balls (that didn’t work), peppermint spray (we’re going to try it), dryer sheets tied to your wires, sticky paper under the whole car, rat traps (do you want to empty those?), and on and on. We hired a rodent abatement person last week and he is installing rat traps around the perimeter. In addition, we are armed and dangerous: Bob has fortified our engines with scented dryer sheets, Irish Spring bar soap, moth balls, and an open engine hood. I pray to my higher power that this works.
For those of you across the country who are hunkered down at home during heavy snow, blizzard conditions, and frigid temperatures, there is nothing like a steaming bowl of split pea soup. I have been making this recipe for decades and it has never disappointed any diners. I use ham hocks for that smokey depth of flavor, but if you don’t eat pork, go vegan. Make the recipe without the meat and brown the vegetables in oil before adding the split peas and water. You may want to use vegetable stock instead of water to give it more flavor.
Are you experiencing a winter wonderland or winter nightmare? Tell us here at The Insider which way the wind blows for you. Stay warm and safe out there!
Split Pea Soup
Yield: 8 servings
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lg. smoked ham hocks
1 lg. onions, diced medium
3 lg. carrots, cut into 1/4” thick circles
2 celery stalks, diced medium
3 qt. water
1 lb. split peas
1 tsp. thyme
1 bay leaf
1-2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
1/4 c. chopped parsley
In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the hocks. Brown on both sides. Add the vegetables. Turn heat down to medium. Cook until translucent and begin to brown, about 15 minutes.
Add the split peas, water, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil; turn down to a simmer for about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water if needed.
Remove the hocks. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin and fat. Dice the meat and put back into the soup. Season well with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.