Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The homeschool transformation

Homeschooling is definitely a lifechanging decision. I knew it would take a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a LOT of patience (the hardest part for me). The amount of space, however, was one I had apparently grossly underestimated.

This photo was taken back in February when I first got this little bookshelf. I was excited about it. I knew it wouldn't be a permanent solution for all of my homeschooling materials, but I figured it would work for a couple of years at any rate.

That was then.


This is now. The top shelf is all curricula and other reference/nonfiction books. Some of them are M2's BOB books and things for her, but most of it is for M1. The bottom shelf contains the binders that I'll be using to save some of M1's work during the year as well as some more nonfiction resources/reference works, a three-hole punch, and some puzzles that I don't have another home for right now. The top of the bookshelf is home to folders, planners, a timer, the current box of BOB books that M2 is reading, and a box of 3x5 cards that can be used for whatever purpose we need. And a picture of my babies. :)
Here's the art cabinet, also the home of MY supplies for grading and rewarding. I have a whole separate cabinet filled with Play-Doh, and a shelf above this one is strictly for construction paper, spare writing paper, coloring books, random art supplies like pipe cleaners and rhinestone stickers and puffballs and more. There's also a separate cabinet for science supplies (and more rewards) that M1 is not able to access. For heaven's sake, I bought a bag of dry 15-bean soup mix today just for science. One of our first science lessons is going to cover classification of animals, and I figured classifying beans would make a great activity. I'm rather obsessed. *embarrassed grin*

As I write this, I'm realizing I need to make a list of all this stuff so that if we use it up and need more during the course of the year, I can make a note of how much we went through so I can get more when the back-to-school sales hit next summer.

Obsessed.
I sat down last night and finally worked out an exact plan for the first week of school. It takes effort! I have a lot of respect for teachers who have 30 kids to deal with. I've only got one!

The calendar is M2's school calendar. The Word document on the right is a sketchy weekly outline that I drafted to be able to cover all the material - in an ideal world - during a typical school year. I know it'll get revised as I go along, and I'm okay with that. The notepad pages cover a basic outline of the classical Well-Trained Mind process of education, which I plan to follow as much as is practical and useful. The planbook in the back is where I will record what actually happens during the course of our daily work, and... finally... the notebook front and center are the plans that I'm making one week at a time.

I'm sure this process will be revised as I go along, simplifying, memorizing, and streamlining, but for now, this is all stuff I'll be using.

Gumbo



Gumbo.

It's one of the great joys of living in a world with okra. Some people make it without okra. I suppose that's their right, if they can't handle the true sliminess that gumbo should be, but gumbo without okra doesn't exist in my happy little mind.

Gumbo.

It's also one of THE easiest things to make. So simple. In fact, I don't even use a recipe any more. I used to, back before I discovered how simple real Southern cooking can be.

Here's how I do it:

1. Put equal parts flour and vegetable oil into a pot on medium heat. Stir this together and let it simmer until it's as dark as you want it to be. This is a roux. I was making a chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, so I didn't want it too dark. If it had been a seafood or just a plain sausage gumbo, I'd have probably gone darker. Keep an eye on this, because it's your thickening agent and will determine how much broth you add later. I used 1/3 c. oil and 1/3 c. flour, I believe. It might have been 1/2 c. each.

2. Once the roux is the color you want, throw in equal parts of bell pepper, celery, and onion, all chopped. You can throw in a clove or two of minced garlic if you like as well. Stir and make sure these don't burn, either. The roux will stick to them. Saute until soft.

3. Add broth. Just about any kind will do as long as it complements what sort of meat you're adding. I say that, but I had some crawfish broth frozen in my freezer from when I'd boiled some crawfish heads in February when we had our Early Mardi Gras party, so I used that and a bit of water. I think I had about 2-3 c. of liquid in there. Start light; you can always add more if it's too thick, but it's tough to thicken it later if it's too thin.

4. "Double, double, boil and bubble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble." Step back, throw in as much sliced okra as you have/want, some cayenne to taste, salt, pepper, and let this thing go for about 20 minutes. You can put in a bay leaf if you want, too, but I usually think it's too much of a pain in the butt to find later.

5. Add any more liquid if needed and throw in the seafood, diced sausage, and/or COOKED diced chicken... whatever meat you're using. The seafood will cook quickly and can be cooked right into the gumbo, and the sausage will be pre-smoked, but the chicken should probably be already cooked. At least, that's the way I do it. You'll need about a total of 1-2 pounds of meat for an entire gumbo. Let this go until the meat is cooked/heated through, about 10 minutes.

6. Serve with steamed rice and Tabasco.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Canning... in bulk

I canned today. A lot.

First, I started with peaches. These peaches have already been blanched and peeled. This is about two dozen peaches short of half a bushel. Did you also know that when you blanch and peel them and set them on a counter like this, they leak juice? And the juice is PINK????

I did not know this. So I made peach preserves first, figuring it would be nice and easy to get out of the way, and it was.

And then I started canning the peach halves. And that handy-dandy little estimate that the Ball Blue Book of Preserving has that states that each quart of peach halves should be 2-3 pounds of peaches? Make that 2. Barely. Nowhere near 3. You must have to have itty-bitty teeny-weeny little peaches with mongo-ginormous pits to get 3 pounds of peaches into a 1-quart jar. Which meant, of course, that I ran out of sterilized jars and had to run the dishwasher again to get enough jars to get all the peaches canned.

So this is what my kitchen looked like at noon today.

ALSO at noon today... yes, my kitchen looks pretty UNsterile and chaotic.
But I kept plodding on, thinking sooner or later I'd get somewhere.
And I did.
This was the kitchen at 2:30 when I took a half-hour break because I was done with all the fruit stuff. See? Progress!

Then I moved on to tomatoes.

I had a LOT of tomatoes to can. And of course they all have to be blanched and peeled, too.

This was the final result at 7:30 p.m., with my blonde little M2 peering at all the goods. From left, we have canned peaches, peach preserves, blackberry jam, and the tomatoes.


I could lie now and say that it was all in a day's work and I'm so Martha Stewart and also sewed a new dress today... but it wasn't, I'm not, and I so cannot sew... and my feet hurt like hell.
That's where this comes in. Yay self-reward!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Random stuff

Not a specific post today. More of just a general random blogging of stuff that might or might not be important but will be blogged anyway.


#1: Don't go to the Porter Peach Festival. I did, and I learned. It could have been fun if they had a plan for parking (they didn't... which made it very interesting trying to work out where to park and then how to get out in one piece) or if there were more peach-related items at the actual peach festival (lots of craft stalls, but not much in the way of actual peach paraphernalia) or if I was able to go for the entire day and see the parade - at 11 a.m. - and then find enough to do to kill time in between that and the street games - at 4 p.m. - but... nope. Not for me. Or the kids. At least it wasn't blazing hot.

I also made it over to Livesay Orchards on the day of the festival. I was disappointed there, too. I was hoping to get out and actually PICK the peaches myself but apparently, on festival day, due to the crowds, they don't do that. You line up, wait, get into the 'store' barn, grab what you want, line up to pay, and get the heck out of Dodge as quickly as possible. It really wasn't worth it. I'll probably be back to the orchard next year... but not on festival week!

However.

I have peaches. Some of them will be made into preserves, and some of them will be canned for eating. And then, of course, there will be pie.

#2: I want you to say adieu to the squash. This is the last one. My last squash of the year.

That's why. The plant has been having some problems. First, it just got too big for its britches. During the last storm we had, with all the wind, some of the plant collapsed. Then there are the squash bugs. They also have invaded, as evidenced by some of the brownish leaves. Between the plant collapse and the bugs (and the fact that I really am tired of eating squash, since you can't can it or freeze it), I'm ready for the squash plant to be gone. The question now becomes, do I plant something else in its place? And if so, what?

Overall, however, the garden is doing quite well! The tomato plants are putting off a dozen or so tomatoes per day - I have six plants - and so I'll be canning tomatoes this week, after doing the salsa last week. I probably have 30 pounds of tomatoes in my fridge. I almost wish I was kidding. It's difficult to open the crisper drawers right now. There's even tomato overflow on the shelves outside the crisper. Clearly, something needs to be done.

The pumpkin plant is doing quite well, too. Just a few more months till Halloween!

Outside of the veggie/fruit garden bit, here are some of the other plants that are still blooming all over...

The marigolds are still alive!
The hibiscus is gorgeous...

I hate crepe myrtles. The kids, however, get so excited when they blossom.

#3: Something that happens every year around here is 'brushhog the pasture day.' I never know when it will be, because the people who rent our land to board their horses organize it through a personal friend of theirs and just use the rent money to pay him. They get a better deal than we ever could, so it works quite well. This is M2 riding around behind one of our renters. He's a retired school principal and always likes mowing. He's on our mower, and he mows the front part of the pasture while...


... his buddy, on the brushhog, piles up wood and mows the back.
The lawn always looks so nice when it's done, and just think... they mowed down the ragweed and gave us a path to the blackberries!
Many, many more canning possibilities this week... tomatoes to start; peaches to follow; berries after that! And I haven't forgotten my promise about the gumbo... there's still plenty of okra coming in. I'll get there!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Introducing... my menagerie!

So I think it's time I share my animals with you. I have lots. I want more. Like chickens. And goats. There's something in me that gets great joy out of caring for animals, even if they sometimes drive me nuts with the messes they make.

For example, fish.

These live in M1's room, usually happy until the boy decides they need to be played with, which, in the typical language of a 6-yo boy, means that you physically stick your hand INTO the tank and play with them. Or, better yet, dumping half a jar of live bacteria into the tank. Do you know what happens when a boy does that? Let's just say I lugged a lot of buckets that day.

We also have a dog. Or a barking cat, whichever you prefer. This is Gizmo, and he's a most fascinating little animal. He thinks he's larger than life when, in fact, he's smaller than one of my cats.

Specifically, this one. This is Kuro. It means 'black' in Japanese, as M2 will happily inform you, and he's a lot of black. Twenty pounds of black. And he likes to jump on people. With claws out. Did I mention all my cats have their claws? He has claws. And he likes to jump on people, usually from an elevated position like the top of the couch. He doesn't mean to do it, but he's too big to get momentum to launch himself any further. He's also addicted to purses (Coach is by far his favorite) and shoes (I make a joke that if I win the lottery, I'll buy him a pair of Manolos, but for right now, he'll have to make do with hiding my bargain flip-flops... usually by sitting on them).

This is my old man, otherwise known as Pepe. He's about 16 years old, and his hobby involves pulling out his own fur. It's got nothing to do with anything medical; it's just habit. Plus, he's not hurting for fur. Kuro occasionally likes to pick on Pepe since Kuro is twice Pepe's weight, but Pepe's no slouch. See how he's 'missing' one ear? Not really missing. He just got into a scrap as an itty-bitty kitty and his ear is bent over as a result. Don't mess with Bruiser ;) Really, though, he loves nothing more than to be schnuggled up on a lap, kneading. With claws.

This window-sitter is Dorian Gray, aka Anxiety Cat. While the other cats are pretty social, he's the one who likes to hide if there is a large group of people invading his space. He's a licker. Why do the cats with the roughest tongues like to lick the most? Riddle me that, folks. Dorian is also known for eating wallpaper.

Finally, meet Tempest. She's the girlcat, and she's the matriarch. Nobody messes with Tempest. If I want to get a new kitty, it has to pass the Tempest Inspection first. If she doesn't approve, she'll corner the cat and not let it out for hours... and hours... and hours. She's pretty tolerant, so I trust her judgement. She loves M1's bed, if that says anything about her tolerance. Then again, maybe his hands just smell of fish water.

What's this?

Ahhhh yes... the newest member of the menagerie.

Tempest, meet Prince Gerbil.

Somehow, I think she approves...


Dorian approves, too.
I think Prince is here to stay. :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doing the salsa!

Being an aspiring gardener, I figure canning goes right into that equations. I tried my hand at making salsa today. I have canned before - I made blackberry jam last year - but salsa is actually a lot more involved than jam. Mostly... you have to chop. A lot.

I pulled a recipe out of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving which, according to many sources, is pretty much the ultimate in learning to can and preserve food. Zesty Salsa was the name of the recipe I used.

I had to start with 6 pounds of tomatoes. I thought that seemed like a ton of tomatoes until I started weighing them and realized, even using Romas which tend to be on the small side, that only means about 24 tomatoes. I pick that in 2-3 days right now! So you take this 6 pounds of tomatoes and you have to peel them. Which means blanching them. Which is something else I've never done.

Here's a tip: If you ever make salsa, do the blanching on one day and make the salsa on another. You can stick the peeled tomatoes in a Ziploc bag in the fridge overnight. They'll be fine. Another note: Any remaining yellow on your tomatoes will not peel off. When the skin turns red, it apparently gets looser. You also don't want to use mushy tomatoes. They don't work.

Enough tips?

Moving on. So I blanched and peeled the tomatoes yesterday and left them in the fridge overnight in the above-mentioned Ziploc bags.

Then today was the rest of the process. I must have spent absolutely forever chopping... and chopping... and chopping... tomatoes... and onions... and peppers... and garlic... and cilantro.... At least I didn't have to chop the salt and cider vinegar! You can add Tabasco if you want a little extra kick in your salsa; I did some 'mild' and some 'medium.'

Then I got all my stuff together. In canning, there's a lot of 'stuff.'

That's most of it. The jars and bands for the lids are in the dishwasher. You have to sanitize them first, and a quick way for me to do this is to set the dishwasher on 'sani wash' with 'speed dry.' When that's done, I know the jars are well and truly ready to be used. So while I was setting all this up, the jars were washing.

That's the salsa mix, bubbling on the stove. It had to simmer for 15 minutes before it was ready to can, though if it needs to go a bit longer, it won't hurt anything. Of course you can taste test it while it's simmering. Not that I'd do that.

Don't forget to get your boiling water ready for canning! The water in this will take
F-O-R-E-V-E-R
to boil, so start it early. You can see it's steaming here while the salsa is simmering. It was almost ready by the time I was.

Once the jars were ready to fill, I put in the funnel and ladeled in the salsa.

Once you get something ladeled in, you use this handy little tool. I used the other end of it first to get out any air bubbles in the jar and then flipped it over to use this end, which measures the thing they call "headspace." I was supposed to leave 1/4" of headspace to make the salsa. That means the end of the 1/4" mark on this stick should just touch the top of the salsa. Mission accomplished! Then you use a paper towel to wipe the rim of the jar so that you can get a good seal, and you're ready for these:

These are the lids, those things that actually do the little 'pop' when you take them off. You have to simmer - not boil, just simmer - those for 10 minutes before you use them, too (again with the timing issues), so that the sealing material is soft and ready to seal.

This is a magnet that I use to get the seals out of the simmering water. Very handy. Then you set that on and screw on a band.

One can of salsa, all ready to be sealed! Repeat this six times and set them in the canner with the rack. This recipe boils for 15 minutes. Then you take out the jars and set them out to cool.

My first six jars of salsa! I wound up making 12 half-pints and still had some left over that's currently in my fridge to be used immediately.

It was a lot of fun, and I hope to be doing more canning in the near future. I'm headed to a peach festival this weekend and intend to get some fresh peaches to just HAVE to do something with. I'm thinking peach preserves, but ideas are always welcome!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Short garden update

So I went out today and worked in the garden. I learned a few things:
1. The worm I found last night on the bottom of a tomato leaf was, in fact, the bugger that had been eating some of my Romas. He has been duly dealt with.
2. My garden needs a good, deep watering. Some of the leaves aren't happy. This means getting up at 6:30 a.m. so it can dry before it gets hot.
3. Herbs are very hardy. The fact that I can't grow them in a pot simply means I can't grow things in a pot. It's got nothing to do with the plant.

When they're hardy, they grow.

And grow.

And grow again.

And when you ignore it for a while in the hopes that your tomatoes are going to be ripe at the same time the plant is ready, you wind up with a lot of herbs. And when you cut the herbs for drying, you have to have somewhere to put them.

So this is the interior of my hall closet right now. There are two hanger rods on either side of the closet, so I took some string and created 'clotheslines' and hung the basil from them. The closet is very, very full of basil.

Then there are the other herbs that we've been growing - marjoram, thyme, and rosemary. This is the marjoram that you can see here, but I nested them in paper towels and placed them on top of the makeshift clotheslines. This should let everything dry uniformly and keep it out of the kitchen!

This is the result of my Cherokee purple plant! The little tomato at the bottom is a typical-sized vine tomato from the grocery store, so you can see that the Cherokee is a huge tomato. This one was cracked but was still absolutely delicious when I put those slices on a BLT. Of course, I had to have some fresh, too.

Fresh tomatoes... now the rest of them just need to get ripe!

As the okra continues to ripen, look for gumbo coming soon...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Life - Stress =

It's summer vacation, and so M1 and M2 are both home full-time. We've been going crazy with all the activities that we've been doing - swimming, day trips, playdates, errands, etc. We've only had maybe 3 full days where we didn't go somewhere all of summer vacation so far. It's been less than a month, but still. Three is a very small number!

Last week, just because I'm sadistic and like to torture myself occasionally, I decided that M1 could come off of his ADHD meds for a few days. Initially it was because he's just getting scary-thin and I wanted to see if he'd start eating like the boy I *USED* to feed... you know, the one who ate more than me at every meal.

He has, by the way. Yesterday at Red Robin he ate an entire kids' pizza, his oranges, sucked down his freckled lemonade, AND ate a full helping of fries. It's doing my heart good to see his little face start to fill back out.

He also has been... well... NORMAL. It's been completely bizarre, but he's almost acting like a NORMAL 6-1/2-year-old. There has been only one day where he just about lost it and was acting like a complete and total dodo, and that was the day we had friends over here and so I spent the morning cleaning the house. Did you know cleaning the house can apparently stress out a 6-1/2-year-old boy? I do now.

Maybe I should never clean again.

Kidding, of course, but that has been the only horribly rough day we've had since he's been off his medication. We even went to a Blue Bell ice cream factory tour yesterday AND went to lunch at Red Robin afterwards, and when I told one of my friends he was unmedicated, she was totally blown away. He wasn't boucing off the seat at all.

Keep in mind that this is my kid who has been diagnosed with ADHD, PDD-NOS, and anxiety.

I think he just might actually not be ADHD. I think he's just a little Aspie, which means his problems are entirely social. This mix-up is pretty common, where a kid will be diagnosed with ADHD as a youngster and 'grow into' an Asperger's diagnoses as they age.

So I shall continued to keep the meds handy, but as long as I can keep the stress level low...

Here's to a medication-free boy!