Friday, January 28, 2011

The Cold Frame and Jerusalem Artichokes

I finally sucked it up and braved the frigid cold to go check on my cold frame. I haven't looked inside it since the temperature got down to -4 in December, mostly because I'm lazy and don't like to be cold. Inside, I found six living kale plants, two spinach, and one teeny little head of lettuce, all looking starved for fresh air, water, and general maintenance. I spent a bit of time (and actually warmed up quite a bit) clearing out all the frozen leaves, fluffing up the mulch, and watering.

I checked and turned the compost, which (happily) isn't a frozen block of rotting vegetation this year. I added some grass clippings and mixed it - I look forward to using our first barrel of compost in the garden this year. It's surprising to me just how much compost decreases in volume as it decomposes. For the past year and a half, we've put in bucket after bucketful of vegetable scraps, piles of weeds and carrot tops and grass clippings and leaves, and it's still only about 3/4 full - maybe the equivalent of two purchased bags of compost? Ideally, I need at least five bags to really bulk up the nutrient level in the garden this year, so to compost for a year and a half and only have this much is a little disappointing. But hey, at least it's compost, right?

It's not likely to get much below zero again this winter. It's been a surprisingly mild winter - and a short one, considering it didn't even get cold until Thanksgiving. And admittedly, I am SO not ready for spring yet. I love winter - I love the break it offers. I like curling up in the living room at night knowing my garden is still sleeping and that I have no work to do in it. But that's about to end - cold weather crops can go in the first week of February, and warm weather crops need to be seeded indoors two weeks later. Sheesh, time sure does fly.
In other news, we ate Jerusalem Artichokes for dinner last night as part of our Lewis and Clark study. Sacagawea likely dug these tubers (the roots of a particular type of sunflower) along the trail. Thanks to the great book Cooking on the Lewis and Clark Expedition by Mary Gunderson (which we've used extensively and I highly recommend), we learned to roast Jerusalem Artichokes at had them for a side dish with our dinner last night. (They're available at Vitamin Cottage, btw, in case you're in the market for trying new vegetables.) Surprisingly, they were actually pretty good, sort of like a potato but much sweeter. The kids and the hubby both devoured them.

Jerusalem Artichokes:

After peeling:

After roasting:

I imagine these would store nicely through the winter, as most root veggies do. I've got a handful of them left, I might try tossing them in a stew or something. Anyway, hooray for trying new veggies - and for kids that are willing to taste just about anything you put in front of them!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Deciding What to Plant: Tomatoes

I've finally come to terms with the fact that, until I have at least a 1-acre garden plot, I won't be able to grow enough tomatoes to feed my family for a year. I've decided to just be grateful that I've found a cheap source for organic tomatoes by the bushel, and I'll just have to depend on that great farmer to produce my canning tomatoes, because given the amount of space I have, I'm not gonna be able to.

So that means I get to focus on growing fun tomatoes! Heirloom tomatoes (i.e. "fun tomatoes) are tricky little things. They aren't easy to grow - they're more susceptible to disease, they're pickier about their growing conditions, they are needier than most of the hybrid varieties, and the yields are rarely as high as their cross-bred brothers. But all the difficulties aside, I've never tasted a hybrid tomato that can compare the fantastic, unique tastes of heirloom variety tomatoes.

The Black Krim tastes earthy, with very little acidic content. It's huge and slices beautifully, and one of the most interesting tomatoes I've ever seen with a deep purple outside and a mix between green and purple outside. The Green Zebra is hands-down the best tasting tomato I've ever had, making it abundantly clear why people say things like, "that tomato tastes like candy!" I thought people were crazy. And then I realized they must've been eating Green Zebras.

My husband got me growing lights and a heating mat and thermostat for Christmas this year, which means I can finally try my hand at starting tomato and pepper plants from seed. I'm anxious to give it a go. Seed starting has it's benefits, for sure - for $2, you get a packet of 50 seeds instead of paying $2 for each plant at the nursery. But on the down side, I can't pick just one of ten different plants the way I can at the nursery. Hopefully the seeds I order this year will still be viable next year, so I can start increasing my variety. (Or I could just learn to save tomato seeds.)

So as I'm (finally) forcing myself to sit down with my seed catalogs and make decisions about what tomatoes to grow this year, I'm looking more for the unique heirloom varieties, the ones I won't be able to resist eating right off the plant as I do my evening garden work. I'd love to hear your suggestions, if you have some favorite heirloom varieties that I might need to try!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Notes on Self-sufficient eating

Tonight's dinner: wild Nebraska pheasant (procured on our recent trip to the miserable, flat prairie-land of Nebraska) with wild rice and home-grown steamed kohlrabi and carrots.

The carrots are stored in the basement in a plastic tub full of damp sand. This seems to be a fairly useful way of storing fresh carrots, the benefit over freezing them being that we can grate a fresh carrot on our salad even in the dead of winter, or have carrot sticks with our sandwiches. I froze some and stored some fresh this way, and I'm glad for it.


Always wear gloves when digging blindly in a sand bin full of carrots. Not all carrots come through this storage process in as great of shape as we'd like, and grabbing a handful of sand mixed with rotten, slimy, mushy carrot is unpleasant. Really, really unpleasant. At least gloves decrease the gag factor a bit.

Another note: If you're going to be eating wild meat killed with a shotgun, buy a shot detector. How cool is this? It's a miniature metal detector that you use to 'scan' your meat to check for little bits of shot. Side note for those with less experience: a shotgun shell (not bullet, as my husband will surely correct you) is used for killing small game and wild birds. It's a little round packet of tiny little BB's that spread when the shot is fired, thus effective spraying the animal as it tries to get away. Very useful, but it has a tendency to leave little bits of metal scattered throughout the bird that you're going to be serving your family for dinner. The little shot detector thingamajig makes breaking one's tooth a bit less likely. Good investment.

The food I've put by for winter is holding up quite well - I was afraid it would be gone by January, but there should be enough in there to last another few months at the rate we're going. We eat something self-provided for most every meal. The grocery bill is surprisingly low, even for the fairly healthy diet we eat. I'm afraid we're going to drown in apricots if we don't start eating them faster though, and I'm pretty sure everyone will be getting a jar of peach salsa for Christmas next year. On the other hand, we're working our way through the strawberry jam at an alarming rate, thanks in part to the fact that we discovered how tasty it is when mixed with homemade yogurt. It's such an interesting process, seeing how much of each thing we need to have on hand to last a whole year. Some day - maybe - I'll have it all down to a science, with written records of exactly how much of each thing I need to make. Until then, we'll try mixing canned peaches with the yogurt instead, and maybe back off the PB&J's just a little. :-)

What are all my other homesteader/foodie friends doing to keep their bellies full this winter?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Art?

I love the fact that my eight year old can discuss art. She's familiar with a few different styles of painting now, can assess the mood or the frame of mind of the artist, can imagine the story of a classical composition, and can tell you about the lives of a handful of famous artists and composers. She prefers Beethoven to Chopin, Monet to Picasso, and she can explain why she feels that way. And that really kind of pleases me.

But it begs the question: Why do we teach our children about art? Is it something they really need to know? I enjoyed a wonderful debate with my dearest friend about teaching art, and it brought about some thoughts I thought I'd share.

We live in a society so far removed from humanity that it scares me a little. We go about our lives, doing the things that need to be done with very little regard for those around us. We don't consider the fact that others are feeling frustration and worry and joy and wonder, we're only aware of what we personally are feeling. Studying art has the ability to remind us of the feelings of others, and not just to realize that others do have similar emotions, but to really relate us to them.

Did you go through a time when you were first living on your own, were rather poor and afraid and full of worry? So did Picasso - check out his Blue Period. Have you ever looked at scenery so impressively beautiful that you wished you could capture the feeling it struck within you? So did Monet - and he did a beautiful job of capturing it. Did you ever get frustrated at exactly what life appears to be, and what it all means? So did Walt Whitman, gracefully putting into words the thoughts that most of us are afraid to be alone with for too long. Have you ever been so overwhelmed with love and gratitude for your God that you wanted to sing and dance and shout it from the mountain tops? So did David, as evidenced in the beautiful poetry of Psalms. Or have you ever had a story to tell that was so big that words just didn't seem like enough? Wagner did too, creating music as big as his stories. Looking at art, and understanding it, forces us to recognize that we are not alone. Humans are emotional beings, and some of those emotions are so frustrating to deal with, but to know that others have experienced the same feelings - all throughout history - is so comforting. It's what makes us all connected as humans. I love the connection we can make with other people, and with our past, because of art.

Some people are more...expressive by nature. Whether they actually have stronger feelings and emotions, I'm not sure, but some of us just feel more compelled to get them out. Teaching art theory and technique gives us a way to get those feelings out, likely a much more effective and positive means than might otherwise be sought. Maybe I wouldn't have shaved my head as a teenager if I'd been more capable of releasing my emotions in a more constructive way? Haha, I'm not sure. And certainly, not all people are "expressive" in this way. Many folks are perfectly comfortable with their thoughts and emotions, are able to easily sort them and store them away and not lose any sleep at night. My husband is that way, and I find it fascinating, so stable and refreshing. I'm quite sure I'll never know what that's like. But to be able to put frustrations into a piece of art is a skill I'm glad I've acquired. (Not that I'm creating any masterpieces here, but I do have "the angry sweater" where the tension is far tighter than it ought to be, and the "Morro Bay kerchief" that brings back memories of the beauty of that place every time I wear it.) To be able to turn thoughts and emotions into something constructive is a skill I hope to give both of my daughters, whether they end up needing it or not. (God, help me if both of my daughters turn out to be the "expressive" type. I may not survive the teen years if that's the case.)

And I should acknowledge the fact that there is some pretty dark art out there. We're currently studying Lewis Carroll, and I've got to be very selective of the poems and stories we read. I don't imagine he was a very pleasant man, and I sure wouldn't want to be locked in his brain for any amount of time. I don't - at this age - teach my kids about the dark stuff. They can tackle that on their own if (heaven forbid) they feel a need to. Coming from a fairly strict and conservative mindset, I can understand the bad taste some of that art leaves in the mouths of others. But again, can we not simply acknowledge that those feelings and thoughts and ideas are a part of our world? Certainly not a pleasant part, but a part of it nonetheless. People don't talk about their deepest thoughts and feelings much. We like to talk about what we did yesterday, gossip about our friends and neighbors, or talk about dreams of the future. We don't so much like to discuss our innermost feelings - the most vulnerable aspects of who we are. And so we're only aware of ourselves. Art gives these intangible feelings a sense of being tangible, lets us understand others and makes us aware of different ways of thinking, dark as they may be. We aren't forced to embrace that, but we can certainly acknowledge it.

Could a person survive without understanding cultural art? Of course. But truly, I feel like having a foundation in art lets us experience the world around us so much more deeply, lets us see things in ways we might not otherwise, and forces a connection between us as humans that I think is sorely missing from society as it is today.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So I'm taking a tap class.

So I'm taking a tap class. Because I was bored? Because it sounded like fun? I'm not really sure why. I signed the girls up for dance, and decided I was gonna take a class too. So I am.

I had two options: I could take a beginner class for adults, or I could take an advanced class for teenagers. Dancing with adults is refreshing - adults have a sense of humor, and we can happily make asses of ourselves in front of one another without a second thought. Teenagers are funny, their entire purpose being to make sure they don't make asses of themselves in front of one another.

I ended up taking the teenager class. I figured it could go one of two ways: either I would feel young again, dancing with a bunch of kids, or I'd feel like an old lady. So far, we're leaning toward the latter, but I'm okay with it. I just remind myself that at the end of the day, I can go home and have a beer, and they can't.

But aside from the fact that I'm the only dorky adult in the class... Oh. My. Goodness. I had forgotten just how much I love to dance. It's a hard class - and it's been a good sixteen years since I've done much dancing at all - but it's a blast. We're learning the classic dance that Gene Kelley did in Singin' in the Rain, one of my all-time favorite tap songs. It sort of thrills me, the music, the personality of it all, feeling rhythm in my feet again for the first time in so many, many years. I'm really glad I decided to go for it, dorky old lady or not. :-)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If you give a kid some puffy paint...

Oh man, what a slacker I've been! My poor, neglected blog. I keep thinking I'll get around to catching up, posting all the millions of things I think about every day to blog about, and then I get busy, and tired, and busier, and more tired, and then I give up.

So I'm not going to try to catch up, because that will never happen. I'll just jump in where we are and try to write more often!

Today's subject: Kiddie Craft Lessons

There are two distinct ways to teach kids art: You can instruct them on exactly how to make something, giving them a specific design to follow and attempt to re-create. Or you can give them a pile of supplies and set them free. Both have their uses. Most of my craft classes fall somewhere in between.

Since we've taken up dance classes (Cora ballet, Chloe jazz, and tap for me) I thought it would be useful to have dance bags we can keep by the door so we can grab them on our way out. We haven't done much in the way of fabric and textile art, and I still recall the true love I had for puffy paints as a small girl. I gave each girl a set of supplies: two stencils, pink and purple fabric paint, silver and white puffy paint, the letters to spell "DANCE", and a canvas bag to put it all on.

Puffy paint is a funny thing. It's really hard to learn the right amount of pressure and the speed with which you lay it down. Especially if you're eight.

So it's a little (lot) gloppy. She's pretty happy with it. I did have to confiscate the puffy paint before it got too out of hand.

Littlest One is my perfectionist. She wants to know how to do it, where to put it, wants help if she feels like she can't do something quite right. From one perfectionist to another, there's a long, hard road ahead of her if she doesn't let up a little bit.

The end result looks... well, like something I'd make. But she had a fabulous time filling in the stencils. :o)


Completely unrelated, but I realized how much I love looking back at my Chloe-isms, and now I have Cora-isms too, and I've done a terrible job of recording them. So here are a few:

When I was doing double pull-backs in my tap class (and struggling with them!) Chloe told me, "Mom, um, you kind of look like a flumpy horse." Flumpy? Thanks, honey.

Also from Chloe, while trying to choke down cream of asparagus soup: "This soup is not cooperating with my taste buds."

Me: Cora, did you just splatter soup on the table? Cora: No, I splattered soup at my sister.

Cora, after watching Chloe's dance class: "I wished I could jump over hoopa-loops, too."

Ahh how I love the funny bits my kids come up with. Wish I could record them all!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Birthday Sleepover Fun

First, let me gawk for a moment at the fact that I'm officially old enough to have a daughter that's old enough to be having friends spend the night. Yeesh, when did that happen?

So this was her first sleep over. She decided she'd rather have one good friend stay over than to have a whole big party. (Score one for me! Much easier than a party.)

To make it special, I planned a few fun activities, made her favorite dinner (homemade chicken strips, roasted potatoes and roasted beets) and let her decide how we'd decorate her cake.

After we ate dinner, sang Happy Birthday, and had cake and ice cream, we did presents. Note: making your kid hunt all over the house on a "present scavenger hunt" is good times. There was a clue taped to the back of the gift I gave her, leading her to look under the trampoline for the next gift. The clue was "A great place to boing, boing, boing" I believe. The rest of the clues led her to the laundry area, the dog food closet, and eventually out to the drive way to find her new bike.

I had as much fun following her around and watching as she did following the clues. We just may institute the scavenger hunt every year after this - it might make a nice tradition, and added to the gift excitement.

I set up a little craft for the big girls to make after Littlest One was in bed - pre-cut ribbons, paper, buttons, paint, and a wooden frame. I took a photo of them together and printed two copies of it while the girls decorated the frames. It made a nice little souvenir of the evening that they can display in their rooms, and anything involving paint and glue makes little girls happy.

Her little friend was funny - she was kind of amazed at how much stuff in our house is homemade. The chicken strips, the curtains, the hats, even the popcorn was "made from scratch" (we used an air popper and real butter.) When I was following the recipe for pancakes in the morning and got out the glass gallon jar of milk, she mentioned it looked funny and I told her it didn't come from the store. Her eyes got very big and she said...."Do you make your milk from scratch?" :o) That made me giggle. I promised her a cow made it, not me!

The best part of it all was when I set them up with a movie, and popcorn, and games, and prepared to leave the room. I told them I'd be knitting upstairs if they needed me. And... get this... my sweet birthday girl asked me to stay. She wanted me to "hang out" with them. Now, I realize she's only eight, and that this will certainly not always be the case, but I felt so loved. She may be growing up, but she still loves her Mama. And that made me feel pretty darn good.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Notes on Jury Duty

So I sat in a courtroom today for eight hours, only to be dismissed before I was even interviewed.

Some notes on my experience:
*Don't try to take knitting needles through the metal detector. It won't work. Apparently you just never know when some crazy knitting lady will go all psycho in the Jury Commissioner's office and stab everyone with 6 inch dpn's. (Note: Arguing with the security officer on this matter will not help your cause.)
*The benches in the court room aren't comfortable. If you sit on one of them for eight hours, your butt will fall asleep.
*Don't have jury duty on a day when a pipe breaks in the judicial building. They'll close the bathrooms and not think twice about only giving you one break at lunch time in which to relieve yourself of the four cups of coffee you drank before you got there.
*You can't smoke in restaurants, bars, or city parks, but you can smoke inside the court house, of all places. (No, I'm no longer a smoker. But I found this little tidbit fascinating.)
*If you really don't want to serve on the jury, tell the DA you absolutely think convicted felons ought to be allowed to own guns. They'll dismiss you promptly. (This isn't my trick. But it worked for the guy who tried it.)
*Court rooms are open to the public. If you have kids who are older than mine (and who are capable of sitting still) it would make a very cool homeschool field trip.
*It became clear to me why they call them "public pretenders". That poor girl might have just graduated law school yesterday, I couldn't be sure. I was kind of embarrassed for her. And sort of pitied the defendant, who clearly didn't have a chance as long as she was speaking on his behalf. Definitely don't get accused of a crime if you can't afford better representation than that.

All in all? A court room isn't the kind of place I'd like to spend any more time than necessary, no matter which seat I was sitting in. But at least I can say it was an interesting experience. Happily, I was able to retrieve my children from my mother at the end of the day and prove to my oldest that Mommy was not going to court because she was going to jail. I think she was actually a little bit worried about that. I think it's time for our first civics lesson.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I knitted some things...

Just a quickie post before I head to bed because I have to be up early for jury duty tomorrow. Let's all say a quick prayer that Julie doesn't get selected as a juror.

:::moment of silence:::


So anyway.

I hate neon colors. Have you noticed how neon colors are totally making a comeback? They didn't make any of us look good when we wore them in elementary school in the early 90's. (Right at that awful "awkward" stage... which the neon just seemed to magnify, right?) But alas, some neon has managed to find it's way into my home in the form of Little Girl Clothing. And so hats to match became a necessity. Because my children don't have enough hats yet.

And I'm excited to say, these are actually both my own design. (I'm a follower: I usually use patterns. Hooray for a brief moment of true creativity!)

Gaudy Hat #1:

Caron Simply Soft yarns in the most day-glo colors I could find: watermelon, electric lime, and minty blue.
Size 8 needles.
A simple pattern with cute results: casted on 92 sts in the round, 2x2 rib in pink for about an inch, knit straight in a stripey pattern with blue as the main color until piece measured about 8", three needle bind off, tassels for the corners. Super simple, basically just a rectangle with a ribbed band and some tassels.

She loves it. She hasn't taken it off yet. One thing I can say for this Caron Simply Soft yarn: it really is soft. This kiddo hates anything even the slightest bit scratchy.

Gaudy Hat #2
Crocheted basic little granny squares, seven of them, and crocheted them together to make a ring. Put a single crochet border in lime green along the top and bottom of the band. Picked up the top stitches first (72 of them, if I remember correctly), knitted straight for a few rows, then decreased by 8 every other row to 4 sts, then drew up the center and pulled it tight. Picked up another 72 sts on the bottom, knitted a few rows straight, then ended with a 2x2 rib bound of very loosely. It still rolls, but I think it's cute.

If anyone reads this and actually wants more specific instructions for either hat, feel free to leave a comment, and I'll see what I can work out for you.


And one last little project - crocheted doll accessories. Because having Two Little Girls to knit for is just not enough.

Leftover scrap yarn, made it up as I went along. Buttons for accents because I love any excuse to use brightly colored buttons. More specific directions are on my Ravelry, if you want them.

Alright y'all, I'm off to bed, as soon as I pick a new project to keep me entertained tomorrow. I have a feeling a lot of sitting and waiting is in my immediate future.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some meal ideas and a couple of recipes

Three months ago, I never wanted to look at my canning pot again.

Okay actually, I still don't ever want to look at my canning pot again. That last hundred and twenty pounds of apples did me in for quite awhile, I'm afraid. But for as much slaving over the hot stove that I did, I'm thankful for it now!

Here's a short list of some of the fabulous meals we've eaten this week, all local and organic and healthy-ish, thanks to the God-forsaken canning pot:
Pancakes for breakfast, topped with canned apples, spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg, with a side of elk sausage.
Sloppy Joes with ground venison, made with homemade canned barbecue sauce, peppers and diced tomatoes from the freezer, and a side of bread-and-butter pickles.
Homemade polenta topped with a thick meat sauce (ground elk, home canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, peppers, garlic, and basil from the garden.)
Last night's chicken tortilla soup, in a base of homemade duck broth with all kinds of garden veggies.
A roasted wild duck (provided by The Hunter) served with (sob) the last of the kale from the now frozen cold frame.
Steamed kohlrabi and carrots served as a side dish to a ham dinner on New Year's.
Canned peaches on top of vanilla ice cream for dessert.

The challenge at this time of year is figuring out how to use everything I managed to put by, without serving spaghetti five nights a week. It's a fun challenge though, and so satisfying.

Here's a couple of recipes from the list above that really ought to be a part of everyone's repertoire.

Southwestern Sloppy Joes (this is my altered version; the original is from the Cowboy Cookbook by Golden West Publishers.) This recipe only takes about 20 minutes from start to finish (score one for the busy mama!)

1/2 c. chopped onion
1/2 c. diced bell pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground elk (or beef, or venison, or even turkey)
1 cup pureed canned tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup barbecue sauce
1/2 cup uncooked oats
1 Tbsp. sea salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp worcestershire sauce
1/4 lb cheddar cheese, cubed
6 sandwich buns

Saute the onion and pepper in oil in a heavy skillet until soft. Add beef and brown. Stir in tomato puree, water, barbecue sauce, oats, salt, chili powder and worcestershire sauce. Cover and cook over low heat until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and stir til melted. Serve on toasted sandwich buns.

Chicken Tortilla Soup (my own creation based on what I had on hand. Measurements are estimated.) This one also takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.

2 Tbsp olive or grapeseed oil
1 1/2 lbs chicken breast
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped sweet pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 pints duck broth (or, if you don't happen to have wild duck broth on hand, use chicken broth.)
2 cups tomato sauce
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped frozen spinach
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. sea salt
8 corn tortillas

In a large pot, saute chicken breast in hot oil over medium heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove chicken, chop into small pieces, and set aside. Add onions and peppers to the pot, saute til soft. Add garlic and cook one minute more. Add all remaining ingredients except tortillas. Return chicken to pot. Simmer about 15 minutes. Chop the tortillas into 1-inch pieces. Place a handful of tortilla pieces in each bowl, then ladle the hot soup on top of them. Top with grated cheese.

What kind of tasty meals have you been making this winter? I'm always on the look out for more cozy-warm meals to serve my family (especially if they involve using up canned tomatoes!)