Saturday, February 20, 2010

Read to Your Kids!

We all know that early literacy is important, but I just read a fact that shocked me. "States like California and Indiana have factored in the number of third-graders who are not reading at grade level when planning future jail construction" (Parenting Early Years Magazine, March 2010, page 112). Yikes! Check out these sites that are trying to help bridge the achievement gap;,www.,,

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bread Making and Septimus Heap

I know it sounds crazy, but I think that I am actually getting the hang of this bread making thing! I tried a new recipe from The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook from the Java River Cafe in Montevideo, MN. All the restaurants featured in this cookbook are using local food. The bread recipe for Country Whole Wheat bread is the best whole wheat recipe that I have tried yet! I made two loaves this morning and am making 2 more this afternoon so I can have enough for us for the week, although at the rate I am eating it, four loaves won't be enough! The kids are getting used to me putting their sandwiches on homemade bread, although they still prefer the soft, perfect-sized slices of store bought bread. I am hoping that that will change as they get less and less of the store bought stuff. My goal for this afternoon, while the kids are sledding, is to make more bread, make chicken stock and try out a homemade pizza recipe from the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook. Wow, what a change of pace from the way I used to spend my free time, i.e. tv and gossip mags, I have many weaknesses. I also ordered seeds from a seed catalogue today, never done that before! I used the Seeds of Change website to order. I found their prices high and that they were out of many of the seeds I had hoped to get. For a newbie, is this normal? Am I ordering too late, too early? I would like to find a seed company in MN if possible, but I haven't stumbled upon any yet.

Before cooking I am off to finish Queste, by Angie Sage. I have reread the whole series so as to prepare myself for her latest, Syren. I enjoy the Septimus Heap series, and I love Sage's writing. I do get stuck on some gaps in the story and have to wonder if I am taking it all too seriously. But besides those few details that I find lacking, reading the story all at once has been fun, and with each sequel I enjoy the world she has created more. I would definitely recommend these books to my students, but I would not teach them. I find them more pleasure reading than deep, thought-provoking works.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My greening has been going so-so. I did manage to wrap all of my family’s Christmas presents in reusable bags that I got at Trader Joe’s and IKEA. My sister was at first disturbed that her presents weren’t going to be wrapped, but I was able to wrap the bags up pretty well and I think she actually liked the idea once she saw them. My family is one of traditionalists, but luckily they are open-minded enough to try new things, although I do have to bully them in to quite a bit! :) Anyway, there was a fair amount of sighing and complaining about my wanting all things organic (food-wise) and for every one to cut down on their waste, but in the end they mostly obliged. Since I have been home, I am in a constant struggle to keep the lights turned off. It is like the energy monsters run through my house flipping all the lights on when I am not looking and it is a battle I wage each day against them to keep the lights OFF! Somehow, my three year old is tall enough to turn the lights ON, yet not able to reach them when I ask him to turn them OFF. The things I learn about my children each day!

I have not attempted cheese making again since my first semi-successful attempt, but I have been baking bread, with varying levels of success. I got the book, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois and I have found some good, easy recipes in there. I was initially intimidated when the recipes called for an ingredient called, vital wheat gluten, but luckily found it right away at Kowalski’s. (I know that store is way too expensive, but I love it!) Anyway, we are still buying some store made bread, but I am attempting to keep us supplied with fresh bread. It tastes much better and I know what goes into it! cheaper too, I think...

I am spending long hours reading through all my seed catalogues and am a bit nervous about my garden plans. I am going to double the size of my garden this year. Last year I planted seven different veggies and nine herbs. This year I am planning to plant 18 veggies and two types of fruit (raspberries and grapes). I am thinking that I may be biting off more than I can chew. Any thoughts on how crazy, or not crazy, I may be to attempt this are welcomed! I am also in the process of cleaning out the basement to start planting seedlings with my new grow light that I got for Christmas. I am attempting to grow all of my veggies from seed this year, something I have never done before. However, if I can’t get my favorites to work (tomatoes and peppers) I am not above heading to the garden store for seedlings! Funny that I should be thinking about all of this when the temperature this morning was -11.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bookstores and Chicken Broth

I have proud news to report on this my second day of greening my life. I went to the bookstore and left empty-handed. I do not believe that in the history of my life I have ever accomplished such a feat. See, I am a book addict. Specifically children’s literature. I devour it and my appetite is insatiable. I don’t spend money on things for myself, but books, that is my weakness. I have worked second jobs to support my habit. I am aware that there is such a place as the library, but I need to own my books. I love to gaze at them on the shelves, each a special reminder of how great an escape stories can be. I justified buying books to use in my classroom, but as a stay at home mom for the past three years, I admit I can’t stop reading and thinking about the day that I will again teach literature to children. Until then, I keep current in the kidlitoshpere (a real thing, google it!) and continue my quest to read as many new books as possible. Today though, all I could think about when I looked at the racks of new hardcovers was that I should really be buying used versions. The problem with that is that I have to wait, (I am not the patient type) and I have to remember to get on the internet to order them and wrack up my credit card bill. This makes all of my purchases traceable, therefore causing my husband to give me grief about my book spending habit, where if I forked over a 20 to the bookstore cashier, no one is any the wiser. I understand that I should just suck it up and go to the library, but this is not going to happen as long as I have children and intend to continue my teaching career. I envision my children in a few years being able to pull a new book every week from the shelves that house my collection and to know how much their mother loves books. There was another reason that I was in the bookstore, to purchase Christmas presents for my family. I love giving books and it is a wonderful excuse for me to visit the bookstore...again. But today as I looked at the glossy new covers beckoning me to buy them I knew that I could not. Never before have I felt guilty about buying books I know that my family will not care if the books I purchase as gifts are second hand. I know that I should be more responsible with my habit. Here is my question though. Is buying used books from better or worse than buying new books from an independent bookseller? I am at a standstill, I have bought books from no one. I am not sure how many more Office reruns I can watch before I am forced to drive through the night looking for an open all night bookstore.  

My other major accomplishment for the day is back in the kitchen, where I have had a blessedly drama free afternoon. I cooked a chicken for dinner last night (Apparently I cooked it upsidedown, how am I supposed to know the difference between the breast and the back? It was bad enough that I had to shove my hand down the cavity to yank out its packaged innards.) and instead of throwing away the carcass, I looked up how to make my own chicken stock. Apparently this is quite easy and even as I type I can smell the broth filling my home with an enticing aroma. My one concern, how much is the difference between buying chicken broth and making it when it has to cook for 4 to 5 hours. That seems like a lot of wasted energy.   

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I am a quiter. I don’t mean to be. I have every intention of completing my goals, but after the initial bolt of energy, the thrill of a good idea and the inspiration I have gained from some amazing book or NPR segment, I tend to fizzle. From the public school I was going to open to the blog I started to the cheese making kit I ordered (thank you Barbara Kingsolver), my life has always been scattered with good intentions that fizzle, and we all know what good intentions lead to. I am in trouble. As I look at the pile of open your own school books, and a Master’s degree in experiential education, an unopened link to a blog that only made it for seven entries and a cheese making kit thrown to the top shelf of the kitchen above the refrigerator where useless things that I can’t bear to throw away as they might be useful one day live, I begin to take stock of my life. Sure, I have accomplished a lot; 11 years as a school teacher (although that is divided among four schools), a successful Peace Corps service (with friends that I promised to keep in touch with  left in the proverbial and very real dust) and two amazing children ( I hear that I am not alone in the constant struggle to raise these mysterious beings). Well, I figure I will continue plodding on in my existence, although the many unfinished projects cause me to actively ignore a part of my mind that drifts to these discarded projects. It is a lot of work to pretend that my un accomplishments don’t bother me. I spend quite a lot of time justifying to myself why I couldn’t make them work, how busy I am, how hard I work, how exhausted I am. I throw myself into raising my kids, (being a stay at home mom has done a number on my confidence) ignoring all of the warning signs that if I don’t make room for myself soon, I might drown in inadequacy. I have good ideas. Attainable goals. Now if only I had the confidence and lasting momentum to followthrough. I am more exhausted from beating myself up than I am from chasing the kids.  

So, in the spirit of trying to find myself and starting a new project (maybe this will be the one that sticks?) I have made a new goal. I want to be more “green”. Ah, yes the buzz word of the day. How very chic of me. Well, thanks to my good heart, and even better intentions, I really do want to try to live a better life, less of a carbon footprint, more natural eating, less chemicals, yadda, yadda, yadda. I have actually been making slow steps toward greeness, and I have decided to make an achievable goal for myself: For a year, I will make positive steps towards living a more green life. I don’t wish to set too many more parameters than that. I must admit that I am stealing the idea of this goal from many before me, Barbara Kingsglover inspired me with her book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Although I am not making a goal anywhere near as admirable as she, I have been reading a lot about people setting such goals and I think I could make some real changes in my life and my family’s life by undertaking such a challenge. So, everyday, I need to attempt to do or learn something that will help me to make permanent changes in the way I live in an environmentally sustainable way.   

Here I am, as of November 15th, 2009:  

I buy all produce and organically, without worrying about where it comes from.  

I grow a garden every summer to feed my family fresh vegetables.  

I buy most of my kids clothes second hand and some of their toys.  

I refuse to shop at Walmart, although I shop at Target (I do live in Minneapolis after all!)  

Here is a starting list of how I want to improve:  

Grow a garden to feed my family in the summer with produce from the garden exclusively and grow enough to store some for the fall and winter.  

Plant fruit to help add to what I grow.   

Become more of a locavore; pay attention to where my food comes from.  

Make more of my own food, bread, cheese, spices.  

Reduce the use of the car (this is going to be a toughie).  

Compost and learn more about it.  

Reduce the amount of waste my family uses.  

Try to buy more used and less new.  

Teach my children how to become more environmentally responsible and conscious.  

I hope to add to this list as I learn and grow more.  

Day One  

I am inspired by my pledge to be more green. I have recently read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsglover and have have scoured the internet for sites that will guide and inspire me to change my evil ways. I stumbled upon a site about a family of homesteaders in urban Pasedena and was shocked by what they were able to do in the city. I was also incredibly intimidated. Only two airplane flights in twenty five years, .......I bookmark the site and move on to read a fairly pompous blog about someone who doesn’t condone eating ice cream, drinking beer or soda or doing pretty much anything that involves keeping things cold (btw, not a problem for us Minnesotans, you bettcha!)  However, I found some of the responses to his blog sobering. Apparently there are quite a few people out there actually making their own soda, and eating food that doesn’t coming in any type of wrapping, and raising children at the same time! For years I had been giving myself props for buying almost exclusively organic food. Sure our recycling piles are filled with boxes and bags and bottles and more boxes, but I am recycling, so that’s good, right? Well, apparently I have a lot to learn. Luckily, I am fully aware of my, may I be so bold to call it, greeness in this new arena and am willing to learn and will seek the advice of those further along on the journey to be green, pompous or not! Learning is not the same as implementing, though, so luckily my parameters are not too strict!  

It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The sun makes the Minnesota sky look like a    painting. The blue skies are part of what has endeared Minnesota to me. (It for sure ain’t the winters). The weather is mild for the middle of November and the kids are at the park with their father. Okay, time to get to work. My goal for the day is to make my own mozzarella cheese and bake homemade bread, enough for the week so I don’t have to buy any. I have found a good and easy bread recipe (we gave away our bread maker after it sat in our garage for six years gathering dust. I curse myself now). I am on my fourth attempt at making mozzarella cheese. Apparently, the milk in the store is typically ultra-pasteurized, so that I can’t get the curds to form. I have tried three types of organic, Minnesotan-grown  milk, but the most I have gotten is some sticky goo at the bottom of my pot and a loss of $18.00. I have not given up though and I have bought some powdered milk to give the cheese thing another go. I am all set in the kitchen to begin my green revolution when I realize that I have forgotten two major ingredients for the bread. After a harried phone conversation with my mom, in which we try to find a suitable substitute for brown sugar and butter, I finally shout, something about just going back to the store from whence I had come twenty minutes earlier. (I would have had brown sugar if I had not the day before rested the bag only for a moment on a hot oven door only to find the bottom of the bag melted off and all of the sugar now on the floor. I am afraid that this is not the first time my absentmindedness will thwart my efforts). With my mother’s voice encouraging me to simply find another recipe instead of heading out into the dark night (mom’s a worrier) I defiantly rev up my car insisting that I will not give up. About two minutes into my drive back to the store, I realize that it is entirely possible that I have ruined all efforts in my attempt to be green by driving for a second time to the store. Damn, well, mistakes will be made, forward! I buy the necessary ingredients and head home to get my Martha Stewart on. Hmmm...not Martha, who is a good heroine of this green living? I will have to research that. In the meantime, back to the bread. I proceed to follow the instructions and heat the milk, sugar and butter to 125 degrees. It starts to boil. Whoops. But the thermometer said 125, so hmmm...heat kills yeast, right. Sadly, it has been multiple years since I have used yeast, so I dump the hot ingredients into the bowl with the yeast and flour and carry on to work on my cheese. After about half an hour, I check the bread and realize that no rising has occurred. Another frenzied call to my mother. “If I put boiling liquid into my yeast, I killed it didn’t I?” “Yup” came the reply, “that stuff’s living you know”. “I know, but the thermometer said it was 125 degrees.” “You’re thermometer is broken” came the reply. Ah, my thermometer. With my cheese making kit I had received a fresh, new dairy thermometer. I don’t know why, but I was very excited about owning a piece of equipment such as this. Maybe it marked my arrival into a new world. A wonderful new world where I would do things like make cheese and bread and amaze my family. My kids would talk about being raised by a mother who still made things from scratch, slow food as I have heard is the latest in eating. That thermometer took me out of my realm of comfort (cooking the midwestern way, a piece of meat, a starch and a frozen veggie) and into the realm of someone who might just know a little bit about cooking.

 I was so convinced by the cheese making brochure, that I too would have a beautiful ball of mozzarella cheese in half an hour, that I had decided to have my kids and the neighbor kids help with the process. After we made our perfect cheese we would use it to top our homemade pizzas! I had everything set up in stations (the teacher in me) and was instructing the five year olds what to do when a heard giggle, giggle crash. Apparently the three year olds had found my new thermometer and were just as intrigued by it as I was. Sadly, three year olds are a clumsy lot and it was smashed into pieces in seconds of them waiting at their station. (Three years out of the classroom and I have already forgotten the rule, no breakables near the kids.) I clean up the mess, my sadness palpable, but the evening of fun must go on, there is cheese to make and I was not about to let one setback (albeit disappointing) ruin the fun. The kids stirred and stirred the milk, rennet concoction while holding a science kit thermometer in the pot. After it finally reached the magic number of 90 degrees, we waited eagerly for it to sit five minutes and then checked the pot. No curds. Hmmm, maybe it needs to sit longer. Sadly, no amount of sitting was going to make this pot of milk curdle. After an hour I admitted defeat and called the neighbor to borrow her mozzarella cheese. Two more times I had tried to make cheese and failed. Apparently the toy science kit thermometer wasn’t cutting it. 

But tonight I was armed with powdered milk and heavy cream. I had to give the cheese making thing one more try, damned be the neigh-sayers and the wasted milk and the trips to the grocery store to get more ingredients in the car.  

I will not be derailed, I chalk it up to learning from ones mistakes and begin to make the bread again, only to discover that I am short a packet of yeast. AAARrrggghhh. I call across the street to my sainted neighbor Patrice and ask if she has any yeast. God bless her, she does, so I shove on my Uggs (are those green?), and tramp bitterly across the street. I am beginning to doubt my abilities to pull this simple task of bread baking and cheese making off. After bitching to Patrice about my failed attempts I head home discouraged. So many mistakes for such simple tasks. This shouldn’t be this hard. Plus, the kids aren’t even here, how can this be an ongoing routine if I can’t pull it off without the kids? I enter my kitchen prepared to do battle and at least not completely fail. I march to the bowl of waiting bread ingredients and look suspiciously at my waiting cheese. Telling myself not to be disappointed if what greets my eyes is another steaming pile of milky goo, I lift the lid and sigh. Except that what I have is curds. Real curds! I am too jaded to get truly excited, so I quickly get a knife, assuming that there will not really be anything solid to slice through, but it is like the green spirit sensed my frustration and wished to throw me a bone. My knife sliced curds! I forgot abut the bread and focused my whole attention on not screwing this up with another stupid mistake. I had promised the kids that they could help me pull the cheese if I got it to work and like clockwork, they came in the door just as the cheese was ready to be pulled. I went rushing, like a child, to greet them announcing that the cheese finally worked. They whooped and hollered and their enthusiasm made it all worth it. I had taught them a lesson, never give up. Armed with oven mitts (I forgot the rubber gloves and at this point I am not surprised) my kids and I prepared to stretch our cheese like the people in the instruction booklet. They are giddy with anticipation. I am the giddiest of them all until I realize that the cheese isn’t stretching. I heat it again. Nope, I got the curds, but not the stretch. Well, at least I made it to the next step. The children are appeased by getting lots of tastes and quickly shuffle off to bed. I suppose it is not a complete success, but at least I got close. I finished the bread too, and it wasn’t great, but I am not going to give up yet. I can make cheese curds and if I can do that, perhaps I can make a fresh loaf of wheat bread too. I may single handedly destroy the green revolution, but by golly there will be homemade cheese and bread!  

It has been too long! I am excited to add new material and to add my new adventures into the green world on this blog as well. Since I last wrote, I have been attempting to stop buying new books. This is not easy for an obsessed book lover like myself who must have the new book in hard cover the second it comes out, but I am going to try. Therefore I will continue to review and write up activities for some of the books I read and will also post my "green" experiences on this site. Good luck to me! Thanks for following...all three of you! :)  

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I am so excited! Finished the 4th one again minutes ago! Would love to hear your thoughts when this one comes out May 5th.