It’s still a zoo around here

It’s been a while since I’ve written about our various pets. We did lose one of our pets, our rat Basil, over the long winter but the rest of the furry and scaly critters are doing just fine. Recently, a few of them were kind enough to pose for photos for us…

Bean has been very happy now that the weather is warmer. It means he gets to go outside! He scares himself when he shuffles through any dried up old leaves he finds though. Bean hasn’t yet figured out what causes that strange rustling sound.

Bean looking around for bugs to eat

Muppet loves going outdoors too. She loves exploring and rooting around the yard, and always comes back inside in a fine mess.

Muppet enjoying a little sunshine

Achilles is one spoiled gerbil. He knows when Steve comes by he’ll have some kind of tasty treat to give him. Here he’s eating a carrot, but he particularly loves bits of broccoli.

Steve feeding his gerbil Achilles by hand

Salem is the rabbit that Steve got at the county fair last year. The rabbit will be one of the three 4-H projects that Steve plans to do this year. Bean will be heading to the fair again this year too. Hopefully Bean won’t be too jealous that he has to share Steve’s attention with Salem.

Spending some quality time with Salem

Moving “write” along…

Even though we pretty much homeschool all year round, I always think of late April and May as nearing the “end” of the school year. We do some “schooly” activities over the summer, but when the weather is nice or we’re busy, the books get shoved aside in favor of fun in the sun.

I can’t help but think in terms of our school year having a beginning and an end, and I suppose that is no surprise as years of formal education have drilled the idea of the traditional school calendar into my head. At the end of every August, I still look forward to school supply sales and new school subjects to tackle. And at the end of every Spring I tend to analyze what we’ve accomplished for the year, set up goals for the next year, and look forward to moving at a more relaxed pace over the summer.

Since Tobin would be in Kindergarten this year, my goals for him this year were pretty basic. I wanted him to be reading whole books, doing basic math like adding and subtracting, and writing. We did throw in a bit of science and a wee bit of geography too, but I felt that there would be plenty of time for all of that stuff later on. The math and reading came pretty easily and fairly early on in the school year, but writing was a big struggle all year.

The last few months though, I have seen lots of visible improvement in Tobin’s writing skills. He can write his first name beautifully, he is able to write every letter of the alphabet with minimal help, and his numbers are actually starting to look like numbers. What has pleased me the most in his progress though is that he is finally able to draw for pleasure! When he was finally able to purposely draw something recognizable and get excited about it, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I figured that if he enjoys drawing things, he’ll do it more often and on his own. And if he practices drawing more often, his motor skills will improve and the rest of his writing skills will hopefully fall right into place.

Tobin begins drawing a picture of his family.

Tobin draws his mom, dad, himself, and his two brothers

Tobin was so proud of his picture of his family that he wanted his dad to tape it up in his bedroom. Unfortunately, before they had a chance to put the picture up, Steve did something to annoy Tobin, so he crossed Steve out of the picture…sigh. Maybe Steve will get to stay in the next drawing…

I love Cauliflower

Mark Twain once described cauliflower as, “nothing but cabbage with a college education.” Obviously Mr. Twain did not properly appreciate cauliflower, but then he probably wasn’t eating it the right way. In our house, our favorite way to eat that wonderful vegetable is as a cauliflower patty, or fritter, if you will.

My mother used to make cauliflower patties for us all the time. It was always a treat that I looked forward to. I have vivid memories of trying to patiently wait for the next batch to be out of the fry pan and ready to gobble down. It was probably nearly impossible for my mom to cook them as fast as my brothers and I could eat them.

My mom always fried hers in oil, and I really miss eating them that way. However ever since I had my gall bladder out, fried foods and I are no longer friends, so I stick to using cooking spray instead. If you decide to fry them in oil, please remember to eat one for me.

Cauliflower Patties Recipe

Ingredients:

2 cups cauliflower broken into small pieces
1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion (optional)
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 eggs
½ cooking liquid saved from cooking cauliflower (could also use milk)
1 cup shredded/grated cheese (sharp cheddar, Colby, mozzarella, parmesan, etc. or some combination of cheeses)
Olive oil for frying (or cooking spray if you’re trying to keep it lower fat)

Directions:

1) Break fresh cauliflower into small pieces and put into a small saucepan. Add enough water to cover cauliflower pieces and boil until tender. DO NOT DRAIN WATER.
2) Using a slotted spoon, remove cooked cauliflower pieces to a medium sized mixing bowl. Set cooking water aside for later. Allow cauliflower to cool a bit.
3) When cauliflower is cooled a bit, add flour, onions if using, salt, pepper, herbs, garlic, and eggs to bowl and combine.
4) Add ½ cup of saved cooking liquid to create a batter the consistency of pancake batter. If desired, use milk instead of cooking liquid.
5) Mix shredded/grated cheese into the batter.
6) Heat olive oil in a fry pan over medium heat or spray pan with cooking oil.
7) When oil is hot, carefully drop ¼ cup pools of batter into pan. (I can usually make 2-3 patties at a time in my fry pan.) Cook patties for 4-5 minutes, about 2 minutes or so per side. If frying patties in oil, move cooked patties to a paper towel lined plate to drain excess oil. If using cooking spray, the paper towels are unnecessary. (The fried ones taste best, but they are probably healthier without all the oil.)

Serving suggestions:

1) I usually serve mine with plenty of salt and pepper.
2) Try serving with marinara sauce for dipping.

Notes:

1) If you don’t like cauliflower, try using shredded zucchini in the batter instead. If using zucchini, I normally increase the amount of onion I use with it. Broccoflower is a good substitute as well if you are lucky enough to find some in your local grocery store. I can never seem to find it when I am specifically looking for it.
2) Leftover cooked patties warm up pretty well the next day.

* Batter makes about 10 cauliflower patties.

Our son’s vegetarian adventure

Twenty days ago, Steve decided to become a vegetarian. (I know it’s been 20 days because every morning he makes a point of telling me how many days it has been.) My first response when he told me was one of surprise. There aren’t too many foods that my son doesn’t like, and my son eats A LOT; he likes learning to cook different dishes and simply enjoys eating, so I had a hard time imagining him giving up a bunch of foods that he so obviously enjoys.

Although I told him that I supported his decision and said we needed to sit down and discuss what foods he needed to eat to get enough iron, protein, etc., I also thought to myself that he’d probably change his mind after a few days. (I’m sure my parents thought the same thing when I made the same decision at age 14.) It’s not that I think of Steve as a fickle person at all, but more that I couldn’t imagine he’d willingly and happily give up his favorite foods such as sushi, grilled salmon, and steak slathered in A-1 sauce.

So far though, Steve seems pretty serious about it, and even if he does change his mind down the road, I still think this is a good opportunity to get him thinking more about eating a balanced diet and learning to cook some new recipes, definitely important skills to have when he’s living out on his own someday and doesn’t have mom around to nag him to eat something healthy. Up until this point in his life, Ken and I have obviously made most of the decisions about what our son eats on a day to day basis. But now that Steve is cutting out meat, there will be a lot more occasions where he will have to figure out for himself what he needs to eat and will likely have to cook things for himself. (Tobin has no intention of giving up meat, and in fact, denies that his brother is a vegetarian.) Steve does know how to cook a number of things on his own, but he definitely could learn more.

In order to help him learn to cook more dishes, I am going to make a concerted effort to actually write down the recipes of our favorite meals instead of just winging it as I normally do. It has always been a running joke that I am incapable of actually following a recipe line by line without making a million changes. I’m hoping that by writing down the recipe successes, Steve will confidently be able to make for himself the foods that he enjoys. There will be plenty of time later for him to make his own recipe adaptations once he gets the basics down.

Last week I attempted to write out my minestrone recipe as I was actually preparing it. I carefully measured everything before I put into the pot. Steve claimed that he didn’t believe I really did write out the recipe because if I had, it would have signaled the apocalypse, and we’re obviously still here.

Here is my minestrone recipe. I doubt I’ve ever made it exactly the same way twice, but it turned out quite well last week, so hopefully Steve can successfully follow the recipe next time.

Vegetarian Minestrone

Ingredients:

2 cups veggie broth
2 cups V-8 or tomato juice
4 cups water
1 can crushed tomatoes (28 oz.)
3 teaspoons dried oregano
3 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon rosemary, crushed
3 teaspoons minced garlic
½ cup frozen pearl onions
1 cup frozen chopped spinach
2 cups frozen mixed veggies (carrots, corn, green beans, peas, and lima beans)
1 cup frozen okra cuts
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed (15.5 oz)
1 can garbanzo beans, rinsed (15.5 oz)
½ cup diced zucchini
½ cup diced yellow squash
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup diced potato
1 cup shredded green cabbage
1 cup ditalini or other small pasta such as orzo, small shells, or elbow macaroni

Directions:

1) In a large stockpot, combine all of the ingredients listed except the pasta.
2) Stir the ingredients well and bring soup to a boil. Once a boil is reached, turn the heat down, and cover the pot with a lid. Cook the soup until the diced potato is cooked all the way through, about 20-25 minutes.
3) While the soup is cooking, bring a small pot of water to boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. Once the pasta is done, drain, and add to your finished soup, stirring well.

Notes and suggestions:

1) If you don’t like a particular vegetable or don’t have it on hand, just leave it out. The various amounts of vegetables can be easily adjusted according to your tastes or whatever you happen to have in your refrigerator.
2) The beans listed can be changed as well. Canned red kidney beans, navy beans, or Great Northern beans work well in this soup too. I generally use whatever I happen to have on hand.
3) If you are watching your carbs or can’t have gluten, just leave out the pasta. All those veggies and beans will still make a hearty meal.
4) If you don’t have any pasta on hand, try replacing the pasta with cooked rice or barley.
5) This soup is great served with grated parmesan cheese on top and a side of crusty bread.
6) The soup freezes well, so freeze up some individual sized portions and keep for later lunches.
7) This recipe makes a very large pot of soup. For a smaller pot of soup, skip the 4 cups of water, use a 15 ounce can of tomatoes, add only 1 can of beans, reduce the quantity and variety of veggies included, and season to taste with your favorite herbs.

** I have no idea how many servings this is. It was enough for dinner for four people plus enough to fill a few single portion containers to freeze for future lunches.

Cutting paper snowflakes

Yesterday was the first day of our Advent countdown to Christmas. The night before I wrote out a simple little sentence for the kids and slipped it into the first baby sock of our calendar. I tried to make the sentence easy enough for Tobin to read on his own. I let Tobin try to read the sentence in the morning, but he had trouble with a few words. The sentence read, “Cut out snowflakes to decorate for Christmas with Mommy.” He had a little trouble with both “decorate” and “Christmas,” but he was very happy to have read the rest of it by himself.

Although he enjoyed reading the sentence describing what we’d be doing for the day, Tobin wasn’t too interested in actually making snowflakes. We were having some friends over for a playdate, so he was too excited about that to focus on anything else. He told me he’d “help me make snowflakes later.” 🙂 Stephen however dove right into cutting out snowflakes and happily made oodles of them.

Steve didn't just stick with white paper. He moved on to yellow and blue as well!

At first we used plain old 8.5 x 11 inch printer paper, but I quickly realized that after folding up the paper to prepare it for cutting, it would be too difficult for little hands to easily snip through with scissors, too many layers of paper to try to cut through. Steve and I could manage just fine, but I knew that Tobin and the other kids who would be visiting would probably have a tough time of it.

I remembered reading somewhere that paper coffee filters are good to use for making cut-out snowflakes, so I dug some out from the kitchen cupboard so we could give it a try. The coffee filters worked really well! Because they are already round, there was much less paper waste than when using the regular paper, and when folded, the coffee filter layers were much easier for little hands to cut through than normal paper.

Snowflake cut from a coffee filter

We had a great time cutting out snowflakes with our friends. We probably have enough snowflake cut outs to decorate every window in our house and then some. Our neighbors will probably wonder about us…oh, they probably already do.

Ian seemed to really enjoy making snowflakes with us.

Erin and Tess putting their scissors to work.

Erin's owl-on-a-branch snowflake...

Erin's snowflake with a star-topped Christmas tree and snowman..very cool.

Warren and Tobin opted to skip making snowflakes and played instead, but I'm sure they were thinking of snowflakes the whole time. (Yeah, right...hehe.)

Although Tobin was too busy yesterday to make snowflakes, he wanted to try it this morning. He isn’t great with scissors yet, but he did manage to make a few with my help. He wanted me to make sure to write his name on his so we wouldn’t confuse them with Steve’s.

Tobin's first finished snowflake (with help from mom).

Tobin unfolding a snowflake to see if it's done, as he says.

Apparently, the 8 million snowflakes that Steve cut out yesterday were not enough to bore him of the project, so he took up the scissors and paper again today to make some more. Today, he went more slowly and tried to deliberately plan out his cuts and experimented more with shapes.

Steve is still fascinated with the snowflakes on day 2.

I think we might try painting a few of our coffee filter snowflakes with food coloring sometime this week. We have some glitter glue pens that would be great for livening them up too. I had planned on taping them all to the windows of our house, but I’d like to string some up for a mobile as well.

For those of you who don’t want to dig out the paper and scissors, but still want to make snowflakes, you can try your hand at making some on the computer. There are several websites that you can find to do this, but I particularly liked the one called SnowDays.

Advent Calendar

I have been wanting to put together a special calendar for Advent for several years now, but this is the first year that I’ve actually managed to get it all thought out and put together before December first rolled around.

I looked at various websites and blogs for ideas and finally settled on a Baby Sock Advent Calendar. There are several different blogs I ran across that posted pictures of finished Baby Sock Advent Calendars, but I believe the idea originally was made popular by Martha Stewart.

You can click here to view the steps for making Martha’s Baby Sock Advent Calendar.

Here is the Baby Sock Advent Calendar that I put together for our family this past Friday night.

Baby Sock Advent Calendar

I purchased most of the baby socks for our Advent calendar from Target. A few of the socks were unmatched strays that I had lying around the house.

I strung the baby socks using wood clothespins and a bulky weight red yarn, things I happened to have lying around the house. I had originally planned to use Christmas-themed ribbon to string the socks on, but the ribbon I wanted to use didn’t seem strong enough, so I switched to the yarn. The socks got kind of heavy, so I needed to buy big push pins from K-Mart to push into my mantle to help hold up the yarn and socks. Fortunately, there were already a bunch of holes in the mantle from a previous owner, so I didn’t have to feel bad about putting holes in the wood. 🙂

I also labeled the top of each clothespin with a number for each day until Christmas. I used a silver Sharpie. You can’t see the numbers too well from far away, but it is just fine close up. I didn’t want to use black because I thought it would be too dark in contrast to the lighter colored socks, and I happened to have the silver marker lying around. Besides, silver is more festive.

My plan is to put something into one of the socks each night before I go to bed, something for the kids to look forward to each morning until Christmas. I plan to use an assortment of things from notes suggesting a fun activity to do for the day to some kind of small, sweet treat. A lot will probably depend on what our schedule for the day is. We probably won’t have time for a complicated holiday art project on days that we have a lot of running to do.

Calendar close-up

Cookie Cutter Painting

Tobin was pretty restless last Friday and couldn’t stick with any one activity for more than five minutes. He sort of wanted to paint, but I knew he would not be able to focus on anything that took too terribly long. I came up with this little project when I ran across a couple of Halloween cookie cutters sitting in the utensil drawer. I can’t remember the last time we had even used these cookie cutters for anything. I didn’t even remember having these particular ones!

We kept it simple by sticking with black paint on orange construction paper and white paint on black construction paper.

Boo!

Boo!

I was really happy that I was able to get to Tobin to draw the facial features for his pumpkins and ghosts by himself. He doesn’t like to write or draw much, but he’s been taking more frequent baby steps toward it.

Dot the eyes

Dot the eyes

Happy Pumpkins

Happy Pumpkins

Steve sometimes acts like he’s too old to join us for art anymore, but he always gets sucked in eventually.

spooky pumpkin patch

spooky pumpkin patch

Steve showed some creativity when he decided the lid to our paintbrush tin would make an excellent fall moon.

full moon

full moon

For some reason all the ghost prints reminded Steve of the Pac-Man game, so he wanted to create some Pac-Man themed art. Perhaps someone has been playing too much Atari?

Pac-Man

Pac-Man

Tobin was very excited when our artwork was all dry, and I taped it up around the dining room. He loves when we decorate.

I somehow missed the cat cookie cutter when I was rummaging through the kitchen drawers Friday afternoon, but I discovered him over the weekend. Maybe black cookie cutter cats will appear in our next art project?