Monday, September 17, 2012

Food Swap Recap: Dulce de Leche Season

I did my second food swap in Troy NY with the From Scratch Club yesterday, and this time I brought some of the startlingly delicious boozy gingered white peach/blackberry jam I made a while back, a couple of young aloe plants, and a bunch of Dulce de Leche.

Dulce de Leche Easy Safe

Learning About Local Food And Farms

The swap was great fun, this time my oldest came along with me. It was a good one for him to go to, as a representative from the Northeastern Organic Farmer's Association of New York (NOFA-NY) spoke, and had a lot of good material on local farms and food. My son is in the middle of a Food Security and Food Justice project-based-learning unit at school, so getting some context from the farming and sustainability camp was worthwhile. Part of the project has a journaling component, where the kids are asked to think about the larger issues, and give their point of view, supporting evidence, and flesh out their ideas. I think the materials we got yesterday, the New York Locavore Challenge and the Organic Food Guide, along with New York Organic News may help illuminate some areas he had overlooked.

Food Swap Bounty

The Dulce de Leche was a hit, and it's super easy to make using canned sweetened condensed milk. I've worked out the issues, and come up with a bulletproof way to get it just right, without losing your mind. It's all done in the background, in a slow cooker, eschews the "boil it in the can" method and uses glass canning jars instead. This makes it safer, as well as easier to give as gifts, or to have stored for home use. Check out the details of how-to make Dulce de Leche at From Scratch Club.

Having such a popular item assured that I was able to snag all the really cool stuff that I so desperately wanted - top of the list were the Maple Bacon Marshmallows. Oh. Em. GEE!! Chocolate truffles, well, they're all gone and I ate most of them. Which is how it should be! The kids and hubby are plowing through the roasted corn salad/salsa, I expect a fight soon as the supply gets low. Fava Bean Spread, well, that was a midnight snack attack victim. But it's good for me, right?

 I also got a container of fermented dosa batter, so there's going to be some curry-making this week to complement these delicious rice/lentil flatbreads. And the hot pepper jelly is going to make a scary good glaze for some wings I'm whipping up tonight. OM NOM NOM! My little bottle of chocolate-raspberry liqueur is chilling in the fridge, that won't be there long either. The madagascar bourbon vanilla is waiting patiently in the cupboard for me to make some vanilla ice cream to really show it off.

It's Not Only About Food

On the non-food side, I scored some all-natural homemade patchouli-scented soap, which I'm going to grate and liquefy to add to my foaming soap dispensers. It's very nice, not too strong on the patchouli, just right. The quirkiest thing (and anyone who knows me, knows quirky will get me EVERY TIME) was a crocheted dress for bottles of dish liquid. Dish soap can do drag looks! RuPaul needs to know about this! Now to find some wigs, and heels, maybe a boa…

Dish drag!

Topping off the day, Christina of From Scratch Club invited me to move from guest contributor to full contributor on the blog there, so I'm really looking forward to sharing more recipes, how-to's and other general food-related posts on such a great forum. I love the community, and am very happy to be a part of it!

Friday, September 14, 2012

End Mealtime Battles - 5 Tips To Get Fussy Kids Eating Well: Food Friday

Mealtime battles can take a toll on even the most enthusiastic cook. I have one kid that started out as a fussy eater. He refused to eat most solid foods, and for a while he'd only eat cheese. Of course, to keep the curveballs coming, now he can't stand cheese. Though, mozzarella is okay. And cheese crackers, or Doritos. Logic does not work, even though he's a teenager now.

With my oldest kid getting traction as fussy eater, his little sister decided to pick up on it too. With both of them escalating their "I'm more particular than you" competition, and my own multiple food allergies, and a husband with a severe peanut allergy and sodium sensitivity, I felt like a short-order cook trying to make different specialties for everyone.

try it you'll like it

1. You Don't Have To Be a Short-Order Cook

I finally flipped out one day and put my foot down - solidly - and made the rule that whatever was cooked for dinner was dinner. I would no longer make four different menu options for every meal. If they did want something that wasn't served that night, they had to learn to make it themselves. This is my guiding principle, and the linchpin for any plan to deal with fussy kids. Or adults!

2. Set Up Your Kids, and Your Kitchen, For Success

It's one thing to tell a fussy eater they have to eat what's there, or cook something different themselves. It's quite another to make it a successful learning strategy as opposed to a parental hissyfit that solves nothing. It's important to have a rich environment and tools for fussy kids to be able to get involved on their own terms.

Shopping with a list is a very good habit for the whole family to get into as it saves time, money and waste. From Scratch Club has a great free downloadable food planning template that is useful for getting organized for a week's worth of meals and cooking projects. There are categories for setting up a menu for the week, but what I really find useful are the other sections like "Use It or Lose It", which reminds you to take stock of what's in the pantry already that you don't want to waste by letting it go bad. If you are a CSA member or get a weekly produce selection from a service like the one we use, Field Goods, there's a section to note what's coming in that week's bag so you can plan around it more efficiently. Then there are sections for What to Prep, Food Projects, and Food Preservation tasks that you may want to do during the week.

3. Kids Should Help Plan Meals

I think a large part of fussy eating habits are not so much a taste or texture issue with kids, but an autonomy issue. Even, or maybe especially, toddlers like to know they can have an effect on their environment. In our experience, that was a huge point, because a lot of the complaining at mealtime had more to do with my kids feeling put upon than actually not liking whatever was on the menu.

Having a weekly plan laid out clearly makes it very accessible for everyone in the household to see what's going on in the kitchen, and to be a meaningful part of it. The From Scratch Club Food Plan is broken down into different sections, no one has to feel like they must do the whole list by themselves. Even very young kids can be a part of the planning - if they have an idea, it's easy to add, and easy for everyone to see when it comes time to go shopping. By including children in planning, and shopping, you give them some control over what's happening at mealtime.

4. Kids Should Help Prepare Meals

If you do nothing else around food with your children, require them to pitch in and help prepare meals. Everyone, regardless of age, or inclination, can help wash veggies and fruits, stir up a salad dressing, or do simple things like pick which pasta shape will be used for that meal.

Each child will be different as far as how much they can safely do. For example, my daughter was particularly into making food (as a toddler she called cooking one of the superpowers she'd like, along with flying) and she was baking at age 3 with moderate supervision. She particularly liked measuring ingredients, though she's still not keen on cracking eggs (too slimy!)

Her older brother tended to go off on tangents at that age. Even through middle school, he wouldn't stay on task as much and needed heavy supervision to keep things like "let's see how far this faucet sprayer can REALLY send jets of water" from happening. With time and consistency on my part, he's getting into age-appropriate cooking now too. Graduating to using real knives and machines like the blender and food processor was a big draw for him, so I made the use of these more dangerous (and super exciting) tools conditional upon him demonstrating that he could be trustworthy and not wreck the kitchen BEFORE allowing access to them.

*ETA: Here are the green eggs, sans ham, that the boy cooked earlier this evening.  Electric neon food color gel for the win!

5. Enrich Kids' Food Environment With Classes and Media Resources

Cooking classes for kids are a great tool to use to get fussy eaters to try new foods. Sometimes, when Mom or Dad is the one telling you to try something, it automatically generates resistance, but if another fun adult, or group of kids, is doing it, suddenly it's more appealing. Make sure you aren't just picking a class on your own - give your child a range of options, and let them choose. This doesn't mean you can't be selective as to what options you offer, but you can make it a win-win instead of a zero sum game.

Another tool that worked really well in our house were the many cooking videos and television shows available. My son particularly liked ones with other kids doing the cooking, and a big favorite was Kids Cooking For Kids, hosted by twin boys Mike and Will. Suddenly, he wasn't just seeing other adults doing stuff, he was watching and learning from peers that he could relate to. For my daughter, the site Spatulata appealed to her, with lots of videos by sisters Isabella and Olivia. Both sites and shows are very accessible, and will help kids expand their horizons in a fun way.

If you have a DVR, it's worth setting up to record other cooking shows as well - some of our favorites are Jacques Pepin, Daisy Martinez, and America's Test Kitchen. You may be surprised at how much your kids will tune in to, and be inspired by, these shows that aren't specifically geared to children. They are also great inspiration for the adults in the house.

Food doesn't need to be a family battleground, and with a little strategy and some basic planning, you can successfully initiate a ceasefire at mealtime.

Relevant To Your Interests:

Kids Cook Too: Healthy Cooking Classes Have Long-Lasting Benefits - via Albany Kid Family Travel

Monday, September 10, 2012

Minecraft in the Classroom:

Here's a great one for teachers interested in using games in education - offers educational discounts of up to 50% off full price per Minecraft license. Even better, it's open to homeschoolers - you must be able to show membership in a homeschool group, or if you are in a state like mine (New York) that requires you to submit paperwork, you can use the district correspondence acknowledging your homeschool as your proof of status.

MinecraftEdu is also beta testing what looks to be a really cool set of modified tools for educators. From their site: "Our custom MinecraftEdu mod was created by teachers, for teachers. It works right on top of the original Minecraft game and is designed for classroom use. We've lowered the barriers so that ANY teacher can benefit from this amazing game." There will be both institutional and personal versions available.

The aim is to make it accessible for anyone who wants to use Minecraft in an educational setting to get up and running, affordably and easily, even if they aren't big Minecraft experts at the beginning. It's a great idea, and I'll be interested to check out the mod once it's released. In the meantime, that discount is legit - definitely worth it.

Check It Out!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cake Dreaming: Food Friday

We're ending a busy week, what with my oldest going to high school for the first time, and the homeschooling group my youngest and I attend having it's first day today, along with the first session where I'm facilitating a cool experiment testing for ESP. I'm fried, and jonesing for some sweets. Specifically for cake. I thought about making this one again:

This vegan gluten-free chocolate cake is definitely not a lie
But after seeing these cute cakes baked into ice cream cones and this vividly dyed rainbow cake in a jar, a regularly shaped cake just isn't interesting enough, no matter how chocolatey delicious it is.

There appears to be one problem with both the jar and cone approaches: they have an unfavorable cake-to-frosting ratio. An outrage! But - fixable. One approach that could work is to do a filling, perhaps a custard-type one, or pastry creme. Then again, blasting the center with a boatload of swiss buttercream would be pretty awesome too. Or maybe whipped ganache…

So, that's what I'm going to experiment with this weekend. I'll be using a gluten cake free mix from XO that I recently discovered and LOVE. For the cone cakes, there are gluten-free sugar cones instead of the wafer style made with wheat. For the jar versions, I'm going to try using tiny 4 oz. jars, and bake/steam them in the slow cooker to see if I can get the colors to stay super vivid instead of browning a lot. Hoping for a glass-shard-free version of those!

Results to come, I'll share the good, bad and ugly when done.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

First Day of High School

My son had his freshman orientation at Tech Valley High School today. He had a great day, despite having to get up much MUCH earlier than usual. In fact, he said that he had so much fun that it went by so fast and he was surprised when the day was over. Now we just have to get all the family, including my still-homeschooled daughter, to bed earlier to support this whole early-to-rise routine. So, we're just trying to get our bearings - it seems like the boy is the only one who's acclimating with no real signs of anxiety.

Relaxing attracts cats
Of course, it's just the first day, and the regular class schedule starts next week, so we'll see what develops.

My husband and I both are noticing they aren't strong on communication - for a school with "tech" in their name, they don't utilize it fully to keep parents in the loop. Infrequent Facebook page updates, a few emails sent late in the day with more questions raised than answered, and no indication of who to ask or where to find answers. I'm hoping this is just beginning-of-the-year disorganization, and that we'll have a better sense of what's what in the coming weeks. Onward and upward!

There's another issue with technology at Tech Valley, and that's the use of laptops. While every student gets issued a laptop to use for their high school career, they are heavily restricted in how they can use it. No taking it home, unless very special circumstances crop up. No downloads, games, or anything not related to schoolwork, and no use even during free time that isn't specifically school-related - not even to send personal emails. No HACKING either, which can encompass a lot of things - many of which I'd say were valuable skills.

 This attitude is a reflection of the NY State Education Department's "standards" more than it is a coherent and progressive policy invented by the school itself. I'm not sure what, exactly, these laptops are supposed to accomplish with such strictures, but hopefully the classroom experiences will make up for it.

In the meantime, we'll be getting him a smartphone, so he can have his own danged internet access without a whole bureaucracy breathing down his neck. I like to think I've raised him well enough at this point that I don't have to worry about him running a Nigerian scam, downloading and distributing porn, or hacking into the Defense Department, and I prefer he have unfettered access to technology. No need for him to internalize that it's something to be feared and locked down as much as possible, as that goes against our family values. Bigtime.

On a much better note,  the school announced that tomorrow they're having a special guest visiting the school - Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers and inventor of the Apple II! This immediately ratchets up the Tech Valley High School coolness factor to OVER 9000.

I've already instructed the boy to do what he can to get The Woz to autograph my copy of his autobiography. And pictures. Lots of pictures. Hopefully there's no dopey rule against that, because I might have to have a hissyfit!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Disorganized Desk Overhaul: Un-Filthed!

Last Monday, I started a project to Un-Filth my desk, inspired by the Martha Stewart home desk display at BlogHer12, and motivated by the UnF**k Your Habitat (UFYH) blog. Here's what I started with:

Messy Desk Long Shot

Messy Desk.JPG

The first day was the hardest, but I used the UFYH method of 20 minutes working and taking a 10 minute break to get myself in gear. Much paper was shredded, and much more was recycled. But even after one session, the results were so encouraging that it got progressively easier to continue. Piles of paper got sorted, tossed and filed as needed. Inboxes and storage areas were cleared out, and I found a bonus of $35 worth of unused gift cards that I'd forgotten about. They are now in my wallet, ready for action.

Though the desk area wasn't perfect on the first day, there was enough cleared to give me back a nice spot for my laptop, which made keeping up with writing and administrative tasks much less of a headache. Bill paying was done in no time too, since I started utilizing my accordion file. I'd set it up ages ago, with smart labels and everything, but had started piling things in haphazardly over the past few months. Gaining momentum to organize, and stay that way, was easy when I could tell myself that I only had to slog through for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time.

 As of now, this is the result of the past week's efforts:

UnFilthed Desk long shot

Unfilthed Desk closeup

Future plans include adding a magnetic bulletin board on the main wall, and I'm thinking about some task lighting mounted on the bottom of the lower shelf. But for now, it's a million times more pleasant, and functional. Major props to Team UFYH!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

NaBloPoMo Achievement Unlocked! Next Experiment To Come

In a fit of enthusiasm around BlogHer12, I signed up to take the NaBloPoMo challenge - to write every day for month of August on this blog. Since I also contribute to Albany Kid Family Travel, and From Scratch Club, this was a pretty daunting writing schedule. There were days when I came very close to bailing out, but I stuck with it. So that's a WIN.

It definitely was a good experience, and has helped me firm up my commitment to my own space here at ModSchooler, while inspiring even more ideas for my other gigs. I'm working out how I want to move forward - I definitely do not want to do a new post here 7 days per week. It's looking like a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule will be September's experiment.

Now for something completely different, here's a picture of my dog Reyna trying to steal tomatoes:

Rottie likes tomatoes