Monday, August 31, 2015

Restaurants and Littles

As a mom of littles, going out can be complicated.  One difficulty is using the restroom.  If any of us needs to go or the baby needs a fresh diaper, we can't just do it. Everyone has to go with, meaning that our stuff has to go with too.

At a restaurant of any type, we run the risk of the staff thinking we have left and clearing the table.  My solution has been to leave something at the table.  It has to be inexpensive so that I don't run the risk of theft, but it also has to be something the waitstaff are unlikely to think was forgotten.  I can't leave the diaper bag, phone, a toy, keys, or a jacket.

Instead, I make a point of carrying a paperback or a needlework project.  Nothing big, fancy, or expensive,  but definitely nothing I would accidentally leave behind.  When we all need to leave the table temporarily, I put that item on the table to make it clear that I'm coming back.

This post has been linked to WFMW, MYHSMBusy Monday, HHH, and The Mommy Club.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Algebra: You Probably Did Use It Today

I frequently see memes on Facebook asserting that the poster hasn't used algebra since high school.  Occasionally, I have read articles by homeschooling parents questioning the value of teaching (or otherwise having their students learn) algebra, since no one uses it in "real life".  But I would assert that most people use algebra every day.  Even those who don't remember the quadratic formula.

I am the child of a scientist and a math geek.  While math is certainly not my academic strong suit, my parents did manage to impress upon me that mathematics is a language, just as much as English or Mandarin or Latin or Arabic.  The funny thing about languages is that they are more than the sum of their parts.  They do more than communicate ideas.  They communicate ideas from a world view that aligns with the language's culture(s) of origin, reinforcing certain assumptions and ways of thinking in the process.

Mathematics is no exception.  It requires certain thinking skills to work: certain ideas about order, a reliance on logic and critical thinking, and a capacity for abstraction.  These skills and ideas are invaluable in everyday life.  Algebra, is an excellent example.

In algebra, one knows the presence of a problem and most of its details.  One might even know the number to the right of the equality symbol, but some bits of information are missing.  The challenge is to think in a critical, logical, and orderly way to find the missing information (solve for x). Most people solve similar, albeit more concrete problems, on a daily basis.

How many mothers, when needing to rush out the door, find themselves helping at least one child find his shoes?  The problem is getting everyone to the car in a timely manner, and the answer is everyone being in the car.  The missing information (variable) are the shoes and their location.  Mom must think algebraically to help the disorganized children.

Later that night, Mom makes dinner and discovers that the soup doesn't taste quite right.  What is wrong with it?  What addition will make it taste better?  Again, algebraic thinking saves the day, and in this case the solution requires a great deal of abstraction to discover.

If a car needs gas, the driver must balance price with his time constraints, destination,  present location, and severity of need in deciding where to purchase fuel.  In this case, he must not only take each element into consideration, but decide how much weight to give each.

Algebra certainly isn't the only way to develop the skills necessary for complex problem-solving, but the capacity to solve such problems is most developed when it is carefully trained. Algebra is one effective angle of attack, and it works much better than haphazardly learning the "hard way" from the outset.

Did you solve for x today? Probably not.  But you almost certainly used the same skills to get through your day.

This post has been linked to WFMWMYHSM, Busy Monday, HHH, and The Mommy Club.

Cake Making Tip

I made a cake with the boys recently, but it came out of the oven late enough that frosting it before dinner really wasn't an option.  And from now on, I will serve frosting on the side.

When dinner ended, I dished up slices of cake and used a table knife to spread frosting on top.  It worked out beautifully for us for three reasons:
  1. The Eel didn't want frosting on his slice.
  2. When I opened the fridge the next day, no little fingers had poked into the rest of the cake.
  3. The temperatures of the cake and frosting were irrelevant. 
I can also see it being fun to have multiple frosting options for the same cake.

This post has been linked to MYHSM, Busy Monday, WFMW, and The Mommy Club.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: The History of Counting

For our homeschool, math isn't just a matter of learning to manipulate numbers.  In the interest of fostering curiosity and understanding, I want to approach math as a complete discipline, just as English is taught as more than just spelling and grammar, and science is more than sets of abstract laws and lists. 

Math includes the skills of arithmetic,  but it also includes many concepts that cannot be communicated in a worksheet.  It has a history, too, in which new techniques were developed or adopted to meet changing needs.  Manipulating numbers acquires greater meaning when we understand the whys and hows of what we practice.

Based on that notion, it is my intent to read to the Bat and Eel about the history of mathematics, it's notable figures, interesting ideas, and fun games and tricks they can play with numbers.  To that end, I started by reading to them The History of Counting, by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. We read it on math day (Thursday), two or three pages at a time,  over several weeks.  The book, intended as a third to fifth grade text, covers concrete counting, body counting, abstract counting (and its development), the importance of zero as an invention, and the transition from using letters as numbers to the Arabic numerals.

As a read-aloud book, I am very pleased with its contents and layout.  The Bat (6) was able to follow most of the ideas discussed, even though he is only learning subtraction right now.  There were a couple mentions of multiplication and division, but those are simple enough to explain in a general way to someone who understands addition. 

This last week was our final reading from the book, in which I went through the glossary with the Bat.  My only complaint about the book is that some of the glossary definitions were a bit odd or incomplete. Nonetheless,  I found The History of Counting to be a good supplement to the boys' weekly worksheets, and I look forward to our reading it again next year.

This post has been linked to WFMW,  The Mommy ClubHHHBusy Monday, and MYHSM

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Making the Most of a Whole Tilapia

As meats go, fish is often seen as a luxury good when purchased fresh, but as with most things, cost-effectiveness is more a function of use than anything else.

When I see a good price on whole fish, I usually try to buy a few to freeze.  Usually, the fish is tilapia, but sometimes I find good deals on other species, often whole trout.  The best prices are generally found at Mexican and Asian markets. Buying fish whole, rather than fileted can be intimidating, but it's the best way to assure freshness and that you are buying what is advertized.  Always look for clear, not clouded, eyes and fish that smell like salt water or the lake.  Buying whole fish is also good because it allows you to see what species you are buying.  There have been problems with fishermen, especially in South America, selling fish of less desirable species as being from popular species.  Buying prepackaged filets or processed fish (fish sticks, etc.) makes you a vulnerable consumer.

The problem with fish like trout and tilapia is that they are usually pretty small.  Still, one medium sized tilapia or two to three trout can provide animal protein for multiple meals for a family of four or five.

First, clean and bake the fish.  It doesn't take long.  Just rinse it off, brush it with oil, wrap it in foil, and bake at 350 for 15-25 minutes.  When the internal temperature reaches 135, it's done.

For most, this is the point at which you would serve the fish.  That's a lovely idea for a large fish, or cooking for two, but that's not what I'm talking about.  Cooking the fish is just the starting point in this case.

Let the fish cool, remove the skins, and cut out the filets.  Double check to make sure the filets are free of bones, and then flake them. These filets are for making

Fish Croquettes 

Add to your flaked fish

An egg, or an equivalent quantity of plain yogurt or sour cream

A little salt, black pepper, and paprika

a teaspoon or so of prepared mustard
chopped, fresh parsley
minced garlic
perhaps a grated carrot or a minced celery stalk or a finely chopped, sautéed shallot
enough corn meal or masa harina to hold the mixture together, but not so much that it crumbles when you shape the patties

  • Shape the fish mixture into patties, about two tablespoons at a time.
  • Fry them in hot oil, turning them once, and pulling them out of the pan when they are browned on each side. 
  • Drain the oil off the cooked patties on a clean cloth or paper towel.
Serve the fish croquettes with salad or steamed vegetables and baked potatoes or garlic bread.  Two croquettes are sufficient for an adult, and one for a child.

Now, you still have the carcass of the fish.  Cover it, head and all, with water, and boil along with a bay leaf and a couple cloves of garlic.  When the jaw separates easily from the head, the fish broth is done.  Strain the broth, and let the carcass cool.  Once cool, pick any bits of meat off the bones, and put the meat in the broth.  Don't forget that there's plenty of meat on the skull.  Oh, and that skull is a great biology lesson for the kids!

Use the broth and meat to make a big batch of 

Fish Chowder 

1 onion, chopped
2 or 3 chopped mushrooms
3 small potatoes or 1 large one, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped (including the leaves)
1 large carrot, grated
1 c corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
broth and leftover meat from one tilapia carcass
Approximately 1 c milk
Approximately 1/4 c oatmeal
chili flakes, salt, and pepper to taste
2 tsp prepared mustard

  • Saute the onion and mushrooms in a little oil or butter in a pot until the onions are translucent. 
  • Add the potatoes, carrot, celery, corn, and broth to the pot.  Simmer until the potatoes are soft.
  • Stir in the remaining ingredients, adjusting the amount of milk and oatmeal to achieve the desired texture and thickness.
That should serve an average family two or three dinners.  Serve the chowder with a side salad. Make lemon juice available for the chowder at the table.

And there you have it.  Three or four family dinners from one tilapia.

This post has been linked to The Mommy ClubWFMW, Busy Monday,  and MYHSM

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Making the Most of Red Meat

A friend of ours is a slaughterer, and we were able, a few months ago, to fill part of our freezer with mutton at a very reasonable price.  A couple weeks ago, I cooked the rack, and some aspect of that meal carried us through over a week's worth of dinners.  The same thing could be done with beef ribs or other cuts of meat suitable for braising.

Here's how you make one meal's worth of meat last nine dinners.
  • Dinner 1: Buy enough lamb shanks or ribs to serve everyone for one meal plus one more serving. Braise them. I used this simple crockpot recipe (using a bullion cube instead of the onion soup mix), and it was both inexpensive and delicious.  I served the shanks with potatoes and green beans. Skim and save the fat that congeals on the top, and save the braising liquid. When you serve the meat, insist on portion control with it, and reserve the extra serving of meat that you bought.
  • Dinners 2-4:  Using the braising liquid, cook at least two cups of dried beans, along with a chopped onion or two and a bell pepper.  I used equal portions of pinto and black beans.  Black eyed peas would also have been a good option.  You will probably need to add more water to have enough liquid.  I served rice and beans for dinner twice (salad on the side).  For a third meal, the beans were running a bit short, so I added some turkey hotdogs to the beans.  Again, I reserved the bean liquor.
  • Dinners 5 and 6: Cook a large batch of rice in the bean liquor.  You might need to add more water to make enough liquid.  Add to the rice before you start cooking it onions, bell pepper, a couple of chopped hotdogs or sausages, and any leftover beans.  Serve as a main course with grated cheese and maybe some green onions or cilantro.  Add a vegetable side dish, and call it dinner.
  • Dinner 7:  Use the saved fat to make a double batch of gravy.  Use half the gravy for a dinner of biscuits or rice and gravy served with vegetables. If making biscuits, make a double batch of dough, and freeze half.
  • Dinners 8 and 9: Use the remaining gravy and reserved meat (deboned and chopped small) to makes shepherd's pie or pot pie.  If you served the meat with potatoes in the initial meal, leftover potatoes can be used to make the top of a shepherd's pie.  In addition to meat and gravy, I filled my 9x13 pie with onions, celery, carrots, and mushrooms all sautéed together; some frozen peas and corn; and a leftover half can of green beans.  I also topped it with biscuits (this is where you can use the other half of that biscuit dough) instead of potatoes or pie crust. I served the pot pie with a salad on the side.
Cooking with more than one meal or type of meal in mind is something I term "strategic cooking", and it is an invaluable tool for keeping grocery expenses under control.

This post has been linked to WFMW,  Busy Monday and MYHSM

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Copying Tips for Homeschoolers

Like many homeschool moms, I use my printer a lot.  Not only do I print out materials, but I make a lot of copies.  I like the materials I use, and I want to keep the originals clean to use with multiple children. That means we use ink cartridges pretty quickly, and I try to make them last as long as possible.

My particular printer uses cartridges that cost $20 per package, and each package contains one color and one black cartridge.  Unfortunately, refurbished cartridges are not available for it.  Since most things I copy or print use primarily black ink, I end up using more black ink than color.  In order to use my cartridges more evenly, I make a point of printing in color whenever possible.  While that means I use up color ink more quickly, but it stretches out the black ink, and that means I buy cartridges less frequently.  It also means that I am less likely to wind up with a pile of unused color cartridges.   And if I use up a black cartridge,  printing in color allows my printer to default to blue.

Another way I save on black ink (when I remember to do it) is to put a piece of blank, white paper behind anything I copy that is smaller than 8.5X11.   This way the edge around my copies will come out white and not grey.

This post has been linked to WFMW,  HHH,  Busy Monday, and MYHSM