Saturday, April 23, 2022

Book Talk: Elementary Fiction--Fantasy and Fairy Tales

Elementary fiction is a rather ridiculously large category. As we discussed last week, "elementary" spans a big range of ages and reading levels. And "fiction" has so many sub-categories, you could drive yourself crazy trying to classify everything.

So I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to highlight a few more-specific categories of fiction first, and then have a more general list later.

I'm starting with fantasy because that is a HUGE segment of fiction now. I noticed this when I was looking at books for our elementary library. I was never a fan of the fantasy genre, but I really didn't remember them being such a big part of fiction for kids. A. does like fantasy, so I asked him about it, and he said he had noticed something similar. 

My theory is that fantasy is a "safe" genre for children's adventure stories now. The authors can send their characters on these highly entertaining adventures that are entertaining precisely because they are dangerous. But the danger is okay, because it's not real. It's not so upsetting if it's, say, a dragon getting killed rather than a beloved dog, because no kid has ever had a dragon.

I have one kid who is Very Into fantasy, so we tried a lot of books in this category. These are the ones that the other kid who is not so into fantasy read, too, which I take as an endorsement. Almost all of these are series, which is great if you have a voracious reader. 

Most of these are meant for the older end of the "elementary" spectrum. I would say mostly grades 3-6.

Full disclosure: I haven't personally read most of these, because, as I mentioned above, fantasy is not my favorite.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling--People have many, many opinions about Harry Potter. Criticisms may be valid, but so is the praise. It's just an incredibly imagined, carefully plotted series of books, with the whole arc of an epic adventure that makes for a satisfying story. It is also very satisfying for kids to read these giant books--and so many of them! Especially for what are generally termed "reluctant readers," finishing something like this series leads to a great feeling of pride, and might very well overcome that self-identification some kids have of being "not readers." 

Our set was given to me by my mother when the whole series was first released all together in hardcover. I think I was in college. They now live on top of the bookcases on my son's desk, very appropriately topped by these gargoyle bookends he received for Christmas.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins--By the same author as The Hunger Games series, but this series is geared toward a slightly younger audience. I have read these, and I thought they were fantastic books for kids. Very well-written and entertaining on the surface, but with some impressively sophisticated themes under that entertaining surface. I don't necessarily agree with all of the author's ideas, but within reason, I think it's healthy to sometimes read things that don't reinforce my own views. If you're into reading the same books as your kids and having discussions about those books, this would be a good series for that.

Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland--This is one of those never-ending series of what I suspect is kind of boilerplate characters and plots. They're pushed hard by Scholastic, which always makes me wary, but my older boys love them. I haven't read them, but have glanced through them and I would say the writing isn't great, but the story seems to be captivating. Despite the simplistic writing that seems more appropriate for younger readers, there is quite a lot of dragon violence in them. This doesn't bother my boys at all, but is something to keep in mind if you have sensitive readers. 

City of Orphans Trilogy by Catherine Jinks--I'm not sure how we ended up with this series, though I don't think I would have bought it myself if I had looked into it very closely. The story sounds frankly creepy. It's about children who work as Boglers in Victorian London. Boglers catch Bogles, which are monsters that, um, eat children. Yeah. However! The writing seems pretty good (again, haven't read them myself), and it's an original setting and period for a modern children's series. My older boys loved them and still re-read them, but be aware that the premise might be too much for some kids.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis--I had one child who LOVED these books, and one who didn't so much. They can be found in almost every library system--or even school library--so it's worth letting your kids read it and see what they think.

And in the fairy tale category . . .

The Castle Corona by Sharon Creech--My boys have re-read this book many times. They haven't much liked the other books by this author, but there's something about this one that they really loved. It's a fairy tale, but not so much in the vein of, say, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. There are multiple characters' viewpoints represented, and the story is not driven by romance, which pleases my romance-averse boys. 

Beauty by Robin McKinley--My older sister is a huge Robin McKinley fan, and although I was introduced to many authors by my sister whom I still read, I have never cared for Robin McKinley. Except for this book. It's a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, and I just love it. It's very well-written. The characterization and relationships between characters are great. If you have elementary kids at a higher reading level who want to read more complicated books, but still need content that isn't inappropriate for them, this would be a good candidate. (I will be unforgivably old-fashioned here and say that those kids will probably be girls. Not that boys won't read it, but more girls will probably love it. Because of that romance thing again. As a general rule, stories featuring romance are not so appealing to young boys.)

What would you add to this list of elementary fantasy and fairy tales?

Friday, April 22, 2022

Friday Food: Ram, Deer, and Tripe


Short version: Shrimp, tuna salad, spaghetti with pesto, raw cucumber, pureed calabaza

Long version: Last meatless Friday for Lent, better use the two pounds of shrimp I have in the freezer! They were already peeled and de-veined (ALLELUIA), so I just sauteed them in butter, then added a cube of frozen pesto at the end. Happy Cubby. And A.

I still have at least three meals' worth of pesto cubes in the freezer from last summer. That should last us until I harvest this year's basil. Very pleasing.


Short version: Dad's chile, bunless hamburgers, leftovers, watermelon radish

Long version: A few months ago, Rafael brought us a bunch of deer pieces that he had salvaged from someone he knew who shot a deer. Rafael has this tendency to bring us these pieces of random meat, just so they don't get thrown to dogs.

Our dogs ended up getting some of it, though, when I put it on top of the freezer until I could make room for it, and they got to it before I did. Whoops. 

They only got one of the bags, though. So I stuck the other bag in the freezer until I felt sufficiently motivated to deal with it.

That took awhile. I finally pulled that meat out of the freezer, though, and dealt with it.

The way I did that was dump it out of the garbage bag it was classily wrapped in directly into my pressure canner. Then I covered the meat--it was the ribs--with water. And then I picked out the hairs and grass that floated to the surface of the water.

You can see why it took me awhile to find the motivation to cook this.

After removing the visible detritus from the deer meat, I added a package of tripe to the pot. A. requested I use that instead of the other package of pigs' feet that was in the freezer. Good call, since the "use by" date on that tripe was, um, three years ago.

So the venison and tripe were pressure-cooked for an hour, at which point I pulled all the bones out of the pot, added a chopped onion, a ton of chopped green garlic, a can of tomato sauce, and about 1/3 cup of minced roasted green chiles. And some cumin and salt. And a bag of posole (hominy) that's probably been in the freezer as long as the tripe.

I cooked all that for about four hours, until the hominy was soft and it was WOAH TOO SPICY. For me, anyway. It was fine for A.

I had a bit of uncooked hamburger from when I made the meatloaf a few days prior and the center of the meat still hadn't thawed in time for mixing the meatloaf. I made four small hamburgers from that, and half the kids had those. The other half had leftover meatloaf. All had leftover spaghetti with pesto and the biggest watermelon radish ever. 

I had ordered a one-pound bag of watermelon radishes from Misfits Market, and what came was one radish that was one pound all by itself. It was so big, I thought it was a turnip at first. The kids loved it and ate the whole thing. I wish I could tell them I'll grow them, but radishes don't do well here. It gets too hot, too fast for them.


Short version: Easter lamb, sourdough pita bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, carrot cake (with pecan flour)

Long version: This was one of the boneless leg roasts from the ram we butchered a few months ago. We actually cut the boneless legs in half, because none of us particularly care for leftover lamb so smaller is better. I covered it in green garlic paste I had made the day before with a whole row of the dry-land green garlic in the pasture (meaning A. never waters those plants--they survived on the very little rain or snow we've gotten).

Green garlic paste is just pureed green garlic and olive oil, and it is the most vibrant green ever.

Spring in a food processor.

I made the sourdough pita using this recipe again, and have finally learned that the skillet they're cooked in needs to be wiped out with a damp cloth between each batch to get the loose flour out of the pan. In this way, I cooked pita on the stove without setting off the smoke alarm once. Yay me!

Yogurt sauce with lemon juice, more green garlic, salt, and pepper, plus cucumbers and tomatoes from Misfits Market and . . .

Happy Easter!

I decided last-minute to make carrot cake for dessert, mostly because everyone had more than enough chocolate in their Easter baskets. I used this recipe, but only made half for a one-layer cake. Good call, because most of the children weren't huge fans. They all liked the cake part--most remarked it tasted like zucchini bread--but not the frosting. Which is really weird, because I think cream cheese frosting is the best part of carrot cake. Although the cake part was good, too.

Anyway, I did have some very appropriate chocolate and hazelnut candies I had purchased for the Easter baskets but ended up using for cake decoration.

Probably could have arranged them more artistically, but whatever.

The recipe had the option of raisins (in a cake? no way) and chopped walnuts. I was going to forgo the nuts, but then Cubby decided to crack a bunch of the pecans we still have hanging around, and then use my very underused molcajete to grind them into a flour. So I used that in the cake.

It took him almost an hour to end up with half a cup of ground pecans. All hail pre-shelled nuts and the food processor.


Short version: Rooster and split pea curry, rice, carrot sticks, raw fennel

Long version: I still had three roosters in the freezer, so I took one out and simmered it to make stock and get the meat off. I used the curry powder left from dying eggs (I always drain the water off the spices and save the sludgy spices for cooking) to make curried split peas. It's just yellow split peas, sauteed onion, chicken stock, salt, curry powder, and sour cream at the end.

After pulling the chicken into pieces, I mixed it with some of the curried split peas. This was surprisingly popular with the children, all of whom ate two servings.


Short version: Polish sausage, leftovers

Long version: I had to work, so I decided it was a good night for quick-cooking sausage. I bought this sausage last month at a Walmart about a hundred miles away. It didn't have any weird ingredients and was from a family-owned business in San Antonio, Texas, so I had high hopes.

It was, indeed, very good sausage. I loved it. Everyone else did not. I guess they really just like Italian sausage. They mostly had leftover lamb, rice, and curried split peas. And there was actually enough sausage left for me to bring it for lunch at work the next day. Silver lining.


Short version: Scrambled eggs, leftovers, fruit shake, and a restaurant

Long version: I went to the Junior/Senior banquet for school, so I fed the kids after I got home from work and before I went to the banquet. Three had the scrambled eggs in corn tortillas with cheese and salsa, plus curried split peas. One had lamb, curried split peas, and a piece of bread and butter. All of them had the fruit shake.

I don't like the word "smoothie." It just sounds unappealing to me. I call them fruit shakes, because then it sounds more like milkshake. Right? Right. Anyway, it was 83 degrees and I had a ton of yogurt on hand, so a fruit shake seemed like a good idea. This one had two pears that were sweet but never got soft when they ripened, frozen peaches and blueberries, honey, yogurt, and milk. I think this is the first time I have ever served a fruit shake with dinner. The children were pleased.

A. had more of his never-ending venison and tripe chile. 

I had brisket, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a brownie with ice cream at the restaurant that hosted the banquet. Yum.


Short version: Bunless cheeseburgers, potato soup, sauteed zucchini, raw cabbage

Long version: It was in the eighties again, and therefore not exactly soup weather, but I had half a gallon of  stock left from cooking the rooster on Monday. So. Potatoes, carrots, bacon, onion, milk, sour cream, immersion blender . . . soup.

I put the sliced zucchini right into the pan with the cheeseburgers, along with some chopped green garlic, and it was very good. The children did not agree. They had the raw cabbage.

Okay, your turn! What'd you eat this week?

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

T.T.: Be a Biscuit Rebel

Quick: What shape are biscuits?

You all said round, didn't you? Of course you did! Of course biscuits are round! Everyone knows that!

But why?

(That sound you hear is my brain screeching to a halt in surprise.)

I've been making biscuits for twenty years now, and I just last week had this revelation that they do not have to be cut into rounds. This was a game-changer for me, because one of the most tedious parts of biscuit-making for me is cutting out the biscuits. It takes awhile, and I always have to gather up the un-cut parts and do it at least two more times. It's annoying.

But when I realized that I can just press the dough (I also hate using my rolling pin if I don't have to, and biscuit dough is thick enough I just use my hands) into a sort of rectangular shape and use the knife I cut the butter with to zip up and down and side to side to make rectangular biscuits . . 

Well, they're more rectangular-ish on the sides, there.

Biscuits on the pan literally two minutes after dumping the dough out of the bowl.

I don't have a picture of the baked biscuits because they were eaten too fast when they came out of the oven. Because no one cared that they weren't round. No one even noticed.

So go ahead and ditch the biscuit cutter if you want and make any shape that works for you. Be a rebel. It feels good.

P.S. Bonus biscuit tip: If you're feeding a bunch of kids, make lots of smaller biscuits, rather than just a dozen or so big biscuits, so they can go back for seconds and thirds. They always want seconds and thirds of biscuits, and this way you don't have to make a double batch. (Although I think my days of skating by with a single batch are coming to an end. These boys are definitely getting into the eating phase of life. Heaven help me.)

* Second only to the cutting in of the butter, which is also tedious.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Snapshots: Happy Easter!

'Tis the season to post plants, fa la la la la, la la la la . . . 

Daffodils! And newly planted boxwoods protected with very unaesthetic milk jugs that honestly kind of ruin the photo. Boo.

The first asparagus! I ate this one raw standing right in the garden, as is proper for the first asparagus.

The first potato! I did not eat this, because potato leaves are toxic.

The cabbages have been freed from their milk-jug greenhouses and are now surrounded by protective rock circles.

And last, I leave you with an Easter lamb.

He extends the greetings of the season to all of you.

There you have it! My (Easter) life, snapshotted.