I'm Tonia and this is my family. There's Hubs, my wonderful partner; Bug, my darling daughter; and Boo, my charming son. We are the Collins clan. We are a homeschooling family who try our best to live out God's will for our lives every day. There are lots of stumbles along the way, but we love each other and this little life we're carving out for ourselves. Recently we found ourselves called to make some big changes in our lives so we're packing up the McMansion and moving out to a little farm in need of a lot of TLC. We have tons to learn and tons to do and we invite you to share the journey as we turn our not-so-new heap into a home.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Squirrel 'n Dumplings

Over Thanksgiving my dad and brothers spent some time hunting squirrel and I was the lucky recipient of the bounty. As far as I'm concerned, there is only one thing to do with such a gift- make dumplings. It's not hard, I promise, although it is something you cannot rush. Want to know how? Read on friend. Totally freaked out by tiny animal carcasses? Run away now.....don't say I didn't warn you.....


You are starting, of course, with a skinned and cleaned squirrel. I use two for one pot of dumplings. If you have frozen them after cleaning, don't worry about thawing them out before cooking, but do give them a good rinse under cool water before throwing them in the pot. Be on the lookout for fur and other bits that you do not want in your dumplings- trust me, it's worth the time to get them good and clean.

Put the squirrel in a stockpot along with some onion, carrots, and celery and cover it all with cold water. Turn the heat onto low/medium and cover the pot. The goal is to bring the contents to a simmer slowly and then allow it to simmer very lightly for at least a few hours. You do not want a rolling boil, you want to cook the squirrel slowly and gently so you end up with tender, yummy meat.

After an hour or two you are going to see this: scummy stuff floating on the top of your stock. You do not want this in your final product since it likely contains random bits of fur and other things you might have missed when cleaning up the critters. Yes, this is gross. No, it does not mean you should abandon your efforts- just skim this stuff off and throw it away, everything underneath is good and tasty. For real.

After a couple more hours of simmering you will end up with two things: tender, cooked squirrel and broth. The veggies you put in initially have given up all of their goodness and can now be tossed. Take the squirrel and place it on a plate to cool so you can take the meat off of the bone. Either strain the broth through a fine strainer or place it in a bowl for awhile and let the solids sink to the bottom- once that happens you can skim the top one more time and then pour the broth back into your stockpot, stopping before the solids start to join the party.

Take the meat off of the bone and put it, with the broth, back into the stock pot. Add chicken or veggie broth to get your liquid to your desired amount- remember you will need a good amount of broth to be able to cook your dumplings in, but you don't want so much that you mess up the dumpling to meat to broth ratio. You should probably have about 4-6 cups of liquid. Bring the liquid back up to boiling while you make your dumplings.

You have several choices for your dumplings. I made my own, using the whole wheat noodle recipe found here , but you can also use the frozen egg noodles you can buy at any grocery store, or you can use bits of biscuits (either homemade or canned) and drop them into the boiling broth. Whichever method you choose in about 20-30 minutes you will have lovely dumplings. Make a slurry of 2-3 tablespoons of corn starch and 2-3 tablespoons of water and pour it into your broth to thicken things up just a bit and season as desired- some salt and pepper will make it perfect.

Serve on top of mashed potatoes because that is the only acceptable way to eat dumplings. If you are super duper lucky, you will get to watch your children pick at their dinner suspiciously and try to hide bits of squirrel under potatoes, insisting that they did eat it. If you aren't so lucky, everyone will eat happily and you will be a homesteading hero. Go you.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas at the Heap

Talk about some serious adjustment.....Christmas has brought up a lot of things that will forever be different for us. I'm not talking about bad stuff or anything, just different. And different can be hard when you're 7 or 10....or 36.....

At the McMansion we had two trees. I know, I know, a bit ridiculous, but there it is. One tree was upstairs and was color coordinated and had a lovely Christmas train under it, the other was downstairs and sported all of our family ornaments along with all of the gifts. It goes without saying that we now only have one tree- and that tree is pretty small. We had to move furniture around a bit in order to even put it up at all.

We have a tradition of getting the kids a new ornament each year- one that speaks to what the past year was all about for them.

There are the ornaments that remind us of their first Christmas.
And the ornaments that tell of a particular year's obsession- like trains....
Or the ornaments that signify a big event in their lives- like the year they took their first plane rides...

...or the year they got glasses.

For the first time, not all the ornaments could go on the tree- there just isn't room. That means, of course, that every ornament really means something. It also means that a lot of special ornaments are still packed away- like all of the ornaments the Hubs gave me on our first few Christmases together.
There are no other Christmas decorations up, which is hard for me, though no one else cares a bit. I love decorating and I love the cozy feeling of Christmas literally surrounding you. I am missing the fireplace most of all.

Last year we started a new tradition- one that means a lot to me. We have an advent calendar and each day, instead of candy or toys, I place something for us to do. Sometimes it's just fun Christmas stuff, like watching a movie together, but a lot of times it is a random act of kindness, like making cookies for the neighbors or hiding money in the toys at Wal-Mart. This really changed the holiday season for me. I love it and I love watching my kids learn to love on other people. This year, I put the activities in as usual, but we've only done a handful of them because I hadn't anticipated how difficult losing my income would be. So many of my ideas involve money- either because we have to buy ingredients or such things or because it involves us being out and about. There isn't money for any of those things right now. This has been hard for me- the whole point of moving out here was to be able to bless others more freely and to not be able to do that is heartbreaking. But, I know this is just a season and once we have the Heap made into a home we won't be struggling like this anymore. I also know there are tons of ways to bless others that don't involve money and we will need to learn to focus on that a bit more. For now, I'm embracing the different- we've had some lovely time at home, with no pressure and no where to go and that's been very, very good.

Some things haven't changed at all. The kids still decorated their gingerbread house, as they do every year. They'll smash it on New Year's Eve and eat as much of it as they want (which is usually only a couple of nibbles before declaring it "gross"). Christmas music is still on much of the day, Christmas movies on nearly every night. The number of presents has decreased, but they are still there and the kids are still dying to open them. We are still warm and well fed and looking forward to time with family over the holiday. There are adjustments to be sure, but we're still happy and healthy and there just isn't much more you can ask for.
And, yes, the kids still got their yearly ornaments- a chicken for Bug and a tractor for Boo. Some day it will be fun to reminisce about the year we moved to the Heap.

Merry Christmas from our family to yours!



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Turning Holiday Leftovers into Freezer Meals

What do you do when you are given a ton of ham and turkey leftovers after Thanksgiving? Well, first you celebrate a little and then you sit down and plan out freezer meals to make with all that meat. WooHoo!

First off I looked for the recipes I wanted to make. I love having meals in the freezer that can go straight into the crockpot so I started there and then moved on to freezer meals that would be easy to thaw and make. I finally settled on these:

Creamy Chicken (Turkey) Taquitos  (I made two bags of this)

Ham and Noodle Casserole ( I made two casseroles of this)

Loaded Baked Potato Soup 

Homestyle Chicken (Turkey) and Rice Soup

I started by getting bags and casserole dishes ready. I labeled each bag with the recipe title and also with any cooking directions that needed to be noted. I did this because I know it is very likely I will eventually lose the recipe print outs and this way I'll still know what I need to do to finish the meal.

Then it was on to prepping the veggies I'd need and cutting the shredded turkey into smaller pieces. I purposely chose recipes that didn't require a lot of prep to put together so that this part would be easy. After all the prepping was done for the turkey recipes I just took one bag at a time and put everything together in it.

I carefully sealed up the bags so that they could lay flat in the freezer and so that there was a minimal amount of air in the bags.

Once I had the turkey meals done, I followed the same process for the ham meals. I put the casserole meals into aluminum, disposable pans simply because it was easiest. After about an hour of work, I had 6 meals ready to go in the freezer, plus an extra bag of ham to be used in beans and a bag of turkey bones to make broth out of.

I'm just going to be honest here- this sight makes me SO proud. I love knowing that I have meals ready for a long day or to bless another momma with a moment's notice. I'm also incredibly grateful for being blessed with all this meat to make meals from. Our family is going to eat well!



Monday, December 9, 2013

The Making of "Fort Knox"- Part 2

Not only do chickens need a safe and secure coop to sleep and lay eggs in, they also need a safe yard to roam around in.  We built our run extra large to ensure our girls would have plenty of room, even if we had to leave them caged at times. Out of the two months we worked on the chicken housing project, about 6 weeks of it were spent on this part of Fort Knox.

The area we started with was the area to the left of the coop when you are facing the building. The 30ft x 10ft area was, luckily, already without trees. It runs along the south wall of the garage and was as packed with trash as the coop was. As we worked we found all sorts of interesting things, including lots of car parts. We are guessing the area was a car junkyard at some point.

The first task to tackle was measuring out the run and placing posts where they were needed. The Hubs and a friend spent the better part of a Saturday working this out and then digging the post holes. I was reminded that I have a wonderful man when he still said, "I love you," at the end of that day- it was incredibly hard work.

Next up was setting the posts with concrete and digging the 1 foot deep trench between all of the posts. As painful as this was to do, I'm so happy now that we did. We have chicken wire a foot below the ground- nothing is digging into this thing!

Then it was time to put up the cross pieces- these gave the run more stability and gave us a place to attach the fencing.

The fencing on the lower half was layered, one panel attached to the outside of the frame and then another panel attached to the inside of the frame.  In between the two panels we placed rocks. We used the smaller, 1 inch, chicken wire on the bottom of the run.

Larger 2 inch chicken wire went on the top half and on the roof. Then, the Hubs built a lovely door and the run was finally finished. It was crazy hard work, but oh so worth it. When I go out to check on my girls I know they are safe and sound in Fort Knox.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Life Right Now

We are barely one step ahead of complete chaos.

When I tell the children to clean up what I'm really saying is, "move that pile to a less offensive pile somewhere else." Nothing has a proper place to be put away, but everything has it's designated pile. I've managed to create a sort of organized mayhem, but my system is only clear to me so I'm always on the brink of having to be permanently institutionalized.

There is a constant battle raging between trying to pretend that this is home and actually making it into a home. As I pick up in one area another area now has sawdust covering everything or a couple of doors leaning up against the wall, waiting for the day they can be re-hung. I know I want the construction to continue, but the mess is really hard for me sometimes.

I've learned just how little of my previous kitchen is even necessary. I have about a one foot square area of counter space to work on now and somehow I manage to get decent meals out. Turns out a lot can be made with just a few mixing bowls, some knives, and a little juggling.

School carries on, chaos or not. The kids are doing great working at the dining room table and we're all happy to be able to have a routine, something that just never would come together with the daycare.

The kittens are getting bigger all the time. They are fully socialized now and love to be snuggled and played with. They aren't quite ready to put outside, but they will be soon. They both seem to be shaping up to be good hunters.

Jess is doing great. She has warmed up to everyone in the family now and absolutely loves to be played with. She is able to stay out of the run during the day now, but still goes in at night. We're working on getting her used to the chickens now. She is fascinated by them, but needs to be taught to protect them and not to touch them. Hopefully, we can get it all worked out because I really love her and do not want to get rid of her.

We are all still in the same bedroom. The slumber party was over about 3 1/2 months ago and now we merely tolerate the arrangement. Currently, my greatest dream is that by January the kids will have a bedroom of their own. I literally daydream about the day I can put away their things in proper drawers and tell them to make their beds. For real.

Finding anything in the garage is like going on a scavenger hunt with a blindfold on. Truly, it's a nightmare. Today I spent at least an hour hunting down my sewing machine, which of course, by the time I found, I no longer had time to use and started making dinner instead. I can't help but wonder how much of the stuff in there we're ever even going to miss. Will we even unpack these boxes or just load them up and take them straight to Goodwill?

And at the end of the day, the view is still amazing and I'm still thrilled to be here, barely held back chaos and all. This craziness is just life right now....and a very good life it is.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Making of "Fort Knox"- Part 1

When we first started talking about moving I had one request: chickens. I have been smitten with the idea of them for a long time, ever since I started gardening really. Any chance I can provide something for my family without buying it, I'm all over it and chickens seemed like a no brainer- healthy products raised right where I can see them. Sign me up. Thankfully the Hubs was sold too and soon we were both reading books about chickens and planning the "perfect" coop.

Once we arrived at the Heap and knew we had outbuildings in place our planning shifted a bit. We decided to turn an old tin building into the coop and add a large run to it. We figured we could let the girls free range a lot of the time, but when that wasn't a possibility we wanted the run to be very large so that they would still be happy and have plenty of room. We quickly learned, though, that the dreaming and scheming were the easy part- getting it done was a whole lot harder.

This is the building we started with. The middle section is a wooden building- an outhouse in its past life, though not sitting over the expected potty pit. The tin building is built around it, using the outhouse as a portion of the support. The rooms you see on the right and left are actually connected in the back section. As you can see, the building was in rough shape. Dirt had built up in front of all three doors and had to be dug out in order to open the doors. Once the doors were opened we discovered that they were all in bad shape. The wooden frames were rotten and not holding the doors up properly. Worse than the building's condition was the trash in and around it.

I simply cannot describe this situation adequately. There was trash EVERYWHERE. Some of it was partially composted, lots of it was materials that aren't going to compost any time soon. It was literally a foot or more deep. Getting it out required raking and shoveling it into trash bags. The kids spent hours picking up little pieces of glass and metal. It was disgusting.

Once it was cleaned out, it was time to make it into a secure home for the girls. This was no small task. Critters will dig under the building in order to get in so along the back wall a 1 foot deep trench had to be dug, then chicken wire had to be attached and buried in that trench.


The Hubs then built the nesting boxes. These went behind the outhouse building to build a wall in between the two rooms. The back of the nesting boxes open up so that we can get eggs without going into the coop. The door is equipped with a fastener that requires two movements to open, this should keep even the smartest critters from being able to open it.

The area behind the new wall has a metal screen on the floor so that nothing can dig under if they should get into the building. This newly created room will be my gardening shed.

This is the view of the new wall from inside the coop. There are 4 nesting boxes, which is enough for 20 birds or so. We can build more if we decide to have more chickens at some point. Chicken wire extends from the top of the nesting boxes to the ceiling.

The Hubs repaired the door and laid a concrete threshold that will prevent anything from digging in from that direction.

By this time, I was dancing around like a giddy schoolgirl. Amazingly, the old tin building was actually looking like a chicken coop!

Finishing touches included a door and ramp out of the coop, into the run and a place for the girls to roost. Wood shavings on the floor and in the nesting boxes made the coop officially habitable.  The coop part of Fort Knox was finished!