2014 resolutions – how did I do?

We’re finally to the last day of 2014.

Before I can finalize my goals for 2015, I need to check back in on 2014 and see how it went. You can see the other goal posts for 2014 here: January, AprilJuly and October.

Here’s how I did!


Read 75 books.

Knocked this one out of the park. As of right now, I’ve completed 99 books. There is a high likelihood that if I get to take a lunch break today, I’ll hit 100. I didn’t anticipate blowing this goal so far out of the water, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Reading is like plugging myself into the Joanna charger. I only feel like me when I have a chance to read every day, even if it’s only 5 pages. I read some truly great books this year, which is a post unto itself. I didn’t finish the two sub-goals of finishing Atwood’s canon and reading a Russian doorstop, so I am considering whether or not those are still goals for 2015.

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I wrote one in April on the DARK Act, and I wrote again in the fall regarding funding for food assistance. But I didn’t hit the third letter. Fall was a very busy time for us – the craziest of the year – so my ability to read up on the current food issues was somewhat limited.

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Run a marathon.

Done. Boom.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
This has been pretty close, so I’m calling it a win. I am trying to turn to water when I want coffee in the afternoon at my desk and I’ve done that more often than I’ve given in, so that’s a win too.


Start my home brew kombucha.
Finished this one earlier in the year, though I need to get a better restart going. I tried to do one after the marathon was over, but the room wasn’t warm enough to inhibit mold growth. So I think I’ve found a warmer spot and will try again soon. This will be ongoing.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Did this. And also sewed this Star Trek Quiet Bookt-shirt blanket resize

Can one new thing.
We made one new variant of jam this year, but mostly we canned the usual.
Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I didn’t do as well with this one as I would have liked, but most of my flowers stayed alive all season, so that’s huge progress for me.
Make the chickens some treats.
Done. With two days to spare!

Organize the basement.
I did this. And then it creeped back to cluttered, and now it’s a mess again. I think when we put away the Christmas decorations, I’ll take that opportunity to work on it again. We’ve given over the larger room to Mark’s work space, so I need to make the best use possible of the remaining space. Definitely an ongoing challenge.


canning and preserving: tomatoes and salsa

As you might have read, we’re sort of inundated with tomatoes right now. A friend called it an infestation, and she’s not far off.

We planted several different varieties from seedlings we got through Penn’s Corner’s Online Farm Stand. San Marzanos and Romas, plus a few heirlooms like Black Cherry, Garden Peach and Cherokee Purple. 

We’ve never had a really good tomato harvest since we started gardening. Last year late blight got pretty much all of them, so when we wanted to can tomatoes or salsa, we had to buy a case of ripe ones from our CSA. 

This year, the infestation.

The photo above represents a small fraction of what was LEFT after our fourth picking, and a day of canning whole, quartered tomatoes and salsa. So far, we have frozen close to 20 pounds, and made quarts of fresh sauce to freeze. We’e also given away at least 15 pounds, when we had ripe ones that needed a home before they ended up in the compost. And now I write this at a large table full of more tomatoes.

This is what we picked yesterday.

I’ll talk about the giant bag of corn and the big bag of green beans hiding behind it later this week. But ALL those tomatoes came inside and now live on my dining room table.

I didn’t take a ton of photos of the canning process, because I’ve already done larger, more in-depth posts on whole tomato canning and salsa canning. Plus, it was a long day in a hot kitchen on tired legs (after a bad half marathon on Saturday – don’t even get me started, ugh).

And, I was feeling frustrated.

I always like to talk here about how there’s room in your life for some DIY and homesteading activities if you have a full-time job and a city commute, like both of us do. We manage to keep a garden and do some canning and freezing, and it might seem like we’re able to do a lot. But we absolutely can’t do everything we want to do. Not even a fraction. There are just not enough hours in the week. 

And tomatoes don’t stop ripening just to accommodate your marathon training, your 7 hours a week of commuting, or your 45 hours a week of being an office drone. They just keep coming. The relentless, delicious buggers.

Yes, I do envy people who have some arrangement that lets them do major gardening and food harvesting and preserving, whatever that may be. Not because I begrudge them the time, but because it’s one of my passions. I really do love it. The long, hot day in the kitchen on my calloused feet wouldn’t be so hard if I knew I could keep going in the morning instead of getting in my car at 6 a.m. and not returning until at least 5.

It’s not even easy to donate to food pantries when you work full time. I missed the one weekend donation window because of my race, and the daytime drop-offs are during my work day. I have one potential place left that might be able to take some. Fingers crossed. 

It’s such a great satisfaction, filling up that canning cabinet in our basement, with food that grew in our backyard, that we picked out in the sun. I love being able to get “our” tomatoes and salsa through the winter. And I know that in the dead of the winter, I’ll be wistfully remembering the days of the tomato infestation and wanting a good, fresh heirloom tomato. (Maybe.) 

But for now, who wants some tomatoes? 


canning and preserving: refrigerator pickles

I spent a good chunk of Saturday playing catch-up on chores, doing endless loads of laundry and generally getting things done. One of those things was dealing with some cucumbers that we had piling up. 

When you boiling water can pickles, you need pickling cucumbers for best results. Typically that should apply for refrigerator pickles as well, but I found last year that I could get away with regular cucumbers if I used Ball’s Pickle Crisp. So I took as many leftover cucumbers as I could deal with and sliced them up on the mandolin.

The basic part of the brine for refrigerator dills is white vinegar. I have organic vinegar for food usage (though I wouldn’t bother with organic vinegar for things like cleaning solutions or freshening a load of towels).

Some sugar and salt, plus a bunch of pickling spice get cooked down with the water and vinegar to make the brine.

While the brine cooks down, I prep the pint jars with the other ingredients. A halved garlic clove, plus a mix of spices, sit on the bottom, under the packed in cucumbers.

Once the brine is done, you add it to your large bowl of slices and let the cukes sit and soak for 30 minutes. After they’ve cooled down a bit, you pack them in the jars. (Those white granules you see are Pickle Crisp.)

Ladle brine over each jar so that the pickles are all covered and make sure there’s 1/2″ headspace on the top. Cap the jars and label them, and you’re done! (I’ve been using the Ball dissolving labels this year, though masking tape has always worked fine for us in the past.)

The pickles take two weeks to be ready, and then are good for about 3 months. After that time, they don’t necessarily “go bad” since they are basically soaking in vinegar. They just start to lose their crispness. (Because I’m giving a lot of these jars away, I mark the jars with the best by dates.)

Quick pickling is a really easy way to preserve a lot of types of vegetables, especially if you don’t have the supplies, time or inclination to do full canning. Have you done any pickling this year?

canning and preserving: green beans

Weeknight canning is a tricky thing. Primarily because canning always, 100% without fail takes longer than you think it will. You look in the Ball Blue Book and see “20 minute processing time” and think, hooray! I can do three batches in one evening!

No, you can’t. At least not if you have to get up at 5 a.m. 

But you can usually handle one. So Tuesday night, we canned 9 pints of green beans.

You see, my grandparents have a large garden, and this year we’re helping to process and preserve what we can (no pun intended). We aren’t around to do the heavy lifting with the picking and maintenance, so we are helping on the back end, since we have the supplies and desire to can.

But the unpredictable thing about nature is that stuff is ready on its own timetable, not ours. So that’s how we ended up with enough green beans that we needed to can on a weeknight.

Much of the work is cleaning and prepping the beans, which is why it’s so time consuming. But we’re old hat at prepping beans for canning, since we’ve done beans each year since we started canning in the first place.

Beans have to be pressure canned, since the acidity level of the beans isn’t high enough to have botulism killed off by a boiling water bath. We do a raw pack, meaning we heat the jars and pack in raw beans and canning salt, plus boiling water. 

We can fit 9 pint jars comfortably in our canner, having decided to do pints instead of quarts so we’d have more jars to split up.

Even though the processing time is only 20 minutes for pints of beans, once that portion is done, the pressure has to come down on its own. Which is another reason that this is harder to do on a weeknight than it seems!

Man, our canner lid has water spots something fierce.

Anyway, we managed to fit in the entire process. I’m sure we’ll repeat it again this summer with more beans, but this is a good first start!

2014 resolution update – July

This is the first year that I’ve made a concerted effort to work on actually completing my resolutions for the year. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t aim too high and made them realistic. Here’s an update on how I’m doing at the halfway point in the year.

Read 75 books.
Today I will finish book #46, so I’m well on my way to that goal. I do have to get the sub-goals in of finishing Margaret Atwood’s canon (6 more books) and one Russian door-stop novel. I’ve been reading a lot of books that are part of a series, so I end up going through the series and it delays my next choices. Even if I don’t hit the sub-goals, I will still read more this year than in any year since graduate school. I’m also reading in genres outside of my comfort zone, which is pretty cool. (I am a total graphic novel and comic convert.)

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I haven’t done another one since this post on the DARK Act. I need to get on that. I might write next about funding to reduce hunger.

Run a marathon.
I’m in my 8th week of a 23 week training schedule. (Most plans are 18 weeks, but I am drawing mine out due to previous injuries and lingering issues with my IT bands.) Last week’s long run was 13 miles, and it was the first time I ran that far when it wasn’t a race, and only my fourth time at that distance at all. It was quite honestly one of the most difficult runs I’ve ever had – humid and disgusting outside, dehydrated big time. Everything was screaming at me to stop, and even though I had to walk more than I had hoped, I finished. (Which was really only because of the two awesome ladies I run with.) 

It’s been good to be on a training schedule and to be following it. I’ve put in 246 miles so far this year and that number is about to go way up because it’s going to get hard soon – after the holiday weekend we bump up to 15 miles for a long run and I go into distance territory that my body has never traveled. It’s an adventure, this marathon training. Don’t forget, I’m posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
I really need to kick this into high gear during this marathon training, because even though I do drink water constantly, I am always fighting being dehydrated in this weather. And I was doing some research this week that dehydration while running can also increase your heart rate, which is something I’m hyper sensitive to as an asthmatic.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Done and done. Completely knocked this one out of the park, and it might be the coolest thing I accomplished this year (unless I do complete the marathon, that is). Read about it here

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making slow progress on this one. I finished cutting all of the squares for my quilt this weekend. (I’m technically getting materials together for two, planning to start with my own quilt to get the hang of it before I do Mark’s.) Now it’s time to fire up my grandma’s sewing machine, which will hopefully happen in July.

Can one new thing.
Technically I’ve met this goal with our strawberry vanilla jam, a variant I hadn’t made before. But since I think the spirit of this was for me to do something entirely new, I won’t count this done yet. But it will be full on canning season in the next couple months.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
Didn’t really get around to planting specifically bee-friendly plants, but we definitely have more flowers this year compared to last, which is at least a step in the right direction.

Make the chickens some treats.
I actually completely forgot about this one, so this is a good reminder. Perhaps because of the heat and humidity, I’ll make something that’s refreshing for them.

Organize the basement.
The basement has stayed relatively organized since we transitioned one side of it to a work area for Mark. I still have a few things I’d like to do down there, especially to get a root cellar ready for later this year. But it’s better than it used to be (at least when Stormy and Vader don’t knock food bowls all over the place).

How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!

canning and preserving: two strawberry jams

This weekend we managed to squeeze in some time to put up 16 half pints of strawberry jam in two variants – balsamic and vanilla. This is our fourth year canning jam, and I think we’re really getting a good system down – meaning we’re more efficient and know the process well enough that we don’t spend as much time agonizing over the Ball book.

Mark picked up 8 quarts of berries from Mason Farms in Erie when he was traveling for work last week. Nothing beats PA berries in June, I’m telling you. I have no idea why people buy California strawberries this time of year from grocery stores in western PA because these strawberries are almost a different fruit they’re so tasty.

We use our dutch oven to make jam – it handles high temps nicely and can stand up to our stove’s power burner. This is the first batch of balsamic, which we made for the first time last year and just love. The vinegar adds the right acidity and deepens the flavor of the strawberries.

I was the strawberry prepper this year, so for at least 90 minutes, this was the scene in front of me. The chickens were quite happy with their treats. (They honestly run across the yard at full speed when they see me with strawberries. OK, well anytime I come outside and yell TREAT!)

Mark was the jar filler. He often does this step, probably because he’s tall enough to more easily reach into the pots.

We’re going to need to replace our canning rack soon because it’s starting to rust out. Four years of use is probably more than we can ask of the thing, being pretty cheap in the first place.

Boiling water baths and canning are nice, but the way it makes the kitchen an inferno is something I can pass on. We need to get ourselves a canning fan! Do they make those?

Our second batch was a new recipe variant, strawberry vanilla jam. We decided to do this one on a whim, having an abundance of vanilla beans. This next photo is Mark scraping the vanilla bean on a small portion of our kitchen island, which always looks a bit bloody after a strawberry processing day.  

The bean is scraped into the jam, and the outer husk or shell also goes in the jam during the cooking process to give it some more flavor.

We didn’t think the vanilla flavor was incredibly pronounced in the finished product, but it was subtle and quite tasty. Maybe if we make this again next year we’ll amp up the vanilla factor.

I love seeing our dining room table fill up with canning jars on towels. Means it’s really summer and we’re going to start stocking our canning cabinet again!

The rest of the 4 quarts of strawberries that didn’t go into jam were made into strawberry shortcake topping and cut into pieces for snacking (and enjoying straight up). We’ll be getting another quart in our CSA this week, but honestly I can’t get enough strawberries in the summer. The joy of having them for a short season makes me want to eat as many as possible while they’re around – and do things like can jam to save some for later!

Have you started canning anything this season? Are you eating your fair share of berries too?


2014 resolution update

Usually by this time of year, the resolutions I made in January are like a distant, vague memory. But this year in a stunning turn of events, I’ve been staying on track. So seeing that we’re about one third of the way through the year, I thought I’d check in.

Read 75 books.
I just finished #23 this week, so I’m on track to meet my goal. I need to still pick up a Russian doorstop novel along the way, as well as several more Margaret Atwoods to finish her canon. But so far, so good. Man do I love to read! 

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have one down, two more to go on this front. For my most recent letter, see this post on the DARK Act recently introduced in the House. Bad news.

Run a marathon.
Well, I’m in training. 
This Saturday marks my first race of the season – the Boston Trail half marathon (not in Boston). That’s followed up by my town’s 5K the following weekend, and then the Pittsburgh Marathon Half on May 4. Don’t forget there’s still time to donate to my fund for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank! Shameless plug! I’m only $5 away from $600!

Also, I’m posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Doing pretty well with this one, especially through the day at work. I also carry my water bottle around with me at home, and really it’s only after runs that I don’t do so well rehydrating. Going to keep working on that.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Fail. Still nervous. Will make it happen this summer though.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making good progress on this one, especially since it’s something I have zero experience in. I have Mark’s shirts all prepped and ready with interfacing, and mine are almost complete. Then it’s time to get the sewing machine cranking! I’ve even had an apprentice. Isn’t he helpful?


Can one new thing.
Not quite into canning season yet, so this one will be a summer thing.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I recently did some research on bee-friendly plants that do well in our area, with info from the Penn State Extension. Look for a post about that in the near future!

Make the chickens some treats.
Winter has made me not want to go outside with them more than necessary, so probably once I’m in the backyard with them more often, I’ll be more inclined to start making some treats.

Organize the basement.
The basement has come light years from what it was. This is a pretty significant accomplishment, as it’s now a more usable space for both Mark and me. And we’ve kept it relatively in order!

How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!

on resolutions

Happy New Year!

There’s something about January that brings a sense of new beginnings. Maybe it’s the breath of fresh air after the hubbub of the holidays, or the fact that we flip a new year on the calendar that makes us feel like we can press the reset button and start anew. In 2013, I set some goals for myself – concrete things like “run a half marathon” and not just “run more.” I met most of those goals, and exceeded some of them. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to open my goals document every so often and check to see that I’ve made progress. 

So I’m setting my resolutions for 2014 and will keep myself accountable for progress on them during the year. They’re all reachable, but will be a challenge in one way or another. I don’t like to go overboard, since I know that my work and my commute take up a huge portion of my week and my attention during my waking hours. Plus, I don’t like setting myself up for failure. I’d rather succeed at a few small things and be content with that.

With that, here are my goals for 2014 in three categories: mind, body and home.

Read 75 books.
I read 70 books in 2013, and I’m going to up the ante by just a bit in 2014. Within those 75 books, I have a goal of reading one of what I call the Russian doorstop novels that I haven’t read before, as well as finishing up the rest of Margaret Atwood’s canon. I use Good Reads to help me keep track of what I’m reading when.

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have no shortage of things that outrage me, and I know that battles about GMO labeling, Ag-Gag laws and farm bills will keep me occupied with this one.

Run a marathon.
Yes, I’m putting it out there. I’m not going to beat myself up if I work on the training and my body doesn’t cooperate (I’m looking at you, knees!), but I’m going to try. I know in my heart I will always regret it if I don’t try, and that’s reason enough for me to start. I will begin training in February, with the goal of working up to a marathon by the fall. I’d also like to do several halfs this year, and to travel to at least one race outside of my area. The goal for the full marathon is just to finish, and my goal for a half marathon in 2014 is to get a PR, which I think is doable. 

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Rather than set a goal for weight loss, I’m focusing on health and fitness this year. Water is a big one for me – I feel so much better and have so much more energy when I’m properly hydrated. It also helps me with my running to be hydrated at all times, so I’m going to dedicate myself to hydration.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Mark gave me the tools to make kombucha for my birthday last year and I have yet to start, out of fear that I’ll mess it up. I did stop buying kombucha in the store, like I promised myself, but I haven’t taken the leap. 2014 is the time.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
I have my grandma’s sewing machine, and I’m going to put it to good use this year. I’m not particularly gifted in this area, so I’m starting easy and hoping to make Mark a quilt from a pile of old, beloved t-shirts.

Can one new thing.
I want to branch out this year and can something we’ve never canned before. Doesn’t have to be elaborate, but I’d like to try something new and different.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I want to do some research on bee-friendly plants and make the flower beds along our garage an all you can drink nectar buffet for bees. (Can you tell that Vanishing of the Bees inspired me?)

Make the chickens some treats.
I want to be more actively involved in the chickens’ care and I really want to make them some treats to give them a diversion.

Organize the basement.
I did a great job of simplifying and downsizing our house this past fall, but the largest work to be done is our basement, which is a mess of boxes and disorganization and junk that is just begging to be a functional space. If the only house related thing we get done at all this year is to organize the basement, I would count it a success.

I’m going to check in monthly here to keep myself accountable to these goals, and hopefully share some how-tos when I have some success! 

What are your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments – I’d love to know what you’re doing to make 2014 the best year it can be! 

canning and preserving: salsa

We found ourselves with an abundance of tomatoes and peppers at the same time – particularly hot peppers – and decided to see if we could can a batch of salsa, one of our favorite canned tomato items. We used the zesty salsa recipe from Ball this year, with our abundance of hot peppers.

This recipe takes more time to prep than it does to process! You start with skinned, chopped tomatoes.

And then a million peppers. We wear rubber gloves when doing salsa since we don’t know when and how much we’ll be touching the hot peppers and don’t really want to spread capsaicin all over the kitchen and ourselves. I’ve had to throw out too many pairs of contacts over the years from hot peppers in the eye. 

After cups and cups of peppers, chop onions until you cry.

We make salsa in our dutch oven, so since we don’t have enough measuring cups to hold everything during the prep, we start piling it in the dutch oven right away.

This salsa uses garlic and apple cider vinegar as well as the peppers, onions and tomatoes. Thank goodness for a garlic press because my hands were done chopping.

Mark is the master herb chopper of the household, so he handled the cilantro while I got everything mixed up to cook. 

Hot salsa gets ladled into hot jars. We managed to get 7 pints in to process, but had an extra pint we saved out to eat fresh, so the recipe made more than the 6 pints promised. 

I like how you can see Captain America’s foot peeking out above the canning pot from his spot on our fridge. Geek house!

A short processing time later, 7 sealed pints. Nothing broken, thanks to making sure the temperature of the jars and food stayed consistent. We let the canner come to boiling with the jars submerged this time, so no replay of the tomato canning breakage from last week. (Salsa is hot pack anyway, but we weren’t taking any chances.) 

We’ve got some more catching up to do on grape juice/jelly canning this week, and we hope to fit that in before we head off to Seven Springs for the Mother Earth News Fair this coming weekend. Can’t wait to see what kind of ideas and tips we bring home!

canning and preserving: whole tomatoes

Last week with our CSA, we did an add-on and bought a case of canning tomatoes. This is one of the great perks of a CSA – having an “in” when it’s harvest time and there are extras. But at the same time, you have to move quickly and preserve them before they turn. So we took our annual spur of the moment “canning vacation day” to get some whole tomatoes put away. 

Tomatoes do freeze, so why do we bother with canning? Because home canned tomatoes are delicious – and don’t require any defrosting. They are great in pasta sauces or chilis or any number of other dishes that would have you buying canned tomatoes at the store. We still do freeze tomatoes from time to time, but canning is our preferred tomato preservation method. 

We decided to do quarts, since it’s roughly what you’d need when a recipe calls for a 28 oz. can of tomatoes (as there’s more liquid in home-canned tomatoes).

We also had a ton of extra Beam’s Yellow Pear Tomatoes from our own garden. So far they’ve been the only ones to actually ripen on the vine, though we’re having some success ripening the others indoors. Leftover from the CSA, we also had some cherry tomatoes that we threw in the mix.

For any canning or freezing project where you’re preserving tomatoes, the first thing you need to do after washing the tomatoes is remove the skins. You do this by first cutting an X in the bottom of the tomatoes. For larger tomatoes, also remove the core.

Next, you blanch. Boil some water and drop the tomatoes in for 30-60 seconds depending on the size of the tomato.

After their dip, pull them out and immediately dump them in an ice bath. This will make it so the skins fall right off.

Once the skins are removed, they look like wrinkly raisins. This time around we did all of the skinning first, so that we didn’t have to keep repeating the set up. (Canning is often a dance of multiple pots, containers and bowls all over your kitchen.) 

For large tomatoes, cut into quarters. (It helps them fit into the jar better, and it also helps you crush them later for sauces, etc.)

Pack them into jars with boiling water and citric acid. (Tomatoes in a water bath canner need citric acid to ensure the acid content is high enough to kill all the bad stuff.) 

Leave the appropriate headspace and close the jars with hot lids and bands.

Process them according to the directions, and then open the canner. And find…

A broken jar and floating, delicious wasted tomatoes. Yep, of 12 quarts we tried to can, we broke a jar in each batch. Clean slice, right across the bottom. (But obviously you can’t eat the floaters, since glass shards are not considered edible.)

We’ve canned hundreds of jars of food since we started doing this three years ago and we’d only ever broken one jar before, I believe. So why two this time? Any why tomatoes?

We did some research and realized that because our jars were sound and not cracked or splintered, it was probably due to temperature. When you make jam, you pack hot jam into hot jars and drop them into the hot water bath, so the temperature of the jar remains relatively constant during the canning process. 

For tomatoes, we cold pack. That means that hot jars get filled with room temperature (“cold”) tomatoes and boiling water, but that water quickly cools inside the jar while you’re packing and measuring headspace and sealing. We added the jars straight into a boiling canning pot, which means some of the jars were probably too “cold” and got shocked into the clean break you see in the photo. The way to avoid this when you’re cold packing is to wait to bring the canner to boiling until the jars are all ready, so the temperatures can gradually rise and the differential isn’t too large to cause a break.

While it’s frustrating to lose two quarts of perfect tomatoes, I don’t mind making mistakes when we can figure out what went wrong. That way we avoid it next time. I’m just grateful for the 10 quarts we managed to save!