A Beginner’s Foray into Canning

Having recently shared my thoughts about the need for more sustainable food choices and my family’s efforts toward that end, I thought it would be àpropos to show you what I’ve been doing with all the proceeds from my backyard garden. Since we do not have an extra freezer, nor the funds to get one at the moment, canning was the obvious choice for preserving our produce. And, oh boy, did we get some! I was pulling two or three cucumbers every day. The tomatoes came in spurts, ten at a time. The peppers stayed small, but we had lots of them. The cantaloupes were like nothing you’ve ever tasted! And we had herbs galore. Some things, like the peas and beans, struggled due to pests and I plan to look into some more organic options for controlling that in the future. But for a first time effort, I give myself a hearty pat on the back.

Now for my disclaimer: All that I learned about canning, I learned from Google and YouTube. I did not have a mother or grandmother who gardened or preserved to show me the ropes. So please, take everything I share here with a grain of salt and do plenty of research on your own. I am not claiming to be an expert by any means, but merely trying to help other beginners like myself get started and overcome the fear of the unknown. ‘Cause, let me tell you, it is not nearly as difficult as you may think! I was initially dreading the process, but knew that it was a necessary evil given the incredible amount of effort I had put into the garden – I wasn’t about to give it all away or let it go to waste. So I bought myself a stock pot and some canning jars, watched some online tutorials, and dove right in. And, much to my amazement, the evil turned out to be good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like the garden, I found it wholesome, earthy, rich, and fulfilling. There is something so satisfying about taking a small, insignificant seed, and, through much love and hard work, turning it into rows of food that line your pantry throughout the year. So far, I have canned 20 jars of pickles, 11 jars of salsa, and 10 jars of pear sauce – and I could have done much more had I overcome my fear sooner and started the whole process right away.

So without further ado, let me tell you about the basic techniques that I followed. I will start with the process of making pickles because it is the most involved (and the one for which I took the most pictures). Sadly, the pickles turned out softer than I would have liked, but I think this is because I used ordinary garden cucumbers instead of pickling cucumbers. Next year I will plant the pickling variety and hope for a crisper result. I am told they are just as good to eat raw, so it’s a win/win.

1) The first step is to slice and wash your cucumbers. They can be wedge slices, like I’ve shown here, or they can be sandwich slices, or even whole if the cucumbers are small enough. It is important to cut off the ends as there are enzymes on the blossom ends that can spoil the pickles. Also, it is best to use under-ripe rather than over-ripe cucumbers because they will likely be crisper. (This may also have been one of my mistakes leading to softer pickles than I’d like).  Put these washed and sliced cucumbers in an ice water bath for an hour or two while you get everything else ready. This is also an ideal time to put all your jars, lids and rings into the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle since this cycle takes a while to complete.

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2) Next, prepare your brine. I used a pickling mix, plus a few of my own garden herbs. This takes the guess-work out of how much of each ingredient to use. I used Mrs. Wages brand and it tells you the exact of amount of vinegar and water to put in the mix. Be careful not to use an aluminum pot though as this could leach a metallic flavor into your pickles and cloud the brine. Bring this to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer to keep it hot.

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3) Now, while your brine is simmering and your pickles are chilling, prep your additional herbs and put them in the jars. I used one garlic clove, about 10 peppercorns, 3 small green onions, and one medium size dill flower in each jar. The green onions and dill flowers came from my garden. If you don’t want to use any of these additional herbs, don’t worry about it, ’cause the mix you use will work just fine. It simply adds a bit of visual interest and flavor to each jar. Also, start your canning pot boiling at this time. I used a LARGE stock pot filled about half full so it won’t overflow when you put your jars in.

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4) Next you get to fill the jars with your chilled cucumbers. Load them tightly to keep them from floating to the top of the jar and add your dill flowers last.

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5) Now fill each jar with the brine mixture, leaving an inch of head space. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean dry towel to ensure a good seal and put the lids and rings on the jars and tighten by hand.

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6) Lastly, process your jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pint size jars. The water should be about an inch above the tops of the jars and the time should start when the water returns to a boil after adding the jars. The first batch I processed, I did not have a jar grabber and attempted using tongs. Needless to say, there were a few close calls with disaster and I highly recommend buying a jar grabber. You’ll thank me later.

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7) After removing the jars from the water bath, let them sit, unmoved for 24 hours to ensure a proper seal. Within an hour or so, you should hear the delightfully happy sound the lids pinging down as the jars seal. If any jars do not seal properly, you can either reprocess them, or put them in the fridge and use them first. They’ll be good for weeks in the fridge and the ones that did seal properly will keep for years in the pantry! Let them sit for 4-6 weeks to give them time to ferment and absorb the flavors. The wait will kill you, but it will be worth it.

Salsa: There are so many versions of salsa out there, just pick one that suits you. This is much easier than pickles because it’s not so scientific. I simply sliced and mixed up all the vegetables raw – tomatoes, green onions, white onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and garlic. For everything but the tomatoes and the cilantro, I used a food processor. Then I added an appropriate amount (this will depend on your quantity of vegetables) of tomato sauce, vinegar, salt, and cumin. Next I mixed everything up in a big bowl, filled the sanitized jars to within an inch of head space, removed air bubbles with a rubber spatula, wiped the rims clean, sealed and processed them in a water bath for 20 minutes.

Pear (or Apple) Sauce: This was the easiest of all the canning and, although we didn’t can it when I was a child, I did make a lot of applesauce with my mother so the process was particularly nostalgic as I worked on it with my son. We used pears because I have two friends with pear trees who gave me a LOT of pears. The texture is slightly different but not significantly. The important thing here is that you buy a conical strainer with pestle or a food mill so that you don’t have to peel, core, and seed all of your pears. All you need to do is slice them and throw them in a pot to boil. Boil them until they are VERY soft and then drain off any excess water. Process them through the strainer or food mill and return them to the stove to simmer if you have to do multiple batches. Then add any additional spices to taste. It shouldn’t need any sugar if the fruit is sweet enough, but I chose to add some cinnamon. Fill the jars – leaving an inch of head space, wipe the rims clean before sealing, and process them in a water bath for 15 minute.

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If you are more experienced at canning than I am and have any helpful suggestions or tips (or corrections), I’d love to hear any feed back. This has been quite a journey for me and one I hope to continue well into the future.

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To Aiden On His First Birthday

Since there was such positive response to the letter that I wrote recently for Owen on his first birthday, I thought that I would share this letter I wrote years ago for Aiden on his number 1. It is amazing to look back and see the similarities and vast differences between both our two boys and our outlook on parenting. Time does move SO fast. And I don’t always cherish every moment (like all the old ladies tell me to) because, let’s face it, they’re not all cherishable! But I have more than my fair share of wonderful memories and for that I am grateful.

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To my darling little boy,

It is amazing to me that, so quickly, that is what you have become . . . a little boy.  The tiny 7 pound baby that I brought home from the hospital a year ago is only slightly visible still behind your adorable blue eyes.  Eyes full of mischief, intrigue, growth, understanding, confusion, questions, happiness and spunk.  I have always believed that there is something prophetic about a person’s name.  When we chose the name Aiden for you, meaning “Fiery Spirit,” we could not have hit the nail more on the head. You are definitely full of fire and vigor for life – so eager to experience all of the world.  I think you get that drive from your daddy and that independence from me.   I am amazed every day as I watch you grow and change and develop into your own unique individual.  Part Daddy, part me, and ALL you.  You are an unceasing source of inspiration for me.  Also frustration sometimes, but that’s all part of being a kid.  It is wonderful for me to see the world through a fresh set of eyes.  Your eyes.  Everything new and exciting and strange.  Fearless and ready to take on anything.  And to help you see the world through more developed eyes.  My eyes.  I am blown away as, every day, you learn a new accomplishment.  At two months you started sleeping all the way through the night and finally letting Mommy and Daddy rest.  At that age you also started coming to work with Mama and sleeping on her desk or playing on the floor.  These were precious times and I am so grateful that I was able to spend the first six months of your life with you all day every day.  At four months you started rolling over and 6 months you could sit up by yourself.  This was a major development because then you were able to see the world from an upright perspective, reach for and hold toys, and stay so much more contented.  But this is also the age at which you had to start day care.  You were getting too big for Mama to take care of and work at the same time.  We put you in a full-time day care called the Little Samaritan that was only a block from where I worked, but it was a very difficult time for both you and Mama.  Having always been together for 6 months, you did not like the idea of spending all day with strangers and it broke my heart every time I checked on you during the day and you were crying your little eyes out.  This only lasted a month before I found a new job that I could work part-time in the mornings and spend the majority of my time with you.  It took a little while, but this is also when we found Jen to be your sitter while I was at work.  Mrs. Jen loved you and you adored her and her house and your friends there.  Even though you were only 7 ½ months when you started going to her house, you were at home there within a week.  It was such a refreshing breath of air to pick up a happy baby and get to go home and spend more time with you again.  Then, at 8 months, you celebrated your first Christmas and got your first two bottom teeth at the same time.  Grandpa and Grandma, Aunt Jenniffer, Aunt Susan and her family, and Aunt Sarah and her family all came to visit and brought you wonderful presents which you opened with vigor.  We very much hoped that you would be crawling by Christmas, but you had other plans.  You didn’t want to crawl till you KNEW you could do it well.  So you waited till you were about 10 months old and then you took off across the room.  There was no squirming or army pulls.  You just went from nothing to complete crawling and we loved it!  Everyone told us that we would pine for the days when you were stuck in one spot and could not get around.  I never did.  I loved that you could now go after things on your own.  Express more individual desire and drive. Follow and lead.  Get into mischief.  It was wonderful and I never looked back.  You were contented to get around that way for quite some time and did not learn to walk before your first birthday.  Which came faster than I could possibly have imagined!  In the month leading up to it, we were slowly cutting back on nursing to prepare you (and me) for weaning.  I wanted it to be a gradual and natural process, but one week before your birthday, you decided you were done and you never really looked back.  You were a sippy cup man now.  Your birthday went beautifully and, just like your daddy, you started crying your eyes out when everyone sang you happy birthday. I mean, what’s scarier to a tiny person than everyone staring at you and singing loud, off-key words you’ve never heard before, right? But you got over it quickly once you got your bright blue, cookie monster cupcake! It is hard to believe that, already, you are turning into the kid, and eventually the man that you will one day become. I am so proud of you! I’m still going to hold onto these sweet baby cheeks and kisses and smiles for as long as I can, but I know that no matter how big you get, you will always be my baby. I love you sweet boy!

Love Forever and Always,

Mama

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To Owen On His First Birthday

Shortly after Aiden turned one, I wrote him a letter chronicling his first year in our lives and capturing for posterity all of those little details that we so often forget as parents. It is something I have saved for him that I hope he will one day cherish. Well, Owen hit the milestone of one year a little over a month ago and I wanted to do the same for him. Although the letter is for him, this is a safe haven for it to live and a place where, hopefully, he and I can touch the lives of others in similar places in their journeys:

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To my sweet, spunky little man,
What a year it has been! You, my darling little Owen, have been and will always be my baby boy – but this first year has also changed you into quite a feisty little kid. I am constantly amazed by the differences in you and your older brother. When Daddy and I decided to have you almost two years ago now, it was partly because we felt confident in the place we had gotten as parents. We felt strong and stable. Like we had done it once and done it pretty darn well, so why not do it again? And from the very beginning you have broken every mold and shaken everything we thought we knew as parents, demanding that we learn again and learn differently. Insisting we see you as your own person. And we love you for it. Although we did not anticipate the level of the challenge, we are becoming stronger because of it. We decided to have you by planned c-section and assumed this would make the birth process much smoother and less traumatic than it was for Aiden. Little did we know that you would decide you wanted to come out 5 weeks early! I went into early labor and then on bed rest for a month to try to protect you, Tiny Small, and keep you safe till you were ready to take on the big world without help. It was an amazingly difficult time, but also amazingly eye-opening as many friends and family stepped in to help us through. They brought food, came to stay and help with Aiden and the house, made me stay laying down for your sake, and some even gave money to help while I was off work. They are part of the reason you are safe and healthy today. Then, when the day finally came, it was beautiful! It was indeed much less traumatic and I felt so very connected to you in those first days in the hospital. It was precious and intimate. And all I kept saying was how happy I was. You completed our family and I could feel it from the beginning. You were a nursing champ, just like brother. But that’s about where the similarities stopped. You never wanted a passy or sucked your thumb. You were a booby baby and you loved (and still love) your little monkey lovey. Not just to snuggle, but to eat up. It is always soggy but you don’t seem to mind. You have never been one for schedules, much to Mama’s chagrin. But I think this will serve you well later in life – develop into a sort of easy-going, go-with-the-flow kind of nature. I think this schedule aversion may be due, in part, to the fact that we sold our house when you were 1 month old and moved a month later. Right around the time Mama went back to work. You can imagine the chaos all of that change added into your very new life and routine. But you took it like a champ. I guess when the entire world is new, a new home filled with boxes and strangers and work is, well, nothing new!  This schedule aversion also led to a very tired and frazzled Mama because it was nine months before you consistently slept through the night. Sometimes you just wanted to nurse and snuggle. Other times you were ready to be awake for hours from 1:00 to 4:00 in the morning. But as harrowing and exhausting as those times could be, they also contained some of the sweetest memories. There was nothing quite like nursing you in the dark in your room. Calming your fears, quieting your cries. Letting you know you were safe and loved. By four and a half months, you learned to sit up on your own but it was still weeks before you could roll over. This was when you and Aiden started really developing your bond because you were able to be a more active part of your environment. Laugh and respond to his interaction. In this first year, you two have developed something special that I LOVE to watch. No one can make you laugh as easily as he can. Of course, no one can frustrate you quite as easily either, but what are older brothers for, right? Currently your most frequent words to him are “Don’t” (said like DOAN), “Bad” (BAH), and “No, no” (Nah Nah), but your most frequent reaction to him is giggles. You started crawling at 8 months, just after your first Christmas. We celebrated at home and it was quiet and lovely. At 10 months you got your first teeth and since you waited so long to do it, you decided to go ahead and do it right – pushing through 6 front teeth in 2 days, poor guy. At 11 months you realized that moving around on your hands and knees was for the birds and you started walking, MUCH sooner than Brother did. The promise of running is yet to come, but you still chase each other around the house doing all manner of crazy things. Just the other day you painted his room and yourself red while I was fixing dinner! You always march to the beat of your own drum. Although you like Mama to hold you an awful lot, you also like to call your own shots. You will very independently march yourself around the yard, experiencing things with all of your senses (even taste) and fear for nothing while Aiden asks for help washing sand off of his toys ;) Your favorite toys seem to be both balls (you’re quite good at throwing for your age) and all of your various weapons. We never let Aiden have guns when he was little, but when we finally relented and got him one, we always cautioned him to “never shoot people.” Well, apparently my “boys will be boys” philosophy has gotten the better of me because now you run around shooting all of us with a loud, “BOW” and we simply play along and fall down dead. You think it is hysterical! For your first birthday we had a monkey themed party, in honor of the previously mentioned soggy monkey you love so much, and it was a great success. Many friends and family came to help us celebrate you. Although you seemed rather bewildered, you didn’t cry for the happy birthday song as both Daddy and Aiden had done for their first birthdays. I think you take a bit more after Mama in few ways – your propensity to take risks, your strong, independent (yes, stubborn) nature, and your looks. This warms my heart a little bit, since Aiden has always been a little copy of his Daddy in so many ways. I used to ponder before you were born how it would be possible to love another child as much as I loved my first-born. You proved the age-old truth that love does not divide, it multiplies. I still love Aiden every bit as much as before, but you thoroughly squashed all of those fears and wrapped me around your tiny, chubby finger from the moment you looked into my eyes. I loved you instantly then, more now, and immeasurably for the future. May every year to come be as rich and full as this first one has been and may we always remember to count all the joys and forget all the pain.
With all of my heart, always,

Mama

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A Trip Down Postpartum Lane

Although I did not fully intend to take a maternity leave from my blog, it seems that scheduling, exhaustion, and emotions have effectively accomplished that for me. The miracle of life continues to be extraordinary for those of us who brought it into being, but for those who did not, I know that reading a daily log of my new son’s eating, pooping, and sleeping schedule may be somewhat less than thrilling. Unfortunately these are the things that consume my days as of late. Combined with an ever-present struggle to maintain my sanity through the fog of postpartum hormones and little to no sleep, it has been hard to find the energy and inspiration (much less time) to sit down and write. But writing is an integral and important part of my fulfillment – and hopefully important to some of you, my readers, as well – so I am making the time. Forgive me if the subject matter is somewhat sub-par. It is where I am now and it is what I have to give.

The involuntary drugs I am constantly hopped up on – otherwise know as postpartum hormones – are a cruel and unusual reality. I know that they are the cause of much of the way that I feel (which makes me feel crazy), but the feelings themselves are real and valid. I cannot simply ignore them. Allow me to give you a tour of what goes on in my head most days lately:

I find it exceptionally difficult to separate myself from my tiny newborn son. Even now, I have his video monitor right next to me as I write and I find myself looking at it at least as much as I look at this screen on which I am typing. For nine months he and I were connected. Two people existing together in the same body but separate. And as much as I hated pregnancy there is an odd and intense separation anxiety that happens when he is no longer part of me. It feels unnatural, in a way, for him to be across the room, even though I know it is, of course, not. I am jealous and possessive of him and feel disconnected from everyone else. Like no one else really understands… or cares. And I don’t blame them. Perhaps my life has changed radically over the last three weeks, but theirs hasn’t. Sooner or later, my new baby is not the center of everyone else’s attention. But most of the time if feel like it should be, darn it!

Everyone treats a pregnant lady, especially a big pregnant lady, special. But almost as soon as the baby is born, all of the special attention transfers to him. And this too feels unfair. I had major abdominal surgery 3 weeks ago and now, for all intents and purposes, am housebound while still trying to care for both of my children. I deserve to be treated special too, right?

And my hubby, whose life has also changed dramatically, has the added privilege of dealing with all of my insanity. This often makes him withdraw, because really, what is there for him to do besides take care of all of our practical needs (which he does superbly)? He can’t even begin to touch everything that’s going on inside me. This, in turn makes me feel distant from him and guilty for making him have to deal with me. He practically had to beg me to go out to dinner with him tonight and let my parents, who are visiting, watch the boys. And yet, it feels so wrong for me to leave the baby, that I almost resent him for insisting we go. Crazy, right? I know.

And you remember those fears I mentioned a while back about whether or not I would be able to love Owen as much as Aiden, who I have adored intensely from the moment he was born? Everyone told me that I would have no trouble. That love multiplies rather than divides. They were, of course, right. I adore Owen every bit as much as I do Aiden. But the irony of it is, I sometimes find myself even resenting Aiden for demanding so much of me at a time when I ought to be able to enjoy my new baby as much as I was able to enjoy him. Thankfully, I don’t think I’ve ever shown him these feelings but it’s bad enough that they’re there. Especially since he has been SUCH a wonderful boy since we came home from the hospital and SO tender and loving with his new little brother. It is astonishing and beautiful to watch and makes my heart swell.

Then there are feelings of inadequacy. Like I just can’t handle each new step along the way – leaving the hospital; Jonathan going back to work; visitors coming; those same visitors leaving; returning to work myself… Jonathan is going out of town 3 time in June and I don’t know how I am possibly going to manage the boys by myself while he is gone. I know I will. I have to. I just don’t believe that I can.

And in the middle of all of this, I am having to search for new childcare for when I return to work. This gives me constant and recurring panic attacks. If I have so much trouble leaving my baby with my mom, how in the world will I be able to leave him with a complete stranger in 5 or 6 weeks. I have no idea.

Add to this the fact that this baby, who I am so protective and possessive of, is one giant bundle of need – perpetuating a cycle of nursing, diaper changes, gas pains, fitful and broken sleep, and repeat – and you have the recipe for a perfect storm.

I know that all of this will pass. I had many of the same feelings after I had Aiden, perhaps to a worse degree. But when you are in the midst of them, flooded with emotions and hormones that you can’t control, it is sometimes hard to remember that life will return to normal. A new normal perhaps, but normal nonetheless. So in case any of my friends are planning to come see me anytime soon, bear in mind that this is the me that exists on the inside – even if what you see on the outside is remarkably held together. And if this inside me is too scary, I completely understand. I’ll let you know when the fog clears. If not, come help me weather the lonely craziness and I’ll try to keep the monster at bay. Besides, Owen is so incredible cute and wonderful, that seeing him is worth braving me ;)

A Letter To My Unborn Son

Dearest Little Owen,

You are due to arrive into this world and our family in only two days. Judging by all of your wild and crazy movement and your attempted early escape four weeks ago, I think you are ready! I may not be a first-time-mom with all the eager overconfidence that makes each pack of diapers and each little outfit an exciting trip down possibilities lane – everything new and unknown and full of potential. But even as an experienced mama, I am nervous and excited to meet you. Whereas the first time around, I was so eager to teach my son everything I could about life, this time I am more eager to learn from you everything you will be able to teach me. I know I have already learned far more as a parent than I ever imagined possible and I am excited to see what new challenges you will bring into my life and the life of our family. I know you will not be a replica of your brother, but with him as my only experience, it is sometimes hard to imagine in what ways you will be different – your own unique person with individual traits and desires, habits and interests, and contributions to all those around you in this journey called life. I selfishly hope that you will look a little more like me, since your brother looks just like his daddy – although you’d be luckier to look like him as well. I hope that you and your brother will be the best of friends and be able to teach each other things that your daddy and I never could. I hope that you will grow to be a generous, caring, responsible, and inspirational man one day. That you will be more apt to listen than to speak. That you will never take others for granted but learn everyday how to meet them where they are in their journey. That you will always know, no matter what, that your daddy and I LOVE you and will be proud of you for the good choices you make, even if they are different from the ones we would choose for you. I hope that you will always be full of wonder and hunger for life and that you will not let the world and its ailments drag you down. I hope that we are able to be good examples for you as you grow, but more than that, I hope that you will surpass us in character and accomplishment as you make your own path. I hope that I can love you as only you deserve to be loved. I have already started and I know that my capacity for this love will only grow as you do. I can promise you that, at times, I will fall short, but I will never give up and I will do my best to be humble and forgiving and I hope that you will do the same for me. My sweet, tiny little man, I hope you have a wonderful birthday. I can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Your Adoring Mama