I Swore I Wouldn’t: A Balcony Garden Journey

I swore I wouldn’t try to grow tomato plants on our balcony again. That was about seven years ago. And I hadn’t grown ’em since. So imagine my surprise this year when all that changed.

When I started growing tomatoes the first summer we lived here I thought that no pesky insects could find their way to our plants way up here on the third floor. But find us they did. How’d those aphids get here? Are those other things mites?

Not only did insects find us but it wasn’t long before the squirrels did too. The outer shell of our building was coated in artificial stucco. The squirrels could grab the bumpy texture with their claws and scale up the side of the building like Spidermen in furry gray suits. Not only did the squirrels find us, I’m pretty sure they put posters up around the neighborhood advertising the free food to all their friends. Drove the cats bananas as the squirrels taunted them then escaped up a stuccoed pillar.

I tried sprays for the insects and mesh along with hot pepper sprinkles to discourage the squirrels. But they’d still find my tomatoes. 

There are challenges to growing tomato plants in containers and especially so when you have only a balcony and jugs to carry water instead of a backyard with a hose.  

The plants grew nicely. Tomatoes too. More than once I’d patiently wait one more day for a tomato to turn red only go out the next and find bites already taken out of it. How rude of them to take a few bites and leave the rest behind! Do they know how hard I worked to make those things grow? 

The last straw was the day I saw a squirrel perched on the bricks around the edge of our balcony. His fluffy tail twitched in excitement. I went out to shoo him away only to find a partially chewed green tomato sitting there. Cute but infuriating, those furry thieves weren’t even waiting for the tomatoes to ripen.  No tomato was safe. It was the last tomato. I was done. 

I moved on to growing only herbs, a few flowers (some of which the squirrels ate too) and hot peppers.  The squirrels bit a few hot peppers but soon left them alone. 

Eventually the outside of our building became less and less appealing as the improperly installed artificial stucco became discolored and cracked in places. Above the utility closet off our balcony there was a large gap left by our builder where several generations of pigeons made a charming home for themselves. But for us, the pigeons made a horrible mess. We tried mesh to keep them out, but they found another way in. Eventually we stopped trying to grow anything we might want to eat. Soon, we hardly went out there at all. Shame too, nice view.

Last summer, with building repairs in full swing (partially due to that artificial stucco), we couldn’t go out on our balcony at all. The winter before, the repair workers had wired our balcony door shut from the outside. We scrambled to save a few nice flower pots when they first did it. We had put our fresh cut Christmas tree on the balcony in a bucket of water, so we had to make special arrangements to retrieve that too. We didn’t even have windows for a while.

So early this Spring a visit to Home Depot resulted in the purchase of a few small plants. This started a slippery slope of greenery and a whole new battle. (Part 1 of a series.)

Now That I Started

I’ve started half a dozen blog posts since the end of the school year — even more of you count the ones I started in my head. There’s a lot going on — gay marriage is legal, the flag has come down, photos of former planet, former non-planet, now dwarf planet Pluto are streaming in — and I’ve managed to publish exactly zero of the blog posts I started. I can make a lot of excuses as to why. Many of them are legitimate excuses… But I still think I should have been able to manage to publish some with just a wee bit better time management or focus or something

It’s not for lack if topics!  Along with all that stuff in the news, we have a small balcony garden again. Yay! And my daughter has been having fun in Strings camp (kind of like band camp only it’s a day camp for orchestra). Zomagad, I even found Zote laundry soap in flake form instead of bars. 

That whole 10-minutes-of-writing-per-day thing worked well for a while. But I seem to have misplaced my 10 minutes (maybe under a tomato plant).

The one blog entry that I might actually manage to publish is about how I’m not blogging. This one. Which makes exactly zeros cents. I seem to best be able to blog about how I’m not blogging. I need to work on my priorities!

Misc Mex Meat Goop: A Slow-Cooker Recipe 

I make no bones about wanting crock pot recipes to be easy. I want them to save time – not just shift time around. I’m not getting up at 3:30 am to dice peppers and pre-cook onions. That’s laundry or writing time (and sometimes even sleep time)!

Short of dumping a single, whole chicken in a crock pot, I want something easy and hopefully nutritious and flavorful. (Humm, maybe I should try dumping a single, whole chicken in a crock pot.)

Cooked and yummy  is our preference, but I can be a little flexible on week nights. I consider it success if we’ve all eaten a sufficient amount of nutritious stuff without too much bad stuff. There’s wiggle room. I definitely like it best when food is so yummy we all want seconds. That’s usually what we have with Misc Mex Meat Goop.

We love taco night at home, but cooking the meat, dicing, chopping fixin’s can take a long time.  Misc Mex Meat Goop makes it much more do-able on a weeknight since I can throw the meat goop together in the morning, and  it’s mostly ready to go when I get home. Likewise I can buy pre-shredded lettuce and cheese or cut a few veggies ahead of time. Also, I make enough for leftovers so we have several meals. If you have a big family you might want to double the recipe. (There’s only three of us.)

Misc Mex Meat Goop Ingredients

3-4 lbs boneless chicken* breasts and / or thighs or beef or pork (left whole or cut in half if really large, frozen or fresh is fine) 

1 can enchilada sauce – red or green or make your own or use canned tomatoes with chili peppers or about a Cup of fresh diced tomatoes 

3 packets taco seasoning mix (or equivalent bulk or homemade seasonings) 

2 tablespoons olive or coconut oil (optional) 

2 bell peppers cut in very large, wide slices (no need to dice). I like red or mix red & green. 

1 onion, cut in large slices 

1/2 cup whole baby carrots (optional) 

3 cloves of garlic, pealed and cut up a little 

1 jalapeño pepper cut in large chunks  (if you like some heat – leave out for mild). 

1 cup corn (fresh or frozen) or 1 can drained (optional)

1 can black beans (or pinto beans) drained (optional)

Put everything in an appropriately-sized slow cooker EXCEPT the corn, the beans, and HALF of the taco seasoning mix. You can just dump it all in and toss a little to coat and mix. I usually haphazardly layer the ingredients – a few slices of pepper and onion on the bottom, then pieces of chicken, then some more pepper and onion slices, then more chicken, seasoning, etc. Until it’s all in the pot and I pour the enchilada sauce over it all. But you can put it all in at once. Seriously, this does not and should not take long. 

Put the lid on. Turn slow cooker to Low and leave it for 6 to 10 hours.  

If you have a slow cooker that has a timer that can be set to change from Cook (Low or High) to Warm, then set it to Low for about 6 hours and it can stay on Warm until you’re ready to eat. Otherwise you can let it cook on Low for up to 10 hours.  (Note that some cookers get hotter so keep that in mind. Add more liquid like enchilada sauce or a little water if you have a cooker that runs hot.) I like the chicken texture better at 6 hours. When food is done cooking,  I drain off most of the extra liquid (if there is any) and reserve it for soup stock at a later date. 

Take two forks and pull apart the chicken (or other meat) to shred it like pulled pork. It should be very tender, pull apart easily, and go quickly. Remove any large chunks of fat. The large chunks of veggies will break up as you go. This makes smaller chunks so you don’t need to dice anything before cooking. We’re fine with some small chunks and some larger – it’s rustic. About halfway through shredding I add the last half of the taco seasoning. The meat is still hot so the seasoning packet will cook as you go. I don’t add half at the beginning because if you end up with a lot of liquid that you need to drain off, then you’ll be draining off a lot of seasoning and end up with a bland meat mixture.

Then add 1 cup or 1 can of drained corn and 1 can of drained beans. Again, the meat goop should be hot enough to warm the corn and beans. I like corn to taste like corn and beans to be a little firm, so adding these at the end works well for us. Stir.

If you like, you can leave the goop in a crock pot set to Warm while you eat your first helping. It will be warm and handy for seconds.

We eat this in tortillas as filling for burritos or enchiladas, in taco shells with toppings, or spoon over corn chips for a great start to taco salad. Add lettuce, tomatoes,  avocado, cheese, salsa, black olives, etc for toppings. 

Eat leftovers the same way. Warm in a pot on the stove or in the microwave.

When and if you have only one or two helpings of Meat Goop left you can add it back to that extra liquid for a yummy Tortilla soup.        


*For this recipe I use large boneless chicken breasts and thighs. Larger breasts usually come from older chickens and that means meat that is less tender. That is OK — good even. Perfect for slow cooking. And I can often find these for a lower price. Slow cooking makes them pull apart tender, so I put the breast and thighs in whole (or cut in half). You can sub a cheap cut of beef or pork for the chicken or even mix ’em if you like. Check out more notes on Slow Cookers or Crock Pots here.    

Cook All Day to Save Time: Notes On Slow Cookers

I resisted Crock Pots or slow cookers for years because I thought they’d make everything taste like boiled blah. I have come around to like them quite a bit for certain dishes. The key to successful all-day slow cooking is to know it’s strengths and weaknesses.

My goal is to put raw food in a crock pot in the morning and cook it all day so dinner is ready when I get home. I’d rather not use a crock pot for food that has to cook only a few hours. This doesn’t help much on a work day. And I can do that on the stove or in the oven thank-you-very-much. (But a Crock Pot can be an option if it’s hot out and you don’t want to turn on an oven.) Also, I sure don’t want to pre-cook any of the food before I put it in a cooker except under very special circumstances. That’s what the cooker is for — cooking.

A while ago I promised a recipe for Misc Mex Meat Goop. That will be my next post, but first i wanted to get a few notes on slow cookers out there. 

Slow-Cookers: The Good, The Bad (and the, hopefully, not too ugly)

Weaknesses — cooking tender meats to the point of mush. Same goes for slow-cooked rice or pasta. Don’t leave any of those in a crock all day long unless you’re trying to make paste. (You can make lasagna in a Crock Pot, but cook only a few hours — not all day.) There is also the risk that food will taste “boiled” and blah. “Yay, boiled chicken!” Said no one ever (except in sarcasm or out of starvation). You might need to watch your liquids and add extra seasoning to make slow-cooked food more flavorful. In most cases only a little water will cook out of your slow-cooked dishes. You may even end up with more liquid than you started with as juices run from the meat or veggies, so gauge seasonings accordingly. Tough spices like whole cloves or bay leaves may put out a lot of flavor over time. Salt can be added later if needed.

Generally slow cookers don’t brown or crisp foods like baking, sautéing, grilling, or pan frying. So use appropriate cooking methods if browning or crispiness are essential to a dish or do some browning later. 

There are, perhaps, a few too many recipes that rely on canned soup and chicken going in a crock. Prepared soup can be a pretty quick meal on its own without relying on all-day cooking. But some of these recipes aren’t bad in certain circumstances. 

Also, sizes, styles, and heat vary among slow cookers. So you might get different results from a recipe unless you know you’re using a similar slow cooker. Even regular ovens can vary in terms of temperature and heat distribution, but with slow cookers this is even more so. You can end up with burnt food or watery boiled food. This can, however, be a good thing if you know what to do. It gives you options to cook a little differently depending on your goals. This brings me to …

Slow Cooking Strengths — cooking cheap, tough meats to pull-apart tenderness. Yes! Slow-cooking a pot full of hard veggies like carrots or winter squash to a sweet tenderness that still retains some color and texture since the heat stays fairly low and you don’t have to use a lot of liquid. Yes! You can start a dish in the morning and have dinner ready in the evening without needing to be there to do anything to the pot. Yes! That is a big win for any working or busy human out there. 

Know your slow cooker. Different slow cookers are going to deal with heat and liquids differently.  A deep, round slow cooker will usually result in deeper liquid and less evaporation since there’s less surface area. This is great for soups or for cooking super tough meats. Shallow, oval, and/or larger cookers will usually mean fewer inches of liquid for the food to sit in (per cup of liquid). Food will seem less “boiled.” The liquid can spread out at the bottom and evaporate since there’s more surface area. A good lid (which you should always have anyway with a slow cooker) will keep it from drying out. You need some liquid in there to prevent burnt or scorched food.  

Likewise if your cooker gets too hot, you may end up with a burnt mess at the end of the day. D’uh, right. Before leaving your cooker for all-day cooking, try it out on weekend so you can at least peek through the lid and smell for burning food.

Most cookers have Low and High heat settings. Low will almost always be best for all-day slow cooking. But I might suggest High when cooking reconstituted dried beans with lots of liquid. Does your crock have a Warm setting? Use that only after food is properly cooked or you may have a science experiment of bacteria instead dinner when you get home. You don’t want to eat that. My favorite option is a cooker that can be set to cook for a number of hours and then switch to Warm until you’re ready to eat. 

When thinking of cheap, tough cuts of meat, there are a lot of options – beef, pork, chicken, and even turkey. Perhaps I shouldn’t call any meat “cheap.” Less expensive is more like it. 

There are tasty BBQ recipes that slow cook meats like ribs or pork butt in a crock pot to tenderize all day and then pop under a broiler for a few minutes to caramelize and brown at the end. Not a bad option when you can’t actually grill or BBQ properly. Liquid smoke can do wonders in a crock pot. Browning before putting food in a slow cooker may add some flavor, but crispiness will vanish in the moist heat of a slow cooker and most of the browned edges on food will wash away too. 

Chicken can be a good option. A lot of people may not think about different kinds of chicken, but with slow cookers you might want to. Larger, older chickens usually cost less and are less tender. This can be the perfect option for slow cooking. 

Look for Roaster or Stewing Chickens. You may even find a tough old rooster at some specialty or Asian markets. Broilers and Fryers are types of younger chickens. They are smaller, more tender, and usually more expensive. These are great for frying or for the oven (as the names suggest). Yummy but not really your slow-cooking friends. Slow cooking is the perfect option to make a Stewing Chicken pull-apart tender. You don’t even have to limit your options to just stews and soups.  

Check out the recipe for Misc Mex Meat

High Noon, Bye Noon

The Daily Post’s Daily Prompt for April 5 is: High Noon. It suggests, “at noon today, take a pause in what you’re doing or thinking about. Make a note of it, and write a post about it later.”      

Noon of any weekday I’m usually at work. While this prompt came out on a Sunday, Easter Sunday, I didn’t see it until Monday morning when I decided to check out the Daily Prompt with the hope of re-starting a regular habit of blogging. 

So at noon, I thought, “here it is – noon.” This is the time of day when thoughts of lunch pop into my head. I don’t actually eat lunch yet though. In Westerns it would be time for a showdown, a suspenseful gunfight. Skill and speed. One man left standing. Thinking of lunch seems pretty darn pedestrian in comparison. Will I need to watch out for that sandwich! How fast can I down that salad? Those potato chips can be sharp! And then the clock moves on to 12:01.

Happy Easter, Happy Day to You

Well, happy day-after Easter anyway. Happy Easter Monday! I think I’m still following that plus-1 theme.

If you don’t celebrate Easter then happy Passover or happy day in general to you. Hope it was a nice one. It was nice here.

My daughter had a rather nice Easter I think. While she’s plenty old enough to be leaving the Easter Bunny behind, we rather like the morning surprise of a basket with goodies and hidden easter eggs. It’s fun. Why not keep it up? Her goodies included lots of Peeps (they have lime and orange flavored ones this year), a few Minecraft items, and an iTunes gift card. Minecraft and iTunes aren’t exactly traditional Easter goodies, but she loved these! It works for us.

The Easter Bunnies around here got up very early to perpetrate the fun, so the Easter Bunny got tired a little early. Plus the bunny probably snacked on too many sweets.

We also talk about the meaning of Easter so that we know it’s not just about bunnies and eggs. But there are all sorts of Spring traditions around the world, so I wouldn’t mind covering more of them. It’s a time of renewal.

I gave up Chocolate for Lent, and I guess now that Lend is over I can just eat it any day which will be a bit strange. I mean, naturally, I ate chocolate yesterday for Easter, but I still feel like it’s a good exercise to give up something enjoyed or make a healthy change and stick with it. So often we are ruled by our urges. So I’d like to set a new goal for myself. And I still want to keep chocolate-eating and sweets to reasonable amounts.

There were days I really wanted chocolate during Lent. I stuck to my resolution except twice when I had chocolate by accident.

The first time was after sledding with my daughter. We were near my mom’s house so we came in from sledding and my daughter wanted hot chocolate. It looked really good while making it, and it is the thing to have after sledding. Somehow in my head it just became a sweet, flavored, hot-milk beverage instead of hot CHOCOLATE. So I had accidentally had chocolate. It was only when I was halfway through the cup that my brain kicked in with “hey, it’s Lent, you gave up chocolate for Lent, you’re drinking chocolate!” So instead of having a bit of chocolate on Sunday (which, I guess, is technically not part of Lent so it’s OK to have some), I ate no chocolate that Sunday to make up for my hot transgression on Saturday.

Another time, I had a sip of Dave’s coffee without realizing he’d put Ovaltine — chocolate malt Ovaltine — in his coffee. So I tried to make up for that later too.

By the way, Ovaltine in coffee is actually pretty darn yummy. I add it to coffee myself sometimes (except during Lent).

So I was good except for the chocolatey beverages that I drank by accident. Anytime I was actually tempted to knowingly consciously eat chocolate, I did not.

I ate a good bit of chocolate yesterday since it was Easter, but not an excessive amount. My sweet tooth can’t take quite as much as it could in the past. But I was glad to be able to eat the Black Forest cake that my mom had for Easter dessert yesterday. As full as my tummy was after our Easter meal, I was still able to eat a small slice of the cherry chocolate cake with whipped cream topping, and it was delicious.

Plus there was a peanut butter cup that I’ve had in the fridge since the beginning of Lent. I meant to eat it just about every Sunday during Lent and then didn’t. So that on Monday realize I’d realize — again. And I’d have to wait another week before I could eat it. Fast forward through all of Lent and that peanut butter cup did not get eaten until yesterday. Yes, it was delicious.

General Housekeeping

Here it is – Spring 2015 – already!

My poor blog has been nearly abandoned. Thank goodness I do a better job of paying attention to our fish, cats, and daughter (not in that order) or our home would be seriously smelly. And my daughter is doing a really good job of taking care of her new hamster. How did I agree to another pet in our wee home?

To update you, dear blog, in other news I have a new car. We haven’t yet sold the good ‘ol Saturn. But I now drive a spiffy Honda Fit. So no more holding my breath that the car will start and no more Metroing to work in sub-zero temps (and not even just because it’s Spring).

Building repairs have been more or less completed in our community – though we still need to do interior work like cleaning and organizing and painting a newly two-toned wall. One section in our living room was painted a textured cocoa shade long before the repairs and the rest is newly painted the standard white that the repair guys where contracted to do. We need to do other general repairs too that can move forward now that the building isn’t being pounded on 6-7 hours a day. The community needs to take care of an ongoing rainwater drainage issue. So repairs are done but there is still much to do. It isn’t all done. Kind of like laundry.

Our new microwave still works and it’s still attached to the wall. That’s a real plus in my book! Especially the attached-to-the-wall part because that was a little iffy.

Why we keep cramming our schedule to the point of overflow, I have no idea. I think I need a goal of enough but not too much of everything. My problem is that it doesn’t look like too much until we’re knee deep. I need to work on that. 

My daughter is at an all-day dance conference today, and I somehow ended up sitting in an Ikea eating breakfast after I missed the on-ramp to the beltway to get back home. I had a, “hey, look! Ikea!,” moment. I can’t complain too much. The breakfast is pretty yummy. The coffee was free. Ikea has lots of containers to help me organize things. The floor show was somewhat entertaining. 

The mom and two daughters sitting in front of me reminded me of how much young children like to use their vocal chords and not be confined to a high chair. I’m thankful the mom is keeping said child in the high chair. But the young girl is not keeping her food confined to the plate or to her mouth. So now that they’ve gone it looks like there was an egg and sausage explosion with the high chair positioned in the epicenter. That’s after the mom tried to tidy up. Somebody is wearing eggs on her pretty black Mary Janes today – inside and out. The older daughter seemed to find it all about as amusing as I did.  We are not laughing at her mom. Hugs to the mom. It’s more of an empathetic been-there-done-that. It’s better to find some humor than to feel the pain. 

I’m always a little amazed at how well people in public places can ignore other people in public – just never making any eye contact or anything. That’s what pretty much everybody else in the Ikea restaurant is doing. It’s a little surreal if you ask me. 

Now to figure out how I organize the rest of my life.

Plus One: 201st Post [insert confetti in my previous post]

As it turns out, the post marking my fifth anniversary on WordPress, Five Years, was also my 200th post on WordPress. If you’re playing along at home, that makes this is my 201st post. [Cue confetti.]

I should have noticed the number when I wrote the 200th post and celebrated then. Acknowledging it here feels a little like missing the train by 1 second – celebrating a milestone plus 1. Happy 51st Anniversary! Happy 200+1! (Boom-chicka par-TAY.)

But plus 1 is good, right? It’s good luck to put an extra candle on a birthday cake. I like having a little more. And I didn’t even manage my Five Year post on the actual fifth anniversary. So it’s kind of like I got a theme goin’ here.

Again this leaves me room for improvement for the 300th post. Or maybe even something else.

I could just celebrate random numbers. I kind of like 222. And 250 is pretty good. Hopefully I won’t miss the 3.1415 Pi Day that’s coming up.

I should get some confetti.

Five Years

WordPress just gave me an achievement shield! Well, not just, technically it gave it to me a few days ago. It’s an anniversary shield. I registered here on WordPress five years ago. Technically, five years and two days ago. (No special shield for the extra two days.)

I’m not sure if I should be proud or sad or what. I think I ‘m proud! I started making posts on my old AOL website. It was kind of a pain to upload to that. I didn’t know what a blog was back then. Later I blogged a bit on Blogspot before moving to WordPress. Blogspot was not as flexible for a lot of things. It was hard to focus as much on writing, somehow, when I spent so much of my time pulling my hair out in frustration. But lots of people still use Blogspot. It works for them. Maybe it’s better now than it was then.

In the meantime my hair is much longer. I probably need a haircut. And I do manage to blog stuff here on WordPress. Though my total number of posts over the course of five years is not a spectacular average pet year. This, however, does give me a relatively easy goal to try to beat. So that’s what I’m gonna do. That, and a haircut. Soon.

Happy Year of the Sheep or Goat

Happy Lunar New Year!

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