Make your own Fiery Heirloom Tomato Salsa!

Hi folks,

It is Fall and the air is cooling down, which means the growing season is coming to an end for most of us (unless you live somewhere warm!). That means two things: you might be feeling chilly and you have a lot of produce to use up. Well, let me show you how to address both: by enjoying some delicious heirloom tomato salsa! This salsa has a good balance of bold taste from several different heirloom tomatoes and heat from habenero and/or serrano peppers. Allow me to walk you through…

Before getting started, here’s what you’ll need:

2 pounds of heirloom tomatoes (farmer’s markets are great places to pick some up!)

1 yellow/sweet onion, cut into 4 quarters

1 green bell pepper, de-seeded and cut into quarters

2 hot peppers (I used Serrano and Habanero, if you like it more mild, try Anaheim); I would recommended that you remove the seeds, but for those that like it hot, keep the seeds in!

3 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced

1 lime

1/3 cup of fresh chopped cilantro

vegetable oil, ground black pepper, cumin, kosher salt.


Some fresh ingredients (note that not all of the cilantro and hot peppers will be used!)

Next go ahead and cut the tomatoes into halves. If any of the tomatoes are particularly large, cut them into quarters. Next, heat up your broiler. The broiler is like a grill in your oven. Newer ovens sometimes have it on the top, so you’ll want to put your vegetables on a high rack. Older ovens have a separate compartment, usually at the bottom, which you can insert a tray or use the one included. For more information on your broiler, click here.


When the broiler is heated up, arrange the onion and pepper quarters, HALF of your tomato halves/quarters, and hot peppers on a tray or sheet of foil coated with vegetable oil. Sprinkle kosher salt and black pepper as desired over vegetables on the tray/sheet. Then let the vegetables broil until tender and slightly charred. This may take about 10 minutes or so. Flip the vegetables over when the first side appears done to let the other side char. When done, carefully remove the tray and let the vegetables cool.


Putting the fresh vegetables into the broiler


Charred veggies!

Once the vegetables are cool enough to handle, dice all of them to as small/thin as desired. Then, take a bowl and mix the charred vegetables with the sliced fresh tomatoes and cilantro. Feel free to add some of the oil from the sheet/tray into the bowl, as it adds some good flavor. Mix together and apply pressure to squish the ingredients. I prefer a wooden spoon for this. Then, added cumin as desired. I probably use 1.5 tablespoons or so. Squeeze the fresh lime over the salsa until you can’t get any more juice out of it.


The non-broiled ingredients


All ingredients added together and squished and mixed

Let your salsa cool a bit and you’ll be ready to eat it. However, if you’d like to save some or make a larger amount than I describe in this post, consider canning your salsa. For more information about how to do this, check out one of our previous posts about pickling! Use the same process as described to sterilize and seal the jars. In the meantime, enjoy!!


The finished product!



Lively up your Place with Houseplants!

IMG_0649Hi all,

Hope everyone is enjoying the summer! Things are quiet out here in State College, Pennsylvania, and when I am alone in my apartment things can get well…a little lonely! Although I enjoy spending time with my good friend, Django (meet him here!), I also take enjoyment in my houseplants. Houseplants are a great way to lively up your indoor environment year round. Not only that, but plants absorb air pollutants! This is particulalary useful in new buildings where the fumes from construction may be trapped in tight. Consider using house plants in your new (or old) home or workplace to keep yourself feeling fresh and eliminate unpleasant fumes for you and yours.

You might be asking what sorts of plants do well inside. After all, the indoors usually does not provide an ideal environment for most plants. The best place to start is know your indoor environment. I face the Northwest, a direction that is poor for direct sun exposure. Therefore, I avoid plants that require a lot of direct sunlight, such as the jade plant or devil’s ivy. If you have this same problem, consider plants that thrive in shade, such as Chinese evergreen or various palms and ferns (note: not all palms and ferns do well in low light, but many do). Note that many indoor plants are either from tropical and arid regions that maintain consistent temperatures throughout the year (like your home more or less should).

The Aloe vera plant is always a classic that doesn’t need too much direct sunlight, although more than some of the plants named above. It is hardy and can grow for many years and even decades, creating some monster plants! Other environmental factors to consider are humidity, temperature inside (such as if your home has problems with drafts in the winter), etc. Remember, no plant is meant to be indoors, but some can do very well and can really add a lot to where you lay your head. House plants are also generally low maintenance and do not need to be repotted regularly unless the roots are outgrowing the pot, in which it is time to upgrade to a larger pot. Do not top off soil if it is getting low, which results from decomposing and absorption of the soil. Topping off soil can bury the roots too far below the surface, causing the plant to struggle for oxygen. If the soil level drops significantly, just repot the plant with fresh new potting soil. In terms of water, pruning, and other care, seek out information on your specific plant.

Below are photos of a few of my own plants. Happy potting!

The famous Aloe vera

The famous Aloe vera




My roommate planted the remnants of his green onions on the left. Try this to grow yourself some new ones!


A newly propagated succulent


Source: Michigan State University Extension Master Gardner Manual. For more information about MSU Extension’s Master Gardener Program, visit:

Visit to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens

I wanted to share some photos from my first visit to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory this month. It was a warm escape from the bitter cold weather. The conservatory displays plants from three major biomes around the world: tropical, temperate, and arid. I learned about plants that I take for granted, (did you know that black pepper grows on a vine?), and found artistic inspiration from the natural patterns in plants. I also found inspiration from a unique sculptural planted kaleidoscope in the gardens. The incorporation of plant growth into the kaleidoscope ensures that you will only see that geometric image once and it will always be a fresh experience. Such as great reminder of how substantial moments are. This was a peaceful one for sure.

Winter Bay Laurel

Short days and early nights are making me long for greenery. Now that I have more time on my hands, I’ve started to go a little haywire on my indoor gardening. My newest plant addition is the Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis), often used as a spice in cooking. This little plant was shipped in the mail during the winter, and is looking pretty good considering its cold travel. It did appear to have some powdery mildew. Wiping the leaves with some neem oil seems to have resolved the problem!

On a side note, it did not occur to me that this plant is “laurel.” I have only ever referred to it as “bay leaf.” Interestingly enough, names beginning with the Latin prefix “Laur-” have meanings related to this plant. For instance, my name is Lauren, meaning “crowned in laurels.” The Greek God Apollo was depicted with a crown of laurels, and traditions of crowning victorious athletes and warriors occurred in Greek and Roman culture. Some pretty interesting folk-lore explains this origin in the story of Apollo and Daphne.

Enough of my ranting, have a peaceful winter!

Become a Citizen Scientist!

Sound Wave Bat - Urban Hermits

So you happen to have some time on your hands, let’s say 5 minutes. Is your first move to pull up Facebook or play a game? What if you could play games that help scientists collect or manage data for various projects? Well, this is one of the great benefits of citizen science. For example, Bat Detective has accumulated thousands of bat sound recordings to aid in tracking populations effected by global change. However, without a availability of free ears, the project would be extremely set back by time constraints. This is where you come in. With even five minutes, you can sit down and test your brain to identify bat calls.

Below is some other projects of note:

Cell Slider hosts anonymous cancer slides that require analyzing. “This would accelerate research and free up scientists to tackle other research opportunities. Imagine the collective force of hundreds of thousands of people accelerating the race to discover personalized cancer treatments. If we stand united, cancer doesn’t stand a chance, ” say the creators.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count – Now free to participate – help track bird migratory patterns.

Dark Sky Meter  – Collect data on light pollution and night conditions by using a free app to record.

Project Feeder Watch – A winter project, collect data about what birds comes to your feeder.

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project – Help track monarch butterfly populations and nests (and I recommend you read this article by the New York Times.)

Want a great place to start your citizen science search? Try Sci Starter. Do you know of a project that we haven’t heard of? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Image: Lauren Korany, Urban Hermits, 02 December 2013;

Your Farmers Market!

As fall turns to Winter and farmers harvest the rest of their produce before fields turn fallow, it is a great time to stock up on some produce at your local farmers market! If you haven’t been to one yet, consider this a wonderful opportunity to support local growers and learn about what sort of agriculture is taking place near you. Whether you live in a large city or a small town, farmers markets are becoming increasingly present and popular. Growing up near Detroit, Michigan, I loved spending a Saturday at Eastern Market, the city’s legendary market district where farmers from all over Michigan and Ohio would arrive early in the morning to deliver city-dwellers fresh produce, small operation meats and dairy, and other craft items. During college in Ann Arbor, MI, I enjoyed the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. From fresh berries in the late spring, to christmas gifts and hot chocolate in the December, it was a great place to celebrate my community.

This past week, I had the pleasure of exploring the State College Downtown Farmers Market. This provides students and residents an opportunity to enjoy locally grown foods, largely from the nearby Amish farms. Above are two photos of some of the great purchases I made. I tried Tiger-Eye Beans for the first time, which I highly recommend, as well as a variety of hot peppers. Django was able to enjoy the haul (see below).

Django enjoying some salad!

If you haven’t enjoyed a farmers market, yet, or you are not sure where the nearest one is, check out this handy website that locates them for you! In the meantime, I have some cooking to do, cheers!

Its Autumn…Time to Make Pickles!!

Hey all,

Happy Autumn! This is a great time to start preserving all of those vegetables that have been popping out in the garden this past month. Pickles are a personal favorite of mine and a good way to utilize the produce from what are generally very fruitful cucumber or zucchini plants. That being said, you can pickle or can just about anything! I am going to share with you all a simple recipe for delicious pickles. However, bear in mind that I am not processing pickles, which is essential if you wish for yours to last a couple months. Thus, for this recipe, I would recommend eating them within a week or so. Now, lets get started!

There are a few essentials you will need. A few Ball glass jars will do well, I would suggest quart jars. This recipe will be for 6 pints, so grab 3 quart jars. Also, make sure you have distilled vinegar and pickling salt.

pickle making

To make 6 pints of pickles, you’ll need about 3-5 lbs of cucumbers/zucchini. Also, chop up a whole white or vidalia onion and grab several cloves of garlic. Soak the cucumbers, onion, and garlic in ice water. I like to put them in a large bowl with some cold water on the bottom and then put ice over the top to melt.

Prep: Sterilize the jars by washing them in the dishwasher and laying them right side up on a cookie sheet in an oven set at 225 degrees for at least 15 minutes. In the mean time, put the tops in boiling water. Near the end of the 15 minutes, prepare the brine by putting 3 cups of water, 3 cups of distilled vinegar, and 4 tablespoons of pickling salt in a pot and bringing it to a boil.

Once the produce is mostly submerged in ice water and is cool, pack the pint jars (after they’ve cooled, of course) with sliced pickles, onions, garlic, and whatever spices you’d like. I recommend dill weed or seeds, mustard seed or powder, coriander seed, black peppercorns, red chili flakes, and turmeric. Feel free to try new spices, too! I also recommend chopped jalapeño or habanero for those who like it hot!

pickle making

Once you’ve packed your jars with your produce and splices, pour the hot brine over the top, filling the jars almost up to the top. Next, put on the lids that were boiled. Use tongs, as they’ll be hot. Using a hot pad, tighten the lids and let them sit until they cool. Then put them in the fridge and they’ll be ready to go within 24 hours!

pickle making

Favorite Instagram Accounts!

Okay, so last month invested in my first smartphone (android!), and have gotten very distracted on Instagram. Below are a few of my favorite accounts to follow!

@biddythehedgehog Biddy the Hedgehog is always on an adventure, partaking in beautiful hikes that I would like to be on right now. Did I mention he’s a hedgehog? Super freaking adorable in a being-in-the-woods kind of way.

@umemichi77 Beautiful and serene shots of succulents and cacti. This is my plant-porn recommendation.

@avianrecon This account is managed by a falconer, bird trainer, and raptor rehabilitator. Here you will see into the daily lives of the resident birds-of-prey and you will fall madly in love with them.

@perdigonporkins Meet Perdigón Porkins, a big ol’ piggy with a dog best friend. Perdigón is adorable and has captions with attitude. ¡Gronff!

@silas_the_sennie Silas the Senegal parrot is entertaining to watch. He has a HUGE personality. From attacking his toys, to cuddling, to eating chili peppers on the beach, I can’t get enough of him.

Once Unidentified Shiso

The apartment complex I live in created a few garden plots a year ago. This summer, due to the nature of having multiple residents, I didn’t use the same plot as I did before. I ecstatically planted seeds but what sprouted was not what I had expected. A mysterious plant emerged from the previous year’s planting. It began to spread all across the plot, even into other plots! It had thin leaves, serrated edges, and smelled of pepper and citrus. I hoped it was edible but I couldn’t find any information on it by searching those characteristics. It took 3 months, but I finally stumbled across what it was – Green Shiso, also known as Perilla or Beefsteak. Last night I made Shiso pesto and I was really impressed by it’s unique flavor. I will plant this intentionally in the future! I love it!

Where are the Butterflies? How you can Help!


Monarch Butterflies

Although butterfly populations have been decreasing for some time all over the U.S., this year has been one of the worst. Personally, I can’t remember seeing any butterflies in the dozen or so gardens I maintain for my summer job, as well as my personal garden. The only one I have seen is the white butterfly that hatches from the imported cabbage worm, an invasive pest.


A picture from my phone of the invasive imported cabbage-worm butterfly

As for the beautiful monarchs or other butterflies that grace our presence and perform important ecosystem services, such as pollination, sightings have been slim. Why haven’t they been coming out? One reason, as Holli Ward, executive director of the Michigan Butterflies Project, explains is the uncharacteristic weather of the last year. She stated in a Detroit Free Press interview that, “This year’s cooler, wetter spring really didn’t help…Couple that with last year’s extremely hot, extremely dry weather, and it’s a terrible situation for monarchs” (Shamus 2013). Other threats to butterfly populations include loss of habitat due to urban sprawl and agricultural development and the use of pesticides. As these trends continue, the future for our butterflies looks grim. But you can help! Planting native plants that attract butterflies can create an ideal habitat for butterfly breeding and a peaceful setting for you to enjoy. Kristen Jordan Shamus of the Detroit Free Press consulted with several horticultural and butterfly experts to explain more about how you can create your own butterfly garden. Check it out here!

Sources: Shamus, Kristen Jordan. “Butterflies aren’t showing up for Michigan summer”. Detroit Free Press. July 5 2013.

“If you plant it, the butterflies will come”. Detroit Free Press. July 5 2013.

Images: Imported Cabbage Worm. Mark Suchyta