Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

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Fun fact: tartaric acid, or cream of tartar, is a byproduct of the winemaking industry.

A recent trip to our local grocery store thankfully offered plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and disturbingly empty shelves elsewhere. Baking ingredients were almost completely cleaned out, including yeast and baking powder. If you need baking powder and can’t purchase it, make your own with baking soda and cream of tartar: use one part baking soda to two parts cream of tartar and whisk well. Don’t make much more than you need, however, as it doesn’t keep indefinitely. An added advantage to making your own is that you avoid the sodium aluminum sulfate added to most commercial baking powders. (Also, please note that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable in recipes as they each have their own distinct purpose.)

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You can spoil your own milk by choice! How magical!

Many baking recipes call for buttermilk, usually because its acidity is needed to activate the leavening agents and produce a light, fluffy texture. Rather than buy expensive bottles of buttermilk that languish in the back of the fridge and are eventually thrown out, just make your own. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a scant cup of milk, stir well, and let sit at room temperature for ten minutes. The acid sours the milk and creates a de facto buttermilk, perfect for baking. And if you need milk for a recipe but don’t have any on hand, thin out your plain whole-milk yogurt with a little water until you have the quantity you need. (Another pro tip: milk freezes beautifully. Pour a fresh gallon into small airtight containers, leaving room for expansion, and thaw as needed.)

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Acids! So necessary, and yet so underused!

Acidity is a key component of balanced flavor and can be found in a variety of different ingredients. When it comes to savory dishes, acidity might be the difference between a compelling, intriguing meal and one that’s simply uninteresting. Acidic fruit juices, like lemon and lime, are used in the same way vinegar is, to add a bracing note to a dish. Keep in mind that certain acids, such balsamic vinegar, will add sweetness more than acidity – but this might be ideal in a slow-cooked Bolognese, for example. Rice vinegar is light and delicate, perfect for salad dressing, and softer acids, like orange juice, are terrific in stir-fries and baked goods. If you’ve got an open bottle of white wine, you can use that too. The next time you cook something that tastes a little flat, add a splash of acidity and see if it doesn’t improve the situation – and don’t be shy about subbing one acid for another.

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The room temperature consistency of cooking fats shows you how to substitute.

When it comes to cooking fats, the easiest rule of thumb is to think about their consistency at room temperature and switch like for like. For example, butter, lard (of which I am a huge fan), hydrogenated vegetable shortening (of which I am most definitely not a fan) and coconut oil are all solid at room temperature, meaning they can be exchanged with ease, with the acknowledgement that flavor profiles will change. Canola, olive and other cooking oils are clearly liquid at room temperature, so they’ll behave differently in pastries and so on. Butter and coconut oil can obviously be melted to achieve a liquid state (common in muffins and quick breads) but their natural state is solid; in the chemistry of pie crust, for example, cold fat is essential and liquid oils must never be substituted. (Know, too, that cooking fats have various smoke points, which may also affect how they’re used.)

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Please do not make a chia-flax omelette and then send us your complaints.

Our grocery store is limiting egg purchases to two dozen per person, but since we have laying hens (and plenty of neighbors with chickens, too) this doesn’t impact us. If you need an egg for baking and are fresh out, you can always make a chia or flax egg, which have become popular in recent years as vegan alternatives in baking. To make a one-egg equivalent, combine one tablespoon of ground chia or flax seeds with three tablespoons of water and let sit until thickened and gel-like. Some recipes leave the chia seeds whole, but I find that grinding the seeds in a coffee grinder offers a much better texture in the final product. Note that this egg substitute isn’t perfect in all recipes – please don’t use for quiche! – but offers a decent facsimile in muffins, quick breads and other baked goods.

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Why buy fancy cake flour or self-raising flour when you can make your own?

You may see recipes calling for cake flour or self-raising (also self-rising) flour. These flours are simply lower-protein (also known as softer wheat) flours with other ingredients added, and you can easily make your own.

-To make cake flour, measure out one cup of all-purpose flour (spoon flour into a measuring cup and use a knife to level the top). Remove two tablespoons of flour and add two tablespoons of cornstarch. Whisk together well before blending with other ingredients.

-To make self-raising flour (commonly seen in English and American Southern recipes), add two teaspoons of baking powder for each cup of all-purpose flour. (You don’t remove flour as you do with cake flour, above.) Note that some self-raising flours also include salt; check your recipe to ensure it has the required salt before adding more.

-If a recipe calls for bread flour and you only have all-purpose, please proceed anyway. You most likely won’t notice the difference. Bread flour is a higher-protein (hard winter wheat) flour, but for most home bread baking, all-purpose will do just fine.

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Be cautious when substituting sweeteners.

If you’re just adding a balancing dash of sweetness to a tomato sauce or a salad dressing, you can use any sweetener you have on hand. If you’re baking, however, be wary of switching up your sweeteners. Moisture content is very important in baking, and honey and agave and maple syrup and molasses and other liquid sweeteners have a great deal more moisture than granulated sugars. Although these can be used in certain situations (muffin recipes often call for liquid sweeteners depending on the other ingredients) make sure you know the possible implications before substituting, and know that flavor will likely change, too. Also, be especially cautious with “alternative sugars,” like coconut or stevia or sucralose or other mysterious chemical sweeteners. These rarely work in baking and you may end up with unpleasant metallic flavors and/or wasting a lot of valuable ingredients.

Remember, cooking well isn’t about slavishly following recipes, but about understanding how foods and flavors work together to create the end result you’re after. And substituting ingredients often results in a wonderful final product! Hopefully this strange time we’re in will create a new generation of talented improvisational cooks who work with what they have, rather than longing for something different.

What other kitchen substitutions do you want to know about? Stay home and stay healthy, friends, and let us know what you’re cooking and baking these days.

P.S. Thanks to Malcolm for indirectly suggesting this post, and we hope your sweet potato pie turned out amazing!


Gardening for beginners

The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.

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The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.

Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.

Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.

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The second week

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Hi there. How are you holding up? Like most of you, we’re entering our second week of self-quarantine. Some of you are under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has turned completely upside down over the past week, and that we’re all doing our best to make sense of a fraught situation that has no logic, no precedent, no guidebook.

I am working diligently on acknowledging what I can control and letting go of the rest. To that end, I believe that our single most important job right now is to stay healthy. For those of us who are low-risk and currently healthy, the most valuable contribution we can make to our community is to remain isolated and entirely out of the medical system, so they can put their attention and skills and dwindling supplies towards those who need it. Obviously everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s what we’re prioritizing at Quiet Farm:

Limited sugar / unlimited fruits and vegetables. When this pandemic imploded in the U.S. two weeks ago, my first instinct was to grab all of my chocolate and butter and flour and cover every available surface in my kitchen with an elaborate array of cookies and brownies and comfort cakes, like some sort of mad bakery vision devised by Lewis Carroll. Baking is regimented and precise and calming, and something we can control when everything else has gone by the wayside. Instead of filling our house with sweets, though, we’re eating as much fresh (and frozen!) fruit and vegetables as we can manage. (When everyone else was stocking up on toilet paper, we were buying citrus. There was plenty.) It’s easy to justify scarfing a lot of junk food and “emergency snacks” when we’re anxious, but sugar is highly inflammatory and I think our bodies are under enough stress as it is. We’re consuming lots of salads and green smoothies and stir-fries, and when I do bake, I bake muffins loaded with fruit purees and nuts and seeds.

(P.S. If you’re buying salad ingredients for longer-than-usual storage now, avoid anything pre-cut and think hardy brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. These are all super-nutritious and delicious shredded into a salad, and they’ll keep much longer than pre-washed bagged greens.)

Hydration. We live at 6,300 feet in a high-plains desert, so we’re naturally a bit dehydrated most of the time anyway. Dehydration contributes to headaches, irritability, muscle aches, mental fuzziness, exhaustion and a host of other ailments, none of which we need right now. We might be less active these days and so think that we need to drink less, but a cool glass of water could be exactly what we need to right our ship in this moment. We’re drinking lots of water, plus plenty of mint tea and a hot honey-lemon-ginger tonic that soothes throats and nerves. When it seems like everything is about to go entirely off the rails and I can’t take this for one more minute, I stop, breathe and drink a glass of water. It doesn’t change what’s happening in the world, but it does allow me to accept it without panicking.

Movement and fresh air. I’d much rather be outdoors than in even in the best of times, but a heavy, wet spring snowstorm this week has turned our farm into one giant muddy puddle. Despite the poor weather, I compel myself to get outside every day for at least thirty minutes, even if it’s just to empty the compost bin or watch the chickens or check on seedlings. And I never seem to actually want to go for a walk or a run, but once I’m out and moving, I never regret the decision. If you’re able to do so safely (and with appropriate six-foot-plus social distancing), please get outside, even if it’s just to feel the sun on your face. Do ten jumping jacks. Stretch like a contented cat. Skip rope. Run around in circles. Dance like a person possessed. Spring is here, and there is new growth to see everywhere, even if it doesn’t feel much like a time of hope and renewal right now.

Sleep. It is oddly comforting to me, somehow, to know that every single human on the planet right now is under some degree of stress from this new enemy; collectively, we are suffering together. But we’re concentrating on keeping our immune systems strong, and stress, anxiety and poor sleep are in direct opposition to this. So we sleep, as much as we’re able. There is no shame in going to bed at nine o’clock (without our phones!); no shame in sleeping past our usual waking time. Sleep is our bodies’ time to heal and to repair, and we all need that right now. If you can, get some extra sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

I’m well aware that these are small and meaningless tasks, and they’re nothing compared to what the people on the front lines of this crisis are facing. But these are things I can control, and that’s all any of us have right now. And we need to stay healthy, first and foremost.

How is your household navigating our new world? We’d love to hear what you’re prioritizing. Stay healthy and well.

Flatten the curve

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I read a story this past week – possibly apocryphal, but right now, who cares? – about shoppers in a Trader Joe’s who got into a fistfight over the last package of frozen waffles. My first thought: isn’t an indefinite home quarantine a great time to learn how to make your own waffles? My second thought: Americans display Black Friday tendencies even in the face of an unprecedented global crisis.

Our county is sparsely populated, especially compared to much of the rest of the state, but we have an extraordinarily high percentage of elderly residents. We’re following the “flatten the curve” guidance and will be on self-isolation for at least the next two weeks. I’ll be entirely honest: this doesn’t really change our normal lives at all; we’ve regularly gone two or more weeks without leaving the farm and without encountering other people. So it’s business as usual for us here, with the added incentive to get lots of seeds started and spring planting done; thankfully, the weather ahead looks perfect for outdoor work.

Some ideas if you, too, are staying home to protect your community: plan your garden! Make soup! Start seeds! Bake bread! Cook a pot of beans! Go on a long walk! Grow some microgreens! Make yogurt! Dust off your sewing machine or your knitting needles and do something creative and relaxing! (I’m super-excited to see that “visible mending” is now a legitimate trend – and I have a big pile of socks to repair!) Start a compost pile! Read some great books! Make waffles so other people can fight over the frozen packets! Make the most of this difficult situation and learn something new. Enjoy unexpected time with loved ones and limit your news access, too. (Again, easier said than done.)

Be calm, be kind and be gentle – with yourself, and with others. I hope we get through this and come out better and stronger on the other side. Andrà tutto bene, friends.


Farm update: March 9

How are you doing? It’s probably been a whipsaw week where you live, too. Here we are trying our best to stay busy and avoid the headlines (easier said than done). A few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

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The bees love coffee as much as we do!

One sure sign of warming weather (which is coming far too early, in our opinion) is enhanced bee activity. On warm, sunny days we’re seeing lots of bees buzzing in the compost pile (they particularly love our spent coffee filters) and also near one of our big trees that’s in early bud. The apple trees in the surrounding orchards haven’t bloomed yet, but it’s always nice to know that our resident bee population survived another winter.

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Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

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Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male. Continue reading

The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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Winter on the farm

In nautical terminology, “the doldrums” refer to an actual place – waters near the Equator where sailing ships were often stuck for days or weeks in windless seas. In common parlance, however, the doldrums mean “a state or period of stagnation, inactivity or depression.” And so here we are in deepest winter.

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Our dormant raised beds, slumbering under snow.

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How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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