The Farm Series: Colorado Aromatics

Simply put, we are killing it over here at Finding Quiet Farm! In addition to our new FAQ Series (which already has not one but TWO posts, on salt and cooking fats), we’re launching yet another new programming line-up. This series is focused on farms, because we’re focused on farms. Also, we think sometimes our audience might need just the tiniest break from the constant lecturing on food politics blah blah blah and know your ingredients blah blah blah. Behold: pretty pictures from The Farm Series!

Garden Flags

It’s not much of a secret – our blog title might actually give it away – that N and I plan to buy a farm. We want to find a piece of agricultural property between fifty and one hundred acres, but we only plan on farming the tiniest portion of that land. The remainder we want to turn into a nature reserve of sorts, a place where farm guests can walk for miles and hopefully see native birds, plant life and more. We want our farm to fit comfortably into an existing place; we don’t want to bulldoze acres of wetland or turn a previously wild space into a bare, sterile monoculture.

Mountains.jpg

Longs and Meeker Peak, looking west from Colorado Aromatics.

Great; those are all lofty goals. But how do we do this? How do we go about the process of 1. finding a farm and 2. determining if that farm is the right place for us? Our answer: we visit as many farms as we possibly can, in Japan and England and in the U.S. And we talk to farmers and we volunteer on farms and we just make every effort possible to get as much experience as we can before we jump in with both feet. It might not be the right answer, but it’s our answer.

Farm Sign.jpg

A couple of weeks ago, we visited Colorado Aromatics, north of us in Longmont; we are always appreciative of any farmer who opens up their property to visitors. Colorado Aromatics offers “farm-to-skin” products made from plants grown on their nine-acre property. They are certified naturally grown, which allows smaller market growers to achieve recognizable certification without jumping through the (somewhat absurd) hoops required by national organic certification programs.

Tour Group

Colorado Aromatics’ primary crop is lavender, which grows beautifully in much of Colorado’s high-plains desert climate. But they also grow a wide variety of other medicinal herbs, plus they keep chickens and goats who provide valuable manure for the farm’s plants. Any good farmer knows that well-raised animals (and their waste) are an essential aspect of a healthy farm.

Chickens.jpg

Everyone needs backyard chickens!

Goat.jpg

Angora goats are most often raised for their lovely wool rather than their meat or milk.

Lavender Garden.jpg

Lavender in the field.

Comfrey.jpg

Bees love comfrey!

Calendula.jpg

Calendula in flower.

Black Peppermint.jpg

Black peppermint.

Bulgarian Roses

Bulgarian roses, grown for their intense scent (and oils) rather than their appearance.

Fennel.jpg

Fennel in bloom.

Distil.jpg

The distillate operation.

Red Clover Dried.jpg

Red clover drying.

Lemon Balm.jpg

Here lemon balm is an actual cash crop rather than an invasive weed, as most of us in Colorado perceive it.

Drying Room.jpg

The drying room.

Mailette.jpg

One of the many varieties of lavender grown here.

Thank you for hosting us, Colorado Aromatics!

 

 

The FAQ Series: Oils + Fats

We kicked off our new FAQ Series with a post on salt; for our second installment, we’ll discuss cooking oils and fats. One of the most common questions I hear in my classes is “What sort of oil (or fat) should I cook with?” The short answer: it depends.

Olive Oil 02.jpg

As per usual, raiding my pantry yielded a surprising number of oils.

The most important things to know about any specific cooking oil or fat, beyond its potential health benefits, are its flavor profile and its smoke point. Certain oils, like sesame and unrefined coconut, will have a pronounced flavor and may not be applicable in all situations. A fat’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to break down; this can be a bit vague as it happens over a range of degrees rather than at a precise moment. When the fat starts to break down, it indicates a loss of flavor and nutrients, and possibly an imminent fire.

Olive Oil Splash.jpg

Taste your olive oil straight…but maybe not out of a martini glass.

Oils are crushed, pressed or centrifuged out of nuts, seeds and fruits. Refined oils may have been subjected to additional filtration, bleaching, heat, chemicals and other treatments; they’re typically usable at higher temperatures than unrefined. They also generally have a neutral flavor and a longer shelf life. With true unrefined, or raw, oils, there is very little or no heat used to produce the oil. This is where the term cold-press comes in; the highest-quality olive oils are made without any heat which might compromise the delicate flavor nuances of the oil.

Flambe

Please don’t try this at home.

All oils can catch fire when heat is applied, so it’s important to know what temperatures you’ll be cooking at. An oil’s flash point refers to the temperature at which it could conceivably catch fire. Don’t ever leave cooking oils or fats unattended while heating; if for any reason oil does catch fire, turn the heat source off immediately and cover the pan with a metal lid to remove the oxygen source. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, and don’t try to move the pot, as you could burn yourself or others. Baking soda or flour can also be used to douse the flames, but you’ll need a lot. In other words, prevention is a much better and safer option.

Olive Oil 01.jpg

Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.

Thanks to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention recently. It’s certainly versatile, and without question the oil I use most in my kitchen. But like so many other food items, it can be confusing; most of our olive oil comes from other countries, and the FDA doesn’t regulate imported olive oils. As with honey, there have been many, many instances of adulterated olive oils sold in the U.S.; a 2010 study indicated that close to 70% of imported olive oil was incorrectly labeled. Some states, like California, have passed stringent labeling laws, but be aware that it’s pretty easy to slap just about anything on a bottle of oil and not get called out for it.

Coconut Oil.jpg

So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.

Never cook with fancy, expensive olive oils; these oils are best for drizzling over salads or vegetables, or dipping with bread. There is no point in spending $30 a bottle (or more) for an oil that you’re going to subject to high heat; you’re just wasting your money. Always smell your oils; like any fat, oils can turn rancid. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, out of direct sunlight, and buy in small amounts. Expensive, delicate oils, like nut oils, are often sold in opaque containers rather than glass so they aren’t subject to as much degradation. Still, many consumers actually prefer rancid olive oil; this is probably attributable to the low-quality olive oil we grew up on – we think it’s supposed to taste like that.

Sunflower.jpg

Both pretty and useful!

As with most foods, what matters most is your own palate. Before you spend hundreds on fancy olive oils, buy a few small bottles and taste the oil straight. Even better, go to a store that sells different oils and also offers a tasting bar. Some will taste sharp, or grassy, or bitter, depending on age and harvest and other factors. Don’t be swayed by celebrity chef brand names or pretty labels; price isn’t necessarily your best guide here. Figure out what you like, then buy it.

Butter 01.jpg

Thank the sweet Lord we’re allowed to love butter again.

When it comes to butter, quality definitely matters. In America, butter must be at least 80% butterfat to be labeled as butter; in Europe, it’s 82%. We’re starting to see more butterfat quantities on labels here (note Vermont Creamery products in photo above at 86%) and it does provide richer mouthfeel and certainly more flakiness in pastries. I use unsalted butter exclusively in baking and cooking so I can control the final salt content, but for spreading on good bread nothing compares to fresh, cultured, salted butter. Want to make your own? Try this recipe.

Butter 04.jpg

This little piggy became lard…

Remember when your grandmother kept the old metal coffee can filled with bacon drippings next to the stove? Like butter, lard, tallow and drippings are back in fashion; we can probably thank Team Paleo for that. It’s real fat, rather than fake fat, and it’s delicious. Use sparingly but with great enjoyment, and just like any animal product, buy from a reputable source. How the animals were raised matters.

Hazelnut Walnut Oil.jpg

Nut oils are delicious, expensive and prone to rancidity; use judiciously.

A simple (and by no means definitive) guide to cooking fats and oils:

Butter: literally nothing compares for flavor, plus exemplary flakiness in baked goods, but it has a low smoke point and burns easily. Use when the flavor will shine: in simple eggs, on top of pancakes or waffles, in pie crusts and pastries. Or make brown butter into an elegant sauce for fish or pasta. Try compound butters with herbs, garlic or other add-ins; it’s easy to make your own or buy from these lovely folks.

Canola oil: useful in baking when a neutral oil is desired; also good for sautéing and frying. This oil is a tricky one: it comes from the rapeseed plant and was developed using traditional plant breeding methods before the advent of GMOs. It was renamed for the sensitive U.S. market; the word canola is a hodgepodge of “Canada” and “oil,” since most of our rapeseed comes from Canada. There exists a misconception that all canola is GMO; although that isn’t true, rapeseed is one of the most common GMO crops, so if you’re avoiding GMOs, watch your labels.

Coconut oil: currently very trendy along with everything else coconut. Solid at cool room temperature so it behaves like shortening or butter in baking and is therefore very popular with vegans. Previously a nutritional villain, and now a hero (see also: butter, eggs, coffee, salt, red wine…)

Ghee: butter that has been clarified to remove the milk solids so that its smoke point is higher. Common in Indian cuisine.

Grapeseed oil: a byproduct of the winemaking industry, it’s neutral in flavor and best for baking, sautéing, and salad dressings when you don’t want a pronounced olive flavor.

Lard: rendered hog fat; it is neutral in flavor (unlike bacon drippings, which are smoky and bacon-y) and produces amazing pie crusts, especially when combined with butter. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians. Moderately high smoke point.

Margarine or other “fake butters”: never. Not even ever. Totally lab-created; typically hydrogenated oils often with mysterious additives. Stay away; there is literally nothing of value in these products. No, they absolutely do not reduce your cholesterol. I don’t care what the package says.

Olive oil: the most versatile and a favorite of Mediterranean diet proponents. Use olive oil for moderately high temperature sautéing, tossing with cooked pasta and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Expensive, flavorful olive oils should be reserved for salad dressings and as an accompaniment to good bread and should never be heated.

Nut oil, such as hazelnut or walnut: expensive, flavorful and great for salad dressings, especially when the same toasted nut is used in the dish. Try this simple beauty from the great Ottolenghi!

Peanut oil: high smoke point and good for frying; popular in Asian cuisine. Pronounced flavor and possible allergen issues. Great for deep-frying.

Sesame: see peanut oil, above, except that it’s way too expensive and strongly flavored for deep-frying. Dark sesame oil will have a stronger flavor.

Safflower oil: related to sunflowers, this is a neutral oil fine for frying and baking.

Sunflower oil: high in Vitamin E plus a high smoke point; neutral flavor. Use for baking and frying.

Vegetable shortening: Crisco introduced vegetable shortening in 1911 as a lard alternative. It’s solid at cool room temperature and therefore behaves similarly to butter or lard in baked goods. It’s also partially hydrogenated and not an ideal choice for health, although now the label claims “zero trans fats.” I’ll confess that it works beautifully in pie crusts and it is a vegan option.

Vegetable oil: most products labeled “vegetable oil” are typically soy, yet another primarily GMO crop. Soybean oil is one of the most common ingredients in heavily processed foods and has virtually no benefits whatsoever. If you’re looking for a neutral baking oil, choose non-GMO canola.

What should we discuss next? Let us know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving the bees

On a cool spring day four years ago, our friend Jim came to pick us up in his truck. We drove to a local feed store where we waited forever with dozens of other eager apiarists to pick up our new beehive. The sellers had driven down from Wyoming, where their hives and queens were specifically raised in extreme environments (mainly intense winter winds), meaning they’d likely survive their move to the Front Range.

Bee 01

That first hive didn’t make it. We lost it two years ago, and to this day we still don’t know why it didn’t overwinter successfully. Because our neighbors’ lawn care company uses ten thousand different poisonous chemicals? Because we didn’t maintain the winter sugar water supply properly? Because of colony collapse disorder? We don’t know, and we won’t ever know. That total lack of knowledge is one of the most challenging aspects of keeping honeybees.

Bumble Bee 01.jpg

Such remarkably strong and beautiful creatures.

We are very new to beekeeping. We’re on our second hive, and though it seems to be exceptionally strong at the moment, there are a lot of different pressures on pollinators right now. We try to do our very best by our bees; we read and we talk to friends who keep bees and we monitor the hive carefully, but ultimately we’re not entirely in control of the situation.

Bee 03.jpg

Planting flowers that bees love is one of the best things you can do to help them.

In June, the U.S. officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord. This decision sent yet another exceptionally strong message to the rest of the world that Americans are basically a bunch of nutjob flat-earthers who believe climate change is a global conspiracy cooked up by the Chinese. In challenging times like these, it’s easy to believe that nothing we do makes any difference and that we’re all doomed. Keeping bees, however, is one of our small commitments to creating the kind of world we want to live in.

Hive

Our basic hive set-up, strapped down to keep out hungry raccoons.

It’s no great secret that honeybees and other pollinators are under a huge amount of stress. Whether from loss of habitat, monocropping, neonicotinoids, or other factors, pollinators are disappearing at critical rates. One-third of our total food supply requires pollinators to thrive, and it’s only in recent years that farmers, home gardeners and scientists have started addressing this issue. Colony collapse disorder has gotten a lot of attention, but it’s still not widely understood, and the disappearance of pollinators most likely can’t be exclusively blamed on CCD. It’s a complicated story.

Bee entrance

Watching the bees at the hive entrance is one of the great joys of beekeeping.

The term pollinator doesn’t refer to just bees; pollinators can also include birds, bats, butterflies, beetles and other small mammals. All of these creatures are responsible for helping to propagate certain plants, but honeybees give humans the greatest return for their investment. Honey is the only food produced by insects that humans eat, although protein derived from insects is about to become the next big trend in sustainable eating. (You heard it here first, friends.)

Hive 02

Our hive is a Langstroth; the other most common style is called a top-bar hive.

We started keeping bees to help pollinators and to help our garden, and because we know we’ll have hives on our farm. The honey is no small bonus either, especially since eating it regularly has seemed to really help N with the seasonal allergies he’s struggled with here in Colorado. Beekeeping isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require a certain investment in time, money and equipment; we’re always trying to learn more about how we can become better beekeepers.

Honeycomb

Examining built-up comb on a frame.

Beehives are unbelievably complex and elaborate communities; a typical honeybee hive usually contains about 50,000 bees. There is a basic three-tier caste system: one queen, plus workers, who are female, and drones, who are male. Drones only exist to mate with the queen and are incapable of feeding themselves or foraging, plus they die immediately after mating. Workers, on the other hand, might be nurses, attendants, cleaners, foragers, guards or undertakers. Healthy queens live for an average of two to three years but have been known to live as long as five years; workers and drones live between two to four months, depending on their role in the hive.

NJB_0213.JPG

Greenhouses often have to bring in pollinators to mimic conditions outdoors.

A single bee colony can produce between sixty and one hundred pounds of honey in a year. For every pound of honey produced, the bees have visited two million flowers and flown over 55,000 miles. And each individual honeybee only produces about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, so the next time you’re grousing over the price of local honey, consider how much work went into creating it. Bees fly up to about five miles from their home hive to forage; for obvious reasons it’s tough to find true organic honey – how often can you guarantee that every single plant bees might visit within a five-mile radius is completely organic? Our honey definitely isn’t (see neighbor reference above).

Bumble Bee 02.jpg

Bumblebees are easily recognizable by their plump, furry bodies.

People are scared of bees. We’re always careful to warn guests and workmen about our hive and to inquire about allergies. We’ve both been stung numerous times, some occasions definitively our fault and some entirely unprovoked. I’ve been lucky enough to actually see the bees swarm – when the hive becomes too crowded and a group decides to set off for greener pastures – which isn’t ideal for beekeepers but is a remarkable (and slightly spooky) experience. Our hive this year is also strong enough that we’ve been able to take a split, which is essentially a controlled division of the hive before it has a chance to swarm. Splits are better than swarms in most cases, because with a swarm there is always a risk of losing the queen. Unless the hive can produce a new queen, the entire colony will die.

Spider bee

Spiders have to eat too.

To make the clear, clean honey you most often find at the grocery store, the honey is heated and filtered to remove beeswax, pollen, bee parts and other potential contaminants. Certain beekeepers claim that this heat treatment removes the most beneficial components of the honey, so some honey is labeled “raw.” True raw honey has never been heated beyond naturally occurring hive temperatures, about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but this labeling term – like so many in the U.S. – isn’t regulated and therefore no one is checking up on manufacturers who use the term illicitly. There have also been numerous instances of honey being adulterated with corn syrup and other sweeteners; when there is money to be made someone will always find a way to do so fraudulently. As with just about every food, buy as close to the source as possible, read the label carefully and ask questions. Local honey is sold almost everywhere in the world; it’s worth seeking some out where you live.

Honey Flow

Is it any wonder this stuff is referred to as liquid gold?

In the Western world, it’s common for new mothers to be told not to feed honey to infants under one year of age. This came about in the late 1970s because it is theoretically possible for honey to contain Clostridium botulinum bacterium, which could (again theoretically) cause infant botulism. It’s extremely rare, however, and after twelve months the intestinal system has matured so that the toxin will no longer pose a risk. Considering that the bacterium is commonly found in dirt and dust everywhere, and that we regularly advocate feeding infants formula containing monocropped GMO soybeans and yogurt laced with food dye and high-fructose corn syrup, this warning against one of nature’s true pure foods seems a little panicky. As we’ve discussed, however, we love to identify a single villain rather than target the entire compromised system. Invariably we ignore all sensible advice to the contrary.

Honey Jars

Notice the different colors; darker honey is typically stronger in flavor than lighter.

If you have the space and the inclination, please consider starting your own backyard hive. Like chickens, it’s a lot less work than people think, and the rewards are more than worth the effort. If having your own hive isn’t practical, seek out the best local honey you can find and support your local beekeepers. A farmers’ market is often a great place to find local honey, or you can try this site. If you’re buying honey at the grocery store, read the label carefully: in Colorado, I’ve seen “local honey” on products from California and other states. That might have been local when it was collected and packaged, but it’s also a very easy way to mislead consumers into paying more. Be a conscious consumer.

Sunflowers

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with critical issues of this scale, but this is actually one where small actions can make a difference. Want to learn more about pollinators and how you can help? Go here, here and here.

Cooking class: Udaipur, India

It’s been two months since we returned and N and I are missing our travels more than we expected. We thought we might revisit a few of our most memorable experiences here.

We went on lots of market tours during our travels and took a couple of incredible cooking classes, too. Udaipur, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, was one of our favorite cities in India. It’s friendly and accessible, easy to walk and to navigate and filled with compelling sights and smells. While we were here, we went to an in-home cooking class led by a quiet, lovely Indian woman named Gita. She didn’t speak much English, but this was definitely one of those times when not many words were needed; the idea of food as a universal language is such an accurate cliché.

NJB_6253

Traditional masala boxes contain cooking spices. Women are often given these as a wedding gift to bring to their new husband’s home.

NJB_6313

Combining fresh tomatoes, coriander and garlic for tomato chutney.

NJB_6273

Toasting whole spices brings out their aromatic oils.

NJB_6286

Making aloo gobi masala, cauliflower and potatoes with peas.

NJB_6287

This will be the filling for our samosas.

NJB_6294

Rolling fresh dough for samosas.

NJB_6297

The dough, speckled with cumin seeds, is cut into quarters.

NJB_6298

Years of practice make this look easy.

NJB_6301

Filling the samosas

NJB_6307

…and into the fryer they go.

NJB_6326.1

You don’t need fancy kitchen gear to produce amazing food.

NJB_6377

Many homes in rural India still don’t have refrigerators or freezers, so you buy what you need and cook fresh food every day.

NJB_6394

Indian cuisine includes an array of incredible breads.

NJB_6386

Poori puffs up when it’s cooked over an open flame.

NJB_6404.1

The best part of any cooking class is sitting down together to eat delicious food!

NJB_6413

Our kind, generous host, Gita – a truly incredible cook.

We miss you, India!

The FAQ Series: Salt

We’re starting a new thing over here at Finding Quiet Farm: the FAQ Series. This programming will be based on the most common questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade of teaching cooking classes to thousands of people; hopefully you’ll learn something and improve your own cooking. Let’s kick this show off right with the number-one question I hear: “How can I make my food taste more like restaurant food?”

Salt Crystals 01

The iconic pyramidal crystals of Maldon salt, harvested off the coast of England.

Pose this question to any professional chef, and the answer will be the same: learn how to use salt properly. (Just to quell the suspense, the second most popular question is “What sort of salt should I use?”)

Salt Selection

I don’t find it at all unreasonable that I have more than ten varieties of salt in my kitchen…except I only use two. You don’t need this many.

Learning how to season food properly – and specifically, how to use salt – is what separates mediocre cooks from amazing cooks. Whether in a restaurant or at home, salt is far and away the single most important component after the raw ingredients themselves – you can get by without almost anything else, but nothing (savory, at least) tastes good unless it’s been properly salted. And most sweet things need a little salt too, for balance. (Looking at you, salted caramel.)

Salt is the only rock we eat, and it’s vital to our health. It’s been prized for thousands of years throughout the world; Roman soldiers used to be paid their monthly wages in salt, hence our word salary. Salad, too, originates from salt since the Romans salted their greens. The Bible carries dozens of references, including salt of the earth and pillar of salt. Someone without esteem is not worth their salt. Simply put, it’s essential to our survival.

Salt Flats

The salt flats in Bonaire.

Salt is actually composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride. It’s produced either through mining deep deposits in the earth, or through solar evaporation. Most standard table salt is heavily processed and includes both added iodine (as a public health measure) and anti-caking agents to keep it free-flowing. Sea salt is, as you might expect, evaporated from seawater; fleur de sel is the crunchy, delicate top layer of sea salt and is typically used as a finishing salt. There are no health benefits to sea salt, despite a marketing campaign designed to make you think otherwise, but chefs don’t like the intensely chemical taste of iodized salt. We also use so much of it that we can’t spend our entire budget on fancy sea salts. We love coarse kosher salt.

Kosher Salt

So 11 ounces is less than 48 ounces but the bottle costs $12.95 and the box costs $2.99? I sense a swindle.

The term kosher just means that the crystals are larger and therefore more effective in drawing blood out of meat after it’s been slaughtered, in keeping with kosher tradition. Chefs love it because we use our fingertips to pick it up; most of us have those measurements so carefully calibrated that we’re more accurate than a set of teaspoons. All you need in your kitchen is a box of coarse kosher salt, poured into a small dish and set near the stove, plus a finishing salt like Maldon, whose large pyramidal crystals offer a satisfying crunch and burst of flavor when used properly on top of caramels or fresh ricotta with peaches on crostini or a beautifully seared steak. Don’t ever waste your finishing salt in pasta water or in baking recipes, and don’t ever pay $12.95 for the branded bottle on the left when the box on the right is the exact same thing, contains more than four times as much and costs $2.99.

Salt Dishes

It’s the only rock we eat…and it’s gorgeous. And delicious. And necessary.

Like our newfound obsession with the mysterious gluten, however, we’ve gotten our relationship with salt all wrong. The American Heart Association and other major medical organizations have shouted for years that Americans consume way too much salt and that it is a leading cause of high blood pressure, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. The Mayo Clinic claims the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, while the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams or less.

We avoid using salt the few times we do cook at home – that’s the salt we can control – because we’re so scared of it, and as a result our food is bland and tasteless. So we go out, or buy premade foods, because they taste better. Unfortunately, we get the vast majority of our salt (and our sugar) from these processed foods, including the ones we don’t even think about: sliced bread. Salad dressing. Bottled spaghetti sauce. Pastries. And obviously, any fast food will be loaded with salt. A single Egg McMuffin contains over 700 milligrams of salt – good luck staying under that 1,500 milligram mark if you eat fast food. Salt is a flavor enhancer, but more importantly for the processed food industry, it’s a preservative.

Kosher Salt Seasoned

I’ve taught numerous cooking classes where I’ve added salt to a dish and acknowledged gasps of horror at the quantity I’m using. Please, trust me on this: if you are eating most of your meals at home, cooked from fresh, healthy, whole foods and not from boxes and packets, and if you avoid processed foods like bottled salad dressings, take-out pizza, commercial lunch meats and cheap sliced sandwich bread, you don’t need to worry about adding salt when you cook. You’re already way ahead of the game.

Salt Book

You only need two salts: one for finishing, on the left, and one for everything else, on the right. Oh, and read that book.

How can you become more proficient about using salt? Taste your food. Taste it before you add salt, and after. Slice a fresh summer tomato and eat it without any salt. Now take another slice, sprinkle it with crunchy Maldon, and taste it again. Cut a steak in half, and cook it exactly the same, but use salt on one portion and not on the other. Your pasta water should taste like the sea, according to Italian grandmothers everywhere, and you should never cook beans or rice or vegetables or grains in unsalted water. Seasoning should be done in layers, as you build a dish, rather than just dumping a bunch of salt on at the end. Taste and taste again. Salt should never make food taste salty, it should make food taste more like itself; it’s designed to enhance food, not to overwhelm it. Restaurant food tastes delicious – and ideally not salty – because those amounts are carefully calibrated.  And because chefs have spent years learning how to season.

CCA-11.jpg

Learning to cook well at home is a process, as I’ve mentioned many times. And learning to season is part of that process, just like learning your own palate. Remember those famous words: “salt to taste.” So go get a box of kosher salt, and start using it. With your fingertips, please.

Salt Crystals 02

 

On bread (and gluten)

It is not hyperbole to state that wheat is the reason human civilization exists today. As always, Michael Pollan says it best:

“Compared with earlier and simpler methods humans have devised for turning plants and animals into foods – the roasted chunk of meat, say, or pot of stew, either of which an individual or small group can pull off – a loaf of bread implies a whole civilization. It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant and even microbial labor. In addition to an agriculture and a culture of milling and baking, the loaf of bread depends on a nonhuman culture as well: it won’t rise without the active contribution of some highly specialized living creatures besides the baker, the miller and the farmer. Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.”

bread-loaves-sml.jpg

Nom nom nom.

That last sentence says it all: it’s ordinary, it’s extraordinary, and it’s a mystery, even when you do it every day. Is it any wonder people refer to baking bread as a religion?

It’s impossible to put into words how much I love good bread. I’d much rather eat bread than just about any dessert. With olive oil, with cheese, perhaps homemade jam or backyard honey, a thick smear of salted butter or just on its own, well-made bread is one of life’s great edible pleasures. Like Mr. Pollan, I particularly adore rustic breads with rugged, crunchy crusts that are thisclose to burned and conceal a “soft, custardy interior.” Many people don’t like this type of bread; they think the outside is cooked too much while the inside isn’t cooked enough. But as we know, one of the many magical pleasures of cooking at home is that you get to make things exactly the way you like them.

Bread Bowl-01

My namesake grandmother’s bread bowl and one of my most treasured possessions.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, when I was stressed and overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done, I wrote a short post about baking bread. I honestly think it’s one of life’s most cathartic activities, and when you’re done with your cheap therapy you’re rewarded with a loaf of homemade bread. What I’m trying to understand nowadays is why we’ve so wholeheartedly rejected a truly time-honored and pleasurable task. It seems unreasonable to mourn bread when there are so many other things to mourn in the world right now, yet over the past decade, very few foods have been as maligned as the humble loaf of bread. More accurately, it’s rare that we collectively have found something to vilify on the scale that we’ve vilified wheat.

Humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years. Wheat represents one-fifth of all the food consumed worldwide, and it’s also the world’s most important source of non-animal protein. Its production surpasses every other grain, including rice and maize, and it can be grown almost everywhere on the planet. Human civilization as we know it would not exist without wheat and all the agricultural settlement that goes along with its production, processing, storage and conversion into digestible foodstuffs.

Wheat Field sml.jpg

Wheat fields in India.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat as well as other grasses such as rye, triticale and barley. Gluten is one of the primary factors responsible for that amazing chew we get in pizza crusts and breads; softer baked goods, like flaky pie crusts and tender cakes, don’t perform well with high-gluten flours. The type of wheat, i.e. soft spring or hard red winter, determines the amount of gluten in the final flour.

Despite its importance, about 20% of the U.S. avoids gluten; numbers are increasing in the UK, Australia and other Western countries as well. Chefs and other food and nutrition professionals have questioned (both covertly and openly) why everyone has suddenly gone gluten-free. A very small percentage of the population – less than 1%, depending on which sources you choose to believe – has celiac disease, which makes digesting gluten difficult. But it is scientifically impossible for one-fifth of the Western world to suddenly, collectively develop the same allergy or intolerance. It simply can’t happen.

What can happen is for everyone to decide that a gluten-free diet is somehow healthier and – by extension – will help one lose weight with very little effort. People who go gluten-free say they feel better, and that may well be true. If you legitimately feel better eating a gluten-free diet, then by all means, please carry on. But I’d unscientifically attribute “feeling better” to avoiding processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and generally being more conscious of your diet, although a gluten-free doughnut is, ultimately, still a doughnut. “Gluten-free” also means profit; sales of gluten-free foods have increased nearly 70% over the past four years, which translates to billions of dollars. The vast majority of gluten-free devotees are middle- to upper-class white women, and savvy food manufacturers know well that there is an enormous amount of money to be made from this market.

YetiCake.1

Chocolate stout cake. Yes, please.

Why have we all decided that gluten is making us sick? Some sources believe that GMOs are responsible, although there is no commercially available GMO wheat. (There are, however, escaped volunteer plants in Washington.) Many say it’s because we’ve hybridized our wheat, though we hybridize a lot of plants. And still others claim that it’s because we grind all of the nutrition out of the wheat to produce white flour, which travels better, stays fresher longer and produces the light, fluffy taste and texture that most people prefer. Once the bran and germ are removed and the flour is enriched, they say, we struggle to digest it.

If I had to choose, I’d fall firmly into the third camp, but I simply refuse to acknowledge that good bread is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Western world’s catastrophic increase in diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. Bread isn’t the problem; our entire industrialized, inhumane, chemically-drenched food system is the problem. As usual, though, we’ve chosen one villain to attack because to address the actual issue would be tantamount to admitting that our shockingly profitable agricultural fiefdom – based on cheap corn, soy, and animal protein – isn’t working. We somehow selected gluten, an ingredient most people can’t actually define, and decided that it was to blame for all of our health issues. Plain and simple: I disagree.

CCA-64.jpg

Every single culture in the world has some form of bread.

Ever wondered about what is actually in Wonder Bread? I’ve conveniently assembled the ingredient list here for your consideration: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: calcium carbonate, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide, enzymes, ascorbic acid), vinegar, monocalcium phosphate, yeast extract, modified corn starch, sucrose, sugar, soy lecithin, cholecalciferol (vitamin d3), soy flour, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate (to retard spoilage).

Do you even know what most of these words mean? Can you buy those ingredients (separately) in your local grocery store to assemble your own homemade version of Wonder Bread? The simplest bread made at home contains four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. No commercial yeast, even, if you’re using a wild starter. Review that ingredient list above once more. I don’t deny that we’re pretty sick, but we cannot logically blame gluten.

Keep going

Today’s life lesson is simple but essential: keep going. Keep going even when things aren’t working out, when your carefully laid plans have imploded, when you feel like an abject failure at pretty much everything. I’m pretending this is a post about how you should keep cooking even when recipes aren’t turning out right, and it is, but it’s also just a reminder that in life you can either crumple to the ground in a heap, or you can keep going.

Breadsticks sml

These breadsticks look pretty, but they posed a major risk to dental work.

There exists a perception that professional chefs cook everything perfectly all the time, and I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I go through phases where it honestly seems as though nothing in the kitchen works properly. Recipes that should work don’t, recipes that I’ve made hundreds of times without fail suddenly turn out poorly, and nothing tastes right. It would be easy to just storm out of the kitchen.

CCA-94.jpg

This probably boiled over mere seconds after the shot was taken.

Recently, for example, I’ve made three different breadstick recipes with lousy results all three times. I overfed my treasured sourdough starter with whole-wheat flour and increased the acidity so much that it’s like a biological weapon is lurking in my sunroom. In an attempt to use up my pantry stores, I made a Key lime and ginger tart that didn’t set at all, even after six hours in the refrigerator. It tasted delicious, but the presentation was appalling. (There are no photos of this event.)

Apple flatbread 1.jpg

Trying to salvage overproofed pizza dough left over from bread class…

But these occasions are precisely the times when you just have to keep going. When you have to work harder to figure out exactly what went wrong, and how you can improve it next time. When you have to acknowledge that not every single thing you cook will be perfect every time, but trust that the learning is in the process. It’s why I recommend keeping a kitchen journal and taking notes on just about every single recipe you make.

Apple flatbread 2 sml.jpg

…and it actually worked!

We live in an age of immediate gratification. We expect things to happen instantaneously and perfectly, and we no longer know how to fail. This is an especially challenging concept for home cooks, especially people who come to cooking later on in life. Those of us who started cooking young – with this recipe, most likely – remember mistaking a tablespoon for a teaspoon and producing salty, inedible cookies. We laugh about it now and count it as a learning experience. Yet if we made that same mistake as adults, we’d castigate ourselves for our stupidity and perhaps give up on baking altogether, because we didn’t get it right the first time.

CCA-36.jpg

In cooking, as with just about every worthwhile skill, the devil is in the countless hours of practice. No one starts out as a brilliant chef, just as athletes don’t start out as Olympians. When you’re just beginning in the kitchen, you might be disappointed with the results, but it’s imperative that you keep going. You will learn how to season, how to adjust recipes, how to trust your own palate. You will learn how to prepare food that you like and you’ll gain confidence every single time you cook. You will get better. But in order to do that, you have to keep cooking – and that’s tough, especially when perhaps your efforts aren’t received with enthusiasm by your household. (And if that’s the case? Invite your family into the kitchen and make meal preparation a household activity, so that everyone can share in both the effort and the result.)

Tofu Bok Choi sml

A very simple tofu and bok choy stir-fry with brown rice…and one of my favorite things I’ve cooked recently.

So please, friends, don’t give up. Don’t get weighed down with disappointment over kitchen experiments that aren’t a roaring success. Keep going. Try something new, fail well, make notes about it and get up and do it again. And above all else, please keep cooking.

P.S. I wrote a guest blog on this very topic over at Healthy Baby Fit Mom! Read more here!

P.P.S. Read a brilliant post about the concept of “constructive growth” and being a “tenacious loser” here; thanks to Karen for sending this link!

 

How to buy knives

Perhaps this post’s title isn’t exactly the sort of thing you want discovered in your browser history, but we’re going to proceed as planned because it’s important. There is literally nothing that will improve your time in the kitchen more than owning good knives and knowing how to use them. I meet people regularly who tell me how tedious they find cooking; I’m willing to bet that they’re using cheap, dull knives. Most of cooking is actually prepping the ingredients, and lousy knives make this task far more laborious than it needs to be.

CCA-10.jpg

I used to teach cooking classes at a fancy kitchenware store. While I always loved teaching the classes, I failed miserably at the most important part of the job: selling people silly gadgets and pointless equipment they didn’t really need. The spiralizer and the popcorn maker and the banana slicer and the electric egg poacher and the chocolate fountain seem like necessary additions to your already-crowded countertops, I know. But in order to cook well, you need just a few things: a couple of decent, heavy pots and pans (hopefully a cast-iron skillet!), a good cutting board, and well-made knives that suit you.

Wusthof 01.jpg

Knives come in all sorts of expansive sets, like the one shown above. The average home cook has no need for eight or ten or twelve knives, unless you host posh steak dinners for a crowd on a regular basis. I’d far rather you spend the same amount of money on three really good knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. Costly, yes. But knives aren’t an iPhone; they’re not designed to be replaced every six months. If you take good care of them, knives can last a lifetime.

Knife Skills

Never buy a knife that you haven’t had the opportunity to hold and cut with. Like tennis rackets or skis or golf clubs, knives come in different sizes and will fit one person better than another. A good knife store will offer demo knives, cutting boards, and fresh herbs or vegetables to cut; make the most of this opportunity and try various knives to see what you like. Knives are broadly grouped into two categories, Western (such as Wusthof and Henckels) and Eastern (such as Shun and Global). The blades and handles are different, and there is no right or wrong choice – just the one that fits you best.

NIK_1540.jpg

Once you’ve spent a couple hundred dollars on knives, please take good care of your investment. Knives NEVER go in the dishwasher or a sink of soapy water; they should be washed and dried carefully after use. The dishwasher destroys knives faster than anything else, and if knives are left in a sink the water seeps into the handle, plus it’s a huge safety risk.

You want to devote yourself to keeping that edge sharp, so store knives properly in a knife block or on a magnetic strip. Throwing knives in a drawer where they can bang around guarantees that you’ll ruin the blade.

Know the difference between honing and sharpening. A honing steel might have come with your knives; watch a basic YouTube video and learn how to hone. Sharpening, however, should be done by a professional at least once or twice a year, depending on how often you cook. A sharp knife makes kitchen prep enjoyable rather than tedious.

Wusthof 02.jpg

Use quality cutting boards made of wood or polypropylene; NEVER ever use knives directly on glass, marble or granite. Knives shouldn’t be used to hammer, pry or stir ingredients, and your knife isn’t a can opener! Never use the knife in a manner that causes the blade to twist, and don’t cut frozen foods with a straight-edge knife – this is a quick way to ruin the edge.

Learn basic cuts (mince, dice, julienne, chiffonade) and understand why each might be used in a recipe. Cutting foods into similarly-sized pieces means ingredients cook more evenly. Always keep ingredients flat and stable when cutting; if necessary, cut a thin slice from one side of the fruit or vegetable to provide an anchoring surface. Lay a damp kitchen towel under your cutting board to keep it from moving on the counter.

And above all else, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. The only way to improve your knife skills is to practice them as often as possible. Knife skills are more muscle memory than anything else. Buy inexpensive vegetables and make lots of soups, chopped salads and mashed potatoes!

P.S. Want to learn more? If you’re in Denver, come to my hands-on knife skills class on July 25. I’ll guide you through the classic cuts and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice with your own knives and mine too! Details and registration here!

Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.

cookbooks-4-sml.jpg

Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

Cookbooks 1 sml

It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

Cookbooks 2 sml

Four FishPaul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat RacketChristopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

Cookbooks 3 sml

Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin

 

Work with what you have

We’ve returned home after five months away and are trying desperately to reinsert ourselves back into our normal lives. This is proving to be substantially more difficult than we had anticipated, but thankfully the task of cooking is always there to ground me. My aspirational motto for this summer (and forever, really) is “Work with what you have.” It’s easy to wish that circumstances were different, or that we had an alternate set of tools at our disposal to complete a specific task, but in the kitchen, as in life, sometimes you simply have to work with what you have. And so my task for the summer, at least, is to cook from our existing food supplies rather than buying more.

Grains and pulses

Dry beans, grains, seeds and legumes are a pantry staple.

By most estimates, about 40% of all edible food produced in America is thrown out (more, if it’s fresh produce) instead of eaten. This is a statistic that I cite often in my classes; I ask my guests to calculate their own food budget and determine how much money they’re throwing away. I’ve even gone so far as to put actual dollar bills in the trash can (later retrieved, obviously) because for some reason that sludgy green bag of decomposing kale in the bottom of the crisper drawer doesn’t seem to equate to real money to most people. Apparently we care about our food waste problem, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it.

Sauces

How to add flavor and interest to your food.

Americans spend less money on food than any country in the First World. Calories are cheap here and we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection, plus we have absolutely no idea what all those “best by” and “use by” dates actually mean. (Answer: nothing. There are no regulations. Use your common sense; it’s designed to protect you from food poisoning. Plus, food manufacturers and grocery stores love those misleading labels because the sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more.) That means that not only do we waste food before it even arrives in the grocery store, but we buy more when our fridge and freezer and cupboards are already filled to the brim. Hence, the summer challenge.

Baking

I bake frequently, so I keep a well-stocked baking pantry.

One of the most important concepts I try to get across in my cooking classes is the idea of cooking without a recipe. I would love not to hand out recipes in class, but am well aware that this would not endear me to my guests. I want people to feel comfortable working towards a basic end goal; i.e. “Tonight I’d like to make a stir-fry,” rather than “Tonight I’m making Mark Bittman’s Beef with Broccoli and I have to stop by the store on the way home to buy beef and broccoli and fourteen other specialty ingredients.” If you look in your fridge and you’ve got a little leftover steak plus some carrots and peppers (because you already used all the broccoli earlier this week), and you know you have rice in your pantry along with Asian basics like soy or hoisin sauce, then you’ve got a meal. Start with what you have, and figure out where you’re going from there.

Spice dishes dark

So much flavor hidden in these little dishes.

In addition to teaching people specific recipes (which I invariably deviate from in class – people hate this) I also teach how to stock your pantry. Oils and vinegars, sauces and condiments, spices and seasonings, grains, pasta, beans and legumes, plus freezer basics like frozen vegetables (which get a bad rap but are in many cases better and cheaper than fresh) all come together to form the basis of some truly amazing meals. I know that people who are new to cooking require the comfort and guidance of a recipe. But I also think that as you grow and develop as a home cook, you should challenge yourself to work with what you have, rather than buying exactly what you need. Oh, and those specialty ingredients you bought for that one recipe you made months ago but never used again? A quick online search for “What should I do with tahini?” goes a long way towards using those up.

Freezer

Don’t judge. I’m working on it.

So please, friends, try this at home. I’m willing to bet that you have at least two weeks’ worth of food in your house already. Challenge yourself – for a day, a week, even a month – to only cook with what you have. See if you can come up with interesting, delicious and healthy options to use up all that food you’re stockpiling. Learning how to trust yourself and improvise a bit in the kitchen is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a better cook, and I promise you that the reward is worth the effort.