Farm update: February 25

It hasn’t really been the most exciting week here on Quiet Farm, dear readers. We’ve been busy with boring but grown-up things like obtaining contractor quotes for electrical refits and game fencing (tedious), comparison shopping for auto insurance (horrible), changing oil in the cars (chilly), and taxes (the new 1040 is rather streamlined!). While necessary, none of those tasks make for very interesting tales.

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Like a real farmer!

Winter continues its slog. After another six inches of fresh powder we did finally see our bluebird sky again, which was a welcome change. N borrowed our neighbor’s tractor to do some plowing; we’ve also been out shopping for our own tractor and ATV, since our current Snow Management Plan – i.e. ignore it and hope it melts – is definitely not panning out.

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All this just to protect some vegetables!

This uninspiring pile of materials is the beginning of our game fence. We can’t install it until the ground is a little more workable, and the hungry deer are taking full advantage of their current unrestricted freedom. We thought seriously about installing the fence ourselves, but once we realized we’d need to rent heavy equipment (skid-steer, auger and probably some other complicated, expensive, possibly dangerous things) we decided to hire it out. It’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars, but some jobs should be left to the professionals. We hope the deer will learn to respect our boundaries.

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Farm update: December 17

Hello! How are you? We’ve still got quite a lot of snow sticking around, but it’s been dry for a week and we’d love to have more moisture. We attended the annual meeting of our ditch company recently, and all of the stoic old-time farmers seemed quite thrilled at the snowpack thus far this year. It’s a big change for the better from last year, to be certain, and we hope the pattern continues.

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The peach orchard across the road.

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One of the most delicious items we received in our CSA was heirloom cornmeal, ground from Painted Mountain corn. We take corn so much for granted in this country – as Michael Pollan says, we’re “the United States of Corn” – and sometimes we forget how much of humanity has been nourished on this incredible grain. Growing heirloom corn for eating fresh and for grinding is just one way we can recapture some of the food sovereignty that we’ve lost. I made fabulous hot pepper cornbread and plan on making cheesy polenta this week.

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Farm update: November 19

Hi there! Is it cold and snowy where you live? We think everyone in the world is getting lots of snow except us, but really that’s fine. It has been remarkably chilly, though, so most of our activities and projects are indoors these days.

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Nom nom nom.

We are loving our fall CSA share; each week we receive delicious vegetables that we’d never find in our grocery store. Those sweet, colorful carrots were devoured raw; the delicata squash was roasted and served over the arugula, and the tatsoi went into a spicy stir-fry with local pork. We highly recommend joining a CSA in your community if you have the option.

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Like a Roomba, only better.

Our new pet looks like a Star Wars extra, but when you have this much painting to do, a sprayer makes things a whole lot easier. There is a learning curve with a paint sprayer, but once you’ve mastered set-up and clean-up it saves hours. Pro tip: do not skip the cleaning and storage instructions. If you store the sprayer without cleaning it properly, you will regret it. Trust us on this.

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An announcement

Many of you know this, and the rest of you have probably guessed, but N and I found Quiet Farm. (We’re not changing our website, however.) We closed on the property in early August and have just now gotten all of our things moved from the Front Range over to our (new to us) house. We heard too many horror stories about unscrupulous, lazy and irresponsible moving companies, so we opted to do the whole move ourselves. N had plenty of experience driving a 25-foot RV, so driving a 26-foot box truck couldn’t be much different, right? (P.S. We sold the RV. Bittersweet, but it served its purpose for our transient summer. And it’s just right down the road from us, so we can visit it if we want!)

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Quiet Farm is a ten-acre parcel just outside of Cedaredge, on Colorado’s Western Slope. We’re tucked under the Grand Mesa and surrounded on three sides by apple orchards; to the south we can see all the way to the San Juan Mountains. Just over eight acres of the property is in pasture, but both the land and the house have been essentially abandoned and unloved for about five years. It will take a lot of time and hard work and water to regenerate the pasture; historically it’s always been alfalfa, but we’re looking at other drought-tolerant options, too – maybe hops or quinoa?

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Our vision for Quiet Farm is an organic teaching farm and cooking school. We plan to build a certified commercial kitchen in a detached garage on the property. We’ll offer classes on everything from healthy cooking basics to bread baking to canning and preserving to beekeeping to fermentation to knife skills, and any other homesteading topics that our guests might be interested in. We’ll keep laying hens for eggs and pest control, goats for milk and entertainment, beehives and extensive vegetable and perennial plantings. We want to be part of the community and host potluck suppers and farm tours and coffee klatches and food swaps. We want to showcase the amazing fruit and animals and people this part of Colorado offers. We want Quiet Farm to be an agritourism destination.

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We’ll post regular farm updates here, with before-and-after pictures so you can see our progress. It took us three years to find Quiet Farm, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to fully realize our vision, but we’re exactly where we want to be. Thank you for joining us on this journey, and we’re so much looking forward to all of the incredible adventures ahead. We can’t wait to share Quiet Farm with you!

 

Manger et boire à Paris

Of course we went on a food tour while in Paris. How could we not? This is the city where I learned to cook (and drink), and there are far too many delicious choices to navigate on your own. Many thanks to Jennifer from Paris by Mouth, who escorted us through the Saint-Germain neighborhood with grace, hospitality and true passion for food and wine.

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PFT-01

Our first stop: the esteemed Poilâne bakery, the most famous boulanger in the world. Poilâne is operated by Apollonia Poilâne, who took over the company when her parents died in an accident in 2002. She was eighteen, and she ran the company from her dorm room at Harvard until her graduation, four years later. Interviewed during that time, she said, “The one or two hours you spend procrastinating, I spend working. It’s nothing demanding at all.” Words of wisdom, indeed.

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Cooking in cast iron

In my holiday-themed classes, I talk about how I’d rather have two or three really stellar, delicious dishes at a meal than an extensive buffet of mediocrity. I feel the same way about cookware and knives: that is, I’d rather have a few sturdy, durable pieces that perform perfectly and can take a beating, rather than dozens of cheap, flimsy pans or knives that bend, warp, break or just plain fail. Cooking well isn’t only about starting with the best ingredients, but having the tools (and the skills) to turn those ingredients into something remarkable.

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See how well-loved they are? I use mine every single day.

I love classic cast iron cookware. I love its heft, its lived-in appearance, its ability to retain heat. I love that it can be passed down through generations, and it only gets better. I love that it’s not shiny, not new, not a throwaway item. I love that it looks like something I should be using over a rickety camp stove to make a fry-up for hungry cowboys out on a cattle drive. I love that there is something of quality still manufactured in the United States. I love that cast iron asks you to cook well and simply and honestly.

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You can roast peppers to smoky, tender perfection!

Cast iron cookware has been in use around the world for over two thousand years, and there’s a reason for that: nothing retains heat better while still holding its form. Before we became such a disposable society, cookware like this was valued for its durability and its effectiveness, especially when slow simmering tough cuts of meat. Cast iron goes from stove to oven, and it can be used to make anything: flavorful stews, crispy yet tender cornbread, smoky, filling beans. And nothing – I mean nothing – sears a steak like cast iron. Ask any cowboy.

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You can create the most amazing garlic confit!

In the first half of the 20th century, cast iron cookware was ubiquitous in America. Then – coincidentally, right about the time we started turning to processed “convenience” foods – cast iron fell out of favor. It was too heavy. Too unwieldy. Impractical for TV dinners. Not suitable for microwaving soup. Couldn’t be put in the dishwasher. And so, most of the American companies went out of business. Today, Lodge is the only major manufacturer in the U.S., although a couple of smaller, “artisan” brands like Finex have appeared recently.

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You can make one-pan meals!

I got rid of my grandmother’s cast iron pans at a garage sale years ago. Freshly minted from an uppity French culinary school, I thought cast iron was too down home, too low-class, too American for my lofty European cooking skills. What misplaced arrogance; to this day, I regret selling those pans. Thankfully, N found a ten-inch skillet for me at a church rummage sale, and I picked up my comal, a flat, round griddle traditionally used for making fresh tortillas, at a thrift store. My other two are classic Lodge, a Dutch oven and a grill pan. They’re all pieces I love cooking with.

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You can put a little char on your tomatoes!

If you have any cast iron, take good care of it and it will take care of you for decades. Once it’s seasoned, meaning that you’ve basically created a nonstick surface through a combination of cooking fat and heat, never, ever use soap or any other chemical cleaner on it. Don’t immerse it in water, either. I typically just wipe my pans with a dry paper towel, if necessary, but if you’ve got stuck-on bits, you can heat the pan with a bit of water until they loosen, then scrape them out with a spatula. Really tough messes can be tackled with coarse kosher salt and a scouring pad. You can’t scratch them, can’t break them, don’t have to use any fancy utensils. They are indispensable workhorses.

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And the most essential thing you can cook in your cast iron Dutch oven…

Cast iron’s greatest advantage, of course, is also its greatest downfall: their weight means they retain heat beautifully, so they get hot and stay hot, and they’re heavy. Treat them carefully and respectfully. Use both hands when lifting; never try to “one-hand” a cast iron pan. When you remove the pan from the oven and set it back on the stove or other protected surface, do as restaurant chefs do and make sure you leave your kitchen towels on the pan to remind everyone (including you) that it’s hot. Large pans that have been heating for a while may take a couple of hours to cool down, so have a safe place to put them where no one will burn themselves. Don’t leave water in the pan, either, as they can rust, though if you find an unloved, rusty specimen, you can always remove the rust with salt and reseason the pan.

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…is quite simply the best bread you’ll ever taste.

Want to build your own cast iron collection? Start here, and thanks for buying American. Their stuff is top-notch and remarkably well-priced. Visit thrift stores and garage sales and flea markets (maybe you’ll find my grandmother’s pans?) but stay away from anything called an “antique store.” Little-known fact: antique is actually French for “overpriced stuff bought cheaply in a thrift store and aggressively marked up.” Cast iron’s resurgent popularity in recent years means anything even vaguely vintage can cost a fortune.

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And while we’re on the topic of the French and expensive things, this stuff is cast iron too, but with an enamel coating. It’s gorgeous, comes in an array of coordinating colors so the kitchen at your Provencal château can match the Parisian pied-a-terre and it’s priced for really rich people. Tread carefully with these: they’re beautiful and colorful, but you can scratch that enamel without too much effort, and not all of the knobs and handles are designed for high heat. These definitely require a bit more attention, and a lot more money.

Go cook, friends. And save me some cornbread.

 

Food stamp challenge

One of the comments I hear most frequently in my cooking classes and presentations is that “it’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget.” I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, and to prove my point, I decided N and I would take part in the Food Stamp Challenge. In Colorado, the challenge is organized by Hunger Free Colorado; your state will have different resources available.

While SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits vary from place to place and family to family, in Colorado food stamps amount to approximately $4.20 per person, per day. That amounts to $1.40 per meal, if you eat three meals a day, or about $29.40 per week; that number encompasses everything you consume, including drinks and snacks. (Legally, you cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or non-food products with food stamps, but unfortunately you can buy soda, energy drinks, candy, cakes, chips, cookies, ice cream and plenty of other unhealthy items.) This is going to take some planning, and some smart shopping.

Here’s the tricky bit, though: SNAP benefits can’t be used for any sort of takeaway food, and can’t be used for anything consumed within a store. So no prepared deli items, no to-go coffees, no rotisserie chickens. It’s easy to see why smart hunger relief experts advocate cooking classes along with SNAP benefits; to make the most of this program, you really need to know how to cook from scratch.

Since my household comprises two adults, I’ll allot us a total weekly budget of $58.80. And since I want to play in the most honest way possible, I’ll plan for the way we currently eat: we drink black coffee in the mornings but don’t eat an early-morning breakfast; we typically eat around 10AM and 4PM (it works for us). We also eat very little meat, so going mostly vegetarian won’t be much of a struggle; this budget definitely doesn’t allow for a lot of good meat. And we only eat at restaurants when we’re traveling, so planning and cooking all of our meals at home won’t stress us, either.

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Scanning for sales is key to eating well on a budget.

A couple of other caveats about our food stamp challenge:

  • A challenge like this is necessarily a snapshot in time. We’re doing our challenge in December, which definitely makes most fresh fruits and vegetables harder to come by in our Rocky Mountain region – and they’re certainly not local, except for onions and greens! Fresh produce would be more abundant and less expensive in late summer.
  • To play fair, I am not using our backyard honey, or my own canned and frozen goods pantry. I have dozens of jars of applesauce, salsa, Western Slope peaches and other homemade canned goods, plus lots of produce in the freezer, but since I can’t truly ascribe a dollar value to these, we’re not eating these during the challenge.
  • I refuse to dramatically change our standard eating style in order to adhere to the budget; I’m not going to add cheap meat or nutritionally devoid, high-sugar cereal to our shopping list just to have something on the table. That isn’t what we eat now, and I believe the point of this challenge is to make fresh, delicious, nutritious food on a limited budget – not to just eat for the sake of eating.
  • As mentioned above, we’re a household of two healthy adults, and we only eat two meals a day. Your own household’s food stamp challenge will look very different, but we would love to hear about it!

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Some of our food stamp challenge ingredients. Embrace the bulk department.

Here’s what I bought for our challenge:

  • 12 oz. whole-bean coffee ($4.99, and it amounts to about $0.12 per cup. Worth every penny.)
  • 12 oz. animal-welfare certified bacon ($4.99)
  • dairy: 1 gal. local whole milk ($2.19), plain yogurt for starter ($0.59), 10 oz. queso fresco cheese ($2.49)
  • two dozen non-GMO cage-free with outdoor access eggs ($5.98)
  • fruit: 3 apples ($0.98), 3 grapefruit ($0.99), 1 lb. grapes ($0.97), 6 kiwi ($0.99), 3 pomegranates ($0.99), 3 pears ($0.98), 8 satsuma clementines ($1)
  • grains and legumes: 0.5 lb. dried black beans ($0.85), 0.5 lb. brown rice ($0.35), 0.5 lb. dried chickpeas ($0.75), 0.5 lb. green lentils ($0.59), 0.5 lb. rolled oats ($0.35), 1 lb. linguine ($0.99), 0.5 lb. white beans ($0.99)
  • 1 lb. organic tofu ($1.79)
  • vegetables: 2 lb. broccoli ($1.76), 1 lb. carrots ($0.69), 1 bunch cilantro ($0.33), 12 oz. frozen corn ($1), 2 cucumbers ($1), 3 bell peppers ($0.99), 2 heads garlic ($0.66), 2 bunches kale ($1.98), 1 lb. yellow onions ($1), 12 oz. frozen peas ($1), 5 oz. salad greens ($1.69), 1 bunch scallions ($0.33), 3 zucchini ($0.99)
  • staples: assorted bulk spices ($1), 0.5 lb. roasted almonds ($2.99), corn tortillas ($0.99), 5 lb. flour ($1.79), 0.25 lb. roasted pumpkin seeds ($1.25), 3 packets yeast ($1.19 with coupon), hot sauce ($0.99)

Total spent: $58.41

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Thanks to savvy shopping and the discount table, this is less than $10 of healthy, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables!

And here is our simple seven-day menu plan; again, we start with a pot of black coffee and only eat two meals per day. For snacks, we eat fresh fruit or raw vegetables, plus a handful of almonds and pumpkin seeds.

  • Day One: yogurt with fruit and almonds; white beans and sautéed kale with fried eggs; fresh bread
  • Day Two: breakfast tacos with eggs, zucchini, peppers, onions and queso fresco; tofu and broccoli stir-fry over brown rice; green salad
  • Day Three: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; pasta with bacon, garlic, zucchini and peppers; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Four: eggs on toast with sautéed greens; lentil, vegetable and chickpea soup; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Five: yogurt with fruit and almonds; frittata with vegetables, greens and queso fresco
  • Day Six: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; spicy black bean and corn soup; kale salad
  • Day Seven: huevos rancheros with leftover beans and rice; “favorites” (i.e. everything remaining from the week)

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Remind me again why vegetables are boring?

My comments on the week:

  • Our menu wasn’t really that different from what we eat on a regular basis. Each day included at least four servings of various fruits and vegetables and usually more, plus grains and legumes. Virtually everything we ate was healthy, flavorful and made from scratch. We didn’t feel hungry or deprived, but I can easily see how someone accustomed to eating at restaurants and/or eating a lot of meat might find this challenge…well, challenging.
  • I chose bacon as our only meat for the week because it offers so much flavor in even tiny quantities. In addition to adding it to pasta and soups, I also used the rendered fat for sautéing vegetables and greens for extra savory punch. Skipping the bacon entirely would obviously leave about ten percent of the weekly budget for other items, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’d rather eat a small amount of good, flavorful meat than a lot of cheap meat.
  • I made four quarts of my own yogurt from one gallon of whole milk; the starter culture only has to be purchased once since you use a bit of your own yogurt as the starter for future batches. Plain full-fat yogurt made from good milk is a great source of quality protein, fat and calories, and dramatically cheaper than buying it premade.

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Does it still count as breakfast if we eat at eleven o’clock?

  • I also baked my own fresh bread as I do now, both for health and economic reasons. Although one could claim that whole wheat flour would be a better choice for homemade bread, I would argue that any homemade bread is far better than what you can buy, and far cheaper. Plus, stale bread becomes croutons and breadcrumbs, which add extra value and flavor; storebought sandwich bread doesn’t go stale, it just molds. (I buy my yeast in one-pound bags for $2.99 from a local restaurant-supply store; this is far cheaper than three packets for $1.19, even with a coupon. If you bake bread regularly, buy your yeast in bulk.)
  • It’s virtually impossible to eat purely organic on a budget this tight. While I appreciate the virtues of organic, with so little money to spend I’d far rather eat more conventional fruits and vegetables than just a few organic ones. Value for money wins here, although some of the discounted produce was organic.
  • I did miss having access to a well-stocked pantry, specifically various oils, vinegars, cooking fats (including good butter), seasonings and condiments. It’s very easy to make delicious, healthy food by just dressing it up a bit, and citrus, spices and other flavor enhancers really come in handy.
  • I also really missed cheese. We eat a lot of cheese, both on its own and as a garnish for vegetables and grains, and while I love queso fresco, I really enjoy using a variety of specialty cheeses in almost every meal. Plus, good cheese can often be found at a discount at our grocery store, too!

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Because we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection and meaningless sell-by dates, it’s easy to find supermarket bargains.

Tips for success for your own food stamp challenge:

  • Flexibility is absolutely key. I bought what was on sale, rather than what I necessarily wanted. If you’re going to cook well on a budget, pay attention to store advertising circulars, clip coupons and learn to adjust your meal plan based on what’s available at a good price, rather than what you feel like eating.
  • Our local grocery store has recently started selling blemished or undersized produce at a discount. This produce made all the difference in our food stamp challenge; most of our fruits and vegetables came from this table, usually packed at three for $0.99. I also always search for items close to their sell-by date that the store is looking to offload at a discount; I’ve purchased a lot of healthy, cheap and still-good food this way (see photo above). Don’t ignore this option if you’re cooking on a budget.
  • Also, don’t ignore frozen vegetables. They are cheap, healthy and easy to have on hand, plus they were frozen when that vegetable was actually in season. Fresh vegetables aren’t always the best option, especially on a tight budget.
  • Shop the bulk department for grains, legumes and spices; skipping the inflated packaging makes a huge difference in price. Dried beans are far less expensive than canned, and they don’t contain excess salt, either. Soaking beans overnight takes virtually no time and a slow cooker makes preparing healthy food easy.
  • Search out local ethnic markets. I could have spent substantially less on produce and beans if I had gone to any one of our incredible Mexican markets here in Denver. I wouldn’t buy animal products there, but I’d definitely buy pantry staples.

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Pasta is oft-maligned, but it is quick, inexpensive, filling, and most importantly easy to pack with lots of vegetables.

  • Get a good knife and a good cutting board and learn how to prep your own fruits and vegetables. Paying for the precut product costs a lot extra and it’s already started to deteriorate, too.
  • Think nutrient-dense and lots of color: discounted spinach, sturdy kale or purple cabbage rather than cheap but nutritionally vacant iceberg; black beans over pinto beans. Whenever possible, choose the most intensely colored whole food (that Windex-colored Gatorade does not qualify).
  • And think high flavor, too. I used small amounts of bacon, sharp, salty queso fresco and crunchy nuts and seeds to add a lot of flavor and texture to our dishes. You don’t need much, but they add interest. I spent money on onions, garlic, scallions and cilantro, both because they’re healthy and because they add a ton of flavor and punch without spending a fortune. Growing your own fresh herbs is a great way to enhance your meals.
  • We had quite a bit of food remaining at the end of the week (both prepared and raw ingredients); this is partially why our final day incorporated “favorites.” If you want to eat on a budget, you have to make use of leftovers, too. Throwing away food is exactly the same as throwing away money.

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Garlicky white beans and kale with fried eggs: pretty much perfect, in my opinion.

N pointed out that this challenge was easy for me, because I know how to prepare healthy, delicious food and enjoy doing so. While that’s certainly true, I would say yet again that the number-one best thing you can do for both your physical and your financial health is to learn how to cook, and cook often – whether or not you’re on a strict food budget. Take responsibility for your own health, and cook yourself some wholesome, tasty food. You don’t need to break the bank to do that.

If you choose to organize your own food stamp challenge, please share it with us!

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.