A tomato review, vol. 2

As mentioned, we’ve had an utterly spectacular year for tomatoes. I knowingly overplanted simply because we’d gotten off to such a terrible start, and I honestly had very little faith that my scrawny, under-nourished plants would thrive. Once they received a compost tea shot, however, and then were planted out in our compost-enriched soil, all of the plants absolutely took off. In more than ten years of growing food, this is the first year where I was regularly behind on harvesting tomatoes – I simply couldn’t pick them fast enough.

To that end, we present our second annual tomato review. Each year we grow some old favorites and some new experiments to see what we might want to add to future seasons. We grow primarily open-pollinated heirlooms, both for exemplary flavor and so we can save our seeds, but we do also grow the occasional hybrid for interest and experimentation. Previously I’d only ever grown the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes, because I didn’t believe we had a long-enough growing season to produce the large heirlooms, but this magical season proved everything wrong. I’ll definitely plant the larger heirlooms again in upcoming years.

This was our first year growing Barry’s Cherry. This heirloom tomato, bred by the legendary Brad Gates, is small and pale yellow with a pointed “beak” at the end. The flavor is terrific, tangy and bright with a hint of acidity, and the plant produces unbelievable yields on huge clusters. I’d definitely grow this tomato again; my only complaint is that the fruit tends to fall off the vine with even the slightest sideways glance. This makes harvesting really challenging and would definitely render this difficult to grow in a large-scale commercial operation. For home gardens, however, it’s a great choice.

I organized the tomato photos in this year’s review alphabetically, rather than in order of preference, which does somewhat minimize the suspenseful awards-show atmosphere: Black Cherry is the 2021 Taste Winner. These seeds originated from a tomato I tasted from a friend’s garden last year, and she didn’t know the exact name, nor whether they were heirloom or hybrid. I took a chance on saving those seeds and lo and behold, now we have Black Cherry seeds in abundance. This tomato is gorgeous, with a blackish-purple coloration that indicates higher levels of anthocyanins. The flavor is incredible – that perfect blend of sweetness and acidity that I’m always looking for in tomatoes. The plants produced well, and I found that the tomatoes growing lower on the vine (i.e. out of direct sunlight) had better flavor and a darker color. Black Cherry has definitely earned its spot in Quiet Farm’s mandatory planting category.

We grew Chadwick Cherry tomatoes last year, and they’re in regular rotation now, too. They’re likely never going to win our taste test because the flavor isn’t quite as bright or sparkly as some of my other favorites, but the plants produce early and abundantly, and the tomatoes are perfect in recipes where their flavor will blend rather than dominate. This tomato is named for organic gardening pioneer Alan Chadwick, an interesting character if ever there was one.

I’ve long known about the Cherokee Purple tomato, a pre-1890 variety that was only reintroduced commercially about thirty years ago, but never thought I could grow it at 6300 feet in a high-plains desert. This season absolutely proved me wrong. We produced multitudes of huge Cherokee Purple fruit on heavy vines that should have been staked better than they were (lesson learned for next year). Like the Black Cherry above, the Cherokee Purple has rich, wine-dark coloration and a deep, almost smoky flavor. This is a certainly a full-size heirloom that we’ll grow again. (One caveat: we also grew Black Krim tomatoes this year, and thanks to an unfortunate tag mishap, it is difficult to tell which plants are which as the fruits are very similar. Perhaps our saved seeds will create a new Cherokee Krim crossbreed?)

This was our first year with Galina, a small, sunshine-yellow cherry tomato originating in Siberia. The fruit ripens early, as one might expect from a cold-climate Russian tomato, and produces well. The flavor is bright and cheerful and of course it’s lovely to have yellow tomatoes to accompany the red and green varieties for colorful salads. Galina didn’t win our taste test this year, but it’s a much more interesting tomato than Yellow Pear, a classic small yellow heirloom that we found rather bland and flat last year.

We’ve grown Green Zebra for a number of years now. The striated color is stunning, especially when paired with red and yellow tomatoes, and the flavor is terrific. It can be a little difficult to tell when Green Zebras are ripe – they actually turn slightly golden when they’re ready to be harvested; gently pressing on the bottom of the tomato is often a good indication of ripeness, if color is difficult to determine. This is a classic heirloom and one we’re happy to grow every year.

Jaune Flamme, meaning “yellow flame” in French, has quickly become one of our favorite tomatoes. It’s medium-size, about a golf ball or a bit larger, with abundant fruits and sparky flavor. Here, at least, it presents as more fiery orange than yellow, and it makes a stunning golden tomato sauce or soup. On the downside, this was the only tomato where we observed blossom end rot this year which may doom it for future plantings if the trend continues.

Juliet made its first appearance at Quiet Farm this year too. This is a small Roma-style hybrid tomato, and the plants remained relatively compact – as opposed to some varieties that have stretched and vined and tangled absolutely everywhere. Juliet ripened early but the flavor was nothing special; for me, it’s too flat and sweet without any of the acidity I seek. The fruits also fell off the plants regularly, which isn’t a plus. The tomatoes are fine in salsas and sauce, but I’d be hard-pressed to grow this again without experimenting with other interesting tomatoes first.

Lemon Boy is a rare hybrid here at Quiet Farm; a friend had extra plants that were headed for the compost, so we planted a few. The fruit is standard in size and a gorgeous, shimmering yellow that’s easy to spot when ripe. The flavor was delicious too and showed up perfectly on a salad platter against darker red and subtle green tomatoes. Although we’d be happy to grow these next year, Lemon Boy is a hybrid (the yellow version of Better Boy) so we won’t bother saving seeds and will hope to just be gifted starts again.

Lucky Tiger is an amazing tomato and was our hands-down winner in last year’s taste test. Developed by Fred Hempel, another legendary tomato breeder, Lucky Tiger has it all – stunning looks, spectacular flavor and reasonable productivity for a finicky heirloom. One seed catalog sums it up perfectly: “This tomato gets top marks for flavor: tangy, sweet and complex with tropical notes and balanced acidity.” Lucky Tiger is so impressive that it should encourage everyone to grow unusual heirlooms. This is another tomato that will definitely be planted every year at Quiet Farm.

We grew San Marzano and Roma tomatoes this year; these are both elongated paste tomatoes with meaty flesh and not too much in the way of juice or seeds. They’re typically used for sun-dried tomatoes or sauce making. Ours were mediocre at best; the plants took forever to set fruit and took forever to ripen, and only now are the plants loaded with green, unripe fruit. Spoiler alert: we don’t have enough time left in our growing season for these to yield much more. Overall, I was unimpressed. As always, I’ll save seeds but it could well be a couple of years before I’m willing to give these another shot.

This was our first year growing Supersweet 100s, although we grew Peacevine Cherry last year, which is the dehybridized version of this tomato. This is a glorious tomato, tiny and sweet and perfect for eating by the handful. It produces so abundantly and in such difficult-to-access clusters that we still have thousands on the vine that need to be harvested. This tomato is really too tiny to cook with but is ideal for eating fresh. We won’t save seeds from these, since it’s a hybrid, but will definitely grow Peacevine Cherry again.

Our final tomato this season is Virginia Sweets, another full-size heirloom that we were surprised to produce. These tomatoes are massive – well over a pound each – and gorgeous, with an unusual streaky yellow and red sunset appearance. The flavor, however, left a bit to be desired. Like sweet corn, many tomato breeders in recent years have focused on breeding sweeter and sweeter tomatoes, because that’s what the American palate seems to demand. (This is why lemon juice is now mandated in home-canned tomatoes, because too much acid has been removed and the pH is no longer suitable for long-term storage.) I’m thrilled to have successfully grown such large heirlooms, but I’d probably try another variety before growing these again, since the flavor wasn’t balanced enough for my tastes. A satisfying experiment, nonetheless!

What tomato varieties did you grow this year? Any that particularly captured your fancy? We’d love to know more about your favorites.

The height of the harvest

“Things are somewhat ugly out there. I couldn’t have imagined in the spring that we’d be suffering Covid (and fools) this long after a vaccine was announced, but here we are. One really fine manifestation of this has been to appreciate the things that are going right. Not as planned, but still in the right direction. Gardening and farming help a lot. Whether you pop a bean in a clay pot with some soil or you are farming thousands of acres, producing food is pretty cool and we’re lucky to be helping nature, in the garden and on the stovetop!” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

Hello there, friends. As you might imagine, it is an exceptionally busy time on the farm. August and September are the months we wait all year for and the abundance is staggering. These are the days when all of the hard work done in early spring really comes to fruition, but the workload is staggering, too. In addition to harvesting each day, we also need to preserve the harvest, plant fall crops, collect seeds and start thinking about fall clean-up tasks and winterizing the farm. We’re still irrigating two days per week, too, which eats up a lot of time. No matter the long hours, though, the incredible food we’re growing makes it all worthwhile.


These squash bugs are having one heck of a party.

Every growing season we face different challenges – the weather, the water and the pests all vary from year to year. Ideally, though, we’re learning from each experience and are better equipped for future troubles. This year we were surprised to discover the common squash bug (Anasa tristis) attacking our summer squash. Despite our never-ending drought, our relentless winds and our high altitude, we do have one great advantage in farming where we do – insects are rarely (if ever) a major problem. I’ve never dealt with squash bugs before, and by the time I discovered them, they’d done a huge amount of damage. I researched organic control methods and laughed out loud at one not–at-all-helpful suggestion: “carefully remove each bug by hand.” (Let me tell you what I do not have time for right now: removing individual bugs by hand.) And so, I opted for a broader form of retaliation: I clear-cut the Costata Romanesco plant back to its roots, leaving only the two huge squashes that I’m saving for seed. I do think that the ‘overgrown tropical jungle’ aspect of this particular plant contributed to this infestation, since the bugs often shelter at the plant’s base, so I need to consider this for future plantings. Also, if we should be so unlucky as to have a mild winter the larvae will likely not be killed and I’ll encounter the same problem again. Therefore, crop rotation and careful attention before the bugs get out of hand are definitely on next year’s to-do list.

Blossom end rot is easy to identify.

One garden ailment that I am painfully familiar with is blossom end rot, commonly referred to as BER by horticulturalists and farmers. BER isn’t technically a pest or a disease; rather, it’s a physiological disorder caused by insufficient calcium uptake. Although BER can affect peppers, squash, cucumbers and melons, I’ve only ever encountered it in tomatoes. Though there can be various causes, in my growing experience, BER is most often caused by inconsistent watering – both too much and too little – which can definitely be an issue in our growing area. As an example: for the past few weeks we’ve been running our regular Wednesday/Thursday irrigation schedule, but then have also experienced dramatic midnight thunderstorms which of course soak the plants even further. BER usually appears when the fruit is about half-size, and the spot at the base will turn leathery and spongy and eventually cause the entire fruit to rot. BER won’t hurt you, and you can cut out the affected areas, but I usually throw affected fruits straight to the chickens. As always, keep good records – you may find that certain species are more affected by BER in your garden than others. This year, I’m only seeing it in the Jaune Flammes shown above, and not in other varieties, and only in one raised bed – which indicates that the drip irrigation in that particular bed may also need a closer look. Paying attention to what’s going on with your plants will usually teach you everything you need to know.

Tomatillos are one of our favorite summer staples.

Do you grow tomatillos? I feel like they’re not very well known outside of the American Southwest, but I adore them and grow them every year. They’re in the same nightshade family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes, and they’re also closely related to ground cherries and Cape gooseberries. They grow on plants similar to tomatoes and often need to be staked, because they’re quite sprawling and unkempt, but they’re prolific, hardy, drought-tolerant and delicious. Tomatillos are crisp and tart and usually ready to eat when the papery husk turns from bright green to a paler beige, or when they fall off the plant. Most of ours end up in salsa verde, but they make a wonderful sauce for enchiladas and a great addition to spicy soups, vegetarian tacos or green chile. Plus, they’re rich in fiber and vitamins C and K, too!

Blistered shishitos are often a pre-dinner snack.

Our shishito peppers have done well this year, which is terrific news because I haven’t had any success with this crop since we moved here. Shishitos are native to Japan, likely bred from the Spanish padrón pepper, and harvested green at about two inches long. We enjoy them in the most common fashion, seared in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet, dusted with flaky salt and nanami togarashi seasoning, then eaten whole out of hand (except for the stem). Shishitos are considered a “Russian roulette” pepper, in that they’re mostly quite mild but about one in ten will be eye-wateringly hot. This has a lot to do with their growing conditions, however, and ours have been pretty tame so far this year. As usual, I’ve left one pepper on the plant for the entire season so that I’ll have viable seeds for next year.

A great reason to dust off the angel food cake pan!

In addition to harvesting and preserving our own crops, this is also high time for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from other local farmers. We don’t grow sweet corn here at Quiet Farm; it’s a wind-pollinated grass, needs a good amount of land, and is virtually impossible to grow organically. Instead, I typically buy a case (about fifty ears) from a grower just down the road in Olathe, which is of course famous for its sweet corn. I grilled two-thirds of the ears and left the rest raw; all of the kernels, cooked and raw, were cut off the cob and frozen in small zip-top bags for adding to soups and chowders this winter. A few ears were saved for enjoying fresh, but most of this box went straight into the freezer as quickly as possible – corn does not improve once it’s been picked. I hope you were able to enjoy lots of fresh corn this summer, too.

One of the highlights of living where we do.

We’ve mentioned more than once this year that our local stone fruit growers were devastated by an early freeze last October, and many had no fruit at all. We were able to get out to pick a few peaches and have been enjoying them every day since. When I say “a few peaches,” what I actually mean is more than two hundred pounds – most went into the canning pot (fifty quarts), many into the dehydrator and the remainder into jam. This could well be our last year for peaches; we know many growers who are pulling out their peach trees because the heartache and stress simply isn’t worth it. And the orchard where we go to harvest is likely being sold soon, and it’s doubtful that a u-pick will be part of the new owner’s business model. Change is hard but inevitable, especially in the era of climate disruption – but at least we’ll have local peaches this winter.

As the world seems to spin more and more out of control each day, all we can do is focus on controlling what we can – and for us, that’s our land, our animals, what we grow and what we eat. We are doing our very best out here and hope you are, too, wherever you may be.

Farm update: August 9

Here are a few things we’ve been up to on the farm lately, if you’d like to see:

The original finish is shown on the left side of the table; N’s sanding work is on the right.

As is our habit, we recently rescued a (rather expensive and fancy!) solid wood table and chairs destined for the landfill and N has been hard at work uncovering the set’s beauty. The furniture had not been cared for at all; it’s covered in scratches, water marks and all manner of damage. Most modern furniture is made from cheap plywood or laminate and often cannot be refinished; solid wood, though, is remarkably open to restoration, and we think this will look pretty spectacular with a bit of elbow grease and varnish. The table and chairs both have a great deal of decorative carving; sanding these tiny grooves will prove both tricky and time-consuming. When finished, this dining set will likely highlight the Japanese tradition known as kintsugi, whereas a piece’s imperfections are intentionally emphasized. This furniture was well-made and has years of life left, despite how it was treated, and it will be a pleasure to save the table and chairs and put them to good use.

Freshly harvested ‘Boldor’ golden beets.

Let’s talk beets – a polarizing vegetable, to say the least. Many, many people are quick to say they don’t like beets – I’m reasonably convinced this is because in the U.S. most people’s experience with beets only involves the sad, mushy canned kind, a metallic-tasting vegetable horror show if ever there was one. Fresh beets, on the other hand, are a completely different beast. We typically eat our beets raw, julienned into salads and slaws, but if the oven is already on for bread, I’m likely to throw a few beets in for roasting, too. I like the roasted beets cut into generous chunks and lightly dressed with good olive oil and a splash of tarragon vinegar, then tossed with warm farro or wheatberries, sharp crumbled goat cheese, grilled zucchini and toasted, salted walnuts. If I have extra, I’ll make a quick pickle and keep in the fridge for a burst of bright, punchy flavor in salads. We eat the greens, too, but they can be rather strong so I’ll often tame them by sautéing with olive oil and garlic, or slice very thinly to mix with other, less-assertive greens. Do you grow beets? Do you eat beets? What are your favorite ways to prepare them?

An unusual sighting at Quiet Farm!

We spotted this interesting creature on the chicken wire protecting the strawberry patch a few evenings ago. Stick insects, of which there are more than twenty-five hundred individual species, are members of an order of insects called Phasmatodea – and some can grow more than two feet long! These insects are found on every continent except Antarctica, and are most common in the tropics and sub-tropics. Unsurprisingly, they live their entire lives relatively unnoticed, since camouflage is their primary form of defense; they’re also referred to as ghost insects. As always, we are keen to observe (and encourage) all the varied forms of life we spy here on the farm.

Years of life left in these beauties!

In addition to rescuing furniture, rescuing work boots has also been on the task list recently. We are absurdly hard on both clothes and shoes out here at the farm and almost all of our wearables come from charity thrift stores for this very reason. Good, sturdy shoes are essential for working outside; our land is exceedingly rough and rocky and we are definitely not a “golf course farm” where one can freely and safely run around barefoot. (The goatheads alone will quickly cure you of that misguided idea.) Quality boots are expensive, though, and we can’t replace hundred-dollar boots every few months – nor would we want to. Instead, I search out secondhand boots in decent shape, rarely paying more than two or three dollars a pair. New shoelaces, a heavy-duty needle and thread and generous amounts of Gorilla Glue are typically all that’s required to return costly boots to their former glory. Considering that Americans throw away a million pairs of shoes per day – most of which could easily be repaired, donated or recycled – saving a few pairs of hiking boots seems like the least we can do.

“Raindrops on kale leaves and fleece on alpacas…

Summer in Colorado used to be my favorite season. Now, it just means five months of hazy skies, severe drought and relentless wildfire smoke. While we were so grateful to have a few days of much-needed rain not long ago, that rain is merely a wistful memory. The smoke is now worse than it’s ever been here; our eyes are stinging and our throats feel like sandpaper. The mountain ranges have completely vanished, we can barely see the orchards that surround our property, and our long bike rides are postponed for the moment. Those rainstorms, while certainly welcome, also caused devastating mudslides at the Grizzly Creek burn scar in Glenwood Canyon, resulting in the indefinite closure of one of the major east-west arteries in the U.S. Maybe now – once these disasters start costing real money and causing real trouble – we can finally take climate change seriously, even though it’s far too late to undo the damage we’ve done? I’m tired of breathing hot, smoky air all the time. I’m tired of the sickly, hazy sunrises and sunsets. I’m tired of wondering if we’ll make it through the growing season with enough water. I miss the clear blue sky Colorado summers of my childhood, and I know they’re not coming back.

This is not remotely what a western Colorado sunset should look like.

Wishing you a safe and peaceful week, friends.

Farm update: July 12

How are you? How is your July thus far? It’s high summer here at Quiet Farm and we spend more time outdoors than in – always, always wearing long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of SPF 50 (only reef-safe zinc, though we’re nowhere near a reef!) on any exposed skin. Skin cancer is not to be taken lightly, especially since we’re more than a mile closer to the sun. Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Sunchokes along the eastern edge of our game fence.

Each growing season, I aim to plant at least one new fruit, vegetable, herb or flower. Last year it was fennel (and unintentionally this year, too, since it self-seeded) but this year’s choice was sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus). Sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they’re native to North America, not Israel) are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and the plants produce showy yellow flowers and an edible tuber. They’re not well known in the U.S.; even in France they’re grown primarily for animal feed. But! The crisp, white-fleshed tubers are rich in inulin (a dietary fiber) and are absolutely delicious when roasted and salted like potatoes. I might even try some sunchoke chips in the dehydrator! I’m excited to harvest these later this season, especially because once established, they’ll likely need no water and no maintenance, and will hopefully continue to produce a nutritious winter storage crop all on their own.

Nice buns.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than one minute knows that I am constantly trying to convince the entire world to bake their own bread. Really, you should! So easy! So satisfying! So much healthier and tastier than store-bought! But perhaps you find large burnished sourdough loaves to be somewhat intimidating? No problem. Start simple, like hamburger buns. I know that I’ve just missed the Fourth of July, a classic burger holiday if ever there was one. But if you start practicing now, you’ll have mastered homemade burger buns by Labor Day! (Only joking, because you don’t need any practice at all; buns are really easy.) Use this reliable recipe – I did not make any alterations for altitude – and bake a batch to tuck in your freezer for future grilling opportunities. The recipe yields eight large; I make sixteen if I want to serve sliders. Please, try this and let me know if you have troubles – I’ll help you sort them out!

Broad Tailed Hummingbird 05 sml

Broad-tailed hummingbirds at the feeder.

Our migratory hummingbird population is thriving; if we remain still, we’re able to see them up close on our feeders. We observe two species most commonly here – the broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), and only very rarely a rufous (Selasphorus rufus). The hummingbirds are so much fun to listen to as they dive and swoop like miniature fighter jets. We’ve even discovered a tiny nest precariously perched on the twinkle light strands on our front porch; we’ve left it alone for the moment in the hopes that there might be viable eggs in it. Although we have dozens of incredible bird species here at Quiet Farm, the fast and spirited hummingbirds are definitely one of our favorites.

Fresh, crisp, satisfying and most of all – cold.

Despite the slider rolls above, supper is entirely abandoned more evenings than not here at Quiet Farm. When it’s pushing 100 degrees at 5:30PM and we’ve been out irrigating all day, the very last thing I want to do is turn on the oven or the stove. Enter the cold noodle salad, remarkably simple and infinitely variable. I cook the noodles in well-salted water first thing in the morning, when it’s (relatively) cool. Drain and toss the still-warm noodles in sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chile sauce if you like things spicy. Shred a whole mess of vegetables, whatever you have on hand – carrots, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower – and toss with a bit more soy and vinegar. Chill everything. When it’s time to eat, make yourself a beautiful, colorful plate and garnish with lots and lots of fresh herbs – I like a mixture of Thai basil, cilantro, scallions and mint. Add more soy or sesame oil as desired. Chopped salted peanuts are great, too! You could serve this on a bed of fresh greens, you could top this with crispy tofu or strips of a simple scallion omelette, or you could just eat it as is. One of my very favorite low-effort/high-flavor summer meals. (P.S. When you’re making something that will later be eaten cold, remember to have a generous hand with the seasoning. Cold dulls flavor, therefore it doesn’t taste as intense. Be lavish with salt and herbs!)

Adelaide apologizes for not tidying up all the hay on her face before this photo was snapped.

And finally, our animals are thrilled with their new haircuts. Although they have access to shade, they still spend their time happily grazing away in the pasture. Even on the hottest days, when we’re melting and seeking out any cool spot we can find, they’re happy to be out in the sun. Last summer was a different story, and we’re so pleased that we were able to get them sheared so they can be more comfortable during this brutal season.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead, friends.

Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

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The FAQ Series: Yeast

This post likely would have been much more helpful about fourteen months ago, when the baking craze started in full force, but better late than never. Hopefully people still bake on occasion? Today we’re going to talk about yeast, a reasonably simple subject that gets complicated surprisingly quickly.

Before we get into the precise details of the baking yeast we use today, it’s important to understand just a bit about the history of bread and leaveners in general. A leavener – basically anything that makes dough rise – can be physical, chemical or biological in nature. Physical leavening agents are air and steam, which might be incorporated either through mixing or through the oven’s heat. Chemical leaveners, most often baking soda and baking powder, create a chemical reaction that causes doughs to rise. And finally, yeast acts as a biological leavener; yeast is a microscopic organism that consumes simple sugars and creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct of fermentation, which in turn causes dough to expand. Yeast cells used in baking are found either in commercial packaged form or wild in a starter.

Yeast-risen doughs really are simpler than this picture makes them seem.

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Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

Not pancakes! Rye-sourdough crumpets with homemade bitter orange marmalade and soft salted butter!

It’s been far too long since we’ve offered a Cookbook Club post here at FQF. And since I’m trying to select a “cookbook of the week” from my (extensive) collection to avoid the ever-present malady of dinner fatigue, now seems like a good time to dust off some classics. May I present Flatbreads & Flavors, by the inimitable team of Duguid & Alford? (They’ve split now – but they did produce some stellar cookbooks together. I’d also highly recommend Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.)

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.

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Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

The humble muffin

Let it be hereafter known to all and sundry that I am not cool. I am definitively not trendy. The only time in recent memory I’ve been on-trend is when activities I’ve cheerfully pursued for years – baking bread! sewing! growing food! raising chickens! – happened to intersect neatly with a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of a sudden, my previously-mocked Laura Ingalls Wilder skills were wildly in demand. All of a sudden, I was cool.

Sadly, it looks as though my coolness has worn off as we tentatively, gradually, carefully tiptoe back to our “real” lives. Most people have given up on sourdough, everyone is wearing cheap counterfeit N95s, gardening is probably finished and I don’t want to think too hard about what happened to all those pandemic chicks. My point here, if you were wondering, is that I am once again proudly not cool and I am still baking muffins.

Homey. Comforting. Just what we need right now.

Muffins are not cool, either. They are not a cronut or a cake pop or a brookie or a rainbow layer cake. I am doubtful that muffins have a massive following on Instagram. Perhaps there have never been muffins on Instagram? I’m pretty sure no one has made a fortune off of them recently. They’re just…muffins. They’re humble and comforting and kind and homely and they’re basically just a hug from your grandmother in pastry form and therefore they’re perfect for this weird purgatory we all find ourselves in, where things are sort of looking up but the pandemic definitely isn’t over and we haven’t exactly leaped into normal life again. It’s an odd, unsettled time, to be certain.

If I haven’t sold you on muffins yet with that confusing pitch, allow me to continue proselytizing: muffins are far and away one of the simplest things you can bake, even at altitude. They’re infinitely customizable with whatever you might have lurking in the freezer or pantry. You can use up fruits or vegetables that might otherwise get thrown out. It’s easy to make them reasonably healthy, and they freeze like a dream. What more could you ask from a baked good, honestly?

Get your mise-en-place together first!

Gather round, children, and I’ll share my own personal hard-and-fast rules for muffins. You might want to take notes! First and foremost – and I’m going to say this loud for the people in the back – MUFFINS ARE NOT CUPCAKES. Did everyone hear me? I abhor the standard Costco-style blueberry muffin which has forty grams of sugar and may as well be a dessert. That is not an acceptable muffin – my limit is one-half cup of sugar in a twelve-muffin batch. With natural sweetness from whatever fruit I’m using, plus a bit of turbinado sprinkled on top for crunch, that’s plenty sweet. There’s simply no need to eat that much sugar for breakfast or any time of day, really.

Second, I much prefer baking muffins fresh first thing in the morning, and fresh muffins are much easier when all of the ingredients are prepped the night before. How can you manage this neat pro trick? Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and leave covered on the counter. Combine wet ingredients in another lidded container and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, gently fold wet and dry together and bake. By the time the coffee is finished brewing, the muffins are practically ready. Simple and effortless and especially useful if you have overnight guests, if that will ever be a thing again.

Wet ingredients (back left) will overnight in the fridge, dry ingredients on the counter.

A few other muffin-making tips: even if you choose to prep your ingredients the night before, never mix wet and dry together until just before you’re ready to bake. The leavening agent – in this case, baking soda – will be activated by the acidic yogurt and will start a chemical reaction. If you combine the batter and let it sit without baking it, you’ll likely get no rise and a bitter, metallic flavor. Wet and dry always stay separate until the last minute.

When combining wet and dry ingredients in a muffin or quick bread batter, it’s imperative not to overmix. You only want to fold things together until it’s mostly homogenized; a few streaks of flour are not an issue. Muffins and quick breads do not benefit from vigorous mixing, as this activates the gluten strands and toughens the crumb. Gentle is the way forward here.

I love using fruit purees in muffins, including but not limited to overripe bananas, home-canned applesauce, and unsweetened jam. Whenever a recipe calls for overripe bananas, they should be well-speckled or even fully brown; as they ripen, the natural sugars intensify so you’ll achieve sweeter flavor without extra sugar. If you’ve got overripe bananas but no plans to bake soon, peel the bananas and freeze on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper, then store in a zip-top bag. You can pull out the amount you need, and they’ll soften quickly – plus less food waste!

I fill the muffin cups to the rim, then sprinkle with turbinado and chopped nuts before baking.

When the muffins are fully baked, get them out of the pan immediately and set them on a cooling rack. Most baked goods (with the exception of a few delicate cakes) should be removed from the baking pan as soon as possible, and allowed to cool with good air circulation so the bottom crust doesn’t become soggy from heat and moisture. If you don’t have a cooling rack, grab one of the wire racks from the oven and use that instead.

Though muffins, like most pastries, are at their best the day they’re baked, they do freeze surprisingly well. I freeze cooled muffins on a sheet pan; once solid, they’re tucked into a zip-top bag to enjoy throughout the week. Since the muffins are small they’ll thaw quickly at room temperature, but thirty seconds in the microwave can speed that process along, if necessary.

Just a few ideas for what you can use in your muffins!

I use a basic muffin recipe that works well at 6,300 feet, and I customize it according to what I have on hand. Dry ingredients: two cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out up to half with spelt, whole wheat, or white whole wheat), 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1/2 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp. baking powder (leavening agents are typically reduced at altitude), 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 1/2 cup dried fruit. Wet ingredients: two eggs, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup neutral oil (such as grapeseed), 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1/3 cup yogurt, milk or buttermilk, 1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed banana, pumpkin puree, shredded zucchini and carrot, or other fruit and vegetable combination (adjust liquidity as needed). Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for five minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for about another twelve minutes, depending on your oven. (My oven has notorious hot spots, so I rotate the tray at least once. You know your oven best; adjust accordingly.)

Muffins are pretty forgiving; if you bake a lot, as I do, you’ll learn to adjust the liquidity in the batter. Mashed bananas generally won’t require additional liquid, but if you’re just using chopped fresh fruit or vegetables, like apples or carrots, you might need a bit more yogurt or milk. If you find your muffins to be either overly mushy or overly dry, you’ll know to adjust for next time – and that’s how you get better.

Some of my favorite tried-and-true flavor combinations: apple cinnamon walnut :: banana chocolate almond :: blueberry coconut vanilla :: zucchini carrot apple raisin :: pear pecan ginger :: peach coconut macadamia :: raspberry apricot :: pumpkin hazelnut raisin. There are a million more variations possible here, with a little experimentation.

Wishing you plenty of strong, hot coffee and fresh, uncool muffins this week, dear friends.

P.S. If you’re one of my treasured bakery regulars, please immediately forget everything you’ve just read. There’s no way you can possibly make these at home. Muffins are really super difficult and complicated. Just keep ordering from me.

Make a plan

I think we can all agree that the World Wide Web is, for the most part, a fetid swamp of horrors. But! On rare occasions, the Internet can produce some magic, too. Helpful sewing tutorials! Funny commercial parodies! Everything useful we’ve learned on YouTube about how to renovate a house! And above all else, there is the Grub Street Diet from New York magazine, which is very hit-or-miss – but when it’s on, there’s nothing better. (See this fabulous example.) I absolutely adore food diaries, and if someone combined a daily food diary with a personal finance diary and threw in some quilting tips for good measure I’d probably never read anything else ever again.

Here’s the thing: as someone who has spent the vast majority of her life thus far working with food, thinking about food, reading about food and generally obsessing over food, I need to know what everyone is eating at all times. And also why you’re eating that particular thing. Are you enjoying it, or just eating it because it’s there? Are you even hungry right now? Did you make it or buy it or was it made for you? Did you plan on eating it? Did you seek it out? Would you eat it again? And that brings me neatly to my next question: do you plan your meals?

No need to plan: we eat this lovely breakfast every single day.

One might argue that this question was more relevant pre-pandemic, when Americans ate well more than half their meals outside the home and our schedules were totally different. Of course, since the world stopped eleven months ago, our eating and cooking habits have altered pretty dramatically. One thing that hasn’t changed, though – and I know I have some audience support on this one – is that dinner still, for no apparent reason, happens every single night. How and why this metaphysical error is possible I cannot explain, as each afternoon around 4:30PM I invariably think, “Didn’t I just make dinner?” This situation is particularly embarrassing, of course, because a) I am a professional chef and making dinner really shouldn’t be quite so challenging and b) I voluntarily never leave our gorgeous farm and so if dinner doesn’t appear I can’t even come up with a reasonable excuse about traffic or working late or some such. I’m here, and I’m available, and I have the time, and still, dinner regularly takes me by surprise.

For the record, we didn’t eat out or order delivery even pre-pandemic. In the nearly three years that we’ve lived here, we’ve eaten out precisely once, and in our rural area I’m not even sure where you would get take-out or delivery. (DoorDash is not exactly staking its business success on our county.) So that means we eat all our meals at home, like much of the world these days, and that means not losing interest in your own cooking. It’s a tough challenge, even for a professional chef.

The makings of a stir-fry.

In my years teaching cooking classes, I’ve learned that most households tend to be on about a ten-day rotation of standard meals, which accounts for a few nights of leftovers or take-out in a two-week period. I can completely understand wanting to grab for those “known quantities,” meals that will please everyone without too much time and effort. There are few things more heartbreaking to a dedicated home cook than hours spent slaving away over a spectacular new recipe, only to have your loved ones politely ask you to please, please never make that again. (Looking at you, ma po tofu.) If spaghetti bolognaise works, and you’re tired and hungry, and everyone else is tired and hungry, why not just have spaghetti bolognaise, even though this is the third time in two weeks? Just about everyone can relate to this familiar situation.

Curry-roasted sweet potatoes, pilau rice, fresh naan and salad.

Even in our calm household, which does not have the added complications of varying sports schedules or child care issues or long commutes, I’ve found that planning meals in advance makes a huge difference in how I view the daily chore of dinner. Knowing what I have in the fridge, freezer and pantry, and what meals I can compose from those ingredients, is essential. This is especially true because our “big” grocery store (in a relative sense) is nearly twenty miles away, so we grocery shop infrequently. In a rural county, I don’t have the luxury of running to the store for a bunch of cilantro or a box of pasta fifteen minutes before serving, so we keep a very well-stocked kitchen.

Breakfast tacos are a household staple – usually for dinner.

I also make an effort to cook in batches, so if I’m making a roasted pumpkin soup with coconut and ginger, I’ll make a big pot of it and freeze it in quart deli containers for a quick and easy meal. I make batches of “components,” too – versatile prepped foods, like steamed brown rice, beans, hard-boiled eggs, roasted potatoes or sautéed peppers and onions – that can be utilized in a variety of different meals. Of course we also can and freeze lots of our farm produce, too, but as N famously once said while staring at a packed fridge: “There isn’t any food in here. Just ingredients.” Joking aside, his point was that there was nothing ready to eat, and even the best cook can sometimes look at a full pantry and feel no inspiration whatsoever. That’s when a list of favorite recipe ideas pinned to the side of the fridge can come in handy.

Chickpea smash on toasted focaccia is another favorite in heavy rotation.

The classic American meal typically starts with a protein as the main course – mostly chicken breasts or ground beef. Occasionally a steak, or salmon, or maybe something exotic like shrimp or scallops. A starch and a green vegetable might be on the plate, but they’re side dishes, merely afterthoughts. Here, though, we eat meat barely once or twice a month, and seafood never, so we start with vegetables or legumes, and build from there. We frequently eat stir-fries; they’re quick and easy to pull together. Lots of spicy, warming soups, especially in the colder months. Roasted vegetables feature regularly as do variations on curries. We eat eggs for dinner, usually as breakfast tacos, and many, many incarnations of flatbreads are consumed here. Pasta is a stalwart; loaded with vegetables, it doesn’t deserve its unhealthy reputation. Warmer weather brings lots of main course salads, packed with grains and eggs and myriad vegetables. And sometimes, we just have “snack plate dinner,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: cheese, crackers, vegetables with hummus, good toasted bread with a variety of dips and spreads and anything else that can be used up in the fridge.

My meal planning starts with cookbooks, magazines, a recipe idea file and a pantry inventory.

I will freely admit that strict meal planning doesn’t happen every week; sometimes it’s a bit more impromptu. The weeks when I do write a meal plan, however, absolutely feel much calmer and easier and less stressful than when I don’t. But if we lived in a stereotypically frenetic American household, with lots of people running hither and thither, and various schedules to manage, a meal plan would be an absolute necessity for maintaining order. Here, though, we eat lots of plants and do our best not to waste any food – and a weekly menu plan helps make that happen.

So please share, dear friends: do you plan your meals? Do you stick to the plan? Do you have tried-and-true favorites, or are you regularly tucking in new experiments? Do you do all the cooking, or do other members of the family pitch in? This avid Grub Street Diet reader is longing to know!