Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

Kitchen substitutions

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

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

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How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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A fresh start

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I love everything about January. I love the quiet, the fresh start, the clean slate. And of course, this is the time of year when so many of us promise to do better. When we promise to eat right, drink less, stop going out to restaurants so often, quit smoking, save our money, exercise more and all the rest.

I don’t subscribe to the negativity often associated with New Year’s resolutions. (By mid-January, over a quarter of all New Year’s resolutions have been discarded, and only a scant 10% are actually followed through to the end of the year. Those are some pretty bleak statistics.) Changing habits is hard enough; I’d much rather start off on a positive note. I make a list of goals, not resolutions.

And with that positivity in mind, let’s revisit our annual primer on eating better. This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive list, nor a restrictive diet plan, merely a few simple tips to get your head in the right place for making healthy changes in your daily eating. Allow me to shout this from the rooftops: diets don’t work. Changing your mindset does.

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The Farm Series: Western Culture

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Now that we actually have a farm, we can get a bit more serious about researching where we’ll obtain our animals. We plan to raise dairy goats and laying hens, with the intention of producing enough milk, cheese and eggs to supply our own kitchen as well as our cooking school. Because healthy animals produce healthy food, it’s essential that we know exactly where our animals come from.

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We still have a lot of work to do on both our chicken house and our goat barn to get them ready for animals, and we don’t plan to purchase any until next spring. We want to make our reservations now, however, so that when we’re ready we’ve got animals waiting for us. Small dairies especially need to know in advance how many animals they can sell during a given season so they can plan their breeding program.

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Let’s learn about goats!

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This is not the first time we’ve posted photos of #totesadorbs baby goats, and it certainly won’t be the last. We’ve known since we first invented Quiet Farm in our heads that we want to keep milking does, so as with all other aspects of farming, we’re learning how to do that from books and the University of YouTube and on-farm experience, too. By the time we actually find our farm, hopefully we’ll (sort of) know what we’re doing.

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Some fun facts about goats:

  • Goats have a reputation for eating just about anything, including clothes, trash and other inedible items. This is entirely untrue; goats are browsers, rather than grazers, and are naturally curious. They use their lips and teeth much as we use our fingertips – to investigate unknown objects – and they’re actually quite fussy about what they’ll eat. Goats also only have teeth on their bottom jaw, not their upper.
  • Goats are fantastic climbers and love to quickly attain the highest perch available – hence the popularity of goat yoga. Goats can climb trees!

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How to make yogurt

There are foods and drinks we should buy, and foods and drinks we should make at home. I would place things like tofu, amazing soft-ripened cheeses, bacon and hoppy IPAs in the first category; though I can make these things, other people are doing a much better job at it. The second category, however, would include granola, bread, salsa, applesauce, hummus and yogurt, among many others – all of these are much better-tasting, healthier and certainly cheaper made at home.

I’ve been asked a number of times recently for instructions on how to make yogurt, and since I make it once a week on average, I thought it might be high time to share this magic with the world. Making yogurt is not difficult or expensive, but it does require a bit of patience and a basic understanding of fermentation – which is typically referred to as “culturing” when used in context with dairy products. Keep in mind that the instructions below are for cow’s milk yogurt; other milks, such as sheep or goat, or non-dairy products, like almond, soy or hemp, don’t turn into yogurt the same way.

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Yes, that is the current temperature in our sunroom.

Let’s be clear on what you absolutely do not need to make yogurt: you do not need a fancy yogurt maker, or an Instapot, or specially-purchased mail-order yogurt cultures. You can use these things if you have them, but to me they all fall firmly into the category of “convincing people they can’t cook without expensive gadgets and hard-to-find ingredients.” Peasants have been making yogurt for literally thousands of years; I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop at Bed Bath & Beyond to grab a yogurt maker on their way back from the fields. What you do need: fresh milk, starter yogurt culture, a heavy pot, an accurate thermometer, a ladle, a wooden spoon, clean jars and lids, and a warm, safe place to keep your yogurt while it’s culturing.

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Fresh milk + starter culture = homemade yogurt!

I make my yogurt in one-gallon batches, which yields four quarts plus a bit. If your household doesn’t eat much yogurt, or if you want to start small, make a half-gallon batch. You can always scale up when you realize how much yogurt you’re eating. Don’t buy UHT or other long-life milk to make yogurt or other cultured dairy products; its protein structure has been irreparably changed by the heating process used to make it shelf-stable. And when you’re buying a starter yogurt culture, buy plain, full-fat yogurt; no fruit or other sweeteners, thickeners like carrageenan or pectin, stabilizers or other mysterious ingredients (please, no M&Ms, sprinkles or chocolate chips). Yes, you can use skim or low-fat milk to make yogurt, but why would you? I am an advocate for full-fat dairy at all times; cows don’t give skim milk, so I see no point in consuming it.

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Placing your pot of hot milk in an ice bath will cool it to 110 degrees quickly.

To start, place two tablespoons (for a half-gallon) or four tablespoons (for a full gallon) of starter yogurt into a medium bowl and set aside. Pour the milk into the heavy pot. If your thermometer clips onto the side of the pan, attach it now; ensure the tip doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan or you’ll get an inaccurate reading. Heat the milk gently, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching; you’ll want to bring it up to about 175 degrees F (this could take as long as thirty minutes for a full gallon). Once it’s reached 175, remove it from heat and place it into an ice bath to rapidly bring its temperature down to about 115 degrees F. You can let it cool as is, but icing it is much quicker; stirring it frequently will bring the temperature down, too. (For those of you at altitude, please note that you do not need to adjust these temperatures.)

While you’re waiting for the milk to cool, bring a kettle of water to a boil, and place your clean jars on a folded kitchen towel on your worktop. Fill each jar with boiling water; always wash and warm one more pint jar than you think you need. Place the lids in a separate heatproof bowl and cover those with boiling water, too.

When the milk is around 110 degrees, whisk about one-half cup into the bowl you set aside with your starter culture. This tempers the culture, bringing the two liquids to a similar temperature and ensuring that the starter culture doesn’t cook when it’s added to the warm milk. Now, add the thinned and warmed starter culture to the pot of milk, and stir well. Pour the boiling water out of your first jar, and set it back on the towel. Ladle the warm milk and starter mixture into this clean, hot jar (a funnel comes in handy here). Repeat the process for the remaining jars until you’ve used all of the milk. Put the lids on the jars and close gently; the lids just need to be snug enough to keep from falling off but they shouldn’t be lumberjack tight. Wipe the jars and lids with a clean, damp towel to remove any milk residue.

You can now place the jars into a cozy spot, like a cooler lined with towels, or your (turned off) oven or microwave. The idea is to keep the jars pretty warm, which allows the culture to activate and thicken the milk. I use my dehydrator on a low setting; some people use a slow cooker or even surround the jars with heating pads or hot water bottles. You may need to experiment to figure out what works best in your household; just remember that you’re trying to keep the yogurt reasonably warm and undisturbed. Yogurt cultures love an ambient temperature range of 95 to 115 degrees; the cooler it is, the longer it will take to get a set (but it will still work!).

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Draining the yogurt in triple-layered cheesecloth will create a thick “Greek-style” yogurt.

I typically leave my yogurt to culture overnight, depending on how much I’m making and the ambient temperature in my house. It will thicken more once it’s been refrigerated, and you can also drain the whey out, leaving you with thick, “Greek-style” yogurt. Drained whey can be added to bread doughs or smoothies, or used as a starter culture for lacto-fermented vegetables, if you’re so inclined. I almost never drain my yogurt, preferring instead to let it culture longer so I have a thicker product and can use every bit of it; when I do have leftover whey I use it to cook grains, like farro and wheatberries. I always leave my yogurt plain so I can use it in both sweet and savory applications; if you want to add in jam or vanilla or honey or maple syrup or any other sweetener or flavoring, do so on an individual basis and not to an entire batch.

Of all the hundreds of batches of yogurt I’ve made, I’ve never had a batch not set. That said, if your yogurt isn’t turning out, I’d recommend first calibrating your thermometer so you know that you’re adding culture at 110 degrees. Too hot and it will die, too cold and it will go dormant. Just like using yeast in bread baking, temperature matters a lot. If you’re confident your thermometer is accurate, I’d next change the brand of milk you’re using, and then I’d change the starter culture, again thoroughly examining that ingredient label to verify that there is nothing in the yogurt besides milk and active cultures. Storebought yogurt has a lot of junk in it; read all your food labels carefully.

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Use the drained whey to bake bread, cook grains or ferment vegetables.

The temperature and speed that your yogurt cultures at determines the thickness of the final product, so once you’ve got the basic technique down, feel free to experiment with how long you let it set, and at what temperature. I’ve read that heating the milk to 195 degrees F allows for an even thicker yogurt because it denatures the proteins further, but I haven’t tried it. Know also that eventually your starter culture will wear out; if you’re making a lot of yogurt, you might find that you need to purchase a fresh starter yogurt every few months to keep your set strong.

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Homemade yogurt, homemade granola and fresh berries. Nom nom nom.

What else should you do with your homemade yogurt, besides enjoy it with fruit and granola? Bake with it. Blend it into smoothies. Use it to marinate meats. Freeze it in popsicle molds with swirls of jam and honey to make your own frozen treats. Add in fresh herbs and salt and make it into a tangy salad dressing or dip for fresh vegetables. Just remember to save a couple of tablespoons to start your next batch!