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!
Late spring is a busy time of year for small farms and homesteads. The task list seems endless: plant this, thin these, weed that, water those and by the way, the alpacas and chickens still need food, water and clean bedding. The best we can do is simply to make list after list, and tackle those lists one item at a time. One thing we do adjust as we move into our busiest period: our daily routine. If possible, we try to be outside in the morning and inside in the afternoon, because our blustery, changeable winds make working outside even more challenging after two o’clock. This is a lovely ideal, of course, and things don’t always proceed as planned – but all we can do is our very best.
Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:
Careful pasture management is helping our land stay green despite the exceptional drought.
Our irrigation season is set to launch next week, though we still haven’t learned our water allotment for this year. In preparation for running water, we purchased a three-row marker to attach to our little tractor. Because we use gated pipe to irrigate our pasture, it’s important to “mark” the fields with channels that direct the water to the correct places. Marking is usually done on a three-year rotation, but our pastures were essentially abandoned for close to seven years, so it’s going to take some time to get the irrigation pinpointed. In addition to marking the fields, we also reconnected all of our gated pipe and replaced damaged gaskets and gates. Most people don’t break down their pipes every year, but we’ve mentioned before that we have a severe rodent problem – and if they build a winter burrow in the pipes, they’ll eat the gates. It’s more work to disassemble and reassemble the pipes, but likely saves us money in the long run.
We are sorely disappointed to report that we did not receive even one paltry inch of snow from the massive spring storm that walloped Denver and the Front Range last weekend. To add insult to injury, snow was in the forecast again today, to no avail – I promise you that it is clear and dry outside right now. We joke regularly about checking (In)AccuWeather on our phones, where it’s always “currently snowing in Delta County” – no. No, it isn’t. We have learned from our time here to only trust the weather that we can actually see and feel. All other promises and forecasts ring hollow.
So what we’re not doing on the farm right now is plowing or shoveling snow. But here are a few other things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d care to see.
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 toeat, 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!
Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.
Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.
We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.
“This pandemic feels like a relay race and if that means that every once in a while, you need to break down and freak out, that’s fine. We can carry the baton for each other while we lose it, gather strength, and then carry on. The world seems out of control, but we can control our kitchens and the good things that come out of them. That’s something.”
-Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo
A daily harvest last week.
It’s reaching that point in the season when all of our hard work starts to pay off in abundance. Harvests now happen daily, rather than weekly or every few days, and a small bucket is required. Although the stars of summer – tomatoes and peppers – haven’t really come on yet, we’re swimming in greens, carrots, beets, onions, zucchini, fennel, kale and fresh herbs. It’s not going to be a great year for either winter squash or sweet peppers, much to our disappointment, and we fear that the squirrels have pre-harvested many of our potatoes. But we’re looking forward to cucumbers and fresh beans along with a (hopefully strong) tomato crop.
“Still, I cook. We need to cook, after all, to nourish ourselves and those around us. We need to cook to feel better, to make others feel better, to get along. I may begin the process in weariness, but as often as not I end it in surprise and triumph, happy at least to have made something delicious, to have shared it with those with whom I shelter.”
-Sam Sifton, The New York Times
No longer trendy but still delicious.
One of the cruel ironies of being a farmer is that when the vegetables really start rolling in, it’s way too hot to cook. Plus, after twelve hours working in the blazing sun all we want is chilled watermelon and ice-cold beer – not exactly a balanced diet. Enter the quiche! Long a mainstay of stuffy, boring women’s luncheons, quiche is hopelessly out of fashion but so well-suited for hot summer months, especially when fresh eggs, vegetables and herbs are in abundance. I always bake first thing in the morning (the house doesn’t need any help heating up later in the day), and quiche is perfect warm, cold or at room temperature. It has a reputation for being terribly unhealthy, but loaded with broccoli, spinach, peppers and herbs, with just a little egg and sharp, savory cheese to bind it all together, it’s an ideal summer staple. Let’s bring quiche back!
The past two months have exposed a great number of frailties in systems we’ve long taken for granted. From child care to health care, we’ve learned firsthand that most – if not all – of our societal structures are built on debt-ridden quicksand. Nowhere has this fragility been more apparent than in our food supply, long the envy of less-developed nations.
Mmmm…meat in tubes. Delicious.
If you’ve ever traveled in the Caribbean or Africa or Asia – really, anywhere outside of the U.S. and Europe – you know that a standard Western grocery store is a thing of miracles. The glossy, perfect produce, appealingly stacked in lush displays. With artificial thunderstorms! Acres of cold-storage, displaying hygienically shrink-wrapped packages of beef, pork, chicken and fish, none of which resemble the animal they once were. The deli abounds with cheeses and olives and overflowing dishes of prepared foods, enticingly displayed on beds of ornamental kale. Aisle upon aisle of boxed mixes and snack foods and sodas and candy and cookies and chips, plus thousands of cleaning products and toiletries and other various and sundry items, all brightly-colored and stocked in abundance. A standard Western grocery store never has bare shelves, because that violates its very reason for existing – that we have so much, we can replenish each item before it’s even made its way to the check-out.
A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about how, in addition to guns, seeds, toilet paper and yeast, Americans have “stress-bought all the baby chickens.” For the record, N and I would like to point out that raising chicks was always in our 2020 plan, even before this pandemic wreaked havoc on the universe. And so it happens that ten chicks now reside in a makeshift fort in our sunroom, deftly constructed of cardboard, repurposed pallets, a vintage metal fireplace guard, free Harbor Freight tarps, and salvaged window screens. This chicken palace is a thing of architectural beauty, make no mistake.
What distressed me most about that NYT article – and to be fair, this happens every Easter – is how many people buy chicks (and puppies, and kittens…) without thinking beyond their cuteness stage. Do you know anything about keeping chickens? Where do you plan to house them? How will you keep them safe from predators? What if you end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most municipalities? This flock will be our fourth, and before we had chickens at our old house we did a ton of research on how to keep them safe, healthy and happy.
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.