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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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.

  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

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  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.

The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Three

We promise that this is our last post on sugar (for now). As you’ll remember, in this three-part series we’ve already talked about sugars you have at home and sugars used by the food processing industry. Now, let’s discuss how the sugar industry has worked so hard to convince us all that sugar is not only benign, but actually good for you!

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Before we get into the sugar industry, we’d like to clarify exactly what we mean by added sugars. An added sugar is any quantity or type of sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in a specific food. A perfect example of this is applesauce: in its simplest form, applesauce is made by cooking apples until they’re soft, then mashing or puréeing them. Lots of ingredients can be added to applesauce, including spices like cinnamon and acidifiers such as citric acid to preserve color. Fresh apples contain plenty of natural sugar; primarily fructose, but also sucrose and glucose in small proportions.

Most store-bought applesauce, however, includes added sugars, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, honey or any of the other sweeteners we’ve mentioned. So if that applesauce label were adhering to the now-abandoned revised nutrition labeling laws, it would have to list both the naturally occurring sugar in the apples, plus all of the sugar added by the manufacturer. Hopefully this clarifies the concept of added sugars – it doesn’t occur naturally in the food or drink.

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Both the apple and the soda contain sugar, but all of the apple’s sugar occurs naturally. All of the soda’s sugar is added.

The sugar conspiracy is one of the most significant health-related stories to appear in the news recently. Essentially, the claim is this: fifty years ago, the sugar industry funded studies on the potential correlation between sugar and heart disease. When preliminary studies did appear to confirm this link, the studies were shut down, and research findings were concealed. The Sugar Research Foundation also reportedly paid Harvard scientists to obscure the link between sugar consumption and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead.

And that, friends, is one reason why we’ve spent decades being told not to eat bacon, eggs, butter, cheese or burgers – because they cause heart disease. While excessive consumption of the low-quality saturated fats found in most American diets definitely isn’t a healthy choice, the point is that sugar should also shoulder a lot of the blame. And we now consume a lot more sugar than we do saturated fat, and our heart disease rates are still rising.

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All dried fruit contains natural sugar, but processors add a lot, too. Buy unsweetened dried fruit (this means no Craisins!).

Humans instinctively love the taste of sweet things; sweetness implies carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to energy in our bodies. Now, however, our satiety point is ever higher: as food manufacturers use more and more sugar (or artificial sweeteners), we need more and more in order to stay satisfied and for things to taste sweet. In short, we’re hooked. Sugar has repeatedly been shown to have addictive qualities; one controversial study demonstrated that rats preferred sugar to cocaine.

Not only does eating sugar give you a quick hit of dopamine, causing you to crave it more frequently, but it also ages your skin prematurely, causes inflammation that may increase joint pain, builds up in your liver (causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and thickens your artery walls, leading to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. And obviously, we know it rots our teeth. But because sugar kills so slowly, it’s taken us decades to acknowledge its risks. Sound familiar? Indeed, this is the tale of Big Tobacco, with a different villain. (Fun fact: cigarettes contain a lot of sugar. It dramatically increases their inhalability and therefore their addictiveness. This is true.)

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Notice the percentages? If it’s only 27% juice, the rest is most likely corn syrup, water, colorings and flavorings. And even if it’s 100% juice, it’s still sugar.

While our entire standard American diet (cheap meat! low-fat dairy! refined starches! hold the vegetables!) is to blame for the astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., sugar is a big part of this – and by far, we consume the vast majority of sugar in sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola has spent millions funding studies shifting blame for obesity away from sugary drinks and onto “lifestyle choices,” and we’ve long been told that “fruit juice is part of a healthy diet” – remember every breakfast commercial with its tall, frosty glass of Florida orange juice? But soda and fruit juice are still simply liquid sugar, and we’ve been convinced that drinking our calories doesn’t count. This is proving immeasurably detrimental to our health.

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They all contain sugar. But they also contain fiber.

Drinking juice, or soda, or sweetened coffees or teas, or energy drinks, is basically a great way to mainline sugar, with no health benefits whatsoever. Eating whole fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, offers your body accessible sugar – with the immensely important addition of fiber. Fiber is key, because it acts like those traffic lights allowing timed access to busy highways: it slows the sugar down in your body, giving you more time to absorb it. This is precisely why a soda gives you a sugar rush and then a crash, but a roasted sweet potato allows for sustained energy. The standard American diet is shockingly low in quality fiber, and this deficiency seriously affects our overall health; increasing rates of various GI diseases, including Crohn’s, IBS and colon cancer, prove this. For optimum health, you have to control the way your body absorbs sugar, and the fiber in whole foods does just that.

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Salted peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie, anyone?

Let me be clear: I am in no way advocating a 100% sugar-free diet. First, it’s virtually impossible to achieve, and second, it takes a lot of the joy out of eating, which should be one of our greatest pleasures. I obviously bake frequently, and I use real sugar when I bake. But I want people to know when they’re eating sugar. When you drink your calories, or when you eat yogurt that doesn’t taste that sweet, or when you drown your industrial burger in high-fructose corn syrup, you’re consuming a ton of sugar, but you’re not getting the true enjoyment out of sweets. I want people to eat delicious, satisfying, well-made desserts, but I also want people to appreciate those for what they are: occasional treats. Hidden sugar simply does not need to be part of every single food, beverage, condiment and snack we consume, but our processed food industry has convinced us otherwise.

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So after all this lecturing, how can you reduce sugar in your own diet? It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Eat whole foods, including unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat whole grains and quality fats, like good butter and olive oil.
  • Work on your own sugar satiety point. If you regularly sweeten your coffee or tea, start by using a little less. Then a little less, then a little less again. Do this gradually. Eventually, you’ll reset your own taste buds.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Despite what the label says, there is no health benefit, and you’ll end up eating more because drinks don’t satisfy the way actual food does. Black coffee, unsweetened green, black or herbal tea or sparkling water with lemon will do just fine; stay away from fancy juice bars. And soda is poison. End of story.
  • Read every single ingredient label. Learn the names of all the industrial sugars. Then avoid them. Even better, save yourself lots of reading time by purchasing foods without ingredient labels, like fresh produce and bulk grains.
  • And above all else, cook or make it yourself. When you prepare food from scratch, you control exactly what’s in it, and you know that you don’t need six teaspoons of sugar in your morning yogurt, or eight teaspoons of sugar in your coffee.

Thanks for following our sugar series! If you’d like to read more about the processed food industry and the sugar conspiracy, I’d highly recommend these two books: Food Politics, by Marion Nestle (or anything else by her) and The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes. And let us know what else you’d like to learn more about, and we’ll get on the case!

The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Two

In Part One of our series on sugar, we discussed the most common sugars you might have at home and typically use in your own drinks and baked goods. Food processing companies, however, have access to dozens more ingredients that they can use in their products, all of which are sugar – but under different names.

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Here’s a fun game: how many different names for sugar can you find on this ingredient label?

Keep in mind that labeling laws in the U.S. require a product’s ingredients to be listed in descending weight order, with the most prevalent ingredient first and so on. Because added sugars are in at least 75% of all processed foods (a conservative estimate), manufacturers are understandably wary of listing sugar as one of the first three ingredients, even if that’s technically true. So the loophole here is to obviously identify sugars individually – that is, maltodextrin separate from high fructose corn syrup which is separate from invert sugar and so on. Did you know that sugar goes by over 60 different names on American food labels, and anything ending in “-ose” is sugar? If you see more than three of these on a product label – especially if they occur within the top three ingredients – put it back on the shelf.

  1. Agave nectar
  2. Barbados sugar
  3. Barley malt
  4. Barley malt syrup
  5. Beet sugar
  6. Brown sugar
  7. Buttered syrup
  8. Cane juice
  9. Cane juice crystals
  10. Cane sugar
  11. Caramel
  12. Carob syrup
  13. Castor sugar
  14. Coconut palm sugar
  15. Coconut sugar
  16. Confectioner’s sugar
  17. Corn sweetener
  18. Corn syrup
  19. Corn syrup solids
  20. Date sugar
  21. Dehydrated cane juice
  22. Demerara sugar
  23. Dextrin
  24. Dextrose
  25. Evaporated cane juice
  26. Free-flowing brown sugars
  27. Fructose
  28. Fruit juice
  29. Fruit juice concentrate
  30. Glucose
  31. Glucose solids
  32. Golden sugar
  33. Golden syrup
  34. Grape sugar
  35. HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup)
  36. Honey
  37. Icing sugar
  38. Invert sugar
  39. Malt syrup
  40. Maltodextrin
  41. Maltol
  42. Maltose
  43. Mannose
  44. Maple syrup
  45. Molasses
  46. Muscovado
  47. Palm sugar
  48. Panocha
  49. Powdered sugar
  50. Raw sugar
  51. Refiner’s syrup
  52. Rice syrup
  53. Saccharose
  54. Sorghum syrup
  55. Sucrose
  56. Sugar (granulated)
  57. Sweet sorghum
  58. Syrup
  59. Treacle
  60. Turbinado sugar
  61. Yellow sugar

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The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part One

It’s February, and in America that means we’re celebrating both American Heart Month (take care of your heart!) and Valentine’s Day (so much excess sugar!). Ironic, no? We’re going to return to travel posts from our winter trip to Europe shortly, but in every single one of my recent corporate presentations, I’ve been asked about sugar. Therefore, I think it’s time that your trusted team over here at FQF HQ answer some questions about this ubiquitous yet widely misunderstood ingredient – one that we absolutely need to survive but that is also making us very, very sick.

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Oh my goodness! So very many sugars! All in my own cupboard!

We’re going to start with the basics, and we’re going to break this post into three parts because it’s that lengthy and it’s that important. (Also, I don’t want you to tune out due to boredom.) I’d argue that no other single ingredient in our collective Western diet right now is as significant as this one, so let’s get a few things straight.

  • sugarany of the class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues and exemplified by glucose and sucrose; present in sorghum, maple sap, honey, etc.; used extensively as an ingredient and flavoring of certain foods and as a fermenting agent in the manufacture of certain alcoholic beverages

Let’s break that definition down a bit further: almost every single food we eat – fruit, vegetables, dairy – contains some quantity of naturally occurring sugar. It’s a carbohydrate, and it exists in simple and complex forms, and we need it to survive. But it’s not so much the naturally occurring sugars that are killing us, it’s the added sugars in just about everything.

In this first section, we’re going to talk about commonly available sugars: the ones we might find in our grocery store or pantry, the ones we use every day in our own coffee and tea and cookies and other things we make at home. And in the second section, we’re going to talk about industrial sugars: the ones that are added in for us, the ones we’re totally addicted to and the ones we eat way too much of. Finally, we’re going to discuss how the sugar industry has conspired for decades to convince us that butter and cream and eggs and bacon are the true villains, not sugar, even though they’ve long known otherwise.

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The FAQ Series: Box Meal Kits

Well, hello there! How is 2018 treating you thus far? We over here at FQF are currently swanning our way through France and Germany, and we’ll be sending you some delightful travel missives in the not-too-distant future. But until then, we’d like to talk about box meal kits, because they’ve been a popular topic of conversation lately on both our professional and personal circuits.

What are box meal kits, you might ask? They’re basically recipes and ingredients shipped to you on a regular or on-demand basis, from which you craft (hopefully) delicious, quick(ish) meals. You don’t need to shop or plan; all you need to do is decide which meals you want and how often you want them. And there are many, many companies from which to choose. HelloFresh is probably the most well-known, but there is also Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Plated, Sun Basket and many others. Plus, Amazon recently bought Whole Foods, so they’re expected to enter the ring any day now, and Wal-Mart is jumping in, too.

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Thanks to our good friends over at Epicurean Butter, we received two HelloFresh meals to test: Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Mushroom Risotto and Kale Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Tomato Soup. Although HelloFresh offers a number of different plans to choose from, these two meals were each designed to serve two people and they cost about $20 each, or $10 per serving.

Each meal arrives much as you see above: a shopping bag contains the ingredients, plus a photo recipe card and nutritional info; the shopping bags are then all tucked into an insulated box with packing material and ice packs. Typically, you receive three different meals in a box, but again, this varies according to your plan and the company. Cooking oils, salt and pepper are not included, but everything else you need should be.

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Despite the fact that I find following recipes very similar to being put in a choke collar, I wanted to honor the spirit of this experiment and pretend that I was a standard HelloFresh customer, rather than a professional chef. So I laid out all of my ingredients, checked them carefully against the recipe card, and followed the directions to the letter. N even read out the instructions to me while I was at the stove; this resulted in much hilarity as my natural instinct was to do everything my way – he had to correct me frequently, and of course I argued. My goal, obviously, was to see how close I could get to the presentation in the photo as well as the preparation time indicated.

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Let’s learn about the farm bill!

Since about – oh, let’s just say November 9, 2016, not to be too precise – many Americans have found themselves much more interested in politics than in times past. And while that’s a good thing, it’s an understatement to say American politics can be rather confusing. As in, we don’t really get what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to have that much impact on our relatively comfortable day-to-day lives, so we just go along, merrily forwarding cat videos, virtual-signing critical online petitions that have absolutely no real-world impact and binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things.

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Finding Quiet Farm tries hard to both educate and entertain, so today we’re going to talk about the farm bill. Oh, I can hear you rolling your eyes right now all the way across the Interwebs, but bear with me. The farm bill, which as Michael Pollan says “should actually be called the food bill,” really does affect every single American, every single day. Multiple times a day, to be honest, because each bite of food you eat in this country is directly tied to the farm bill. And if you have kids, and if they eat any food at all in a school environment, then you’re affected even more. Without further ado, then, a brief, (hopefully) simple introduction to the farm bill, and why you should care about it.

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Let’s start with the basics. What is the farm bill?

The farm bill is a “multibillion dollar tangle of agricultural subsidies, welfare programs and environmental patronage,” or, more simply, it’s legislation that connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that making growing food possible. It costs just under $500 billion – that’s half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars!

It’s a multiyear omnibus (meaning it covers many different programs) law revamped about every five years and the current farm bill will expire in 2018. That means it’s time for our beloved politicians to start crafting a new farm bill.

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What does the farm bill do?

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it best:

“In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown.  This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health.  These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!

Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.

Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7, 2014.)

The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals –  to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.”

Basically, the farm bill does many things, but its most significant elements are the federal food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), crop insurance and crop subsidies. There are other, smaller aspects, but these are by far the most important (and costly).

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How does this affect me, or more literally, why should I care?

You should care if you either 1. eat food in the U.S. and/or 2. pay taxes, because you’re funding this monster. And if you’re concerned about our rapidly escalating health care costs, or that for the first time in modern industrial history the current generation has a lower life expectancy than their parents, or even if you only care about just your own household food budget, then the farm bill (and food policy in general) should matter to you.

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What’s wrong with the farm bill?

Where to begin? It was implemented in the 1930s, and modern agriculture is vastly different now than it was during the Great Depression and the ensuing years. After World War II, we got really, really good at growing vast quantities of corn, wheat and soy with the help of leftover nitrogen, which was made into powerful fertilizer. And in the 1970s farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out,” so the small, diversified family farm started to disappear, and farmers were paid to constantly increase their production of cereal grains, again primarily corn and soy – now used as inexpensive animal feed and as the primary ingredients in processed foods and drinks.

Now, fewer than two million Americans live on farms, while crop yields – and pesticide, herbicide and insecticide usage – continues to increase. Huge monoculture farms cover most of the Midwest, reducing natural diversity and vastly increasing the chances of another devastating Dust Bowl. Large monocrop farmers are millionaires many times over, and small farms are going under. We produce far more cheap, high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid food than we need in this country, and the result of that overproduction includes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, sick animals raised in their own waste, and a population ridden with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. Plus, many low-income Americans cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods.

Without question, the farm bill needs revision so it can better impact our current crises, including our food-insecure population and the serious health and environmental burdens our country is facing. But Big Ag has a lot of money and a lot of influence, and the 2018 version is unlikely to offer any significant improvements.

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What can I do to help implement changes in future farm bills?

Well, I’d love to end this on a super-positive, grassroots movement note and tell you to write your elected representative! Call your elected representative! Stand outside the office of your elected representative! But let’s be truthful here: all of our elected representatives are on someone’s payroll, and lobbying is a lucrative career. So the best you can do, to be perfectly honest, is vote with your dollars, because that’s the only vote that really matters. And you vote every single time you spend money.

If you value small farms, find your local farms, know your farmer, and buy directly from them. Skip the middleman. Search out local CSAs, and patronize them. If you believe more federal dollars should support organic farms, buy organic. Read labels, and ask questions. If you want to eat animals that have lived a good life and had a humane death, stop buying cheap commodity feedlot meat and battery eggs. Buy from companies who honor the same values you honor. Do some research. Don’t buy heavily processed foods and drinks made from soy and corn derivatives. Grow your own food, if possible. Anything helps, even a few windowboxes of herbs. And above all else, refuse to believe that something is in your best interest just because someone tells you so. Stand up for yourself, your family, your health and your values – because everyone is out to sell you something, and it’s your responsibility to figure out whether you really should buy it.

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The FAQ Series: Oils + Fats

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

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

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

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

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

Flambe

Please don’t try this at home.

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

Olive Oil 01.jpg

Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.

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

Coconut Oil.jpg

So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.

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

Sunflower.jpg

Both pretty and useful!

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

Butter 01

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

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

Butter 04

This little piggy became lard…

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

Hazelnut Walnut Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should we discuss next? Let us know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The FAQ Series: Salt

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

Salt Crystals 01

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

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

Salt Selection.jpg

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

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

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

Salt Flats

The salt flats in Bonaire.

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

Kosher Salt.jpg

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

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

Salt Dishes.jpg

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

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

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

Kosher Salt Seasoned

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

Salt Book.jpg

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

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

CCA-11.jpg

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

Salt Crystals 02.jpg