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!

What we eat (and don’t eat)

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

I don’t pay a great deal of attention to teenagers, mostly because I’m not learning dance moves on The TikTok, but I’d have to agree with Greta Thunberg’s comments above. The preposterous dog and pony show currently taking place in Glasgow is just so much performative rhetoric with absolutely no follow-through. Honestly, the planet likely warmed another ten degrees from all of the hot air passionately emoted in Scotland. Please note that this summit is titled COP26 for a reason – because twenty-five conferences have been held previously, and precisely nothing was accomplished through any of those gatherings, either. Also, pro tip for the U.N.: everyone knows that if you want to host the most glamorous climate-change party you should invite some big-name guests, and when Russia and China both decline your invitation, your party starts to look a little sad.

Our smoky, hazy, summer wildfire sky.

Let’s look on the bright side: we’re finally, finally having some hard conversations about the devastating realities of climate change! Now let’s look on the realistic side: it’s far past time for us to acknowledge that we cannot stop or even slow climate change! The moment for that was forty years ago, when scientists first started warning of these eventualities. Countries have never once even met emission-reduction goals, never mind exceeded them, and we’re quickly headed for a far greater increase than the oft-mentioned 2°C. In late 2021, the only realistic approach is to concentrate all of our efforts on adapting to our changing weather patterns and our warming planet. It’s ridiculous to think that we can alter the current trajectory, but we may as well acknowledge that adaptation is what humans do best – it’s exactly why we’re in this doomsday scenario, because we’ve adapted to living and breeding everywhere, limited resources be damned.

What frustrates me most about a bunch of useless politicians prattling on about green economies and renewable energy – plus a bunch of shouty protesters taking to the streets with their cobalt-filled smartphones! – is that collectively, we’ve chosen to ignore the solutions that already exist. It’s almost as though we didn’t think that climate change was a tricky-enough problem, so we said, “How can we make this more difficult and more expensive?” Instead, all we actually have to do is look at the answers we already have – and the two best and most obvious both save people money AND have a huge impact on overall methane emissions. Yes! Everyone talks about decarbonization, but perhaps our energy would be better focused on methane reduction.

Lovely car, but electric vehicles aren’t going to save us. Not by a long shot.

This is not intended to broadly oversimplify the hugely complex problem of climate change, but the Environmental Defense Fund puts it like this: “Cutting methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we have to immediately slow the rate of global warming, even as we decarbonize our energy systems. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. Methane (CH4) has more than eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first twenty years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.”

And so, the obvious question would be as follows: what can we, as individuals, do to reduce our methane emissions? The answer is remarkably simple yet hugely impactful: eat less (or no) meat and stop wasting food. These are basic actions that don’t require complicated technology, new infrastructure, job retraining or trillions of incentive dollars. They also directly benefit our health and save us money.

Cheap hormone-drenched feedlot beef in plastic tubes. Yummy yummy!

According to the EPA, well more than a third of the United States’ methane emissions originate from agriculture, primarily feedlots and manure lagoons (such an attractive phrase – the American meat industry is decidedly grim). “When livestock and manure emissions are combined, the agriculture sector is the largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States.” Obviously, then, reducing the number of animals we raise for food is a simple way to reduce methane emissions. In Glasgow, however, not much was said about meat consumption, likely because at least in America, the livestock and agriculture industries are incredibly powerful. Shaking that tree is going to take quite a bit more than twenty-six international climate summits.

It’s no surprise that Americans are one of the top consumers of animal flesh in the world; we were raised, of course, on “meat and potatoes.” When it comes to our food expenditures, meat represents the lion’s share of our grocery budget. Using broad-brush statistics, Americans consumed about 265 pounds of meat per person in 2020, at a cost of $4 per pound. (These numbers are roughly averaged, as beef is substantially more expensive than chicken and pork.) That’s three-quarters of a pound of meat per person, per day, every day. Considering that we have the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the developed world – lifestyle diseases strongly correlated with our excessive meat consumption and shockingly poor diets – decreasing the amount of meat we eat would reduce methane and save lives, plus save us all money on groceries and health care. (The hospital industry is a huge GHG emitter, too, so if we stayed out of hospitals because we were healthier we’d again be helping both ourselves and the planet. See how it all comes together?)

Livestock should be on pasture, not in feedlots.

As an additional incentive, millions of acres of land are cleared to raise livestock and feed, primarily corn and soy. Returning these acres to natural prairie grassland in the U.S. or tropical rain forest, as in the Amazon, would also help sequester tons of carbon dioxide in the soil, rather than pushing it into the atmosphere. Raising livestock also uses astonishing amounts of water; in the American West, where most beef cattle can be found, there is no longer any water to spare. In short, the overall benefits of minimizing or eliminating meat consumption are staggering – and certainly not discussed nearly as often as EVs or taxes on oil and gas companies.

Methane is generated not only from livestock and their waste, but from any decomposing organic matter thrown into landfills. Food waste, then, is another massive beast entirely; more than 40% of all food produced in the United States is never eaten. If food waste were a country, its emissions would be third-highest in the world, after the U.S. and China; globally, food waste accounts for about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. This is such low-hanging (and obviously rotting) fruit – when organic matter is decomposed properly in a well-managed compost pile, it produces nutrient-rich humus that can then be used to grow more food. When smothered in non-biodegradable plastic trash bags in a landfill, however, its emissions are greater than the entire airline industry. And the solution is just so simple and again, saves money – buy less food, don’t cook more than you’ll eat, use up your leftovers and scraps and start a compost pile. The answers really aren’t that complicated, and no one needed to convene tens of thousands of people in Scotland to figure this out. Sure looks impressive on social, though.

Composting organic matter is such a simple way to reduce methane emissions.

It’s easy to lose faith entirely when our world leaders are so smug and so hypocritical, and so intent on making blah blah blah promises they have no intention of keeping. If you’re feeling entirely depressed and hopeless about the state of the world – as most of us likely are – just know that individual choices do make a difference when taken collectively. Reduce or eliminate meat in your diet and stop throwing away food. These small actions might not seem like much, but it’s certainly a better approach than giving up entirely.

A word on seeds

“The best way to oppose a system is often to create something better to replace it.”

Scarlet runner beans, grown mostly to attract hummingbirds but also delicious to eat. Plus the beans are gorgeous.

I read a Wall Street Journal piece recently that really stuck in my craw. The article details the ongoing global supply chain challenges, specifically focusing on the Halloween season:

“Ben Wieber, a 27-year-old professional services consultant in Kalamazoo, Mich., struck out trying to purchase a miniature haunted house in-store to add to his Lemax Spooky Town collection, a line of Halloween-themed animatronic figurines and buildings. He was also broadly disappointed in the amount of Halloween décor available at stores near him.

“I went to Lowe’s, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods and I’m already seeing Christmas stuff replace the Halloween stuff, which is ridiculous,” Mr. Wieber says. “I’m like, hello? Are we just skipping Halloween this year?”

This appalling anecdote immediately brings to mind two things: 1. Obviously the pandemic is over and 2. Even more obviously the apocalypse is nigh. Late in 2021, after more than eighteen months of crushing loss and death and isolation and sickness and disinformation and loneliness and unrest and economic devastation and fury, we have clearly reached the point at which all of our mental energies – and our time and gas! – can be laser-focused on buying yet another cheap trinket that we don’t need but are angry that we can’t get. I’m like, hello?

We grew spectacular peas this season.

I am particularly caught up in this obsessive need to buy tacky, energy-intensive, disposable, Chinese-made plastic holiday decorations because at the moment, much of my own time and energy is focused on saving seeds from this growing season. We’ve talked about seeds regularly here at FQF HQ, but in the wake of what’s occurred over the past year and a half, and what’s certainly coming down the pipeline (I’m like hello, irreversible climate change!) seeds have taken on a new significance.

Cleaning saved basil seeds is a bit labor-intensive – the seeds are actually those tiny black specks in the lower right – but worth the effort.

To understand why seeds are so essential to human survival, it’s important to understand just how much has changed in only the past century. For about ten thousand years, since the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal living to established agriculture, humans have saved seeds. No seed companies existed until recently, of course, so the only way to ensure food for the following year was to save seeds from this season’s harvest, and to trade and barter with neighboring farmers for their seeds. Because seeds were so necessary for human survival, they were rarely shipped and therefore didn’t travel long distances; by their very nature, these seeds were perfectly adapted over generations to the unique microclimate of the area in which they were grown. Saving seed is so painfully obvious – the ability to grow food so clearly a basic human right – that it never occurred to small farmers that a seed could be patented as intellectual property, like a song or a book.

The squirrels didn’t steal all of our sunflower seeds this season!

This system worked beautifully until Big Ag wanted in on the action after World War II concluded. To summarize an incredibly complex situation in a few glib words: much of the world’s food supply is now based on patented hybrid and/or GMO seeds. Three large multinational corporations now control over 70% of the world’s seeds, and therefore over 70% of the world’s food. It is illegal under a variety of laws to save and propagate these seeds, and in most cases the seeds won’t breed true anyway. This global movement away from seed sovereignty (“the farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants”) threatens everyone on the planet, yet apparently we’re too busy looking for unavailable Halloween decorations to care about that.

Even now, there are only a handful of seed companies in the U.S.; there used to be thousands, each with their own regional specialties. Buy from Johnny’s or High Mowing and you’ll likely get seeds grown out in Maine or Vermont or somewhere else in New England. They’ll probably produce, yes, but Maine and Vermont are pretty different climactically from the high-plains desert we grow in, and I’d like to have a greater chance at success with seeds adapted to my region. And of course we all remember what happened in the spring of 2020. Seed companies were entirely overwhelmed by demand once it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, and seeds weren’t available anyway; if they did arrive, it was long after planting season. I’m simply not willing to stake my household’s food security on the rickety scaffolding of unprepared seed companies, global panic and the USPS.

Onion seeds are easy to harvest and save, but they must be collected before they’re wind-dispersed.

Back in September, the U.N. – an utterly useless pretend mafia of pompous self-important incompetent blowhards, if you want to know my real opinion – convened the first Food Systems Summit, which was theoretically designed to “determine the future of agriculture.” Yet the small farmers who actually grow the majority of the world’s food were not offered a seat at the table. Instead, in a move surprising to precisely no one, the loudest and most prominent voices were those of Big Ag and Big Pharma, mainly companies who have committed grievous biopiracy by patenting landrace seeds and inventing GMO crops that threaten both the planet and human health. Dear United Nations: Praising Monsanto/Bayer for its breathless promises to cure global hunger – an issue it directly causes AND profits from – by patenting seeds is like praising Jeff Bezos for his commitment to solving climate change. In effect, you don’t win a prize for claiming to “fix” a problem that you directly helped create (and made billions along the way!).

All this is to say: convening a bunch of billionaires – who have probably never grown a single tomato in their lives – in some sparkly ballroom in some fancy city far from any actual agriculture isn’t likely to solve the world’s food problems. And for that reason, hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists boycotted the U.N. summit, and rightfully so. It is absurd to think that Big Ag and Big Pharma would have even the slightest interest in working in tandem with small farmers on improving food systems; their respective interests are entirely at odds. Seed companies don’t make money if people save their own seeds! To maintain the very profitable status quo, power must be kept in the hands of the few, and making seed saving illegal (and useless, in the case of GMOs and hybrids) is one very effective way to maintain that power. (These corporations would still do well to remember the other side of the coin: most revolutions start when people are hungry.)

Be careful with cayenne pepper seeds – gloves are recommended!

It is so easy to feel entirely hopeless and dejected in the face of the world’s mounting problems, and to feel as though our own actions don’t count in the slightest. It doesn’t matter that we conscientiously sort our recycling and bring it to the drop-off center; virtually all of America’s “recycling” is actually dumped straight into the landfill. It doesn’t matter that we don’t use A/C or heat in our house, and instead try to maintain comfort with fresh air and warm sweaters; most of the country is now accustomed to perfectly-calibrated indoor temperatures requiring vast amounts of energy. What does matter, however, is our seed bank. Saving our own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds, and sharing them widely with other growers in our area, actually makes a difference. That classic question about what you’d save in case of a fire? It’s a real consideration where we live, and our small, compact, lightweight, portable seed bank would be at the top of the list. With those seeds, we can feed ourselves, and there is no greater human accomplishment than self-reliance.

Marigolds always remind me of our travels in India.

We save seeds here at Quiet Farm because we want control over our own food supply. We save seeds because we want to share seeds and encourage others to grow food. We save seeds because we want to steward unique, rare varieties of plants that grow well in our challenging climate. We save seeds because we believe the only way to reasonably face climate change is through adaptation. We save seeds because we do not believe that Big Ag and Big Pharma have our best interests at heart. We save seeds because anyone can claim to be an ‘activist’ while not actually doing anything – but stewarding a seed bank is a tangible, useful, productive way to protest against our rapidly dwindling power as small farmers. We save seeds because it matters.

So save your seeds, friends. You might well need them someday. And save your animatronic haunted houses too – apparently they have some value on the resale market. Try Ben in Michigan.

Kale typically only sets seed after its second growing season here.

P.S. If you’re in our area (or even if you’re not!) and you’d like to learn more about saving seeds, please consider joining the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance,  “a nonprofit organization working to assure an abundant and diverse supply of local seeds for the Rocky Mountain region through education, networking, and establishing community-based models of seed stewardship.”

Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

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

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

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

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

Continue reading

Make a plan

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

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

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

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

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

The makings of a stir-fry.

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

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

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

Breakfast tacos are a household staple – usually for dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving season

Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.

There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.

Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.

Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?

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How to make kimchi

A couple of years back, we all got really into probiotics. In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and/or yeasts – in our surrounding environment and within our bodies that help keep us healthy. Since so many of us are regularly on antibiotics, which kill off both good and bad organisms indiscriminately, it makes sense that our bodies would be deficient in helpful bacteria. The rise of serious digestive-related disorders, too, indicated that our microbiome was in serious trouble.

Many of these health issues can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of food we eat is completely, totally dead. I don’t mean dead in the literal sense, like how we turn a sad CAFO pig into even sadder pork chops, but dead in the sense that all life has been processed out of it. Instead of eating slightly muddy carrots, freshly dug, we eat “carrot chips” and drink “carrot juice,” which have been subjected to high-heat processing and irradiation and a million other complicated techniques, rendering that carrot into what Michael Pollan would call “an edible food-like substance.” It’s no longer actual, nutritious food; we’ve just been told it is.

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The meat of the matter

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.

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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.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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Best diet hack ever!

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It’s January, and in America at least, that means New Year’s resolutions. Gyms are packed. Whole Foods is packed. Juice bars are packed. “Revolutionary” diet books and “foolproof” programs and “guaranteed” supplements and exorbitantly expensive electronic bikes are winging their way to doorsteps across the country even as we speak. And for what, dear friends? Although “get healthy” and “lose weight” are by far the most common resolutions, numerous studies have shown that over 80% of all resolutions are abandoned somewhere in February, if not sooner. The problem isn’t the resolution itself – it’s the way most of us go about it.

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In this country, we are nothing if not dietary extremists. We go vegan or Paleo or gluten-free on impulse, or because we think everyone else is doing it. We blindly subscribe to the latest social media-fueled/celebrity-endorsed “health” trend. (Looking at you, celery juice.) We ignore moderation as a lifestyle entirely, and instead fixate on the newest, shiniest trick that promises to make us better, healthier and twenty pounds lighter. But why haven’t the fifty previous sparkly tricks worked? Because all of those glittering promises are built on quick fixes and short-term solutions, not on building a lifetime of habits. Let’s be honest – anyone can stick to pretty much anything for a week or two, maybe even a month or six weeks. Eat more salads? No problem. Cut back on alcohol? Easy. Go full-on keto? Tougher, but still manageable.

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