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.

Farm update: July 26

And here we are at the tail end of July, scrambling to complete everything that needs doing. Each night before sleep finally arrives I focus on designing bright, colorful quilt patterns in my head – calming mental Tetris – rather than running through all of the tasks I didn’t complete during the day. The tomatoes need to be pruned and re-staked, again. The arugula and lettuce seeds need to be harvested, the straggly plants composted and the beds reseeded. The garlic needs to be pulled and cured. The mallow, bindweed and puncturevine are threatening a total takeover. And on and on and on. I feel a thousand miles behind on everything, and I remind myself to complete one task at a time. Also, I regularly remind myself to enjoy the moment I’m in, rather than race on to the next without even pausing for breath. (Easier said than done, no?)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Admiring our seasonal plants is a great way for me to stop my frenzied rushing for just a moment. Many of our flowering perennials didn’t bloom this year, thanks to the drought, but we do still have a few. Echinacea, or coneflower, is one of my favorites, and the bees love it, too. (Our pollinator population is also greatly diminished this year, likely due to the lack of blossoms in the neighboring orchards.) Echinacea has been touted for years as an herbal remedy for just about any ailment, including the common cold, but legitimate scientific studies on this are lacking in substance, to say the least. Still, the coneflowers grow well here and I’m hopeful that I can expand their presence on the farm in future years.

Just one day’s harvest…

Late July and August are the months we eagerly await all year – when the vegetables start rolling in. The flipside of that, of course, is that then you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do with all of that glorious food. Onions and kale are easy to deal with; they are garden stalwarts and stay fresh for weeks. Carrots and beets need to have their greens removed, at the very least; I usually don’t wash them until just before I’m ready to use them. The zucchini, of course, is where things start to feel overwhelming. Anyone who has planted zucchini knows full well that through some mysterious garden trickery you can check the plants twice a day and still end up with overgrown monsters. I like to harvest the squash when small and use it in salads, galettes and pastas; I also shred and freeze it for muffins. And our tomatoes are just now starting to come on; we’ve had a couple of early Juliets, plus a Lemon Boy and a Black Krim. The real bounty will start showing up in about ten days, and as with every year, I’m looking forward to an absurd excess of tomatoes. They never go to waste here.

So fresh! So crisp! So delicious!

We had a ridiculously abundant crop of peas this year! I adore fresh peas, but they often struggle here because we typically move so quickly from winter to summer, and peas generally like cooler, more moderate temperatures. This year, however, the plants just kept on producing, even when the temperatures accelerated into triple digits. Many, many peas were simply eaten fresh outside as a garden snack while doing chores, and many more made it inside for salads and stir-fries. The plants are mostly finished now, the peas starchy and the vines slowly crisping and browning, and all the peas still hanging will be dried and saved for seed. This year was such a roaring success that I’m very seriously considering giving the peas their own special home next to the raspberry beds, and saving the space in the raised beds for other spring crops like carrots and onions.

Neatly stacking hay bales is definitely a cardio workout.

We are thrilled to have our winter hay stores for the animals laid in. We completely guessed at the number of bales we bought last year – never having overwintered livestock – and actually came pretty close in our estimate! The animals are mostly on pasture right now but get hay in the evenings; come winter, however, this will be all the food they have. The drought has forced many producers to cull their cattle and sheep because the land can no longer support that many head, and the lack of water means that hay is obviously much more costly, too. Our hay cost fifty percent more than last year; in all honesty, we were prepared to pay double. Our focus, as always, is on ensuring that we don’t overgraze our pasture and that we always have emergency feed reserves stockpiled.

Our sunflowers are cheerful and abundant, too.

And with that, we’re off to tackle our neverending task list. Do tell, though – if you have an excess of zucchini, what are your favorite ways of using it up? I always enjoy hearing how others move through an abundance of garden produce.

Wishing you a lovely week, dear friends.

The humble muffin

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

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

Homey. Comforting. Just what we need right now.

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

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

Get your mise-en-place together first!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a plan

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

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

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

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

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

The makings of a stir-fry.

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

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

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

Breakfast tacos are a household staple – usually for dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 start composting

Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.

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Our original compost pile.

If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.

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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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On hiatus

Over the next eight weeks (at least in the U.S.), we’ll careen wildly from one overwrought celebration to another. From a holiday where we decorate with fresh, healthy vegetables but celebrate with cheap processed candy (while leaving the vegetables to rot in the landfill) to a holiday where we throw away the equivalent of fourteen million turkeys to a holiday predicated entirely upon excessive spending, consumption, packaging and waste, the next two months are a difficult and challenging time of year for many people – including us.

And thus Finding Quiet Farm is on hiatus for the rest of 2019, though we’ll stay busy. We’re going to bundle up, hunker down and get to work on all sorts of interesting tasks, both indoors and out. We’ll be back in the new year with farm updates, lots of book recommendations, and photos of all our projects. We’ll be quiet and productive and we’ll skip the holidays entirely, thanks very much.

Take good care of yourselves, friends, and cook something tasty and nourishing. We hope to see you back here in 2020.

How to save the world

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

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

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

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

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