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.

Farm update: July 12

How are you? How is your July thus far? It’s high summer here at Quiet Farm and we spend more time outdoors than in – always, always wearing long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of SPF 50 (only reef-safe zinc, though we’re nowhere near a reef!) on any exposed skin. Skin cancer is not to be taken lightly, especially since we’re more than a mile closer to the sun. Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Sunchokes along the eastern edge of our game fence.

Each growing season, I aim to plant at least one new fruit, vegetable, herb or flower. Last year it was fennel (and unintentionally this year, too, since it self-seeded) but this year’s choice was sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus). Sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they’re native to North America, not Israel) are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and the plants produce showy yellow flowers and an edible tuber. They’re not well known in the U.S.; even in France they’re grown primarily for animal feed. But! The crisp, white-fleshed tubers are rich in inulin (a dietary fiber) and are absolutely delicious when roasted and salted like potatoes. I might even try some sunchoke chips in the dehydrator! I’m excited to harvest these later this season, especially because once established, they’ll likely need no water and no maintenance, and will hopefully continue to produce a nutritious winter storage crop all on their own.

Nice buns.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than one minute knows that I am constantly trying to convince the entire world to bake their own bread. Really, you should! So easy! So satisfying! So much healthier and tastier than store-bought! But perhaps you find large burnished sourdough loaves to be somewhat intimidating? No problem. Start simple, like hamburger buns. I know that I’ve just missed the Fourth of July, a classic burger holiday if ever there was one. But if you start practicing now, you’ll have mastered homemade burger buns by Labor Day! (Only joking, because you don’t need any practice at all; buns are really easy.) Use this reliable recipe – I did not make any alterations for altitude – and bake a batch to tuck in your freezer for future grilling opportunities. The recipe yields eight large; I make sixteen if I want to serve sliders. Please, try this and let me know if you have troubles – I’ll help you sort them out!

Broad Tailed Hummingbird 05 sml

Broad-tailed hummingbirds at the feeder.

Our migratory hummingbird population is thriving; if we remain still, we’re able to see them up close on our feeders. We observe two species most commonly here – the broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), and only very rarely a rufous (Selasphorus rufus). The hummingbirds are so much fun to listen to as they dive and swoop like miniature fighter jets. We’ve even discovered a tiny nest precariously perched on the twinkle light strands on our front porch; we’ve left it alone for the moment in the hopes that there might be viable eggs in it. Although we have dozens of incredible bird species here at Quiet Farm, the fast and spirited hummingbirds are definitely one of our favorites.

Fresh, crisp, satisfying and most of all – cold.

Despite the slider rolls above, supper is entirely abandoned more evenings than not here at Quiet Farm. When it’s pushing 100 degrees at 5:30PM and we’ve been out irrigating all day, the very last thing I want to do is turn on the oven or the stove. Enter the cold noodle salad, remarkably simple and infinitely variable. I cook the noodles in well-salted water first thing in the morning, when it’s (relatively) cool. Drain and toss the still-warm noodles in sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chile sauce if you like things spicy. Shred a whole mess of vegetables, whatever you have on hand – carrots, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower – and toss with a bit more soy and vinegar. Chill everything. When it’s time to eat, make yourself a beautiful, colorful plate and garnish with lots and lots of fresh herbs – I like a mixture of Thai basil, cilantro, scallions and mint. Add more soy or sesame oil as desired. Chopped salted peanuts are great, too! You could serve this on a bed of fresh greens, you could top this with crispy tofu or strips of a simple scallion omelette, or you could just eat it as is. One of my very favorite low-effort/high-flavor summer meals. (P.S. When you’re making something that will later be eaten cold, remember to have a generous hand with the seasoning. Cold dulls flavor, therefore it doesn’t taste as intense. Be lavish with salt and herbs!)

Adelaide apologizes for not tidying up all the hay on her face before this photo was snapped.

And finally, our animals are thrilled with their new haircuts. Although they have access to shade, they still spend their time happily grazing away in the pasture. Even on the hottest days, when we’re melting and seeking out any cool spot we can find, they’re happy to be out in the sun. Last summer was a different story, and we’re so pleased that we were able to get them sheared so they can be more comfortable during this brutal season.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead, friends.

Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

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Farm update: May 24

Late spring is a busy time of year for small farms and homesteads. The task list seems endless: plant this, thin these, weed that, water those and by the way, the alpacas and chickens still need food, water and clean bedding. The best we can do is simply to make list after list, and tackle those lists one item at a time. One thing we do adjust as we move into our busiest period: our daily routine. If possible, we try to be outside in the morning and inside in the afternoon, because our blustery, changeable winds make working outside even more challenging after two o’clock. This is a lovely ideal, of course, and things don’t always proceed as planned – but all we can do is our very best.

Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Careful pasture management is helping our land stay green despite the exceptional drought.

Our irrigation season is set to launch next week, though we still haven’t learned our water allotment for this year. In preparation for running water, we purchased a three-row marker to attach to our little tractor. Because we use gated pipe to irrigate our pasture, it’s important to “mark” the fields with channels that direct the water to the correct places. Marking is usually done on a three-year rotation, but our pastures were essentially abandoned for close to seven years, so it’s going to take some time to get the irrigation pinpointed. In addition to marking the fields, we also reconnected all of our gated pipe and replaced damaged gaskets and gates. Most people don’t break down their pipes every year, but we’ve mentioned before that we have a severe rodent problem – and if they build a winter burrow in the pipes, they’ll eat the gates. It’s more work to disassemble and reassemble the pipes, but likely saves us money in the long run.

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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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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.

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Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

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!

Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.