Farm update: September 20

Autumn is very much on its way here at Quiet Farm. Overnight lows plunge to the mid-40s, though our daytime temperatures remain in the mid-80s. The plants are all starting to look a bit tired, a bit yellowed, a bit lackluster. The seasonal transition has begun, and we are looking forward to the slower rhythms of late fall and winter. This remains an exceptionally busy time for us; here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see.

One day’s harvest of an easy twenty-five pounds.

Despite a rough start, we’ve had a spectacular year for tomatoes. We planted about sixty tomato plants of about fourteen different varieties, and our yields have been simply staggering. We’ve grown full-size heirlooms that I never thought possible, believing that our growing season was simply too short, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes have done well too. Every night for weeks now there’s been a fresh tomato salad with supper, and we’ve put up sauce, soup and salsa for a warm and nourishing winter. I never, ever tire of fresh tomatoes, and since we don’t eat storebought tomatoes, we’re getting our fill now. We will miss these gorgeous things until next summer.

Spotted on an evening irrigation check.

As we’ve spoken of many times here, we focus our efforts on improving our land and our soil, and one of the best ways we can do that is by encouraging both native plants and the pollinator population. Monarch butterflies are an iconic pollinator species; the western U.S. monarch population is currently traveling south on its fall migration. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) shown above feeds exclusively on milkweed; once the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, it has a much more varied diet. Unfortunately, milkweed is also toxic to livestock, so ranchers regularly treat pasture milkweeds with toxic herbicides – which is why the monarch population is declining, because the larvae cannot survive without these plants. We keep camelids here at Quiet Farm, and have spent hours worried about our animals becoming ill from consuming milkweed in our pastures; obviously, we’re not going to spray and we don’t particularly want to pull all these host plants.

After extensive research, our solution – for the moment – is to let things stand as they are. Hardy alpacas and llamas, native to the high Andes, aren’t nearly as delicate as domesticated cattle and sheep, so are far less likely to become sick. Plus, we’re intentionally cultivating a mixed pasture, with lots of different plants for our animals to graze; the likelihood of any of our animals eating enough milkweed to become seriously ill is slender indeed. There are never perfect methods of pasture management, but we’re working hard at figuring out what we can do to maintain balance.

Beautiful photo. Terrible plant. Just look at its horrible weaponry!

One thing that is very much not in balance is our puncturevine population. The farm is absolutely overrun with this heinous plant this year, and we’ve spent countless hours trying to eradicate it – pulling by hand, obviously, as dousing the entire farm in glyphosate is clearly not an option. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) is an invasive weed, uniquely adapted to our desert climate, that grows where few other plants will; most infuriatingly, the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for seven to ten years. While we’re happy to let neutral weeds, like purslane and mullein, grow freely, the puncturevine burrs are harmful to humans and animals – and bicycle tires, too. For reasons unknown to us, this year conditions were absolutely perfect for puncturevine to take over our land and so it has. We are hoping that we’ve removed most of it, but we know that some of those viciously sharp little seeds are simply biding their time until next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. The battle continues.

The Quiet Farm pumpkin patch.

We’ve done well with winter squash this year, though as usual there are some squashes that didn’t exactly breed true – always a risk with saved seeds and limited isolation practices. Squash plants are a reliable harbinger of fall; ours usually start showing signs of powdery mildew, and the vines themselves start to fade and turn a bit crispy. I usually trim immature fruit so that the plant devotes all its energies to ripening the larger fruits, but this year I’ve mostly left the squash patch to its own devices. Depending on the variety, most pumpkins start out dark green with stripes; the fruits turn the classic bright orange in the same way leaves change color on deciduous trees. These jack o’lantern pumpkins yielded nicely; they’ll be cured for winter storage and won’t be carved but instead used for soups, curries and muffins.

As with other annuals, the bean plants will also clearly demonstrate that they’re nearly finished for the season. These are labeled as ‘Aztec White’, but based on the small size I suspect they’re more along the lines of a true navy bean. Dry beans can stay on the vine until frost threatens, a huge bonus for the time-starved farmer; if there isn’t time to shell the beans immediately, they can be tossed into repurposed feed sacks and stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from pests and damp. Shelling dry beans is a perfect project for a crisp, late fall day, when the more pressing tasks have been completed! Once they’re shelled I’ll hopefully have a better idea of the variety, although when it comes to heirloom beans I’m not hugely bothered about specifics, especially when seeds are freely shared amongst local growers. If the beans grow well and taste delicious, that’s really all that matters.

Farm candy.

And to end on a sweet note, we’re pleased to share that our raspberry patch is finally producing. It’s taken us a couple of years to get these canes established, but we’re now harvesting enough raspberries to actually bring a few inside, rather than just eat them all in the field. We’re hopeful that we’ll have a few more weeks before a hard frost, so that all of the unripe berries will have a chance to ripen, but we’re thrilled with anything we get – these are like candy. As with tomatoes, the difference between just-picked raspberries, still warm from the sun, and those sitting in the cold case at your local supercenter is night and day, and we’ll eat our fill for as long as we possibly can.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

The height of the harvest

“Things are somewhat ugly out there. I couldn’t have imagined in the spring that we’d be suffering Covid (and fools) this long after a vaccine was announced, but here we are. One really fine manifestation of this has been to appreciate the things that are going right. Not as planned, but still in the right direction. Gardening and farming help a lot. Whether you pop a bean in a clay pot with some soil or you are farming thousands of acres, producing food is pretty cool and we’re lucky to be helping nature, in the garden and on the stovetop!” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

Hello there, friends. As you might imagine, it is an exceptionally busy time on the farm. August and September are the months we wait all year for and the abundance is staggering. These are the days when all of the hard work done in early spring really comes to fruition, but the workload is staggering, too. In addition to harvesting each day, we also need to preserve the harvest, plant fall crops, collect seeds and start thinking about fall clean-up tasks and winterizing the farm. We’re still irrigating two days per week, too, which eats up a lot of time. No matter the long hours, though, the incredible food we’re growing makes it all worthwhile.


These squash bugs are having one heck of a party.

Every growing season we face different challenges – the weather, the water and the pests all vary from year to year. Ideally, though, we’re learning from each experience and are better equipped for future troubles. This year we were surprised to discover the common squash bug (Anasa tristis) attacking our summer squash. Despite our never-ending drought, our relentless winds and our high altitude, we do have one great advantage in farming where we do – insects are rarely (if ever) a major problem. I’ve never dealt with squash bugs before, and by the time I discovered them, they’d done a huge amount of damage. I researched organic control methods and laughed out loud at one not–at-all-helpful suggestion: “carefully remove each bug by hand.” (Let me tell you what I do not have time for right now: removing individual bugs by hand.) And so, I opted for a broader form of retaliation: I clear-cut the Costata Romanesco plant back to its roots, leaving only the two huge squashes that I’m saving for seed. I do think that the ‘overgrown tropical jungle’ aspect of this particular plant contributed to this infestation, since the bugs often shelter at the plant’s base, so I need to consider this for future plantings. Also, if we should be so unlucky as to have a mild winter the larvae will likely not be killed and I’ll encounter the same problem again. Therefore, crop rotation and careful attention before the bugs get out of hand are definitely on next year’s to-do list.

Blossom end rot is easy to identify.

One garden ailment that I am painfully familiar with is blossom end rot, commonly referred to as BER by horticulturalists and farmers. BER isn’t technically a pest or a disease; rather, it’s a physiological disorder caused by insufficient calcium uptake. Although BER can affect peppers, squash, cucumbers and melons, I’ve only ever encountered it in tomatoes. Though there can be various causes, in my growing experience, BER is most often caused by inconsistent watering – both too much and too little – which can definitely be an issue in our growing area. As an example: for the past few weeks we’ve been running our regular Wednesday/Thursday irrigation schedule, but then have also experienced dramatic midnight thunderstorms which of course soak the plants even further. BER usually appears when the fruit is about half-size, and the spot at the base will turn leathery and spongy and eventually cause the entire fruit to rot. BER won’t hurt you, and you can cut out the affected areas, but I usually throw affected fruits straight to the chickens. As always, keep good records – you may find that certain species are more affected by BER in your garden than others. This year, I’m only seeing it in the Jaune Flammes shown above, and not in other varieties, and only in one raised bed – which indicates that the drip irrigation in that particular bed may also need a closer look. Paying attention to what’s going on with your plants will usually teach you everything you need to know.

Tomatillos are one of our favorite summer staples.

Do you grow tomatillos? I feel like they’re not very well known outside of the American Southwest, but I adore them and grow them every year. They’re in the same nightshade family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes, and they’re also closely related to ground cherries and Cape gooseberries. They grow on plants similar to tomatoes and often need to be staked, because they’re quite sprawling and unkempt, but they’re prolific, hardy, drought-tolerant and delicious. Tomatillos are crisp and tart and usually ready to eat when the papery husk turns from bright green to a paler beige, or when they fall off the plant. Most of ours end up in salsa verde, but they make a wonderful sauce for enchiladas and a great addition to spicy soups, vegetarian tacos or green chile. Plus, they’re rich in fiber and vitamins C and K, too!

Blistered shishitos are often a pre-dinner snack.

Our shishito peppers have done well this year, which is terrific news because I haven’t had any success with this crop since we moved here. Shishitos are native to Japan, likely bred from the Spanish padrón pepper, and harvested green at about two inches long. We enjoy them in the most common fashion, seared in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet, dusted with flaky salt and nanami togarashi seasoning, then eaten whole out of hand (except for the stem). Shishitos are considered a “Russian roulette” pepper, in that they’re mostly quite mild but about one in ten will be eye-wateringly hot. This has a lot to do with their growing conditions, however, and ours have been pretty tame so far this year. As usual, I’ve left one pepper on the plant for the entire season so that I’ll have viable seeds for next year.

A great reason to dust off the angel food cake pan!

In addition to harvesting and preserving our own crops, this is also high time for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from other local farmers. We don’t grow sweet corn here at Quiet Farm; it’s a wind-pollinated grass, needs a good amount of land, and is virtually impossible to grow organically. Instead, I typically buy a case (about fifty ears) from a grower just down the road in Olathe, which is of course famous for its sweet corn. I grilled two-thirds of the ears and left the rest raw; all of the kernels, cooked and raw, were cut off the cob and frozen in small zip-top bags for adding to soups and chowders this winter. A few ears were saved for enjoying fresh, but most of this box went straight into the freezer as quickly as possible – corn does not improve once it’s been picked. I hope you were able to enjoy lots of fresh corn this summer, too.

One of the highlights of living where we do.

We’ve mentioned more than once this year that our local stone fruit growers were devastated by an early freeze last October, and many had no fruit at all. We were able to get out to pick a few peaches and have been enjoying them every day since. When I say “a few peaches,” what I actually mean is more than two hundred pounds – most went into the canning pot (fifty quarts), many into the dehydrator and the remainder into jam. This could well be our last year for peaches; we know many growers who are pulling out their peach trees because the heartache and stress simply isn’t worth it. And the orchard where we go to harvest is likely being sold soon, and it’s doubtful that a u-pick will be part of the new owner’s business model. Change is hard but inevitable, especially in the era of climate disruption – but at least we’ll have local peaches this winter.

As the world seems to spin more and more out of control each day, all we can do is focus on controlling what we can – and for us, that’s our land, our animals, what we grow and what we eat. We are doing our very best out here and hope you are, too, wherever you may be.

We speak for the trees

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

Our farm had been mostly abandoned for a number of years prior to our purchase, and even with three years of hard work, there is always more to be done. One task that we try to accomplish every year is to plant more trees – although we did opt out this year because we knew that water would be in such short supply. We still have trees to care for, of course, and if this drought cycle ever eases (looking unlikely, in all honesty) we’ll definitely plant more trees. Every project we choose is focused on improving our land, for us and for the future.

Cedar Trees 01 sml

Our Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) saplings, ready for planting.

Trees are an incredible weapon against the climate crisis, yet we don’t call them into service nearly often enough. Any homeowner knows how valuable trees are in keeping houses cool in summer, and many cities have started planting trees in public spaces as a natural heat sink against all that concrete. With so many new housing developments cropping up, however, trees are mowed down and then halfheartedly planted again as an afterthought, and often left to wither and die without proper care. And of course it takes years, if not decades, for the shade canopy to grow. Healthy, mature trees are a valuable asset to any property; we’re working hard to save the ones we have and add as many more as possible.

Cedar Trees 03 sml

Planting our Eastern red cedar windbreak along the southern line of our game fence.

One of the very best things we’ve discovered since moving to the farm is the CSU Seedling Tree Program. This is a joint project of the Colorado Forest Service and Colorado State University, and it provides seedling trees, bushes and other perennials to homeowners at an exceptionally low cost. We’ve used the program twice now with great success, and will definitely participate again. The only downside is that many of the tiny seedlings are sold in packs of 25 or 30 – meaning you either need a lot of land, or you need to make share arrangements with friends and neighbors. It’s also essential to plan in advance, as the sale opens in November (trees arrive the following May) and plants sell out quickly.

Cedar Trees 04 sml

A damaged garden hose makes great drip line!

The biggest advantage to purchasing plants from this state program is that everything is grown in Colorado, meaning it will likely survive our harsh conditions if properly cared for. Additionally, there is a helpful information sheet that shows which plants will grow best where; some are suitable for up to seven thousand feet – perfect for us! – and some can tolerate the higher mountain elevations. The program also provides planting guides and lots of other useful tips to keep the trees healthy.

Tree Mulch 01 sml

One of our Nanking cherry trees, heavily mulched with an alpaca fleece blanket.

Quality trees are expensive. They’re rightfully expensive because they took a lot of labor and care and investment to grow. Many people don’t realize that while big-box stores might be cheap, they’re not necessarily going to sell plants suitable for that particular area; those national purchasing decisions are made months, if not years, in advance, by some corporate executive at the head office in some vague place a thousand miles and many weather patterns away from Colorado’s arid high-plains desert. If you’re spending good money on trees, it makes sense to choose trees that are appropriate for your space. Figure out where you want to plant – is it sunny? Shaded? What sort of soil? What’s the elevation? Do you want a deciduous option? Is there good drainage? Will it impact overhead wires? Near sewer lines? Once you’ve got the site narrowed down, do some research about your hardiness zone and what might suit your needs. Go to a reputable local nursery that knows what works in your climate, not some impersonal big-box store looking to offload ten thousand Meyer lemon trees because they didn’t sell in Arizona.

We caged the saplings to protect them; somehow, this one was missed when we removed the cages. It has since been freed and is growing nicely.

Once you’ve chosen your trees, make sure you know how and when to plant them. Here, we can plant some things in spring and others in fall, and it makes a big difference for the tree’s long-term success. Follow the planting instructions from the nursery, if they’re trustworthy; you can also check with your local Extension office. (Pro tip: when you know you have trees arriving, prepare your planting holes well in advance so that you can plant your trees as soon as possible. It rarely benefits a tree to keep it in its pot for any longer than necessary.) Make sure your spacing and placement account for the tree’s eventual canopy spread and possible interference with overhead obstructions.

We think some of our fruit trees have an aphid infestation; the presence of ladybugs is a good sign that nature is usually capable of defending itself if left alone.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in Colorado is not to water in seedlings thoroughly in the first year, or during dry winters. Especially in this climate, little saplings will often suffer from severe transplant shock and will need far more water than you might think. If your land isn’t set up with drip irrigation or some other similar system, it’s imperative that you figure out how those tiny trees will get the water they need. Although our orchard is on drip, many of our other trees are watered by hand, and especially this year we’re giving them a deep soak with every week’s irrigation run. Those roots will never establish properly if the tree is drought-stricken in its first year.

We’ve lopped the crowns off some of our struggling mature trees; most are showing growth again at the base.

Many homeowners think that it would be great fun to plant fruit trees for fresh, homegrown fruit, but be aware that fruit trees have their own set of challenges. The Front Range is particularly harsh on fruit trees because of the dramatic diurnal temperature swings; the main reason Colorado’s fruit industry is centered on the Western Slope is because we rarely experience those. (With the obvious exception of last October’s horrible freeze, which is why we have no local fruit this year.) And if your trees do bear fruit, they’ll bring pests (wasps! deer!) along with them. The majority of our fruit trees are outside our game fence, and we know that expanding that fence will be something we’ll need to tackle sooner rather than later if we ever want to harvest our own plums and Nanking cherries.

We didn’t think our Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) survived the winter, but it is thriving!

There is a perfect tree for every situation, but it might take a bit of effort on your part to figure out exactly what that tree is. Trees add so much intrinsic beauty and value to our world that it’s our responsibility to plant them wherever we can. If possible, dear friends, please consider planting trees where you live, work and play. We don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant trees for future generations – and since we have rather a lot to apologize for, planting a few trees seems to be the least we can do.

P.S. If you’re not familiar with the title reference, it’s paraphrased from this classic, which was first released in 1971 and was well ahead of its time. It was banned in a California school district in 1989 because it was thought that it would “turn children against the logging industry.” Maybe it was the devastating and rapacious clearcutting of old-growth forests that actually turned people against the logging industry, and not a silly children’s book?

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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Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

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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.

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.

An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

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Farm update: October 26

Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.

Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.

We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.

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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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