Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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Cooking with winter squash

I may not love the excesses of the holidays, but I do love cooking this time of year. Ideally the weather is chilly enough to make us crave warm, earthy dishes, rich in the nutrients we need to sustain ourselves through the cold, dark winter. There’s a lot to be said for eating seasonally – not only does it make more sense to eat what’s available right now (or to preserve it for later), but nature magically gives us exactly what our bodies need. In the case of winter squash, that’s a lot.

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A large component of our winter storage pantry.

Edible squashes are in the curcubit family and essentially fit into two categories: summer and winter. Summer squashes include the thin-skinned varieties, like commonly available green zucchini and yellow squash. Winter squashes don’t ripen until late summer and early fall, then must be cured for extended storage. Most winter squashes are encased in a hard, protective skin, allowing them to be kept for months without refrigeration. As with other long-keeping vegetables (onions, potatoes, root crops), this comes in handy when there isn’t much else around to eat and you can’t just run to the store.

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Farm update: October 1

Hello there! It’s officially autumn, although you wouldn’t know it from our weather; it’s still hot and dry. Everything feels crispy and parched and we’re hoping desperately for some moisture from a Pacific hurricane system this week.

We’ve got lots of projects underway at the farm. Here are a few things we’ve been up to:

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Our living room in a state of disrepair.

Although our farmhouse is livable, it needs a lot of work. N tore up all of the carpet but kept it intact so we could donate it. We had hoped to find hardwood floors underneath and although we did find some in the older portion of the house, we’ll have to install new floors on most of the main floor. Our renovation list grows by the minute.

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It’s canning season!

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An experiment: fermented green hot sauce.

Obviously we didn’t have our own garden this summer, so I was excited to unpack my canning supplies. Our grocery shopping options are extremely limited here, so preserving local produce now will make our winters much more pleasant. I put up a hundred pounds of tomatoes and forty pounds of apples in various formats, plus roasted and froze plenty of green chiles. The onions will keep in a cool, dry place; eventually we’ll have a root cellar of sorts for all of our long-keeping vegetables. I feel calm and confident when I have a full pantry.

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Perennial seedlings for next spring.

In addition to growing vegetables on our farm, we also need to rebuild perennial beds around the property. I’ve started perennial herbs from seed to see if I can keep them alive over the winter and plant them when the ground thaws in spring. This would be better done in a true greenhouse, but it’s worth a shot. Here you can see English thyme, winter savory and Greek oregano, all useful both in the kitchen and (hopefully) as deer repellent.

This week we’re tackling our irrigation system because we’re hoping to call for water next Monday! We’ll also get our old hardwood floors refinished and it’s Applefest this weekend, so there’s a lot going on in our tiny world. Have a great week!

 

Sowing the seeds

As recently as three or four generations ago, the vast majority of seeds planted in home gardens were saved from year to year. Gardeners learned what plants thrived in their unique microcosm, and they might have saved seeds from the earliest beans, or the largest cucumber, or the most delicious tomato. Season after season, these saved seeds protected plant diversity, acted as a hedge against famine and in many cases were so treasured that they were sewn into hems of immigrants’ clothes when they traveled – voluntarily or not – to new lands.

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A few samples from the Quiet Farm seed bank.

Now, we think nothing of buying seed packets every growing season. Wintertime brings glossy seed catalogs to the mailbox, filled with mouth-watering descriptions of intensely flavorful tomatoes, trendy kalettes, or spicier peppers. We page through these during the dark, cold days, eagerly anticipating the chance to get our hands in the soil once again, and often we order much more than we need. Most home gardeners have a wealth of seeds left over from previous years, and even this abundance doesn’t stop us from buying just a few more. They’re just tiny packets, we reason. A few more couldn’t hurt.

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Food swap

Friends, good day to you! We’ve been in absentia over here at FQF HQ for a few weeks now, as we’re in the trenches of selling our current miniature urban farm and deciding where we’re headed next. These sorts of grown-up activities are simply not for the faint of heart. This is our first home and therefore our first home sale, and the entire process has been much more challenging and elaborate and tricky and bittersweet than we imagined. But enough of all that! Let’s discuss delightful food-focused activities! How about food swaps?

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What is a food swap, you might ask? Well, it’s an incredibly fun community event where a bunch of like-minded gardeners, canners, cooks, bakers, hunters and other food-loving people come together to eat, drink and trade homemade treats. The concept is pretty simple: bring five or more of your own homemade goods and go home with the same number of other people’s delicious contributions.

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Our community table set up for the swap.

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Almond-flax butter ready for sampling.

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The Farm Series: Rebel Farm

Friends, we don’t want you to think that all we do is trek around wintry European countries, eating schnitzel and drinking wine. No, sometimes we also visit delightful urban hydroponic farms and we eat handfuls of just-harvested fresh greens. Balance. It’s all about balance.rebel-farm-01-sml.jpg

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Rebel Farm, run by Jake and Lauren, is a 15,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on the border of Denver and Lakewood. For those readers who live in Colorado, you may well wonder how these fine folks can afford to grow lettuce, rather than weed, considering that just about every greenhouse in the state has been snatched up by the marijuana industry. In the case of Rebel Farm, however, the greenhouse is perfectly situated between two schools – which means it cannot be a grow operation, and instead it can grow food. Brilliant.

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Purple kohlrabi, sadly underappreciated by CSA members everywhere.

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Tangy, citrusy red sorrel.

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If you’re not familiar with hydroponics, don’t feel alone. In its simplest form, hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. The plants can be planted in gravel, sand or other inert materials, or their roots can be suspended in a nutrient-rich water mixture. There are lots of different ways to grow hydroponically; Rebel Farm uses the NFT, or nutrient film technique, method.

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How to eat healthier

I may not love Thanksgiving, but I do love everything about January. I love the quiet after the holidays, the fresh start, the clean slate. And of course, this is the time of year when so many of us promise to do better. When we promise to eat right, drink less, stop going out to restaurants so often, quit smoking, save our money, exercise more and all the rest.Snowy trees.jpgI don’t subscribe to the negativity often associated with New Year’s resolutions. (By mid-January, over a quarter of all New Year’s resolutions have been discarded, and only a scant 10% are actually followed through to the end of the year. Those are some pretty bleak statistics.) Changing habits is hard enough; I’d much rather start off on a positive note. I make a list of goals, not resolutions.

And with that positivity in mind, how about a quick primer on eating better in 2018? This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive list, nor a restrictive diet plan, merely a few simple tips to get your head in the right place for making healthy changes in your daily eating. Diets don’t work, but changing your mindset does.

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Things that are great!

Friends, let’s start this week with an optimistic post (for once). How about a quick round-up of things that are great right now?

 

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A small family farm in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The Washington Post reports that a growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm:

“For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.”

Granted, the movement is small, but it is in fact a movement. And it’s moving in the right direction. There are numerous barriers, to be certain, but this is progress.

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How can you not love this munchkin?

Not only are young people going back to the land, but more women are making more incredible cheese than ever. Led by such trailblazing pioneers as Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery and Mary Keehn from Cypress Grove, handcrafted cheese in this country – primarily made from goat milk, but sheep and cow, too – is truly enjoying its second wave:

“A commonly cited fantasy Plan B among urban paper-pushing professionals, the artisanal-cheese business has surged in recent years, with more than 900 specialty cheese makers in the United States, according to the American Cheese Society, a nonprofit trade organization in Denver. The A.C.S. does not keep data on gender, said its executive director, Nora Weiser, but compared with the bro-centric field of craft beer, where female brewers have struggled to get respect and recognition despite significant contributions, cheese making is a relative haven.”

While “American cheese” has long been a joke in the rest of the world, it is definitely no longer a joke – it’s remarkable. And delicious. Go buy some.

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Greenhouse tomatoes in Japan.

In other positive news, vertical farming is finally coming into its own, pushed by high-dollar investments from people like Jeff Bezos, who clearly know a thing or two about running a business. Vertical farming is exactly what it sounds like: growing food in towers, with carefully controlled irrigation, lighting and temperature systems. While farmland continues to be gobbled up at staggering rates, vertical farming, which has been trialed successfully in repurposed shipping containers and other unusual places, might provide a local food alternative, especially in densely populated urban areas. There is still a lot of work to be done, but innovative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs are constantly revamping traditional farming rules. And we will need this sort of innovation, as both global temperature and global population climbs ever higher.

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I’m not putting a picture of soda on this blog. Drink water. (This is Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.)

And for our final Great Thing today, how about this: soda consumption in the United States has dropped again, for the twelfth consecutive year. This statistic is proof that anti-sugar publicity campaigns and soda taxes are working, at least in some areas. While we’re still drinking about forty gallons per person, per year on average (!!!), those numbers are trending down. And that is definitely a Great Thing.

 

 

 

Backyard chickens

We have made no secret here at Finding Quiet Farm of our love for backyard poultry. Honestly, what is there not to love?

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A Black Star from our most recent flock.

They monitor the rodent population. They keep weeds under control. They are ridiculously entertaining. And most importantly, they turn food waste into incredible eggs.

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Our young Silver Wyandotte pullet at about six months.

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Lovely, but these chickens are NOT supposed to be in these raised beds.

Okay, sometimes they (repeatedly) escape the run you’ve so carefully built and they eat your tomatoes. But the eggs are worth it, we swear.

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A Barred Rock (upper left) and a Silver Wyandotte.

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A strong, proud Australorp, one of our favorite breeds.

We’ve had two flocks now at our suburban home, and we encourage the entire universe to keep backyard chickens. They’re less work than dogs or cats, with more reward. They need food, clean water and shelter, of course, plus the ability to run around and eat bugs and weeds and kitchen scraps and what-have-you, and they need protection from predators. Where we live, those are unfortunately rampant – hawks, owls, raccoons, foxes, dogs – but thanks to N’s superlative coop-building skills, we never had a single bird taken.

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The windfall apple clean-up crew.

If you’re thinking of adding chickens to your family homestead, check your local regulations first. We’re allowed five hens and no roosters where we live, but laws vary widely from city to city. Know what you’re buying, too; many a rooster has ended up abandoned at a shelter because it was sold as a hen. It’s not common knowledge, but you don’t need a rooster to get eggs – and they’re illegal in most communities.

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Winter is coming. Seriously. And the chickens need to stay warm.

If you live in a particularly cold area, make sure to buy cold-hardy breeds and that your coop protects your birds from winter drafts. It’s actually easier for birds to stay warm than cool (those trusty feathers) but icy winds can be very detrimental to their health. When planning your coop and run, keep in mind that chickens also need adequate shade in hot summer months. Keeping their space clean and dry doesn’t take much time or effort, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

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Chickens are not vegetarians, no matter what your egg carton says.

Oh, the “vegetarian-fed hens” you see advertised on your egg cartons? They’re only vegetarian because they’re crowded into miniscule cages and don’t have the opportunity to eat what they actually want to eat, which is mice. And bugs. And lettuce. And sandwich crusts. And overly ripe peaches. And leftover sausage bits. And the aforementioned tomatoes. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. Please remember that the next time you buy eggs, and don’t be swayed by meaningless packaging terms – or by bucolic pictures of peaceful, verdant farms. In the U.S., at least, laying hens have by far the worst lives of any production animal.

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Small pleasures: collecting still-warm eggs from nest boxes.

None of the other labels on your egg carton mean anything either, by the way. Whether “farm-fresh” or “natural” or “pasture-raised,” not one of these is regulated by any governing body. You can pretty much slap whatever you want on an egg carton and call it good, and people will pay more for pretty words that make them feel better. “USDA Organic” is actually regulated – if they can find enough inspectors to do some real inspecting – but it only indicates that the chickens consumed organic feed, not that they had any sort of decent life. Well over 95% of all commercially produced eggs in the U.S. were laid by hens who lived their entire lives in less space than a standard piece of paper. They never went outside, they never hunted or pecked, they never dust-bathed,  they never saw sunlight or grass, they never even flapped their wings because they didn’t have enough room. That’s why eggs are cheap, and also why salmonella outbreaks are rampant. Bottom line: buy your eggs from someone you know.

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Eggs for sale at a Thai market.

Americans are often shocked when eggs in Europe and elsewhere in the world aren’t sold in the refrigerated section. Yet another example of our obsession with “safety” and “hygiene,” in this country we wash all eggs prior to shipping and sale at grocery stores, superstores and warehouses. This removes the protective coating that eggs are laid with, and reduces their shelf life, thereby requiring refrigeration. Eggs in the rest of the world aren’t washed until they’re used, and so can be stored at room temperature.

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Although brown eggs will cost you more at the grocery store, there is no nutritional difference. The color of the shells is determined by the chicken’s breed, not by what it eats or where it lives. Most supermarket eggs are white because they were laid by Leghorns, the most common breed in the U.S., whereas brown supermarket eggs were probably produced by Rhode Island Reds. Blue and green eggs come from Araucanas and other unique breeds. You’re not getting any extra nutrition by paying for brown eggs.

Eggs Comparison

There really is a difference between eggs laid by battery hens and those laid by true free-range birds. Notice the backyard egg, on the right: the white is thicker, with more color and viscosity, and the yolk is definitely more yellow. This indicates a varied diet, including foraged protein.

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And when they’re cooked, the backyard egg (again on the right) stays true and tall, but the battery egg sort of melts. Supermarket egg yolks are weirdly chalky and sticky when cooked, while backyard eggs have a buttery creaminess. The taste difference, honestly, is night and day. Good eggs taste the way eggs ought to taste, instead of some insipid manufactured version thereof.

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According to legend, the one hundred pleats in a chef’s hat represent the number of ways they know how to cook eggs.

Whether or not you keep chickens at home, know that eggs from well-kept hens are one of the best inexpensive protein sources available. Ask at your local feed store or farmers’ market to find eggs raised near you and support backyard poultry, or start your own flock! Go here to learn more.

 

Food waste + helpful tips!

Thankfully, we’re finally, finally talking about food waste in the U.S. Chefs have long been painfully aware of the staggering quantities of perfectly edible food thrown out in restaurants and hotels on a daily basis, but only recently have we started discussing how much food is wasted in grocery stores and, more personally, at home.

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Trash tomatoes at a greenhouse operation in eastern Colorado.

I want people to cook at home, obviously, and I also want people to save money. I teach classes on how to reduce food waste, and I typically cite statistics like “40% of all edible food produced in the United States is thrown away uneaten” and “The average American family throws away over $2,000 worth of food every year.” I like to augment these cheery facts with even more cheery facts, like that the annual value of all edible food thrown away worldwide is over $3 trillion. That, however, isn’t even a comprehensible number, nor is the idea that food waste takes up more space in landfills than any other item – including the devil of them all, disposable diapers. Decomposing food contributes more methane to the environment than all livestock together; if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest polluter in the world, after the U.S. and China.

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All destined for the trash and no, they won’t be composted.

Let’s be realistic: I can drone on and on, citing all sorts of numbing statistics, but it makes for boring reading and quite frankly, no one really wants to read a blog where they’re lectured for their appallingly bad habits. Plus, eco-anxiety is an actual thing, and many of us, myself included, feel utterly powerless about our ability to do anything in the face of insurmountable problems like climate change. But minimizing your own food waste is something you can actually do to both save money and save the planet, rather than just wring your hands helplessly. So let’s keep it a bit more positive and I’ll just present a professional chef’s tips for minimizing food waste at home!

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We grew these! Unfortunately, only one would be saleable at a standard grocery store. Our aesthetic expectations are utterly unrealistic.

But wait! Before we get into the helpful tips, let’s boost our positivity even further by highlighting organizations actually doing something about food waste!

Cucumbers

We grew these too! Same story as the zucchini above; only one is the correct size.

Americans throw away food for lots of different reasons – mostly because food here is cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and we’re really picky – but at home there are two key factors: meaningless expiration dates and poor planning. A bit of effort on your part will not only save you lots of money, but also keep food out of landfills. It’s a true win-win! (Fun fact: sell-by dates were introduced in Marks & Spencer storerooms in the 1950s; they first appeared on consumer-facing shelves in U.S. and Europe in the early 1970s.)

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Honey doesn’t spoil. Ever. It’s been found in edible condition in Egyptian tombs. So why the expiration date?

At the Store:

  • Shop with a list and buy only what you need. Before going to the store, check out the coupons and promotions. Make a meal plan for the week and incorporate ingredients on sale, and review the contents of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. How will you know what you need if you don’t know what you have?
  • Avoid “bulk club” buys unless you’ll actually use it. Warehouse-style shopping – i.e. ten pounds of spinach or quinoa – might seem like a bargain at the time, but if you let it spoil it just means money wasted. It seems counterintuitive, but there are times when spending more for a smaller amount is the better choice. Be honest with yourself about how much your household will actually eat.
  • Use the bulk department for spices, grains, beans and more. In addition to reducing packaging, you can buy exactly the amount you need and try lots of new ingredients too!
  • If you only need a tiny amount of an ingredient, consider the prepped food available in the store’s salad bar. This might avoid buying an entire package that you’ll then throw away, plus you’ll save on prep time.
  • If you only need half a cabbage or a tiny portion of cheese, just ask nicely. Most stores will be happy to provide exactly what you need instead of what they’ve already packaged.
  • If you’re going to buy a special, expensive ingredient for one recipe, figure out other recipes in which you can also use that ingredient rather than wasting it.
  • If you shop at your local farmers’ market and you’re planning on doing any canning or preserving, buy seconds. These are just as delicious as the first-run produce, but you get to pay less and your farmer doesn’t have to throw their hard work away.

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It’s a rock. I’m fairly certain we will expire long before it does.

At Home:

  • Most importantly, remember that all best-by dates are only a guideline. Please, use your common sense when deciding whether to throw something away simply because an unregulated date on the package says to. These dates are totally confusing, essentially meaningless and they contribute hugely to our food waste issue.
  • Shop from your own pantry and challenge yourself not to buy food for a week, two weeks or a month. Use up everything you have before buying more.
  • Learn to repurpose your food: when you make your weekly meal plan, also consider the meals you’ll make from the leftovers. Batches of whole grains or rice can be used for numerous meals.
  • Store your produce properly. Certain items should stay on the counter (tomatoes!) and others should go in the fridge (apples!). Know how best to keep everything fresh.
  • Use your freezer – if you’re not going to use something, freeze it. Bread freezes beautifully, as do most vegetables, meat and fruit. Use small containers and wrap items well; label and date everything.
  • Portion control is important. Start with a small amount on your plate, and get seconds if you want them rather than taking a huge serving and throwing most away. This goes for serving kids, too.
  • Devote one dinner per week to “favorites,” and eat leftovers rather than throwing them out.
  • Start a compost bin and be amazed by how much less trash your household produces; the compost you make will do wonders for your vegetable garden. Even better: get a flock of backyard chickens and enjoy fresh eggs while they enjoy your fruit and vegetable scraps.

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Our compost pile looks a mess, but it turns into the most incredible soil.

What can you make with random odds and ends?

  • It mystifies me that people regularly throw away bread and buy croutons. If you’ve got stale bread, you’ve got croutons, crostini and bread crumbs. Tear or cut bread into chunks, toss it in a little olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder and toast in a 300 degree oven until golden and crispy. Slice slender baguettes into thin slices for crostini and toast as for croutons. Store in an airtight bag. Process in a food processor or blender to make bread crumbs; store crumbs in the freezer.
  • Just about any listless vegetable can become part of a delicious soup. Dice vegetables into small pieces, simmer in stock, and finish with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of sharp cheese.
  • Tomato sauce can take a lot of extra vegetables without you even noticing! Add in not-so-perfect carrots, celery, greens, onions, squash…and puree the whole thing. The tomatoes will dominate, trust me.
  • And all those vegetable trimmings from your soups and sauces? Add onion tops, celery leaves, carrot peelings and other odds and ends to a zip-top bag and store in the freezer. When it’s full, simmer to make homemade vegetable stock. Add chicken or beef bones too, if you’ve got them.
  • Parmigiano rinds are every Italian grandmother’s secret to the most flavorful soups, stocks, broths and risottos. Store in the freezer and use as needed for extra umami punch.
  • Fruit no longer nice enough to eat fresh? Cut it into small pieces and freeze it on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, transfer the chunks to a zip-top bag and use for smoothies.
  • Speaking of smoothies, all your greens – kale, spinach, chard – can be thrown right in with your fruit and yogurt. You might notice the color, but you won’t notice the taste.

Above all else, consider the amount of time, effort and money that went into the food you’re eating – and respect that by treating it carefully and mindfully!