Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

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Fun fact: tartaric acid, or cream of tartar, is a byproduct of the winemaking industry.

A recent trip to our local grocery store thankfully offered plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and disturbingly empty shelves elsewhere. Baking ingredients were almost completely cleaned out, including yeast and baking powder. If you need baking powder and can’t purchase it, make your own with baking soda and cream of tartar: use one part baking soda to two parts cream of tartar and whisk well. Don’t make much more than you need, however, as it doesn’t keep indefinitely. An added advantage to making your own is that you avoid the sodium aluminum sulfate added to most commercial baking powders. (Also, please note that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable in recipes as they each have their own distinct purpose.)

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You can spoil your own milk by choice! How magical!

Many baking recipes call for buttermilk, usually because its acidity is needed to activate the leavening agents and produce a light, fluffy texture. Rather than buy expensive bottles of buttermilk that languish in the back of the fridge and are eventually thrown out, just make your own. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a scant cup of milk, stir well, and let sit at room temperature for ten minutes. The acid sours the milk and creates a de facto buttermilk, perfect for baking. And if you need milk for a recipe but don’t have any on hand, thin out your plain whole-milk yogurt with a little water until you have the quantity you need. (Another pro tip: milk freezes beautifully. Pour a fresh gallon into small airtight containers, leaving room for expansion, and thaw as needed.)

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Acids! So necessary, and yet so underused!

Acidity is a key component of balanced flavor and can be found in a variety of different ingredients. When it comes to savory dishes, acidity might be the difference between a compelling, intriguing meal and one that’s simply uninteresting. Acidic fruit juices, like lemon and lime, are used in the same way vinegar is, to add a bracing note to a dish. Keep in mind that certain acids, such balsamic vinegar, will add sweetness more than acidity – but this might be ideal in a slow-cooked Bolognese, for example. Rice vinegar is light and delicate, perfect for salad dressing, and softer acids, like orange juice, are terrific in stir-fries and baked goods. If you’ve got an open bottle of white wine, you can use that too. The next time you cook something that tastes a little flat, add a splash of acidity and see if it doesn’t improve the situation – and don’t be shy about subbing one acid for another.

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The room temperature consistency of cooking fats shows you how to substitute.

When it comes to cooking fats, the easiest rule of thumb is to think about their consistency at room temperature and switch like for like. For example, butter, lard (of which I am a huge fan), hydrogenated vegetable shortening (of which I am most definitely not a fan) and coconut oil are all solid at room temperature, meaning they can be exchanged with ease, with the acknowledgement that flavor profiles will change. Canola, olive and other cooking oils are clearly liquid at room temperature, so they’ll behave differently in pastries and so on. Butter and coconut oil can obviously be melted to achieve a liquid state (common in muffins and quick breads) but their natural state is solid; in the chemistry of pie crust, for example, cold fat is essential and liquid oils must never be substituted. (Know, too, that cooking fats have various smoke points, which may also affect how they’re used.)

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Please do not make a chia-flax omelette and then send us your complaints.

Our grocery store is limiting egg purchases to two dozen per person, but since we have laying hens (and plenty of neighbors with chickens, too) this doesn’t impact us. If you need an egg for baking and are fresh out, you can always make a chia or flax egg, which have become popular in recent years as vegan alternatives in baking. To make a one-egg equivalent, combine one tablespoon of ground chia or flax seeds with three tablespoons of water and let sit until thickened and gel-like. Some recipes leave the chia seeds whole, but I find that grinding the seeds in a coffee grinder offers a much better texture in the final product. Note that this egg substitute isn’t perfect in all recipes – please don’t use for quiche! – but offers a decent facsimile in muffins, quick breads and other baked goods.

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Why buy fancy cake flour or self-raising flour when you can make your own?

You may see recipes calling for cake flour or self-raising (also self-rising) flour. These flours are simply lower-protein (also known as softer wheat) flours with other ingredients added, and you can easily make your own.

-To make cake flour, measure out one cup of all-purpose flour (spoon flour into a measuring cup and use a knife to level the top). Remove two tablespoons of flour and add two tablespoons of cornstarch. Whisk together well before blending with other ingredients.

-To make self-raising flour (commonly seen in English and American Southern recipes), add two teaspoons of baking powder for each cup of all-purpose flour. (You don’t remove flour as you do with cake flour, above.) Note that some self-raising flours also include salt; check your recipe to ensure it has the required salt before adding more.

-If a recipe calls for bread flour and you only have all-purpose, please proceed anyway. You most likely won’t notice the difference. Bread flour is a higher-protein (hard winter wheat) flour, but for most home bread baking, all-purpose will do just fine.

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Be cautious when substituting sweeteners.

If you’re just adding a balancing dash of sweetness to a tomato sauce or a salad dressing, you can use any sweetener you have on hand. If you’re baking, however, be wary of switching up your sweeteners. Moisture content is very important in baking, and honey and agave and maple syrup and molasses and other liquid sweeteners have a great deal more moisture than granulated sugars. Although these can be used in certain situations (muffin recipes often call for liquid sweeteners depending on the other ingredients) make sure you know the possible implications before substituting, and know that flavor will likely change, too. Also, be especially cautious with “alternative sugars,” like coconut or stevia or sucralose or other mysterious chemical sweeteners. These rarely work in baking and you may end up with unpleasant metallic flavors and/or wasting a lot of valuable ingredients.

Remember, cooking well isn’t about slavishly following recipes, but about understanding how foods and flavors work together to create the end result you’re after. And substituting ingredients often results in a wonderful final product! Hopefully this strange time we’re in will create a new generation of talented improvisational cooks who work with what they have, rather than longing for something different.

What other kitchen substitutions do you want to know about? Stay home and stay healthy, friends, and let us know what you’re cooking and baking these days.

P.S. Thanks to Malcolm for indirectly suggesting this post, and we hope your sweet potato pie turned out amazing!


The second week

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Hi there. How are you holding up? Like most of you, we’re entering our second week of self-quarantine. Some of you are under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has turned completely upside down over the past week, and that we’re all doing our best to make sense of a fraught situation that has no logic, no precedent, no guidebook.

I am working diligently on acknowledging what I can control and letting go of the rest. To that end, I believe that our single most important job right now is to stay healthy. For those of us who are low-risk and currently healthy, the most valuable contribution we can make to our community is to remain isolated and entirely out of the medical system, so they can put their attention and skills and dwindling supplies towards those who need it. Obviously everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s what we’re prioritizing at Quiet Farm:

Limited sugar / unlimited fruits and vegetables. When this pandemic imploded in the U.S. two weeks ago, my first instinct was to grab all of my chocolate and butter and flour and cover every available surface in my kitchen with an elaborate array of cookies and brownies and comfort cakes, like some sort of mad bakery vision devised by Lewis Carroll. Baking is regimented and precise and calming, and something we can control when everything else has gone by the wayside. Instead of filling our house with sweets, though, we’re eating as much fresh (and frozen!) fruit and vegetables as we can manage. (When everyone else was stocking up on toilet paper, we were buying citrus. There was plenty.) It’s easy to justify scarfing a lot of junk food and “emergency snacks” when we’re anxious, but sugar is highly inflammatory and I think our bodies are under enough stress as it is. We’re consuming lots of salads and green smoothies and stir-fries, and when I do bake, I bake muffins loaded with fruit purees and nuts and seeds.

(P.S. If you’re buying salad ingredients for longer-than-usual storage now, avoid anything pre-cut and think hardy brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. These are all super-nutritious and delicious shredded into a salad, and they’ll keep much longer than pre-washed bagged greens.)

Hydration. We live at 6,300 feet in a high-plains desert, so we’re naturally a bit dehydrated most of the time anyway. Dehydration contributes to headaches, irritability, muscle aches, mental fuzziness, exhaustion and a host of other ailments, none of which we need right now. We might be less active these days and so think that we need to drink less, but a cool glass of water could be exactly what we need to right our ship in this moment. We’re drinking lots of water, plus plenty of mint tea and a hot honey-lemon-ginger tonic that soothes throats and nerves. When it seems like everything is about to go entirely off the rails and I can’t take this for one more minute, I stop, breathe and drink a glass of water. It doesn’t change what’s happening in the world, but it does allow me to accept it without panicking.

Movement and fresh air. I’d much rather be outdoors than in even in the best of times, but a heavy, wet spring snowstorm this week has turned our farm into one giant muddy puddle. Despite the poor weather, I compel myself to get outside every day for at least thirty minutes, even if it’s just to empty the compost bin or watch the chickens or check on seedlings. And I never seem to actually want to go for a walk or a run, but once I’m out and moving, I never regret the decision. If you’re able to do so safely (and with appropriate six-foot-plus social distancing), please get outside, even if it’s just to feel the sun on your face. Do ten jumping jacks. Stretch like a contented cat. Skip rope. Run around in circles. Dance like a person possessed. Spring is here, and there is new growth to see everywhere, even if it doesn’t feel much like a time of hope and renewal right now.

Sleep. It is oddly comforting to me, somehow, to know that every single human on the planet right now is under some degree of stress from this new enemy; collectively, we are suffering together. But we’re concentrating on keeping our immune systems strong, and stress, anxiety and poor sleep are in direct opposition to this. So we sleep, as much as we’re able. There is no shame in going to bed at nine o’clock (without our phones!); no shame in sleeping past our usual waking time. Sleep is our bodies’ time to heal and to repair, and we all need that right now. If you can, get some extra sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

I’m well aware that these are small and meaningless tasks, and they’re nothing compared to what the people on the front lines of this crisis are facing. But these are things I can control, and that’s all any of us have right now. And we need to stay healthy, first and foremost.

How is your household navigating our new world? We’d love to hear what you’re prioritizing. Stay healthy and well.

Farm update: March 9

How are you doing? It’s probably been a whipsaw week where you live, too. Here we are trying our best to stay busy and avoid the headlines (easier said than done). A few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

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The bees love coffee as much as we do!

One sure sign of warming weather (which is coming far too early, in our opinion) is enhanced bee activity. On warm, sunny days we’re seeing lots of bees buzzing in the compost pile (they particularly love our spent coffee filters) and also near one of our big trees that’s in early bud. The apple trees in the surrounding orchards haven’t bloomed yet, but it’s always nice to know that our resident bee population survived another winter.

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The best books about food

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

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How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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Best diet hack ever!

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

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

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Farm update: January 6

Hello there, and a very happy new year to you and yours. If you’re here for the first time, welcome! If you’re returning after our hiatus, thanks for coming back! We look forward to sharing a new year of food and farm adventures with you.

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Our updated Snow Management Plan in action!

Last winter – our first winter at Quiet Farm – our area received an unprecedented amount of snow. Our inaugural Snow Management Plan was…ineffective, shall we say; we had no tractor and no plow and no way of getting out of our quarter-mile driveway with a foot of snow on the ground. At one point, we resorted to begging a friend with a truck to flatten the snow by driving up and down our lane so we could at least leave the farm (thanks, Joe!). Needless to say, that was not a sustainable long-term solution.

This winter we haven’t had nearly as much snow, but we do have a plan – a detachable plow for our ATV. And so far, the ATV plow has worked like a champion. We’re even thinking of purchasing other implements for the ATV, so that we can use it like a mini-tractor, since we’ve been unsuccessful in finding a reasonably-priced midsize tractor to manage our pasture. Stay tuned.

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On hiatus

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

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

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

You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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