An announcement

Many of you know this, and the rest of you have probably guessed, but N and I found Quiet Farm. (We’re not changing our website, however.) We closed on the property in early August and have just now gotten all of our things moved from the Front Range over to our (new to us) house. We heard too many horror stories about unscrupulous, lazy and irresponsible moving companies, so we opted to do the whole move ourselves. N had plenty of experience driving a 25-foot RV, so driving a 26-foot box truck couldn’t be much different, right? (P.S. We sold the RV. Bittersweet, but it served its purpose for our transient summer. And it’s just right down the road from us, so we can visit it if we want!)

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Quiet Farm is a ten-acre parcel just outside of Cedaredge, on Colorado’s Western Slope. We’re tucked under the Grand Mesa and surrounded on three sides by apple orchards; to the south we can see all the way to the San Juan Mountains. Just over eight acres of the property is in pasture, but both the land and the house have been essentially abandoned and unloved for about five years. It will take a lot of time and hard work and water to regenerate the pasture; historically it’s always been alfalfa, but we’re looking at other drought-tolerant options, too – maybe hops or quinoa?

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Our vision for Quiet Farm is an organic teaching farm and cooking school. We plan to build a certified commercial kitchen in a detached garage on the property. We’ll offer classes on everything from healthy cooking basics to bread baking to canning and preserving to beekeeping to fermentation to knife skills, and any other homesteading topics that our guests might be interested in. We’ll keep laying hens for eggs and pest control, goats for milk and entertainment, beehives and extensive vegetable and perennial plantings. We want to be part of the community and host potluck suppers and farm tours and coffee klatches and food swaps. We want to showcase the amazing fruit and animals and people this part of Colorado offers. We want Quiet Farm to be an agritourism destination.

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We’ll post regular farm updates here, with before-and-after pictures so you can see our progress. It took us three years to find Quiet Farm, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to fully realize our vision, but we’re exactly where we want to be. Thank you for joining us on this journey, and we’re so much looking forward to all of the incredible adventures ahead. We can’t wait to share Quiet Farm with you!

 

Cooking in cast iron

In my holiday-themed classes, I talk about how I’d rather have two or three really stellar, delicious dishes at a meal than an extensive buffet of mediocrity. I feel the same way about cookware and knives: that is, I’d rather have a few sturdy, durable pieces that perform perfectly and can take a beating, rather than dozens of cheap, flimsy pans or knives that bend, warp, break or just plain fail. Cooking well isn’t only about starting with the best ingredients, but having the tools (and the skills) to turn those ingredients into something remarkable.

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See how well-loved they are? I use mine every single day.

I love classic cast iron cookware. I love its heft, its lived-in appearance, its ability to retain heat. I love that it can be passed down through generations, and it only gets better. I love that it’s not shiny, not new, not a throwaway item. I love that it looks like something I should be using over a rickety camp stove to make a fry-up for hungry cowboys out on a cattle drive. I love that there is something of quality still manufactured in the United States. I love that cast iron asks you to cook well and simply and honestly.

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You can roast peppers to smoky, tender perfection!

Cast iron cookware has been in use around the world for over two thousand years, and there’s a reason for that: nothing retains heat better while still holding its form. Before we became such a disposable society, cookware like this was valued for its durability and its effectiveness, especially when slow simmering tough cuts of meat. Cast iron goes from stove to oven, and it can be used to make anything: flavorful stews, crispy yet tender cornbread, smoky, filling beans. And nothing – I mean nothing – sears a steak like cast iron. Ask any cowboy.

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You can create the most amazing garlic confit!

In the first half of the 20th century, cast iron cookware was ubiquitous in America. Then – coincidentally, right about the time we started turning to processed “convenience” foods – cast iron fell out of favor. It was too heavy. Too unwieldy. Impractical for TV dinners. Not suitable for microwaving soup. Couldn’t be put in the dishwasher. And so, most of the American companies went out of business. Today, Lodge is the only major manufacturer in the U.S., although a couple of smaller, “artisan” brands like Finex have appeared recently.

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You can make one-pan meals!

I got rid of my grandmother’s cast iron pans at a garage sale years ago. Freshly minted from an uppity French culinary school, I thought cast iron was too down home, too low-class, too American for my lofty European cooking skills. What misplaced arrogance; to this day, I regret selling those pans. Thankfully, N found a ten-inch skillet for me at a church rummage sale, and I picked up my comal, a flat, round griddle traditionally used for making fresh tortillas, at a thrift store. My other two are classic Lodge, a Dutch oven and a grill pan. They’re all pieces I love cooking with.

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You can put a little char on your tomatoes!

If you have any cast iron, take good care of it and it will take care of you for decades. Once it’s seasoned, meaning that you’ve basically created a nonstick surface through a combination of cooking fat and heat, never, ever use soap or any other chemical cleaner on it. Don’t immerse it in water, either. I typically just wipe my pans with a dry paper towel, if necessary, but if you’ve got stuck-on bits, you can heat the pan with a bit of water until they loosen, then scrape them out with a spatula. Really tough messes can be tackled with coarse kosher salt and a scouring pad. You can’t scratch them, can’t break them, don’t have to use any fancy utensils. They are indispensable workhorses.

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And the most essential thing you can cook in your cast iron Dutch oven…

Cast iron’s greatest advantage, of course, is also its greatest downfall: their weight means they retain heat beautifully, so they get hot and stay hot, and they’re heavy. Treat them carefully and respectfully. Use both hands when lifting; never try to “one-hand” a cast iron pan. When you remove the pan from the oven and set it back on the stove or other protected surface, do as restaurant chefs do and make sure you leave your kitchen towels on the pan to remind everyone (including you) that it’s hot. Large pans that have been heating for a while may take a couple of hours to cool down, so have a safe place to put them where no one will burn themselves. Don’t leave water in the pan, either, as they can rust, though if you find an unloved, rusty specimen, you can always remove the rust with salt and reseason the pan.

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…is quite simply the best bread you’ll ever taste.

Want to build your own cast iron collection? Start here, and thanks for buying American. Their stuff is top-notch and remarkably well-priced. Visit thrift stores and garage sales and flea markets (maybe you’ll find my grandmother’s pans?) but stay away from anything called an “antique store.” Little-known fact: antique is actually French for “overpriced stuff bought cheaply in a thrift store and aggressively marked up.” Cast iron’s resurgent popularity in recent years means anything even vaguely vintage can cost a fortune.

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And while we’re on the topic of the French and expensive things, this stuff is cast iron too, but with an enamel coating. It’s gorgeous, comes in an array of coordinating colors so the kitchen at your Provencal château can match the Parisian pied-a-terre and it’s priced for really rich people. Tread carefully with these: they’re beautiful and colorful, but you can scratch that enamel without too much effort, and not all of the knobs and handles are designed for high heat. These definitely require a bit more attention, and a lot more money.

Go cook, friends. And save me some cornbread.

 

How to buy knives

Perhaps this post’s title isn’t exactly the sort of thing you want discovered in your browser history, but we’re going to proceed as planned because it’s important. There is literally nothing that will improve your time in the kitchen more than owning good knives and knowing how to use them. I meet people regularly who tell me how tedious they find cooking; I’m willing to bet that they’re using cheap, dull knives. Most of cooking is actually prepping the ingredients, and lousy knives make this task far more laborious than it needs to be.

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I used to teach cooking classes at a fancy kitchenware store. While I always loved teaching the classes, I failed miserably at the most important part of the job: selling people silly gadgets and pointless equipment they didn’t really need. The spiralizer and the popcorn maker and the banana slicer and the electric egg poacher and the chocolate fountain seem like necessary additions to your already-crowded countertops, I know. But in order to cook well, you need just a few things: a couple of decent, heavy pots and pans (hopefully a cast-iron skillet!), a good cutting board, and well-made knives that suit you.

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Knives come in all sorts of expansive sets, like the one shown above. The average home cook has no need for eight or ten or twelve knives, unless you host posh steak dinners for a crowd on a regular basis. I’d far rather you spend the same amount of money on three really good knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. Costly, yes. But knives aren’t an iPhone; they’re not designed to be replaced every six months. If you take good care of them, knives can last a lifetime.

Knife Skills

Never buy a knife that you haven’t had the opportunity to hold and cut with. Like tennis rackets or skis or golf clubs, knives come in different sizes and will fit one person better than another. A good knife store will offer demo knives, cutting boards, and fresh herbs or vegetables to cut; make the most of this opportunity and try various knives to see what you like. Knives are broadly grouped into two categories, Western (such as Wusthof and Henckels) and Eastern (such as Shun and Global). The blades and handles are different, and there is no right or wrong choice – just the one that fits you best.

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Once you’ve spent a couple hundred dollars on knives, please take good care of your investment. Knives NEVER go in the dishwasher or a sink of soapy water; they should be washed and dried carefully after use. The dishwasher destroys knives faster than anything else, and if knives are left in a sink the water seeps into the handle, plus it’s a huge safety risk.

You want to devote yourself to keeping that edge sharp, so store knives properly in a knife block or on a magnetic strip. Throwing knives in a drawer where they can bang around guarantees that you’ll ruin the blade.

Know the difference between honing and sharpening. A honing steel might have come with your knives; watch a basic YouTube video and learn how to hone. Sharpening, however, should be done by a professional at least once or twice a year, depending on how often you cook. A sharp knife makes kitchen prep enjoyable rather than tedious.

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Use quality cutting boards made of wood or polypropylene; NEVER ever use knives directly on glass, marble or granite. Knives shouldn’t be used to hammer, pry or stir ingredients, and your knife isn’t a can opener! Never use the knife in a manner that causes the blade to twist, and don’t cut frozen foods with a straight-edge knife – this is a quick way to ruin the edge.

Learn basic cuts (mince, dice, julienne, chiffonade) and understand why each might be used in a recipe. Cutting foods into similarly-sized pieces means ingredients cook more evenly. Always keep ingredients flat and stable when cutting; if necessary, cut a thin slice from one side of the fruit or vegetable to provide an anchoring surface. Lay a damp kitchen towel under your cutting board to keep it from moving on the counter.

And above all else, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. The only way to improve your knife skills is to practice them as often as possible. Knife skills are more muscle memory than anything else. Buy inexpensive vegetables and make lots of soups, chopped salads and mashed potatoes!

P.S. Want to learn more? If you’re in Denver, come to my hands-on knife skills class on July 25. I’ll guide you through the classic cuts and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice with your own knives and mine too! Details and registration here!