The FAQ Series: Box Meal Kits

Well, hello there! How is 2018 treating you thus far? We over here at FQF are currently swanning our way through France and Germany, and we’ll be sending you some delightful travel missives in the not-too-distant future. But until then, we’d like to talk about box meal kits, because they’ve been a popular topic of conversation lately on both our professional and personal circuits.

What are box meal kits, you might ask? They’re basically recipes and ingredients shipped to you on a regular or on-demand basis, from which you craft (hopefully) delicious, quick(ish) meals. You don’t need to shop or plan; all you need to do is decide which meals you want and how often you want them. And there are many, many companies from which to choose. HelloFresh is probably the most well-known, but there is also Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Plated, Sun Basket and many others. Plus, Amazon recently bought Whole Foods, so they’re expected to enter the ring any day now, and Wal-Mart is jumping in, too.

Food Box 01 sml

Thanks to our good friends over at Epicurean Butter, we received two HelloFresh meals to test: Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Mushroom Risotto and Kale Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Tomato Soup. Although HelloFresh offers a number of different plans to choose from, these two meals were each designed to serve two people and they cost about $20 each, or $10 per serving.

Each meal arrives much as you see above: a shopping bag contains the ingredients, plus a photo recipe card and nutritional info; the shopping bags are then all tucked into an insulated box with packing material and ice packs. Typically, you receive three different meals in a box, but again, this varies according to your plan and the company. Cooking oils, salt and pepper are not included, but everything else you need should be.

Food Box 02 sml

Despite the fact that I find following recipes very similar to being put in a choke collar, I wanted to honor the spirit of this experiment and pretend that I was a standard HelloFresh customer, rather than a professional chef. So I laid out all of my ingredients, checked them carefully against the recipe card, and followed the directions to the letter. N even read out the instructions to me while I was at the stove; this resulted in much hilarity as my natural instinct was to do everything my way – he had to correct me frequently, and of course I argued. My goal, obviously, was to see how close I could get to the presentation in the photo as well as the preparation time indicated.

Continue reading

Saddle up

Howdy, pardner! Are you one of the over twelve hundred people who relocated to Colorado last month (just like every month for the past three years or so, which makes us one of the fastest-growing states in the country)? If you’re new here, you might not know that January means only one thing in our town, and that’s the National Western Stock Show. Never been? Get your boots on and let’s go.

Cowgirl Flag sml

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remove your hats and stand for our national anthem.”

Posters sml

For a long time, Denver was embarrassed about its cowtown reputation. We were embarrassed that we weren’t seen as elegant and sophisticated, like New York or Los Angeles. We were embarrassed that we didn’t have fancy restaurants but instead had an abundance of steakhouses, particularly classy joints where they’d cut your necktie off. We were embarrassed that we wore blue jeans (pressed) and boots (clean) to just about every gathering, formal or not.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

How to make yogurt

There are foods and drinks we should buy, and foods and drinks we should make at home. I would place things like tofu, amazing soft-ripened cheeses, bacon and hoppy IPAs in the first category; though I can make these things, other people are doing a much better job at it. The second category, however, would include granola, bread, salsa, applesauce, hummus and yogurt, among many others – all of these are much better-tasting, healthier and certainly cheaper made at home.

I’ve been asked a number of times recently for instructions on how to make yogurt, and since I make it once a week on average, I thought it might be high time to share this magic with the world. Making yogurt is not difficult or expensive, but it does require a bit of patience and a basic understanding of fermentation – which is typically referred to as “culturing” when used in context with dairy products. Keep in mind that the instructions below are for cow’s milk yogurt; other milks, such as sheep or goat, or non-dairy products, like almond, soy or hemp, don’t turn into yogurt the same way.

Yoghurt 01 sml

Yes, that is the current temperature in our sunroom.

Let’s be clear on what you absolutely do not need to make yogurt: you do not need a fancy yogurt maker, or an Instapot, or specially-purchased mail-order yogurt cultures. You can use these things if you have them, but to me they all fall firmly into the category of “convincing people they can’t cook without expensive gadgets and hard-to-find ingredients.” Peasants have been making yogurt for literally thousands of years; I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop at Bed Bath & Beyond to grab a yogurt maker on their way back from the fields. What you do need: fresh milk, starter yogurt culture, a heavy pot, an accurate thermometer, a ladle, a wooden spoon, clean jars and lids, and a warm, safe place to keep your yogurt while it’s culturing.

Yoghurt 03 sml

Fresh milk + starter culture = homemade yogurt!

I make my yogurt in one-gallon batches, which yields four quarts plus a bit. If your household doesn’t eat much yogurt, or if you want to start small, make a half-gallon batch. You can always scale up when you realize how much yogurt you’re eating. Don’t buy UHT or other long-life milk to make yogurt or other cultured dairy products; its protein structure has been irreparably changed by the heating process used to make it shelf-stable. And when you’re buying a starter yogurt culture, buy plain, full-fat yogurt; no fruit or other sweeteners, thickeners like carrageenan or pectin, stabilizers or other mysterious ingredients (please, no M&Ms, sprinkles or chocolate chips). Yes, you can use skim or low-fat milk to make yogurt, but why would you? I am an advocate for full-fat dairy at all times; cows don’t give skim milk, so I see no point in consuming it.

Yoghurt 04 sml

Placing your pot of hot milk in an ice bath will cool it to 110 degrees quickly.

To start, place two tablespoons (for a half-gallon) or four tablespoons (for a full gallon) of starter yogurt into a medium bowl and set aside. Pour the milk into the heavy pot. If your thermometer clips onto the side of the pan, attach it now; ensure the tip doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan or you’ll get an inaccurate reading. Heat the milk gently, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching; you’ll want to bring it up to about 175 degrees F (this could take as long as thirty minutes for a full gallon). Once it’s reached 175, remove it from heat and place it into an ice bath to rapidly bring its temperature down to about 115 degrees F. You can let it cool as is, but icing it is much quicker; stirring it frequently will bring the temperature down, too. (For those of you at altitude, please note that you do not need to adjust these temperatures.)

While you’re waiting for the milk to cool, bring a kettle of water to a boil, and place your clean jars on a folded kitchen towel on your worktop. Fill each jar with boiling water; always wash and warm one more pint jar than you think you need. Place the lids in a separate heatproof bowl and cover those with boiling water, too.

When the milk is around 110 degrees, whisk about one-half cup into the bowl you set aside with your starter culture. This tempers the culture, bringing the two liquids to a similar temperature and ensuring that the starter culture doesn’t cook when it’s added to the warm milk. Now, add the thinned and warmed starter culture to the pot of milk, and stir well. Pour the boiling water out of your first jar, and set it back on the towel. Ladle the warm milk and starter mixture into this clean, hot jar (a funnel comes in handy here). Repeat the process for the remaining jars until you’ve used all of the milk. Put the lids on the jars and close gently; the lids just need to be snug enough to keep from falling off but they shouldn’t be lumberjack tight. Wipe the jars and lids with a clean, damp towel to remove any milk residue.

You can now place the jars into a cozy spot, like a cooler lined with towels, or your (turned off) oven or microwave. The idea is to keep the jars pretty warm, which allows the culture to activate and thicken the milk. I use my dehydrator on a low setting; some people use a slow cooker or even surround the jars with heating pads or hot water bottles. You may need to experiment to figure out what works best in your household; just remember that you’re trying to keep the yogurt reasonably warm and undisturbed. Yogurt cultures love an ambient temperature range of 95 to 115 degrees; the cooler it is, the longer it will take to get a set (but it will still work!).

Yoghurt 05 sml

Draining the yogurt in triple-layered cheesecloth will create a thick “Greek-style” yogurt.

I typically leave my yogurt to culture overnight, depending on how much I’m making and the ambient temperature in my house. It will thicken more once it’s been refrigerated, and you can also drain the whey out, leaving you with thick, “Greek-style” yogurt. Drained whey can be added to bread doughs or smoothies, or used as a starter culture for lacto-fermented vegetables, if you’re so inclined. I almost never drain my yogurt, preferring instead to let it culture longer so I have a thicker product and can use every bit of it; when I do have leftover whey I use it to cook grains, like farro and wheatberries. I always leave my yogurt plain so I can use it in both sweet and savory applications; if you want to add in jam or vanilla or honey or maple syrup or any other sweetener or flavoring, do so on an individual basis and not to an entire batch.

Of all the hundreds of batches of yogurt I’ve made, I’ve never had a batch not set. That said, if your yogurt isn’t turning out, I’d recommend first calibrating your thermometer so you know that you’re adding culture at 110 degrees. Too hot and it will die, too cold and it will go dormant. Just like using yeast in bread baking, temperature matters a lot. If you’re confident your thermometer is accurate, I’d next change the brand of milk you’re using, and then I’d change the starter culture, again thoroughly examining that ingredient label to verify that there is nothing in the yogurt besides milk and active cultures. Storebought yogurt has a lot of junk in it; read all your food labels carefully.

Yoghurt 06 sml

Use the drained whey to bake bread, cook grains or ferment vegetables.

The temperature and speed that your yogurt cultures at determines the thickness of the final product, so once you’ve got the basic technique down, feel free to experiment with how long you let it set, and at what temperature. I’ve read that heating the milk to 195 degrees F allows for an even thicker yogurt because it denatures the proteins further, but I haven’t tried it. Know also that eventually your starter culture will wear out; if you’re making a lot of yogurt, you might find that you need to purchase a fresh starter yogurt every few months to keep your set strong.

Yoghurt 02 sml

Homemade yogurt, homemade granola and fresh berries. Nom nom nom.

What else should you do with your homemade yogurt, besides enjoy it with fruit and granola? Bake with it. Blend it into smoothies. Use it to marinate meats. Freeze it in popsicle molds with swirls of jam and honey to make your own frozen treats. Add in fresh herbs and salt and make it into a tangy salad dressing or dip for fresh vegetables. Just remember to save a couple of tablespoons to start your next batch!

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.

Cast Iron 01 sml

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.

Cast Iron 04 sml

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.

Cast Iron 02 sml

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.

Cast Iron 06 sml

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.

Cast Iron 03 sml

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.

Cast Iron 07 sml

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.

Cast Iron 08 sml

…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.

Cast Iron 09 sml

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.


Food stamp challenge

One of the comments I hear most frequently in my cooking classes and presentations is that “it’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget.” I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, and to prove my point, I decided N and I would take part in the Food Stamp Challenge. In Colorado, the challenge is organized by Hunger Free Colorado; your state will have different resources available.

While SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits vary from place to place and family to family, in Colorado food stamps amount to approximately $4.20 per person, per day. That amounts to $1.40 per meal, if you eat three meals a day, or about $29.40 per week; that number encompasses everything you consume, including drinks and snacks. (Legally, you cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or non-food products with food stamps, but unfortunately you can buy soda, energy drinks, candy, cakes, chips, cookies, ice cream and plenty of other unhealthy items.) This is going to take some planning, and some smart shopping.

Here’s the tricky bit, though: SNAP benefits can’t be used for any sort of takeaway food, and can’t be used for anything consumed within a store. So no prepared deli items, no to-go coffees, no rotisserie chickens. It’s easy to see why smart hunger relief experts advocate cooking classes along with SNAP benefits; to make the most of this program, you really need to know how to cook from scratch.

Since my household comprises two adults, I’ll allot us a total weekly budget of $58.80. And since I want to play in the most honest way possible, I’ll plan for the way we currently eat: we drink black coffee in the mornings but don’t eat an early-morning breakfast; we typically eat around 10AM and 4PM (it works for us). We also eat very little meat, so going mostly vegetarian won’t be much of a struggle; this budget definitely doesn’t allow for a lot of good meat. And we only eat at restaurants when we’re traveling, so planning and cooking all of our meals at home won’t stress us, either.

Food Stamp 05 sml

Scanning for sales is key to eating well on a budget.

A couple of other caveats about our food stamp challenge:

  • A challenge like this is necessarily a snapshot in time. We’re doing our challenge in December, which definitely makes most fresh fruits and vegetables harder to come by in our Rocky Mountain region – and they’re certainly not local, except for onions and greens! Fresh produce would be more abundant and less expensive in late summer.
  • To play fair, I am not using our backyard honey, or my own canned and frozen goods pantry. I have dozens of jars of applesauce, salsa, Western Slope peaches and other homemade canned goods, plus lots of produce in the freezer, but since I can’t truly ascribe a dollar value to these, we’re not eating these during the challenge.
  • I refuse to dramatically change our standard eating style in order to adhere to the budget; I’m not going to add cheap meat or nutritionally devoid, high-sugar cereal to our shopping list just to have something on the table. That isn’t what we eat now, and I believe the point of this challenge is to make fresh, delicious, nutritious food on a limited budget – not to just eat for the sake of eating.
  • As mentioned above, we’re a household of two healthy adults, and we only eat two meals a day. Your own household’s food stamp challenge will look very different, but we would love to hear about it!

Food Stamp 03 sml

Some of our food stamp challenge ingredients. Embrace the bulk department.

Here’s what I bought for our challenge:

  • 12 oz. whole-bean coffee ($4.99, and it amounts to about $0.12 per cup. Worth every penny.)
  • 12 oz. animal-welfare certified bacon ($4.99)
  • dairy: 1 gal. local whole milk ($2.19), plain yogurt for starter ($0.59), 10 oz. queso fresco cheese ($2.49)
  • two dozen non-GMO cage-free with outdoor access eggs ($5.98)
  • fruit: 3 apples ($0.98), 3 grapefruit ($0.99), 1 lb. grapes ($0.97), 6 kiwi ($0.99), 3 pomegranates ($0.99), 3 pears ($0.98), 8 satsuma clementines ($1)
  • grains and legumes: 0.5 lb. dried black beans ($0.85), 0.5 lb. brown rice ($0.35), 0.5 lb. dried chickpeas ($0.75), 0.5 lb. green lentils ($0.59), 0.5 lb. rolled oats ($0.35), 1 lb. linguine ($0.99), 0.5 lb. white beans ($0.99)
  • 1 lb. organic tofu ($1.79)
  • vegetables: 2 lb. broccoli ($1.76), 1 lb. carrots ($0.69), 1 bunch cilantro ($0.33), 12 oz. frozen corn ($1), 2 cucumbers ($1), 3 bell peppers ($0.99), 2 heads garlic ($0.66), 2 bunches kale ($1.98), 1 lb. yellow onions ($1), 12 oz. frozen peas ($1), 5 oz. salad greens ($1.69), 1 bunch scallions ($0.33), 3 zucchini ($0.99)
  • staples: assorted bulk spices ($1), 0.5 lb. roasted almonds ($2.99), corn tortillas ($0.99), 5 lb. flour ($1.79), 0.25 lb. roasted pumpkin seeds ($1.25), 3 packets yeast ($1.19 with coupon), hot sauce ($0.99)

Total spent: $58.41

Food Stamp 04 sml

Thanks to savvy shopping and the discount table, this is less than $10 of healthy, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables!

And here is our simple seven-day menu plan; again, we start with a pot of black coffee and only eat two meals per day. For snacks, we eat fresh fruit or raw vegetables, plus a handful of almonds and pumpkin seeds.

  • Day One: yogurt with fruit and almonds; white beans and sautéed kale with fried eggs; fresh bread
  • Day Two: breakfast tacos with eggs, zucchini, peppers, onions and queso fresco; tofu and broccoli stir-fry over brown rice; green salad
  • Day Three: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; pasta with bacon, garlic, zucchini and peppers; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Four: eggs on toast with sautéed greens; lentil, vegetable and chickpea soup; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Five: yogurt with fruit and almonds; frittata with vegetables, greens and queso fresco
  • Day Six: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; spicy black bean and corn soup; kale salad
  • Day Seven: huevos rancheros with leftover beans and rice; “favorites” (i.e. everything remaining from the week)

Cast Iron 05 sml

Remind me again why vegetables are boring?

My comments on the week:

  • Our menu wasn’t really that different from what we eat on a regular basis. Each day included at least four servings of various fruits and vegetables and usually more, plus grains and legumes. Virtually everything we ate was healthy, flavorful and made from scratch. We didn’t feel hungry or deprived, but I can easily see how someone accustomed to eating at restaurants and/or eating a lot of meat might find this challenge…well, challenging.
  • I chose bacon as our only meat for the week because it offers so much flavor in even tiny quantities. In addition to adding it to pasta and soups, I also used the rendered fat for sautéing vegetables and greens for extra savory punch. Skipping the bacon entirely would obviously leave about ten percent of the weekly budget for other items, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’d rather eat a small amount of good, flavorful meat than a lot of cheap meat.
  • I made four quarts of my own yogurt from one gallon of whole milk; the starter culture only has to be purchased once since you use a bit of your own yogurt as the starter for future batches. Plain full-fat yogurt made from good milk is a great source of quality protein, fat and calories, and dramatically cheaper than buying it premade.

Food Stamp 07 sml

Does it still count as breakfast if we eat at eleven o’clock?

  • I also baked my own fresh bread as I do now, both for health and economic reasons. Although one could claim that whole wheat flour would be a better choice for homemade bread, I would argue that any homemade bread is far better than what you can buy, and far cheaper. Plus, stale bread becomes croutons and breadcrumbs, which add extra value and flavor; storebought sandwich bread doesn’t go stale, it just molds. (I buy my yeast in one-pound bags for $2.99 from a local restaurant-supply store; this is far cheaper than three packets for $1.19, even with a coupon. If you bake bread regularly, buy your yeast in bulk.)
  • It’s virtually impossible to eat purely organic on a budget this tight. While I appreciate the virtues of organic, with so little money to spend I’d far rather eat more conventional fruits and vegetables than just a few organic ones. Value for money wins here, although some of the discounted produce was organic.
  • I did miss having access to a well-stocked pantry, specifically various oils, vinegars, cooking fats (including good butter), seasonings and condiments. It’s very easy to make delicious, healthy food by just dressing it up a bit, and citrus, spices and other flavor enhancers really come in handy.
  • I also really missed cheese. We eat a lot of cheese, both on its own and as a garnish for vegetables and grains, and while I love queso fresco, I really enjoy using a variety of specialty cheeses in almost every meal. Plus, good cheese can often be found at a discount at our grocery store, too!

Food Stamp 02 sml

Because we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection and meaningless sell-by dates, it’s easy to find supermarket bargains.

Tips for success for your own food stamp challenge:

  • Flexibility is absolutely key. I bought what was on sale, rather than what I necessarily wanted. If you’re going to cook well on a budget, pay attention to store advertising circulars, clip coupons and learn to adjust your meal plan based on what’s available at a good price, rather than what you feel like eating.
  • Our local grocery store has recently started selling blemished or undersized produce at a discount. This produce made all the difference in our food stamp challenge; most of our fruits and vegetables came from this table, usually packed at three for $0.99. I also always search for items close to their sell-by date that the store is looking to offload at a discount; I’ve purchased a lot of healthy, cheap and still-good food this way (see photo above). Don’t ignore this option if you’re cooking on a budget.
  • Also, don’t ignore frozen vegetables. They are cheap, healthy and easy to have on hand, plus they were frozen when that vegetable was actually in season. Fresh vegetables aren’t always the best option, especially on a tight budget.
  • Shop the bulk department for grains, legumes and spices; skipping the inflated packaging makes a huge difference in price. Dried beans are far less expensive than canned, and they don’t contain excess salt, either. Soaking beans overnight takes virtually no time and a slow cooker makes preparing healthy food easy.
  • Search out local ethnic markets. I could have spent substantially less on produce and beans if I had gone to any one of our incredible Mexican markets here in Denver. I wouldn’t buy animal products there, but I’d definitely buy pantry staples.

Food Stamp 01 sml

Pasta is oft-maligned, but it is quick, inexpensive, filling, and most importantly easy to pack with lots of vegetables.

  • Get a good knife and a good cutting board and learn how to prep your own fruits and vegetables. Paying for the precut product costs a lot extra and it’s already started to deteriorate, too.
  • Think nutrient-dense and lots of color: discounted spinach, sturdy kale or purple cabbage rather than cheap but nutritionally vacant iceberg; black beans over pinto beans. Whenever possible, choose the most intensely colored whole food (that Windex-colored Gatorade does not qualify).
  • And think high flavor, too. I used small amounts of bacon, sharp, salty queso fresco and crunchy nuts and seeds to add a lot of flavor and texture to our dishes. You don’t need much, but they add interest. I spent money on onions, garlic, scallions and cilantro, both because they’re healthy and because they add a ton of flavor and punch without spending a fortune. Growing your own fresh herbs is a great way to enhance your meals.
  • We had quite a bit of food remaining at the end of the week (both prepared and raw ingredients); this is partially why our final day incorporated “favorites.” If you want to eat on a budget, you have to make use of leftovers, too. Throwing away food is exactly the same as throwing away money.

Food Stamp 06 sml

Garlicky white beans and kale with fried eggs: pretty much perfect, in my opinion.

N pointed out that this challenge was easy for me, because I know how to prepare healthy, delicious food and enjoy doing so. While that’s certainly true, I would say yet again that the number-one best thing you can do for both your physical and your financial health is to learn how to cook, and cook often – whether or not you’re on a strict food budget. Take responsibility for your own health, and cook yourself some wholesome, tasty food. You don’t need to break the bank to do that.

If you choose to organize your own food stamp challenge, please share it with us!




A winter cake

It seems winter in Colorado has been canceled this year, considering that it was nearly seventy degrees (21C for our international audience) when we took these photos. In December. And on one hand, this is delightful, because driving in the snow is truly one of my least favorite activities, despite being a born-and-bred Colorado native. And on the other hand, these disconcerting weather patterns freak me out in a serious fashion. But I’m working on my anxiety, and my ability to “accept the things I cannot change.” So let’s make a cake.

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 01 sml

This lovely cake has all the flavors of winter: tangy, bright cranberries and citrus, plus sharp, spiky ginger. And pomegranates. Oh, pomegranates. Is there any fruit I adore more? I think not. When these babies are in season, as they are now, I often eat one a day. Somehow their tart sparkle seems to apologize for the misery of endless winter – or whatever season it is we’re currently having. The cake isn’t excessively sweet, either, which pleases me; if you had a strong, dark honey on hand, I imagine that might be compelling here.

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 03 sml

Any time you’re making a light, delicate cake, friends, please be careful not to overmix the batter – it’s a sure way to achieve dense, tough gumminess. This is even more key when baking at altitude, as we are here. Assemble all of your ingredients in advance, then place your liquids in one bowl, your dry ingredients and the fruit in another, and whip the egg whites at the very last minute, when everything else is ready. Never pre-whip your egg whites then go back to put together the other components – their ethereal fluffiness is exactly what you need. (Tossing dried, fresh or frozen fruit with flour helps keep it from sinking to the bottom of the cake, and from bleeding its juices, though that effect can actually be quite pretty. If you’re using frozen fruit, never let it thaw first but just throw it in frozen. And move quickly.)

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 04 sml

As before, make sure your pan is prepped and your oven is preheated. Once the batter is together, it needs to go straight into a hot oven. This is not the time to dilly-dally.

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 05 sml

This recipe as written makes for quite a moist cake, which is lovely here in Colorado as it stays fresher for longer in our dry climate. I reduced the leavening by 1/4 tsp. and added 1/4 cup extra flour, as is often done when adjusting baking recipes for altitude. If you’re at sea level, you may need to use a total of 3/4 tsp. baking powder. You can probably reduce the whole wheat pastry flour by 1/4 cup at sea level, too. Make sure to check carefully for doneness with this cake; I found that I needed a bit more baking time than the recipe indicates. Ovens vary; adjust accordingly.

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 06 sml


Pomegranate, Cranberry and Ginger Cake (written for 5,300 ft. elevation)

For The Cake

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup mild olive oil
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
  • 2 tbsp. freshly grated orange zest
  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 5 tbsp. crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup fresh or dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tsp. confectioner’s sugar for dusting


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan; line with parchment paper and butter and flour the parchment.

In a small bowl, stir together honey, olive oil, egg yolks, zest, juice and 3 tbsp. crystallized ginger. In a large bowl, sift together both flours, baking powder and salt. Gently fold cranberries and pomegranate seeds into dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat egg whites and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, about 1-2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold honey mixture into flour mixture, then fold in egg whites until combined. Do not overmix.

Pour and scrape batter into prepared pan and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Allow cake to cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes; run a knife around sides of pan to loosen cake and turn it our onto rack. Remove paper and allow to cool completely.

To serve, sift confectioner’s sugar over cake and garnish with remaining crystallized ginger and additional pomegranate seeds.

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?



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.


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.


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.


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.





Back in the Ye Olden Days, N and I worked on boats. One of these boats – the one we met on – was a scuba diving liveaboard that plied the waters between St. Maarten and St. Kitts, in the Netherlands Antilles. Much of our history together, along with thousands of other people, was erased earlier this year with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The island we knew so well doesn’t exist any longer.

Thanksgiving magazines

Every year, they promise the PERFECT Thanksgiving. And every year, we buy it.

On this particular dive boat, there were as many as eighteen guests and eight crew. I cooked, and N guided dives. And because provisioning in the Caribbean is never easy, the weekly menu was set by the home office, and it was the same, week in and week out. We had Taco Night, and a barbecue, and because most of our guests were American, every Thursday was a full Thanksgiving spread. Because – trust me – there is nothing you want to eat more in the middle of a humid Caribbean July than the heaviest meal known to man. Every. Single. Thursday.

Thanksgiving turkey ad

We’re so rich in this country that we will give you a free turkey!

I’ve cooked well more than fifty full Thanksgiving meals in my time on this planet thus far, and I’d like to state here and now that I am done. Unsurprisingly, N cannot stand the meal either. I’ve talked about this before in my classes – how much I really, really loathe this season – but this year, it’s worse than ever. I simply cannot embrace the excess. The waste. The sheer, utter, obscene overconsumption just for the sake of pointless tradition.

Stone Barns-11.jpg

Over two hundred million pounds of food will be thrown away on or shortly after Thanksgiving. The USDA conservatively estimates that over one-third of all turkeys raised for this one day will be thrown out, uneaten. These animals lived a horrible life and died for nothing. This is the season both for abundance and for waste, when we’re both begged to donate to hundreds of needy charities yet told at every turn that we need to buy more, eat more, consume more. I can no longer support America’s most gluttonous holiday: we’re the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving, and we do so with such little regard for the shocking overconsumption that we promote to the rest of the world. And then there’s the day after Thanksgiving.


Because nothing says “giving thanks” like buying a bolt-action rifle on Black Friday.

A holiday devoted to proudly eating oneself into a “turkey coma,” followed by camping out so we can buy ever-larger televisions or the latest iPhone? Or a new gun? What is there to celebrate, honestly? While this holiday may have actually originated as a rightful celebration of having enough, now it’s about having more. More of everything. More food, specifically the dishes we just “have to have at the table.” You know, Aunt Mildred’s casserole that everyone secretly hates but it’s tradition. And so it sits there, congealing, and is quietly thrown out at the end of the evening because no one, no one wants to take it home. Or the two meat main courses, because everyone really needs both ham and turkey. And everyone really needs eight different side dishes. And everyone really needs three desserts. And everyone really needs to throw all this excess food away on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving because, quite frankly, everyone is f*ing tired of looking at it.


How about this year, we declare it enough. We have enough. Enough food. Enough electronics. Enough guns. Enough unused things in our house collecting dust. How about this year we agree to eat less, to buy less, to not feel sick at ten o’clock at night while we’re camping out at Bed Bath & Beyond. How about this year, we don’t worry about what do with all those leftovers because we just cooked enough. How about this year, we just decide that what we have is enough. And how about we leave it at that.

Thanks, but no thanks

Dear Oregon:

It is with regret that we inform you that you are no longer a candidate for the location of Quiet Farm. Although we visited you with highest hopes, we found that our expectations did not coincide with reality.


Praying Mantis


Fly Agaric Mushroom (poisonous!)

It goes without saying, Oregon, that your flora and fauna are simply exceptional. Just look at these photos! Coming from our dry, stark, high-plains desert, we were stunned by the sheer life found everywhere in this damp climate: on fallen logs, under chestnut leaves, buried in cranberry bogs.


Pacific Tree Frog


Still Life with Mushrooms

And the water! All the free water, everywhere! Just falling from the sky! Oh look, it’s still raining! Truly, it’s a miracle, and it means you can grow pretty much anything here. But we also found that farming in the pouring rain wasn’t as much fun as we’d hoped. Slogging through inches of sloppy mud while trying to dig out a stuck tractor or get feed to hungry animals sounds adventurous, but we’re afraid it would just become rather tedious.


Rough-Skinned Newt (its underside is bright orange!)


Cascades Frog

(While we’re on the topic of growing things, Oregon, we’d like to talk about “medicinal substances,” if you get our meaning. As a state, it seemed to us that you’ve embraced the recreational drug lifestyle just a touch too enthusiastically for our comfort, and that’s saying something, considering we hail from Colorado.)


Woolly Bear Caterpillar


Angel Mushroom (unconfirmed ID)

This is a tough letter for us to write, Oregon, because we were pretty much ready to set up shop and get Quiet Farm up and running. But outside of Portland or possibly Eugene, we don’t feel confident that the community can support the type of business we want to start. And unfortunately, we can’t afford any property near Portland or Eugene. Apparently it’s all being snatched up by escaping Californians.


Red-Veined Meadowhawk

Please know, Oregon, that you’re more than welcome to reapply as a potential Quiet Farm location at any time. We’ll just need to see a dramatic reduction in your extortionate property prices as well as a corresponding reduction in your precipitation rates. Oh, and lay off the weed for a bit, please. There’s work to be done.

With regards,

The Quiet Farm Scouting Team