Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

Farm update: August 9

Here are a few things we’ve been up to on the farm lately, if you’d like to see:

The original finish is shown on the left side of the table; N’s sanding work is on the right.

As is our habit, we recently rescued a (rather expensive and fancy!) solid wood table and chairs destined for the landfill and N has been hard at work uncovering the set’s beauty. The furniture had not been cared for at all; it’s covered in scratches, water marks and all manner of damage. Most modern furniture is made from cheap plywood or laminate and often cannot be refinished; solid wood, though, is remarkably open to restoration, and we think this will look pretty spectacular with a bit of elbow grease and varnish. The table and chairs both have a great deal of decorative carving; sanding these tiny grooves will prove both tricky and time-consuming. When finished, this dining set will likely highlight the Japanese tradition known as kintsugi, whereas a piece’s imperfections are intentionally emphasized. This furniture was well-made and has years of life left, despite how it was treated, and it will be a pleasure to save the table and chairs and put them to good use.

Freshly harvested ‘Boldor’ golden beets.

Let’s talk beets – a polarizing vegetable, to say the least. Many, many people are quick to say they don’t like beets – I’m reasonably convinced this is because in the U.S. most people’s experience with beets only involves the sad, mushy canned kind, a metallic-tasting vegetable horror show if ever there was one. Fresh beets, on the other hand, are a completely different beast. We typically eat our beets raw, julienned into salads and slaws, but if the oven is already on for bread, I’m likely to throw a few beets in for roasting, too. I like the roasted beets cut into generous chunks and lightly dressed with good olive oil and a splash of tarragon vinegar, then tossed with warm farro or wheatberries, sharp crumbled goat cheese, grilled zucchini and toasted, salted walnuts. If I have extra, I’ll make a quick pickle and keep in the fridge for a burst of bright, punchy flavor in salads. We eat the greens, too, but they can be rather strong so I’ll often tame them by sautéing with olive oil and garlic, or slice very thinly to mix with other, less-assertive greens. Do you grow beets? Do you eat beets? What are your favorite ways to prepare them?

An unusual sighting at Quiet Farm!

We spotted this interesting creature on the chicken wire protecting the strawberry patch a few evenings ago. Stick insects, of which there are more than twenty-five hundred individual species, are members of an order of insects called Phasmatodea – and some can grow more than two feet long! These insects are found on every continent except Antarctica, and are most common in the tropics and sub-tropics. Unsurprisingly, they live their entire lives relatively unnoticed, since camouflage is their primary form of defense; they’re also referred to as ghost insects. As always, we are keen to observe (and encourage) all the varied forms of life we spy here on the farm.

Years of life left in these beauties!

In addition to rescuing furniture, rescuing work boots has also been on the task list recently. We are absurdly hard on both clothes and shoes out here at the farm and almost all of our wearables come from charity thrift stores for this very reason. Good, sturdy shoes are essential for working outside; our land is exceedingly rough and rocky and we are definitely not a “golf course farm” where one can freely and safely run around barefoot. (The goatheads alone will quickly cure you of that misguided idea.) Quality boots are expensive, though, and we can’t replace hundred-dollar boots every few months – nor would we want to. Instead, I search out secondhand boots in decent shape, rarely paying more than two or three dollars a pair. New shoelaces, a heavy-duty needle and thread and generous amounts of Gorilla Glue are typically all that’s required to return costly boots to their former glory. Considering that Americans throw away a million pairs of shoes per day – most of which could easily be repaired, donated or recycled – saving a few pairs of hiking boots seems like the least we can do.

“Raindrops on kale leaves and fleece on alpacas…

Summer in Colorado used to be my favorite season. Now, it just means five months of hazy skies, severe drought and relentless wildfire smoke. While we were so grateful to have a few days of much-needed rain not long ago, that rain is merely a wistful memory. The smoke is now worse than it’s ever been here; our eyes are stinging and our throats feel like sandpaper. The mountain ranges have completely vanished, we can barely see the orchards that surround our property, and our long bike rides are postponed for the moment. Those rainstorms, while certainly welcome, also caused devastating mudslides at the Grizzly Creek burn scar in Glenwood Canyon, resulting in the indefinite closure of one of the major east-west arteries in the U.S. Maybe now – once these disasters start costing real money and causing real trouble – we can finally take climate change seriously, even though it’s far too late to undo the damage we’ve done? I’m tired of breathing hot, smoky air all the time. I’m tired of the sickly, hazy sunrises and sunsets. I’m tired of wondering if we’ll make it through the growing season with enough water. I miss the clear blue sky Colorado summers of my childhood, and I know they’re not coming back.

This is not remotely what a western Colorado sunset should look like.

Wishing you a safe and peaceful week, friends.

Make a plan

I think we can all agree that the World Wide Web is, for the most part, a fetid swamp of horrors. But! On rare occasions, the Internet can produce some magic, too. Helpful sewing tutorials! Funny commercial parodies! Everything useful we’ve learned on YouTube about how to renovate a house! And above all else, there is the Grub Street Diet from New York magazine, which is very hit-or-miss – but when it’s on, there’s nothing better. (See this fabulous example.) I absolutely adore food diaries, and if someone combined a daily food diary with a personal finance diary and threw in some quilting tips for good measure I’d probably never read anything else ever again.

Here’s the thing: as someone who has spent the vast majority of her life thus far working with food, thinking about food, reading about food and generally obsessing over food, I need to know what everyone is eating at all times. And also why you’re eating that particular thing. Are you enjoying it, or just eating it because it’s there? Are you even hungry right now? Did you make it or buy it or was it made for you? Did you plan on eating it? Did you seek it out? Would you eat it again? And that brings me neatly to my next question: do you plan your meals?

No need to plan: we eat this lovely breakfast every single day.

One might argue that this question was more relevant pre-pandemic, when Americans ate well more than half their meals outside the home and our schedules were totally different. Of course, since the world stopped eleven months ago, our eating and cooking habits have altered pretty dramatically. One thing that hasn’t changed, though – and I know I have some audience support on this one – is that dinner still, for no apparent reason, happens every single night. How and why this metaphysical error is possible I cannot explain, as each afternoon around 4:30PM I invariably think, “Didn’t I just make dinner?” This situation is particularly embarrassing, of course, because a) I am a professional chef and making dinner really shouldn’t be quite so challenging and b) I voluntarily never leave our gorgeous farm and so if dinner doesn’t appear I can’t even come up with a reasonable excuse about traffic or working late or some such. I’m here, and I’m available, and I have the time, and still, dinner regularly takes me by surprise.

For the record, we didn’t eat out or order delivery even pre-pandemic. In the nearly three years that we’ve lived here, we’ve eaten out precisely once, and in our rural area I’m not even sure where you would get take-out or delivery. (DoorDash is not exactly staking its business success on our county.) So that means we eat all our meals at home, like much of the world these days, and that means not losing interest in your own cooking. It’s a tough challenge, even for a professional chef.

The makings of a stir-fry.

In my years teaching cooking classes, I’ve learned that most households tend to be on about a ten-day rotation of standard meals, which accounts for a few nights of leftovers or take-out in a two-week period. I can completely understand wanting to grab for those “known quantities,” meals that will please everyone without too much time and effort. There are few things more heartbreaking to a dedicated home cook than hours spent slaving away over a spectacular new recipe, only to have your loved ones politely ask you to please, please never make that again. (Looking at you, ma po tofu.) If spaghetti bolognaise works, and you’re tired and hungry, and everyone else is tired and hungry, why not just have spaghetti bolognaise, even though this is the third time in two weeks? Just about everyone can relate to this familiar situation.

Curry-roasted sweet potatoes, pilau rice, fresh naan and salad.

Even in our calm household, which does not have the added complications of varying sports schedules or child care issues or long commutes, I’ve found that planning meals in advance makes a huge difference in how I view the daily chore of dinner. Knowing what I have in the fridge, freezer and pantry, and what meals I can compose from those ingredients, is essential. This is especially true because our “big” grocery store (in a relative sense) is nearly twenty miles away, so we grocery shop infrequently. In a rural county, I don’t have the luxury of running to the store for a bunch of cilantro or a box of pasta fifteen minutes before serving, so we keep a very well-stocked kitchen.

Breakfast tacos are a household staple – usually for dinner.

I also make an effort to cook in batches, so if I’m making a roasted pumpkin soup with coconut and ginger, I’ll make a big pot of it and freeze it in quart deli containers for a quick and easy meal. I make batches of “components,” too – versatile prepped foods, like steamed brown rice, beans, hard-boiled eggs, roasted potatoes or sautéed peppers and onions – that can be utilized in a variety of different meals. Of course we also can and freeze lots of our farm produce, too, but as N famously once said while staring at a packed fridge: “There isn’t any food in here. Just ingredients.” Joking aside, his point was that there was nothing ready to eat, and even the best cook can sometimes look at a full pantry and feel no inspiration whatsoever. That’s when a list of favorite recipe ideas pinned to the side of the fridge can come in handy.

Chickpea smash on toasted focaccia is another favorite in heavy rotation.

The classic American meal typically starts with a protein as the main course – mostly chicken breasts or ground beef. Occasionally a steak, or salmon, or maybe something exotic like shrimp or scallops. A starch and a green vegetable might be on the plate, but they’re side dishes, merely afterthoughts. Here, though, we eat meat barely once or twice a month, and seafood never, so we start with vegetables or legumes, and build from there. We frequently eat stir-fries; they’re quick and easy to pull together. Lots of spicy, warming soups, especially in the colder months. Roasted vegetables feature regularly as do variations on curries. We eat eggs for dinner, usually as breakfast tacos, and many, many incarnations of flatbreads are consumed here. Pasta is a stalwart; loaded with vegetables, it doesn’t deserve its unhealthy reputation. Warmer weather brings lots of main course salads, packed with grains and eggs and myriad vegetables. And sometimes, we just have “snack plate dinner,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: cheese, crackers, vegetables with hummus, good toasted bread with a variety of dips and spreads and anything else that can be used up in the fridge.

My meal planning starts with cookbooks, magazines, a recipe idea file and a pantry inventory.

I will freely admit that strict meal planning doesn’t happen every week; sometimes it’s a bit more impromptu. The weeks when I do write a meal plan, however, absolutely feel much calmer and easier and less stressful than when I don’t. But if we lived in a stereotypically frenetic American household, with lots of people running hither and thither, and various schedules to manage, a meal plan would be an absolute necessity for maintaining order. Here, though, we eat lots of plants and do our best not to waste any food – and a weekly menu plan helps make that happen.

So please share, dear friends: do you plan your meals? Do you stick to the plan? Do you have tried-and-true favorites, or are you regularly tucking in new experiments? Do you do all the cooking, or do other members of the family pitch in? This avid Grub Street Diet reader is longing to know!

The zucchini chronicles

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This is only one day’s harvest!

(…or the courgette chronicles, for our English audience.) By now we’re likely all familiar with the time-honored adage about how rural residents only lock their cars in July and August, because that’s when a fiendish neighbor is most likely to deposit a bag of overgrown and unwanted zucchini on the passenger seat. It’s an apt joke, however; anyone who has grown summer squash knows that it absolutely has a mind of its own. One day, there are tiny flowers on the plant; not even twenty-four hours later, it seems, zucchini the size of baseball bats have taken over the garden. If not carefully monitored, these plants can become unmanageable very quickly.

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Please, someone, tell me what’s wrong with this zucchini plant?

I always think of zucchini (like my beloved kale) as a self-esteem boost for the gardener. It grows well in just about any conditions, needs little care and produces voluminously and reliably. Interestingly, this is the first season I’ve struggled with zucchini – of seven plants, four look like the photo above: small and stunted with initially green leaves that turn crisp and brown without growing larger. The plant keeps putting on new leaves, which promptly die; no blossoms or fruit appear. All of the seven plants are from the same seed and in the same bed and none are planted where squash grew last year; I’ve never seen anything like this. Are they diseased? Attacked by a mysterious pest? Why are three plants growing perfectly? If any experienced gardeners want to weigh in on this unexpected quandary, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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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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How to make granola

Let’s be honest, there isn’t a whole lot new to say about granola. It’s not as though I’ve come up with some shockingly revolutionary way to make it, or some secret superfood ingredient that makes all granola healthy. Instead, I’m here to explain my simple three-question decision-making process for making something instead of buying it. It definitely applies to granola, and hopefully, you’ll apply this theorem to your own cooking and baking.

The three questions are as follows, and can be applied to pretty much any food or drink item, in my extensive experience:

  • Can I make it cheaper?
  • Can I make it healthier?
  • Can I make it taste better?

Certain items, like bread or jerky or hummus or jam or yogurt, are an automatic yes, at least for us. Others, like kombucha or crackers, might get two of three (cheaper and healthier), especially if there are specific storebought products you really like. And then there are the tricky ones, the ones that take years to master, the ones even I don’t tackle. This list is intensely personal, but for me it includes high-level precision fermentation: most ripened and aged cheeses, plus beer, wine and liquor. Yes, I could theoretically make any of these, but other people are doing it better, and I’d rather devote my kitchen experimentation time to other things. I’m happy to leave these to the professionals.

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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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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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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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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.

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.