Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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You can pickle that

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

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

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

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The Farm Series: Rebel Farm

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

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

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Purple kohlrabi, sadly underappreciated by CSA members everywhere.

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Tangy, citrusy red sorrel.

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

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How to eat healthier

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

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

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Cooking Class: Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’re excited to be headed out on the road again, and in that spirit we wanted to revisit some of our favorite moments from our adventures earlier this year. Some weeks back, we shared a cooking class we had taken in Udaipur, India. And as we’re in nostalgia mode, and I’ve got Thailand on my mind since I just spent time talking to a friend about his trip, let’s return to Chiang Mai and a fabulous cooking class we experienced there. Like our Indian class, this day out was one of the highlights of our trip to southeast Asia.

Thai dessert bowl

Looks like Thai green curry, but it’s actually dessert: sweet rice pudding with bananas and coconut milk.

Thai rice market

Dozens of varieties of rice are for sale at the market.

Thai ingredients market

Fish sauce, a key ingredient in southeast Asian cooking.

We started our cooking class at one of the many local markets, where we sampled various ingredients and drank cold, sweet Thai iced coffee. While the cooking school has an extensive garden and grows many of their own herbs and spices, they still need to shop for a few things. Many Thai homes don’t have refrigeration, so shopping each day for fresh ingredients is both a pleasure and a necessity.

Thai cooking tables

We’ll grind our curry pastes and chop our ingredients here.

We left the market and traveled by minibus to the school, where we were offered iced jasmine tea and given a tour of the property. The cooking school is perfectly set up to accommodate guests, with spaces for prep, cooking and eating together.

Thai garden chilies

Tiny, fiery Thai bird chiles. Typically, the smaller the chile, the bigger the punch.

Thai ingredients basket

Fresh herbs and aromatics, just harvested.

The cooking school has acres of gardens, where they grow lemongrass, basil, coriander, mint, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime, chiles and many other ingredients for their classes.

Thai cooking kitchen

Our indoor-outdoor kitchen, with cooking stations set up for each student.

Thai ingredients board

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All of the components for the recipes we would make in class were neatly laid out for us. I emphasize this classical French technique a lot in my own cooking classes: it’s called mise-en-place, and it literally means “to put everything in its place.” When you’re cooking, assemble all of your ingredients like this in advance; it may seem tedious and time-consuming, but it actually makes preparing your dish much, much easier. Trust me.

Thai cutting board spoon

Fresh herbs and tamarind paste, like fish sauce, are key to classic Thai cooking.

Thai pestle mortar table

Although you can of course make curry paste in a blender, traditionally it’s prepared in a stone mortar and pestle.

Thai pestle mortar

Grinding aromatics for red curry paste.

Thai wok stir-fry veg

A wok allows for quick, high heat, so vegetables and proteins remain crisp and fresh.

Thai wok stir-fry tofu

Pad thai, a favorite Thai dish. In Thailand it’s not quite as sweet as it often is in America.

Thai red curry

Vegetarian red curry soup. Good Thai food is most often a delicate balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

Craving some Thai food after reading this? Me too. Try here, here or here. And if you have the chance, definitely book a cooking class on your next adventure. It’s well worth the time and money to cook and eat like a local, if only for a few hours.

Backyard chickens

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

Black Star

A Black Star from our most recent flock.

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

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Our young Silver Wyandotte pullet at about six months.

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

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

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

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

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

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The windfall apple clean-up crew.

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken eggs

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

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

Eggs Thai pink

Eggs for sale at a Thai market.

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

Eggs Basket

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

Eggs Comparison

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

Eggs Frying Pan

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

Eggs

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

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

 

Food waste + helpful tips!

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

Waste tomatoes

Trash tomatoes at a greenhouse operation in eastern Colorado.

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

Waste strawberries

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

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

Zuccini

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

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

Cucumbers

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

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

Waste Honey Jars

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

At the Store:

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

Waste Salt

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

At Home:

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

Waste compost

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

What can you make with random odds and ends?

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

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

Hive inspection

Back in late July, we showed some photos of our beehive. A few weeks later, we opened the hive again for a summer inspection and wanted to share those pictures here too. As we’ve said before, we’re new to beekeeping, but we’re learning more every day.

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Necessary equipment: veil, smoker, pry bar and support frame.

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Lighting the smoker.

Smokers are commonly used by beekeepers when opening and inspecting hives. The smoke is thought to dampen the guard bees’ pheromone response, allowing the beekeeper to open the hive without a defensive reaction. This does not mean, however, that beekeepers don’t get stung – but the goal is to minimize the stings, because those are harmful not only to the beekeeper but obviously to the hive, too, as the bees die once they’ve stung. Good beekeepers want to reduce unnecessary bee death whenever possible.

Smoker Entrance

Smoking the hive in preparation for opening.

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Carefully opening the hive. (I am very helpfully holding an enormous sunflower stalk out of the way.)

Beekeepers traditionally wear white because large predators of hives – bears, raccoons, skunks – are overall dark in color. It is thought that the bees will be less stressed, and therefore less likely to attack, if the beekeepers are clothed in white. In South America, however, beekeepers most often wear red.

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The inner workings of our Langstroth hive.

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Removing the frames one by one.

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It is such a thrill to see so many healthy, thriving bees!

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Honeycomb! We’ll leave some for the bees’ winter food supply, and hopefully there will be enough for us, too.

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Can you spot the queen? I couldn’t.

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Our hive without its top box and cover.

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Closing up the hive.

We’re hoping we’ll be able to harvest some of that gorgeous honey you saw above in a few weeks, before the weather turns. Stay tuned!

P.S. Jim, you’re the best. We couldn’t do this without you. Thanks!

 

 

Cooking from the garden

Friends, hello. It is early September and thus the height of the harvest season in our corner of the world. And though the tomatoes are finally, finally coming on after an unseasonably cool August, I find that I’m struggling to work up the enthusiasm I typically have during this time of abundance.

Veg Mixed

Right now seems to be a time of sadness for just about everyone. Not only are people suffering in our country and of course across the world, but closer to home friends and family are coping with grief, misfortune, illness, despair and all sorts of darkness. I struggle mightily (and often unsuccessfully) not to carry the weight of the world, so at times like these I always find myself back in the kitchen. We soldier on, doing our best; no matter what, we all need to eat.

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A habanero pepper plant after a rainstorm.

One of my biggest challenges in my cooking classes is providing clear, usable recipes, because more often than not, I don’t cook from them. I know well that everyone wants recipes – especially if you’re just starting out in the kitchen, recipes offer valuable handholding and a sense of regimented calm and comfort, a plan to follow. What I ultimately try to teach, however, is the confidence to cook without recipes – to improvise, to adjust, to have faith in the process and your own palate and that the end result might not be exactly what you planned but will still, most likely, be delicious. And summer and early fall are certainly one of the easiest times to cook without recipes, since you can let the produce guide you.

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The before and after: shishitos raw…

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…and shishitos cooked, with flaky sea salt (of course).

As for improvisational cooking from the garden: let’s talk shishitos, just for a moment. These small peppers burst onto the culinary scene some years back as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants. The tip of the pepper is thought to resemble the head of a lion, shishi in Japanese; as such, their full name is shishitogarashi but is typically shortened to shishito. They’ll eventually turn red, like most peppers if left to ripen long enough, but they’re usually harvested green, about the size of a pinky finger. No recipe needed for these: crank up the heat on a cast-iron pan, drizzle with a tiny bit of neutral oil, like canola, and toss the peppers in just until they char and soften. Serve with soy sauce and flaky salt. I leave mine pretty crunchy, but you can cook them until they collapse, too, if that’s your preference.

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Cucumbers are another summer favorite; like tomatoes, the difference between harvesting your own and buying sad, bitter supermarket versions is night and day. These little ones are theoretically designed for pickling, but to be honest I end up eating most of them raw. Thinly sliced or cut into chunks, with slivers of red onion; they’re dressed lightly with rice vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Plus, any variety of bright, fresh herbs that I might feel compelled to use. Simple, fresh, crunchy, tangy and satisfying.

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Unlike some, I am never tired of zucchini. Growing vegetables in our high-plains desert can be so challenging that I’m gratified by anything that produces so much for so little effort. Plus, zucchini is infinitely versatile, and it never goes to waste in my kitchen. Looking for an interesting spread for toast? Try this recipe from a talented Oregon farmer and home cook.

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This summer, most of my zucchini starred in this Ottolenghi classic: lightly grilled with olive oil, then layered with fresh basil, toasted hazelnuts and slivers of Parmigiano, drizzled with hazelnut oil and white balsamic. I pretty much just gave you the recipe, but if you want more specific guidance, go here.

Tomatoes Heirloom

And these beauties? Nothing more than sliced, on a plate, with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. That’s it. Growing tomatoes in Colorado – and actually having them survive until harvest – is such a labor of love that it’s a crime to do anything more.

Take care of yourselves, friends, and make something delicious and nourishing to eat. Good food matters.