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: April 25

Hello, friends. It is the busiest time of the year on the farm and we have ten thousand different projects on at the moment. Here are a few things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d like to see.

Tomato starts before splitting.

The sunroom is packed with hundreds of starts, mostly warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers. I’ve started seventeen different tomato varieties this year, some new and some tried and true classics, plus thirteen different peppers ranging from mild and sweet to incendiary. After last year’s pepper bounty, I’m committed to expanding our production of the larger bell peppers; I believed that our growing season was too short for the full-size peppers but 2021 certainly proved me wrong. As always, the vast majority of the plants we grow are from saved open-pollinated seed so that we’re protected from the vagaries of the seed market. That said, I tried starting ‘Sungold’ tomatoes again this year; they’re a hybrid but if you’ve ever tasted these incredible gems, you know exactly why people go mad for them. I’ve obviously grown thousands of tomato plants and consider myself a pretty experienced grower, but three years in a row now my purchased ‘Sungold’ seed has failed to germinate. I contacted the seed company – a reputable Front Range outfit – about the poor germination and have yet to receive a response. Frustrating situations like this are exactly why we save our own seed, because we cannot rely upon companies to provide our food.

We will ship you a free kitten.

We live in an exceptionally impoverished county; a direct consequence of that is an absurd population of stray dogs and cats, because people do not spay or neuter their animals. In late March we unfortunately discovered that a feral cat had chosen our hay barn as a warm, protected nursery; now we have one adult cat and six kittens. While we’re happy to have some assistance in controlling the mouse population, we definitively do not keep any household pets so fate will run its course with this lot. An apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi reads, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” In this (see also: CAFOs) and in so many other respects, the U.S. is failing entirely.

So pretty! So aggressive! So invasive!

If 2021 was The Year of the Goathead, 2022 looks to be The Year of the Thistle. We’ve written before about cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium), which is hugely invasive in our area and produces massive, thorny plants that are dangerous to humans and animals. As we work on spring cleaning and tidying around the farm, Thistle Patrol is a key task. If we can dig out the plants by the roots when they’re small, we can prevent them from becoming these treacherous four-foot monsters and of course from spreading seed to produce even more thistles. We travel around with a small shovel at the ready, prepared to vanquish our spiky foe wherever it might be found.

All the little blue tape pieces mark areas that have to be repaired. Sigh.

We are also at work on The World’s Lengthiest and Most Tedious Tiling Project, involving a complicated and not particularly interesting tale of obtuse angles, poorly manufactured countertops, a rickety garage sale tile cutter and many, many other challenges, surprises and obstructions. When (if?) we ever finish this project, it will hopefully look incredible; the road to reach that lofty point, however, still appears long and winding. Also someone in all those DIY YouTube videos should really mention that charcoal grout against white tile shows every chip, imperfection and error. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” has never seemed so apt; we’ll chalk this one up to hard-won learning.

Will we harvest any fruit this year? Time will tell.

And finally, we’re excited to see blossoms on most of the fruit trees we planted in our first full season here. We of course live in the heart of Colorado’s commercial fruit territory, but the changing climate means that no plant is guaranteed survival any longer. Of late, we’ve endured punishing fifty-mile-per-hour winds plus overnight temperatures in the 20s; the big propane-fueled fans in the surrounding orchards have been on a few times recently in a desperate attempt to save their year’s harvest because these frigid temperatures are devastating for the fragile blossoms. The cherry trees in our area are likely gone for good, thanks to last year’s freeze. Many growers have started culling their delicate peach trees in favor of hardier apples; though peaches sell for far more per pound, the risk of losing the entire crop is also far greater. We are doing our best to adapt to a drier, hotter, windier place and to keep our plants (and ourselves) healthy while doing so.

And with that, we’re back to work! Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

A tomato review, vol. 2

As mentioned, we’ve had an utterly spectacular year for tomatoes. I knowingly overplanted simply because we’d gotten off to such a terrible start, and I honestly had very little faith that my scrawny, under-nourished plants would thrive. Once they received a compost tea shot, however, and then were planted out in our compost-enriched soil, all of the plants absolutely took off. In more than ten years of growing food, this is the first year where I was regularly behind on harvesting tomatoes – I simply couldn’t pick them fast enough.

To that end, we present our second annual tomato review. Each year we grow some old favorites and some new experiments to see what we might want to add to future seasons. We grow primarily open-pollinated heirlooms, both for exemplary flavor and so we can save our seeds, but we do also grow the occasional hybrid for interest and experimentation. Previously I’d only ever grown the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes, because I didn’t believe we had a long-enough growing season to produce the large heirlooms, but this magical season proved everything wrong. I’ll definitely plant the larger heirlooms again in upcoming years.

This was our first year growing Barry’s Cherry. This heirloom tomato, bred by the legendary Brad Gates, is small and pale yellow with a pointed “beak” at the end. The flavor is terrific, tangy and bright with a hint of acidity, and the plant produces unbelievable yields on huge clusters. I’d definitely grow this tomato again; my only complaint is that the fruit tends to fall off the vine with even the slightest sideways glance. This makes harvesting really challenging and would definitely render this difficult to grow in a large-scale commercial operation. For home gardens, however, it’s a great choice.

I organized the tomato photos in this year’s review alphabetically, rather than in order of preference, which does somewhat minimize the suspenseful awards-show atmosphere: Black Cherry is the 2021 Taste Winner. These seeds originated from a tomato I tasted from a friend’s garden last year, and she didn’t know the exact name, nor whether they were heirloom or hybrid. I took a chance on saving those seeds and lo and behold, now we have Black Cherry seeds in abundance. This tomato is gorgeous, with a blackish-purple coloration that indicates higher levels of anthocyanins. The flavor is incredible – that perfect blend of sweetness and acidity that I’m always looking for in tomatoes. The plants produced well, and I found that the tomatoes growing lower on the vine (i.e. out of direct sunlight) had better flavor and a darker color. Black Cherry has definitely earned its spot in Quiet Farm’s mandatory planting category.

We grew Chadwick Cherry tomatoes last year, and they’re in regular rotation now, too. They’re likely never going to win our taste test because the flavor isn’t quite as bright or sparkly as some of my other favorites, but the plants produce early and abundantly, and the tomatoes are perfect in recipes where their flavor will blend rather than dominate. This tomato is named for organic gardening pioneer Alan Chadwick, an interesting character if ever there was one.

I’ve long known about the Cherokee Purple tomato, a pre-1890 variety that was only reintroduced commercially about thirty years ago, but never thought I could grow it at 6300 feet in a high-plains desert. This season absolutely proved me wrong. We produced multitudes of huge Cherokee Purple fruit on heavy vines that should have been staked better than they were (lesson learned for next year). Like the Black Cherry above, the Cherokee Purple has rich, wine-dark coloration and a deep, almost smoky flavor. This is a certainly a full-size heirloom that we’ll grow again. (One caveat: we also grew Black Krim tomatoes this year, and thanks to an unfortunate tag mishap, it is difficult to tell which plants are which as the fruits are very similar. Perhaps our saved seeds will create a new Cherokee Krim crossbreed?)

This was our first year with Galina, a small, sunshine-yellow cherry tomato originating in Siberia. The fruit ripens early, as one might expect from a cold-climate Russian tomato, and produces well. The flavor is bright and cheerful and of course it’s lovely to have yellow tomatoes to accompany the red and green varieties for colorful salads. Galina didn’t win our taste test this year, but it’s a much more interesting tomato than Yellow Pear, a classic small yellow heirloom that we found rather bland and flat last year.

We’ve grown Green Zebra for a number of years now. The striated color is stunning, especially when paired with red and yellow tomatoes, and the flavor is terrific. It can be a little difficult to tell when Green Zebras are ripe – they actually turn slightly golden when they’re ready to be harvested; gently pressing on the bottom of the tomato is often a good indication of ripeness, if color is difficult to determine. This is a classic heirloom and one we’re happy to grow every year.

Jaune Flamme, meaning “yellow flame” in French, has quickly become one of our favorite tomatoes. It’s medium-size, about a golf ball or a bit larger, with abundant fruits and sparky flavor. Here, at least, it presents as more fiery orange than yellow, and it makes a stunning golden tomato sauce or soup. On the downside, this was the only tomato where we observed blossom end rot this year which may doom it for future plantings if the trend continues.

Juliet made its first appearance at Quiet Farm this year too. This is a small Roma-style hybrid tomato, and the plants remained relatively compact – as opposed to some varieties that have stretched and vined and tangled absolutely everywhere. Juliet ripened early but the flavor was nothing special; for me, it’s too flat and sweet without any of the acidity I seek. The fruits also fell off the plants regularly, which isn’t a plus. The tomatoes are fine in salsas and sauce, but I’d be hard-pressed to grow this again without experimenting with other interesting tomatoes first.

Lemon Boy is a rare hybrid here at Quiet Farm; a friend had extra plants that were headed for the compost, so we planted a few. The fruit is standard in size and a gorgeous, shimmering yellow that’s easy to spot when ripe. The flavor was delicious too and showed up perfectly on a salad platter against darker red and subtle green tomatoes. Although we’d be happy to grow these next year, Lemon Boy is a hybrid (the yellow version of Better Boy) so we won’t bother saving seeds and will hope to just be gifted starts again.

Lucky Tiger is an amazing tomato and was our hands-down winner in last year’s taste test. Developed by Fred Hempel, another legendary tomato breeder, Lucky Tiger has it all – stunning looks, spectacular flavor and reasonable productivity for a finicky heirloom. One seed catalog sums it up perfectly: “This tomato gets top marks for flavor: tangy, sweet and complex with tropical notes and balanced acidity.” Lucky Tiger is so impressive that it should encourage everyone to grow unusual heirlooms. This is another tomato that will definitely be planted every year at Quiet Farm.

We grew San Marzano and Roma tomatoes this year; these are both elongated paste tomatoes with meaty flesh and not too much in the way of juice or seeds. They’re typically used for sun-dried tomatoes or sauce making. Ours were mediocre at best; the plants took forever to set fruit and took forever to ripen, and only now are the plants loaded with green, unripe fruit. Spoiler alert: we don’t have enough time left in our growing season for these to yield much more. Overall, I was unimpressed. As always, I’ll save seeds but it could well be a couple of years before I’m willing to give these another shot.

This was our first year growing Supersweet 100s, although we grew Peacevine Cherry last year, which is the dehybridized version of this tomato. This is a glorious tomato, tiny and sweet and perfect for eating by the handful. It produces so abundantly and in such difficult-to-access clusters that we still have thousands on the vine that need to be harvested. This tomato is really too tiny to cook with but is ideal for eating fresh. We won’t save seeds from these, since it’s a hybrid, but will definitely grow Peacevine Cherry again.

Our final tomato this season is Virginia Sweets, another full-size heirloom that we were surprised to produce. These tomatoes are massive – well over a pound each – and gorgeous, with an unusual streaky yellow and red sunset appearance. The flavor, however, left a bit to be desired. Like sweet corn, many tomato breeders in recent years have focused on breeding sweeter and sweeter tomatoes, because that’s what the American palate seems to demand. (This is why lemon juice is now mandated in home-canned tomatoes, because too much acid has been removed and the pH is no longer suitable for long-term storage.) I’m thrilled to have successfully grown such large heirlooms, but I’d probably try another variety before growing these again, since the flavor wasn’t balanced enough for my tastes. A satisfying experiment, nonetheless!

What tomato varieties did you grow this year? Any that particularly captured your fancy? We’d love to know more about your favorites.

Farm update: July 26

And here we are at the tail end of July, scrambling to complete everything that needs doing. Each night before sleep finally arrives I focus on designing bright, colorful quilt patterns in my head – calming mental Tetris – rather than running through all of the tasks I didn’t complete during the day. The tomatoes need to be pruned and re-staked, again. The arugula and lettuce seeds need to be harvested, the straggly plants composted and the beds reseeded. The garlic needs to be pulled and cured. The mallow, bindweed and puncturevine are threatening a total takeover. And on and on and on. I feel a thousand miles behind on everything, and I remind myself to complete one task at a time. Also, I regularly remind myself to enjoy the moment I’m in, rather than race on to the next without even pausing for breath. (Easier said than done, no?)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Admiring our seasonal plants is a great way for me to stop my frenzied rushing for just a moment. Many of our flowering perennials didn’t bloom this year, thanks to the drought, but we do still have a few. Echinacea, or coneflower, is one of my favorites, and the bees love it, too. (Our pollinator population is also greatly diminished this year, likely due to the lack of blossoms in the neighboring orchards.) Echinacea has been touted for years as an herbal remedy for just about any ailment, including the common cold, but legitimate scientific studies on this are lacking in substance, to say the least. Still, the coneflowers grow well here and I’m hopeful that I can expand their presence on the farm in future years.

Just one day’s harvest…

Late July and August are the months we eagerly await all year – when the vegetables start rolling in. The flipside of that, of course, is that then you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do with all of that glorious food. Onions and kale are easy to deal with; they are garden stalwarts and stay fresh for weeks. Carrots and beets need to have their greens removed, at the very least; I usually don’t wash them until just before I’m ready to use them. The zucchini, of course, is where things start to feel overwhelming. Anyone who has planted zucchini knows full well that through some mysterious garden trickery you can check the plants twice a day and still end up with overgrown monsters. I like to harvest the squash when small and use it in salads, galettes and pastas; I also shred and freeze it for muffins. And our tomatoes are just now starting to come on; we’ve had a couple of early Juliets, plus a Lemon Boy and a Black Krim. The real bounty will start showing up in about ten days, and as with every year, I’m looking forward to an absurd excess of tomatoes. They never go to waste here.

So fresh! So crisp! So delicious!

We had a ridiculously abundant crop of peas this year! I adore fresh peas, but they often struggle here because we typically move so quickly from winter to summer, and peas generally like cooler, more moderate temperatures. This year, however, the plants just kept on producing, even when the temperatures accelerated into triple digits. Many, many peas were simply eaten fresh outside as a garden snack while doing chores, and many more made it inside for salads and stir-fries. The plants are mostly finished now, the peas starchy and the vines slowly crisping and browning, and all the peas still hanging will be dried and saved for seed. This year was such a roaring success that I’m very seriously considering giving the peas their own special home next to the raspberry beds, and saving the space in the raised beds for other spring crops like carrots and onions.

Neatly stacking hay bales is definitely a cardio workout.

We are thrilled to have our winter hay stores for the animals laid in. We completely guessed at the number of bales we bought last year – never having overwintered livestock – and actually came pretty close in our estimate! The animals are mostly on pasture right now but get hay in the evenings; come winter, however, this will be all the food they have. The drought has forced many producers to cull their cattle and sheep because the land can no longer support that many head, and the lack of water means that hay is obviously much more costly, too. Our hay cost fifty percent more than last year; in all honesty, we were prepared to pay double. Our focus, as always, is on ensuring that we don’t overgraze our pasture and that we always have emergency feed reserves stockpiled.

Our sunflowers are cheerful and abundant, too.

And with that, we’re off to tackle our neverending task list. Do tell, though – if you have an excess of zucchini, what are your favorite ways of using it up? I always enjoy hearing how others move through an abundance of garden produce.

Wishing you a lovely week, dear friends.

Farm update: May 24

Late spring is a busy time of year for small farms and homesteads. The task list seems endless: plant this, thin these, weed that, water those and by the way, the alpacas and chickens still need food, water and clean bedding. The best we can do is simply to make list after list, and tackle those lists one item at a time. One thing we do adjust as we move into our busiest period: our daily routine. If possible, we try to be outside in the morning and inside in the afternoon, because our blustery, changeable winds make working outside even more challenging after two o’clock. This is a lovely ideal, of course, and things don’t always proceed as planned – but all we can do is our very best.

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

Careful pasture management is helping our land stay green despite the exceptional drought.

Our irrigation season is set to launch next week, though we still haven’t learned our water allotment for this year. In preparation for running water, we purchased a three-row marker to attach to our little tractor. Because we use gated pipe to irrigate our pasture, it’s important to “mark” the fields with channels that direct the water to the correct places. Marking is usually done on a three-year rotation, but our pastures were essentially abandoned for close to seven years, so it’s going to take some time to get the irrigation pinpointed. In addition to marking the fields, we also reconnected all of our gated pipe and replaced damaged gaskets and gates. Most people don’t break down their pipes every year, but we’ve mentioned before that we have a severe rodent problem – and if they build a winter burrow in the pipes, they’ll eat the gates. It’s more work to disassemble and reassemble the pipes, but likely saves us money in the long run.

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The zucchini chronicles

Zucchinis 01 sml

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.

Squash 01 sml

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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Farm update: July 20

“Still, I cook. We need to cook, after all, to nourish ourselves and those around us. We need to cook to feel better, to make others feel better, to get along. I may begin the process in weariness, but as often as not I end it in surprise and triumph, happy at least to have made something delicious, to have shared it with those with whom I shelter.”

-Sam Sifton, The New York Times

Quiche 01 sml

No longer trendy but still delicious.

One of the cruel ironies of being a farmer is that when the vegetables really start rolling in, it’s way too hot to cook. Plus, after twelve hours working in the blazing sun all we want is chilled watermelon and ice-cold beer – not exactly a balanced diet. Enter the quiche! Long a mainstay of stuffy, boring women’s luncheons, quiche is hopelessly out of fashion but so well-suited for hot summer months, especially when fresh eggs, vegetables and herbs are in abundance. I always bake first thing in the morning (the house doesn’t need any help heating up later in the day), and quiche is perfect warm, cold or at room temperature. It has a reputation for being terribly unhealthy, but loaded with broccoli, spinach, peppers and herbs, with just a little egg and sharp, savory cheese to bind it all together, it’s an ideal summer staple. Let’s bring quiche back!

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Farm update: June 22

‘Tis the season of both growth and destruction. We spend most of our time weeding and watering and looking for new growth on our crops and in our pasture; in response, all of our crafty farm pests have come out with hunger in their tummies and destruction on their minds. Time spent not watering or weeding is instead spent defending our territory. It’s a hard-fought war of attrition out here, and both sides are digging their heels in.

Raspberry Growth 01 sml

A raspberry cane with reassuring new growth.

We’re so pleased to see new growth on most of our raspberry canes. You might remember that we planted forty canes last year and every single one failed; this year we regrouped with drip irrigation and we believe that made all the difference. Bramble fruits like raspberries and blackberries typically do well in our climate; we’d love to grow our own fruit as well as our own vegetables. We’re always, always learning out here, and we’re trying hard not to make the same mistakes twice. We like to make lots of different mistakes instead.

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Farm update: June 8

“Good morning. Concentration is hard to come by these days, amid the nation’s strife. We are living through a tough and chaotic and wrenching time, filled with fury and an abiding sadness. We’re unsettled. We’re tense. We’re divided. The emotions arrange themselves in combinations that make it hard to work, to read, to watch, to listen, much less to think.

Cooking can help. The act of preparing food is a deliberate and caring one, even if you’re just making yourself a bowl of oatmeal at the end of a long night of worry. The way you sprinkle raisins over the top is an intentional act of kindness to yourself. So what I’m doing now, amid my restless skimming of nonfiction and news, thrillers and literature, poems that don’t bring solace: I read recipes, think about who in my family they might please, and I cook.”

-Sam Sifton, The New York Times

Brownies 01 sml

So much effort, yet so worth it.

While I was flipping through the April issue of Bon Appétit, N saw this recipe and asked me to make these “camouflage brownies.” And so I did. They required approximately seventeen different bowls, forty-two utensils, nine measuring devices and three separate batter components. (When a professional chef tells you a recipe is complicated and elaborate, believe her.) But the end result? Amazing. We don’t eat a lot of sweets, so we devoured this pan a little quicker than good sense would indicate, and it was entirely worth it. And I had to buy the cream cheese in a two-pack, so we’ll probably see these again in our kitchen very soon.

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Gardening for beginners

The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.

Seedling 02 sml

The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.

Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.

Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.

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