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!

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!

An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

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How to make kimchi

A couple of years back, we all got really into probiotics. In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and/or yeasts – in our surrounding environment and within our bodies that help keep us healthy. Since so many of us are regularly on antibiotics, which kill off both good and bad organisms indiscriminately, it makes sense that our bodies would be deficient in helpful bacteria. The rise of serious digestive-related disorders, too, indicated that our microbiome was in serious trouble.

Many of these health issues can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of food we eat is completely, totally dead. I don’t mean dead in the literal sense, like how we turn a sad CAFO pig into even sadder pork chops, but dead in the sense that all life has been processed out of it. Instead of eating slightly muddy carrots, freshly dug, we eat “carrot chips” and drink “carrot juice,” which have been subjected to high-heat processing and irradiation and a million other complicated techniques, rendering that carrot into what Michael Pollan would call “an edible food-like substance.” It’s no longer actual, nutritious food; we’ve just been told it is.

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The second week

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Hi there. How are you holding up? Like most of you, we’re entering our second week of self-quarantine. Some of you are under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has turned completely upside down over the past week, and that we’re all doing our best to make sense of a fraught situation that has no logic, no precedent, no guidebook.

I am working diligently on acknowledging what I can control and letting go of the rest. To that end, I believe that our single most important job right now is to stay healthy. For those of us who are low-risk and currently healthy, the most valuable contribution we can make to our community is to remain isolated and entirely out of the medical system, so they can put their attention and skills and dwindling supplies towards those who need it. Obviously everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s what we’re prioritizing at Quiet Farm:

Limited sugar / unlimited fruits and vegetables. When this pandemic imploded in the U.S. two weeks ago, my first instinct was to grab all of my chocolate and butter and flour and cover every available surface in my kitchen with an elaborate array of cookies and brownies and comfort cakes, like some sort of mad bakery vision devised by Lewis Carroll. Baking is regimented and precise and calming, and something we can control when everything else has gone by the wayside. Instead of filling our house with sweets, though, we’re eating as much fresh (and frozen!) fruit and vegetables as we can manage. (When everyone else was stocking up on toilet paper, we were buying citrus. There was plenty.) It’s easy to justify scarfing a lot of junk food and “emergency snacks” when we’re anxious, but sugar is highly inflammatory and I think our bodies are under enough stress as it is. We’re consuming lots of salads and green smoothies and stir-fries, and when I do bake, I bake muffins loaded with fruit purees and nuts and seeds.

(P.S. If you’re buying salad ingredients for longer-than-usual storage now, avoid anything pre-cut and think hardy brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. These are all super-nutritious and delicious shredded into a salad, and they’ll keep much longer than pre-washed bagged greens.)

Hydration. We live at 6,300 feet in a high-plains desert, so we’re naturally a bit dehydrated most of the time anyway. Dehydration contributes to headaches, irritability, muscle aches, mental fuzziness, exhaustion and a host of other ailments, none of which we need right now. We might be less active these days and so think that we need to drink less, but a cool glass of water could be exactly what we need to right our ship in this moment. We’re drinking lots of water, plus plenty of mint tea and a hot honey-lemon-ginger tonic that soothes throats and nerves. When it seems like everything is about to go entirely off the rails and I can’t take this for one more minute, I stop, breathe and drink a glass of water. It doesn’t change what’s happening in the world, but it does allow me to accept it without panicking.

Movement and fresh air. I’d much rather be outdoors than in even in the best of times, but a heavy, wet spring snowstorm this week has turned our farm into one giant muddy puddle. Despite the poor weather, I compel myself to get outside every day for at least thirty minutes, even if it’s just to empty the compost bin or watch the chickens or check on seedlings. And I never seem to actually want to go for a walk or a run, but once I’m out and moving, I never regret the decision. If you’re able to do so safely (and with appropriate six-foot-plus social distancing), please get outside, even if it’s just to feel the sun on your face. Do ten jumping jacks. Stretch like a contented cat. Skip rope. Run around in circles. Dance like a person possessed. Spring is here, and there is new growth to see everywhere, even if it doesn’t feel much like a time of hope and renewal right now.

Sleep. It is oddly comforting to me, somehow, to know that every single human on the planet right now is under some degree of stress from this new enemy; collectively, we are suffering together. But we’re concentrating on keeping our immune systems strong, and stress, anxiety and poor sleep are in direct opposition to this. So we sleep, as much as we’re able. There is no shame in going to bed at nine o’clock (without our phones!); no shame in sleeping past our usual waking time. Sleep is our bodies’ time to heal and to repair, and we all need that right now. If you can, get some extra sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

I’m well aware that these are small and meaningless tasks, and they’re nothing compared to what the people on the front lines of this crisis are facing. But these are things I can control, and that’s all any of us have right now. And we need to stay healthy, first and foremost.

How is your household navigating our new world? We’d love to hear what you’re prioritizing. Stay healthy and well.

How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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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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An ode to kale

Kale had a moment a few years back; it was suddenly – without warning – on every restaurant menu and in every recipe. It was as though kale had just been invented. Now, of course, it’s been supplanted as the trendy vegetable du jour – first by Brussels sprouts, and now by cauliflower. (I sincerely wish I’d invented “cauliflower rice;” the mark-up on those plastic packages – just for throwing it in a food processor! – is shocking.)

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There are lots more varieties of kale than just what you see in the supermarket.

Like most Americans, I first encountered kale when I worked in the catering industry. Curly kale is so often a garnish on salad bars and buffets that we think of it more as decoration than vegetable. But its very hardiness – its ability to sit out on a buffet table for hours on end no matter the temperature, without wilting, is precisely what makes it so valuable both in the garden and in the kitchen.

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How to grow microgreens

We’re still firmly in winter’s icy grip here on Colorado’s Western Slope, and there’s no better cure for spring fever than growing something indoors. Let’s learn how to grow microgreens!

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Microgreens sound fancy and expensive, but really they’re just tiny versions of things we already eat, like kale, radishes and beets. They are packed with nutrition, super flavorful, quick and easy to grow with no special equipment needed and absolutely gorgeous on the plate. What more could you ask from an indoor crop?

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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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