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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How to recognize a superfood

Now that we potentially all have attention spans less than that of a goldfish – can’t believe you’re still reading this! – it is apparently more important than ever that we distill information down into small, digestible bits. One way we do this is by labeling everything, especially food. This is so we can recognize it, so we can boast about it, so we can post a photo of it, so we can pay more for it. So we can say, Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just eating my superfood salad over here. Goji berries, acai, spirulina, wheatgrass…the list of trendy branded superfoods goes on and on.

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Purple foods are rich in anthocyanins, a specific type of antioxidant.

Western society, particularly America, has some serious food issues. We are collectively overfed and undernourished. We all know that obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases are on the rise, and yet still we consume on average more than twice the calories we need in a day. We’re overwhelmed by choice and information and the constant barrage of marketing thrown at us every second. We’re no longer able to think for ourselves.

“We are a society obsessed with the potential harmful effects of eating, according to the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, renowned for his theories on the role that fear and disgust play in modern food culture. Overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of foods in our groceries, and flooded with competing health claims, we can’t help but make instinctive food-purchase decisions, subject to the whims of the latest trends and health scares. No wonder that, when confronted with ambiguities in health-based marketing claims, we fill in the gaps with inaccurate inferences, as the Cornell University economist Brian Wansink found in a 2006 study. Food companies bragging about supposed health benefits, such as low calorie count or low cholesterol, create what the influential study dubbed a “health halo,” a vague but positive glow that temporarily relieves our food-centered anxieties—at least long enough to get through checkout.”

-Michael Fitzgerald, Pacific Standard, May 26, 2017

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The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.
  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

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  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.

The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Three

We promise that this is our last post on sugar (for now). As you’ll remember, in this three-part series we’ve already talked about sugars you have at home and sugars used by the food processing industry. Now, let’s discuss how the sugar industry has worked so hard to convince us all that sugar is not only benign, but actually good for you!

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Before we get into the sugar industry, we’d like to clarify exactly what we mean by added sugars. An added sugar is any quantity or type of sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in a specific food. A perfect example of this is applesauce: in its simplest form, applesauce is made by cooking apples until they’re soft, then mashing or puréeing them. Lots of ingredients can be added to applesauce, including spices like cinnamon and acidifiers such as citric acid to preserve color. Fresh apples contain plenty of natural sugar; primarily fructose, but also sucrose and glucose in small proportions.

Most store-bought applesauce, however, includes added sugars, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, honey or any of the other sweeteners we’ve mentioned. So if that applesauce label were adhering to the now-abandoned revised nutrition labeling laws, it would have to list both the naturally occurring sugar in the apples, plus all of the sugar added by the manufacturer. Hopefully this clarifies the concept of added sugars – it doesn’t occur naturally in the food or drink.

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Both the apple and the soda contain sugar, but all of the apple’s sugar occurs naturally. All of the soda’s sugar is added.

The sugar conspiracy is one of the most significant health-related stories to appear in the news recently. Essentially, the claim is this: fifty years ago, the sugar industry funded studies on the potential correlation between sugar and heart disease. When preliminary studies did appear to confirm this link, the studies were shut down, and research findings were concealed. The Sugar Research Foundation also reportedly paid Harvard scientists to obscure the link between sugar consumption and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead.

And that, friends, is one reason why we’ve spent decades being told not to eat bacon, eggs, butter, cheese or burgers – because they cause heart disease. While excessive consumption of the low-quality saturated fats found in most American diets definitely isn’t a healthy choice, the point is that sugar should also shoulder a lot of the blame. And we now consume a lot more sugar than we do saturated fat, and our heart disease rates are still rising.

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All dried fruit contains natural sugar, but processors add a lot, too. Buy unsweetened dried fruit (this means no Craisins!).

Humans instinctively love the taste of sweet things; sweetness implies carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to energy in our bodies. Now, however, our satiety point is ever higher: as food manufacturers use more and more sugar (or artificial sweeteners), we need more and more in order to stay satisfied and for things to taste sweet. In short, we’re hooked. Sugar has repeatedly been shown to have addictive qualities; one controversial study demonstrated that rats preferred sugar to cocaine.

Not only does eating sugar give you a quick hit of dopamine, causing you to crave it more frequently, but it also ages your skin prematurely, causes inflammation that may increase joint pain, builds up in your liver (causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and thickens your artery walls, leading to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. And obviously, we know it rots our teeth. But because sugar kills so slowly, it’s taken us decades to acknowledge its risks. Sound familiar? Indeed, this is the tale of Big Tobacco, with a different villain. (Fun fact: cigarettes contain a lot of sugar. It dramatically increases their inhalability and therefore their addictiveness. This is true.)

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Notice the percentages? If it’s only 27% juice, the rest is most likely corn syrup, water, colorings and flavorings. And even if it’s 100% juice, it’s still sugar.

While our entire standard American diet (cheap meat! low-fat dairy! refined starches! hold the vegetables!) is to blame for the astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., sugar is a big part of this – and by far, we consume the vast majority of sugar in sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola has spent millions funding studies shifting blame for obesity away from sugary drinks and onto “lifestyle choices,” and we’ve long been told that “fruit juice is part of a healthy diet” – remember every breakfast commercial with its tall, frosty glass of Florida orange juice? But soda and fruit juice are still simply liquid sugar, and we’ve been convinced that drinking our calories doesn’t count. This is proving immeasurably detrimental to our health.

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They all contain sugar. But they also contain fiber.

Drinking juice, or soda, or sweetened coffees or teas, or energy drinks, is basically a great way to mainline sugar, with no health benefits whatsoever. Eating whole fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, offers your body accessible sugar – with the immensely important addition of fiber. Fiber is key, because it acts like those traffic lights allowing timed access to busy highways: it slows the sugar down in your body, giving you more time to absorb it. This is precisely why a soda gives you a sugar rush and then a crash, but a roasted sweet potato allows for sustained energy. The standard American diet is shockingly low in quality fiber, and this deficiency seriously affects our overall health; increasing rates of various GI diseases, including Crohn’s, IBS and colon cancer, prove this. For optimum health, you have to control the way your body absorbs sugar, and the fiber in whole foods does just that.

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Salted peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie, anyone?

Let me be clear: I am in no way advocating a 100% sugar-free diet. First, it’s virtually impossible to achieve, and second, it takes a lot of the joy out of eating, which should be one of our greatest pleasures. I obviously bake frequently, and I use real sugar when I bake. But I want people to know when they’re eating sugar. When you drink your calories, or when you eat yogurt that doesn’t taste that sweet, or when you drown your industrial burger in high-fructose corn syrup, you’re consuming a ton of sugar, but you’re not getting the true enjoyment out of sweets. I want people to eat delicious, satisfying, well-made desserts, but I also want people to appreciate those for what they are: occasional treats. Hidden sugar simply does not need to be part of every single food, beverage, condiment and snack we consume, but our processed food industry has convinced us otherwise.

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So after all this lecturing, how can you reduce sugar in your own diet? It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Eat whole foods, including unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat whole grains and quality fats, like good butter and olive oil.
  • Work on your own sugar satiety point. If you regularly sweeten your coffee or tea, start by using a little less. Then a little less, then a little less again. Do this gradually. Eventually, you’ll reset your own taste buds.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Despite what the label says, there is no health benefit, and you’ll end up eating more because drinks don’t satisfy the way actual food does. Black coffee, unsweetened green, black or herbal tea or sparkling water with lemon will do just fine; stay away from fancy juice bars. And soda is poison. End of story.
  • Read every single ingredient label. Learn the names of all the industrial sugars. Then avoid them. Even better, save yourself lots of reading time by purchasing foods without ingredient labels, like fresh produce and bulk grains.
  • And above all else, cook or make it yourself. When you prepare food from scratch, you control exactly what’s in it, and you know that you don’t need six teaspoons of sugar in your morning yogurt, or eight teaspoons of sugar in your coffee.

Thanks for following our sugar series! If you’d like to read more about the processed food industry and the sugar conspiracy, I’d highly recommend these two books: Food Politics, by Marion Nestle (or anything else by her) and The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes. And let us know what else you’d like to learn more about, and we’ll get on the case!

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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How to make yogurt

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

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

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Yes, that is the current temperature in our sunroom.

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

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Fresh milk + starter culture = homemade yogurt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating healthy on the road

Oh, the quintessential American road trip. Our country’s iconic open highways have been immortalized in so many classic movies, like when we thought “the Rocky Mountains would be a whole lot rockier.” Or perhaps you need to bootleg a few Coors Banquets from Texas to Georgia? Maybe two legendary ladies in a ’66 T-Bird is more your style? Whatever your favorite road trip film might be, there is no arguing that eating healthy while driving American highways is no easy feat.

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Hello Wyoming, and thanks for inventing cruise control. (Photo may have been taken in 1987 or 2017. With filters, who knows?)

I like to move food. It’s my thing. Whenever we leave our house, it’s a guarantee that there are a few canvas shopping bags and maybe a plastic tub or two stacked by the door. We go to my sister’s for dinner and I bring jars of homemade applesauce, fruit leather for my niece (also known as “repurposed jam”) or gorgeous cheese from these lovely folks. My book club ladies leave with end-of-the-garden produce, dinner leftovers and more cheese. And if we’re off on a trip, whether by car or by plane, I simply will not be held hostage by the American industrial food complex.

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Mmmm…McDonald’s or Cinnabon? Why not both?

The vast majority of food in this country is based on two key ingredients: corn and soy. We are very, very good at growing corn and soy, and even better at turning it into cheap meat, soda and processed food. And these “edible foodlike substances” are most of what’s on offer at your standard convenience store or truck stop. And to add insult to injury, it is absurdly priced! I will not play by those rules.

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Example A, above. Look! It’s a $2.79 “meal replacement bar!” You know, so we don’t have to eat an actual meal! Can you read the first ingredient? It’s soy protein isolate. The second ingredient is sugar, and the third is soluble corn fiber. If all of your standard meals are composed of soy, sugar and corn, then by all means, please choose this as a meal replacement. But this is just one of many examples of a giant, powerful marketing machine that has convinced the American public that we 1. don’t have time to cook and 2. can eat some junk like this with “PROTEIN” printed in large font and call it a meal. No, no and no.

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Absolutely no actual food was harmed in the making of these edible foodlike substances.

If you’re on a road trip, whenever possible get off the highway and into a town supermarket. Gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops are by their very nature stocked with cheap, non-perishable food, so that’s what you’ll buy. Their staff has neither the time or inclination to stock and then dispose of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, so instead you’ll encounter a display like the one above. If you can make it away from the interstate and into a small grocery store, you’ll hopefully have access to a much better selection of food.

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I genuinely pity the poor animals who died to make these “meat sticks.” (Also, “thungry?” Is this like “hangry?” Notice that it’s trademarked.)

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Part of our road trip survival kit.

So what’s a person to do in the face of this pretend food trash? Easy answer: plan in advance. Just like cooking healthy food at home, eating well on the road requires a bit of time and planning. But if you’re already doing other pre-road trip tasks like checking your tire pressure and refilling your windshield wiper fluid, why not get some healthy food in order? For me, it’s mostly shelf-stable items, plus a few perishables in a cooler. My basic road trip essentials, most of which are easily found in the bulk section of a good supermarket:

  • stellar cheese and good crackers are mandatory
  • dried fruit, including figs, apricots and homemade fruit leather
  • fresh fruit that can last, such as citrus and apples (no berries or bananas!)
  • homemade granola, to eat on its own or with purchased yogurt
  • jerky, either homemade or from well-raised animals
  • nuts, which for us are typically roasted salted almonds
  • rice cracker mix, pretzels or other reasonably healthy salty snacks
  • homemade granola or energy bars, or packaged bars with clean labels (be able to pronounce and understand every single ingredient, and the first three ingredients shouldn’t be soy, sugar and corn)
  • good-quality dark chocolate, preferably without soy lecithin

And for equipment:

  • without question, a good chef’s knife and paring knife, protected in sheaths, and a small polypropylene cutting board.
  • we bring our own coffeemaker, grinder, beans and mugs. We sleep cheap, and I’m not drinking Motel 6 coffee. Not negotiable.
  • cutlery rolls, which include an inexpensive metal fork, knife, spoon, reusable straw and corkscrew. We don’t use single-use items, with the exception of compostable paper napkins.
  • Mason jars with screw-top lids and a few plastic containers. These can be used for drinks, storing snacks or to eat meals.
  • a wooden spoon, rubber spatula and metal tongs
  • a small electric burner plus a frying pan and mini stockpot. This makes meal prep on the road easy – and more importantly – possible.

In all honesty, at various stops along this trip I did notice small containers of cut fresh fruit, hardboiled eggs and some seemingly fresh sandwiches and wraps, which indicates that demand is shifting. But there is no guarantee that every gas station will have these, and if you pack your own food you’ll have a much better selection and save a ton of money. I saw two packaged hardboiled eggs priced at $1.99; with a cooler and ice packs, a dozen well-sourced hardboiled eggs, flaky salt and hot sauce can easily be brought along for about $4 and a few minutes’ work in advance. There is simply no one thing you can do to improve both your physical and financial health more than planning, cooking and bringing your own food. Enough said.

Friends, please remember that your health is your responsibility, and what you choose to eat makes a huge difference in your health. Take some time prior to your next trip and bring food along, and stand in opposition to a system that insists you have to eat what it offers.