Planting hope & baking crackers

The sweet science of perennials

Dear friends of Bare Bones,

My new book THE PERENNIAL KITCHEN: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future is all about foods that taste as good as they are for the planet. Like all my work, it was driven by a fascination with flavor – why does a carrot from the farmers market taste so much better than the one from a plastic bag? What’s that subtle sweet flavor in freshly-ground heritage cornmeal?

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Most of us know that fresh foods grown nearby in organic soil are delicious, good for the earth, better for our bodies, yadda yadda yadda (I can hear my son’s voice now: Mom, we get it).

But a stubborn reality remains, even for the most idealistic local food enthusiast: fresh, local foods are rarely produced at the scale required to feed whole populations. So what are we to do with the gigantic tracts of cash crop farmland that take up thousands of arable acreage? Is it even possible to grow food at this scale without wrecking the planet completely?

Please indulge my soapbox rant for three more sentences: Over the past 60 years, corn and soybeans – commodity crops – have taken up most of our farmland. These are annual plants that require toxic chemicals to grow at scale, must be replanted (and are usually harvested) in ways that destroy topsoil, harm pollinators, damage rivers, and are a key ingredient in most junk food. They’re the product of a short-sighted profit-first model of agriculture that creates financial and nutritional race to the bottom.

I wrote this book because I was hungry to find and share some good news for once. I can’t tell you how many amazing people I met who are working every day to create new models and methods of producing food that put the health of the planet and its people first, by leveraging the innate genius of nature. They’re building the field of regenerative agriculture, which not only sustains but reinvigorates the land.

Key to regenerative ag are perennials – like barley, rye, heritage wheat, oats, sorghum, millett, teff, and Kernza – all of which provide cover for worn-out soils, return every year with little or no tilling and replanting, and return nutrients to the earth all the while, doing that whole reinvigoration thing our lands and bellies so desperately need.

“You wouldn’t rip out the grass in your backyard at the end of the season. Your topsoil would run off into the sewer,” says Prabin Bajgain, an agronomist at the U of M’s Forever Green Initiative, whose faith in perennials is rooted in his upbringing on a family farm in Nepal. Luke Peterson, one of the farmers putting Bajgain’s research into practice, plants perennial grains alongside more conventional cash crops. “I may not see the results of my labor in this lifetime. But I’m earning enough to support our family and our three year-old Orville already knows the names of all the seeds we planted this year.”

If you, like me, are hungry for hope, take heart: we can link up with the regenerative agriculture movement by buying, using and evangelizing these artisan grains. My kids may be sick of hearing about Kernza, but what the hell, you’ve read this far and I’m almost done. Kernza is a powerhouse of a perennial, capturing carbon and returning it to the soil through a massive root system that reaches 20 feet down. It can be milled into flour, or cooked like a grain for a tasty pilaf. Just now entering the market, it’s available online for now, and hopefully in stores in the not-too-distant future.

One of my favorite discoveries while researching these artisan grains was how perfect they are for making homemade crackers. In the Before Kernza (BK) times, I easily spent thousands of dollars each year on crackers, boxed in who knows how much one-use packaging (have mercy on me, O Gods of Recycling). These crackers are super easy to make (easier than cookies) and flour-milled artisan grain has a distinct taste you can’t get from a box. I’ve found the flours to be interchangeable, so what works for oat flour will work for Kernza, barley or rye.

So get yourself some ancient grains and have at it – and then go talk, or write, or sing about, or maybe just revel in, our perennial exchange with the land.

Multi-Grain Crackers

Makes about 24 crackers

Use whatever flours, spices and herbs you have on hand! Create sweet versions by subbing in sugar and cinnamon. In the crackers photographed here, we used a mix of wheat and rye flour, topping them with coarse salt and caraway seeds. They’re shown here with roasted carrot hummus (both from The Perennial Kitchen: Simple Foods for a Healthy Future).

½ cup whole wheat flour, plus a little more for kneading the dough
½ cup rye flour
½ teaspoons alt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ¼ water, more as needed
½ teaspoon coarse salt for finishing the crackers
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds for finishing the crackers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process the flours and salt until combined. Add the butter and process until well blended, about 20 seconds to 1 minute. Add the water and blend. The dough will be crumbly but if too dry, add more water a tablespoon at a time. If too wet, add more flour.

Gather the dough into a ball and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle, about ¼-inch thick. Using a sharp knife, score the dough into 2- to 3-inch rectangles or squares to set on a lightly floured baking sheet. Bake the crackers until browned, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack. Store in an airtight container, and enjoy with your favorite dips, cheeses and jams!

Bare Bones features weekly-ish essays on food, family and what nourishes us from Beth Dooley and Kip Dooley. Learn more about their Bare Bones Cooking Class (starting 6/21) here. You can subscribe or share what they’re cooking below: