If you have ever cooked in a friend’s kitchen or in a new-to-you apartment, you may have noticed that the stovetop was perhaps smaller than yours or slower to heat up. The counter layout was in fact counterclockwise and you couldn’t find a wooden spoon to save your life. Right on the spot, you were forced to adapt, and yet you still made dinner happen. Kind of like cooking in a pandemic.
For all the uncertainty and forced isolation of this past year, the pandemic has been a great teacher to this longtime cook. First, the hard-to-admit stuff: For the first time in my adult life, I got weirdly weary of cooking — and hatching menu ideas for — every ding dang meal. (I even got a little resentful.) Grocery store shopping became a source of anxiety, and in my rush to get in/out and sanitize, my creative spark suffered. (Of course, all of this pales to being truly hungry, homeless and/or held captive by the coronavirus.)
All this time at home pushed my innermost thoughts to an uncomfortable edge, on the proverbial front burner. Will I still like my husband when this is all over? Will winter ever end? Will I remember how to socialize in public again? Could I get honest about my nightly wine pour?
As I looked inward, my breath began to deepen. Suddenly, I saw the gift — rather than the burden — of all this extra time. I looked behind the closed doors of the pantry and plunged into the depths of the crisper drawer. Enough talk about eating down the fridge; it was time to just do it and yes, find joy again. Let the new tricks run up that sleeve and get reacquainted with some old ones. Cooking is the constant; it’s me, and you, who are different one year later.
What follows is a running list of the little things that are currently sparking joy as I cook for me and him. What’s on yours?
Dancing while chopping
Music has long been an important ingredient of my meal prep, but now I make an extra effort to put on some tunes, especially if the workday has gone long. I don’t know of a better way to chase away a bad mood. Friday afternoons are for “Funky Friday” on WXPN, weeknights are for jazz on WBGO and Saturdays are for reggae via “Positive Vibrations” on KEXP. (Available via streaming or on a smart speaker.)
If you’re the designated cook, you can and you should teach your beloveds how to make some mealtime favorites or get them involved with prep. My husband is the proud granola maker in our household and has recently expressed interest in learning to make pizza dough. This is progress, people. Share the load and the love will follow.
The pandemic taught me that saltines make excellent breadcrumbs in a pinch. Pulverize in a food processor or high-powered stand blender, and you’ve got crumbs for days. Just remember, there’s a reason they’re called “salt-ines”; adjust the salt as needed for your recipe.
When I discovered that I could easily buy bushels of apples from Lancaster County orchards well into winter, I got on an applesauce kick. About once a month, we’d haul home the equivalent of four dozen apples (Cortland is a personal favorite for sauce). The ritual goes something like this: Keep the skins on — they release their pigments and dye the sauce into a gorgeous shade of pink. Add about 1 cup water, or enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Quarter the apples and put them in a large pot (depending on the size of the pot, you may have to cook apples in batches.) Place the pot over medium-high heat and cover. Within a few minutes, you’ll hear the apples making noise and you can start mashing. Keep the pot covered while the apples cook, checking frequently on their progress. You’ll have apple sauce in about 15 minutes. No sugar, no lemon, just cooked down apples. Once the sauce is cool, I run through a food mill, then portion into jars and store in the refrigerator. We eat it for breakfast with the husband’s granola.
Chicken wings, roasted, not fried
If you like chicken wings and would like to try making them at home, there is no need to buy an air fryer or set up a deep-frying rig. You can roast them instead. Here’s how: Preheat the oven to 400 F. For 1 pound of wings, coat with 1 tablespoon neutral oil, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. To help render the fat and ensure a crispy skin, place the wings on a rack that fits comfortably in a roasting pan or on a sheet pan. Roast for 45 minutes. Take things to the next level and toss wings in sauce/seasoning of your choice, then back on the rack for about 15 minutes.
A second rack
Speaking of cooking racks, it took the pandemic for me to buy a second rack that fits inside a sheet pan and is meant for something other than cooling a cake. It has become a favorite new tool. Make sure you do the math so the rack actually will fit inside your pan.
Steamed spinach in the microwave
Not as an end point, but as a first step, microwaved steamed spinach is a ridiculously easy way to prep spinach for the skillet or oven, plus it changes the texture from slimy to meaty. Rinse well, place in a glass bowl and steam in microwave for 60 seconds. Drain well; this is important. Then briefly cook in olive oil in a skillet, with garlic and/or ginger, or add to pasta, grains, omelets or on top of pizza.
As much as I love sliced cherry tomatoes as a sweet antidote to spicy dishes, I have made extra room this year for chopped pineapple. If you can’t find fresh, look for cans. Consider for your next plate of nachos, anything curried or a large cut of meat, like a Puerto Rican-style pernil.
Chopped fresh rosemary, especially on pizza dough
For years, I aromatized my pizza dough with oregano. But then one day last year, I ran out. I snipped a few sprigs from my hardy rosemary plant in the yard, finely chopped and sprinkled all over my dough round. It’s a revelation, like an aria you didn’t expect to hear. Pair with a simple tomato sauce and pecorino shaved with a vegetable peeler.
Speaking of pizza dough…
If you got the bug for making your own pizza dough, rest assured you can put it in the fridge and make the next day. Or even on day three. In fact, the dough will deepen in flavor and develop more character (and yeast bubbles). Store in a covered container or bowl or loosely in a zip-style bag. Make sure you bring the dough to room temperature before rolling. Find my recipe at lanc.news/PizzaDough.
A scrambled egg
You may know this, but it bears repeating: It takes 90 seconds to scramble an egg. That means if you’re hungry and don’t know what in the world to make, you can be eating in mere moments. Remember: Keep the heat on low to coax the proteins from liquid into solid and avoid overcooking into a cardboard-like state. Salt is good!
A baked potato or sweet potato for dinner
Sometimes that’s all I have the energy for — and that’s OK. You’ll need an hour of cook time, depending on the size, but that’s an hour you can daydream, read or call a friend. Find my favorite method at lanc.news/BakedPotato.
Remove all wire fasteners and rubber bands from produce
You won’t believe how much longer produce lasts when you release it from the stranglehold of labels and twist ties. You can practically the carrots and parsley sighing out loud in gratitude.
Green tea afternoons
As I get older, coffee is off limits after 12, but green tea is a welcome friend. It’s got a little caffeine but does not keep me from sleeping when bedtimes comes around. I am a big fan of the whole-leaf “Moroccan Mint,” from San Francisco-based Samovar Tea.
A whole lot less wine
What started as a mostly dry January morphed into February, and within weeks, I lost 10 pounds. But more importantly, I changed my relationship with wine, which I drank nightly without fail at dinner, for a few decades. Now, I have one or two glasses a week versus per night and I’m sleeping really well. But most of all, I don’t miss it.