The joy of cooking in quarantine

A lot of us are making more food at home — but many of us don’t know how to meal-plan, budget, shop, or cook. Here’s how to produce delicious dishes while you’re stuck indoors
By Corey Mintz - Published on Mar 30, 2020
If we’re going to limit our trips to the grocery store, we have to make fresh vegetables last all week. (Corey Mintz)

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Anyone who is healthy and has access to fresh food and a usable home kitchen right now is very fortunate.

A lot of people are going to learn to cook. And a lot of people, when this is all done, will vow never to cook again.

The reason for both is the same. In public school, we don’t teach students how to plan meals, shop, budget, and cook. And, right now, those are essential skills.

So some of us are cracking open cookbooks and watching tutorials from chefs who have taken to Instagram teaching to pass the time. But others will be traumatized by having to cook for the first time in their lives. And, after three months of eating the same three dishes on rotation, they’ll swear off it forever.

At the moment, I am getting a lot of pleasure from cooking. Partly because it marks the end of my workday, most of which is spent speaking to restaurateurs who have just laid off their entire staff. Partly because I am with my daughter from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and that means my wife is enjoying some much-deserved quiet time. Our six-month old Puddin’, if she’s in a good mood, is content to watch me as I narrate my way through dinner prep. “Now I’m chopping the garlic. And now I’m zesting the limes.” It’s also time away from the onslaught of bad news. But, mostly, I’m enjoying cooking because the way we cook now is the way I love to cook.

For as long as we’re practising social distancing to mitigate the suffering of this pandemic, we’ll all need to leave the house as little as possible. That means buying for the week, using what we have, and improvising. It means resisting the urge to run out for cheese because we want nachos tonight. We can’t cancel plans for our famous three-bean chili because we have only two of the beans. We need to figure out how to produce the most delicious meals from what we have. 

When people ask what I most love to cook, I know they want to hear me list a regional cuisine. But what gives me the most pleasure in the kitchen is to look at what we have and conjure something from it. The catch is that it has to be good and nutritious and not too similar to what we ate yesterday.

In the Before Times, my wife used to text me from work to ask what was for dinner. I rarely knew until late in the afternoon. Currently, for many of us, one day feels the same as the day before. The view outside the window shifts from grey to yellow, but there’s little to differentiate activities.

So I understand the need to look forward to dinner — to know that there’s going to be something new, something different, at the end of day. I try to have an answer for her by 11 a.m.

The past few days, that’s been: sweet potato and parsnip with guanciale and kale; orecchiette with pesto and spinach; smoked beef and broccoli; roast chicken wings and Brussels sprouts; and Thai cabbage salad. Tomorrow is pizza night.

That may seem like a random collection of dishes. But there’s a method to it.

While cooking in restaurants, I had the principle of first in/first out drilled into my skull. My wife thinks I’m silly when I rotate stock in our fridge. But, now more than ever, I need to make sure we are using the oldest or most perishable items first. If we’re going to limit our trips to the grocery store, we have to make fresh vegetables last all week. Our fridge is tiny, so we can’t fit a week’s worth of lettuce and collards in it.

Let me break down our meal plan for the week, in the hope that some part of it will be helpful to you.

Before this pandemic lockdown, we used to shop every few days. The first lesson from a big grocery haul and not enough fridge space is that I can store root vegetables in my basement. Most of the carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes we’re eating now were harvested and cellared last year. They are fine in a cold corner of the basement (or outside, in a sealed container) for a week.

That’s the origin of Monday’s dinner. I’d cooked off the sweet potato and parsnip to start our baby on solids. So I wanted to make it part of that night’s meal prep by eating some of it ourselves. I know I should be stingier with the guanciale (cured pork cheek), but it takes up so much room.

Spinach wilts fast. Even if you blanch it — as I did so that it would take up less space in the fridge — it’s best eaten sooner rather than later. So that went into Tuesday’s pasta, along with some pesto from the freezer. Broccoli was next on the list of freshness. Last summer, I smoked and froze a lot of meat (to prep for parenthood). The barbecue brisket was a natural fit with pan-crisped broccoli and lots of Szechuan chilies. Brussels sprouts were next. They go in the oven along with chicken wings, which you can get crispy without deep-frying. Cabbage is about the heartiest vegetable there is. That’s why I let it sit until the end of the week. I used half for a Thai salad with lots of fish sauce, garlic, chili, and lime juice (I removed the zest first and reserved it for later use). I julienned the other half with carrots for a batch of pikliz (Haitian spicy pickles).

Tomato sauce for pizza will come out of the freezer; so will dough I purchased earlier this week (my supermarket sells fresh dough for $1.50). For this meal, I’ll also use up the last of the cheese and olives. (Those’ll get added to the shopping list for the next day, when I’ll head out to get fresh produce.) 

As I’m taking inventory for our groceries, I spot cauliflower at the back of the fridge. I’d washed and cut it into florets last week but failed to use it up. And it’s not going to last. So I sauté some onion and garlic, then toss the cauliflower in with spices, chicken stock, and lentils. It produces a couple of litres of soup that I label and freeze — quick lunches ready for the coming week.

I hope that those of us who are cooking, and cooking now more than ever, will be able to savour the thin silver lining to this situation — more time spent with our loved ones, off our phones, sharing food. If dinner doesn’t turn out right tonight, there’s always tomorrow. There is a lot of pressure on all of us. And we can’t possible overcome it every moment of the day. So if your spouse does cook something that doesn’t quite fill the void left by the absence of everything you’re missing right now — friends, restaurants, a sustainable income, functioning economy, alone time — you still have to say, “Thanks, honey, for making dinner.” And you have to at least offer to wash the dishes.

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