Reflections on cooking while quarantined

happy birthday girl

A happy birthday, regardless of a pandemic. And yes, liver and onions really are my favorite.

In the midst of the pandemic that is Covid-19 we like many others, I suspect, have been working to reduce the number of times we go out, especially for food shopping. While we have not altered our meals radically, we have focused on different ways of extending meals, and using what we have, rather than making one more list and heading back out yet again, as we often have in the past. I do more of the cleanup than the cooking duties, so these suggestions are mostly my husband’s. And yes, we have managed to have some special treats along the way, even a celebratory birthday dinner for me last month, as we remained apart from our loved ones in other households.

The following is a list, not comprehensive, of ways we cook that might offer some ideas to others. Will we continue with these habits when life has opened back up? That remains to be seen. Wishing the best to all and praying for safekeeping as we muddle our way through.

We have been extending our meat and vegetables by starting with a grain base, and varying the flavors and sauces for variety.  Some of the multi-day hits have included the following.  We don’t follow recipes very well and use or substitute what we have or like.

We cut up meat packages into small portions with a very sharp knife as-is, and freeze in ziplock bags.  Makes it easy to take out a ¼ or 1/3 pound of various meat packages to add to something for interest.  We keep bags of shrimp and scallops in the freezer- easy to toss a handful into a dish near the end.  Not a lot of planning required.

Frozen peas, lima beans, corn etc. make it easy to toss a handful into a dish for interest, especially as the fresh veggies get low.  We add to canned soups as well.

We’ve procured a wide variety of bases; coarse #3 bulghur or large Israeli cous-cous are our go-to for fast prep dinners; various rices, pastas, chick peas and canned beans.  We find it best to undercook things that will be reheated again for future meals.

Mujadara: a combination of smelted onions, brown rice, and lentils.  So much more depth than plain old rice.  Be sure to undercook the rice and lentils, cook separately and keep sampling.  Texture is an important component.  We’ve varied this with a curry paste base, an asian/lemongrass base, homemade ginger syrup base, and a peanut sauce base.


Amazing lemongrass parfait, from Ming Tsai’s cookbook, enjoyed in crystal goblets, wedding presents to my parents over 70 years ago

We have found lots of “master sauces” in Ming Tsai’s book, Blue Ginger, East West meeting cooking with Ming Tsai.

After making mujadara once, I started occasionally smelting an onion or two at very low heat for twenty minutes as the base to a great many dishes, stews, and soups.  The flavor is amazing.

We make pasta salads with chopped hard veggies; vary with vinaigrette base, homemade mayo/Dijon or mayo/wasabi base, curry base… We toss raw or blanched veggies separately with each meal to keep them from getting soggy.  Add chopped peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, craisins etc. for interest.

Instead of just boiled rice, look at recipes where you bake it with flavored broth until crispy at the edges.  Amazing.

Homemade asian peanut sauce is amazing on hot and cold grains and veggies, or make a cold noodle dish with sauce and fresh chopped veggies.  We use a couple of times a week.  Some sauce recipes are complex; I’m happy with peanut butter, cider vinegar, water to thin it. Others of us add peanut butter with equal amount of tahini paste, small amounts of soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, (fresh or powdered), a spoonful of honey, garlic, and hot water to thin.

Instead of fresh lettuce, we’ve been buying green and red cabbage, and bok choi or Chinese cabbage as a base for salads and slaws with most meals.  These keep for weeks as opposed to days.  Varied dressings and the addition of apple, radish, carrot, nuts and craisins add interest. We use the green tops of bok choi as a lettuce substitute in sandwiches, two types of use from one vegetable.

Homemade pizza.  Once a week we make a double batch of pizza dough from The Secrets of a Jewish Baker recipe book and use half the batch for pizza, the other half makes a nice loaf of bread for breakfast toast and sandwiches. The recipe calls for only 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of baking yeast, a boon in times when baking yeast is in short supply. About every ten days we make a separate recipe for bagels, recipe also from Jewish Baker recipe book. 

Mash or whip potatoes or sweet potatoes with roasted garlic or ginger.  Make workable with any of these- butter, olive oil, powdered milk, buttermilk, or cream… amazing.

Potato or veggie or German apple pancakes (similar to popover recipe, but in a large baking pan) as dinners.

Homemade hummus is easily made from a can of chick peas, tahini, lemon, and whatever spices you like.  Two minutes in food processer and you’re done. If you prefer a smoother textured hummus, simply process for an additional minute or two until the smoothness desired.

In summer, we eat loads of corn on the cob.  Vary with hot or savory spice rubs, homemade aioli mayo, vinaigrette, or even grilling.  Cut off the cob and make a spicy corn salad or pancakes.

Biscuits are quick and easy to make, if you don’t have bread in the house.  Play around with flavorings and cheeses in the dough or on top. Drop biscuits recipe from the Joy of Cooking is a quick, easy great tasting choice of recipe, with no need to roll out dough.

I hate canned salmon.  I love homemade salmon cakes made with canned salmon.  A new discovery.

Rice flour makes it possible to coat and pan-fry food for crispiness without grease and heaviness.  Another texture for interest.

Homemade slivered deep-fried ginger and thin-sliced deep fried garlic are amazing condiments!  Sprinkle on dishes, salads, soups.

Order a range of nuts, spices, and sauces online.  This makes an enormous difference to eating the same things.  Our favorite discovery is Mae Ploy brand curry pastes- Massaman has no heat and is amazing to boil or coat grains and veggies with; yellow curry is mid-heat and we mix with yogurt and pre-coat anything that goes on the grill.  One small container (8oz?) keeps a year or more in the fridge.  You cannot get these flavors with dry ingredients.  Buy cans of coconut milk (Thai Kitchen has the right cream/milk without sugar- some brands are sugary or watery) and experiment.

We do add meats to many (not all) meals; a small amount of spicy sausage, smoky bacon, heavily spiced chicken, or stew beef rounds things out.

Restaurant style deep-fried chewy tofu can be made at home by placing ½” cubes (we buy firm or extra firm tofu when available) on a microwave bacon dish (ridges and grooves give the water a place to go) and nuking on high for multiple 4-5 minute periods until it dries substantially and begins to tan.  Then pan fry in just 5 minutes.  We make with veggie dishes, including vegetable pad thai, and vegetable peanut sauce dishes.  Packaged tofu, unopened, will keep several weeks in the fridge.  Spice up with ginger powder and garlic powder during the last step.

And no, these are not paid product endorsements, nor do we profit in any way from the links in this article.

Marjorie (with lots of help from the cook behind the scenes)

beech cliffs 2018

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionEasy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.

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