Cooking at Home During the Pandemic

Learn, stay healthy…and treat yourself once in a while

By Jana Eisenberg

sheperds pie‘Since March, my husband and I have eaten every single meal at home. I’ve found that there are days where cooking and all that goes along with it is a comfort, and a welcome distraction. I’ve also experienced days when cooking is the last thing I want to do.’

While sheltering in place because of the pandemic, many of us are cooking more at home. Depending on your situation — live alone? With a partner or significant other? Have young or grown kids, or various dietary needs in the house? — it’s an opportunity to learn and adapt.

Since March, my husband and I — it’s just us in a small apartment — have eaten every single meal at home.

I’ve found that there are days where cooking and all that goes along with it is a comfort, and a welcome distraction. I’ve also experienced days when cooking is the last thing I want to do, being too distracted by the ongoing uncertainty. Sound familiar?

Pre-pandemic, we mostly kept whole foods in the house — proteins like fish, meat and beans, a wide variety of vegetables, complex carbs — those foods with minimal processing or chemicals added. We still do that, and also leave space for the times when either external or internal conditions dictate different choices. We all need comfort sometimes, and food is a classic way to soothe oneself. So. There have been bagels. And potato chips. And, on occasion, ice cream and noodles.

On better days, there have been boons, discoveries that we will continue to source when we can do our own shopping and choose to go out to eat with impunity. And there have been accidents, either of a replaced or mistaken provision which, considering the circumstances, I didn’t want to waste.

We’ve fallen in love with farro. The ancient grain that is touted as being more nutritious than other grains, with relatively high levels of protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins. It has a nutty taste — texture-wise I compare it to a chewier barley. It’s easy to cook and versatile. I’ve taken to making a large batch, sometimes with broth instead of water, and refrigerating it for reheating or eating cold.

It’s great to make a facsimile of risotto, and it’s a terrific starter for the popular grain bowl served warm or cold. The dish — also known as a “pile of food” in our house — is basically a base of grain, layered with ingredients and flavorings. It’s an easy, delicious, healthy, filling meal. Add leftovers, tinned fish, avocado, roasted or raw veggies, chopped lettuce or other greens, etc. and splash with dressing or oil of your choice (i.e., olive, avocado, sesame, etc.) and acid of choice (lemon or lime juice, a favorite vinegar, etc.). I eat it with a spoon.

Since I started working exclusively from home with my few remaining clients — I’m a freelance writer, editor and proofreader — I’ve been documenting my more memorable meals with my iPhone. Partly in order to share with (or make jealous) like-minded friends, and partly to simply remind myself of what I did.

March 12 – The first day I worked from home. I remember announcing to my husband that I was going to make tequila and lime shrimp. Salads can be concocted out of almost any veggies in the fridge: I made one from tomatoes and onions, and threw in some roasted broccoli.

Note: Sometimes you can decide what to make based on the available ingredients. Sometimes it might be driven by a craving. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes spontaneous. This time I knew I wanted to do something different with our Trader Joe’s frozen shrimp. I thought of what was at hand, and what we might enjoy. I Googled a recipe. Voila.

March 20 – Our wedding anniversary. We’d begun doing Wegmans curbside pickup. Through an Instacart shopper substitution we’d ended up with a package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, which we’d never select ourselves. Anyway, we had it, so I cooked it, roasting it with rosemary and other spices, and served it with one of our favorite potato substitutes, mashed cauliflower. I supplemented with a chopped raw vegetable salad (carrots, celery, grape tomatoes, olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt, pepper).

Note: The chicken thighs were a hit and have become an easily stored staple in our freezer.

April 4 – I “made” dried parsley, since I’d run out and had ended up with a fresh bunch that I’d never use all of. After drying it slowly in the oven, chopping it and storing it in an empty spice bottle, I felt disproportionately proud of myself. Spices have become more important, as we eat a lot of the same things over and over; you can change things up with various seasonings. Cumin is lovely on roasted veggies. Thyme or tarragon brightens up fish. One day, just for kicks, I labeled the tops of the jars and alphabetized the spice drawer.

April 18 – I’d been craving ramen — restaurant ramen, not cup noodles, to be clear. I found a recipe that, despite sounding fairly straightforward, required ingredients I didn’t have and multiple, sometimes hours-ahead steps. I put together a list, that included fresh ginger. I accidently received about a half a pound, a ridiculously large amount (usually we get about a thumb’s length of it at a time.) Guess what? Once again an Instacart shopper decision led to a new discovery. You can freeze ginger.

For the ramen, I made “jammy” soft-boiled eggs, and marinated them in a soy-mirin mixture. I marinade chicken in a slightly different soy-based concoction. I doctored some commercial broth with ginger, spices and scallions, per the recipe. I boiled udon noodles separately, and parboiled some vegetables — we had celery, broccoli and onions, not traditional, but that’s the beauty of cooking with what you’ve got.

April 29 – Husband’s birthday. Potatoes in the house. I made shepherd’s pie. OMG. Still holds the title of “best pandemic meal ever.”

May 16 – “Pantry chili” is a thing — we are stocked with cans of beans, including black, light and dark red kidney, cannellini and garbanzo. Working together to brown ground beef (we keep a few pounds in the freezer) and chop the base vegetables like onions, garlic and celery, and measure out the spice mix, we can whip it up in under 45 minutes.

May 24 – Forgoing dinner for happy hour, I follow a suggestion from the New York Times for sardines: smear soft butter onto your base of choice (we had sesame rice crackers in the house; the other choice was frozen sprouted grain Ezekiel bread), smash on some sardine, add minced onions with a generous splash of lemon juice, salt, pepper and a fresh or dried herb if you have it. Eat. Repeat.

May 29 – Emotional eating takes over. Longing for a professional hamburger, and fed up with husband’s broiled attempts, I aggressively pan-fried Angus beef patties in butter, and made them into a “restaurant-good” presentation. Served on a toasted Kaiser roll (we keep them sliced in the freezer), mustard-mayo sauce, cheddar and shredded lettuce with salt-and-pepper roasted baby red potatoes. We “feel” better.

June 6 – Gussied up chili for dinner. My love for avocadoes is deep. When we are lucky enough to have ripe ones, I make a simple guacamole, by mashing them with lemon or lime juice, salt, and “the three Cs” from the dried spice drawer: cayenne, cilantro and cumin. Healthy and ready in minutes, no chopping required. Dinner a great success.

July 2 – For something different, I ordered a small container of lump crab, and we’d added portobello mushrooms to our shopping list. After drying out some ends of Ezekiel bread into crumbs, I made stuffed mushrooms with parmesan.

The pandemic continues to be a challenging event in all our lifetimes. One of the things we can do is make efforts to nourish ourselves and our families the best we can, while staying safe, making good choices, and helping others when possible.