My Pandemic Diary, Entry #74

Whole Foods early morning fish display

My Pandemic Diary, Entry #74

Hello Fellow City Cooks,

It’s a gray Friday in New York.  There were thunderstorms last night which didn’t seem to do much to lift the humidity but there are more storms forecast for later today. I always wish that thunderstorms would actually do what it feels like they should do -- an aggressive cleansing, scrubbing away sidewalk dirt and rinsing the air, as if the rain could send the virus into the gutters and storm drains. When I think of great thunderstorms, I often think of the rain in a long-favorite film of mine, The Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson, made in 1983 before we knew he was a jerk, Sigourney Weaver, and the magnificent Linda Hunt. And that rain, which was itself like one of the characters.

I also love that film for its score, including the sublime beauty of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. My recording of it is by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and George Szell from 1965 which proves the point that just because something is newer, it doesn’t mean it’s better.

Back to the present, it’s the end of a remarkable week which is still difficult to process and difficult to anticipate what comes next. There’s been so much pain and intention and we are in the midst, maybe only the beginning, of something formidable. As the country re-opens and people return to work, maybe we will start getting some answers. How long will the demonstrations go on? Will we get sick again? Will the hospitals be overwhelmed again? What will happen when the demonstrations end? How long can rage be sustained and how do we turn it into outcomes? I have no answers, only wishes, but I am optimistic that this time, there’s something different going on. Or maybe my optimism is a prayer.

Cooking and Groceries

Early this morning, Mark and I headed to Whole Foods. It’s been a relief to no longer be a pre-dawn stealth shopper at my neighborhood grocer and to return to a bigger market with better and more choices (and better prices). It clearly took a few weeks for things to settle down, but now the crowds are under control, the store is stocked, the professional shoppers are in their own groove and not a problem, and everyone, both shoppers and workers, seem calmer. I know I am. 

Mark and I now have a Whole Foods shopping system down and we know to go early, but not to be the first because if we go too early, the fish department won’t yet be open. Besides having each other’s company and being able to have on-the-spot brainstorming about foods to buy that weren’t on the shopping list, it’s helpful that we do these big shops together because when we get to the cashier, Mark can empty the cart while I do the bagging, a skill I’m still learning.

So what did I buy today?  Two on-the-bone pork chops (Mark’s favorite); two big Bell & Evans multi-packs of chicken thighs – one with and one without the bones that I broke into six packages, all but one of which went into the freezer; five packages of fish and shrimp (one each for tonight and tomorrow night, the rest into the freezer); lots of produce – apricots (on sale), apples, berries (on sale), oranges, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, fresh mint, scallions, haricots verts, a red cabbage that will become a salad, arugula, radicchio, cucumbers, red onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and carrots; to replenish the pantry I got two cans of artichoke hearts, two jars of marinated artichoke hearts, a 5-pound bag of King Arthur all-purpose flour; 3 boxes of Pomi chopped tomatoes (on a big sale so I stocked up), and a bottle of Red Boat fish sauce; in dairy -- two dozen eggs, cottage cheese, one pound unsalted butter (finally in stock and at its regular price) and one quart of organic plain Greek yogurt (Whole Foods brand which I think is excellent and a good value); and otherwise one box of saltines, some raw pumpkin seeds from the bulk department which is now partially open, and a Colameco dry salami that I slice to have as a little snack with an aperitif.  It was a big shop, filling four shopping bags to the top, but along with what I already had in my pantry and freezer, we should get about ten days worth of three-meals-a-day without having to re-stock except for maybe adding milk or salad makings.

One insight I gleaned while shopping this morning happened at the fish counter. I wanted to get salmon and the man at the counter was still putting things out so I asked what my choices would be. He said there was sockeye, which is not my favorite, wild salmon, or Atlantic farmed. I asked for the price on the wild, which I think was $14.99 a pound, and I asked to see it.  He pulled out a fillet that was, at best, 3/4-inch thick. I asked to see another. It was the same. The fish itself was pinker than the sockeye, but otherwise it looked identical – thin and dry. So I asked to see the Atlantic farmed and it was beautiful – glossy, fatty, and thick. And it was $10.99 a pound. I bought two center-cut pieces of the farmed and I trust Whole Foods to have good suppliers so I’m not concerned that it’s not organic, which is a whole other conversation, by the way: what is organic and is it always worth it?

I know good cooks ask to see what they’re buying, especially for items like fish and meat, but it occurred to me that if I had placed an order on online or with Instacart for a pound of wild salmon, and one of the remote shoppers was filling my order, they would have purchased one pound of the meager wild salmon I saw this morning. And I would have opened the package, for which I would have paid $15, and asked, “what am I supposed to do with this?” I understand that remote shopping can be an essential resource but clearly there are downsides. 

Last night’s dinner started with some of the chicken liver paté I’d made the day before, which I served with a drizzle of sweet and spicy mostarda (a food souvenir from our last trip to Italy). Then we had a steak from the freezer, which had been there too long as I discovered it had freezer burn -- so much for freezing a steak in its butcher paper; I won’t do that again – so I rubbed it with olive oil and broiled it and it turned out good enough. I also made a salad of frisée, radicchio, red onion, and thin slices of duck prosciutto that I had bought from a favorite Hudson Valley producer at a Sunday greenmarket Mark and I came upon when we were on one of our walks. That was a few weeks ago but it keeps forever if you don’t open the vacuum bag.

Tonight’s dinner will be wild shrimp that I bought this morning, which I think I’m going to cook with asparagus and a lemon-shallot vinaigrette, to which I’ll add some torn (as opposed to neatly cut) croutons from the loaf of bread I made yesterday. We’ll also have a little of that same chicken liver paté. A container of chicken liver paté and two people isn’t quite as daunting as two people and a ham, but it’s close.

Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.

Kate McDonough



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