My Pandemic Diary, Entry #83
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s been nearly two months since my last diary entry. My apologies for disappearing for so long, but little has changed, at least within the walls of our apartment and my kitchen.
I’ve gotten used to having a bicycle and free weights in the apartment instead of a gym membership, especially now when we’re having the first real winter in years. The little freezer we bought last spring -- and waited seven months to get -- has been a windfall of storage that’s made me almost giddy. Maybe folks with basements and garages think a separate freezer is no big deal, but it is for apartment dwellers who think it's luck if the small box on top of a refrigerator holds more than a pint of frozen yogurt and a tray of ice cubes. My ambition was to use my new mini Frigidaire as a pantry extension and so I’ve shopped the sales and gradually filled it with chicken, fish, ground meats and New York strip steaks, plus bags of coffee beans and frozen artichoke hearts. I was euphoric for being able to occupy this frozen real estate and I was defiant that no supply chain problem was going to keep me from making beef stew on a snowy winter’s day.
Fortunately, the supply disruptions didn’t happen. But grocery shopping has remained intimidating because of the rise in Covid contagion due to the variants, the latest obstacle to peace of mind. If you find yourself feeling a bit complacent about masks or outdoor dining or indoor shopping, I suggest you listen to any interview with science journalist Laurie Garrett who will bring you back to Defcon 1. The Nets may be playing to a live audience at the Barclays Center (not me), indoor dining may be back to 25% (also not for me), and the vaccine news may seem optimistic, but we are not safe. Not yet. Not for a while.
I was already a cautious grocery shopper but news of the Covid variants and a spike in new NYC cases rattled me about going to food stores. Whereas for a long while customers were alert and shopping at off hours when the stores kept the crowds down, now there were just too many people. Too many customers. Too many shelf-stockers. And most of all, too many professional shoppers filling delivery orders. It turned out that my supply-chain-defensive pantry became the means for me to reduce the number of market trips I now make without changing anything about the way I cook.
Despite my gloom, there’s been good news. A family member who has been very ill for the past two years is faring remarkably better, for which I am tearfully grateful. Science and medicine, inventing things like immunotherapy, can make miracles. Next, while my city is still back on its heels, I’m optimistic that because of the November election, one of the consequences should be increased support for public transit, something New York City desperately needs if it is to recover. Then, thanks to my being of a certain age, plus countless hours spent 24/7 relentlessly refreshing web pages in search of appointments, I feel privileged to have scored Covid vaccines for both Mark and me. I’m getting my second shot next week and I’m hoping this will mean I can soon get back to some almost normal living, like less fearful grocery shopping. And I continue to see that people – both known to us and strangers – are being kind to one another and empathetic for what we’re all still going through together. It may be hard for all of us and many are struggling from illness or inequities, but we’re hanging on.
And finally, Stanley Tucci is on CNN every Sunday night for six weeks, walking the streets of Napoli, Sicily, Bologna, Rome and other places from the toe to the top of the boot, talking about and eating Italian food. How sweet is that?!
Groceries and Cooking
Central to my being able to enjoy making dinner every day is that I plan all our meals a week in advance. Otherwise every day is an invention and that’s exhausting. Put the time in once (I do mine on Thursdays) to plan a week of menus, match the meals to what’s going on during those days so that the cooking fits reality, and inventory the pantry/freezer/refrigerator for ingredients. Then make your grocery lists and shop. I like shopping on Fridays because the stores are stocked but the crowds aren’t as bad as on weekends.
Every night when I make dinner I also intentionally make leftovers. This will include extra vegetables for next-day lunches, or dishes like a whole roast chicken that will feed us twice in a week. I’m particularly attentive to leftover potential in dishes that take more effort, like stews. When making my plan, I look at the total effort of making each meal with the goal of only one dish per meal requiring lots of prep and chopping, and thus time. For example, if I’m doing an elaborate grain salad or vegetable side, to go with it I’ll make plain roasted chicken thighs or simple pan-cooked fish because I know I’ll have the time and interest to make one complex thing, but not more.
There are a few dishes I make in larger amounts in advance, including vinaigrette dressing or croutons from bread that is going stale. I don’t make things like casseroles in advance and freeze them. It’s just not the way Mark and I like to eat and I find that it really doesn’t save much time. Back to groceries – I keep a pen and small pad nearby so that as I cook, if I open the last can of garbanzo beans or bottle of olive oil, I immediately add it to my shopping list. Otherwise I’m guaranteed to forget.
It's long been my practice to mostly cook from my regular repertoire with an occasional new addition. I don’t want something unfamiliar for dinner every day. When you’re under lots of daily stress like most of us are, I’ve found that keeping meals familiar is comforting both to make and to eat. Plus it’s easier to maintain your pantry if you regularly use the same ingredients.
I’ve recently made two Gordon Ramsay recipes that have become such favorites. One is his roast chicken stuffed with chickpeas, which I’ve written about before. Here’s that recipe. The other is his beef short ribs, a version I like because it doesn’t require a marinade. While a marinade can certainly add taste and tenderness, it also adds pre-planning, time, an extra work step, and often more ingredients, whereas Ramsay's recipe proves that a marinade is not the only means to great flavor. Here’s his short ribs with bacon and mushrooms and here is Ramsay making it on YouTube. He makes it in a small roasting pan, although I use my Dutch oven, and I substitute crimini mushrooms for the chestnut.
This month was Superbowl LV, pandemic-style. I’m not particularly a football fan, but I love spectacles and always enjoy watching this great American event. To go with it, every year I always make the same turkey chili. I use a recipe originally from Food52 that I’ve tinkered with so much over the years that it’s probably more mine now than theirs. Chili aficionados may think it’s more a version that a native New Englander would make, and since that would be me, they might be right. But I win the day with the accessories: pimento cheese, a huge bowl of popcorn using kernels from my favorite summer Greenmarket farmer, and corn sticks -- baked in a cast iron pan so that they’re crispy outside, tender inside. I like this cornbread recipe for both its flavor as well as the fact that it makes exactly enough batter for my seven-ear cast iron pan.
In other recent cooking, I baked a nine-pound ham which I glazed using a passion fruit-pineapple jam by Bonne Maman (I think this is a new flavor) that I spiked with mustard. The ham produced three meals, plus a pot of split pea soup, one of Mark’s favorites, although by the end of the soup we were happy to see it done with. Both the soup and the ham.
As an example of a dish that is one part simple and one part lots of chopping, I seared cod filets and served them with a green olive/lemon/parsley relish, a recipe from Sara Jenkins’ splendid Olive & Oranges* cookbook which I adore. Also from this same cookbook is a whole grain salad, the kind of thing that Jenkins is gifted at creating, called Panzanella di Farro (Tuscan-style tomato salad with farro). In the winter I make this with either cherry tomatoes or slow-roasted plum tomatoes.
From my list of weekday favorites, I made Ina Garten’s Chicken with Goat Cheese & Basil. It’s simple to put together and if you keep chicken breasts in the freezer and a little roll of herbed goat cheese in the fridge, this is essentially pantry cooking. I add some dried basil since I leave out the fresh basil because in the winter, I’m not going to pay $3.00+ for a few leaves that are mostly overwhelmed by the goat cheese anyway. Here is the recipe.
If you’re a fan of grain salads as I am, and if you have access to The New York Times cooking site, I can recommend a recipe by Martha Rose Shulman for Freekeh Chickpea and Herb Salad. It’s excellent as a meatless main course or as a side served with chicken or fish.
Despite being high in protein and fiber and deliciously flavorful (to me it tastes like a nutty barley), freekeh is still lesser known than quinoa, barley, farro, or bulgur. It is wheat that is harvested early, then roasted and rubbed. This article provides a lot more information about it. Freekeh isn’t as readily available as other grains and it can be more expensive, I suspect because of the extra processing and handling that it requires. I bought mine at Whole Foods and I’ve read you can get it at some Trader Joe’s. You can also buy it at health food stores and from Amazon as with this one from Bob’s Red Mill*, which means you can probably get it at other grocers. Prices can vary a lot so if you become a freekeh fan, shop around.
An easy weeknight dinner that Mark and I both love is lamb steaks served with croutons (similar to the famous Zuni Café chicken served on top of croutons). I either broil or sauté the steaks in a cast iron pan, soak the croutons in milk before squeezing them dry, and then oven-toast them separately from the lamb. I love to pair the lamb, with its gamey flavor, with a piquant escarole and red onion salad dressed with a vinaigrette of anchovies and mustard, similar to the dressing used in the classic Roman puntarelle salad (how I wish we could easily get puntarelle in the U.S.).
Here’s the recipe which appeared in my cookbook ten years ago, although I usually double the anchovies:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 anchovy fillets, finely minced
1 garlic clove, grated
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt and 6 to 8 grinds of black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 large head escarole, trimmed, washed and torn into large bite-sized pieces
In a large salad bowl, mix together the vinegar, anchovy fillets, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper. Add the olive oil, using a fork to emulsify the vinaigrette. Add the sliced onion and pieces of escarole to the bowl and toss to coat. Serve immediately.
Finally, a note on kitchen tools and sharp knives. I don’t like gadgets and I’m finicky about my tools. For ages I’ve been unhappy with my conventional spatula so I wasn’t sorry when it finally separated at its handle. I bought a new one in the style that is often called a fish spatula – and I love it. I got mine at Zabar’s and it cost about $25; it’s this one by Dexter*, although if you shop around, I’ve since seen it for better prices. It has flex without feeling unstable, the handle feels great in my hand, and I use it not just for fish but for everything. Because the handle is wood, I don’t put it in the dishwasher so I’m hoping it lasts a long time.
My other new tool is actually a replacement: I bought a new honing steel. My usual knife sharpening place is closed and my knives needed help. Maybe yours do, too, if you’ve been doing more cooking than usual over these past months – and remember that a dull knife is not only annoying, it’s more dangerous.
I have a whetstone and learned how to use it while in culinary school, but that was a while ago and since then, I’d been having my knives professionally sharpened. Over the years I've invested in good knives and I knew that if you don’t use a sharpener properly, you can ruin them. Fearing I had lost my whetstone skills, I decided I should get a more user-friendly sharpener. I asked a couple of friends who are excellent home cooks about what they do and with their recommendations I was about to buy one by Chef’s Choice. But first I upgraded my honing steel.
As you may know, a honing steel, or rod, repairs a knife’s edge after normal use microscopically bends it. It may seem dull but it’s not; the sharp edge just needs to be restored – essentially bent back into place -- and that’s what the steel does when you quickly and repeatedly run it at about a twenty-degree angle against a blade. Here’s an article about knife steels from Bon Appetit and another from Cook’s Illustrated. And here’s a video from the cooking geeks at ATK about how to choose a steel.
If you instead sharpen, not hone, a knife every time it seems dull, you’ll reduce the knife’s lifespan because with each sharpening, a knife loses a nano bit of metal, whereas honing repairs the edge without wearing down the blade. That means you can hone a knife daily but only have to sharpen it once or twice a year, depending on its use.
I already had a steel but while I was doing sharpener research, I learned that they actually wear out after about 10 years and I had had mine for at least twenty. So I replaced it with a 12” Double-Cut Honing Steel by Zwilling. I got mine at Sur La Table but it’s widely available at the same price so if you prefer, you can get it at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Kramer Knives, and other stores that sell good cutlery. The end of the story is that after 10 minutes spent with my new steel and a capable right arm, all my knives were back to nearly perfect sharpness. I know I’ll still need to eventually sharpen them and that will be another story.
One of the ways I’ve found to help me stay alert to what is going on in our world and how to maintain perspective is to read history. Like many others, I’ve added historian and Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson to my regular reading and I value her rigor, independence, plain talk, and insights. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, you can get acquainted and sign up for her newsletter at her website called Letters from an American.
I’ve never belonged to a book club. I think I would enjoy the right one, meaning one that is really about the book and not the club, but it just never happened. So when The New York Times announced their virtual book club, I quickly joined. Last month we read The Custom of the Country, set in The Gilded Age but also a book for our time. It was the only novel by Edith Wharton that I had never read, so it was like a sign. Novelist and professor Claire Messud (I simply adored her novel, The Woman Upstairs*), who also happens to be married to The New Yorker’s book critic James Wood, discussed the novel with a Times editor in a provocative but mostly satisfying conversation which you can still see here on YouTube. This month we’re reading Passing* by Nella Larsen, written in 1929 and set in 1920’s Harlem. Another book for now.
There are several new interesting cookbooks coming this late spring and early summer that I’ll share with you as we get closer to their publication, but for right now, I wanted to tell you about two books that are coming out soon.
The first is a very special one being published by Phaidon, known for its substantial and beautiful volumes that often dive deep into a cuisine or culture. The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World* is by Reem Kassis, author also of the award-winning The Palestinian Table. It will be published in early April. I’ve read and cooked from an e-galley of it that her publishers sent me.
The Arabesque Table is glorious for its appetite, narrative and beauty. The book presents itself as a cultural and culinary celebration, its pages a tempting compilation of dishes and flavors that may have centuries – even millennia -- of traditions, but here have modernity in their current making and eating. You will swoon for the salads, the contemporary uses of traditional and easy to buy ingredients, as with her Za’atar Schnizels or Lamb and Halloumi Pasta Bake, and other flavor combinations using modestly priced and available ingredients.
For those who love to read cookbooks as much as cook from them, this may be a satisfying choice as nearly every recipe has a story, about a dish’s origins, cross-cultural connections, or the history and evolution of an ingredient. Plus Kassis shares her family story with us, starting from her growing up in Jerusalem to her home today in Philadelphia.
The second book is definitely more for the reader than the cook. The Adventurous Foodie: 700 Foods You Should Try from Around the World* is by Alexandre Stern and published by Rizzoli. It details the most interesting and iconic foods of 155 different countries. A hardcover with 636 colorful pages (no photos) that are organized by country, this is a fun volume of gastronomical fantasies for those of us who crave getting onto a plane again. There are a few recipes, as for Italy’s Spaghetti Alla Carbonara, Afghanistan’s Bolanis, China’s Won Ton Soup, and Burundi’s traditional Boko-Boko, but the delight of this volume is its trivia and its challenge to us as we dream about trips past and those yet to come.
Finally, before closing this long newsletter (I know; I should write more often and shorter), I wanted to share some wisdom from a friend that helped provide some comfort for some of what we’re going through. He closed a long letter to me by pointing out how after the plague came the Renaissance. It’s something we should hope history will repeat.
Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.
*The City Cook contains affiliate links whereby The City Cook may receive commissions if you choose to purchase through them. There is no extra cost to you if you use these links. The City Cook also sometimes receives free review copies of cookbooks, both hardcover and e-galleys, from publishers. There are no obligations or promises made in exchange for our receiving these books.