My Pandemic Diary, Entry #1
Hello fellow city cooks,
Well here we are in unknown territory. We’re all sharing the same bad dream plus having our private ones, too. I think for many of us it’s the surrealism that is the most difficult to live with, that constant feeling that any minute now, we’ll snap out of it and get back to normal.
But since that’s not going to happen, what’s the plan?
I’ve been trying for the past two weeks to write something helpful, or comforting, or insightful but I don’t have any special wisdom. There is no shortage of recipe ideas and ways to cook beans or canned tuna. And I’m just like you -- trying to make it all work. So, I decided that I could share what I’m doing as a New Yorker living in an apartment and trying to get through this.
Every day or so I’m going to write an entry in what I’m unimaginatively calling My Pandemic Diaries. I will send them as a newsletter, and also post them here on TheCityCook.com. I’ll write mostly about food, groceries and cooking and I’ll also add other information or thoughts in case it’s helpful or remotely interesting.
Entry#1: March 24
As I write this it’s Monday morning. It’s raining all day and the news is just as gloomy: Covid-19 cases are rising, hospitals are in duress, politicians – except for NY Governor Cuomo who is a bit like FDR during WWII with his heroic radio broadcasts -- are still being petty and self-interested (like Rand Paul going to the Senate gym while waiting for his Coronavirus test results), the stock market bleeds, and we’re all at home, stressed about things we can do nothing about.
Here’s my today: I’m writing to you. I washed my hair (this is a diary; I can tell you these things). Because it’s raining, my husband and I are not doing our usual three-mile walk so exercise is limited to some stretching. At 3:00 pm I’m doing a Zoom lesson with my French teacher. I hope to make a pot of minestrone soup and will call friends; my goal is two calls a day, including reaching out to friends across the country. If I have time before the day is done, I will read. And by 6:00 pm I will be watching the news for the first time all day and I will begin to make dinner.
Cooking and Groceries
I think the most important thing we can do to eat properly and happily right now is to have a food plan. Don’t wing it.
To begin with, avoid eating frozen pizza every night. It might make you feel good at the moment, and it’s easy, but we need our nutrition if we are to stay healthy. Plus, the process of making our daily food can be comforting and provide a sense of normalcy. And we need normalcy as much as the nutrition.
The first step in doing a food plan is to know how we want to eat. I realize this isn’t so easy if you’re accustomed to eating out and having something different whenever you want. To have a plan you will need to narrow your options so begin by writing two weeks’ worth of menus. Be realistic about what’s possible given your cooking skills and resources. Then use that as the basis for groceries. If your grocery list becomes too long and crazy, or your kitchen and refrigerator are too small to store it all, or you don’t know how to cook everything you want to eat, revise your menus and simplify your plan.
For example, if paella is on your dream menu but that’s not possible (have you ever even made paella?) substitute it with chicken rice soup and a salad to which you add sliced red peppers and sautéed slices of chorizo because with that switch you’ll get some of the same flavors and textures, plus you’ll have ingredients you can use in other meals (e.g., chorizo in scrambled eggs or chorizo and red peppers in a rice salad). Instead of having something different every day, come up with 6 to 10 meals that you put into rotation. Use that to produce a new grocery list. Then go shopping.
Do not go shopping without a list.
Divide your grocery list into categories: fresh fruits and vegetables; perishables like eggs, cheese, milk, fresh bread; animal proteins including meat, chicken and fish; shelf stable items including pasta, rice, canned or dried beans, condiments, tomatoes, flour, peanut butter, etc.; essentials like coffee and tea, nuts, chocolate, and snacks. And don’t forget pet food, paper goods, and cleaning supplies. You need a list so that you don’t forget anything and you need organization so that you can navigate the grocery store with efficiency and get in and get out. You might not be able to buy everything on your list so if you shop by category it will be easier to make substitutions while you’re right there in the store. No limes? Buy lemons.
Shopping this way also means you will shop less often. And we all know why that is a good thing.
Next, write down your meal calendar. Plan a week or so in advance and keep a list of what you have on hand. What’s in the freezer? What fruits and vegetables are in the fridge so you don’t lose track of what is fresh and what may be heading for spoilage? Cook things in the order in which they need to be used and eaten, before they go bad. If your bread is getting stale, turn it into croutons or bread crumbs. Turn vegetables into a frittata. A two-thirds-eaten chicken can become soup or chicken salad.
The minestrone soup I’m going to make later today will be from Marcella Hazan’s recipe. She calls for cabbage, which I don't have so I will use my two fading bunches of lacinato kale. I don’t have beef broth but I do have chicken Better Than Bouillon and will use that. I know that Better Than Bouillon is not homemade stock, but it’s quite good and a teaspoon makes a cup of broth. It comes in chicken, beef, vegetable and other flavors including organic chicken. Once opened, it must be refrigerated. Most supermarkets sell it; look in the soup/boxed stock area of your store. You can also buy it on their website.
Our dinner tonight will be slices of roast lamb, leftover from our dinner two nights ago. This roast was a small 1.8-pound boneless leg of lamb I got at Trader Joe’s and had in my freezer; I have another one still frozen. We will also have leftover penne pasta with tomato sauce, this a leftover from last night which we had had with a pan-roasted slice of salmon filet. The only non-leftover in tonight’s meal will be a salad of romaine lettuce, red onion, sliced red pepper, and radicchio dressed with my usual vinaigrette (2 parts red wine vinegar to 5 parts evoo, a tablespoon or so of Dijon, and salt and pepper; put in a jar and shake well). No dessert but that’s normal for us. And wine.
My husband and I are eating the same breakfasts as we normally do. His is two eggs and a protein, e.g.,chicken sausage, which he alternates with plain yogurt and fruit on the other days. I usually have a hard-boiled egg and a handful of whatever berries are in the fridge, and occasionally a dish of plain yogurt and fruit. He has coffee. I have tea (I had to give up coffee due to acid reflux and yes, I really miss it….).
Lunches are also from our normal life. He has a protein drink and I have cottage cheese with whatever vegetable may be on hand, either leftovers or cherry tomatoes. We are not snackers but mid-afternoon we each may have a small handful of nuts or piece of fruit. Dinner is our main meal and will always be a protein (meat, fish, chicken, eggs, or beans) and one or two vegetables or a salad. And wine. Definitely wine.
Going back to grocery shopping for a moment -- I am trying very hard to shop infrequently. My pantry is well stocked. I wasn’t prescient; since I cook daily, my pantry was already in decent shape before this crisis began. But I keep a running grocery list for anything I need to replenish for whenever I do make my next grocery run. Buying groceries is a challenge and I will write about this more in upcoming diary entries. It’s a challenge to avoid the shopper crowds and a challenge to know what to buy. And it is not currently the pleasure that it always had been for me. But we adapt, don’t we?
Which makes me think about how this entire experience, this pandemic, this exposure of our bodies as well as our individual and collective character, will change us after it is over. I can imagine some of us being less wasteful, and that the experience of being isolated, and for many, being alone, will make us treasure our communities even more. Obviously not everyone, but many of us.
Future diary entries won’t be this lengthy. They may only include what we’re having for dinner, but I’ll share anything I may learn.
I am certain that we’ll get through this. We may still only be at the beginning of whatever “this” is, but we will get through it. So, keep your seat-belts on, be good citizens and neighbors, try to enjoy the making of your meals, and take a day at a time.
Thank you for taking this journey with me.