My Pandemic Diary, Entry #3
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
Last night when I should have been reading, I was watching YouTube videos of scenes from Master Class, the play that Terrence McNally wrote about Maria Callas. I was so very lucky to have seen it with its first Maria, Zoe Caldwell, who died just last month. Even though I saw that production 25 years ago, its impact on me has been permanent. I was young(er) then, and trying to understand so much about art and artists and about life, and Master Class was a reckoning for me. Last night it was a comfort to watch some of its scenes again, reminding me of the words of Vissi d’Arte, the aria in act two of Tosca, once sung by Callas.
I was watching the videos because I had learned that Terrence McNally had died of the Coronavirus. Here is his obituary from The Times. When I heard the news, I got a flashback to what it felt like in the 80’s, when so many of our cultural supermen (and they were mostly men) were dying from AIDS. I felt it again yesterday, that punch to the gut, the kind that takes your breath away. How cruel. Every life lost to this virus is tragic but when we lose our greatest artists, the people to whom we turn to make sense of things, it makes this tragedy that we are now experiencing so acute. I am anguished to feel it again.
And so I cook.
Cooking and Groceries
Dinner last night was tilapia. I took it out of the freezer in the morning and put into the refrigerator so that it would slowly defrost in time to cook at 6:30 pm. I like tilapia and it’s a fish I keep in rotation along with cod, hake, salmon, swordfish, wild shrimp, arctic char, black cod when I can get it, and tuna when I’m feeling flush. Tilapia is a mostly fresh water fish that is safely farmed (I’ve never seen wild tilapia although I’ve been told it exists), it’s easily available year-round, and it’s inexpensive. Tilapia doesn’t have the fat or omega-3 levels of fish like salmon and some have raised concerns about its omega-6 fatty acids, which are controversial for their possible cause of inflammation if eaten to excess. But I don’t cook it that often to be a problem. There are also complaints about how some tilapia is farmed. As with any fish, make sure your fishmonger can vouch for the sources of all his/her fish, including tilapia. Avoid tilapia from China (for that matter, avoid any food that comes from China) and only buy from sources in the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, or Honduras, or Peru. The tilapia I cooked last night was from Peru.
Like most white fishes, tilapia has a pale flavor and takes on the taste of anything you cook it with. It’s sold skinless so be careful how it’s cooked so that it doesn’t fall apart. Also, since one side of the filet will be thicker than the other, slice the piece in two so you can control when they’re done cooking. Usually I either sauté it or bake it, maybe topped with a little lemon butter (softened butter to which I’ll add lemon zest and a little juice), or topped with a few tablespoons of store-bought pesto; Trader Joe’s is quite good and I usually only need about half a container, freezing the rest for next time.
But last night I was feeling ingredient-generous so I first dusted the fish with flour, then dipped it in a whisked egg, and finally coated it with panko. In a large skillet I heated olive oil over medium high heat and sautéed the filets about 2-3 minutes a side until the surfaces were brown and crispy. If you need to cook the filets in several batches, keep the cooked ones warm and crispy in a 200°F oven.
Our vegetable was my last bag of haricots verts which were starting to get weird. I simply boiled them until tender, drained, and added a tiny bit of my best olive oil and a pinch of my fancy sel de guerande. Then I tried something new with a bag of shredded carrots. I cooked a little bacon, cut into small pieces, until brown but not crispy. I removed them from the sauté pan and added a bag of shredded carrots, added a generous amount of ground pepper, tossed it all in the bacon fat, added a cover and let it cook on medium for about 4 minutes until the carrots were tender. I added the bacon back into the pan, adjusted for salt and pepper, and that was the carb for our dinner. It was quite tasty and I will do it again. Here's where I found the recipe.
My Pantry, Cont’d
I wanted to add a bit more to my last diary entry about setting up a pantry. A pantry is both a physical place and also a strategy. For people with houses, it may be a closet; for those of us in apartments, we’re lucky to have a cabinet or two to keep shelf-stable items, like canned goods. However, the pantry is also your kitchen counter, refrigerator, and freezer.
The pantry-as-strategy means keeping on hand ingredients that you use all the time, ingredients that add flavor, versatility, variety, and essential elements in a recipe. They may also be ingredients that form the centerpiece of what you’re eating. For example, you need flour to make bread, add spices for flavor, choose farro or arborio rice to make risotto, and use mayonnaise and canned tuna for a tuna salad sandwich. All of these are pantry ingredients. Melissa Clark, in today’s New York Times food section, has another of her cooking from the pantry articles and recipes that really make the point.
Here are the ingredients I always keep in either my refrigerator or freezer because I never know when I will need them:
- Lemons and limes
- Labneh and yogurt
- Parmesan and pecorino Romano cheese (I buy pieces I will grind myself with my food processor)
- Unsalted butter
- Open containers of Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, chutney, Worcestershire sauce (with back-ups in the cabinet)
- Olives for eating, olives for martinis, pickled jalapeños
- Fish sauce
- Instant yeast
- Fresh herbs: rosemary, thyme; other fresh herbs I buy for specific recipes when needed but I use rosemary and thyme all the time
- Frozen artichoke hearts, petite peas
- Frozen puff pastry
The Rest of Today
What else am I doing today? Mark and I took our walk. We went a little later than usual which we won’t do again. Too many people are out and when we go earlier, the sidewalks are empty which is much less stressful. I took a package of four pork sausages out of the freezer for our dinner. I have a bunch of broccoli rabe that needs to be cooked and that’s such a classic combo. We’ll also have a cup of the minestrone soup from the other night, this time without the ditalini.
Yesterday I paid the month’s bills, cleaned up my desk a bit, and called two friends and laughed a lot which felt wonderful. Right now I’m listening to Governor Cuomo’s daily brief and then I need to come up with a photo to include with this entry. I’m going to clean my kitchen which I keep swearing I’ll do but it goes to the bottom of the list. I need to update my food inventory and menus. I have friends to call, French verbs to practice, and things to read. And I’m looking forward to a FaceTime cocktail hour we’ve set up for tomorrow with a friend in northern California.
Before closing this diary entry, a reminder to be both gentle and firm with yourselves. People are starting to show the stress of this when-will-it-end time and that can be risky. We’re becoming easily rattled, easily angry when we really can’t afford to be much of either. Try to call friends and talk, including about things that have nothing to do with the virus. If you feel you need more help than that, there are phone and online professionals who can help; call your doctor for advice and resources. Resist the constant tossing around of all the memes and cartoons; their humor is mostly shallow and I think it distracts us from being able to get grounded. Keep striving for normal, even if it’s a new normal.
“No one has been here before.” I just heard Governor Cuomo say this as he consoles and encourages us. Remember that we’re all in this together and none of us is alone. And we will get through this.
Stay safe and make a nice dinner.