My Pandemic Diary, Entry #5
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s a rainy day in Manhattan but the temperature is mild and the parks are full of daffodils so it definitely feels like spring. Despite intending to do otherwise, I got a slightly late start to everything today because I wanted to first read for a while. I find that once the day gets started, I stay busy and I never get enough time to read. But getting outdoors is a joy, so Mark and I finally ventured out into the soft rain for our three-mile walk. For most of it, we were completely alone. There was little car traffic and I doubt we passed thirty other walkers both coming and going; I should have counted.
The rest of my day should be like the past week or so: I am writing to you. I’ll call a friend or two. I’ll fuss over my food plans and inventories, I'll do some housework and make dinner, and I’ll do a little French homework.
Cooking and Groceries
Last night’s dinner was leftover tilapia from two days ago, a side of DeCecco spinach spaghetti topped with a beef ragu I found buried in my freezer, and a tossed salad. Tonight I’m going to roast chicken thighs (425° F for about 40 minutes) which I bought about two months ago at Whole Foods and then had stashed in the freezer.
I’m lucky to have a rather large freezer but it’s not bottomless, although lately it has seemed that way, so I’ve become more serious about meals to make from the canned foods I have on hand. I launched TheCityCook.com about 12 years ago when it was one of the first home cooking websites, and while I don’t add new content to it at the same pace I used to, I do keep an eye on new cookbooks and knowing this, some publishers will send me review copies of new titles, like Take One Can by Lola Milne. What good timing! A terrific little cookbook about making real and interesting food from canned goods.
Ms. Milne is a Scottish food writer and photographer who had the idea that canned foods can be a recipe’s main event instead of just an addition. After all, a lot of canned foods are excellent and not at all like they used to be. Her chapters focus on legumes, tomatoes and vegetables, fish, and sweet ingredients. Its 80 recipes include things like Corn Fritters; Potato Latkes with Salmon Pâté; Sardine & Lemon Linguine; Chickpeas, Spiced Carrots & Tahini; Pear & Yogurt Pancakes; and Coconut Milk Panna Cotta. This book can be a handy resource not just for now, but for when we finally return to normal pantry cooking. And we will.
Two other pantry suppers that I already make in my non-quarantined life are recipes that I’ve had on The City Cook for years, and one of them, for Pasta with Cannellini Beans and Canned Tuna, was in my cookbook, published ten years ago (!). Spaghetti with Tomato Paste and Garlic is acutely simple; the only other ingredients you need are olive oil and the salted water to cook the pasta. Despite not photographing very well, it’s long been one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes and I think it highlights a pantry ingredient that many home cooks overlook, tomato paste.
I always keep a can or tube on hand because it can add depth to a stew, you can paint the top of a meatloaf or hamburger with tomato paste, add it to aromatics (onions, carrots, celery) at the start of a recipe, or to braising liquids. You can even just spread a piece of good bread with it, adding a sprinkle of salt or dried oregano.
Things To Do That Won’t Feel Like Killing Time
My French lessons are a bucket list thing I started about three years ago. I’m a slow language learner and my lousy memory doesn’t help. But I am slowly making progress, which is hugely gratifying as I am a Francophile (someone who loves France), not to be confused with a Francophone (someone who speaks French) which I aspire to be. The internet is a fabulous resource for learning a foreign language, with many free podcasts and YouTubers and websites that can keep you conjugating verbs for longer than this damn virus is going to last. Duolingo alone teaches about 100 languages, and its entry level access is free. It’s a great way to pull your focus from CNN and you can learn how to say “I am stir crazy” in Mandarin or Klingon.
At the risk of sounding like a tedious self-improver, I’ve also taken two courses from Coursera. I took one a couple of years ago in music theory that was given by faculty from The University of Edinburgh and it had the bonus of being taught by teachers with charming Scottish burrs. And before I faced the challenge of trying to learn French, I took what is Coursera’s most popular course, “Learning How To Learn.” Here’s an article The Times did about the course three years go. The Coursera courses are accessible but rigorous and the two that I have taken required passing tests before you can advance to the next level so they make you take them seriously.
If you want something more casual, there are Ted Talks. The range of topics is excellent.
Or if you are staying food-centric, the wonderful people at Milk Street have opened up their online cooking school for free through April 30. There’s something oddly appealing about the thought of learning knife skills online; just keep some Band-Aids handy. As I like to say about Chris Kimball -- what a mensch.
Stay safe and make a nice dinner.