My Pandemic Diary, Entry #79
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
I was stunned when I realized that I haven’t written in my pandemic diary for more than a month. Who knew that time could fly so fast when you’re still staying home? But I’ve got some things to share because I've been keeping track of my daily activities by keeping notes about tasks begun, work finished, groceries bought, books read, and what’s for dinner.
It’s August and New York City is still catching its collective breath from the agonies of our pandemic spring. But it’s not a time for anyone in NYC, or anywhere else, to relax or get cocky. We all watch the news. We know there is a long way to go. But right now here at home, we're doing better, wearing our masks, and being cautious which has let Governor Cuomo lift some restrictions. At least for me, that's made it less terrifying to go out into the city, although I always wear my All-Birds shoes because you never know when you'll want to get off a bus if it's too crowded and instead walk 25 blocks home, which I did once last week.
Still, this feels like a reprieve so this summer I retrieved the lists I made during the worst of the shut-down and I started taking care of business because like others, I believe that this fall and winter could be another rough ride and we may need to be ready to stay home again.
So what’s on those lists? Mark and I each went to the dentist. I checked in with my primary care doctor, first with a tele-medicine call in June and then an in-person visit last week, and Mark is seeing his doctor later this month. Both his and my doctors have already made us commit to getting our flu shots in mid-October, not that we were resistant. And I got a haircut and color so that I could be a redhead again and recognize myself in the mirror.
At home, I had my ten-year-old washer and dryer checked out and tuned up so that they’ll last another winter. We changed the HEPA filter on our vacuum cleaner. The recumbent bicycle we ordered in May finally arrived as did some five and ten-pound hand-weights. Since we're now officially at-home gym rats, we cancelled our gym memberships, despite the fact that they're closed and who knows when, if ever, they'll open again.
We also cleaned out a closet off of the kitchen so to make more room for things like paper towels, bottles of olive oil, and cans of tuna. After some anxious shopping in March, we now know what we actually need and at what pace we use things, so I've expanded the concept of having a back-up, whether it’s toothpaste or mayonnaise, with a goal to have a deeply stocked pantry by the end of September.
Aside from trying to keep my domestic life in order and getting ready for another cautious fall and winter, I’ve been busy with some projects. I want to share the most important one with you and it has nothing to do with cooking.
I mentioned how I just saw my primary care doctor. She is an amazing woman who, in addition to having some lucky patients like me, runs one of the fellowships at New York’s leading teaching hospital and lectures to other doctors across the country, especially in rural areas. Right now she is particularly empathetic with her patients and other practitioners because she had a terrible case of Covid-19 in March – “I wasn’t surprised I got it,” she said, describing what the Covid crisis was like for health care workers -- and even now, four months later, she is still not 100% well.
When we saw each other last week, she spoke about how the recovery from Covid is a long, and sometimes dangerous journey. You may survive the virus but that doesn’t mean you are well again, meaning that Covid is not a single event. Instead it can linger, challenging patients, their doctors, and other caregivers.
My doctor spoke of these things after I told her about a website that two dear friends of mine created. It’s called CovidPhysicalTherapy.com. It provides free basic physical therapy and after-care exercises for Covid survivors and it was conceived and produced by Dr. Judith Meer, who has a DPT in physical therapy from NYU, and her husband Todd Rengel (I officiated at their wedding 4 years ago) who is president of Animus Rex, a long-established NYC web design firm. Todd and his team also designed and built TheCityCook.com which is how we met 14 years ago.
This spring, as Judith and Todd were at home, they felt helpless as they watched Covid terrorize our communities. So they did what they knew how to do. And that was to create free on-line access to expert physical therapy support for Covid survivors who need help but may be financially struggling, or don’t have insurance, or have no proximity to physical therapists. Judith called on respected PT industry leaders to share insights and encouragement, and she went on-camera to demonstrate how to do basic PT exercises designed for Covid survivors, all of which Todd then used to create a handsome, welcoming, and easy-to-use website. I am helping these two wonderful people promote and publicize what they've created so that those who could use the site can find it.
There are no strings attached to CovidPhysicalTherapy.com. You don’t need to register to use it. It’s free. It’s private. You don’t need Zoom or any app to access it. You can be anywhere in the world and it's there for you. It was created pro bono by these two dear and sincere experts in their fields who just want to give back.
If you who know any Covid survivors who are still struggling to regain their strength and health, or who are physical therapists or other health care providers with Covid patients, please pass along this link to CovidPhysicalTherapy.com. Judith and Todd would be very grateful and so would I.
Groceries and Cooking
At least in the NYC area, this has been a miserably hot and humid summer, with relentless ninety-plus-degree days. So who wants to eat, let alone cook? But we can’t live on salads alone, or at least I can’t, so I’ve been cooking.
I’ve mostly kept to my usual repertoire which has meant lots of fish – salmon, cod, swordfish, black cod, wild shrimp, canned tuna -- cooked both stove-top and in the oven, plus roasted chicken thighs, sautéed cutlets (either pork or chicken), burgers (beef, pork or lamb), and the occasional beef or lamb steak seared in a cast iron pan. But this mix of proteins has been out-shined by really wonderful produce from our weekly Greenmarket. At my neighborhood's market, the bounty has been amazing lettuces, zucchini, jewelry-like little beets, thin green and yellow string beans, potatoes, gorgeous greens, and of course, New Jersey tomatoes and peaches.
Trying not to get bored with eating and cooking the same things all the time, I’ve tried a few new recipes. Most were “meh,” but there were a few that I’ll gladly add to my dinner rotation. First was a mac & cheese from Food & Wine. I’m not a big M&C fan as I think it’s usually too heavy and just tastes like oily, gummy salt, but this one appealed to me because it was lighter (no béchamel) and it used two rather complex cheeses (no cheddar), plus I liked the idea of serving it with a few slices of prosciutto. I added a green salad and both Mark and I loved it.
Next, after searching for a new way to cook boneless chicken thighs, I found this Melissa Clark/New York Times recipe for Gingery Grilled Chicken Thighs With Charred Peaches and it's outstanding. While written for a grill, it’s easy to adapt it to a stove-top and broiler combo and I’ve now made it twice. I’m not sure I’d make this unless I had really great in-season peaches but it could easily become a favorite summer meal.
Then one weekend I cooked an all-Spanish meal using José Andrés’ great cookbook, Made In Spain. The centerpiece was a boneless pork loin baked in a salt crust. I’ve baked whole fish in a salt crust before but not meat. It’s a surprisingly simple method (add water and/or egg whites to kosher salt until it's like wet sand and then just pat it all over the fish or pork loin to seal it in, as if you're making a clay oven around whatever you're cooking) and while you’d think all that salt would make whatever you’re roasting salty, it doesn’t at all.
Roast pork loin can often be tasteless and dry, but this roast was splendidly juicy and flavorful (although without a browned surface). It’s served in thick slices alternating with thin pieces of Serrano ham, then drizzled with good olive oil. It’s worth the price of the book just for this recipe, I think. To go with it I made another Andrés recipe for Cold Tomato Bread Salad, which is like a panzanella and dressed with a combo of pimentón, garlic, parsley, sherry vinegar and olive oil. I happened to have an open bottle of excellent Spanish olive oil on hand so I felt very authentic making this meal (but any good olive oil will do). All I was missing was a chilled Cava.
Finally, not exactly a new recipe but I had the idea to make toppings to go on or with simply made meats, fish and vegetables. These are not fancy sauces but instead are easy-to-assemble and don’t require cooking. Specifically I made basil pesto, tzatziki (the Greek yogurt/cucumber/garlic/mint or dill dip), and salsa verde. The plus of making such toppings is that on a hot summer day, you can cook something very simply and then make them special and more interesting, as with a lamb burger topped with tzatziki, or a piece of broiled swordfish drizzled with salsa verde, or a platter of Greenmarket vegetables with pesto. While the tzatziki and salsa verde are best made soon before using them, remember that basil pesto freezes beautifully so make extra and freeze it now, while fresh basil is plentiful and cheaper, and you’ll be happy to defrost a little container of it mid-winter to add to a bowl of bucatini.
Pesto by Marcella Hazan (first published in The Classic Italian Cookbook)
2 cloves peeled garlic, lightly crushed
2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature (I usually leave this out because I think the pesto’s flavor is fresher without it)
Put the garlic clove into a blender or food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the basil, olive oil, pine nuts and salt and process, stopping from time to time to scrape down the sides of the basket. When evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand (you’ll get a better texture by adding these by hand instead of in the processor). When the cheese is evenly incorporated, beat in the softened butter. Before spooning the pesto over the pasta, add a tablespoon or so of the hot pasta water.
I follow this basic recipe by Martha Rose Shulman, although usually I only make a half quantity of what her recipe calls for. It’s easy to start with one-cup of yogurt, adjusting the other quantities to that. I find it tastes best using full-fat Greek yogurt if you can use that, and remember to put in the time to salt and extract the water from the shredded cucumbers because otherwise you’ll have a wet mess. In addition to her recipe, take a look at the readers’ comments which I found very useful since there are many versions of this popular tangy dip. I particularly love this on steamed little just-dug new potatoes or beets.
Salsa Verde from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins
1/3 c. capers (if you use salt-packed ones, soak them first in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes and rinse in 2 or 3 changes of water; drain well; if using brined capers, drain from the brine and rinse them in cold water and drain well)
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 anchovy fillets
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
Process capers, parsley, anchovy fillets, cornichons, and lemon zest in a food processor to a slightly chunky purée. With the machine running, slowly add the oil and lemon juice (don't over-process). I really love this on fish or steamed vegetables.
Finally, while it’s not a new recipe for me, I made a new batch of Worcestershire sauce. If you use this ingredient with any frequency, it’s really worth the small effort to make your own, not only because there are no additives in homemade Worcestershire, but also because its tangy, spicy, vinegary, slightly hot and slightly sweet flavor is so far better than Lea & Perrins.
It’s easy to make, and my favorite recipe produces about 1 1/2 cups. It begins with chopping up a few ingredients like jalapeños, garlic, ginger and shallots, then adding umami-flavored things like soy sauce, fish sauce, and tamarind paste (don’t skip this – it’s key to the sauce’s tang), plus vinegar, molasses, mustard seeds and brown sugar. Put everything into a quart-sized jar with a good lid – I use a Bell canning jar – then place it in a paper bag and put it in a dark cool place like a closet, and let it sit for two weeks to ferment, giving it a shake every couple of days. Strain and decant the dark liquid into little jars (or one big one) and refrigerate it and it will keep for easily a year.
I use it in marinades, Caesar salad dressing, and of course, Bloody Marys.
The web is full of recipes for Worcestershire, but I’ve always used one from a very fun and terrific book called Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It And Other Kitchen Projects, by Karen Solomon. Her recipe is similar to this version from Saveur.
August is already feeling like the weather is due to shift toward fall so time continues to flee. While I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that it’s often hard to focus when you don’t know what you're planning for, let's try to make precious use of this remarkable time and enjoy being outdoors. And if you haven’t yet done it, make sure you’re registered to vote.
Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.