My Pandemic Diary, Entry #81
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
I’m exhausted and distracted. Aren’t we all? The combination of Covid fears along with the impending election has made a disturbing stew of pandemic and politics that has worn us all out. What I’d give for a day with no nervously read voter polls; instead a day filled only with the normal anxieties of life, plus some social proximity.
It’s probably why I’ve also been having trouble focusing for the last couple of months. It must be due to all the stress. Je suis stressée. I am stressed, as I learned in a recent French lesson as my teacher gave me examples of the language’s word families. Le stress, the noun. Je suis stressée, the adjective. Stresser, the verb. I speak them all.
We’re now in mid-autumn which has always been my favorite time of year and I’ve been trying to enjoy it despite being denied some of my most anticipated fall rituals, like when The New York Times announces “The New Season.” I’d always read it with a pad of paper at hand, making my list of plays and concerts, the cabaret shows and club acts, and all the must-do’s that make New York the thrill that it is. It’s true we can still read the new fall books and maybe see gallery and museum shows, and that is, of course, exciting. But it’s not enough to make up for all the silent stages and arenas and orchestra pits. I am so sick of pretending that Zoom performances are satisfying. They are not.
The election is next week and with it we’ll hopefully get some resolution and just maybe, the fear will subside and the knot in my stomach will begin to untie. I’ve believed my whole life that complaining gets you nothing, except maybe a sour reputation. But not this time. This time the worry led to courage because as Yeats wrote in The Second Coming, coincidentally, during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic:
“… things fall apart;
the center cannot hold;
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;”
But further he also wrote, “Surely some revelation is at hand.” Yeats knew a lot and you can read the entire poem here.
Indeed, some revelation is at hand, and for whatever lies ahead for our country, and also because Covid is going to be fearsome in the coming winter months, we have to be alert and strategic, even if it’s hard. I’m like everyone else, fighting boredom and feeling unmotivated and just sick of it all. But we still must find resilience. Small things can help.
For me, cooking every day remains a comfort and the vehicle I know best for taking care of ourselves and others. It can also keep a routine in our withdrawn lives as we stop to cook a meal and then sit at the table. Alone or together, every day.
Many of us are wrestling with how to deal with the upcoming food-centric holidays when it will be unwise to gather with those we love. I’m of the mind that it would be a mistake to do a minimized or compromised version of past traditions because all that does is emphasize what we don’t have and what we’re being denied. Thanksgiving is about bounty and generosity, and being together. How grim to instead have a mini-me.
I think it may be smarter to keep the spirit of giving thanks but do a meal that is entirely different from the usual since much of what we think of as normal -- especially the company -- may be unavailable. Better to make our pandemic holidays unique and as something to remember with appreciation and not disappointment. For example, this Wall Street Journal article features recipes for three savory pies that could bring both fall flavors (a red onion, carrots and hazelnut tatin) and surprises (mac 'n' cheese pie) to any autumn holiday. The recipes are all from The Pie Room*, an appealing new cookbook from British chef and savory pie advocate Calum Franklin.
I’m anticipating Mark and I will be just us for these holidays. What I’ve thought of so far for Thanksgiving is to first set up some Zoom cocktail events so that we can at least see and talk with our dear ones even if they’re not at our table. Then, for just us, I’m going to roast a ham that’s currently in my freezer, sent to me by my darling niece. I imagine it will take as long to defrost as a frozen turkey would, and maybe just as long to roast. I’ll be a ham traditionalist and make biscuits, plus roasted sweet potatoes (both with good Irish butter) and I think maybe also a favorite red cabbage salad that will add color, texture and acidity from its vinaigrette dressing. And I’ll cook it all while watching whatever Macy’s will have for us instead of Snoopy floating down Central Park West.
The rest of my daily life has been Covid-normal. I’m on my exercise bike almost every day, my French lessons continue, I got my flu shot, I voted, I’m reading. We stay in regular touch with friends, some of whom are ill, although not with Covid, but still we worry. From a conversation while on-line at our weekly Greenmarket, I learned about and have since bought the AIRism masks sold at Uniqlo (3 for $14.90); they're washable and comfortable and I swear my glasses fog up less with them. I re-potted some plants and have been reorganizing some of my recipe notebooks, those containing decades of recipes torn out of magazines, and Mark and I take care of home and each other while remaining in our very small anti-social pod.
I mentioned reading. A new book I enjoyed is by New Yorker writer Bill Buford called Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking.* Here’s The Times’ review.
And here’s an article that Pete Wells did about Buford’s chicken obsessions and their cooking together on Zoom.
Buford also wrote an earlier and similar book, this one about cooking in Italy, called Heat (prompting some wag to say that his next book will be called “Gout”). What Buford does in both Heat and Dirt is embed himself into a country, a city, a food culture, and a restaurant or two to perform a culinary version of going local. In Dirt, he lived and worked in Lyon for five years. For Francophiles, Buford’s new book is very appetizing and I thought that besides the cooking and the eating, his recounting of what it’s like to be an expat (along with his wife and 3-year-old twin boys) is particularly enlightening for anyone who’s ever fantasized about moving to France.
Groceries and Cooking
Besides prepping daily dinners, two things have been driving my recent grocery shopping. The first is that the early fall is simply the best and most irresistible time of year for shopping at a New York farmers market. Everything is gorgeous. You can get the last of the tomatoes, there are still green beans and small tender zucchini and tiny beets, huge red peppers, and some lettuces and glorious greens. But there’s also the first local broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, apples and pears and quince, and small, bright orange sweet potatoes. This is when I have to hold myself back from buying too much, being greedy since I know that with the first frost, everything will change and much will either fade or disappear until next summer.
My other motivator is making sure my pantry is ready for whatever is coming, which may be a dark and despairing winter. Already I’m finding that there are unexpected shortages. For example, for weeks, Whole Foods couldn’t get panko. “A supplier problem,” I was told. Last Friday I couldn’t find romaine hearts. Anywhere. The price of strawberries, both conventional and organic, had skyrocketed, although a produce manager told me it was due to the fires in California. But mostly my markets seem in good shape and I’ve read numerous articles about how the nation’s grocery industry is preparing for the coming cold weather when they expect to see some renewed panic shopping.
Over the summer I gradually built up my pantry to something about twice what I had before the pandemic began. The criteria I used was how disruptive would it be for the way I like to cook to have an ingredient be hard to get. I started with a list of the shelf-stable have-to-haves (e.g., olive oil, salt, peppercorns, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, flour, farro, pasta, tuna, nuts) and then moved on to the nice-to-haves (e.g., peanut butter, chutney, salsa, panko, artichoke hearts). I began all this shopping with a master list and as I brought things into my kitchen (plus an adjacent storage closet that Mark cleaned out for me, adding a couple of shelves) I started writing an inventory which I taped inside the door of a cabinet. Now as I cook, if I use something from the pantry, the next time I grocery shop I replace it so that I continuously have two or three (or more if it's an essential) back-ups for each item.
My freezer, which is large, is also full. During the warm weather I bought lots of fresh basil and made four containers of pesto which should brighten a frigid day with the taste of summer. I’ve also got sausages from Esposito’s, butter, bacon, pine nuts, Parmesan rinds for soup, bags of petite peas, a few one-pound packages of ground beef, three duck breasts, three quarts of chicken stock, three lamb shanks, two NY strip steaks, some salmon filets, and as much chicken for which as I had room.
Have I over-planned or over-shopped? These are all things that I use regularly so there will be no waste if I have gotten too far ahead of our needs. I’ve done the same with things like toothpaste and paper towels. With all there is to worry about, I don’t want the fear of running out of tuna fish to be one of them.
But how should we deal with cooking boredom? The day-to-day duty of putting dinner on the table gets tired. I think it’s particularly tough on those for whom daily cooking was not the norm before Covid hit.
What continues to work for me is having a repertoire of easy meals that you’re confident in making and keep these in rotation. Have about 15 to 20 or so dishes that will meet your criteria (omnivores or vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free, etc.) and make these during the week. They needn’t be fancy; scrambled eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches can be very satisfying. This will also help you grocery shop and stock and keep your pantry. Include dishes that make good leftovers and double the recipe so that you routinely cook once and eat twice; adding freshly cooked vegetables or maybe pasta or a grain to a leftover main course can make it seem un-leftover.
Then on weekends, when you have more time and less pressure, you can be more adventuresome and try new recipes. If you have multiple cooks at home, let each have their own special dishes or days of the week when they’re responsible for the meal, maybe also joining in on the weekend cooking because once in a while one of the weekend discoveries may end up in your regular weekday rotation. Weekends are also good for making things that require more time or supervision but that you can then serve during the week, such as soup or pizza dough.
Here are some of the things I’ve cooked in the last month. I may have mentioned some of these before which would make sense because, as I said, they're in my rotation:
- Broiled salmon steaks I rubbed with a Cajun spice mix (I used one from my Fish Without a Doubt cookbook but you can use any fish-friendly rub), served with roasted broccoli. It’s a meal that's a snap to make; get the broccoli in the oven first and then once done, broil the fish.
- Israeli couscous with garlic, tomatoes and spinach (I double the recipe's cherry tomatoes and triple the amount of spinach), tossed with separately cooked pan-seared shrimp. It's an excellent recipe I discovered on Instagram from blogger Jamie Geller whose website is terrific.
- Turkey burgers with a baby kale salad and wedges of sweet potatoes which are especially flavorful this time of year. The recipes are from the Milk Street Tuesday Nights cookbook and the salad/sweet potato pairing is also featured in the current issue of Milk Street Magazine.
The kale salad by itself has become a favorite and I make it often. Just make sure you use baby kale as unlike other raw kale, it’s tender enough for a salad:
5 oz. baby kale
½ cup chopped cilantro (I leave this out because I can’t eat cilantro)
3 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
1 small garlic clove, grated
4 teaspoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons evoo
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon white miso
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (I substitute pumpkin seeds that I lightly toast in a tiny bit of evoo)
Combine the baby kale, cilantro, and scallions in a bowl. In a small dish combine the grated garlic and sherry vinegar and let it sit for 10 minutes to mellow the garlic. Add the evoo, pepper and miso and use a fork to whisk until it’s combined. Pour on the kale mixture and toss to coat. Sprinkle with the toasted walnuts or pumpkin seeds.
- Stuffed red peppers (stuffed with a classic ground beef and rice mixture) and steamed green and yellow string beans. The peppers make great leftovers.
- Broiled lamb steaks served with roasted little beets with feta cheese and a green salad.
- Chicken cutlets served on a bed of arugula mixed with thin slices of red onion, halved cherry tomatoes, and croutons made with the last stale piece of the She Wolf bread I buy almost every Friday at my Greenmarket, and dressed with my usual vinaigrette that I make in large amounts and keep refrigerated. I use Ina Garten’s method for the chicken cutlets.
- Beef stew (a very classic recipe I’ve used for years, from America’s Test Kitchen) made with beef chuck, carrots, potatoes and peas, served with a side of roasted zucchini and some good bread. Makes excellent leftovers.
- Red snapper, pan-seared and served on a bed of thyme-scented tomato and onion purée and topped with crispy cooked rounds of eggplant, all from a simply gorgeous recipe by French chef Pierre Troisgros and published in the NY Times. This was a new recipe for me and it's definitely staying in rotation. It may at first seem fussy but in fact it’s easy (although it takes a little bit of time) and is really delicious.
- Chicken au vinaigre, an old-fashioned and extremely tasty dish, using a recipe by David Lebovitz who based it on one by Patricia Wells who got hers from a bistro chef in Paris. It’s inexpensive to make and you don’t need fancy vinegar (I used Colavita); plus you can use chicken pieces, such as thighs on the bone, instead of a whole chicken cut up. Suspend your suspicions about all the red wine vinegar. It really works and produces a divine sauce that makes it perfect with egg noodles and a green vegetable. This also makes good leftovers as it reheats beautifully.
I’ve come upon a few things that you might find useful. The first is an article from Epicurious that is a guide for roasting vegetables. I’ve bookmarked it and while you may think roasting vegetables doesn’t need much skill, it turns out there are things to learn. Here’s the link.
I love to roast butternut and other types of squash and in the past, I’d discard their seeds, not being sure what to do with them. Now I never throw them away because all you have to do is clean them up and roast them. They’re really good for us and can be even more delicious than any you’d find in a store, plus you can customize their seasonings to your liking. Here’s a good article with some tips, including five ways to roast them.
Another article from Epicurious is about taking care of our kitchens. I think this piece about the best ways to clean our countertops is really helpful and it changed some of the methods and materials I used to use.
In the category of bad news, my long-favorite cooking magazine, Fine Cooking, has been sold by Taunton to Meredith, the publishing company that also owns Food & Wine. There have been layoffs and at the moment, their amazing recipe and article online archive is not available. There are reports that it will be restored and that the magazine will publish a November/December issue, which is the next one due to its subscribers. I now regret never printing out some of my most favorite recipes from their site, especially their Classic Pound Cake and Chicken Pot Pies and if they resuscitate their website, I will immediately do so. It's an annoying reminder that going paperless has its risks, certainly when someone else controls the access.
Nigella Lawson has a new cookbook out and after a long time of being out of the spotlight, she has done a very revealing and tender interview with The Guardian. Here it is.
And finally, in the spirit of trying to find ways to make our Covid-era holidays fun, who can make you feel happier than the endearing, hugely talented and grace-filled Dolly Parton. She’s joined up with Williams Sonoma so that you can now make and decorate Dolly Parton holiday cookies, which if I ate cookies I would absolutely do. If you’re not a fan, maybe this article about her in The New Yorker will inspire some respect.
Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.
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