Cooking and Covid-19: A Kitchen Primer for the Pandemic

Most of us are feeling adrift, unsettled and perhaps more than a bit frightened. But we still have to eat. And it would be nice if the menu featured more than ice cream, potato chips and bananas. I cook, and I’ve been Zooming away with family and friends from my little house in Los Angeles. It’s my hope that this journal will entertain you, make you feel a little more connected and, most of all, help you navigate your own kitchen. Let me know what you think.

March 14, Saturday

My husband and I returned home to Los Angeles early today from a vacation in Portugal. Coronavirus has been on our minds for months, but Portugal felt safe; to be frank, we were not sure what coronavirus-unsafe might feel like. There were some masks among the faces walking the hilly cobblestone streets of Lisbon and Porto, but not many. We felt a little in uncharted territory, so I bought one small bottle of hand sanitizer gel, remarkably in the first pharmacy we tried. Later, of course, I realized that bottle held liquid gold, when people in L.A. and elsewhere began hoarding it, along with wipes and flour and toilet paper.

We’ve obviously arrived in a different city than the one we left. In the passport line, the chatter was all about coronavirus, about cutting vacations short, escaping before it became impossible to get home — confusion abounded about the president’s statement that he’d stop travel from Europe. That didn’t happen for U.S. citizens.

After passport control, we were sent to a table where we were asked for our flight and seat numbers and told we must quarantine ourselves for two weeks, the rule for everyone coming from Europe.

But we have to eat, so we agreed on one shopping trip. And that’s how this journal began.

Not so many decades ago, cooking three meals a day was the norm, and for many people that only occasionally involved recipes. Confidence in the kitchen builds over time, with effort and error — and for me joy. I hope to help readers get through it, with ideas, suggestions and a few recipes.

We still can only guess how, but we know that coronavirus has changed our lives for a long time to come. I hope that one way will be a surge in cooking at home.

(A little about me: I’ve been cooking for 55 years. And writing about food for a few decades. When my day sucks, I find my equilibrium by walking in the door, dropping my things and starting cooking.)

March 15, Sunday

I asked my friend Diane if she wanted to ride with me to the farmers market in L.A.’s Mar Vista neighborhood — normally a crowded, family-friendly spot with dozens of vendors. She suggested that my husband and I don’t really understand what’s going on in Los Angeles or what social distancing means. She was right. Quickly, we learned how to embrace friends from a distance. That meant, in part, offering to shop for her, not with her.

The husband and I went to our neighborhood supermarket and got another lesson, one that left us reluctant to return. Organized markets eventually painted lines on the ground outside, six feet apart, so shoppers can stand and look at their phones while waiting to get inside. (One shop let two people in at once; others seemed to have no maximums.) And similar lines get painted on the floor for waiting for cashiers. But there were no six-feet police in the aisles. No one stopped the self-important man who walked too close to me when I was choosing cereal, or the tiny crowd of people fruitlessly searching for wipes and toilet paper.

That was our last unthinking trip to any store. We started googling for alternative ways to get food.

BCV (Before coronavirus), a meal might start with an idea about what you want to eat. Spaghetti and meatballs, salmon with dill, a vegetable stir-fry with rice? ACV, the starting point changed.

ACV, I start with a survey of what’s in the kitchen. What might go bad and should be used now? A big bunch of Swiss chard? Hmm. There’s also that package of quinoa bought with thoughts of recreating that salad you ate a hipster café? Or what about all those dried beans that seemed like a good idea at the time? Leftover capers or anchovies in the fridge? Maybe it’s time to excavate the freezer?

Here’s the time to trust yourself and your taste buds, to take a chance. Reading cookbooks can be the perfect inspiration. But no matter how expert the source, a recipe is one person’s choices. I don’t always need the best, especially if it will take all day. I rarely use a recipe as it’s written; I’m either missing an ingredient or feel like I’d like the dish better with a tweak. Besides, running out for one or two ingredients is out of the question ACV. And there’s plenty to cook without recipes.

March 16, Monday

It’s not quite spring, and it’s not quite warm. Definitely soup time.

Instead of looking through cookbooks or looking online, I started with what I had: a big bag of carrots and thought of a silky French-style cream soup. But without chicken stock, just half an onion and no cream, it won’t exactly be the stone soup of fable. Still, the resulting carrot soup was delicious, and as long as you have carrots, you too can make carrot soup.

Here’s one way: Chop the onion any old way, add it to a large pot with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. I added a spoonful — maybe a tablespoon? — of curry powder. (Turmeric, nutmeg, thyme, tarragon — all come to mind as flavors that would work.) While that cooked on low heat, I put a pot of 5 or 6 cups of water to boil, added a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a couple of floppy celery stalks (celery seed would work), and some parsley stems. That will be my stock.

Add the chopped carrots, a pound or so, it doesn’t much matter, to the onion. You should wash the carrots, but if you bought them directly from the farmer who grew them — or you grew them yourself— you may not need to peel them. (And you can save the tops to make pesto or stock.) Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Drain your stock, and add it to the pot. Cover the pot and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the carrots are quite tender.

Let the soup cool a little or a lot. Then, if you have an immersion blender, use it to puree the soup to your liking. A blender or food processor also work. Taste and add salt and pepper. To serve, garnish with a green herb — parsley or dill or tarragon — or a bit of chopped carrot greens. Freeze the leftovers, or freeze the whole batch, in portions.

People have been eating soup for thousands of years; among its joys is its versatility. Lobster makes soup, and the least expensive leftovers make soup, too. You can start with whatever you’ve got. I’ll suggest more versions as the days go by.

March 18, Wednesday

We found ourselves a bit behind in developing the coping skills that other people in Los Angeles are using. All this Zooming! We have a Russian class on Zoom tomorrow, on Saturday our first Zoom party, and on Sunday we will attend a Zoom shiva service (usually at someone’s home after the death of a loved one). It’s remarkable to see people far away when I can’t visit those on my block. Most of all my sons; I loved seeing their faces, but like many people I wondered if this sort of contact will replace the real thing.

But we cannot cook and eat on the web. Time to use that package of quinoa. Like rice, quinoa goes well with all sorts of meats, vegetables and seasonings. It became a darling of the high-protein crowd and although we use it like rice, it’s actually a seed, not a grain. It’s rich in protein and fiber. It’s good hot or cold, and it’s a cinch to cook — just rinse it first or it can taste bitter. The package probably has directions, but if not, add one cup of quinoa to 1 ¾ cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and cover the pot. It will be done in about 15 minutes.

You can use stock instead of water, or add salt, or aromatics (garlic, rosemary, etc.). You can also cook the rinsed quinoa dry in the saucepan for a couple of minutes before combining it with water to give it a toasty flavor.

Make the quinoa in the morning if you like and set it aside until it’s time to make dinner.

I used lots of greens, two or three bunches, with my quinoa. Because that’s what I had. People who buy what’s in season are swimming in greens these days, depending on where you live. Chard, kale, mustards and the rest can feel overwhelming, for sure. But think: When I take that first bite of ripe nectarines, or smell the first tomato from my yard when I cut into it, I never imagine I will say, “Enough!” But I do. Usually, just as I grow too tired of something, it goes out of season.

So love those greens. Or if you cannot love them all at once, cook them in a small amount of water; let them drain and cool and freeze them.

Back to dinner. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add chopped onion or leek, plus chopped celery and-or carrots. When they are cooked, after 5 or 6 minutes, add what pleases you. Small pieces of broccoli, cauliflower, chopped greens (If what you have is frozen greens, they work.), red peppers, curry powder or other spices. When those are cooked to your liking, add the quinoa. Stir for a couple of minutes until the food is hot. If you want to, add some sliced almonds or unsalted pistachios. That and a salad and you’ve got dinner.

March 20, 2020

I learned to cook as a child, with my mom and Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, which cleverly has cakes and cookies as Chapter One. For me and my three siblings, helping with Christmas cookies was our first important experience; these went to neighbors and friends on Christmas Eve morning. Maybe that’s why I bake a lot. Desserts, not bread. My grandmother baked bread daily, and my mom recounted how much she hated taking that bread to school rather than the store-bought bread sandwiches her classmates had. As a result, she refused to make bread. Ever.

And a second childhood experience will help explain why, to me, there is no dessert better than ice cream. My dad, whose cooking was limited to Sunday lunches of grape jelly omelets and the stereotypical outdoor grill, bought a hand-crank ice cream maker. And we actually used it all the time.

Today, decades later, I make half-hearted attempts to keep ice cream out of the house — to get a cone at a scoop shop. If we have it in the freezer, the husband will have a small dish, and if left to his own, clearly incomprehensible, ways, let the rest die of freezer burn.

But with no ice cream in the house, I decided on another sweet. I had a bag of pecan halves, and I had a jug of maple syrup. And I found just what I needed in the book Tartine, by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, a Hanukkah gift from my husband.

There are many, many recipes for glazed nuts, and they are easy to make — easy enough that they’re not worthy buying. Yours will be better. Use pecans or other nuts, cinnamon, cumin or cayenne or salt. Eat them with cocktails, or add them to a salad. Or grab handfuls while you read.

This time, I made Tartine’s Maple-Glazed Pecans. Here’s how:

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick liner.

In a bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons each of maple syrup, corn syrup and sugar. Add a pinch of salt. Add 2 ¼ cups of pecan halves and mix well to coat the nuts evenly. Spread them on the baking sheet. (I didn’t measure the nuts and all was well, but if it makes you feel better, by all means, measure.)

Toast, stirring every few minutes, for 4 to 6 minutes. The nuts are done when they are golden brown and the syrup mixture is slowly bubbling. Remove from the oven and let them cool completely in the pan. The recipe says they’ll keep two weeks in an airtight container, but we never got to that point.

One other way — maybe the best way — to eat these? Chopped and sprinkled on ice cream!

March 22, Sunday

We court chance all the time, at casinos or on soccer fields or, in the stock market, even just crossing against the light — wagers that are more or less momentous. Take a chance, buy a raffle ticket, place your bet, buy the lady a drink. Chance makes the heart beat faster, makes people feel more alive.

But the sort of chance we are living through only makes death feel closer. No matter your age. And Covid-19 feels closer each day, a colleague’s brother, a friend’s friend, our niece and then predictably, her husband. Even our son, who was not ill enough for one of those elusive tests but whose doctor suspects he, with his asthma-compromised respiratory system, lived through a mild case.

My husband and I are in a vulnerable category because we are over 60, and he has a fragile respiratory system. Are you distracted by jokes like this one?

At 7:45 a.m. today at a grocery store that opened at 8 for seniors only, a young man came from the parking lot and tried to cut in at the front of the line. But an old lady beat him back into the parking lot with her walker.

The young man returned and tried to cut in again, but an old man punched him in the gut, then kicked him to the ground and rolled him away.

As he approached the line for the third time he said, “If you don’t let me unlock the door, you’ll never get in there.”

It’s not that funny to me. I don’t like pitting one group against another. But the lines at stores are not always orderly, and tempers can rage when pierced by fear and scarcity. We need to encourage kindness and resilience in speech and action.

I think that’s why it matters to make at least some of your own food. It’s less expensive and gives you the sense that you can care for yourself. And maybe you will fall in love with your kitchen and start making food for your neighbors.

If you find a container of rolled oats in your cupboard, that’s a good start. A super-easy entrée into making your own food is granola. I’m going to tell you how I make it, and some of the many substitutions that work, but you should try what appeals to you. The basic idea is some dry ingredients and some liquid. Mix them together and bake. You need a big bowl and a big spoon to start.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

I put 6 cups of oats into a big bowl. When I say 6, I mean sort of 6. A bit more, a bit less is just fine with the oats and with all the ingredients. Add a cup of any or all of these: almonds, walnuts or any other nut, whole or chopped, your choice; flax seeds, sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds; unsweetened coconut. Add spices of your choosing, from a teaspoon to a tablespoon, including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg. Add a half-teaspoon of salt.

Now for the liquid. I use a total of about 1 ¼ cups. And I play around with the ratio of fats to sugars, going as high as a cup of sugars. I usually use a combination of honey and maple syrup for sweetener. For fats, grapeseed oil, coconut oil or whatever mild oil I have.

Stir everything together so the dry ingredients are all coated. Spread on a baking sheet and put in the oven, removing the pan every 15 or 20 minutes to gently stir the mixture, for a total of 45 minutes. If you like your granola darker or lighter, adjust the time accordingly.

Let the granola cool and then add raisins or dried cranberries, or candied ginger chopped small. Or whatever else you like. It’s great for breakfast. Or … on ice cream.

March 25, Wednesday

More soon. Till then, wash your hands and stay safe. Thank you for reading.

Longtime food writer, now food grower. Journalist, reader, traveler

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