Cooking and Covid-19: Chopping, Chard, Crackers and Cocktails

For many people, fears of covid-19 have given ground to frustration. Perhaps it’s not knowing when your office or school will reopen; or should you quarantine from your adult children; or when will the unemployment funds arrive. I am among the lucky ones: uninfected, housed, Internet-connected and not alone. The weather is warm, the sky is clear and cornflower blue. And it’s still hard.

March 26, Thursday

12:30 p.m. on Thursdays is a high point of my stay-home week. Diana Winston’s half-hour meditation moved from the Hammer Museum auditorium to Zoom. One of the nation’s best-known meditation teachers, she directs mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. I learned about Diana when, as a reporter for the L.A. Times, I wrote some stories about meditation.

My equanimity is pretty fragile these days, and meditation helps (that and a bowl of toasted coconut almond chip ice cream from McConnell’s). But today, even in meditation, we had a reminder of the fragility of the world. A Zoom bomber interrupted Diana, yelling out childish questions about genitals (we have come a long way from Prince Albert in a can), as hundreds of listeners prepared for “being here, now,” as they say in meditation circles. Even Diana was a little frazzled.

And this has what to do with food? BCV (before coronavirus), I came home from stressful days, dropped my bags and got to work chopping — one of my meditative practices. A salad that included thinly sliced Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts could take me from my LA traffic screeching brain to shoulders-relaxed, heart-open bliss.

Give chopping a chance.

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That salad? About a pound of thinly sliced Brussels sprouts, half a cup of finely chopped walnuts, half a cup of grated ricotta salata cheese (an Italian sheep cheese that I really love). Switch the cheese to Parmesan, or feta, whatever you have. For the dressing, mix a quarter cup of oil, with half as much lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste. The salad is good the next day, too. Notice how the texture changes as the dressing wilts the greens. No Brussels sprouts? Try flat-leaf kale. No walnuts? Try pecans or almonds. And there are endless additions or substitutions: pumpkin seeds, chopped bacon, dried cranberries or cherries.

My solution is not for everyone, including my friend Deborah. She posted on Facebook recently, “I am so ready to go out for dinner! #sickofthis #ihatechopping #donedonedone.”

March 27, Friday

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April 1, 2020, Wednesday

Are you baking yeast bread? Feeding a sourdough starter? No? Haven’t you heard? Those are required activities now, even if it means buying flour by the case and yeast by the pound.

Sheltering at home pretty naturally leads to homey pursuits: board games and baking, corona beards and gardening. People have been baking bread for thousands of years, most of that before the era of artisan bakeries. But in the modern world, we are too busy to hang out waiting for dough to rise. Oh, right. We all can do that now.

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The luckiest among us have housemates or neighbors who are baking more bread than they want to eat. My neighbor Sarah has twice dropped off still-warm sourdough loaves. My younger son lost his sous chef job in the pandemic and has been baking bread almost daily — too bad he lives 2,710 miles away.

I’ve been nudging everyone to just cook what’s in the kitchen. Bread almost counts. Flour, salt and water are likely there. Yeast maybe not, but the run on yeast seems to have slackened. You’ll need to use a recipe. But if just for the way the kitchen smells, baking bread is worth a shot.

The son has been using a poolish, which is a sponge, or starter, you can make a day ahead or the day of baking. Or maybe friends have offered you some of their sourdough starters, which have to be fed — and that’s done by discarding some of it and adding fresh flour and water. Well-tended starters last years.

I’m not experienced at bread baking, and I’m even less of a scientist. But what’s the worst that can happen? A bad loaf of bread? We’ve all had those and survived. And we can learn.

My nephew is a physical therapist who has been spending some of his pandemic furlough time making how-to bread videos called Yeast or Famine. There’s an easy one, based on a Bon Appetit recipe, for focaccia. Success quotient? Very likely.

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I’ve been feeding a starter that my friend Stephanie gave me, but I didn’t love throwing out a cupful of it each week; the starter stays vibrant by discarding some and adding flour and water. There had to be a better way. And there is.

King Arthur, the flour and baking company, has a very easy recipe on its website for Sourdough Crackers — yes, make your own crackers with something you might otherwise dump. And how impressive is that? Home-baked crackers? I’ve made them three times already and given them to friends — who are appropriately impressed.

The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of dried herbs of your choosing, and says it’s optional. I’d beg to differ. I’ve used za’atar, a mixture of herbs, spices and sesame seeds. But you can use what you like — or what you have. If the spice jar has been around a while, smell or taste the herbs to make sure they’re fresh enough. And for the top of the crackers, I recommend Maldon sea salt flakes.

April 8, Wednesday

Absent the coronavirus, I’d be extremely busy on this day leading up to the first night Seder, the start of Passover. We often spend it in Sacramento, with the husband’s brother, Brian, and wife, Dorothy, preparing for maybe 20 people at a long table in their dining room, white carpet and all. (I have been with the husband for nearly three decades and that white carpet in a truly lived-in house never fails to give me a slight case of nerves.)

If you’ve ever been to a Seder, you may recall that it includes the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answers were myriad this year, starting with our gathering of 36 people … on Zoom.

But back to my kitchen. For so few of us, we decided to combine home and restaurant takeout. Jar, Suzanne Tracht’s long popular restaurant, provided the main course and some vegetables. I baked two kinds of cookies: an orange-flavored macaroon and an oat-almond biscuit drizzled with chocolate — both of them gluten-free to abide by Passover rules. And I made haroset, a fruit-and-nut relishy dish that represents the mortar Jewish slaves used.

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Haroset is a perfect non-recipe dish to make all year long, and is delicious on its own, on bread, on pancakes or stirred into plain yogurt.

It’s perfect because it can be made with whatever you have. My fruit drawer had apples, so that’s what I used. The traditional Eastern European version uses them as the main ingredient, with walnuts. My nephew Daniel, a (corona furloughed) chef in Dallas used blueberries and pistachios. Middle Eastern recipes often include dates or figs with almonds.

For mine, it was five chopped apples; not even peeled. But cored. Walnuts, maybe a cup. Cinnamon, a few teaspoons of sugar. And a few tablespoons of port wine. I dumped it all in the food processor and stopped when I liked the consistency. You can chop it by hand, too. A perfect job for a bored teenager or an eager younger child.

Passover is a holiday of reflection, when we make room for strangers at our table and consider the inequities we want to banish from our society. It’s perfect that food is at the center of it. Food helps us cope, brings us together even when our differences are vast, gives us energy, allows our creativity to show. I know how banal it can be to make meals for a family every single day; I also know how that effort shows love and brings joy.

As a journalist, I have often been made to feel that writing about food is a light-weight pursuit. My “serious” colleagues said how lucky I was to have a “fun” job. Food is serious; anyone who questions that can look to the devastation of our food supply during this pandemic. While we are euthanizing hogs and trashing produce, food banks are seeing more requests for food and have less to distribute.

And a United Nations program estimates that 130 million more people could go hungry this year because of the coronavirus. That nearly doubles an already bleak total.

A giant system that is failing us.

We must take seriously those things that bring us together as humans; they are as crucial as they are nutritious. May we all work to come out the other side in a fairer, more delicious world for everyone.

April 12, Sunday

Both of our children, one a cook and one front of the house worker at a popular Philadelphia restaurant, lost their jobs. And their health insurance. Restaurateurs are scrambling, switching to takeout, selling pantry items and produce boxes, sometimes feeding workers for free. Many — too many to count yet — independent restaurants will never reopen, depriving employees of an income and patrons of the joy of eating out.

Open Face (as in the sandwiches from Denmark, the home country of one of the owners), a tiny café in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood, buys produce at farmers markets. Lucky for us, owners Lene and Mark Houck are also offering produce boxes to the public. This is such a practical and easy way to support your neighborhood restaurants and get terrific fruits and vegetables.

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We get whatever is fresh; in spring that’s been chard, spigarello, purple potatoes, blueberries, gorgeous lettuce and much more. And when the weather gets warmer, the list will change. (I know the tomatoes will be wonderful, but I so hope I can shop at the market by tomato season.)

Some people avoid the boxes because they want to choose their produce. I love the challenge and the surprise of what’s included; it’s an opportunity not an annoyance. Post a picture on social media if a vegetable has you stumped; you are sure to get an answer.

April 26, Sunday

Grocery shopping has become an ordeal of masks and lines and distance. We try to go to the supermarket twice a month at most, otherwise supporting smaller businesses like Open Face and the Indian grocery in our neighborhood or the cheese shop that’s doing curbside pickup. And our “nephew” Gabe always checks in before he shops.

Somehow, it’s harder to shop for what you need and easier to buy what you don’t. On just one recent day, from my inbox, I could buy a spa day kit, wine that’s carbonically fermented (no, I don’t know what that means), a Tencel bandeau neck shirt for $200, several brands of outdoor gear on sale. Or, a $625 pair of flowered pants (yes, they’re very pretty) that match “elements of the everyday with the fantastical.”

I understand that stores are closed and trying not to stay that way permanently. But sheesh.

Speaking of spending, we ordered out tonight, which we do once a week because we need a break, and to support the restaurants in our part of Los Angeles. Another way we can help out and maintain our distance is to make lunches on Sundays for delivery to people living on the streets. (From many houses, they are driven to the agency that distributes them.) Such efforts seem common now.

It’s heartening that people are taking care of one another: neighbors offering to shop through mutual aid networks is another example. May a new awareness of sharing the Earth with one another and relying on one another be one of the pandemic’s silver linings. For too many of us — maybe 99% — the last few years have been a scary dive toward a future that leaves behind teachers, writers, dancers, grocery workers, dry cleaners, pharmacists, cooks, barbers, nurses, and probably you.

But as the author and activist Naomi Klein explained in this video, we don’t have to jump off this cliff. There are other possible outcomes. Take a listen:

May 4, Monday

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Our son Galen became friends with four other boys in preschool and kindergarten. They called themselves the Finders Club, because they would collect all kinds of junk — a hunk of metal, and old plastic something or the other — and meet to show off their treasures. Twenty years later, the Finder Moms remain close. Now we have a standing 5 p.m. Monday Zoom call, wine optional.

We have always talked about food, feeding one another and our kids, planning potlucks and camping trips. Kathryn said she and her husband made their own matzo for Passover, with a touch of pink Himalayan salt. Stephanie talked about the brownies she made.

I should take the chance here to distinguish stress eating from stress baking. As Finder Mom Kathi said, stress eating for her means Tater Tots. Baking is a physical activity that requires our attention and our senses. In this moment, many of us need both.

It’s spring, the season for greens. One evening, a big bunch of red chard in my fridge became my starting point for dinner. This is an easy one, with plenty of variations possible.

I washed the chard, cut off the stems and dropped the leaves into a pot with a little water, maybe a quarter inch. Boiled it briefly and drained it. Meanwhile, I cut a couple of handfuls of small potatoes into bite-size pieces, tossed them in olive oil and salt and roasted them at 425 degrees until they are golden brown. I chopped the chard stems and sautéed them in a large pan with olive oil with some leeks (That’s what I had; onions are fine, or neither.) and chopped carrots (Celery works instead or in addition.) I chopped the collard leaves and add to the stem mixture, with salt and pepper to taste, then the potatoes.

That’s the plain version. Look around your kitchen for hot sauce or spices and herbs to add. I added nigella seeds, an idea I got from the cookbook writer Martha Shulman. But red pepper, dried spice mixes or whatever you like would do as well. Kathryn makes a similar version that includes sausage; she also smashes the potatoes a bit with an immersion blender.

Once again, thank you for reading; please let me know what you think. I’ll leave you with this: The Wall Street Journal recently quoted the chef David Bouley as saying: “A good night’s sleep is the new kale. Everyone wants it and it’s good for your health.”

A little about me: I’ve been cooking for 55 years. And writing about food for a few decades.

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

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