Remember back in The Before, when things were ramping up and we all resolutely hunkered down, excited to finish our novels/finally read War and Peace/do a deep Spring Cleaning/start an at-home exercise regimen/learn Italian/become a gourmet chef? And then the reality sank in, and if we were lucky, we were only figuring out how to work from home while our spouse/partner was also working from home and navigating Zoom calls and homeschooling children and caring for that foster pet that seemed like a good idea and getting three meals plus snacks on the table every day.
Coronavirus reality check
The creative endeavors went first, naturally: I for one have not written a single word of the new novel I am supposed to be working on. And as a lifelong passionate reader? I have only finished one book of the 11 I have started.
We are keeping things clean in more of a triage fashion: Bathrooms and kitchen get regular scrub-downs, the laundry is done, sheets on the bed get changed, but that real Spring Cleaning? Might not happen until Fall at this rate. We won’t discuss exercise, a dirty word for me on the best of days, and the last thing on my desired to-do list. I get my steps in walking between the living room and the kitchen, and my idea of a workout is kneading bread or pasta dough. My Italian vocabulary continues to consist entirely of menu items that I knew before.
And while many have embarked on the care and feeding of sourdough starters, people cannot live on bread alone, and I know many of you are feeling in a bit of a rut with the sheer volume of cooking you have been tasked with. Every day is another day. It’s easy to feel your will eroding and ingredients can feel inaccessible. It’s Heartbreak Hill on the Boston Marathon course, so I’m here to give you the boost you need to get to the top and re-energize your pandemic cooking. Take these 7 steps with me—we can do this!
1. Use your equipment.
We all have those pieces in our kitchen that were gifts, or we bought on sale because everyone said to (looking at you, Amazon Prime Instant Pot). So, dusting those off, whatever they are, and finding a use for them can be a good way to jump start our cooking mojo. I FINALLY used the pasta roller attachment I bought for my stand mixer four years ago because it was on sale. I had not made homemade pasta in more than a decade. It worked like a charm, and now I’m channeling my inner nonna and loving it! Whatever the gear is, pull it out, read the instructions, and find a recipe. Here’s some ideas for ways to use your sous vide, Instant Pot, and air fryer to get you started.
RELATED: 7 Small Kitchen Appliances That Take Up Less Space and Get the Job Done
2. Dig into the books.
If you are anything like me, you have a shelf full of gorgeous cookbooks dotted with little markers for recipes you want to try that somehow never get made. Start flipping through, and see what jumps out, or pile them on the table and ask your family to weigh in. Worst case, you’ll eat something a bit new, best case, you’ll find a new dish you love enough to put into regular rotation!
3. Go full Grandma.
Find some of the old family recipes written on little cards in faded spidery handwriting and make something that connects you meaningfully to your family. Aunt Marge’s pierogi, or Nana’s brisket, or Pop’s Sunday gravy—whatever it is, make something you remember from your childhood or the dish you remember your Dad reminiscing about. Let the food take you back. Note: This is a particularly cool way to show your kids where they came from.
4. Pick a new skill.
Whether it is puff pastry from scratch, the perfect roasted chicken, a tender biscuit, homemade ice cream or a light, fluffy gnocchi, there are certain things that just take practice. Anyone who makes a killer pie crust will tell you it is all about feel. So pick a Holy Grail dish and get to it! Make it every day, or every other day, until the action is in your muscle memory, until you know when it is done just by how it smells, until you don’t need to look at the recipe anymore. There is something super satisfying about having that one thing mastered, and it is a skill you’ll keep forever.
RELATED: 6 Cooking Techniques to Master Now
5. Explore preserving.
Making jams and jellies, canning fruits and vegetables, pickling, and dehydrating are all projects that are just made for a pandemic. Once you start, you’ll find that your food waste decreases, which will make you feel good, and many of these don’t even require “canning” if you intend to eat them soon. You can just keep in the fridge or freeze.
RELATED: The 5 Summer Canning Recipes You Need Right Now
6. Get spicy.
Is your spice rack full of jars and bottles that you bought for one-off recipes or were gifted as part of a larger collection that you don’t really use? Try playing with them to amp up the seasoning in your usual cooking. Create your own custom spice blends and rubs, or try incorporating single spices in surprising ways. Here are a few ideas:
- A pinch of Aleppo pepper in your chocolate cake
- Some cardamom in your crème brulée
- Whole toasted cumin seed in your whole wheat bread
- Turmeric in your chicken soup
There is a reason that some of the world’s most exciting cuisines have complex use of spices as foundational to their cooking practices. If you are looking for inspiration, there are wonderful recipe resources online for Indian, Mexican, African, and Asian dishes that use spices to wonderful advantage. Once you start, you might find that you are able to begin replacing spices because you use them up, not because they went stale.
7. Unleash your Pantry Museum of Souvenir Food.
If you are like me, you’ve picked up interesting ingredients or food products on your travels and may have stowed and forgotten about them. Go through your pantry, pull out these treasures and collect them all in one little storage box. Pick a day to pull out the box and explore ways to use them (not all of them, necessarily, but that might be a terrific Top Chef night for your shelter-at-home crew). Where they all came from is a built-in dinnertime conversation.
Now hang in there. And remember, there is no shame in the Chef-Boyardee-on-any-given-night game. I’m right there with you.
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