I may not have homeschooled children, learned Spanish, or made a film in lockdown, but I have certainly leveled up in cooking. This was unexpected, since my usual position on food is, “It’s all right, I guess, but I don’t know why people make such a fuss over it.”
To be fair, there are reasons. My rooms in Boston and New York had terrible cockroach infestations which put me off home cooking. In fact, it was best to think about what you were eating as little as possible. Canned soup was a godsend, as was oatmeal in packets. The only other period I spent this much time cooking from scratch was the early postgraduate phase at Antti Korpin tie, where I had a clean uninfested basic kitchen and an audience of eaters for the first time in my life. There I mostly learned to bake from my mother’s recipes, which she sent. I also made a lot of chicken and rice.
Staying home this spring meant I had complete control over my intake – no more eating whatever was in the vending machine at work or whatever was least unappealing in the cornershop or Pret on the way to the evening train. Tins of grape leaves on the office shelf, samosas at Stratford eaten on the platform. Until March, if I bought fresh supplies, I wouldn’t be around enough to finish them.
Now over these four months, I have arrived an almost zero-waste kitchen: mostly pescatarian, mostly gluten free (no sourdough starter stories here), and shifting toward a low FODMAP diet. Surprise: when not constantly suffering from mild indigestion, I don’t feel hungry all the time.
The staples are a lot of brown rice and steamed vegetables, in ad hoc combinations; also gluten free pasta with vegetables, tofu and other soy-based vegetarian foods, and oatmeal porridge. More excitingly, each week I’ve tried to learn a dish that a friend had made. Some results are presented after the jump.
Tomato chickpea stew
This is not “the” spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric that caused a flap over appropriation and dehistoricization, but the popular chickpea spinach stew from Kenji Lopez-Alt’s meta-cookbook. Wing showed me how to make it in December and I did it a few times in my father’s kitchen and several times during lockdown. It canonically involves ginger, garlic, wine/vinegar, and bay leaf. You can throw in just about any vegetables you have. I especially liked it with kale and mushrooms; uncooked mushrooms can also be used like bread as a bowl cleaner afterward.
Verdict: Delicious but it leaves a hollow, so I keep going back to the bowl and eat too much. This aspect may be improved by rejigging the ingredients to minimize FODMAPs. Amount is food for 24 hours or equivalent.
Egg noodles with peanut sauce
Verdict: I don’t know why, but I have never been able to get peanut taste to transfer to starches in dishes like this, so they disappoint. To be fair, I did not use all the hot ingredients that are supposed to be there.
Anthea made this from a YouTube in Italian. I looked at this recipe and finally used this one. I learned that for risotto, the rice needs to absorb more water than usual. That takes a long time, even though it’s not your time, as Michael Pollan says of fermentation.
What does take your time is zesting the mandarins, which I did awkwardly with a plane grater. It was like trying to lightly shave cushions. In zesting you are not supposed to go through the skin to catch the white fiber, but the zest by itself has so very little volume that it is hard to believe it has any taste. There is apparently an alternate method where you cut the skin off and slice it into strips, then turn it sideways and try to slice between the layers.
Verdict: Tasty but too one-note to be the only dish. Need to make smaller portions and combine with other dishes. Steamed carrots and dark greens with ginger would work well.
The effort to produce just this dish is already daunting but it could be worth it.
I can’t remember who made this in lockdown; I think Steph has posted about it earlier. Martha Stewart’s recipe looked easy. I began with four artichokes from an international shop on the Buttermarket. I don’t know what kind of artichokes they were, or the state of the artichoke supply chain, but it was like breaking down a pine cone, all the way to the core. No amount of butter and garlic could make this into food.
Tofu with soy sauce and garlic
Everything looks marvelous on Australian chef Adam Liaw’s Instagram. He often makes silken tofu with a garnish for a side (one, two, three, four, YouTube). Unlike a lot of his dishes, this can be made without access to Asian market ingredients. I made a version similar to the video (soy sauce, garlic, onion except I used scallions for onions. I tried it a couple of times with different kinds of tofu.
Verdict: This is another dish that actually belongs as a side. It works better with silken tofu than with the rougher meat-substitute kind. However it is the silken tofu, not the surface treatment, that is the drawing point, as it turns out; I could happily eat it out of the box with no garnishes.
This dish of slightly spicy, slightly alcoholic bread and cheese always sounds to me like it should be the food of the gods. Once every decade or so I am tempted into making it to see if it is; I’ve made it in New York and I’ve made it in Helsinki and I’ve made it twice in lockdown. So far it’s been underwhelming. My guide this time was the Guardian’s meta-recipe. My first batch used mature cheddar and the second red Leicester. Both attempts involved mushrooms and white wine. I forgot the Worcestershire sauce on the first batch and remembered it on the second.
Verdict: The first batch had an old-sneaker smell, but was delicious and also gave me more energy than it should have. The second batch was less delicious and also less fortifying. Shelving for another ten years. Pizza retains its throne as food of the gods.
Alison has mentioned this as a popular project, and it’s made the rounds. I thought I could adapt it to a gluten free version. The recipe of yogurt, flour, a little salt, a little baking powder, seemed flexible and I had a big box of cornflour left from something else. The cornflour was finer than talc, was hard to measure, got over everything and stuck: grain as glitter.
This is the kind of dough making process where your hands are immersed or sticky for half an hour and you can’t do anything else. Cue up your podcasts first. It is also the kind of mechanical formation process that takes practice. I ended up with four flatbreads in the shape and nearly the size of major continents.
Verdict: Yogurt-based flatbread has a tart yet sweet flavor. Again, it belongs as a side rather than a main dish. It needs something to go on it or something to absorb, perhaps a savory, or strawberry jam as a tea snack.