One of the hardest shifts for many North Americans during this time: how the hell do I cook?
Be that lack of ingredients, lack of practice, lack of inspiration, or lack of skill, COVID-19 is about to bring on a resurgence of cooking that this continent has never seen.
When I moved to New York City, my cooking went on hiatus: my counter space was the size of a dinner plate, and my oven was frankly best used as skirt storage.
Meanwhile, I grew up with a mom who cooked, and I attended a holistic health school where the importance of cooking was drilled deeply into me as a number one health-supporting practise. The teacher once told someone to move if she didn’t live in an apartment supportive of home cooking.
It’s with some current shame that I admit: I didn’t turn my oven on more than twice in this period of my life.
During my New York years, I remember once, and only once, having a brief childhood-inspired surge of fondness for home cooking, which led me to my local Morton Williams on a rainy night.
My settled upon choice for this cooking foray? A grilled cheese sandwich. I’m not even sure this fully classifies as “cooking,” but the ingredients for said sandwich—butter, cheese, and bread—ran $23.
This will surprise almost nobody who actually lives in New York, a city where we often don’t have basics in the pantry. No bread, cheese, or butter for example. But even if I had, New York is where the local market often has fancy ingredients rather than basic ones. For those of us who choose to cook, we tend to want Italian smoked Gouda rather than mere American.
New Yorkers, or at least this former New Yorker, also haven’t cooked for ages, because business dinners, socializing with friends, and the falafel shop downstairs. This, most of us can relate to with our hectic lives be they in New York or not.
So, as restaurants around the continent shutter and we are forced into isolation, we must now use our kitchens. How do we begin?
1. If you do not already own an Instant Pot, acquire one. This is a near essential basic for those who are out of practice with their cooking practise, or never began one.
2. Identify what you have been eating out. Is it Thai? Burgers? Indian? Mexican? Your favourite foods are the place to start as nobody realistically wants to switch from delicious restaurant to stuff you never eat or wouldn’t choose. Why torture yourself?
3. Dust off your cookbooks or your internet search skills, and hunt down a recipe. Look for one-pot meals, with five or fewer ingredients, in the category that most resembles the foods you’ve already been eating out and have identified as your favourites.
4. Stock up on real foods and do not be tempted by processed ones. We need to be making fewer trips to the store, so embrace your dance with beans and grains and greens instead of Doritos and crackers and canned soup. Real foods will keep you full longer and they are what’s being used as a base at your favourite takeout place.
5. Settle in for some practise. The way we get good, or even reasonable, at anything is practise. You no longer have things to do, as everything is shuttered, so now is your best opportunity to enact the 10,000 hour rule to your food and to cooking. If this is hour one for you, have patience and keep trying. Prepare to botch or burn some stuff. One time I set my friend Shauna’s kitchen on fire making Rice Krispy squares.
6. It’s not always required to have every ingredient on a list in order to make a dish. Use your search engine to improvise, figure out what you can leave out, or make substitutions with.
7. Come up with a list of standbys. Almost none of us want to make brand-new dishes every single day, so have a standing weekly or biweekly meal that you like and learn to cook in your sleep.
8. Make enough to have leftovers. It’s like takeout, only it’s in your fridge.
9. Stock up on basics. Real basics: Italian smoked Gouda doesn’t apply. There are great lists available on the Internet.
10. Make a budget. Twenty-three dollars for a single meal isn’t sustainable for most of us, so consider your food costs while shopping. It is possible to spend more on home cooking than it is on restaurant takeout. Budget friendly foods include beans, oatmeal, and polenta.
12. Recognize that you can’t cook what you don’t have ingredients for. Keep your list simple and try to make the same ingredients workable for several recipes. Burritos require the same foundational ingredients as a taco salad, for example.
13. Spices are the key to flavouring. If you need to overbuy something, do so with the variety of spices you purchase.
14. If you can’t cook, know that you are not alone. Ditch the shame and embrace your apron.
You can always start with a grilled cheese.