Merrimack Valley Life

DINING IN THE VALLEY

at home^ The quarantine kitchen: How a pandemic affects cooking

It’s important to maintain traditions or create new ones, which for us is Taco Tuesday. My favorite is tinga, shredded chicken simmered in stock with chipotles, tomato and onion.

It’s important to maintain traditions or create new ones, which for us is Taco Tuesday. My favorite is tinga, shredded chicken simmered in stock with chipotles, tomato and onion.

It happened abruptly. We stocked up on essentials, preparing for months of isolation. Soon we realized that food shopping could continue, but flour was gone from store shelves, eggs limited to a dozen, meat a rarity. I was concerned about whether we would have access to fresh produce, so I researched ways to preserve fruits and vegetables.

Now I cook and freeze meals that include veggies, such as lasagna with spinach and zucchini, while prioritizing the shelf life of produce by consuming daintier greens and berries first and saving heartier root and cruciferous vegetables, like brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, for later.

Lifestyles have changed. Some people are alone during this pandemic; others are sustained by the support of a family. Many are still working; others have more time to shop and experiment.

Elizabeth Torres of Salem, New Hampshire, is a health-care worker, student and mother of three. She says she feels more in control of her eating habits after a stressful start to quarantine. Torres says her children are eating more snacks, resulting in larger grocery bills. “My mother, who lives with us, has definitely found herself cooking a lot more since everyone is home,” she says. “The only day she does not cook is Fridays— that’s fend-for-yourself day.”

Don’t be intimidated by dumplings (above). Pick up a pack of wonton wrappers in the produce section and enjoy making them yourself. These vegan fillings (top) are simple: napa cabbage, shredded carrots, mushrooms, red onion, ginger and seasonings. I allow my son (left) to take the reins on those occasions when he asks to make a dish. Being the inventor of his own meals opens his mind to new flavors. Haverhill Life photos by Hailey Moschella

Don’t be intimidated by dumplings (above). Pick up a pack of wonton wrappers in the produce section and enjoy making them yourself. These vegan fillings (top) are simple: napa cabbage, shredded carrots, mushrooms, red onion, ginger and seasonings. I allow my son (left) to take the reins on those occasions when he asks to make a dish. Being the inventor of his own meals opens his mind to new flavors. Haverhill Life photos by Hailey Moschella

Lixue Tu of Methuen usually cooks at home during the week. The difference now, she says, is that she and her family “don’t go out to eat on the weekends. We also don’t prepare three full meals.” Instead, they snack more.

“Cooking is now a curious dance of ‘be here now’ and save some for later,” says Paula S. of Plum Island. “It’s short-term goal-setting in the time of a global pandemic— planning, intermediate steps, and then the final acts of cooking and consuming.”

With increased time at home, some friends are trying ambitious recipes. “We have more time to experiment with different types of cuisine and preservation techniques, like pickling, brining and baking,” Tu says. “We also tried to make some Chinese traditional foods that we normally wouldn’t make at home, such as tofu, Chinese green bean jelly, Chinese bread and preserved vegetables.”

 

Shopping for groceries has become more difficult due to reduced store capacity limits. Waiting in line to enter a supermarket and longer checkout lines increase the time needed to shop. Limited supplies also can make it more time-consuming. Torres says it has been difficult obtaining the Goya products she normally cooks with, but not as difficult as finding meat consistently. That’s one thing, she says, her family can’t go without, so they travel to Lawrence to buy it.

Marc Mannheimer, an artist and Northern Essex Community College professor, shops at Whole Foods and Market Basket, where he enjoys the “excellent sushi,” he says.

In our house, it’s my husband who braves the crowds for grocery shopping.

I was curious what pantry staples people stock up on. My 5-year-old son would say he can’t live without black olives. For me it’s Patak’s Butter Chicken Curry Simmer Sauce, which helps make tofu or Instant Pot chicken a quick and delicious meal. A survey of others revealed that peanut butter, rice and noodles are some of the favorites.

Cousins Yamel and Julian enjoy their bowls of arroz con leche.

Cousins Yamel and Julian enjoy their bowls of arroz con leche.

Before my family was without a kitchen for two weeks of unexpected renovations in the midst of quarantine, I lived for the next meal. Those two weeks of eating cereal every morning and ordering takeout at night allowed me to focus on other things. Since the tile was laid, I have appreciated home-cooked meals more than ever, but I don’t obsess over them, which many of us do during a time of uncertainty.

Mannheimer, who had already been making his own pizza pre-pandemic, says, “I made bread, which I hadn’t done in many years, and I’m baking far more often.”

So, what is it about this transition back to home cooking? Is it the inability to get our hands on flour and yeast that drives our desire to bake during this time of isolation? Does cooking bring the comfort we’re lacking in the absence of physical interactions? Is it that we have more time to enjoy the art of creating in the kitchen?

Marc Mannheimer of Haverhill enjoys a very rare treat of escargot from Whole Foods.

Marc Mannheimer of Haverhill enjoys a very rare treat of escargot from Whole Foods.

I haven’t been cooking much differently, but I enjoy the pace of it more. I allow my son to take the reins on those occasions when he asks to make a dish. Inquisitive and creative, he doesn’t hold back. Being the inventor of his own meals opens his mind to new flavors. His dish consisting of a fried egg topped with vanilla yogurt and a buttered slice of bread, dubbed Strawberry Meal, was actually quite good.

It’s important to maintain traditions or create new ones. Our family has continued its tradition of Taco Tuesday. We start with a tortilla press and a bag of Maseca yellow cornflower. The fillings follow. It’s not just a meal; it’s an event at our house.

Try a Zoom (video) call with family during weekly Shabbat dinner or Sunday supper. Take your tapas and sangria to the stoop while you call a friend you haven’t talked to since before the world took this turn.

 

For Elizabeth Torres, her favorite quarantine dish is arroz junto, yellow rice with big red beans. It’s barbequed chicken wings for Lixue Tu. Find your comfort food and stick with it, or experiment with a new dish. When will we get time like this again to explore in the kitchen?

There can be good experiences cooking at home, but there is much to be missed: the occasional dinner out with a friend, feeling the energy downtown as people stroll in and out of restaurants, a driving force for connecting people with their community.

Many are missing a good margarita. Mannheimer says he misses “not being able to just go out and get something on the spot when needed. Sitting in a restaurant with friends is a wonderful memory that is seriously missing.”

Paula S. says, “So what if it doesn’t get done today, because we’re staying home tomorrow too. No need to rush. Cooking can happen at any time of day now. Be kind to yourself. I know you had avocado toast for breakfast, but if you want to make the pizza at lunchtime, instead of waiting for dinner, go for it.”

Be kind to yourself and have fun. Bon appétit!

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