The Pandemic Is Forcing Us All to Become Better Cooks

All of a sudden, we're digging through our spice racks, experimenting with unfamiliar produce, and devouring online cooking classes like never before.

Creative Pandemic Cooking Essay
Photo: SolStock / Getty Images

When the pandemic exploded, my local grocery store aisles were ransacked every morning. The shelves of my Trader Joe's and Whole Foods looked like they've been scavenged by Glenn Rhee from "The Walking Dead." Gone were the chicken eggs, oat milk, canned black beans, salad kits, and pre-sliced Dave's bread that were the staples of my shopping basket.

My response was to stop being so lazy. Gas is cheap, so I started driving the extra 20 to 30 minutes to international grocery stores that are farther from me, like H Mart, 99 Ranch, Super King, Baja Ranch, and Namaste Spiceland. I learned to use ingredients like Chinese soy milk, milk bread, quail eggs, bottle gourds, Santa Maria pinquito beans, Persian cucumbers, banana leaves, luobo radishes, and celtuce.

Learning to peel and prep produce like celtuce made me feel like a baby learning to walk: excitement, frustration, and moments of failure and success, depending upon how you define edibility. Quail eggs are so much smaller and more delicate than chicken eggs, while Chinese soy milk is sweeter than the unsweetened Oatly I'm used to. Milk bread is too sweet for most of my usual sandwiches but makes a fine snack, while celtuce boasts a Teflon exterior that needs trimming before it relinquishes its hidden springy crunch.

The process has drawn me closer to fellow food writers and cooks from a range of cultures, with whom I've started doing video cooking sessions to, frankly, get better. It may seem selfish to perfect fancy flourishes during a pandemic, but kitchen creativity has been my main comfort during moments of panic. Every new ingredient I've purchased or swapped has helped to distract me from panic-checking Apple News every five minutes.

My best distraction lately has been moth beans--drought-resistant little brown beans that hail from India, which I'd learned to cook last year in an usali (a North Karnatakan sprouted moth bean curry) from my teacher Smitha as part of a class at immigrant cooking school The League of Kitchens (whose classes are now available online). When I couldn't find black beans for protein, I turned to my Indian grocery, Namaste Spiceland, and was stoked to see the beans Smitha had sprouted in the days before our class.

Feeling a bit like I was growing a tiny hydroponic fairy garden in my fridge, I nestled the beans in a damp piece of cheesecloth and left them overnight to do their magic. Smitha's sprouted-bean curry resembles a bean salad, so I tossed it with Korean fixtures in my kitchen like toasted sesame seeds, scallions, and seaweed (but I used less-spicy Korean chiles instead of Indian ones, since I've got enough middle-of-the-night news-reading anxiety right now and can't handle the higher Scoville units.) Now, it's something make on the regular, a dish I keep pulling out of my fridge and saying I'll have just a few spoonfuls of. Ten minutes later, I'm still standing by the fridge, digging into the Pyrex full of sprouts, before snapping the lid back on and digging out the next comfort food dish—it's a pandemic family-style meal for one.

Like me, many cooks are feeling their way down experimental new routes, both in ingredients and technique. For Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of Eating Korean: from Barbecue to Kimchi, Recipes from My Home, learning to cook from a pandemic pantry has been about simple substitutions and seeing each ingredient as a twenty-sided die. Lee is currently harvesting fennel and grapefruit from her Los Angeles garden and testing the kaleidoscopic limits of both ingredients.

"I didn't know you can put roasted fennel on tacos," Lee says, laughing. "I stir-fry with fennel, make gratin with fennel, pizza with fennel, and chimichurri with fennel."

Lee says that now when a recipe requires a fancy ingredient, she either abandons that recipe for a simpler one or finds an easy ingredient to swap in. She uses mayonnaise in place of eggs, and milk or yogurt in place of sour cream.

L. Kling (who uses the pronoun "they"), runs a fermented food business called Pickle Witch in Minneapolis and also avoids the grocery store. Kling has gone to the grocery store only twice since March 12, preferring to rely on a hearty trade network of Minneapolis givers and barterers.

"I'm part of a network of people who are food scrappers who work at grocery stores, and when they're throwing out a big box of something, we'll text a group and then divvy it up," Kling says. "Often, that's what I'm pickling, and I trade foods for what I can't find, giving pickles, curried veggies, and chicken liver pate I've made, and getting flour and butter, which have been in short supply. It's a way of building community, this knowing what people have in terms of skills or food or whatever."

Kling says that for them, creative uses of shelf-stable items have been key. Besides making a plethora of what Kling calls "apocalypse-proof pickles," they are drawing upon cans of chickpeas for aquafaba, which they use as a replacement for egg whites, or to whip up a gin sour-style cocktail with grapefruit soda and a few drops of bitters.

In these times of kitchen creativity, it can still be difficult to make your family's traditional meals when you can't procure key ingredients. Top Chef Junior Season One finalist Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, who lives in Oakland, usually shops with her family at a local Mexican grocery, but they haven't been able to find refried beans, or black beans or pinto beans to make them. The comfort of refried beans is essential to her Mexican-American family's daily routine, so the Bisseret Martinezes made refried beans with chickpeas instead.

"[These refried beans don't] taste so much like garbanzo, or like you're substituting it," she says. "It just tastes like a refried dish that has onions and garlic and any herbs that you have, like cumin and oregano."

Bisseret Martinez mixed in a bit of rose jelly or raspberry jelly to white vinegar to mimic her beloved ACV, which wasn't on her local shelves. She has also started making roux with oil (instead of the butter that's in such short supply, thanks to all the pandemic baking.

To deal with the loss of plant-based milk on her local shelves, she's making batches at home with whatever nuts she can procure. "If I don't have cashews or almonds, I experiment with hazelnuts and pecans," Bisseret Martinez says. "You can't go wrong making nut milks because they have a creamy aspect to them."

Annelies Zijderveld, an Oakland-based cooking teacher who began teaching classes over Zoom and Facebook Live after the stay-at-home mandate, has found a few foolproof swaps as well.

"I thrive with constraints," says Zidjerveld, who is avoiding grocery stores. "When you have less to work with, you can be more creative. I'm taking an online dumpling class tomorrow night and I'll make them with what I have."

With desserts she teaches, like tahini chocolate chip cookies, she has found that both of the title ingredients in a pandemic cooking class have to be swappable. Some of her students didn't have tahini, while others lacked chocolate chips. She encourages texturally similar substitutions: smooth peanut butter or almond butter in place of the tahini, and dried fruit in place of the chocolate chips.

Zijderveld says you should also be shopping your pantry. "You have a really big coloring kit that's your spice cabinet, and old spices do lose their potency and vibrance, but that doesn't mean they don't bring taste to the table," Zijderveld says. "Let them bloom and warm up in some butter, because fat is a great conductor of flavor all across the board. It's the same idea as earl grey tea leaves, which you can steep in some butter for 10 to 15 minutes for earl grey chocolate chip cookies."

Chances are, you have some random grains languishing in the back of your pantry—perhaps even a cup of this and a cup of that. Zijderveld had buckwheat groats in the back of her pantry, so she used them to add crunch to her Sunday morning pancakes. But for lunch, she didn't have her usual ingredients for a grain bowl, just some oat groats. So she threw them in a big pot with flaky sea salt and labneh, then added in whatever she could find in her kitchen—in this case, cherry tomatoes that had been sitting on her countertop, along with cilantro, shallot oil and garlic confit. Grain bowls are forgiving, and Zijderveld says the end result was very flavorful. Zijderveld says flavored oils and pre-prepped ingredients like garlic confit can help you be more creative in the moment if you're not willing to cook up a fancy meal every night of the week.

Zijderveld has been able to keep some routine comforts in place by being flexible with ingredient shortages and recipe changes. On a Friday night, her husband told her he needed baked ziti, and Zijderveld says that at first she "gave him side eye," but soon realized "it was a meal that was going to make him feel like it was just a regular Friday night and we've not been stuck inside for two weeks." The couple started concocting their "Quarantine Ziti" with an aromatic base of onion, green pepper and a greens mix that was starting to wilt, but when Zijderveld's husband threw half a cucumber in the saute, she says she sighed and threw her hands up in the air. Surprisingly, the end result was fresh and tasty, she says.

"Maybe we're feeling frazzled like those greens that we're trying to cook down," she says. The challenge, of course, is finding inspiration in this intensive cooking time rather than drudgery. "What do we have in our fridges and how can we put nutritious foods on the table that are going to make us feel better?"

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