I Thought About You

March 30, 2020

It was during my qigong practice. I was letting go of the realities of life and letting the chi flow freely through my body, softening the tightness in my back when I thought of you.

I thought about how you’re managing. Many of you love to share with me on my various social platforms: your favorite recipes, fave veggies. You tell me how you feel. You also let me know when you don’t agree with me. I love it all.

I have been thinking about how you’re doing, cooking every single day, every single meal-for many of you, a new reality of daily life. It’s how I have always lived my life (and love it), but for many of you, cooking is a new challenge. Recipes can throw you for a loop when they ask for ingredients you may not keep in your kitchen. Not everyone has a pantry like Ina Garten. I surely do not. Her “cook from the pantry” recipes can throw the most expert of us into a tailspin. (And I love Ina).I can imagine that an unapproachable recipe can be the straw that breaks your back and you dissolve in tears, not because of the silly recipe but because it’s an outlet for the stress we feel right now. It’s easier to cry about a recipe than our new normal.

Recipes shouldn’t reduce us to tears, ever. Not in the best or worst of times. We are all looking to create delicious foods and recipes are a great guide to create those fabulous dishes that make you sigh with pleasure. But recipes are just that…guides. The idea that a recipe must be followed to the letter is nonsense and always has been.

Unless you work in a restaurant where an uninspired chef and dining public desire only consistency, recipes give you permission to play with ingredients (and avoid possible pitfalls based on experience).

There’s a famous recipe debacle in our house. I was converting meat recipes to vegan and tried a pork recipe with a blueberry chutney with tofu. It was one of the rare times my husband said, “Hon, could we never have this again?” It was just awful. We didn’t die. It has simply never appeared on our table again and we had a good laugh over it. We still do.

As someone who writes recipes for a living, I am most happy when someone shows me a recipe that they have adapted and made their own, often with luscious results. Remember that your mushroom soup will never taste like mine or Ina Garten’s. It will taste like yours, always. It’s one of the many reasons that food is so delicious when someone cooks for you. It’s different and allows you to see food in a different light.

It’s important to have confidence in this strange time, at least in the kitchen. Adapt and play; try to find ways to create a flavor or texture that might reflect the spirit of a recipe you want to try if you lack an ingredient. If a dish calls for bitter greens, you have any number to choose from: escarole, watercress, frissee, arugula or mustard greens. But you can switch up to any green and not ‘ruin’ a recipe. Use kale, collards or baby bok choy if those are what you have on hand. Or broccoli.

Out of lemons to finish a dish to make it ‘sing?’ If you have an orange, orange juice or a lime…or even apple cider vinegar, you’re in business.

It’s a good thing to cook this way, using recipes loosely with only the ingredients you have on hand, with a somewhat good idea of how to use them. You’ll end up with dishes that are unique and unmistakably yours, rather than trying to imitate the style and flavors of even your most beloved chef heroes.

And then there’s your pantry. We are all still grocery shopping and one thing you’ll rarely if ever see depleted is the section housing whole grains and beans (maybe canned beans will be depleted). Beans can become your most delicious allies in protein strength: lentils, black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans. These humble beans can create everything from soups to dips to salads.

It will be a rare day when the tofu and tempeh are sold out so stock up and freeze them for later use. Yes, the texture of the tofu will change but that’s a cool thing in some dishes.

Buy fresh veggies when you can and use them. You can batch cook veggie dishes and freeze them as well. You can pre-chop vegetables and freeze them in plastic bags or containers to use when you can’t find fresh and still need to cook a meal. Stock up and prep while you can. Even if this pandemic ends tomorrow, you’ll have a stocked pantry and freezer so that as you move back out into the world, you can build on your kitchen skills. You’ll be stronger, having created a strong immune system with all of your healthy home cooking. (And as much as we want to support restaurants, please don’t succumb to ordering too much take-out. It will only deepen your despair, when you over-indulge and feel bad about yourself. It’s a treat for now and then, not something to drown your sorrows in. Sorry. Buy a gift card to support your local spots and plan to use them later when you’re at your fittest again).

These are not times for the faint of heart, to be sure. It’s easy to lose yourself in despair. If you live alone, you can find yourself going stir crazy. If you have a family, you can find yourself craving alone time. We all miss our friends.

I, for one, will never ever again be too busy to meet a beloved friend for a coffee or for lunch.

We are all developing coping skills. A hot bath can relax you when the family is just too much. You can face time with loved ones when you’re feeling alone. You can watch a movie for a wee escape and turn off the news for just a little while. You can go outside and breathe fresh air. It’s spring. And cook! Cooking can transport you to another world. Feeding yourself and those you love nourishes the spirit.

More than anything, try to remember that as hard as this is, we are in it together and this too, shall pass. And when it does, we will emerge stronger, healthier; more compassionate and we will take better care of each other and our fragile planet. This is a test of our mettle as humans. When we emerge from this and turn our faces to the sun, we will never take each other or our health for granted again.

For now, wash your hands, stay safe, exercise, listen to music, get outside and cook well.