Keep Cooking

May 18, 2020

Another month of semi-lockdown and social distancing, no hugs, no kisses. More cooking at home. We may be out of our homes more; enjoying more freedoms, but still…   

I write recipes for a living. I guide people through the potential kitchen disasters that are often inevitable when a dramatic diet change is adopted and new and sometimes unfamiliar ingredients fill your pantry. I encourage people to bail on following recipes precisely and to have fun and cook what’s on hand.

I never thought I would have to take my own advice quite so literally.

I never thought a “no-recipe recipe” (thanks NY Times Cooking for that phrase) would be just about every recipe we have. As their food editor, Sam Sifton said in a column, “It’s like an assembly chart from Ikea when you only have 60% of the fasteners.”

I love to cook and I love cooking three meals a day with Robert (ok, 2 meals. He cooks breakfast while I practice qigong). I rarely say this, but I always want to be honest with you guys. I never want you to think I am some out of touch domestic goddess in blissful unawareness, swanning around in my kitchen, while people juggle two jobs or no job and a pandemic. So here it is: I am sort of sick of cooking. Not all the time, but for a minute or two every couple of days, I want to throw in the tea towel.

It’s not the cooking. It’s the tyranny of it, the must-do of it that can suck the joy out of this gorgeous life skill we love so much.

And it’s not that I want to go to a restaurant either. I so love my own food and how I cook it, knowing I have done the best with the best quality I can find. It’s not having the option to pick up the phone and call a pal and go for a coffee or a pizza on a whim. Not that I did it that much, once a month or so but I miss the socializing with my posse. I hate that the restaurant business, where my roots lie and my heart still lives has been decimated by this pandemic and who knows how long it will take for it to bounce back. Will it ever?

Maybe it’s just being stuck at home for so long now, with the exceptions of walks in the neighborhood and being in my little garden. My heart breaks for those working incredibly long hours at essential jobs to keep us going at even the level we are. I can’t imagine facing the task of happily making dinner after a long, often dangerous shift. So I get it. I am blessed and have no right to whine.

So here’s my advice before I get into the useful information in this piece. Here’s how to shake the malaise.

Cook. If you don’t feel like it, cook anyway. You’ll surprise yourself at how quickly you fall into the rhythm of the slicing and dicing, sautéing and simmering; and how much peace and pleasure it brings you. That’s what works for me.

Look in the pantry. The joke in our house is that we are stocked with grains and beans to last a lifetime and we can both be pretty creative in cooking. There are always canned tomatoes and pasta in the house. And since I run an online cookie bakery, there’s most anything I might need to create a treat. But even with all that, I am watching my vanilla stock dwindle; my coconut sugar bin is light and some of my favorite condiments are gone. With spending money on the basics, (remember, my show is on PBS, not CBS) there’s not a lot of surplus money to invest in specialties. Right?

So we cook with what we have. The best part of cooking for most of my life is that I know how to substitute pretty darn well. So here are my best hacks for cooking and creating the best flavors in the most simple of dishes. My mother used to say that all you needed to make a great meal was great olive oil, lemon juice and salt. All these years later, I find that she was right. I have added garlic to that list though. My mother was the rare Italian who didn’t love garlic. I know, right?

Frozen Lemon

You read right: frozen lemon. Buy fresh lemons, as many as you like or can afford. Rinse them well; dry them and place them in a plastic bag that seals and put them in the freezer. When they are rock hard frozen (like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s), they are ready for use. A recipe that calls for fresh lemon juice and/or zest? Grab your zester and your frozen lemon and have at it. If the recipe calls for, let’s say, a teaspoon each of juice and zest, grate 2 teaspoons of the frozen lemon. And yes, you grate right through the skin to the flesh (through the pith) for the freshest, most fragrant lemon a recipe could ever need.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

We grew up in a big family of great cooks. We had very little money but there was more than enough love…and food. My mother couldn’t splurge on much, but great olive oil was considered a necessity. And we didn’t know half of what we know now. She only went by the flavor. It’s one of the biggest lessons she taught me. To this day, even if money is tight, I’ll buy the best olive oil I can afford.

How do you know what you’re getting? Well, it’s not going to be in a big box store where the price is super-low. You know an oil is a great olive oil when it’s what’s called an estate oil; all the olives pressed come from the same farm or estate. Why is this so important? Olives bruise easily. Bruised olives result in an oil that is too acidic to be called extra virgin. An estate oil ensures that olives are pressed within 24 hours of picking (also important to extra virgin status) with minimal bruising. That’s olive oil. The oil you buy in cans, clear bottles and plastic containers at a low price is anything but authentic extra virgin.

So invest your money wisely when it comes to olive oil so you reap the benefits to heart health as well as creating delicious dishes.

If you can’t afford estate oils right now, make them a priority once this pandemic is over and we’re all back to work. Skip the cheap goods that you love to splurge on and invest in your wellness with great extra virgin olive oil.

Great salt

There’s salt and then there’s sea salt. While all salt is sodium chloride and sea salt and table salt are just about the same when it comes sodium chloride content, there is a difference between these salts when it comes to cooking and wellness.

Sea salt is created from a natural process of evaporating seawater, so there’s nothing added to it. Table salt comes from mining underground salt deposits. Manufacturers then heavily process it to eliminate minerals, along with an additive to prevent clumping.

Sea salt, being more naturally processed has a stronger taste of salt which allows us to use less in our cooking. And since it quickly ‘melts’ into the dish you’re preparing, you will have better luck cooking with sea salt to create intense flavors in your various recipes (the job of salt, after all, is to make food take like itself only better).

Chefs use sea salt in some recipes because of its coarse and crunchy texture. Some people also prefer the stronger taste of sea salt.

Table salt and most sea salts both contain 40% sodium by weight, but since sea salt comes from a natural source and isn’t messed with, it contains other minerals like magnesium, calcium, iodine and potassium in small amount

Choose an unrefined white sea salt for daily use. I also keep pink Himalayan salt on hand as well. I think the flavor is delicate, almost sweet so I go between the two.

Most good sea salt is inexpensive so it’s easy to stay well stocked.

I also use soy sauce and miso for salt flavor in my cooking but nothing…nothing beats a great salt

And…remember, learn to season in cooking. No adding salt at the table to cooked food. The salt has not had time to become part of the food and the flavor profile. It’s like eating raw salt and we know how good that is for our hearts (she said, her voice dripping in sarcasm).

With these simple condiments on hand, along with a reasonably stocked pantry and fridge and you’ll never be a loss to create a meal, even in those moments when you don’t feel like it. Cook anyway.