Ever since the coronavirus cleared the streets, holding us up in our homes, social media feeds have been flooded with workout videos, recipe ideas and online courses. Many of us who have the privilege of turning mundane tasks into enjoyment while self-quarantined have turned to cook. Food experts and chefs have been dishing out tips and tricks for what has come to be known as “quarantine cooking”, and popular food publications such as The New York Times Cooking section, Bon Appétit or Eater, among a host of others, have curated lists of recipes that can be rustled up in these extraordinary times.
Half the joy of cooking a meal is in the sharing of it. Last year — my first away from home — had me stirring up recipes I’d grown up eating more than ever before. Back in Delhi, getting into the kitchen meant attempting a dish that wasn’t a part of the family’s culinary repertoire. In Italy — where I am currently locked down — I found myself hankering for the familiarity of ordinary, everyday khana. Here, even a simple dal scaled new epicurean heights. Not that I do an extraordinary job of it but because it cloaks my apartment in a smell that reminds me of “home”. My parents’ house in Delhi always thronged with our friends, some of whom stayed with us for weeks, if not months. I carried forth the tradition in Italy, hosting dinners at least once a week. Most of these Indian dinners were devoured by a hunger-stricken pack of friends, who came from different parts of the world. As a result, my shopping accommodated their appetites as much as mine.
But now that sharing a meal with friends is difficult and partaking in one with family a distant dream, I realised that “quarantine cooking” isn’t just about getting creative in the kitchen but also about learning to cook when you only have yourself to feed. It is an act of self-soothing. COVID-19 has claimed over 27,967 lives in Italy, of which 3,066 are from Piedmont (as of May 1), the region where I live. Though no one was on the streets, the days following the lockdown were terribly chaotic — more so in the mind. In times of such seething uncertainty, there is an immense comfort to be found in an old hobby that reminds you, every day, of the better times you’ve lived and harboured the quiet promise of their return.
Cooking in quarantine, like everything else, demands an alteration in approach. For me, it started with changing the way I shopped for food. I realised that most foods are packaged for two, if not for a neat little family of four. Most of the recipes shared online cater to people looking to stretch their culinary skills or quench boredom. Even though they began to feel alienating, I was determined to give them a go.
The first step to downsizing portions is to figure out what to do with leftover produce. For those of us who hanker after texture, freezing food, especially when raw, has never been appealing. But it is the best way to ensure that you get the most mileage out of your vegetables and nothing goes to waste. But surely, treating the freezer like a second pantry needn’t imply ignoring the intricacies that make a meal worthwhile? So, instead of piling onions, carrots and celery on top of each other in the freezer, it makes better sense to turn it into a mirepoix — a flavour base made with vegetables — before leaving it to chill. The same goes with the basic onion-tomato masala which forms a reliable base to build several dishes on.
The ingredients that can’t be turned into bases, can be used for stews or soups. One of the first meals I prepared when the country came to standstill was a fennel and apple soup, which I froze for a few days to make it last longer. The anise-scented fennel against the sweet crispness of the apples revealed more than their earthy, fresh and utterly comforting notes. I realised I had to learn to make the most of each ingredient to avoid making frequent trips to the market.
As the virus continues to stunt supply chains and food producers struggle to get the rewards of their labour to consumers, or sometimes even meet the surge in demand, it’s essential to maximise what is already available. Other than the obvious benefits of affordability and allowing one to rustle up a meal in no time, it also offers the chance to better acquaint oneself with ingredients and find unlikely partners for them in the pantry. Often, that, too, is determined by what’s lying around. I had some Gorgonzola to finish up and beets I’d bought remembering all the health benefits that were read out to me when I would refuse to eat them as a child. With a couple of other key flavour players from my kitchen, they came together to form a delicious, wholesome meal.
The pleasure of cooking changes when one has only oneself to feed. To cook alone, when no one is watching, doesn’t merely dilute the pressure of pleasing others with your culinary skills, it also makes you confront the choices you make in the kitchen. So much of what I took for granted — an overflowing pantry, elaborate recipes, people to share food with it — has been substituted with a deep appreciation for the sounds of ingredients sputtering in the pan, simple meals that reveal the pleasures of self-dependency.
3 beetroots — quartered
150 gm Gorgonzola or any blue cheese
5-6 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
*In a large non-stick pan, heat the oil.
*Toss the beetroots for about 2 minutes.
*Add the balsamic and continue tossing till the beets are covered in the vinegar. Let the vinegar reduce.
*Transfer onto a plate. Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds and crumble the gorgonzola over the beets.
*This recipe can be served cold as well. Chill the beetroots before coating them in the sesame seeds and adding the cheese.
Damini Ralleigh is a food writer, just out of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo.