Food projects from a pandemic
Some of us are spending more time at home lately. A lot more time.
With hours not logged in cars or meetings or at the sports field, some people have taken on new or bigger projects. In my home, we read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud. (That’s 734 pages for anyone who’s counting, and did I already mention this was read aloud?) I sewed a quilt. My husband and I are also preparing 20 or so meals a week for five people. It’s intense.
But, as the people in this article demonstrate, kitchen work isn’t always just work.
Plenty of fun food projects require little more than some research and a dash of curiosity. They’re the kinds of activities our grandparents did as a matter of course, but may have fallen by the wayside in the modern hustle and bustle. Try one or all of these ideas; they’re almost certain to make your time at home more interesting and more delicious.
Photograph courtesy of Crady Schneider
Crady Schneider: Cocktails
Crady Schneider and her husband, Brad, have three young children. Much of their pandemic home routine revolves around the kids: schoolwork, Disney+, and family time. One day, they rediscovered a gift Crady had given to Brad for a previous birthday—a book entitled The 12 Bottle Bar.
“We started making things out of it because we had a lot more time on our hands; we continued because it was fun.”
“It’s nice to have something for just Brad and me that doesn’t revolve around the kids,” says Crady.
After flipping through the book and finding a few interesting recipes, Brad made a massive trip to the grocery store for cocktail essentials.
Other ingredients, like basil and mint, come from their yard.
The mint plays a starring role in one of Crady’s new favorite drinks: a Meyer lemon gimlet. In addition to the recipes, the Schneiders research histories of the drinks. They have learned about a Prohibition concoction that masks the scent of bathtub gin (“Bee’s Knees”) and cocktails first served at the Playboy Mansion (“Bunny Mother”).
Photograph courtesy of Crady Schneider
Will they continue this new routine after quarantine ends?
“Probably,” says Crady. “It’s been really fun trying all of this stuff and having ingredients on hand. Nothing takes very long to do. I’m finding new things I never knew I liked.”
Source: The New York Times
Sarah Newstok: Focaccia gardens
Sarah Newstok has been a baker since college, but only recently has she begun to explore the world of focaccia gardens. Her inspiration was her rabbi, Sarit Horwitz, who leads a weekly Zoom baking group with a new recipe each Sunday evening. (Rabbi Horwitz’s baking group is open to the public. Details for the next project are shared a few days in advance via her Facebook page.) Sarah doesn’t attend every week, but, when she can bake along from her home kitchen, she enjoys gathering with friends she hasn’t seen in person in a while.
“[Baking] is something I like to do, but I missed seeing people from the congregation.”
“It’s a way to reconnect with people and do something fun together.”
“It’s more active than just sitting and staring at the computer during a typical Zoom meeting,” says Sarah.
Focaccia, an Italian flatbread made with olive oil, is a natural canvas.
Sarah found it gratifying and calming to add color from vegetables and herbs, some of them grown in her own garden.
With slices of pepper representing petals, sliced mushrooms and olives serving as flower centers and butterfly wings, and parsley and rosemary as leaves and stems, the project looks more like art than dinner. Sarah reports that the taste matches the beautiful presentation. The project is not difficult for a beginner and is kid-friendly. Sarah says she’ll definitely try this again, with or without home quarantine.
Photograph courtesy of Pavithra Elangovan
Photograph courtesy of Pavithra Elangovan
Pavithra Elangovan: Sourdough Indian breads
Pavithra Elangovan was on the sourdough bandwagon long before there were yeast and flour shortages. A homemaker, blogger, and Instagram influencer, Pavithra discovered the magic of this method some years ago.
While baking the occasional sourdough loaf used to be a fun diversion, it has now become a routine pleasure.
Fewer grocery runs equal more homemade breads. Pavithra’s sourdough hobby extends into a variety of Indian breads, including poori and roti. In addition to a more complex taste, sourdough has added nutrition benefits.
“Sourdough starter uses a genus of lactobacillus flora, [so] anything made with the starter has probiotics in it,” says Pavithra. “I’m always looking for ways to make food more nutritious and delicious.”
Her use of sourdough in traditional Indian flatbreads is a bit unconventional, but the results have pleased Pavithra, her husband, and their son. She will continue to experiment with various flours, such as spelt, rye, and stone-ground wheat. Some breads are baked, while others are fried. Pavithra’s home kitchen is both laboratory and studio, each sourdough variation recorded with notes and photographs. While Pavithra’s social media feed may look like the work of a team of bakers and stylists, #dishesfrommykitchen shows that we have everything we need at home to create incredible food.
Source: Lulu’s Instagram
Don Gaines: Dehydrated produce
You may recognize Don from Lulu’s, which has a booth at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market and a new stall at Puck Food Hall. His Instagram account, #thatvegandude, is reliably lovely and mouthwatering.
His work at Lulu’s allows him to experiment with new flavors and techniques.
Recently, that has meant dehydrating foods, like strawberries from local growers. Dehydrated strawberries pack a big flavor punch, though Don says it’s important to stop drying them when they still have some flexibility. Dried strawberries make terrific additions to cookies made with rye flour, resulting in a very pleasant oatmeal-and-jam effect.
Beyond the flavor bonus, dehydrated foods also extend our ability to eat locally out of season.
Strawberries in September? No problem; I’ll take one of those strawberry jam cookies, please. Relying on regional farmers is important to Don as a business owner who aims to use lots of local products.
Don has dehydrated vegetables too; he can’t wait to get into squashes and eggplants this summer.
Apparently, with the right seasoning, these make very tasty jerky. They also rehydrate nicely in broth. Right now, though, strawberries form the basis for multiple culinary experiments.
“I’m currently soaking green strawberry tops in vodka and also fermenting the tops. There are fun ways to use every little piece [of the fruit], even if it’s just compost. [As compost] it goes back into the system to keep on producing good food,” says Don.
Sam Jones: Vanilla
Sam Jones just wrapped up her sophomore year at St. Mary’s Episcopal School with a different schedule than she anticipated. Her learning has gone online, and assignments are generally due at midnight. So, for Sam, that means sleeping later, studying for a few hours in the morning, cooking for a few hours in the afternoon before dinner with her family, and then returning to her schoolwork around 10 p.m. During those daytime cooking hours, she plays with recipes and photography—her Instagram account, #panandpantry, is a stunner—and finding delicious, beautiful ways to feed her family.
One of Sam’s recent projects has been making her own vanilla.
She ordered the vanilla pods on Amazon, sent her dad out to purchase the vodka, and consulted a method outlined by Jeremy Scheck, a Cornell senior with two food blogs. With just two ingredients, the recipe seemed simple enough to Sam, who was having trouble locating vanilla in stores for her baking projects. The vanilla is key to her all-time favorite recipe, The Easiest, Fudgiest Chocolate Chip Blondies.
“I always make these [blondies] for my school parties,” says Sam. “Everyone likes them, and they always go quickly.” She’s even been making blondies to order since school has gone online.
But will she continue to make vanilla even after it returns to store shelves?
“If the flavor is right, I don’t see why not. Homemade vanilla just sits on the counter, [requires] less plastic, and saves money,” says Sam.
Jonah Smith: Ice cream in a bag
Like Sam, Jonah is a high school student with a whole lot more time at home these days. Ordinarily, he would be hanging out with friends, going to parks, and hanging out with friends some more. New pandemic routines include about the same amount of activities, Jonah reports, but a wider variety.
Like baking treats for his family and cleaning out the freezer for fun.
One day, when Jonah was rooting around in the freezer (before he organized it), he discovered that his brother had finished all of the ice cream. Drawing on memories from a long-ago Cub Scout activity and a few Internet recipes, Jonah knew he didn’t need a trip to the grocery store to satisfy his craving. He poured milk, sugar, coffee creamer, and vanilla inside a plastic bag, sealed the bag, and then placed it inside another bag filled with ice and salt. Then he replicated the movement of an ice cream machine by shaking the bag.
Less than 10 minutes of vigorous shaking later, Jonah had ice cream.
“I was surprised at how well it turned out. I didn’t expect it to be as solid as store-bought ice cream; I thought it would be more like a milkshake,” says Jonah.
The first batch was so successful that Jonah “definitely did not share,” but did try it a second time with equal success.
Future flavors could include anything with a syrup, since Jonah prefers his ice cream without chunks. As Memphis summer temperatures rise, this may become the favorite go-to treat for the class of stay-at-home.
Photograph courtesy of Kristy Alley
Kristy Alley: Veggie-scrap garden
More time at home has given Kristy Alley the time to devote to a passion she’s been nurturing for years: gardening. Specifically, gardening with seeds she collects from particularly good produce. After she eats especially flavorful tomatoes or peppers, she dries the seeds on a paper towel or plate. Then she sticks them in soil to see what comes up. Pantry items like garlic, onions, or potatoes are even easier; many of them begin to sprout on their own if left a bit long in the cupboard.
Currently, Kristy has campari, orange cherry, red cherry, and grape tomato seedlings going, along with a mess of peppers.
She doesn’t always remember which variety was planted where, so the fruiting of the plant will be a surprise. The first surprise, though, is whether or not the plants will sprout at all.
“Recently I stuck the entire core of a red bell pepper into a starter pot to see what would happen. Just today I saw that it is exploding with sprouts after about two weeks of waiting. I was about to give up on it since some veggies are sterile hybrids,” says Kristy.
Photograph courtesy of Kristy Alley
Just about anything can serve as a pot in Kristy’s scrap garden: egg cartons, empty yogurt and sour cream containers, takeout ware from India Palace. Even reusable shopping bags filled with soil can host her veggie starts. Kristy sometimes has to move the seedlings multiple times a day so that they get enough sun in her shady backyard. But she doesn’t mind the extra work.
“It gave me something to focus on when everything else felt out of control. I’ve really gotten a lot of happiness out of it and small, joyful moments,” Kristy says.
Dorothy Wells: Pandemic food blog
For Dorothy Wells, an Episcopal priest who lives in Germantown, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to revisit recipes she’s made “forever.” However, instead of just making them from memory, she is documenting each step in order to write clear recipes for her new food blog, The Pandemic Chef. Writing down her ingredients and methods forces Dorothy to consider tweaks, testing an extra dash of paprika here or revising a cooking time there.
“We’re eating exclusively at home [now]. I need to put thought into planning dinners that will be healthy and enjoyable.”
“I also need variety so my family doesn’t go nuts eating the same meal over and over again,” says Dorothy.
Dorothy’s intentional menu planning means that she makes just one grocery trip per week. Her list is organized by aisle for efficient shopping. If she forgets something, she improvises with what she has on hand, which can take the recipes in new directions. Though she’s enjoyed cooking for years, the blog she started in April is a way to share her learnings with friends and anyone who needs a little variety or inspiration in their home cooking. Her family’s favorites?
“Spinach feta quiche and peach cobbler,” says Dorothy, as her voice grows a little misty over the phone. “We definitely ate all the peach cobbler.”
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens, and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi