Lessons from a Pandemic Kitchen
To take stock. To slow down. To figure out workarounds and substitutions. To find joy in the simplest rituals.
Morning coffee. Afternoon tea. Baking bread. Boiling bones for broth. Planning meals. Storing food for winter.
During months of social distancing and stress brought on by the persisting pandemic, it hasn’t always been easy to see the bright side. But perhaps one of the biggest gifts of this prolonged period of disruption—at least for me—is more time in the kitchen.
It’s the heart of the home. And it’s where I turned for a sense of normalcy and purpose—even adventure—while riding out some of the most challenging days since the initial shutdowns of March 2020. Through it all—the isolation, the uncertainty, the increasing numbers of cases of illness and deaths—the kitchen has provided a place of comfort and creativity, silver linings, and long-simmering soups.
In the one long teachable moment that the pandemic has presented, I relearned lessons and discovered truths. Here are twelve things that twenty-four months in a pandemic kitchen reminded or taught me.
1. Meals help mark time. When gathering and going out felt unsafe—events canceled and the calendar empty—mealtime offered something to look forward to, even if it was a humble affair. Planning and preparing different dishes provided a sense of potential and calm when so many things felt impossible and out of control. The everyday rituals of having breakfast, lunch, and dinner seemed to take on even more significance. Meals became small milestones to help get through the days, with their headlines and sameness. As pandemic weeks turned into pandemic months, I began thinking of time not in terms of days of the week but by dishes my husband and I enjoyed. His birthday, for example, came the day after we made gnocchi from scratch with local potatoes. Easter came before a big batch of lemon madeleines and a Bundt cake infused with inland grey tea from Spokane’s Winterwoods Tea Company. We also started establishing food routines. Thursday was pasta night. Friday was for pizza or risotto. We often observed taco tuesday, too. And we recently added Salmon Saturday or Salmon Sunday, depending on how we feel.
We also began talking about what to make for holidays and anniversaries and other special occasions months in advance. When those days finally arrived, we savored them, even when it was just us.
2. Use the good dishes. Even after restaurants and bars reopened, we remained cautious and close to home. But we missed our favorite eateries. Dining out is a treat. So, we made dinners at home feel special by breaking out the good dishes and using the fancier flatware. Life is too short and uncertain to keep the china on a shelf, waiting for company. Tuesday is an occasion. Celebrate it with the good dishes. Set the table with a tablecloth and candlesticks, for no other reason than you want to.
3. It’s OK to have dinner on the couch in front of the TV. And it’s OK to do this with the good dishes. It’s also OK to do this with pizza, using the cardboard box as a plate, or some other kind of takeout, eating right from the containers it came in. Some days, dinner on the couch in front of the TV is all we can muster. And that’s fine, too.
4. Cougar Gold was practically made for a pandemic. Washington State University’s signature sharp white cheddar comes in a can and improves with age. It’s rich and crumbly and creamy and quite possibly perfect for a pandemic because you can store it indefinitely. It’s made from milk from WSU’s herd, supplemented—because demand keeps increasing—by University of Idaho cows. At our house, it has become a staple; we try—emphasis on try—to crack open one can per month.
5. It’s easy to eat locally and sustainably in the Inland Northwest. In the earliest days of the pandemic, grocery shopping felt particularly stressful. Every trip seemed like it increased the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. So my husband and I avoided it. And that got us wondering: Could we go an entire year without the grocery store? We already shopped at local farm stands and farmers markets. So, we kicked it up a notch, aiming to buy most of our food—we estimate seventy-five percent—from local and regional farmers and food producers. We made allowances for some staples, such as salt, pepper, sugar, spices, rice, and olive and other oils, and stocked up before the start of the project. We ended up going about fourteen months—from early August 2020 to the end of September—without buying food from a supermarket.
We didn’t do curbside pickup or grocery delivery during that time. And we felt grateful to live where we live, in proximity to so many farms—from inside the Spokane city limits down to Pullman and up to Green Bluff and beyond. We also felt closer to the community and more in tune with the seasons, the rhythm of the harvest, and the calendar year.
6. The freezer is your friend. Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve food. And it made our year of eating locally possible. So did several packages of reusable silicone freezer bags and the extra freezer in the garage of the condo we were renting.
7. We eat way more butter than we realized. Butter was one of the things we didn’t think we could live without, and we ended up going six months without it. At the start of our year of eating locally, we froze butter from regional cooperatives. But our plan didn’t figure in extra butter for holidays and other baking. We had estimated one box for every four to six weeks. And we ran out at Easter 2021.
8. Never underestimate alliums. The bulbous herbs in this family—including onions, shallots, and garlic—are building blocks of flavor. Alliums are foundational, offering depth to dishes. Sometimes, they steal the show. (Think French onion soup or forty-clove garlic chicken.) And they store well. I already valued these ingredients, and the pandemic taught me to treasure them even more.
9. Cabbage is underrated. It isn’t the sexiest vegetable. It’s round and cheap and, if you overcook it, there’s its signature, lingering, sulfur-y smell. But cabbage is also low in calories, high in fiber and vitamin C, readily available, fairly versatile, and very filling. Plus, it stores well.
10. So is squash. It stores even better than cabbage, and it’s very versatile. It’s good savory or sweet as well as roasted, stuffed, or stuffed into things—pumpkin ravioli, perhaps—or baked into pie, bread, or other baked goods. It’s great in soup, pasta, and risotto. During our year of eating locally, we ate more squash than we ever have in any other one-year period in our lives. And we’re not tired of it yet.
11. Planning and creativity leads to less waste. We already paid close attention to food waste, but the pandemic made us even more aware of what we were throwing away. We started meal planning. We boiled bones to make broth. We used old bread to make breadcrumbs and croutons. We used sourdough discard to make crackers, pancakes, and flatbreads. We tried—and are still trying—to be as close to zero waste as possible. And we often had to adapt recipes and look for substitutions. Sometimes that meant eggless pancakes or pancakes without butter. We didn’t have maple syrup, so we made our own sauces using local honey and fruit and berries. We did a lot of recipes without milk or butter or both. Our extra planning, combined with stretching out trips to the grocery store—first for three months, then for an entire year—resulted in much less food waste.
12. Kitchen projects pay off. During farmers market season, we prepped for winter, spending anywhere from two or three to five or six hours in the kitchen each weekend to blanch and freeze local potatoes, beets, carrots, and leafy greens. We made and froze soups, sauces, tamales, gnocchi, pierogi, and ravioli. Come winter, that work paid off.
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