Isolation Cooking Is a Return to the Past

child peels carrots on countertop
darby via Twenty20

Home cooks are learning how to make do with what they have, as our grandparents did.

Last weekend, my fridge was looking empty. The family hadn't had fresh greens in days and the fruit bowl contained only a half-dozen apples. Breakfast cereal had run out and there was no more yogurt, much to my kids' frustration. But because I was scheduled to go to a neighboring town for an appointment mid-week, and that town has a fantastic budget grocery store, I told my husband we should hang in there and make do for the rest of the week.

So we did. We ate what we had, eating limp radishes and carrot sticks and a bag of forgotten mushrooms from the bottom of the crisper drawer. I made a red lentil-coconut soup with pantry ingredients, and a simple Spanish potato tortilla that the kids loved. I roasted a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts to go with Easter dinner (they turned to mush), ate frozen fruit instead of fresh, and rolled out wheat tortillas from scratch.

It was a powerful lesson in the abundance that exists when one chooses to view kitchen contents with flexibility and creativity. I have to fight the tendency to assume "there's no food" as soon as fresh vegetables (namely, greens and salad ingredients) disappear from the fridge and the fruit bowl dwindles; but the fact is, there is usually enough if I just change the way I cook.

A few well-stocked pantry shelves

I got thinking about this lesson after reading an article on Serious Eats about all the things its staff have learned during this period of isolation cooking and sporadic grocery shopping. It turns out, I'm not the only one "making do". One writer said she has "started making more extensive use of frozen/dried/canned/pickled goods to supplement my fruit and veggie life, which has actually worked to add a lot of variety to our meals."

Someone else said they've had to let go of the urge to make a recipe "the right way" and start improvising. "Contrary to my previous way of thinking, recipes don't have to be followed exactly, especially during times like these, and you don't always need top-tier ingredients to make a delicious, comforting meal. There's joy in taking something that someone else has suggested and finding a way to make it your own." If that means swapping almonds for cashews, frozen spinach for kale, chickpeas for black beans, then so be it. (I discovered that making tortillas with 100 percent whole wheat flour works fine.)

I think often about my grandma and my mother, both of whom cooked in a much more rustic style than I do. My grandma had a huge kitchen garden that supplied her with nearly everything she ate; she ate simple vegetable soups, homemade rolls, pickled vegetables, and canned peaches on a regular basis. My mother shopped once weekly and, because she lived 45 minutes from the store, always figured out a way to substitute ingredients because there was no running out to pick up something she lacked.

Home-canned tomatoes
©. K Martinko

This pandemic may prove to make us all better cooks – not because we're refining advanced cooking techniques, but because we're relearning older peasant-style techniques that transform scarcity into abundance and boring ingredients into flavorful ones. These techniques allow home cooks to fill a family's bellies for less money with fewer trips to the store. It's a style of cooking that is less aspirational and more practical, that prioritizes sustenance over Instagram pics and trendy ingredients. This is not a bad thing. It means cooking is getting grounded.

Last night I watched my 8-year-old swoon over a slice of Spanish tortilla (thanks, Mark Bittman). He wanted to know how I made it. "It's simple, just onion and egg cooked in olive oil with some paprika and salt." He said it was one of the best things he'd eaten, which made me both happy and sad. Maybe I've been approaching food wrong all these years. Perhaps that will be the pandemic's ultimate lesson for me – not learning how to roll out homemade croissants, fold tortellini, or make fancy sauces – but rather that the truly successful home cook is the one who can make fewer and simpler ingredients taste decadent to a child. Then it will not have been wasted time.