My girlfriend and I haven’t dined out in over a month, or ordered takeout in three weeks. This isn’t totally because of COVID-19. It’s mostly because we usually cook at home for financial, health, and lifestyle reasons, and dine out only occasionally anyway. We are very atypical. With restaurants closed across the country, many Americans are probably having a hard time. Today I’m going to offer a few of my favorite “quarantine” recipes. Hopefully they spark your imagination.
Male or female, single or married, young or old – you should be able to cook. There are a lot of reasons why. A lot of people who can’t cook envision themselves surviving the apocalypse, but not everything you scrounge during the apocalypse will be a Mountain House, just-add-water meal. You will need to know how to cook to render things palatable and safe, and avoid wasting food. Your health will also probably greatly improve if you cook for yourself rather than buying salt-, sugar, and preservative-heavy prepared meals or restaurant food. You can save a great deal of money by cooking for yourself from actual ingredients. Finally, there are few things as viscerally satisfying as being able to put an delicious meal on the table for a friend.
If you are quarantined/isolated/social-distanced at home, now is the perfect time to learn to cook. Here are some of the recipes we lean pretty heavily on. Most of these are pretty high “flash-to-bang”: they’re fairly easy to cook but really, really tasty. All of these are tried and true, too; there’s nothing here that I haven’t personally cooked at least a dozen times.
Caveat: I get it, these aren’t “grid down” meals because they involve perishable ingredients. These are meals for the current situation in which we all have access to the grocery store and electricity. . . like we probably will for some time. Also, I lured you in with the pic of that tri-tip roast. That recipe isn’t here. Sorry.
Alton Brown’s Shepherd’s Pie: This is, without a doubt, the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever tasted. I’ve served this to a lot of people and a lot of people rave about it. Generally I recommend following the recipe to the letter (DO NOT skimp on the fresh herbs if you can help it – they make all the difference). Lately we have been a little low on some of the ingredients, so we have modified it just a bit. New cooks should try to stick closely to the recipe, but these are successful substitutions we’ve used lately.
First, if you don’t have lamb, you can substitute ground beef. Lamb is amazing, and if you have it (or can easily get it) use it. Second, we have plenty of meat in the freezer, but not much of it is ground beef. Instead of substituting something else, we used half the amount of ground beef and went really heavy on the vegetables. We have been doubling up on the carrots, peas, and corn. Third, if you have a vegetable that’s about to go bad if you don’t use it, it might work in this recipe. The last time we made this (early this week) we added a package of mushrooms and they were delicious. If you’re lacking fresh carrots, you could probably add frozen or canned carrots, but I’d add them at the end along with the peas and corn.
Another awesome thing about this dish: If you’re making one, it’s not that hard to make two. Cover the second one tightly (either with a lid or plastic wrap) and it will freeze and reheat very well. If you have veggies that are going bad, this is a great way to preserve them. And it gives you a relatively quick, easy meal later. A shepherd’s pie from this recipe will provide six to eight hearty servings, depending on how hungry you are.
Homemade Pasta Sauce
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce: This is one of the most amazing recipes ever. Seriously – it is difficult to imagine how so much flavor, and such complex flavor, comes out of just three simple ingredients. The end result is massively greater than the sum of its parts. My preparations center largely around stuff we eat regularly. Quality pasta dishes are something we eat every couple of weeks, and the short list of ingredients for this sauce makes it a mainstay of our preparedness food.
You can put this sauce directly on pasta. In fact, if you don’t have (or don’t eat) meat, it’s still delicious. We are omnivores, though, so we like to add in a little meat. During normal times we fry up a pack of hot Italian sausage and add it into the sauce just before adding the pasta. Currently we’ve cut back to half a pack of sausage in the interest of making our meat go a little further. This sauce is also really excellent as pizza sauce.
Follow the recipe to the letter and you will be amazed at how good a cook you are. If you’re single, your dates will be amazed, too.
Hibachi At Home
“Coop Can Cook’s” Hibachi Dinner at Home: This one is a bit more complicated. I include it here because it consists of three discrete parts: yum-yum sauce, fried rice, and the hibachi meal itself. This is a meal that teaches you to plan ahead. I also think there is something important about each of these three parts.
First, the “yum-yum” sauce: this is really just a delicious, spicy mayo. You can use this on any number of things. We put it on BLTs, crab cakes, fried green tomatoes. . . the list goes on (I know that makes it sound like we eat a fuckton of mayo; we really don’t). You need to make this one a few days out; the flavors really need time to come together. We modified the recipe just a bit to make a quart so we always have it on hand.
Next is the rice. I strongly recommend making your rice a day ahead and refrigerating it. Stir-frying cold rice is far easier than warm, moist rice and yields a much better end result. I like this because rice can get boring. Having some variations on rice can go a long way to making it palatable.
Then finally there’s the stir fry. A lot of you may be thinking about gardening for the first time. If you’re successful, you’re going to have some vegetables coming in this summer. Some plants, like zucchini produce prodigious amounts of fruit and you’ll waste it if you aren’t careful. This is a great way to plow through some veggies. It’s also a great way to make a satisfying meal if you only have a little meat. This is one of our mainstays.
Again, I fully realize this isn’t grid-down, TEOTWAWKI cooking. It’s really just cooking. Cooking is a major skill deficit for most Americans, though, and cooking is a grid-down skill. This is especially true for those of you who think you’re covered because your wife can cook. Learn and master some easy stuff. I promise you it will feed right into cooking difficult recipes. . . and/or cooking with limited or non-standard equipment. If there’s any interest in this post at all let me know, I’ll do a follow-up with some more recipes.