How the coronavirus lockdown has changed the way I cook, plus my favorite #quarantinecuisine recipes
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
I would’ve thought that suddenly finding myself living through an earth-altering pandemic would change my priorities.
Maybe I’d ponder the brief and instantly changing nature of life, embracing the chance to explore the things I’ve always wanted to learn about, like the deep sea or the cello.
Maybe I’d reconsider my line of work, which relies on freelance pay that’s already unstable as it is.
Or maybe I’d at least consider sending out the postcards I wrote a month ago.
And, yeah, that’s all happening a little.
But I’m still thinking about food, pretty much more than anything else.
“OK, I’ve got tons of rice. Should I make risotto and add pancetta and parmesan? Well, I’ve also got tons of fresh herbs to use before they turn black, so maybe I should make something a little lighter…” my mind wanders to the subject of dinner minutes after I’ve eaten lunch.
I’ve been on coronavirus lockdown in my apartment in Florence, Italy, for about 10 days now — and unable to go to my culinary classes since my university closed two weeks ago. My thoughts (when not focused on pressing matters like breakfast, lunch, dinner, and shopping for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) have grown increasingly glummer as the government’s safety regulations have gotten stricter.
At the beginning of March, all schools in Italy closed, but most businesses were open.
A few days later, it was announced that the entire country was on “lockdown.” All restaurants and bars had to close by 6 p.m., and others shuttered their doors completely. At least I could still roam the city freely for fresh air.
But then, the day after I took one last long, sunny stroll in the hills overlooking the city, all non-essential businesses and even public parks and gardens closed, and the reality that these regulations would stick around until April 3 (at the soonest) sunk in.
I’m not worried about my own health in my 24-year-old body, and I’m confident that I won’t endanger others as long as I continue to wash my hands often, stay home as much as possible, and keep at least a meter away from others when I do go outside. The only thing that keeps me up at night is the worry that these restrictions might extend beyond April, intruding into May when I’m supposed to graduate with a certificate in culinary arts like I’ve dreamed of doing since I decided to become a food writer five years ago.
So I’m staying busy. A little bit with daily homework assignments about the physiology of taste, which are making up for us physically being in the classroom kitchen for the time being. A little bit with reading and writing and exercise via YouTube dance videos.
But mostly with cooking.
In the last few days, I’ve cooked my way through a real bevy of Tuscan recipes by Italian blogger Giulia Scarpaleggia (of Juls’ Kitchen), making a small dent in my stash of dried pasta with her minty fava bean pesto and savory sage and almond ragout. I’ve practiced some of the traditional dishes we’ve learned at school, like crespelle alla Fiorentina (spinach and ricotta crepes baked with bechamel and tomato sauces) and spaghetti all’Amatriciana. I’ve gone rogue, too, freestyling chicken legs cooked in a silky shallot-wine sauce, then doling out scoops of thick chocolate budino for my roommates that I otherwise wouldn’t have had an “excuse” to make. (Scroll down for the recipes.)
There’s really something luxurious about spending so much time feeding yourself. To decide at 11 a.m. that, you know, you’d really like some French onion soup for lunch even though you have none of the ingredients, then dawdle to and from the store, chop leisurely, and not finish cooking until 3:30 p.m. — and it’s all good. Who cares what time it is? You have nowhere else to be.
Usually, during experiential-learning shifts at my school restaurant, I’m rushing to finish a pasta order, flinging rigatoni all over the stove and hurriedly wiping the plate of any stray sauce splatters before a hospitality student sends it out to the customer.
This week, I’ve had no orders. No chef hollering in my ear. No pressure. And it feels a lot better. (Which is maybe why my future lies more in writing than in restaurant cooking...)
It’s true, shopping for groceries in Italy is not as romantic when you have to wait in line outside of the store because only a few people are allowed inside at a time, when all of the cashiers are wearing masks, sanitizing the conveyor belts, and reminding you to keep your one-meter distance by pointing to lines of tape on the ground. But it’s still a chance to leave the house, to make eye contact with another person, say hello and thank you, and smile when you say goodbye.
Thankfully, my local outdoor market, Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, is still up and running for when I need a break from supermarket sterility. There’s tape on the ground there, too, but everything else is the same: the vibrant colors of the spring produce, the energy of the sellers buzzing in the air, and the frenzy of Italians lining up (actually lining up!) to get their artichokes and zucchini flowers. Saturday, when the country united to clap for its healthcare professionals at noon, the entire market stopped to break out in cheerful applause that made my heart swell.
Who knows, maybe this whole cooking thing will get old in a few days. Maybe I’ll really itch for a stiff cocktail that I didn’t mix myself, or a pizza that I had absolutely no part in preparing. But for now, I’m relishing the opportunity to spoil myself with homemade goodness. There’s a recipe for a potato-bacon pie with cabbage crust on Epicurious that I can almost smell through my phone screen. Florence food blogger Emiko Davies has so many beautiful recipes for Italian desserts, I don’t know which to make first. There are even countless possibilities waiting to happen from the supply of alliums, herbs, and condiments in my pantry. I’m still excited about them.
These days won’t last forever, and thank goodness for that. But neither will their silver lining: the time to finally slow down and labor over a long cookie recipe, to stand and breathe in over a gently simmering pot of soup, and to sit and watch a lasagna bubbling in the oven, patiently waiting for its cheesy crust to brown. In fact, I’d like to keep cooking like this in the future, even when time feels limited again. Slow, relaxed, and content, like there’s nowhere else I need to be.
Here are the best things I've cooked since the lockdown started. I'll keep this list updated as I continue my #quarantinecuisine endeavors, hopefully not past the end of April. Wink.
Creamy farro with crispy mushrooms and sour cream — Alison Roman for NYT Cooking
YUM! I couldn't find any dill (which Alison really wants you to pile on here) on Day 1 of the lockdown, so I used lots of fresh chives instead. The farro is so satisfyingly chewy and takes on a really tasty meaty flavor from the mushrooms. Definitely a repeatable recipe.
Sage and almond ragout — Juls' Kitchen
This was simple and memorably delicious, even with only three ingredients. I used browned butter instead of olive oil for the ragout and loved how the nutty flavor of the butter complemented the toastiness of the almonds. You can use pretty much any pasta you want, but I quite enjoyed the contrast of the crunchy nuts with this smooth, slippery wheat-germ pasta called tacconi. I also added Parmigiano, because of course.
Chicken with shallot-wine sauce — A riff on a recipe I learned in class, which you can find here
The sear-and-simmer method is my favorite way to cook chicken. It's the easiest way to prevent the meat from drying out while still ensuring that it's crispy, juicy, and, of course, completely cooked. Start by browning the chicken, skin-side down, in olive oil. Set the meat aside and saute something aromatic, like onions or shallots, in the leftover fat until soft. Next, add any other flavors you want in your sauce (I used tomato paste, an anchovy filet, fresh sage, and white wine this time around), stir, add the chicken, and cover the pan. A few minutes later, the meat will be moist and cooked through, and the liquid will have reduced to a thick, luscious sauce. Check the link for the full instructions.
Chocolate budino — Smitten Kitchen
I'm gonna say it: This is the best dessert in the world, especially if you, like me, are not much of a baker and have a special affinity for cool, creamy, spoonable sweets — like ice cream and tiramisu. Deb also lots of other tempting pudding-y recipes on her site (I want to make her butterscotch pudding next), but this one seems like the easiest and most high-reward.
Bruschetta with ricotta and broad beans — Juls' Kitchen
If you're going go through the trouble of shelling, blanching, and peeling fava beans, then you should put them in a dish that is otherwise very easy to throw together, like pasta or cheese-covered toast. For maximum contentment, consume this bruschetta for lunch in front of a window so that before you take a bite, you can admire the way its beautiful green color shines in the sunlight.
Caramelized banana pudding — Bon Appetit
This is a fancier version of the banana pudding I grew up eating as a kid, namely because of the caramelized bananas that are cut in half lengthwise, placed fruit-side down in a tray covered with cinnamon sugar, and baked. Even with extra time in the oven, my bananas didn't get as beautifully golden as Bon Appetit's, but they still added a discernably deeper flavor to the pudding. I skipped the recipe's sour cream layer and made single servings in little coffee cups instead of one big pudding.
Update on 4/19:
Kale and lentil salad with feta, olives, and almonds — Bon Appetit
Worth the effort and full of all the textures and briny flavors you could want.
Homemade gravlax — RecipeTin Eats
Making gravlax at home costs about the same as buying already cured/smoked salmon, but it's so easy that I think it's worth a try. I couldn't find dill at the store, so all I used for mine was salt, sugar, and a salmon fillet, and it was perfect.
I cannot stop eating pasta. Here are some favorites: Alison Roman's caramelized shallot pasta (pictured), pasta alla vodka, spaghetti alla gricia with fava beans, and spaghetti al limone with asparagus
Pesto with anything
Have a handful of greens that's about to go bad? Blanch or sauté them, give them a good chop, and combine them with anything you'd like in a pesto. I like sautéed spinach and garlic with finely chopped almonds, sundried tomatoes, anchovy, olives, and lemon zest, plus lots of olive oil.
Beans on toast
This is a bit wintery, but it is my favorite way to use up a can of beans. Start by sautéing onions or shallots with garlic and chili. Reduce with vegetable stock and let thicken. Add torn up greens (kale, chard, collards) and more liquid, and let thicken again. Add beans and more liquid, simmering until you get a saucy consistency. Serve over bread fried in olive oil with parmesan and lemon zest, plus extra stock if you like.