Under quarantine, columnist concocts comforting cuisine

The world we live in under the COVID-19 pandemic finds many of us unexpectedly at home, searching for pockets of peace amidst the chaos. Like countless others, cooking is part of my coping: I have turned to the kitchen as a creative outlet, and four weeks in, I find myself  enjoying the opportunity to cook nourishing meals for my family. I am grateful to still have ample access to food, and for my family’s ability to make dietary changes to accommodate the less frequent trips to the grocery store. While I recognize that massive shifts in our food chains are posing difficulty for many across the country, I feel lucky that my own circumstances allow me to take the shift in ingredient availability as a chance to experiment—each night’s meal is a diversion of delicious discovery and edible innovation. Over the past few weeks, my culinary escapades have ranged from simple staples to newfound nutritious nosh. Cooking is a consistent source of comfort in my life, and I offer this collection as an ode to practices that sustain health and well-being, even in these times.

I, like many an internet citizen, have turned to bread baking, as we no longer visit our favorite bakery. Removing a fresh, warm loaf from the hot oven instills a sense of accomplishment hardly worthy of a simple mixture of flour, yeast, salt and water. A crusty round of bread is greatly satisfying, and continues to gift carbohydrate goodness throughout the week in the form of toast! I began my bread endeavors with the easy recipe for No-Knead Bread, but my most recent attempt has been a loaf of sourdough, lovingly made with a sourdough starter bequeathed upon us by my grandma a few years ago.

I’ve recently started investigating what random assortment of foodstuffs we’ve been hiding in our freezer, and I was pleasantly surprised to unearth frozen blueberries and egg tart dough! Naturally, this inspired blueberry tartlets. The frozen blueberries were deftly refreshed with a healthy dose of cinnamon and a dash of sugar, and the tartlet dough crisped up into flaky buttery indulgence in the oven.

Upon arriving home after an abrupt departure from my study abroad in Ecuador, I was pleased that my mother had purchased a green Ecuadorian plantain as an appropriate homecoming offering. With this treasure, I attempted one of the recipes I learned from my Ecuadorian host family: tortillas de verde—scrumptious plantain patties filled with cheese and lightly pan-fried. The earthy plantain and gooey cheese introduced a welcome change in our diet from our familiar California fare.

My legume-loving soul rejoiced at the abundant supply of dried beans in our pantry, and I’ve been concocting flavorful dishes that showcase my favorite nitrogen-fixing friends in spice-filled blends that pair well with raw vegetables and interesting breads. Chickpeas take center stage in my adaptation of the Trinidadian street food “doubles,” featuring a warm blend of spices and onions that sits atop fried dough and is garnished with cucumber and hot sauce. As a nod to Vassar’s Wednesday tradition, I peppered in a healthy shot of New Mexico chili powder into a vegetarian chili featuring cranberry beans, black beans and canned tomatoes, accompanied by a savory cornbread.

Under the pandemic situation, I am inspired to search for nutrition in new ways, and my newest entertainment is foraging for edible greens. On careful neighborhood excursions, taking wisdom from a forage-focused cookbook and the wealth of information that is the internet, I have ventured into a world of wild mustard greens and dandelion leaves. While the small prickles make these greens difficult to consume raw, they are delicious when properly washed, cut into strips and sauteed down in a melty mixture of alliums and olive oil. I balance the bitterness of these foraged vegetables with a bit of red wine vinegar, honey or maple syrup, and my family has been quite pleased with this unexpected additional source of vitamins and greenery on our plates.

All images courtesy of Tamika Whitenack.

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