Things I learned about cooking during the pandemic
Progress is sometimes hard to recognize, but after a year of cooking at home 6 or 7 nights a week I’ve learned a lot. There were the small wins, like learning how to cut a mango and how to make a jammy egg. I learned that the melting point of gelatin is similar to body temperature which is why it’s so satisfying to eat marshmallows and panna cotta. I learned how to make dumpling wrappers from scratch and that (for me!) it’s definitely worth just buying them if you can find them. I learned how extruded pasta gets made and that Big Pasta has questionably racist enrichment standards.
I learned a lot about how trecherous the food industry can be, from the COVID outbreaks at meat processing plants to the farm workers who put food in our stores and on our tables. If you’re able, donate to worker unions like UFW or a local mutual aid group.
There’s still a lot I don’t know and I love learning about food, so I’m going to keep cooking and learning until it’s not fun anymore. But I hope that day never comes.
Look, I didn’t buy the real stuff until recently and I guess I thought it was like honey. Mostly sad about the perfectly good blueberry pancakes I poured mold on a few months ago. Now I know!
Like a lot of people I grew up with iodized salt and pre ground pepper sitting on the dinner table. Then sometime last Spring I tried the very good Reluctant Trading Tellicherry peppercorns 🤯 and not only realized that there are different varieties of the humble black peppercorn but that coarsely grinding pepper makes a huge flavor difference.
During the Thanksgiving episode of Home Cooking Samin Nosrat tells Demi Adejuyigbe “you seem like you’re the perfect level of baking experience to enter the pie-making because it sounds like you’ve been baking and have a comfort with baking, yet you’re not so much of a geek and so in it that you haven’t built a fear”. I related to this a lot: I nailed a pie crust early in the pandemic and then built a fear of it after some disasters. Eventually I learned a few things:
- The “rough puff” pastry method of folding the dough is the easiest way to make sure butter is incorporated without overworking the dough (which can make it tough).
- Parbaking a pie crust is worth it! This is especially true for things like quiche, the pie crust-based thing I make the most. Without the parbake step the crust won’t get fully cooked and while no one in my household is complaining about a soggy bottom, the end result really does taste better when it’s fully baked. Skip the pie weights: I use rice or sugar.
I’m not a pie making master yet (for some reason I keep forgetting to add salt when I make the crust??), so I guess I’ll just have to make more pie to practice 🤷🏻♀️.
They’re inexpensive and make cleanup easier. I’m sure the accuracy helps make my cookies taste better or whatever but I repeat: easier cleanup. Recipes are adapting to include weight measurements too: some of my favorite blogs like Smitten Kitchen and Sally’s Baking Addiction already include grams. The LA Times also included gram measurements in their list of recipe writing refreshes for 2021. Get one (I have an Escali), you won’t regret it.
My sourdough starter, KK Slimer, is still going strong and I’m now one of those people who un-ironically says things like “letting the dough rest will help relax the gluten”. I’ve made a few dozen sourdough boules, experimented with enriched breads, even adapted a yeasted recipe with success. I plan to keep the starter alive but with 3 lbs of yeast in my freezer (don’t ask), I made a food resolution to eat more commercial yeast in 2021.
It’s easy for me to default to cooking with meat and while I don’t have any plans to give it up completely, I started eating a lot more vegetarian meals during the pandemic. Protein like beans and lentils are shelf stable, cheap, and environmentally friendly. Eggs are endlessly adaptable and easy to cook. With a CSA share to use every week I also found new ways to incorporate vegetables into some standard meat classics and realized that some of my favorite things are just as good without the meat. Take reubens: with good bread, a tasty sauce, and lots of funky sauerkraut I don’t miss the pastrami. Wild rice nicely mimics the chewiness of meat in a creamy soup. Besides, finding vegetarian alternatives has been a fun challenge to break up the cooking rut.
Vegetarian ideas and recipes:
- Delicata squash tacos
- Creamy jalapeno and wild rice soup
- Romanesco reuben
- Fried cauliflower
- Chickenless butter chicken
- Pasta e ceci
One of the first cookbooks I bought like 10 years ago was The Joy of Cooking, a staple in my mother’s kitchen. I only just learned that there are nine editions in the book’s 90 year history, meaning that my copy and my mom’s copy are probably pretty different. One of the biggest refreshes came in 2019, when the original author’s great grandson added 600 new recipes.
I bought my 10”x5” (measured from the top) loaf pan at a Goodwill in Michigan about 15 years ago and always assumed it was a normal size. However the “standard” American sized loaf pan is only 8.5”x4.5”. A lot of recipes don’t specify pan size, so I only realized this when I made a bread recipe that called for a 2lb capacity pan and was trying to scale it down. Apparently lbs are used to measure volume capacity of dough but that still makes zero sense to me. Anyway, I think my pan is about a 1.5lb capacity, which luckily means it holds all of the Smitten Kitchen pumpkin bread recipe.
Cheers to always learning.