Don’t Stand Still
In the past month, millions have been laid off from their jobs or forced to work from home. With most shops closed, folks who relied on takeout have resorted to cooking for themselves. Within this article are some inspiring anecdotes and classic dishes to help you rekindle with your culinary mojo and keep you busy.
If I had to set myself on the spectrum of luck, I would probably put myself somewhere in the middle. Privileged— no doubt. Charmed, probably not. I’m not one to stumble upon money lying on the street, or have the train arrive the very moment my Metrocard glides through the turnstile. So when COVID-19 hit New York City on my birthday, I wasn’t exactly thrown into a downward spiral. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little heartbroken as I spent that afternoon cancelling my birthday party and uninviting all thirty-six guests. The previous weekend I had been involved in a Revel™ accident; the week to follow I would become officially unemployed and like so many, find myself unable to file my claim through the overwhelmed system. Apparently when it rains, it really does pour. But this isn’t a story about self-pity. I promise it gets better from here, or at least a bit more appetizing.
It’s been three years since I graduated from culinary school. When I moved back to the city, I had hoped to find a place in the industry, but finding an apartment, working a full time job, and socializing seemed to get in the way. Cookbooks were collecting dust, and freezer burned chicken thighs sat in my freezer crystallizing further with each passing day. And bread! When would I ever find the time to cultivate bread out of thin air? That time would come sooner than anticipated, and with it an entirely new reality. I could finally dislodge projects from the back corners of my mind that were ripe for the picking.
“It appears we live in a new “now,” a new normal. A time and space that’s come after the “before” that we used to inhabit, and before the “after” — the hazy, vaguely hopeful future we imagine once this is over. We have vastness of time, but not of space.”
Susannah Gruder [Mood Elevator]
When the scaffold you built your life upon collapses, the first instinct can be to panic. While all of you were scouring the aisles of your nearest supermarket, my first instinct was to complete two weeks of personally allotted “couch time”, all the while living off one very large batch of tomato stew. Cooking seemed like a lot. I just needed to find solid ground; it felt like the rug was pulled from under me. Many times I turned my oven on, paced about for a while, and turned it back off, uninspired and unmotivated. Once I put a can of soup in a bowl without warming it and ate it at 4:15pm as a combination lunch/dinner vibe. Eventually, I took on more pressing matters, like mastering that TikTok dance. Each day was becoming more like the one that came before it. On the tenth day of tomato stew, a switch within me flipped. I threw out a line, grabbed hold, and pulled myself in. I was ready to take the plunge, light the flame, and cook. Not to impress, not in spite of failure, and not because anyone was watching. I cooked for no one, just myself, and just because.
From where I’m sitting in my apartment, the sun is crawling its way across the rooftops of Putnam Avenue and revealing itself through my north-facing bedroom windows. Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair is playing quietly on my record player. It’s almost time to feed the sourdough starter I picked up from my favorite Brooklyn restaurant, LaRina Pastifico & Vino. Flour and water is all he requires. It’s taken me all but a few weeks to ascend from humble bread-fearer to bread-baking-biotch. I’ve found success with the simple focaccia, and less technical pain de mie (otherwise known as milk bread). I’m not sure I’m ready for the intricacies of a proper rounded crusty boulé just yet.
If bread fabrication doesn’t give you agita, I assure you that maintaining a sourdough starter will. Like a child, if left unfed it will become temperamental. You must aim to provide guidance, not to control. Oh, and if you neglect it, it will die. Even when you do everything right, it will rebel against you. Yet, when you cut into your first loaf, you’ll understand why people go through all the trouble. But if you’ve found yourself sheltering in place, perhaps you’ve got time to take on a more intricate project. Plus, it’s an adequate excuse to use when searching for a way out of the family Zoom meeting.
If you’re still with me and a bread challenge is not your style, try something more familiar. Make a roast chicken (Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken with Lemons from her cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is my go-to). If not for the self-basted, tender and juicy meat alone, roast a chicken for the smell. By the time the bird is ready, your nostrils have been peppered, fingertips salted, and lips basted in lemony lipids. Cut into the bird and intoxicating steam billows from the cavity, engulfing the room and stimulating the olfactory and salivary glands of anyone in its path. Use any leftover meat to whip up a chicken pot pie, slice it and put it on a salad, or stuff it in a turducken (you know, the chicken, inside of a duck, inside of a turkey). Most importantly, never, ever throw out the drippings. You can cut several medium potatoes in half (the red guys from my CSA farmshare haul are my favorite) and roast them in a hot oven, flesh side down in the drippings until they’re fork-tender and the bottoms are a beautiful golden brown.
So no matter what motivates you, take on that sourdough starter. Make bread babies. Roast that chicken. Just let the cards fall where they may. I assure you I’m screwing something up and hoping for the best as well. Some of my favorite dishes have been the result of a mistake. Regardless of the outcome, be proud you took on the challenge. Looking forward, I’m feeling more prepared for the impending second month of quarantine– and a whole lot less stressed. I’m making room for the things that make me feel full, no pun intended. Maybe you’ll find some unclaimed territory within you, too. In this uncertain future, the least we can do is stay inside, and just. keep. cooking. The dishes can always be done tomorrow.
Click the link and you’ll be whisked away to Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken With Lemons , featured on New York Times Cooking. You can also find this recipe in Hazan’s cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
Suggested accompaniments: Serve carved roast chicken over soft polenta with herb sauce and brown butter fiddleheads.
Get to know Madeleine better, @thegruderkitchen for all her latest culinary endeavours.