The Secret to Cooking for Yourself -- and Liking It
Between the years of 2006-2008 I went on a no-restaurant quest, pledging to eat only what I cooked at home. And I did it because I loved exploring the food culture in my city, but could barely afford to eat out at food trucks all the time, let alone indulge in trendy restaurants. So I decided to challenge myself by only cooking what I ate for a while. It lasted longer than I expected -- I survived to write a blog and book about my experience -- and was more fun and fulfilling than I ever imagined.
Fast forward to 2020. Suddenly, a lot more of us are cooking from home. And we’ve all seen the empty grocery store shelves. Maybe you heeded the advice to stock up on pantry staples: shelf-stable foods like dry grains and pasta, beans, flour, eggs, and lots and lots of canned food. This is good. Acquiring a hardy collection of essential ingredients will help provide for many meals to come.
But that’s just the start. If you’re going to be cooking on an everyday basis, now that you’re sheltering and limiting your outings due to COVID-19, you’re going to need to think a lot more outside the box. That means making weird, impulse food purchases that will help guide and inspire your meals. And that’s basically how everyday cooking works -- pandemic or not.
"We should be open to letting availability guide our shopping."
Grocery stores are considered essential businesses that will stay open even during shelter-in-place mandates, although that can change. But it would be irresponsible to the workers at these stores to waltz in just because you feel like having, say, shrimp scampi with your pasta. Limiting your shopping trips to once a week is crucial, and that’s why it’s essential to look beyond the shelf-stable basics when you shop.
Experts say we don’t need to worry about shortages in the food supply yet, but if grocery aisles are any indication, you might not be able to find exactly what you are looking for, both in the short- and long-term future. The short-term is that stockpiling has created temporary shortages of certain foods at the retail level. Looking ahead, if the coronavirus disrupts international trade, as it has already for exports to China, then we may not be able to import all the foods that we’re accustomed to. Simply put, we should be open to the possibility of not having all the products that we’re used to, and to letting availability guide our shopping.
Let unexpected and odd foods inspire youThis is the kind of attitude you need when you cook everyday meals in any circumstance, actually. When you have a bedrock of pantry staples, it’s easy to absorb fresh, unexpected, or just random ingredients that come your way. And, when you’re cooking regularly, unexpected and odd ingredients -- often in the form of leftovers -- are a regular occurrence. You’re never really cooking from a blank slate when you’re cooking every day.
It’s important to keep things exciting by incorporating new ingredients into your routine now and then. I’m talking something as simple as a bunch of fresh sage, which you might have never thought to buy before, or baby artichokes, or a box of walnuts. You can make brown butter sage pasta with baby artichoke and walnuts one night, or a savory tart with the same ingredients another. Still have some artichokes leftover? Try making a blended soup with a crunchy topping of fried sage and walnuts. Or, say you can’t find the same chicken pieces you’re used to cooking with? Get a whole chicken to roast one night, then use in a soup, in sandwiches, and to make chicken stock with. When in doubt, sautee any leafy green with garlic, and watch its mass shrink to just a few bites. Or add any leftovers to fried rice, including the day-old rice itself.
As I learned from my self-imposed two years of not going to restaurants, these kinds of ingredients really grease the wheels for everyday home cooking. They spark ideas, while shelf-stable goods provide the means. They can also make what might feel like work more like a fun process of discovery and learning.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world thanks to COVID-19. But making a tasty dinner out of whatever you swept through the supermarket with should be the least of your stresses. And there are ways to keep exciting ingredients coming that don’t involve a supermarket, too. If there is a silver lining to this virus, it could be that we’ll all be a lot more experienced in cooking satisfying meals for ourselves on a daily basis. Here are a few tips on what to buy, and how to shop for it.