Edward Lee is not prepared for a coronavirus lockdown. His pantry is not stocked. He shops often, buying only what he needs and what will fit in his small kitchen.
“I’m a chef, so I rarely cook at home from scratch,” he said with a shrug. “My fridge is filled with leftovers from the restaurant. My whole life is eating leftovers.”
In other words, he’s like a lot of people.
For years, nutritionists and cookbook writers have advised Americans to keep a stocked pantry, and to cook and eat together. It’s better for our health. It’s better for our relationships. (There are even apps that will help you do the planning.) And yet, we’ve stubbornly refused. Research firm NPD reported in 2017 that cold cereal, toaster pastries, yogurt and tap water are among the most popular “meals” prepared at home. Food Genius, a food-data firm now owned by U.S. Foods, estimates that as many as 80% of Americans don’t make plans for dinner until at least 4 p.m. the same day.
Now comes the threat of the coronavirus, which could mean that, at least temporarily, we stock up and limit trips to the grocery store, stop going to restaurants and spurn delivery drivers.
In other words, Americans might finally have to plan and cook.
No one knows where the virus might bloom – or how long restrictions might last. What is clear is that this will be different from the usual “stock up on bread and milk” emergencies: Snowstorms generally only trap people in the house for a few days, whereas lockdowns in China have lasted weeks, stressing even the most seasoned cooks. On the plus side, it’s unlikely that homes will lose power as they might after a natural disaster.
How do you plan to potentially cook three meals a day for weeks at a time with limited access to the outside world? And given our high expectations about what we eat – sushi one night and pizza the next – is it possible to keep it interesting? We asked some of the country’s best-known cooks for tips and inspiration.
Padma LakshmiAuthor, host of “Top Chef”“The first thing I would do, right now, before there is a panic, is start cooking,” Lakshmi said. “Pick a Saturday or Sunday and involve the whole family in making huge batches of different dishes: turkey chili or green chili with white beans, things that are stew-y and freeze well. Then pack them in quart containers so you can take out just what you need.”
This plan has two benefits. It lessens anxiety – yes, you’ll have food to eat – but it also allows you to cook with what’s fresh. You’re not stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables and hoping they don’t rot.
And because fresh foods do go off, Lakshmi also recommends stocking up on frozen vegetables, which “have no less nutrition than fresh ones do,” and plenty of root vegetables that also store well – even if you don’t have a big freezer: “Turnips are delicious cooked in broth with a little bit of soy sauce, a dash of hoisin sauce and Chinese five spice.”
Finally, bulk up your condiment supply with shelf-stable sauces and concentrates that can create variety. One of Lakshmi’s go-to pantry meals is what she calls “paste pasta,” noodles tossed in a mix of sun-dried tomato paste, anchovy paste and green-olive paste, olive oil and crushed red pepper. Another is kitchari, a traditional Indian rice and lentil porridge she makes for her family that can be filled with vegetables – or not.
Hugo OrtegaChef-owner of Backstreet Cafe and four other Houston restaurantsOrtega grew up in the mountains of Oaxaca, so among his go-tos are sopecitos, little corn cups that can be filled with stewed vegetables, meat, cheese, anything really. You start with masa harina (ground, nixtamalized corn flour) and mix it with water, then form it into little balls and stretch it in the palm of your hands. All that’s left is to cook it lightly in a cast iron pan.
“Masa is my equivalent of pasta,” Ortega said. “You can put almost anything on it and it will give you plenty of energy for the day.”
If you’re really worried about the coronavirus, you can buy 10-pound (or larger) sacks of masa at club stores or Latin markets. Ortega likes blue-corn masa, which is often of higher quality. And as long as you’re stocking up, Ortega recommends canned cherry tomatoes, “which have a lot more flavor” than the usual plum variety.
Though it may not help in the short term, Ortega also hopes the scare will encourage people to cultivate some fresh food themselves: “Put rosemary in a pot in the window or a tomato plant out the back door.” After all, Americans have done it before. During World War II, there were 18 million so-called Victory Gardens.
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher HirsheimerAuthors, owners of Canal House Station restaurant in Milford, New JerseyIn the culinary world, Hamilton and Hirsheimer are gods of simple food, the kind of people who just happen to have a pie coming out the oven when you stop by without advance notice. So no surprise that cooking from a well-stocked pantry is what they do. Never are they without lots of good olive oil and canned tuna – which can be made into a stellar and satisfying pasta sauce with the addition of parsley and lemon – or eggs because, Hirsheimer said, “Omelets are fantastic and can be made with whatever you have kicking around in the fridge.”
Like Lakshmi, Hamilton and Hirsheimer are also big advocates of frozen vegetables, especially peas. They dedicated a whole chapter to them in the sixth volume of their Canal House Cooking series.
“You can make a great soup with canned or boxed chicken broth and a few bags of frozen peas,” Hirsheimer said.
Nina ComptonChef-owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans“The busier I get, the simpler I keep it at home,” Compton said.
That means a lot of snacks, including pickles, nuts, charcuterie and cheese – plus a few Totino’s Supreme frozen pizzas. The one meal she cooks regularly out of her pantry: pasta “cacio e pepe,” with cheese and black pepper. “The key is adding the right amount of pasta water because the starchy water makes the sauce really creamy.”
Compton makes the pasta from scratch once a month, and then pulls it out of the freezer, but any dried pasta will do.
Chili and risottos are also go-tos. For risotto, she uses dried mushrooms, which can live in the pantry indefinitely and are reconstituted to make the stock the rice cooks in. (Frozen peas, plus plenty of cheese and butter, complete the dish.) Her chili, usually vegetarian, features dried beans and spices that she has on hand, including lots of smoked paprika, and she serves it with Cool Ranch Doritos.
Living in New Orleans, Compton has become a fan of Zatarain’s jambalaya seasoning mix. She adds it to rice, which she tops with fresh avocado. She also uses the seasoning to make a broth to cook mixed frozen vegetables.
Edward LeeAuthor, owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky; Succotash in Washington, D.C.Lee may not regularly cook at home, but when pressed, he showed off his chef bona fides by cooking up something from next to nothing. In less than 15 minutes, he said, he coaxed a tantalizing bowl of noodles from a packet of instant ramen, some frozen green beans, a dash of curry powder and a slice of processed American cheese.
“The cheese adds a little creaminess and tang,” he said.
And a dash of nostalgia. During and after the Korean War, Lee says, Koreans learned about many nonperishable American foods such as Spam, hot dogs and processed cheese through U.S. military pantries and adopted them as a part of their staple diet, though they used them in their own ways.
“Melted cheese on ramen is the best. It’s comfort food,” he said.
And isn’t that what we really need right now?
Padma Lakshmi’s Kitchari
Time: Active: 35 minutes | Total: 55 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi loves to serve her family and friends kitchari, a much-loved Indian food that she describes it as a savory rice-and-lentil porridge. Lakshmi makes the dish a bit healthier by tweaking the traditional recipe. For example, the dish usually is made with two cups of rice to one cup of lentils, but Lakshmi reverses that to have the lentils be the main ingredient. The legumes are boiled with a bay leaf and a bit of salt. When she makes the dish for family and friends, she sautes vegetables and adds them to the porridge, which makes it healthier still. Here, the kitchari is made with more pantry-friendly ingredients. It gets its spice from black mustard seeds and dried red chile peppers.Ingredients:1 cup (7 ounces) yellow or green lentils½ cup (6½ ounces) basmati rice1 bay leaf1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste½ cup diced carrots (about 1 large)2 tablespoons canola oil2 to 3 dried red chiles, or more to taste¾ teaspoon black mustard seeds½ teaspoon ground cumin½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper1 tablespoon unsalted butter or ghee (optional)Method:Rinse the lentils and rice until the water runs clear. In a large stockpot, add the lentils, rice and bay leaf and enough cold water to cover the ingredients by about 3 inches. Stir in enough salt so that the water tastes lightly salty.
Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom, about 20 minutes. Stir in the carrots and cook, stirring a few times, until the rice is tender and the porridge is the consistency of oatmeal, about 10 minutes. If any foam forms during cooking, skim it off If the mixture seems too dry during cooking, add water, a little at a time, as needed.
When the rice is just about cooked, in a shallow pan over medium high heat, heat the canola oil until shimmering. Add the chiles, mustard seeds, cumin and pepper and cook, stirring, until the mustard seeds begin to pop, about 3 minutes. Add the oil and spice mixture (called chhonk) to the porridge. Stir in the butter or ghee, if using.
Remove from the heat, divide among bowls and serve.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings): Calories: 270; Total Fat: 6 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 200 mg; Carbohydrates: 45 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 10 g.
Source: Adapted from “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi.
Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 1 to 2
A reliable pantry staple, packaged instant ramen, enjoys a cult status with many, from cash-strapped college students to gourmet chefs. The slice of processed American cheese adds comforting, savory creaminess and is a nod to the days following the Korean War when iconic American foods flooded South Korea.Ingredients:1 cup water¾ cup coconut milkOne (3-ounce) packet instant ramen noodles, such as Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup¼ cup frozen green beans1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter (optional)½ teaspoon curry powder, plus more for garnish1 slice American cheese, such as KraftMethod:Add one cup of water to a medium pot and bring to a boil. Add the coconut milk, noodles, green beans and peanut butter, if using, and cook, stirring now and then, for about 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the curry powder and half of the spice mix from the ramen packet and stir until fully dissolved, about 1 minute. (Discard the remaining spice mix.)
Transfer the ramen and its broth to a large bowl and place the cheese on top. Dust with more curry powder and serve.
Source: Adapted from chef Edward Lee.