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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Quarantine Kitchen, Episode #1

Isn't food beautiful?
Life has changed all over the world in only a few short weeks. Those of us not under quarantine or self-quarantine are under directions to “shelter in place,” to keep to our homes and practice “social distancing.” The global coronavirus pandemic has brought us this new vocabulary. Its consequences have people trading bread recipes on Facebook and getting together for a glass of wine via Zoom (rather than in person) and leads all of us to thinking more and more about what is essential and what is not.

The last time I went grocery shopping, however, I admit I bought an inessential item: it was a small pot of succulents, $4.99, that I did not even try to resist. Several of my neighbors here in the ghost town of Dos Cabezas, Arizona, have gardens, and therefore while secluded at home they have the comforts of gardening, along with the comforts of cooking. We have no fence or wall around the grounds of our rented cabin and have never been here past the end of April (who knows what this year will require of us?), so I have no garden, except this small, round clay planter. The piece of rusty metal is something I picked up in the desert. Of stones the desert offers a wealth. This is my garden for what I have taken to call “the duration.” It feeds my soul.

Can't eat it, but I needed it

Books also feed my soul, of course, as they have all my life, but food is essential, and the comfort of meals feeds the soul, as well. The tantalizing aroma of banana bread is one I suspect fills many American houses these days. Our dinner last night was comfort food, too — meat loaf, potato, sweet potato, and the last of a broccoli salad as the green vegetable. 

Broccoli salad is something we have enjoyed for many years. It is basically chopped raw broccoli, chopped onion, chopped green olives, and mayonnaise. The original recipe included chopped hard-cooked egg, but I am conserving eggs these days; in the past I have substituted cubed tofu for the eggs to good effect, and most recently the pale, crisp stalks of bok choy filled the bill. I omitted the white this time around, but you don’t want to leave out something red. If you have pimiento-stuffed green olives, as called for in the original recipe (and where did that come from, anyway? I don’t recall), those will do. I did not, but diced red sweet pepper was fine instead.

Broccoli salad is good all by itself, but you can stretch it out by serving it as a sandwich filling in pita bread. Warm the pita pockets before you fill them with the cold broccoli salad. It’s a nice, quick, and refreshingly different lunch.

[Note: Root vegetables and crucifers keep well — potatoes and sweet potatoes and yams; cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts. “No lettuce for the duration!” one friend of mine writes in e-mail, concerned about germs. I have long relied on bok choy for versatility, as the stalks substitute easily for celery and the leaves for lettuce or spinach.)

Here are my meat loaf ingredients: ground beef, Worcestershire sauce, chopped onion, rolled oats, eggs, catsup. Tomato paste would be more refined than catsup, but sometimes I prefer the sweeter condiment. Even in chili, I find the addition of catsup pleasing, however heretical the thought may be to chili purists. 

Like the broccoli salad, leftover meat loaf too will go further if sliced thin and used as a sandwich filling. Because we’re all baking bread these days, aren’t we? Or about to start....

One of my kitchen essentials, as you already know, is Better than Bouillon. Another is a brand of tomato paste that comes in a tube rather than a can, because before I discovered that (thanks to a friend who included it in a gift basket once), there was always the problem of opening a can of tomato paste and not needing to use it all, but having what was left go moldy in the refrigerator or forgotten in the freezer. No such problem with the tube: take it out of the package, use what you need, keep the closed tube in the fridge until you need more. While I did resort to catsup in my meat loaf, our chicken entree the previous night simmered in a rich sauce of onions, garlic, olive oil, and tomato paste.

What else is essential in your quarantine kitchen? We would be hard pressed in our household to live without onions. Doesn’t almost every good recipe (other than banana bread, of course) begin with an onion?

And on the subject of bananas, now if ever is the time to buy green bananas. They will keep longer, in the first place, and in the second place you never throw away brown-skinned bananas, do you? Doesn’t they always go into the freezer until you’re ready to make banana bread?

Fresh fruit is important, too, if you have access to it, and citrus with its good, thick, protective rind is another good-keeping food. Berries are trickier, but I learned from one of my sisters years ago how to stretch out my blueberry supply. Wash the berries well and spread them out on a cookie sheet. Put the sheet in the freezer, and when the berries are frozen, remove them from the sheet with a spatula and transfer them to freezer bags. A handful at a time can be shaken from the bag (in all their nice, individual, original round form) to add to pancakes, cereal, smoothies, or salads. A couple of weeks ago I bought fresh raspberries and froze them the same way, so we’ll see how that experiment turns out.

Friends back in downstate Michigan report that skunk cabbage has made its spring appearance, so can rhubarb be far behind? Here in the high desert, we have “wild rhubarb,” or “desert rhubarb,” or “miners lettuce” (it has many other common names), which is not rhubarb at all but a species of dock, Rumex hymenosepalus. Leaves and stalks are edible, in salad when young or, later in their development, cooked like spinach. Roots, I read, were also used in the old days to tan leather or dye cloth. 

Miners lettuce in former mining town
With all the free-ranging cattle here in Dos Cabezas, I would hesitate to gather the desert rhubarb unless I were very, very hungry. And you’d certainly want to wash it well! But it’s always good to take note of emergency food supplies, should the kitchen run low, though I don’t think we will come to that in the current so-far manageable crisis.

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