I didn’t think my way of cooking would change much during the lockdown. I thought I was already quite organised, with a well-stocked pantry, responsible in using my ingredients and leftovers and creative when it comes to improvising. After all, dealing with food and with recipes is part of my job, it is my daily life and my ultimate passion.
Yet, in more than a month of lockdown, I noticed some changes that made me reflect on my approach to cooking.
First of all, now I am cooking mainly for the two of us: this is the first time since we’re together, it feels very intimate.
We obviously had to cancel all our cooking classes and suspend most of our projects with clients for recipe development and food photography. So, I started preparing our favourite foods more often, as a way of bringing comfort and memories into the kitchen. Some of these comfort foods ended up also in our virtual Tuscan cooking classes, the new project we launched on Udemy.
I became more aware of the ingredients I have in my fridge and pantry, as when you shop once every ten days everything counts. I used to indulge myself with the freshest produce from the market: now it would have been the season of fresh fava beans and agretti, monk’s beard. Shopping mainly at the local supermarket – or better, jotting down lists for Tommaso to shop -, I found myself relying also on bags of frozen vegetables, as my mum used to do when I was a kid: I quickly cook spinach, Swiss chard and green beans and turn them into omelettes, pie filling and hearty salads.
I guess I’ve become more practical, I also started batch cooking vegetables as to keep them for longer in the fridge, and in the meantime, I browsed again old cookbooks to add new recipes to my cooking repertoire.
Organise your pantry
My first thought, when, at the beginning of March, we had to change our daily life in the span of a night, was: well, now I’ll have the time to do an inventory of my freezer and my pantry. I had been planning to survey pantry ingredients and forgotten bags in my freezer for months, so this was the perfect occasion to do it. Now or never.
Before compiling any shopping list, I tried to use what I already had, combining those ingredients into tasty dishes.
This is how I ended up preparing Tommy’s comfort food, gnocchi alla romana, which are semolina gnocchi baked in the oven with tons of grated Parmigiano and melted butter on top. I used the remnants of an old bag of semolina flour and some milk, which was dangerously close to its expiring date.
Baking bread for the whole family once a week gave me also the chance to use the random bags of flour I had bought. I was lucky as before the lockdown I had stocked the pantry with huge bags of bread flour and whole wheat flour in view of the cooking class season which was due to start soon.
Once the pantry was well organized, I could compile the first shopping list, which for the first time included bags of frozen vegetables and frozen cod fillets. I’ve always preferred fresh vegetables, having the chance to shop at the market at least twice a week, but I rediscovered how handy a bag of frozen spinach could be. It found its way into a torta pasqualina, my mum’s ricotta and spinach pie in a puff pastry shell, into a filling for ravioli, but even in one of my favourite side dishes when I was growing up: spinach cooked with milk, grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a few pieces of mozzarella, a delicious cheesy mess.
This is how I started to cook like my mum.
When I was a child, she used to work during the day and come back home in the late afternoon. She would shop once a week at a local supermarket, buying ingredients for that weekly menu, which hasn’t changed through the years. Pantry ingredients were what could help her cook a nutritious meal in a short time, while also juggling a house to clean and a child, then two, to care for.
My mum, Anna, is not passionate about cooking, nor curious; she is purely practical. Her meals tend to repeat week after week, in a comforting sequence of quick, reliable, nutritious dishes that can be easily adapted to the seasons, or to the ingredients available in her pantry.
One of the things that I always have in my pantry is good quality canned tuna.
I inherited my mum’s preference for it, and now I make sure to always have a healthy supply of it. Now I try to buy good quality, sustainably-sourced tuna, preferably packed in extra virgin olive oil. Doing this, I never discard the oil, but instead use it to dress my dishes: it works drizzled on mixed vegetable salads, with tuna or hard-boiled eggs, or even as the cooking oil to start my tuna-tomato sauce.
As I cleaned and reorganised my pantry, I did the same with my cookbook collection.
It took me two days, but I finally reunited all my cookbooks into a single bookshelf, as they were part at home and part in the studio. I purged the collection, keeping just the cookbooks I find useful, or those that inspire me (still many, many cookbooks). I also prepared two big bags of books to bring to the local library when the lockdown will be over. This purge inspired me to cook again from some of the cookbooks I kept, trying new recipes and flavour combination. Ottolenghi is, obviously, one of the books I’m using the most.
Focus on what you have, rather on what you don’t have
A brilliant piece of advice I got from a recent episode of BBC Radio 4, The Food Program, is to focus on what you have, rather on what you don’t have.
This is a key perspective when it comes to sort through your pantry in search of inspiration about what to cook. Instead of complying with the urge to go out to buy that single ingredient missing, you should focus on what you already have, giving the chance to shine to those ingredients that you keep moving on the back of your pantry. I know we all have that odd bag of legumes, or of couscous, whose use we keep postponing.
As an inference of the aforementioned principle, don’t be too specific when it comes to ingredients.
And I’m not talking about quality. This is something I had to re-learn, which freed me and gifted me with my comfort food, pappa al pomodoro, recklessly out of season. I am an advocate for a proper pappa al pomodoro made with fresh peeled tomatoes, as, for me, this is how you can get the best flavour: a symphony of sun ripened tomatoes, garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil. You’d need plain Tuscan bread to make it, but I just had some dry ends of my whole wheat sourdough bread. Never mind, they would do.
No fresh sun ripened tomatoes in sight, not even what is a close substitute for me, which is peeled canned tomatoes. I had just half a bottle of tomato puree to finish. It would do, I thought. My pappa al pomodoro came out just right: I had to learn the hard way how not to be too picky when it comes to ingredients.
Plan in advance
Even though I find extremely satisfying improvising a meal based on what I have on my pantry and fridge, this is not the right moment to do it. I had to learn to plan in advance. We buy excellent fresh cheese and free-range meat from a local farm every other week, so I have to plan ahead not to forget what I might need.
Fresh mozzarella for our Sunday pizza, my weekly supply of ricotta, one of the ingredients I am constantly craving for, from breakfast to pies for dinner, fresh milk, pecorino, then pork chops, or beef burgers… we have a normal sized fridge and freezer, so I must be aware of what is inside and what I will need in the upcoming days.
I also bake bread once a week for the whole family, then I slice my sourdough loaves and freeze the slices in bags. This is how we can have a fresh supply of bread through the week. So, the freezer is your best friend, but you must keep a close eye on its content not to get side-tracked.
Learn new skills
I found this lockdown useful to learn new skills, or to perfect techniques and basic recipes. Use this time to cook that ingredient you still don’t master well. Work on your sourdough bread or on you fresh pasta. Tackle the roast pork, or a slow braised beef. I decided to learn to make a decent pizza: as long as I bake it in our wood burning oven the results are great, but when I make the pizza in our home oven I’m always disappointed.
So now I am baking pizza week after week, taking notes on temperatures, flour to water ratio, timing and toppings. It’s a lockdown challenge I am eager to face: the little improvements make me extremely proud. At least, at the end of this difficult time, I’ll have my recipe for pizza, something I’ll be happy to use whenever we’ll have friends over for dinner.
Ep. 35 – Cooking during the lockdown
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Pasta with sun-dried tomato and tuna pesto
Are you hungry now? After all this talking about cooking, you deserve a recipe. This is one of the dishes I make more often during these days, based on ingredients I always have I my pantry: sun-dried tomatoes, capers, good quality canned tuna and pasta. It is a quick meal, as you can prepare the tuna and sun-dried tomato pesto while your pasta is cooking. It is also well balanced and very nutritious, with a mediterranean flair.
Pasta with sun-dried tomato and tuna pesto
- 80 g (3/4 cup) sun-dried tomatoes
- 40 g (1/3 cup) walnuts
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 150 g (1 cup) good quality canned tuna
- 180 g (6 1/3 oz) short whole wheat pasta
- Rinse the sun-dried tomatoes. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water and cook on a medium flame for about 8 minutes. Drain keep aside a tablespoon of their water.
- In a food processor, blend the sun-dried tomatoes with capers and walnuts, their cooking water and olive oil into a paste.
- Collect the sun dried tomato pesto in a bowl and add the tuna, breaking it with a fork.
- Cook the pasta al dente and drain it, then toss it into the bowl with the sun-dried tomato and tuna pesto.
- The pantry is one of my favourite theme when it comes to food. I already shared a post, A Tuscan pantry – Staple ingredients, recipes and a tuna sauce, and a podcast episode, a few months ago.
- The Food Expiration Dates You Should Actually Follow. This article answers some questions that are crucial in these days: When is the right time to throw something out? And what about fresh ingredients? If I’m trying to keep supermarket trips to a minimum, how long can my eggs, dairy and produce keep?
- Missing an Ingredient? Here Are Substitutions You Can Use Instead. Another article which can help us in these days, limiting our trips to the supermarkets. The most important skill in the kitchen — and, arguably, life — is adaptability. The list below, which is by no means comprehensive, is meant to help you replace ingredients with confidence. Every alternative listed may not work in every case, especially when it comes to baking, but if you consider the ingredient’s texture, flavor and cook time, and make decisions according to taste, you’ll greatly expand your options — and you may even end up with a dish you like better than the original.
- Baking During Quarantine as an Act of Faith. Dorie Greenspan about baking during the quarantine and her recipe for Cheddar-Walnut Gougères.