So, I’m down here in my bunker – I mean basement – looking at an overflowing and strange pantry of foodstuffs. Although I acquired most of it in the past few weeks, I have always been just a tad bit guilty of hoarding mayonnaise, I’m not gonna lie. On the shelves are all the normal staples you might expect to find: tuna fish, beans, potatoes, pasta. But I also have an abundance of soy sauce, a weird assortment of canned fruits and vegetables, many many Lorna Doones, and gluten free matzo. Plus, last night I panicked. I went to Shaw’s for more toilet paper, which they didn’t have, natch. They did, however have Oreos, Doritos, and fig jam, so, you know. Things happen.
The best cooks in the world know one secret: that you can cook with anything. Take Chopped. Or Sam Sifton’s no recipe recipes from The New York Times. Or CBS’s hit cooking show Survivor.
Which is why, in these troubling times, I’m hoping that what will really help me relax and stay centered is cooking. Before COVID-19, I loathed cooking. It stressed me out, like, every single day. Mornings would begin with that loaded question: Mom, what are we having for dinner? I’d wait a beat and think. Would they like my response? Should I tell them about only one part of the meal, the non-scary, chicken-cutlet part? Should I just not reveal anything and surprise them later with it when they are too starving to care that I tried a new recipe with fish sauce in it?
Offspring (dropping fifty-pound backpack at their feet): Mom, what’s that smell?
Me (pretending to be wide-eyed and clueless): Smell? What smell?
Sometimes I planned ahead, sometimes I faked it, and many times I wondered why no one asked my husband what was for dinner. Every once in a while, when I was feeling particularly brave, I would just look my kids in the eye and spout the god’s honest truth: I don’t know what’s for dinner. Maybe nothing?
Which is why, some time around 2018, I decided to streamline my recipe toolbox, limiting it to, well, tacos. Only tacos, you ask? Yes. Only tacos – plus some other things that looked, felt, and tasted like tacos, such taco pockets, taco salad, taco soup, taco dip, and taco quesadillas.
Offspring (kissing me on the cheek upon entering the house): Hi, Mom, I love you so much and I learned so many interesting things today at school. I cannot wait to tell you all about it over a family meal! By the way, what’s for dinner? It smells delicious!
Me: (beaming, looking skinny for some reason): Tacos!
But now Life As We Knew It has been postponed and I’m not yet mentally prepared to queue up at the grocer’s for taco meat. My teaching gig at Roger Williams University has gone virtual. I cannot seem to focus on my novel, set around Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846. (Oh, yeah, 1846? You think you’re something to write about? Just wait until 2020!) I have time – weeks and possibly months of time – to spare. And, since everything about life now stresses me out, cooking seems somewhat tame, in the scheme of things.
Feel like giving it a go? If so, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite 30-Minute Doomsday Pantry Meals for you to try at home.
Penne a la Maple Syrup: A deceptively simple take on an Italian staple – oh, crap, I’m not supposed to write the word “Italian” because it’s triggering for some people – so forget that one. Moving on.
Trail Mix Hashbrowns: Take 4 cups of trail mix and one scoop of Crisco and roll into balls. Flatten the balls with your hand, imitating the shape of the flattened curve we hope to achieve by slowing down the coronavirus. Dredge with flour and pop into an oiled frying pan for one minute per side. Step way back from the pan and place protective gear over your eyes. Pray like hell to the holy granola trinity of Peter, Paul and Mary that something cool happens next.
Rice Jell-o Tower Power: Follow directions on any three bags or boxes of rice that you grabbed while in a panic the other day in aisle four of your local supermarket. Combine to create a melange of textures. I like a jasmine-basmati mixture sprinkled with long grain and wild rice pilaf.
Next, heat blue, red, and orange Jell-o separately in different pots that your homeschooled children will clean later. Pour into bowls and chill in the refrigerator for sixty-minutes. (Chef’s Note: gelatin might be hardened in about 20 minutes, making this a true 30-Minute Meal, but you’re really trying to kill time here.)
Then, in batches, spoon one flavor Jell-o in a parfait glass. Then add a scoop of rice. Then repeat with another color of gelatin. You are creating layers, which you have caught onto, because you may be homebound, but you’re not stupid. Make it pretty, filling each glass to the brim. Top with cherries or canned peas – or both – and eat with a long-handled, dainty ice cream spoon. Mmmm-mmm.
I hope you’re full! I know I am, because I can’t seem to stop shoving food in my face. Feel free to share your recipes with me. Currently, I’m looking for something novel to do with that fig jam. The Oreos and Doritos have already been dealt with.
Stay tuned for my next post, Melt With You: A Pandemic Playlist!