In late January, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, China went on lockdown. In early March, Italy followed. Weeks ahead of us, what have the people there learned about life in quarantine that we, now, might learn from them?
In February, an enlightening thread appeared on Reddit titled “What the coronavirus forcing me in lockdown’s taught me about cooking; plus, how to make Mantou.” Its author, Chris Thomas, is half of the couple behind YouTube channel “Chinese Cooking Demystified.” He and fiancée Stephanie Li live in Shunde, China, around the same distance from Wuhan as Boston is from, say, Roanoke, Va. At the time, they were about where we are now: restaurants shut down, grappling with the need for fresh vegetables, losing the degree of choice they were accustomed to in terms of buying ingredients, and making the most of what was available. The thread is worth a read, a musing on creativity in times of constraint, how it affected Thomas and Li’s mindset, and food history and fusion cuisine. (Also: how to make mantou!)
Things in Shunde are now starting to return to normal. “It’s a sort of a different ‘normal’ than things were at the beginning of this whole mess, but the city where we live is starting to feel alive again,” Thomas says via e-mail. “It’s still mask on, all the time. There’s still spot temperature checks on the street. You still need to scan a QR code to get into many public places. But the markets are open, many restaurants have begun to do dine-in again, and just today our gym reopened.”
(Everyone wears masks? Spot temperature checks? QR codes? Folks, we are so screwed.)
Meanwhile, as Shunde begins to emerge from lockdown, my friend and fellow food writer Jennifer V. Cole, a Southerner transplanted to Sicily, approaches the 30-day mark of her solo confinement. In the US, everyone ran out and bought toilet paper. In Italy, she says, the shelves were immediately stripped bare of burrata, Nutella, and anchovy paste. National character, reveal thyself! Now everyone there, like here, is baking, and flour is hard to come by. “You can see the moods and the cooking styles of the country changing,” she says. Her own, too: “I completely lost my appetite. It’s sort of funny because the only reason I’m legally allowed to leave my house is to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy. My limited glimpses into the outer world now are through the lens specifically of food. So even if I’m not hungry, I’m still going to the grocery store every 7 to 10 days and stocking up.”
From their different situations, the two emerge with overlapping takeaways. These feel instructive for us, at what is likely just the beginning of isolation in our own homes.
It’s not what you have, but what you make of it
CT: "So long as you’ve got something to work with, seasonings and spices can be even more important than ingredients themselves. We’ve ... paradoxically eaten quite well during this period. There’s been constraints, sure, but working around constraints just forces you to get creative.
"But I’m also well aware that we’re not normal people. We do a YouTube cooking thing, after all. Our cabinets are stocked with a veritable smorgasbord of spices, sauces, pickles, chiles, dried herbs, dried seafood, and dried mushrooms. We’ve got a diversity of stuff too — we could mimic the flavors of Sichuan one day, and Texas the next.
“Obviously, if you can’t get the basic necessities — if you can’t put a protein, a vegetable, and a starch on your plate — even a lifetime supply of Phu Quoc fish sauce wouldn’t matter a lick. But what we really internalized was that so long as you’ve got some spices and seasonings, it doesn’t matter what that protein/starch/vegetable combination is. You can make something work, so long as you have an understanding of how to cook.” (Ed. note: Locally available Red Boat brand fish sauce is from the island of Phu Quoc, considered to be the source of the best in Vietnam.)
JVC: “I don’t go in [to the market] with anything in mind like, ‘I’m going to make this recipe.’ I’m shopping the way people in Italy always shop. What’s fresh and looks good? Oh, that fish looks good, so I’ll get that and cook it. The produce section is overflowing with all these types of greens, cima di rapa and all that. Every day basically becomes an episode of ‘Chopped.’ It’s a pantry roulette of ‘what do I have and how can I put it together?’”
Projects are good
CT: "We made a lot of noodles. Apart from a couple weeks where there was a shortage of fresh vegetables, we didn’t seem to get hit as hard with shortages as the USA has been — so we had quite a bit of flour on our hands. And under lockdown? You also have quite a bit more time on your hands.
“When you’re staying inside all day, suddenly the 45-60 minutes it takes to make fresh noodles doesn’t seem like quite as much of a burden. And it’s kind of fun, something a lot healthier to focus on than the insanity of the world outside your door.”
JVC: "One thing I’ve really learned is that efficiency is not your friend. Things that normally take me 20 minutes to do I’m stretching into an hourlong project. I took the time to really properly caramelize onions the other night.
"Another thing: I made tacos al pastor. For that, I viewed it as a project, between slicing the pork, making the achiote, marinating the pork, creating my own trompo, peeling and slicing the pineapple, and while that was cooking, hand-making all the tortillas from masa and pressing them and griddling them. From start to finish, it took like seven hours, which was great because I was fully occupied."
Cooking can be a real comfort, and small pleasures are to be savored
CT: From everything that I’ve seen here, it really does feel like the people that have a habit of cooking for themselves have dealt with this situation quite a bit better than people that don’t. From this perspective, it was weirdly a bit of good luck that the epidemic hit during the Spring Festival holiday, when most people were home with family. Many people took this time to learn how to cook from their parents or grandparents — maybe one of the few positives to actually come out of this whole mess."
JVC: "I’m cooking every day partially because for me it’s very therapeutic going through the motions. When I pull out my cutting board and garlic, I don’t have to think. I can turn off the crazy analysis part of my brain and go into the motions of doing things I’ve been doing for years.
“I’ve really enjoyed using my oven because things tend to cook longer and it fills your house with those smells. The whole time the al pastor was cooking, my apartment smelled amazing. That extra sensory bump really did a lot to boost my mood. It’s a little extra pleasure boost, and quite frankly in these days all the little tiny pleasure boosts are immense.”
Try to maintain some semblance of normalcy
CT: "The first step, I think, is to make your new normal ... normal.
"I normalize the not-normal by creating a routine. We’re creatures of routine to some extent, I think.
“Wake up. Shower. Put on work clothes. Make yourself breakfast. Go to a corner of your house/apartment that you designate for working. Work. Take a break. Make lunch. Watch some stupid videos on YouTube while you munch away on your sandwich/noodle soup or whatever. Go back to work. Finish at 5. Crack open a beer. Relax. Cook dinner. Eat dinner. Watch something, play something. Have a few more beers. Sleep. Repeat.”
JVC: “My life in Sicily revolves around the home table. I’m usually going to other people’s houses for dinner parties. It’s way more popular than big nights out in restaurants. That’s one thing that’s been so challenging. Eating is such a social activity here; it’s a social activity in general, but here it is the lifestyle. So one night my friend Flavia and I decided on a menu. We went to the grocery store, we each bought the same ingredients, and we started cooking at the same time. When I was cooking my potatoes, she was cooking her potatoes. We had the video screen set up. It was a birthday supper for her daughter. We were on video chat for hours, through the entire process of cooking. At their house, I always sit at the same place at their dinner table, so they put the phone at my spot propped against a plant so my view was the same. I could see her and her husband and children. It was constant social interaction, not just a check-in phone call but as if I was there in the kitchen with them and at the table with them. At the end of that, I was kind of exhausted, like at the end of a dinner party. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. But I was already home, so I just turned off the phone!”
Go easy on yourself
CT: "Take care of your mental health. Try not to push yourself as hard as you usually do. We’re lucky in that we have a lot of flexibility and independence regarding the work we do (which often barely feels like work!), but we’ve been trying to be good about giving ourselves weekends, keeping to a 9-5 with a lunch break, etc. I try not to beat myself up for not working out — even though I’ve gained back a few kilos.
“If you need a day to veg out and play videogames or watch movies, or if after a week or two you just need that walk in the park … just do it. It helps, a lot.”
JVC: “It’s OK to have a day where you’re just like: I give up. It’s OK to have a day where the only thing you eat is a spoonful of Nutella straight out of the jar and a piece of bread you hold in your hand, alternating bites. The thing is, if you can’t leave or go anywhere or do anything, the only person you’re hurting by putting this crazy pressure on yourself to be productive or get up and do things is yourself. I’ve finally given myself permission to have those days and not feel guilty about it. That’s been the hardest thing for me, to give myself permission to not have my [act] together.”
Here is a perfect project recipe for preserving your sanity and giving you something to focus on: chicken potpie, adapted from a Flour Bakery + Cafe recipe (Corey is the chef who introduced it to the menu). There are so many steps! You make stock, dough, and filling, then you assemble and bake. This version is incredibly delicious. If you feel really motivated, double the recipe and freeze the extra for one of those days when you aren’t motivated at all. Bake the potpie in a deep-dish pie pan, and feel free to substitute or omit vegetables in the filling as necessary.
Corey’s Homemade Chicken Potpie
Serves 6 to 8
3 pounds chicken wings and bones
1 medium onion
1 large carrot, peeled
2 celery stalks
2 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme sprigs (omit if you don’t have)
1. Place the chicken wings and bones in a stockpot. Add about 3 quarts of water, or as needed to cover the wings. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim the foamy impurities off the top and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Roughly chop the onion, carrot, and celery into 1-inch pieces. Add the chopped vegetables, bay leaves, and thyme (if using) to the pot and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 2 hours.
2. Strain the stock through a sieve into a large container and discard the solids. Let stand for a few minutes, then, using a large spoon, skim off the layer of fat that rises to the surface. (You don’t have to get it all; a little fat adds flavor.) The stock can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 weeks.
1¾ cups (245 grams) flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cold milk
1. Using a stand mixer, or a handheld mixer and a medium bowl, beat together the flour, sugar, and salt on low speed for 10 to 15 seconds. Scatter the butter over the flour mixture and beat on low speed for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or until the flour is no longer bright white and holds together when you clump it and lumps of butter the size of pecans are visible throughout. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and milk. Add the yolk-milk mixture all at once to the flour-butter mixture and beat on low speed for 20 to 30 seconds, or just until the mixture barely comes together. It will look really shaggy and more like a mess than a dough.
2. Dump the dough out onto a clean, dry work surface and gather it into a tight mound. Using the palm of your hand, smear the dough, starting at the top of the mound and sliding your palm down the sides of the mound along the work surface, until most of the butter chunks are smeared into the dough and the whole thing comes together. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and press down to make a flattened disk. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using. The dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to a month (wrap it in a second layer of plastic wrap if storing for more than 1 day or freezing it). If frozen, transfer the dough to the refrigerator and allow it to thaw for 1 day before using it.
3. Divide the dough into two pieces, one twice as large as the other. The smaller portion will be used for the top crust. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the larger dough portion into a circle about 12 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Roll the dough circle around the rolling pin and then unfurl it on top of the pie pan or dish. Gently press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan, leaving a 1/4-inch lip extending beyond the pan rim (to allow for shrinkage in the oven). Refrigerate the pie shell for at least 30 minutes. The pie shell can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 1 day or frozen for up to 2 weeks. The frozen pie shell can be baked directly from the freezer.
4. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
5. Line the chilled pie shell with parchment paper, fill it with pie weights (or some of those dried beans you bought!), and blind bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the entire shell is light brown. Transfer the pie shell to a wire rack and leave the oven on. Remove the weights and the parchment and let the shell cool completely.
FILLING AND ASSEMBLY
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 small russet potato, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
5 tablespoons (45 grams) flour
1½ cups chicken stock (see above)
1 cup frozen peas
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or about 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream (or substitute the highest-fat milk you have on hand)
1 large egg, beaten
1. While the pie shell is baking, make the filling: In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium-high heat until it foams. Add the onion and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it softens a bit. Add the carrot, celery, and potato and sauté, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables start to soften. Add the chicken and continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the chicken pieces start to turn opaque. Stir in the flour, mixing to coat all of the meat and vegetables, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes longer. By this time the filling will start to look a bit sludgy and a brown film should be forming on the bottom of the pan. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the peas, thyme, salt, pepper, and cream and stir well. Simmer, scraping up the browned bits clinging to the bottom of the pan, for about 5 minutes, or until the filling thickens. Remove from the heat and spoon the filling into the prebaked pie shell.
2. Roll out the remaining dough portion into a circle about 10 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Roll the dough circle around the rolling pin and then unfurl it over the filled pie shell, letting the edge of the round overhang the rim of the pan by 1/4 to 1/2 inch (you will trim off this excess once the pie is baked). Using a pastry brush, brush the top crust evenly with the egg and poke a hole in the center of the crust to allow steam to escape. (At this point, the potpie can be well wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen. When you want to eat it, discard the plastic wrap, place the pie on a baking sheet, and put the frozen pie in the preheated oven. Add 20 to 25 minutes additional baking time, and tent a piece of aluminum foil over the crust if it starts to overbrown before the pie is ready.)
3. Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any overflow. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the entire top crust is golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for about 15 minutes. Using a small paring knife, trim away any excess crust along the edge before serving.
Adapted from “Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe’s Most Loved Sweets & Savories,” by Joanne Chang. Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell.
Other things to try
- These fragrant and delicious braised short ribs with red onions, bacon, and balsamic vinegar.
- This handmade pasta, which can be turned into sweet corn and ricotta raviolo, butternut squash agnolotti, braised lamb shank ravioli, and more.
- Another good project recipe from Joanne Chang: apple cider sticky buns.
Question of the day: What’s helping you keep it together right now, in the kitchen or out of it? (It’s also fine if you’re not keeping it together. Feel free to tell me about that, too!)
Thinking of you, good people.