Around the Island

Making the most of your pandemic cooking

BY JACQUELYN OTTMAN

My pandemic cooking experience is unique because I’m in the midst of writing my next book, coincidentally, on the topic of leftovers. 

Amidst all of the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic, we seem to be taking away some positive things. Since arriving from New York City on March 17, one positive take-away of mine is appreciating the value of food in our lives. Following are five of the lessons I’ve been learning that I’d like to share with you Islanders as a thank-you for allowing me to shelter in place in such a wonderful and safe place:

1. Food is much more than sustenance

We all have to eat, and during a pandemic, eating a healthy diet is good preventive medicine. But food is more than just a source of nutrition. 

Food is love. Whipping up buttermilk pancakes dressed with strawberries in the middle of the week, ordering soft shell crabs from Commander Cody’s for a special Saturday night dinner, or simply topping a plate of lamb chops with a sprig of parsley, is how we can create joy during a tough time.  

Food is glue. Eating likely brings you and your family around a table more now than under “normal” times, too.

Food is fun; food is diverting. Every late afternoon I look forward to heading into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Turning on some music and getting lost in the flow of chopping and dicing shifts my focus away from the scary headlines and on-air briefings. I start by opening the fridge door and thinking: What’s on our “must go” shelf that just can’t wait another day? Or, what would be fun to learn how to cook?

Without restaurants to visit, to help keep things fun, we should challenge ourselves to mix things up, try new things and never make the same meal twice. Instead of frying or scrambling the fresh eggs we found at Sylvester Manor, some mornings we attempted to make the perfect poached egg. We didn’t jump on the sourdough bandwagon — I’m not really a baker — but we did try to grace many meals with a warmed-up slice of our homemade corn or banana bread. From time to time, an old apple lying around was baked into a special dessert, topped with a cinnamon stick.

2. Food is forgiving, eminently versatile, adaptable

Shortages of various ingredients challenge us to keep an open mind and improvise. We’re often surprised that what we substitute results in meals that are equally as good.

No chicken breast at the IGA? Tenders are just fine. No lamb roast in the cooler? An opportunity to experiment with boneless pork loin. No orecchiette in the cupboard? Bowties and rotini mixed into sausage and broccoli rabe are terrific, too. This made me laugh. It’s the recipe for asparagus salad that Melissa Clark ran in The Times in April, entitled, “Everything is Negotiable in this Asparagus Salad … You could even lose the Asparagus.”

3. Imagination is the most important ingredient 

We were lucky to have found an abundant supply of fresh herbs and spices at the IGA. As we moved into spring, I could literally snip chives right out of a planter on my friend’s deck. But herbs and spices aside, we have to fire up our imagination to create an entirely new dish, or to improvise around simple ingredients to make something really special. Cooking gets fun when we keep our minds open to culinary adventure like grabbing inspiration from foreign cuisines.

For lunch one day, we jazzed up a 50-cent package of ramen noodles with chunks of chicken left over from the previous day’s roast, and topped it with scallions for color and texture. Late one afternoon, with the help of a pop bottle, some leftover creamed spinach, and some odds ‘n’ ends of pastry, I made five pieces of spanakopita — a perfect hot hors d’oeuvre for two. When Easter came around and we had no coloring kit, we improvised with turmeric from the spice shelf.

4.The internet is my new favorite cookbook

I didn’t have the “Fanny Farmer” cookbook with me. Nor did I have one of my prized possessions, my mother’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, et al. But as I rushed out the door in March to come to the Island, I did have the presence of mind to pack a few recipes I was planning to try, along with the special section from The Times called “One Pot, Pan, Skillet” that ran in February.

And, importantly, I did have my Macbook. This means I could Google any ingredient that we had on hand and find plenty of good recipes. In the past few months, thanks to the magic of YouTube, Gordon Ramsay helped me to make beef short ribs, Jacques Pepin taught me the difference between a country and a real French omelette and Alison Roman showed me how to caramelize shallots and anchovies into the most incredible pasta dish ever. 

5. Food lasts a long time if you treat it properly

From the moment it’s picked, pickled, bottled, canned or butchered, all food is in a race against time necessary to bring it to perfection — fruit is sweetest when it’s just picked; steak is best after three weeks of dry aging; we wait 25 years for scotch to mellow in an oaken cask. On the back end is the time it takes for air and microbes to decompose it back into the earth. We are challenged to find the sweet spot of flavor, nutrition and freshness.

If we store our leftovers in a Tupperware-type bowl and burp the bowl to remove the air, they won’t get woolly. If we refrigerate those leftovers as soon after cooking as possible and take the trouble to re-heat them in the same way they were cooked — not necessarily in a microwave (hint to the pizza lovers amongst us) — and if we plan our meals thoughtfully through the entire week and not just through the next meal, we could keep our food costs in check, save the time it takes to cook and thanks to the magic of marination, we’d find that often, leftovers taste better the second day.

In sum, food is magical. During this pandemic, I hope you are also discovering a few new things about food and, like me, are learning a greater respect for food, too.

Oh, and celebrate food by setting a nice table. Light candles. Say the grace you learned as a child. Put on a pretty blouse. Share your food with others. Use it to nourish, bridge, glue and pass on the love. 

Jacquelyn Ottman, a native New Yorker and an advocate for zero waste, spent the first 60 days of the pandemic on Shelter Island as a house guest of Hay Beach resident Karen Kiaer.