We live in interesting times. Given the recent government guidance on not leaving the house for unnecessary reasons, the run on supermarkets, the advice to avoid restaurants and pubs, we’re all looking at food preparation rather differently. Whether you are quarantined because you’re symptomatic, self-isolating because you’re vulnerable, or social distancing to protect those who are at high risk, there are ways to inject flavour and interest without having every possible ingredient or convenience at our fingertips. This is not the reboot of Ready Steady Cook we were all hoping for, but with so few things within our control, being able to handle ingredients and turn them into something wonderful is reassuring and hopeful.
What I write here is not supposed to be scaremongering, and certainly not designed to encourage panic-buying. It should reassure you that, whether you are well or sick, whether you have nine chest freezers and an orchard, or are scrabbling through dusty tins that have stood in your cupboard for years and hoping for the best, it is possible to eat well, to eat nutritiously, to eat in a way that will lift your spirits, to eat in a way that is soothing and pleasurable. In times of uncertainty, cooking is both a means of grounding yourself – chopping and stirring, using your senses and judgement – and of engaging in normal routines, that remind you that life goes on. There is nothing frivolous about eating well in a time of crisis.
I’m not going to make spurious claims about the immune-boosting properties of various ingredients and foodstuffs. But we know that it is important to continue to eat nutritious food whether poorly or well, and that this can be trickier than normal if you suffer a loss of appetite. It’s also extremely important – and difficult – to keep your spirits up when stuck at home, possibly alone. Food is comfort, food is self-care. Sometimes, that self-care can look like eating Nutella out of the jar with a spoon; sometimes it can be turning otherwise bland long-life ingredients into something spirit-lifting and delicious.
How to make the most of tinned and dried goods
So what do I reach for in my cupboards when I’m constrained by fresh produce or the ability to pop to the supermarket? I rely on tinned or dried staples – borlotti beans, lentils and chickpeas. If you have chickpeas, and tinned tomatoes, you can make Meera Sodha’s chana masala; if you have dried borlotti beans and pasta, you can make Rachel Roddy’s pasta e fagioli; if you have lentils and a little dairy, you can make my favourite freezer batch cook, dal makhani. Many of these tin-based foods are inherently comforting: soupy and soft and enriched with dairy or spiked with spices. They are as good for those who are poorly as those who are simply isolated.
Jack Monroe is the Queen of Cans, and her Tin Can Cook is a wonderful resource for cheap, nutritious and delightful tin-based cookery.
Long-life flavour heroes
To lift my dishes, I reach for pickles, anchovies, horseradish, Marmite, hot sauce, and peanut butter. Pickles are a godsend: a good shelf-life, cheap, brightly coloured, crisp, and ready to enliven any dish. You can even make your own if you’ve got some fresh veg and vinegar hanging around (beetroot, carrot and fennel are my favourites). Add a spoonful of horseradish to lift dairy-based dishes or Marmite to give depth to meat-based dishes (or just go all-in, and make Nigella’s Marmite pasta). Peanut butter gives you a good base for noodle dishes, and is the hero ingredient in the Hainese-style sauce in this chicken and rice recipe. Ginger, parmesan and breadcrumbs all freeze well and can be grated or added to dishes straight from the freezer. Alison Roman’s caramelised shallot pasta uses a whole tube of tomato paste and tinned anchovies to create a clever puttanesca-style sauce that will sit happily in a jar in your fridge, and Kate Young’s sardine, chilli and breadcrumb pasta is another smart use of tinned fish (although maybe save reading the inspiration for the dish, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, for more stable times).
Personally, I find baking even simple cakes deeply soothing and reassuring in times of strife – it feels like a dollop of normality and calm amidst the chaos. When it comes to baking, dried and tinned fruits are your friends, as are jams and marmalade. They’re all long-life, and likely already lurking at the back of your cupboards and shelves. I love tinned pineapple, and it’s one of my favourite bases for a crumble, or try using tinned plums to make my burnt butter plum cake (or sub in other tinned fruits to make your own variant). Oats are good too: flapjacks are ideal if you’re short on eggs, and you can fold almost anything through them – try my marmalade-rippled flapjack. Suet (normal or vegetarian) is a good fat because it’s shelf stable and you can use it to make steamed marmalade pudding or spotted dick. With a similar school dinners vibe, a simple sponge, spread with raspberry jam and dessicated coconut relies mostly on store cupboard essentials. When I have time, I like to make a batch of cookie dough, portion it off, and then freeze it. And then I can take them out one or two at a time, baking them off as and when I need them.
As cabin fever begins to set in, you may feel the need to take on some kind of project. I recommend using your abundant time at home to cook something that needs bloody ages on the hob or in the oven. Now may be the time to perfect your sourdough, or learn how to make your own pasta. But if you’re looking for maximum reward for minimum effort, slow cooking is the answer. My go-to is a slow-cooked ragu: this is my sausage-based one, and my boeuf bourguignon. For something sweet, it’s impossible to beat a proper baked rice pudding with a burnished skin, like the ones my grandmother used to make. (If you’ve stocked up on UHT milk, that will work brilliantly here.)
Whatever you make, I hope it brings you spots of joy and and moments of comfort while we navigate these unchartered waters.