Adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, households are rediscovering the joys of cooking at home

click to enlarge JONATHAN HILL ILLUSTRATION
Jonathan Hill illustration

Earlier this year, as shelter-in-place orders went into effect to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, families naturally found themselves spending far more time under the same roof.

Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen ended up being one of the most popular — a likely side effect of the temporary closure of eateries of every kind. Photos of proudly self-prepared meals and amateur culinary forays began popping up on social media accompanied by hashtags like #quarantinebaking and #covidcooking. Households that had fallen into the habit of dining out, drive-through, delivery or microwave meals have instead rediscovered the joys of cooking.

"It's a very good thing to go back to the essentials of life, and cooking is, I believe, one of them," says Laurent Zirotti, owner of the Post Falls fine-dining restaurant Fleur de Sel and a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist. "I come from a family where we went out to eat once a year."

Always "the helper with a spoon," Zirotti developed his own lifelong love of cooking in that environment, and he welcomes a potential cultural shift away from the hasty gobbling of processed foods toward more relaxed mealtimes that are centered around home-cooked dishes.

For those who like the sound of that, too, but aren't award-winning chefs, his advice is twofold: "start simple" with straightforward dishes — a simple roast chicken, for instance, or even a salad, like the Nicoise Salad recipe he shares with Health & Home — while embracing a spirit of trial and error.

"When I teach classes, I always tell them that the recipe is like a trail in the forest. You follow it, but if you feel like you want to smell that flower off the trail, you can do it," he says. And if that detour doesn't turn out quite right, it's not the end of the world.

"Don't be discouraged. Failure is a good thing, in a way, for you to be persevering and to try again. You need to understand that we as professionals fail every day. We do!"

By way of example, Zirotti points to two recent experiences with macarons. Baking perfect batches of those quintessential French confections eluded Zirotti himself as well as his friend despite their recognized skills in the kitchen. But failures like those, taken in stride, can form the basis for a stronger bond among families who cook together.

"If you don't have the experience, you are the same level as your children. There is no hierarchy anymore. You don't know, they don't know, everybody's equal. So you try it together, and it gives some ties to a family, ties that I think are very special," he says.

Incorporating family members during all stages of meal planning and prep can go a long way toward creating that level playing field and fostering those ties, according to Lori van Anrooy, Food Sense/SNAP-Ed program manager at the WSU Spokane County Extension.

"We always recommend getting the whole family involved. Maybe going around and letting every child pick a meal, and then having that child — or multiple children — involved in preparing that meal. When they're involved in the preparation, they really have more buy-in. Even if it's something that that might not enjoy. If they're part of the prepping, they're more apt to try it."

When they're properly supervised, even very young children can share in the process. That could be something indirect like assembling packaged ingredients or setting the table, but there's no reason to exclude them from the more hands-on activities.

"We have kindergartners cut things with plastic knives or table knives in our classes. Even preschoolers can stir things, help mix things together and pour ingredients into bowls," she says.

To help things go smoothly, van Anrooy, like Zirotti, suggests starting with "simple, easy recipes" with limited ingredients. The Enchilada Casserole recipe she shares with Health & Home is made with off-the-shelf tortillas combines with cans of black beans, corn and enchilada sauce. It's an easy dish that's proved popular in her classes. She also says it's important to allow for more time than the recipe might call for, especially when including several young children.

The extra time and "planning, planning, planning" that go into joint meal preparation have big potential payoffs. In addition to eating healthier, fresher and more budget-friendly meals, it can increase a household's appreciation for food as well as each other.

"If you make it fun and enjoy doing it, it's not going to be a chore," she says. "Sitting down at the dinner table and talking about your day is a great time to find out what's going on in everyone's life, especially as kids get older."

"We go a hundred miles an hour and we don't take the time to sit down," adds Zirotti. "By doing this, people will put more love into the food they are going to cook. More than just a better education about the food and the ingredients and the craftsmanship, the main thing is that they're going to share some moments that are special. And that is priceless."


SALADE NIÇOISE

This simple and refreshing salad from Nice, France can be an appetizer or a main course. The traditional recipe calls for albacore tuna canned in olive oil, but in this modern version we will use fresh ahi tuna. Serves four as a main course. 

  • 4 tuna steaks 6-oz. each, total of 1-1/2 lbs.*
  • 1/2-lb. of French green beans, ends trimmed
  • 4 small red bliss potatoes
  • 1 dozen grape tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 4-oz. baby mixed greens
  • 1/2-cup of pitted Pichouline olivesor Kalamata olives
  • 2 organic or farm fresh eggs
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/2-cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fleur de sel for finishing*You may also substitute good quality canned tuna and proceed to step 2.

Mise en Place (this is a fancy term for getting your ingredients prepped)

  1. Sear in a slightly oiled sautée pan or gas grill the tuna steaks very rare on high heat for 1 minute on each side. Refrigerate after cooking. When cold, cut in 1/4 inch strips.
  2. Blanch green beans in boiling water for 5 minutes, strain and cool in iced water. Strain and refrigerate.
  3. Boil potatoes until fork-tender. Refrigerate. When cool, cut in 1/4 inch thick slices.
  4. Rinse and cut in half grape tomatoes.
  5. Rinse and seed bell pepper and cut into 1/4-inch strips.
  6. Rinse mixed greens.
  7. Cut the olives in half.
  8. Boil eggs (10 minutes in boiling water). Refrigerate. When cold, peel and cut in half.
  9. Rinse anchovy fillets.

Making the Vinaigrette

Squeeze the juice of the lemon in a squeeze bottle or plastic sealed container. Add olive oil and salt and pepper. Shake well. Taste for seasoning.

Building the Salad

  1. Mix prepared ingredients in a salad bowl: green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, olives, bell peppers, season with dressing and toss well.
  2. Divide ingredients among 4 plates.
  3. Add some of the tuna to each plate.
  4. Add half of a hardboiled egg and a rolled anchovy filet to each plate.
  5. Drizzle dressing over the salad. Finish with a sprinkle of fleur de sel (table salt will also work). Bon appetit!

Recipe shared by Chef Laurent Zirotti.


ENCHILADA CASSEROLE

Even very young kids can help with mixing the filling and placing the tortillas to create this hearty family meal that comes together in less than an hour.

  • 1 28-ounce can green enchilada sauce
  • 2 cups cooked or canned beans, drained
  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 15-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained or 1 ½ cups frozen corn
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 3 cups grated cheese

  1. Wash cooking surfaces, get ingredients and tools, and wash hands.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. In a large bowl, mix sauce, beans, rice and corn.
  4. Place half of mixture on bottom of 9x13 pan.
  5. Place corn tortillas on top of the mixture.
  6. Place remaining mixture on top of tortillas.
  7. Top with cheese.
  8. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes, remove cover and bake for 20 minutes.

Recipe shared by Lori van Anrooy of the WSU-Spokane County Extension. Find more family-friendly recipes like this on Facebook @WSU Food Sense Spokane County Extension.

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.