How to Cook Smarter: Easy Recipes and Pandemic Takeaways

THE PANDEMIC has pushed us all way out of our comfort zones when it comes to cooking. Over the past year we’ve had to become better shoppers, waste-reducers, meal-stretchers and cooking-fatigue combatants. Those in the business of growing, butchering, cooking and serving food have grappled with the challenge of putting food on the table at home as well as at work, and they’ve gained some hard-earned kitchen wisdom. We approached a panel of pros and asked them to share their takeaways, their cooking coping mechanisms, their revised kitchen strategies and the new habits they plan to carry with them post-lockdown.

Molly Baz

Author, ‘Cook This Book: Techniques That Teach and Recipes to Repeat’ (Los Angeles)

I have adopted some new routines that I’ll now always incorporate. I never stocked my freezer before. But now that I’m trying to minimize going to the grocery store, I have a fully stocked freezer. I just wake up in the morning, decide what I’m inspired to make for the day and pull it out. I keep two whole chickens, five pounds of ground beef, six different kinds of sausages and three cuts of steak so that there’s a protein for any particular moment.

I also found that keeping tortillas in the pantry at all times is a better option than keeping bread because bread deteriorates really quickly. I buy packs of flour tortillas and they never really go bad. You can bring them back to life quickly by heating them up in a skillet or over a burner.

Connor McGinn

Ceramicist, Connor McGinn Studios (Tarrytown, N.Y.)

I noticed my cabinets at home were filled with mismatched half-chipped plates, despite the fact I make plates for restaurants. So one of the first things I did was bring home a set of plates, because I was cooking and eating there so much. If you can’t go to a restaurant, you might as well make it nicer at home. It makes a difference even in getting takeout, to set it up on nice plates.

Over the summer I started foraging and finding spots for mushrooms and ramps and things like that. A great way to get outside.

I have found a peaceful enjoyment spending an inordinate amount of time cooking one meal and enjoying the process of it. I think there’s a return to that. Not that everyone wants to make time-consuming meals every day, but in some cases you have nothing but time, and it’s nice to devote yourself to that.

Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest

Butcher Girls (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.)

Jocelyn: I’ve been experimenting with different meat cuts in the Instant Pot. I’ll pressure cook a tougher cut, let it cool in the cooking liquid and either slice it for stir-fry or hard-sear it in the pan. I’ve also been making mayonnaise, jams, butter. And we started a really aggressive herb garden. All of these things reduced trips to the market.

Erika: I started baking bread and it became such a labor of love. You’re up at two or three in the morning stretching dough…

Jocelyn: I do not recommend that anyone with a spouse or partner start bread baking—unless you have a conversation with your partner. I’m married to this starter now.

Erika: Yesterday Jocelyn made me empty out my starter collection—basically jars of goo lying around. But she also got me a bread proofer for Valentine’s Day.

Eytan Zias

Bladesmith, Steelport Knife Co., The Knife House (Portland, Ore., and Phoenix, Ariz.)

I turned to meat and fish wholesalers. The restaurants shut down and they didn’t have anyone to sell to, so I started buying large cuts of meat or whole fish. I got to work on my butchery skills. And I already had a Cryovac machine. I’d buy stuff, portion it and Cryovac it so my neighbors and my staff had full freezers of good meat and fish.

My kids are sushi fans, so my home sushi game has gotten way better. We also got backyard chickens—half for the eggs and half to keep the kids busy.

And we’ve been doing a lot of trading in the neighborhood. A neighbor got good at baking bread. He didn’t have a good bread knife, so I traded him a knife for bread. Sometimes we’d get a text, like, “I made too much salad dressing, who needs it? It’s on the front stoop!”

Rōze Traore

Private Chef/Instructor (New York City)

I started cooking outside my comfort zone and doing things I never used to do. I would always just pop into the store, grab my ingredients and then wing it, but the pandemic caused me to get in the habit of meal planning. It made me more organized.

I started shopping online, which I also never used to do because I worried about the quality. But now I’m more comfortable with it. It’s been a success. I’ve been getting good quality and, frankly, it’s something that I’ve enjoyed. It’s convenient, straight to my doorstep.

I’ve learned to understand ingredients a little more and take my time. If I’m not familiar with something, I’ll pick up a book and learn more about it, broadening my knowledge and taking deep dives without being intimidated.

Lee Jones

Farmer, The Chef’s Garden (Huron, Ohio)

When shelves were bare in grocery stores, it made me realize what a disconnect there is in distribution. Local butchers, bread makers, farmers and gardeners became even more essential for supply.

I’m much more thoughtful about food now in general. My brother and I started this program that promotes healthy eating. It’s no dairy, no meat, lots of legumes, leafy greens, vegetables. We’ve always promoted healthy vegetables, but my brother and I are two fat guys. It was time to practice what we preach. I can’t believe the differences I’m feeling.

We are also more thoughtful about how much time we take to eat. We worked harder than ever this year and gave ourselves permission to slow down and recognize how eating was fulfilling us physically and spiritually.

Maia Parish

Sommelier, The Wine Suite (Denver, Colo.)

I realized that there were items that I didn’t have access to anymore, so I had to figure out how to make these things. It added variety to my cooking and expanded my knowledge.

I have made Peruvian food and Iranian food. I began to explore other cultures deeply because those were the things I was missing. I’ve also discovered birria tacos and I’ll never eat an Ameritaco again. So now I have all these spice packets and flavor profiles from other countries that I never had on hand before.

I became obsessed with tins—conservas, anything in a tin—it’s a great love for me now. It has helped with my Omega-3s. I’m beyond obsessed. It’s a problem. But a happy problem.

Steve Sando

Founder, Rancho Gordo Specialty Food (Napa, Calif.)

I realized that a salad doesn’t necessarily need to include lettuce. I really hate cleaning lettuce. It’s kind of irritating, and lettuce is so temporary. I love using my mandoline and thinly slicing onions, fennel, carrots and celery, and adding something luxurious like beans. I’ve also been shredding cabbage with a vegetable peeler. Cabbage is great because it lasts so long.

I have eating-by-myself fatigue. Probably the first thing I bought was plastic tubs. I cook extra and give it away.

I could suffer everything else, like not going to the movies, a sporting event, if I could just have friends over for dinner… That’s been the hardest part. We all should be getting our houses in order so we can do nothing but have a nonstop party when this is over.

1 Bird, 3 Recipes: How to Get the Most From Your Roast Chicken

Once he embraced meal-planning, chef Rōze Traore enjoyed exploring efficient ways to stretch a meal into more than one dish, giving the ingredients a fresh start each time. Here, Mr. Traore spins a lemony, buttery roast chicken into a za’atar-spiced open-face pita with yogurt and marinated cabbage. And once that chicken is picked clean, the carcass is ready for stock.

To explore and search through all our recipes, check out the new WSJ Recipes page.


What have you learned in the kitchen during the pandemic? Join the conversation below.

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