Illustrations by Sol Cotti
Dining during a pandemic can be a drag. The world is different, but you still have to find ways to eat. Maybe you’ve been cooking the same dishes over and over again, or you live alone and have grown tired of solo meals. Perhaps you haven’t yet been able to tap into your inner Julia Child, or you’re surviving off the sardines and other random items you panic-bought in the early days of the covid-19 crisis. All the while the dishes are piling up faster than you can clean them.
But feeding yourself doesn’t have to feel like a chore, says French chef Dominique Crenn, the first woman in the United States to be awarded three Michelin stars (for her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn).
“Food is so essential for any society, but it should be fun,” Crenn, author of the upcoming memoir, “Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters,” said over the phone. “I just want people to wake up and reengage with their community, eat well and cook.”
The pandemic has changed our dining experiences profoundly — meals are no longer shared with friends and family, eating out is practically impossible — which is why we turned to the experts for tips to revitalize our dining rhythms and routines.
Studies have found that eating the same food makes people feel closer, and it’s still possible to do that with a little digital help. Padma Lakshmi, the host of “Top Chef” and the upcoming Hulu series “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi,” has started sharing recipes via Instagram. “My main therapy/activity has been to cook meals and film them,” Lakshmi wrote over email. “Having this sort of exchange with people has been life-affirming during this time.”
Priya Krishna, author of “Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family” and a contributor to the New York Times and Bon Appétit, has been self-quarantining with her parents in Dallas. Cooking with them on a regular basis has made her appreciate her mom’s ingenuity. “She’s an intuitive cook,” Krishna says over the phone. “She looks in the fridge and sees a meal. I look and see nothing.”
Crenn, Lakshmi and Krishna offered tips to make eating easier, more inventive and more personal. Hopefully, their advice will make you more eager to dig in.
Craft your own recipes. As anyone who has watched the Food Network series “Chopped” knows, the odds and ends from your pantry could lead to culinary magic. “I stopped measuring,” Krishna says. “I’m learning to trust my instincts.” After all, recipes are just an outline that can be adjusted for taste and availability. Crenn’s word of advice when creating your own? “Less is more.”
Cooking is an art, so get creative. “I suggest daydreaming about the dishes you like to eat and then mentally getting all the ingredients together,” Lakshmi writes. From there, you can experiment with different seasonings. For beginners, Lakshmi’s guide to spices and herbs could be a handy resource. “You can explore other flavors to add to your dishes,” she adds.
Lean into cookbooks. Trust the experts. Crenn calls on Nancy Singleton Hachisu, the James Beard Award-nominated author of two cookbooks, for inspiration — quite literally. “A year ago, I was going to make pasta and I called Nancy. ‘Can you give me a recipe for a good pasta dough?’” Crenn says. “And then she sent me a page of her cookbook.”
Follow your favorite foodies on Instagram. Ina Garten, Chrissy Teigen and Lakshmi have been helping fans put together meals based on whatever they have left in their fridge. “It’s been a good mental exercise to challenge myself to cook without my own fully stocked kitchen,” Lakshmi admits. “I have gotten a lot of comfort and pleasure from sharing my recipes on IG, and people seem to like them for their simplicity.”
Get competitive. Lakshmi suggests turning dinner into a game, like the “Top Chef” Quickfire Challenges. On the show, contestants are given a set of cooking parameters, such as using a certain ingredient or making a particular cuisine. Usually they are given a time limit, but Lakshmi suggests scrapping that. “Maybe not so quick,” she notes, “just a friendly contest.”
Spend time learning the stories behind your favorite foods. Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, “Taste the Nation,” has her traveling across the country celebrating the history of the foods that make America a melting pot. Learning to cook these meals is just part of the story; knowing where they came from is the other. “We have such a rich food history here, and it’s evolved over decades by waves of immigrants who have not only shaped our food landscape but the country itself,” Lakshmi writes. “You can’t disassociate the food you love from the hands that make that food.”
Head to your local farmers market. The luxury of buying from a farmers market or a small market in your neighborhood is that you know where your food comes from, Crenn says. To reduce waste, she suggests bringing your own containers for bulk dry goods like coffee, cereal or lentils.
Have your veggies three or four ways. Crenn recommends finding additional ways to savor vegetables. For example, she notes, beets are more adaptable than people may know. “You marinate them, you pickle them, you put them in a conserve,” she says. “You can do so many things with vegetables.”
Don’t forget about frozen vegetables, which Krishna calls her “back-pocket ingredient.” Frozen leafy greens like spinach “are so versatile,” she says. “You can put them in smoothies, stews, soups, or use them as fillings.”
Rely on condiments to save time. Pesto doesn’t have to just be for pasta. A spicy mango chutney can become a marinade for chicken. “Condiments come in really handy and most are shelf-stable until they’re open,” Lakshmi writes. She suggests buying sauces and chutneys to use later, “or better yet making them in bulk and storing them in the fridge or freezing them.” Krishna says condiments, or as she prefers to call them, “flavor-savers,” also allow cooks to broaden their horizons. “Every cuisine has its condiment of choice,” she says.
Try making roti. Sourdough starters not your thing? Krishna suggests making roti, an unleavened bread from India that is easy to make with a little practice. Made of just two ingredients — wheat flour and water — roti is a sturdy base for scooping up the leftovers of a saucy dish, but Krishna’s favorite way to eat roti is slathered in ghee, or clarified butter. “It’s my family’s universal comfort food,” she says.
Know that simple meals can still be decadent. Instant noodles are quick and easy, but so is putting together a cheese plate. “If I have bread and cheese, I’m a happy camper,” Crenn says.
Make eating in an event. Crenn says it’s worth occasionally dressing up for dinner. “Set the table and it’s a feast,” she says. “Take a shower, put on a little makeup and just celebrate what you’ve done.”
Invite your friends to share a meal. “I’m someone who loves to cook for others, having dinner parties that last long into the night, and it’s hard that’s not been possible,” Lakshmi admits. But she has found ways to convene all her friends in one place via one app: “I have made Zoom lunch and dinner dates where my friends and I just chat and eat.”
Don’t be shy, call the restaurant. Using third-party delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash might seem easier, but these apps collect between 10 and 30 percent of an order in fees. So call restaurants directly to order, and most importantly, Crenn says, “go pick up your food.” Lakshmi agrees: “Ask how you can help and they’ll tell you.” A good question to ask your favorite restaurant, she says, is whether their suppliers want to sell boxes of produce for pickup. It’ll allow you to help the restaurant food chain, while also getting quality fruits and veggies. Win-win.
Buy restaurant gift cards. Lakshmi recommends buying them now to use later, whether it’s for takeout or when restaurants reopen for in-house dining. And, she adds, “if you like the food spread the word!”
Become an advocate. Krishna suggests calling your local representatives to show support for restaurant workers, many of whom are immigrants that have had to make impossible choices during the pandemic. “Having time right now is such a privilege,” she says. “Making calls in support of those who don’t have the time is a good way to use it.”
The future of dining out will look different than it did before the pandemic. Crenn thinks that’s a good thing. “I think we have an incredible opportunity right now to better this world,” she says. The chef is already floating ideas about how her restaurants will adapt to the new normal, such as adding a digital element to dining and large-scale art pieces from local artists to help patrons practice social distancing in style. She’s turning Petit Crenn, her French bistro in San Francisco, into a takeout spot and specialty market where customers can pick up meal kits and other items.
“I just want to make people understand it’s not going to be the normal of before,” Crenn says. “We have to create a new society of consciousness.”