I’ve cooked my way through some pretty rough times. I baked countless batches of brownies for my local firefighters after 9/11, and waited out Hurricane Sandy next to a simmering pot of pork ragù. When my father died a couple of years ago, there were some days I could barely get dressed. But the ritual of making breakfast for my daughter and husband — buttered toast and jammy eggs, extra-crisp bacon and bowls of creamy, steel-cut oats — lured me into the kitchen and soothed me when I got there.
Cooking something good to eat is a comfort that I always feel grateful for, but especially now. And I can see, from social media and the emails I’m getting, that I’m not alone.
Whether seasoned chefs or complete novices, many people are cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day, perhaps for the first time in their lives. We’ve all stocked our pantries as best we could, and are now trying to figure out what to do with all those beans and cans of tuna.
This month, as the coronavirus expanded its reach, I began contributing pantry-focused recipes to The Times’ live blog. Each dish — some of which are riffs on old favorites — is highly adaptable, and all keep perishables in mind. Yes, some may mention optional fresh ingredients for color and verve, but use them only if you have them on hand. The idea isn’t to send you to the store for a bunch of cilantro, but to empower you to substitute those celery leaves you already have, or to skip the greenery entirely.
The five here are recipes you can build on, taking them apart and putting them back together again to use available ingredients, and to suit yourself and whomever else you might be sheltering with.
The first solves the “what to do with all those beans” conundrum. A big vat can be a hearty meal unto itself, the starting point of so many others, or both. Eat some right after cooking drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and save the rest — yes, they freeze well — for turning into chili or soup.
There’s breakfast, too: baked steel-cut oats made creamy and rich with almond butter. Baked oats aren’t faster than the simmered kind. But they are more convenient, since you don’t have to worry about stirring them. And the pot won’t boil over if you get distracted.
All that tuna can find a home on top of any kind of pasta. I like to spike mine with anchovies, which melt into the garlicky sauce leaving an umami trail. But they’re not at all necessary. Herbs add freshness here, but any chopped greens (spinach or kale, arugula or those scallion greens you’re cultivating) work just as well.
There’s soup, too, a creamy purée made from root vegetables. I’ve made the same recipe using a mix from my farm share (a never-ending parade of rutabaga and celery roots and turnips). And I’ve made it from just onions, potatoes and carrots. It’s always tasty, and even better if you use stock rather than water as the cooking liquid. Don’t forget to garnish it with really good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or vinegar for brightness.
Finally, there’s crumb cake. Because now more than ever, we need to bake something sweet, buttery and cinnamon-scented to gladden our souls — and maybe tempt our children away from their screens long enough to help squish up the topping.
Like all of these recipes, I’ll probably still be making it when life returns to normal. And then, I’ll have the formerly taken-for-granted privilege of being able to eat some at the same table as my friends and neighbors, too.
A Hearty Answer For All of Those Beans
Chances are good you have some dried beans on hand, and that is a great thing. Especially since one basic recipe works for so many kinds, from red beans to white cannellini to black turtle beans. And you can use that very recipe for a pot of red beans simmered in an electric pressure cooker.
First, give them a soak, though it’s not strictly necessary. But I think soaking helps beans cook more evenly, and doing so in salted water speeds up cooking because the salt breaks down their skins. Anywhere from four to 12 hours does the trick, then you can drain and rinse them. But if time is an issue, don’t soak.
To cook the beans, you can use a regular pot or a pressure cooker (electric or stovetop). Add the beans and cover them with water. If you’re using a regular pot, add enough water to cover the beans by about 2 to 3 inches. If using a pressure cooker, add less water, more like 1 1/2 to 2 inches to cover the beans. Add a drizzle of oil and whatever aromatics you like.
To my pound of red beans, I added six peeled garlic cloves, a halved onion and a celery stalk. Herbs add depth: I had a bay leaf, but a few thyme or rosemary sprigs or a pinch of those herbs dried would have been just as good.
Now — and, to me, this is the most important part — add enough salt to make the cooking water taste like the sea. If using a regular pot, simmer the beans anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the variety you used, how old they were and whether you soaked them. Check on them periodically, adding water if the level gets too low (as in, lower than the beans). When done, they will be tender but not mushy, and still look intact, without splitting or falling apart. For the pressure cooker, the timing is 5 to 50 minutes at high pressure. (Smaller beans will take 5 to 10 minutes, while larger beans, like chickpeas, may take up to 35 or 50 minutes.) Let the pressure release naturally.
If you want to add a Parmesan rind, or a hunk of smoked or cured meat, to the bean pot, you should. I had a chunk of last summer’s kielbasa in the freezer that needed a home, so I threw it into the pot.
That’s it. I always garnish with a drizzle of oil, a sprinkle of flaky salt and red-pepper flakes and any herbs I may have around, and call it a day. Grated or crumbled cheese and crisp bacon are two other options, as is a fried egg, which, after all, makes everything better. And as always, feel free to serve this with rice, polenta or other grains, or some crusty bread, to round it out.
Oatmeal in the Oven, Not on the Stovetop
For a simple, filling breakfast, baked steel-cut oatmeal, enriched with almond butter and cinnamon, is the recipe I’d go to. If you’ve never done it, the beauty of baking oats instead of simmering them is twofold. First, I get to leave the oven on for an hour or so, which I find incredibly comforting when it’s still chilly out. It means I can bring my laptop into the kitchen and sit next to the heat. Second, I don’t have to do much in the way of stirring or tending it. The oats just cook themselves while I type away nearby.
To make enough oatmeal for three or four servings, heat your oven to 350 degrees, and bring a kettle of water to a boil.
In a shallow casserole or baking dish, combine 3 cups boiling water and 1 cup steel-cut or cracked oats. Stir in 1/4-cup peanut butter (or almond butter) until somewhat smooth. (Don’t worry about a few lumps.) Season the mix with a big pinch of salt, and some cinnamon or nutmeg if you like. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, stirring halfway through. Taste, and if the oats aren’t cooked enough, let it bake a few minutes longer.
I like this splashed with cream and drizzled with maple syrup (or brown sugar is great, too). But it’s good on its own, or maybe with sliced bananas. And it will keep you going all day long.
Good Time to Put Pasta on Your Plate
One of our household favorites is this pasta with tuna, anchovies and capers, showered with lots of green herbs and scallions. I like this dish with a long, thin, twirlable pasta — spaghetti, linguine or bucatini. But you can use whatever pasta you have on hand. Even macaroni works just fine and might even persuade your finicky kid to eat this dish (though, so far, mine abstains).
For four servings, cook 12 ounces of pasta in lots of very salty water. (It should taste like the sea.) Before you drain the pasta, scoop out of a coffee mug’s worth of the pasta water and set it aside. It’ll go toward making your sauce.
While the pasta is cooking, sauté three or four thinly sliced garlic cloves and the sliced white parts from three to four scallions (save the greens), some minced anchovies (be generous, I use the whole tin) and a few tablespoons of capers in lots of oil. Add some of the pasta water, and let the mixture cook down until it’s all very saucy. Then add the drained pasta and a can of drained tuna and toss well, adding another splash or two of pasta water if it’s dry. Toss in the sliced scallion greens and lots of herbs — like, a whole cup of them: parsley, dill, cilantro, mint, even arugula. Don’t bother chopping them, just rip them up with your fingers. Drizzle with more oil and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing, flaky sea salt and red-pepper flakes or a ton of freshly ground black pepper.
If you don’t like capers, use sliced pitted olives (preferably the good kind you slice yourself). If you don’t like or have tuna, use sardines or cooked leftover chicken. Shallot or onion can stand in for scallions. It’s a very forgiving dish, and a very dependable one to make in times of flux.
Any Vegetable Soup
When it comes to stocking the pantry with root vegetables, most people stop with potatoes (regular and sweet), carrots, onions and garlic. But there are loads of other, more neglected roots, like rutabagas, turnips, radishes and celery root, worth having on hand. All will keep for months in a cool, dark place — I have a basket in a drawer — and they come in very handy, whether you want to roast up a bunch with olive oil and spices, or you want to make them into soup.
For six to eight servings of this soup (extras freeze beautifully), chop up and sauté any allium you’ve got: a big onion, a couple of leeks, or three to four shallots. Add some sliced celery if you have it (two to three stalks) and two to three minced garlic cloves, and let the vegetables get golden at the edges. I use a combination of butter and olive oil for sautéing, but any fat works. (That bacon grease in the jar in your fridge? Perfect!)
Throw in some herb sprigs, if you have them, or dried herbs (rosemary or thyme or oregano) and a couple of bay leaves. Add 2 quarts of water or stock, and 3 pounds of root vegetables that you’ve peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks. Use any roots; a combination works best. When I made this, I added fennel as well because I had it. But I’ve also made it with only onions, potatoes and carrots, and it’s still excellent. Use what you’ve got, this soup can take it.
Simmer it all until the veggies are soft (30 to 45 minutes; the larger the chunks, the longer they take). Then pluck out and discard any herb sprigs and bay leaves. Add a bunch of kale or mustard greens (about a quart); or spinach, parsley, dill or anything green; and let the soup simmer until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. (You could also use a package of frozen spinach or kale.) Purée the mixture, and add a lot of lemon or vinegar and salt, to taste. The acid really brings this alive so don’t skip it.
Garnishing is essential here, especially since it’s not the prettiest soup. A drizzle of good olive oil and a bright sprinkle of red-pepper flakes works wonders, as does a bit of grated Parmesan or pecorino. And a little flaky sea salt never hurts, either.
The Sweet Comfort Of Crumb Cake
Of all the social distancing sweets a person could bake, cake seems to be the one you’d want to share the most.
Crumb cake is an exception. More of a snack or breakfast than a showy dessert, a homey crumb cake doesn’t need the “oohs” and “aahs” of any guests. At the ready whenever the urge for brown sugar and butter hits, it’s the kind of thing a small family can devour in a few days, and a single person can freeze in slices. (Wrap each one up separately and store them in a container in the freezer; a slice will thaw in under an hour on the counter.)
Crumb cakes are also very adaptable. You probably have all the ingredients in your pantry. To make one, butter an eight- or nine-inch pan (square or round, it doesn’t matter).
First, prepare the topping. In a bowl, mix together four tablespoons melted butter, a quarter-cup each flour and rolled oats, a half-cup brown sugar, a half-teaspoon salt and a teaspoon of cinnamon or other spices. I used cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom and loved the combination. If you don’t have oats, use more flour or chopped nuts.
Now, whip up the cake batter. Using an electric mixer, beat a half-cup (one stick) of softened butter with a half-cup granulated sugar. Add two eggs and two-thirds cup fermented milk product (sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, crème fraîche, milk acidified with a tablespoon of lemon juice, nondairy yogurt, whatever you’ve got). Beat in two teaspoons vanilla extract, one teaspoon baking powder, a quarter teaspoon baking soda, a half-teaspoon salt, 1 1/2 cups flour until smooth. If you want to, you can fold in a teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest, and a half-cup fruit (fresh, frozen and thawed, or canned). I used fresh blueberries, but another favorite is canned chopped pineapple. Spoon batter into the pan, scatter the crumb mixture over the top. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed.
Let it cool completely before you dive in. It will be gone before you know it.