After that initial rush of competitive sourdough bread-baking, pandemic-era home cooking has settled into a routine.

With a second shutdown here in Manitoba, more people are doing more in the kitchen. Some home cooks have become wildly experimental, while others have fallen back on old family favourites. For some, cooking is just one more chore in an already overstressed schedule. For others, making dinner gives shape and purpose to long, locked-down days.

Whatever your approach to quarantine cooking, here are a few tips.

WHAT’S FOR DINNER?

Often the challenge is not so much the cooking, but the thinking about what to cook. If you’re suffering from planning fatigue, you may need some new sources of inspiration.

I recently organized my cookbooks and recipes, reconnecting with some forgotten standards and discovering some new possibilities.

You can also go online for ideas. Food sites like Epicurious, Food52 and The Kitchn are seeing big surges in traffic. Or check out some YouTube cooking videos: Sorted Food involves young Brits — both pro chefs and "normals" — mucking around in the kitchen, while Jacques Pepin’s Cooking at Home series features the French master preparing easy, low-cost recipes in his reassuringly cluttered kitchen.

THE BIG SHOP

Cooking means shopping, and this is the time to go big.

San Marzano Pizza Sauce

Pizza is a family favourite and a great, adaptable dish to use up ingredients.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / FREE PRESS FILES

Pizza is a family favourite and a great, adaptable dish to use up ingredients.

1 x 796-ml (28-oz) can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
15 ml (1 tbsp) fresh oregano leaves or 5 ml (1 tsp) dried oregano
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Pizza dough, homemade or store-bought, to make a cookie sheet-sized rectangle or 2 x 35 cm (14 in) rounds
225 g (8 oz) mozzarella
Handful fresh basil leaves, torn

Preheat oven to 230 C (450 F). (If using a pizza stone, place in the oven as it starts to heat and let it preheat for about an hour. If using a metal pan, begin preheating while making the sauce.)

Drain tomatoes very well, discarding juice. Remove any tough white stems and hand-crush tomatoes with a potato masher. Set aside. In heavy medium saucepan over low-medium heat, add olive oil and cook garlic for a minute or two, stirring occasionally. (Don’t let it brown.) Add oregano and drained tomatoes. Increase heat to medium and when mixture starts bubbling, cook 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally to further break up tomatoes. Remove from heat and season to taste.

Place dough on pizza stone dusted with cornmeal or lightly oiled metal pan and spread out thinly. Cover with layer of sauce, some mozzarella slices and a scattering of basil leaves. Bake for 13-17 minutes, but watch carefully, as ovens can vary.

Tester’s notes: San Marzano tomatoes work well in this minimally cooked sauce. Don’t use a processor or blender to mash the tomatoes, because it can break up the seeds and make the sauce bitter. If you want a real weekday cheat, you can use naan bread for the base, about three to four rounds, depending on how thick you like your sauce, and bake for a shorter time, maybe 6-9 minutes.

You can freestyle with the toppings. Add some torn prosciutto or arugula leaves, or if you’re feeling fancy, fresh well-drained mozzarella, available at some Italian groceries.

(Recipes republished from Sept. 29, 2015, Winnipeg Free Press)

Whether you’re ordering groceries for pickup or delivery or going in person, make sure you get fresh supplies for at least a week or 10 days, while also stocking up on staples that will last even longer.

(If you’re shopping in-person and you have any flexibility in your work schedule, try to go at an off-peak time. Weekday mornings tend to be less crowded.)

MAKE A LIST (AND CHECK IT TWICE)

In these difficult days, you need to be a little uptight. (Full disclosure: I’m pretty uptight even in non-pandemic circumstances.)

Plan what you’re cooking for supper and what you want on hand for breakfasts and lunches and put it all on the list. You need to ensure you’ll get everything you need — this is not the time to "pop by" the store for those few items you forgot.

And while you have to be a little rigid, you also need to be a bit flexible. Even though the grocery supply chain is doing well overall, there are occasional and unpredictable gaps — where is all the ground lamb!? — and you need to have some back-up options.

CUPBOARD LOVE

You’ll want to plan for some pantry suppers. I try to always keep on hand the fixings for pasta puttanesca, for example: canned tomatoes, tomato paste, anchovies, capers, olives, oil-packed tuna — all ingredients that come in handy for other dishes as well.

Make sure your shelves are stocked with essentials and long-lasting items.</p>

TRANSFORM

Make sure your shelves are stocked with essentials and long-lasting items.

Everyone’s essentials will be different, though, so think about the canned goods and packaged staples you turn to again and again. For our household, that means things like oils, vinegars, spices, noodles, rice, beans, canned fish and packaged broths. It also means baking basics — flours, sugars, nuts, dried fruits, chocolate. I also like to have the ingredients for quick breads, like Irish soda bread or cornbread, in case we run out of store-bought bread before the week is done.

And everyone has special stand-bys. I love couscous (five minutes and it’s done!) and coconut milk (one of those wonder ingredients that makes all sorts of things better), and I live by the rule that you can never have enough canned tomatoes. I also purchase a lemon every week — I always end up using it for something, even if it’s just a vodka tonic.

You can also buy some of your fresh produce with an eye for longer shelf life. In the winter, consider root vegetables, red cabbage, and apples for longevity.

EASY-PEASY

Everyone needs some back-pocket recipes for nights when they’re at a low ebb.

San Marzano Tomato and Butter Sauce

Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce is an easy way to prepare a home-cooked dinner.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / FREE PRESS FILES

Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce is an easy way to prepare a home-cooked dinner.

1x 796-ml (28-oz) can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 white onion, peeled and halved vertically
60 ml (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt (or 2 ml or 1/2 tsp regular table salt)
Handful fresh basil, torn (optional)
Fresh ground pepper

1x 796-ml (28-oz) can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 white onion, peeled and halved vertically
60 ml (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt (or 2 ml or 1/2 tsp regular table salt)
Handful fresh basil, torn (optional)
Fresh ground pepper

In large, heavy pot over medium heat, plunk in the can of whole tomatoes with their juices, add onion halves, butter and salt.

Bring just to a boil and then reduce heat to low-medium and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and gently breaking up tomatoes against the side of the pan, for about 40 minutes.

Remove and discard onion halves. (Or, if you’re an onion lover, reserve for later use in a soup or stew.)

Stir in basil, cook for about 3 minutes to blend the flavours, then season to taste with pepper and more salt, if desired.

Tester’s notes: I really do love this sauce, not just for its ease but for its sunny flavour and gorgeous texture. The butter takes the edge off the tomatoes and mellows everything out.

(Some people use more butter: Hazan herself uses 75 ml or 5 tbsp and some butterfat maniacs use up to 125 ml or 1/2 cup.)

The basil is completely optional — I just leave it out if I don’t have any on hand.

To serve, toss with cooked pasta — this recipe will lightly coat about 450 g or 1 lb of pasta — and add some shavings of fresh Parmesan.

— Inspired by Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking

For me, that would be Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce made with only four ingredients: canned San Marzano tomatoes — pricier but in this case worth it — an onion cut in half, a little salt and some butter. Fresh but mellow, this is an all-purpose sauce to toss with some pasta and cheese.

The recent craze for sheet-pan suppers — with their easy prep and equally easy clean-up — is another good fit for these tricky times. You can get some surprisingly sophisticated results from just plunking a lot of things onto a roasting pan and putting it in the oven.

And of course, there’s the ever-popular breakfast-for-dinner option.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Like many COVID-era cooks, I’ve been working on reducing food waste. During the pandemic, I’ve used leftover mashed potatoes for salmon patties and set aside surplus cooked yams for making sweet potato biscuits.

Stale bread has been transformed into breadcrumbs, which are then fried up with olive oil and garlic and maybe anchovies until crispy and nutty and salty and used to top pasta dishes. (This budget-friendly garnish is sometimes called "poor man’s Parmesan.")

A roast chicken on Sunday night can provide leftovers for a supper later in the week.

TOM MCCORKLE / WASHINGTON POST FILES

A roast chicken on Sunday night can provide leftovers for a supper later in the week.

There are all sorts of ways to work waste-reduction into your meal planning. Consider making a "Sunday roast plus" — the plus being a later weekday meal made with stretched-out leftovers. Roast a leg of lamb and then make a pot of Scotch broth, or cook a big chicken and save some of the white meat for mid-week quesadillas.

Also consider making space at the end of the week for a fridge-clearing supper — one of those easygoing soup recipes where you can toss in all sorts of things, or a flexible frittata that makes use of any forlorn vegetables left in the crisper.

AND FINALLY

Don’t forget the restaurants. Yes, most of us are doing a lot more home cooking, but if your budget allows, consider taking a break and helping out our local independent restaurants by getting delivery or takeout.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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