I started an Instagram at the start of 2020 because I was in between jobs looking for work and going stir crazy in the winter and taking walks around my town to alleviate the endless feeling of waiting. Like many a New Year semi-fitness/self-improvement goal, I may not have stuck with it, but when Covid hit and quarantine started, my Insta took on a new purpose: remembering what I ate.
Listen, it may seem like some basic bitch stuff to take photos of your food, but in lockdown, the ability for my brain to perceive the passage of time went completely dark. A week dragged with the news blaring and feeling like a month had passed. Then a whole month would go by and when I would try to think about what I did over all that time, I would only be able to put together a vague seven day stretch of events because every week became the same week over and over again. And to be sure, it was a privilege to be able to stay at home confident I would get to eat every day, but I think we can all agree that 2020 was a shitshow we all were unwilling shareholders of. I'm an outgoing person, if not complete extrovert. I have a full social calendar I map out months in advance and feel energized when I have a good conversation with someone, even strangers. Weekends with friends, trips, and events broke up my weeks of grind in a way that could help me pinpoint a timeline for my life.
In early quarantine when I was avoiding the panic buying and most local places had shutdown without a clear idea of when they'd reopen, the most variety I was getting was meals I cooked and shared with my partner. We both probably qualify as amateur cooks, a the level where we can look at the contents of the fridge and come up with Spanish frittata or can always rely on pulling out something we had prepared from the freezer, accompanied by a homemade sauce or pickle. Because we've nailed basic cookery skills and already possess a large repertoire, we tend to have to go out of our way to try a new recipe. However, when we do and it turns out fabulous, it gets stored in the mental vaults to be brought out again as a beloved favorite. Here's my roundup of 2020's winning recipes.
Moving backwards from December and the winter months, as the cold and occasional snow storm descended, soup season began. Soups are great because you can prep all the same ingredients and still get distinctly different soups. On the left was an established chicken and rice soup favorite, which I like for not requiring an intensive stock, by Bon Appétit, pre-scandal (C had to send them multiple demands to give their POC contributors equal compensations before they stopped sending us subscription renewal notices).
But the new darling here is this Greek style lemon chicken soup with orzo that has a heady zing that makes it a treat to eat, especially with perfectly toasted garlic bread. Plus, it uses eggs to give it that creaminess, rather than heavy cream, so I'm pretty sure it's healthy.
I picked up hours working on a farm from October-December and the best part about it was being able to buy farm goods on the cheap. This mostly meant oodles of free apples, but it also made picking up a pumpkin or two each week a bit of a routine. C is more obsessed with pumpkins, so when the stoutly shaped kabocha squash became available, he begged I get it. And then it sat there on the table taking up space, while he made pumpkin filling for his baking with the normal humdrum pumpkins. It was up to me then. At one point we were also only down to pantry goods and that one dark green pumpkin, so I Googled and saw a bunch of dumb instant ramen hacks before arriving at a Japanese channel that used a method of cooking the pumpkin in the base broth rather than just roasting it as a topping. After that I read through some recipes and settled on this one that included blitzing the stewed pumpkin so that it would make a thick sauce which you'd thin out into a broth using miso.
I wasn't really sure how this one would turn out because I don't usually try recipes I don't have a frame of reference for (aka, something I haven't eaten and therefore can't troubleshoot on taste from memory). But DAMN, this one blew away expectations. The squash has a natural nuttiness which the miso adds a lovely depth and saltiness to. It was so good that after we'd sucked all the noodles down, we saved the broth and reheated it later just to sip on.
I did not grow up with casseroles. A simple meal growing up was always rice, protein, veg. I was probably 20 when I went to my first Thanksgiving party where I had a stellar green bean casserole and I had firmly moved back home after college and started cooking for a household of 4-6 when I learned to make a tuna noodle casserole from scratch. I have since had other green bean casseroles made the "traditional" way out of cans and have been utterly disgusted. When we watched this midwestern comedy video about hot dish, I categorized it as joke rather than actual food, but C insisted it had to be good. It had tater tots and cheese.
I made it to spite him. To force us both to acknowledge how rightly American style cuisine is ridiculed. You know what? It was fucking delicious. We both had two servings. I would totally make it again (though more saucy) as a stressless weeknight dinner or for a party. Not canned though. For heaven's sake at least use frozen fresh green beans.
You know why I love this recipe? Because if you have at least one type of seafood and two vegetables, you can make a tasty stir fry which only requires a couple staple Asian pantry ingredients that once you have, you can make over and over again.
1/4 cup of water
1 tablespoon of gochujang sauce (Korean chilli paste)
1/2 tablespoon of light soy sauce
Boom done! This definitely goes underneath my Intro to Ethnic Eats recipe list to recommend to friends trying to expand their culinary map.
It's the same with these two recipes, which serve as the building blocks for at-home bibimbap bowls. C of course got back into sourdough starter when stay-at-home hit and being the interracial half of the couple, I was obliged to take over the other most popular quarantine fermentation—kimchi. But...I'm not the biggest kimchi fan, especially when I can get a perfectly good tub from the Asian market and not have to go through the rigmarole of insulting real Koreans and burying a jar in the backyard. Cucumber kimchi, I found out from Aaron and Claire, is a summertime thing and incredibly snackable. Like, I love adding kimchi to fried rice or a stir fry to add a spicy bite to things, but this cucumber kimchi was good enough that I ate it straight out of the jar with a pair of chopsticks. It was less funky sting than spicily refreshing and I bet would be a much easier sell to people who love Korean food but aren't die hard chefs. And it takes only eight hours and not like, two months before you can serve it.
The easy Korean ground beef recipe is a way to get the taste of Korean BBQ bulgogi with just a grocery store or freezer staple. No matter how much I prefer authentic, at home I go for more practical work arounds. If I want authentic I can always patronize a local business. If it's just a quick lunch or dinner at home and I'm having a craving, this is absolutely a go-to meal. Again, another very simple sauce, then all you need is ground beef, rice, and your cucumber kimchi and/or whatever vegetables you can chop up into the bowl. Radishes? Carrots? Scallions? Spring mix? Throw it in and enjoy!
I don't know about you, but I never make a single or two person serving of mashed potatoes. Usually the reason I make mashed potatoes as a side is because I got a good deal on a hulking bag of potatoes and I need to use up a bunch of them. This results in having a Thanksgiving amount of potatoes and maybe after you eat a dinner with it as a side and the leftovers the next day, you're sick of mashed potatoes. Sticking the rest back in your freezer is an option or turning them into pancakes! I swear to you that just 4 tablespoons to a 1/4 cup of flour and an egg or two turns mashed potatoes into a whole new experience. C tells me they remind him of blitzed up latkes and to me are like the starchy end of the pancake scale with normal pancakes in the middle and syrniki at the other end. I prefer these as a side with a protein, but they also taste great with sour cream or apple sauce spread on top.
Another side to the rescue! When you start seriously considering eating healthier, whole grains are the first switch you're going to make. That means brown rice, whole wheat bread, and yes, quinoa, which to the uninitiated, tastes like warm earth or often, mushy dirt. I couldn't understand how my hippy dippy surfing car camping Cali friend could eat it every week for his work lunch. "Did you try making it in the rice cooker with chicken stock?" he asked. This certainly made the quinoa edible, but it wasn't until I stumbled on this recipe which promised to "taste like garlic bread without the bread" that I really bought into the quinoa revolution. My preferred quinoa is the tricolor kind which is readily available for cheap at Trader Joe's or your local bulk store (we get ours from a co-op). If you're on the meal prep kick, especially for healthy work lunches, quinoa is a good route to go. Much like the easy Korean rice bowls, you just throw quinoa in the rice cooker, pair it with a protein, and top it with whatever chopped up veggies you have available. If you're a meal prep pro, you'll always have a bag of frozen vegetables available, which are arguably more nutritious than fresh, if you're buying from a grocery rather than a farmer's market and definitely more pleasing than the canned variety. Plus, there are tons of ideas for how to remix a quinoa bowl!
Chocolate Mousse by Bon Appétit
Regrettably, another pre-POCgate Bon Appétit staple recipe. Although this really is the very best dark chocolate mousse recipe, following the example of Carla Lalli Music who decided to leave BA Video in solidarity of her POC colleagues, Rick Martinez, Priya Krishna, Gaby Melian, and Sohla El-Waylly, I will not share the video of Carla demonstrating the recipe which had introduced me to it, thereby not supporting either their YouTube channel or Condé Nast with any viewer revenue. Instead, I have reproduced the recipe and instructions below. In the meantime, go support these former BA Test Kitchen chefs on their new channels!
I made this mousse around the end of April when I had at least one really bad breakdown over the pandemic. I wasn't working and I had lost the opportunities I was pursuing when lockdown shuttered offices. NYS was getting ravaged by the pandemic, the federal government had not implemented a nationwide plan, and not knowing what would happen next utterly crippled me mentally and I checked out a bit and C was doing a lot of the cooking while I mostly puttered around and cleaned the house. I felt he deserved to be the one getting a delightful treat presented to him for a change and I committed to this recipe, which is very involved and requires lots of bowls and specialty kitchen items. It was worth the fuss though and the results were AMAZING, so lusciously rich and silky! So keep in mind this recipe is more of a prep and plan for dessert, as opposed to many of the recipes I shared which are geared more towards being accessible and practical.
7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (preferably 70% cacao)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 large eggs, separated
¼ cup plus 6 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
Heat chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (bottom of bowl should not touch water), stirring occasionally, until chocolate and butter are melted and well blended, about 5 minutes. Set chocolate mixture aside.
Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat egg yolks and ¼ cup sugar in a medium bowl until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Using electric mixer with clean beaters, beat egg whites and 3 Tbsp. sugar in another medium bowl until medium-stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. Using a large spatula, gently fold egg yolk mixture into chocolate mixture until no streaks remain. Starting in the center of the mixture and working your way toward the edges of the bowl, gently fold egg whites into chocolate mixture (make sure to scrape up from the bottom), rotating bowl as you go, until no streaks remain (this will incorporate the egg whites without deflating them; you don’t want to lose volume).
Divide mousse among ramekins, smooth surface, and chill at least 4 hours.
Just before serving, whip cream and remaining 3 Tbsp. sugar in a medium bowl until medium peaks form.
Spoon large dollops of whipped cream on top of each mousse and using a fine mesh sieve, dust with cocoa powder. [Note: Mousse can be made 4 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled.]
Towards the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, I made a conscious decision to try and expand my repertoire of authentic Chinese cooking. Enter the Asian at Home series and Seonkyong Loungest's adorable pronunciation of nu-ders. What I like about her videos is that she strikes a balance between the authentic way of making a dish from scratch, as well as acknowledging the best American ingredient substitute that's available to you. Look, if you have a favorite takeout dish you want to learn at home, chances are you had to go to the Asian store and buy a ton of ingredients that otherwise sit there, so why not branch out past Chinese-American favorites? First off, chili oil is like the Chinese master sauce. Once you make that you can also enjoy spicy wontons and Chinese style garlic eggplant. Dan dan mian though has a special place in my heart as one of those first dishes you try and realize how diverse and special Chinese cuisine is compared to the mostly Cantonese dishes we're familiar with in America. It's so dense with flavor and the spice goes right up into your nose, delivered innocently on the soft, slurpable noodles. This is another great building block recipe, though more like a Level 2, for those who want to really explore more authentic Chinese cuisine.
These last three are C's contributions for the year. While we trade off cooking almost 50/50, C isn't much of a recipe man. He's more chefy than I am, really. More about ideas than recipes. So for a month he'll be super into doing every conceivable thing he can with his sourdough starter or will start making craft cocktails every night. When he does pick up a recipe, it's usually because it's seasonally, traditionally or historically unique in some way and it came up on his YouTube feed a couple times. This Sufganiyot attempt was inspired by a Golden Jelly Donut Pastry Ale that Schmaltz Brewing released as their Hanukkah 2020 beer. And what do you know, it turned out pretty g-ddamn good. They puffed perfectly in the fryer with a wonderfully pillowy interior that allowed us to fill them with seedless raspberry jelly (that we probably need to boil down and thicken next time). Forget about pie. This is a holiday MUST, whether you're a chosen person or not.
I do not typically like beets. I'm not sure they have ever been introduced to my diet aside from being an atypical salad topping. But, like the quinoa, this is the dish that brought me around to the magnificence of the beet, with its velvety roasted interior and magenta lifeblood. Do I think this is an overly intense preparation for a salad and needs quite a few ingredients that a typical person won't have at least one of? Yes. That's why C is the only one who makes it.
Pelmeni is C's providence because A) He has more fondness for the meme culture surrounding the former Soviet Union and B) Ethnically he's more aligned to cuisines that feature ingredient lists pared down by harsh winters and periods of near starvation. I would say this is an extremely practical recipe, as long as you're willing to put in the effort for making your own dumpling dough. The filling is whatever leftover meat you have (in our case, ground pork that was left over from when I made lumpia) and a shit ton of onion to stretch the meat. The dumpling dough is a simple 4-ingredient item (egg, flour, salt, water) which someone who does any baking or cooking should have. This is A+ comfort food. It tastes great and fills you up in a way that healthy food never can. The yield is pretty high and if you can resist eating twenty of them yourself, it freezes very well for the next time you need a homey meal.
So I do not have a photo for this one despite making it at least twice since we watched this video because eggplant parm really doesn't photograph well, especially when it's done in a huge baking dish like it's done here. It's slop. Delicious, fried, cheesy, crowd-pleasing, vegetarian slop. But I am just as enthusiastic as Matty about serving this dish to a big group of friends when the pandemic is finally over. For now though, this gargantuan casserole style eggplant parm feeds the both of us for at least three meals in a row whenever we make it.