What Quarantine Taught Me About Cooking

It all started when he asked me to mince a shallot…

A few months ago, I was standing at the kitchen counter while my boyfriend Steve made us linguine and clams. It was the first time he’d cooked for us, and I asked if I could help. “Sure! Can you mince that shallot for me?” he said over his shoulder. I immediately picked up a shallot and a knife like I knew exactly what to do, then I paused for a second. What the hell did I think was about to happen? I didn’t know how to mince. After a few seconds in a catatonic state, I offered to help drain the pasta, instead — a two-person job!

I’ve been lucky to be quarantined with an experimental foodie. He’s like a mad scientist, making red wine reductions for sauces, remaking recipes from our favorite restaurants, and mostly chopping garlic and onions (and shallots) into oblivion. Week after week, we’d plan our grocery list and he’d ask for requests, but I wanted in on cooking duties, too. Every night, like a bedtime story, we watched Bon Appétit and NYT Cooking videos until we got tired. As is the case with all rookies, my confidence expanded past capacity. I truly felt that through osmosis I could pull off any meal. A couple nights later, I made my specialty salmon dinner and for some reason, Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head. I over-salted the fish, the oven temp was too high, the sweet potatoes didn’t cook all the way through — complete disaster. “I…HATE this.” I said slowly, tears welling up. “Are…you crying?” Steve asked. “I just wanted to contribute!” I wailed.

I’d choked under the pressure of my own making. I’d created a couples cooking fantasy where we were both amazing cooks, creating incredible meals together, despite the state of the world outside. One night during our bedtime cooking show segment, I noticed that I really locked into the desserts and baking segments. In the same way Steve nodded along to facts about chemical reactions in an acidic dish, I would nod along to the order for mixing ingredients for a cake.

Cream softened butter and sugar together until well blended, add one egg, add vanilla extract, mix with dry ingredients.

I just got it.

The thing is, cooking dinner is not my preferred thing. I’m actually happy to make dinners here and there — I redeemed myself the other night, with a killer shakshuka — but my affections lie in pouring pancake batter or melting chocolate on a double boiler for mousse. The other day, anxious and avoiding responsibility, I made cookie dough because I just needed to make a dough. The endorphin release I get from creaming butter and brown sugar together is the reason I’ve baked half a dozen (successful!) loaves of banana bread the past few weeks. It helps set my mind at ease, and I think the freedom to experiment with recipes and sauces helps Steve, too, so who cares if he does it without me? Now, when we make the weekly grocery list, I ask for breakfast and dessert requests with zeal. Instead of looking for where I fit into the dinner process, I think about my own.

Throughout quarantine, whenever possible, I try to hold a “look for the helpers” perspective, and it’s kept me afloat. Besides the most obvious helpers, working to keep us safe while we’re safe inside, I think we’ve all been each other’s helpers — daring to be hopeful, sharing in support, baking a million loaves of sourdough. Some people are great cooks, and some are great bakers. If we weren’t quarantined together, I’d probably be eating a lot of scrambled eggs for dinner; if I weren’t here, he’d probably be eating tortilla chips for breakfast. We’re working from our strengths and doing our best. It is such a bizarre time, but also a great time to become inspired. If not now, then when?

Do you have one thing you’re really great at cooking or baking? I’d love to hear!

P.S. Why I never feel alone when I cook and what weird things do you do to feel better?

(Photo of Tina Turner)

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