5 Quarantine Cooking Hacks When You’re Flying Solo in the Kitchen
Cooking alone is both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, you can make whatever you want, without worrying about whether or not your kids or partner will like it. There’s so much creative freedom in this, according to my sisters, who see my texts about new recipes I’m trying and wistfully reply, “I’d love to make that, but my family would never eat it.”
On the other hand, it’s only you when you run into problems you have to solve. Like cleaning up an entire kitchen after making a particularly messy meal. Or figuring out what to do when your CSA brings you more kale than any single human should eat in one week.
I’ve grown to love dining solo for a variety of reasons, but during the quarantine have definitely faced a few challenges on my own. Like any good cook, I’ve improvised with what I have on hand. Here are some of my recent favorite ways to solve problems that have popped up during the pandemic, when it’s always a socially distanced table for one in my home.
1. Turn to your toolbox
I have this giant bottle of pure vanilla that my mom got me in Mexico. I am a terrible baker and rarely use it for cookies and stuff like that, but enjoy adding a splash of it to this fabulous cashew coffee I make on the weekends when I’m homesick for my neighborhood cafe’s vanilla lattes.
The bottle’s cap often gets stuck, so much so that my normal go-to solutions — a dishcloth, my oven mitt — don’t work. I don’t want to freak my neighbors out by asking them to help me open it, as we’re all practicing social distancing and that’s obviously too hands-on for Good Samaritan assistance. So one day, when I was feeling particularly caffeine-deprived and frustrated I couldn’t get the stupid bottle open, I grabbed a wrench from my toolbox, gently clenched the bottle’s cap and gave it a good twist. Voilà!
2. Get creative and be generous with abundance
This is admittedly a first-world problem, but sometimes Amazon Fresh has delivered too many of one ingredient I’ve ordered. Since the pandemic started, I’ve gotten two bags of fingerling potatoes by accident, as well as a random tub of cream cheese I never even purchased.
The day they accidentally brought me three bags of white corn tortillas was particularly crazy. It almost pushed me over the edge… this weird irony of having to be really careful with what I spent and ordered, due to my limited food budget while unemployed, combined with also feeling so much nostalgia for shopping for my own ingredients at farmers markets and local grocers and having control over what I selected and brought home.
I gave away one bag of tortillas to a fellow solo lady and close friend of mine who lives in my building but wasn’t sure what to do with the 200 others I still had. I know you can freeze them, but opening my fridge to that many tortillas felt apocalyptic somehow.
One night I was craving Mexican food and had an avocado that was going to go bad if I didn’t use it. So I decided to cut up a bunch of tortillas into chip-sized triangles, drizzle them with oil, sprinkle them with sea salt and pop them in my oven. Some of them got a little too toasty, with dark brown, almost-burned edges, but most of them were delicious! I served them up with some homemade black beans and grape tomatoes I had on hand alongside that avocado and felt resourceful and sated.
Giving away food when you have too much is also such a blessing during the pandemic, especially for those who are lonely, hungry or just good people who deserve something delicious they don’t have to make. I’ve done this a lot, too. One time I accidentally ordered four bushels of bananas — a lesson in why you shouldn’t shop for groceries online late at night after too much wine — and was again overwhelmed with how to use them, even after freezing a bunch. So I made these delicious double chocolate banana muffins and gave a few away to my friend and neighbor who has two kids, as well as dropped off a bunch of bananas for her family to enjoy.
My mom’s homemade bread can make people cry with gratitude, and I know she’s spent a lot of time during the pandemic baking bread for friends and dropping it off outside their doors. Doing something for someone else makes you feel good, especially when you are alone and so isolated from other people.
Now that I’m back on my feet financially, I’m also intentionally and strategically donating money to different causes I care about. Most of us are so damn lucky to be able afford food right now and if you have the means, you should apply that generosity in as many ways as you can. Giving back whets your appetite for life as a good person connected to and improving the community we share, the best feeling in the world.
3. Develop dining rituals and cooking challenges
After a long day of too many terrifying updates about the coronavirus, dining solo can be downright depressing. You start to wonder if the world will ever recover from such a grim time and you worry about your friends and loved ones. You also might feel a little sad sometimes that you worked so hard to make this incredible dish and no one is around to notice except for your cat, who doesn’t care in the slightest. To counteract these understandable emotions, you have to come up with ways to feel excited about your daily life and the food you’re enjoying alone.
After I got laid off I was particularly down and knew I’d need some structure to get through the pandemic while figuring out my next move. Even though I hadn’t plowed through another busy work week, I still decided to reward myself with Homemade Pizza Night every Friday, using up all the vegetables in my fridge. It was a fun challenge my heart needed, and cheaper and healthier than takeout. It also led to some great creative moments, like the time I added a little harissa to my tomato sauce on this Greek-inspired pizza featuring leftover feta cheese, roasted broccoli and a diced can of artichokes I found in the back of my cabinet.
My latest culinary challenge is this new thing I’m doing called Summer of Salads. Basically, the goal is to make really delicious, hearty, good-for-you salads several nights a week, with fresh ingredients. I am so excited about this one that I made an entire Pinterest board for it, which shows you how goofy I have become during the quarantine. But damn, my salads are life-changing and delicious. I think the key might be making homemade dressing. I’ll report back soon on this latest experiment in quarantine cooking in a later blog post, but so far, so good.
4. Treat yourself to a new kitchen toy
We’ve got to find ways to keep our spirits up as we survive long stretches at time in our cities and towns while dreaming of dining out on vacations we planned but can’t take, and missing the experience of sitting down with loved ones we won’t see anytime soon. For me, that’s meant budgeting to buy a new kitchen device or two. In support of my Summer of Salads experiment, I just purchased an awesome salad spinner — I lost my old one to my ex-husband during our divorce and weirdly hadn’t replaced it over the past couple of years. It’s delightful, and I can’t wait to use it!
5. Play some great music
There’s a reason Spotify has a popular playlist called “Kitchen Swagger.” Good cooks know what an awesome soundtrack can do for you when you’re cutting up garlic or waiting on a pot of water to boil. The quarantine has really reminded us how life-affirming it is to listen to music at home and dance around a bit. Take advantage of this while you’re living alone and trying to make dinner! And DEFINITELY afterward, when you’re doing the dishes. I’m partial to 90s hip hop, Otis Redding, and ‘80s music, and it’s made cooking alone so much more entertaining!