Cooking in Quarantine by Brenna White

Guest Blogger - Apr 10, '20 - general

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Brenna is a Private Chef and Recipe and Menu Consultant in Los Angeles. During the quarantine, she's been helping people decide what to make with their own stock piles of food. You can reach her by email at Chefbrenna@gmail.com.


To live with a chef, particularly me, is like being the Cobbler's kids that have no shoes--after a long day or week of cooking for my private clients, my boyfriend, daughter, and I would go out to dinner, indulge in a weekend brunch or two, and often times order in. I had little interest in deciding what to make at home or washing more dishes. This led me to having a New Year's resolution of cooking more at my own stove--I fantasized about sending my partner, Steven, to work with healthy meals packed in the nice glass containers, neatly labeled, and having a creative dinner planned every night. I often lamented how much energy and mental space my mom was gifted with, having the ability to work a full time job, go to nursing school, have 4 children, vacuum the house, and feed us all a different meal every night. Then there was me, a chef who couldn't even remember what I liked to cook for myself that wasn't pasta. Salad maybe?  


While I had been making meals at home more in the new year, the fridge still often lacked ingredients that could make up a full meal for 3, let alone prepped lunches. Then, as the story goes in the reality we are still living in, a global pandemic swept across the world and just like that, we were all quarantined. What happened next will shock you - and this isn't even click bait - I am going to tell you right here, right now--I became what I should have been all along: the Private Chef for my own family.


Before all this, I used to go to the grocery store every single day; it was perhaps the only thing part of a solid routine. A few months ago it would have been hard to imagine the ability to pick and choose between brands and prices and having everything in abundance being gone, but then it was, and I found myself as everyone did, amid the complete chaos of the initial panic buy. Truthfully, what I bought in the first days is a complete blur to me now. I picked from the empty shelves, buying whatever my usual grocery store had left--ground turkey, chicken skewers, the last jar of marinara, pineapple slices and two boxes of macaroni and cheese. I couldn't decide whether or not something left on the shelves would be the thing everyone needed next week. The next time I shopped I waited in a line that wound all around Whole Foods, mostly collecting dairy products and berries, things my daughter was used to having. I also picked up impulse buy toys that were put out for Easter, because Luna, my daughter, would surely need something to do while I cooked, even though she has plenty of toys already--but, in a panic, you never know!


When I got home from the store, surrounded by bags of both dry goods and perishables, I thought about what it meant to be ordered to stay inside, void of the possibility of my old reliance on being served a plate of food cooked by someone else. So, I did what any chef would do (probably): I made a menu, as our home was now my own restaurant. Not only did I want to show Steven that I was ready to cook from the small stockpile I brought home and fit in our fridge like some kind of food puzzle, but let's face it--I honestly needed some way to remember what I could make with the things I purchased in my haze.  


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The first night in, I made homemade pizza and chicken wings (which was the only chicken available at Whole Foods). It was a familiar bar food scene like a regular date night, and thinking about all the times we got wings I realized I could have been doing this all along. Luna decorated her own pizza and watched it cook through the oven door window with the light on. What a lucky guy, my boyfriend is, to be quarantined with a chef! But also what a lucky chef to have this time to focus on cooking for my family, for them to enjoy something I love doing that I am usually too tired to give them. 


For breakfast, I now had time to make things I used to dream about making. Where there was normally a toaster waffle I sadly handed over to Luna to eat in the car on the way to PreSchool, now there was a leisure morning with sprinkle pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, and a plate dotted with berries. I gleefully started to put together elaborate fruit and cheese plates for snacks, and Luna helped me make Jell-o with pineapple slices. Never have I had so much time to pull ingredients out of my stash and think about what I wanted to make. As for my boyfriend, who is generally happy with whatever pasta I throw together and the occasional breakfast sandwich, he was treated to his favorite breakfast--corned beef hash, from a corned beef I cooked for hours at night and shredded the next morning. He also chose items from the menu for dinner, and when I made biscuits from scratch and turned them into biscuits and gravy, reported it was the best thing I had ever made for him. Time to cook is a luxury that I previously did not have, so here I am making the absolute most of it--getting to know my kitchen and what I am capable of making at home.   


I certainly don't have an endless budget and spent more than I usually do because I didn't know what to expect--but thankfully, in the evolution of grocery stores over the last few weeks, we have seen changes that have helped us all relax a little: the rationing of items for shoppers, forming lines outside of stores to create distance and lessen chaos for employees. Because of the those things, the shelves are more stocked and lines to check out have returned to a kind of normal. When I re-entered the grocery store after waiting half an hour, for the first time since the line formation, it felt luxurious to look at stocked shelves and find the things I was looking for. It's important in this time of uncertainty for families to get their usual ingredients and eat the dishes that help maintain familiarity in their lives. And for me, to find what I need to be able to express myself through food, because cooking is one of the only ways I know how to stay grounded.


So, since you have time, make croissants. Make pretzels. Practice making pie crust for Thanksgiving, marinate meat overnight (something I never do because I am making the dish as I read the recipe, a classic mistake). If you use an Instant Pot, do things the slow way. Allowing myself to experiment has kept my family well fed and my kitchen an exciting place for me to visit everyday. 


Without further ado, here is a short list of some of the things I've made, with accompanying photos:

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