Cooking, the pandemic way

If you don’t enjoy cooking, you’re missing how personal it can be. Every time I cook, whether it’s at a restaurant or at home, the process becomes a part of how I feel.  The weather outside and the change in seasons can make a difference too. Why do I like to barbeque chicken in the summer and make comfort food, like sugar cookies, in the winter?

It’s because cooks get excited about the change. Everyone who has a passion for cooking can relate to how the environment makes a difference in how and what we cook.  The pandemic is just another change but a more challenging one. Under these new circumstances, I see myself working to be a more resourceful and responsible cook.

During my first week home in New Jersey, I was anxious to help in the kitchen. I wanted to know what was in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry.  My mother is a good cook and usually has a decent amount of food stocked in both the pantry and freezers.

Her challenge was to meet my dietary needs of dairy and gluten-free. She had picked a few items for me the first week, so I was able to make some familiar meals such as gluten-free breaded chicken cutlets, broccoli in a light broth with vegan butter and lemon, and dill seasoned roasted potatoes. 

The next night I made a vegetarian and gluten-free pasta dish using a combination of leftover cooked vegetables and frozen.  We used the broccoli from the night before and added jarred garlic, chopped onions, frozen spinach, vegetable broth, and canned petit, diced tomatoes.

I simmered the sauce for a while with lots of seasonings including basil, oregano, salt, pepper, turmeric, cumin, and onion powder. We had fresh cilantro, so I added that too. My parents added fresh parmesan cheese as a topper.

To avoid going to the grocery store more than once a week, my family and I knew the challenge was going to be rolling over the leftovers into other dishes. I also needed to make the best use of any fresh produce we had on hand.

I managed to whip together a big pot of soup from the leftover chicken, more frozen vegetables, fresh zucchini, diced tomatoes and a can of cannellini beans. I seasoned it up with a combination of dried tarragon, salt, pepper, and oregano. This gave us a few lunches and we added a fresh salad.

If you don’t have broth on hand for soups or sauces, use seasoned chicken and vegetable bouillon cubes. You can find these in the seasoning aisle of the grocery store.  I was never a fan until now.  They go a long way, and you only have to add one cup of water for each cube. I used them in just about all the dishes I mentioned.

Normally, I try to stay away from processed food. Now I understand it’s great to have it, just because of its long shelf life. It’s just not healthy in my opinion. I would rather put food in the freezer. I do this in order to preserve certain foods like bread and bagged veggies.

 My family just got used to this idea! My mother likes fresh bread, but my dad says it always goes bad on them. I suggest everyone try freezing. It’s a great way to preserve food. I put extra cheese, butter, milk, herbs and just about anything solid in the freezer. It is always worth a try. It’s better than throwing it out.

My first trip to the grocery store was a big one.  It included chicken, ground beef and turkey, fresh cod, eggs, bread, fresh fruit, rice, potatoes, cereal and pasta.  Most of these items have a relatively long life in the pantry or refrigerator. I did get fresh produce but not more than a few packages of each. To get extra is unnecessary because the shelves are well stocked.   

Justin Robertiello

I have been keeping breakfast and lunch easy. Eggs, frozen waffles, fresh fruit, and cereal have been working best so far. For lunch, tuna fish and egg salads are constant meals. I change them by adding different seasonings.  I like mustard in my egg salad and onion powder is great in tuna.

The idea is not to make it the same and you won’t get tired of it. Always eat the fresh stuff first too, like lettuces, vegetables and fruit. You can chop all these up and put them in other dishes to change them. The fruit is good in salads too.

My first dish after shopping was the cod. It was fresh and needed to be made soon. When it comes to fish, I am a strong believer in “less is more.” By that I mean you don’t need anything more than some citrus, and preferably a paprika-based seasoning. This will help bring out that fresh-but-smoky taste. I prepared it with melted vegan butter, fresh squeezed lemon and lime and a good sprinkle of Old Bay season. I cooked three filets for eight minutes in the oven until the top was almost crispy and flakey. Then I took the cod out and let it cool for a minute. Lastly, I topped it with fresh cut cilantro and a splash more of lemon. 

I made Texmati rice by RiceSelect.  It comes in a big plastic container and the directions are easy. One container can last for months. I steamed asparagus and only seasoned it with olive oil, salt and pepper.


The second night after my shopping I made my signature beef meatloaf.  The ingredients are simple too.

2 pounds of ground beef (75 percent fat)

1 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs

1 cup ketchup

2 eggs

1 tablespoon cumin

2 tablespoons of smoked paprika,

2 tablespoons fresh parsley (you can use dried)

A pinch of crushed red pepper

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon mustard seed powder

2 tablespoons garlic powder (or fresh garlic)

Pinch of salt

Pinch of pepper 

When making meatloaf, I prefer to use a fattier ground beef. For example, a choice between 20-25 percent lean works great. The more fat, the more flavor. I start by dicing up some fresh onions and throw them into the bowl with the rest of the ingredients. I mix up all the ingredients with my hands. I palm it from side to side to form a “loaf” shape.  Use any type of cooking pan.  I like a simple baking sheet, but other people prefer putting it in a traditional loaf pan. Either way the baking time and temperature is the same, about 350 degrees for 50 minutes.

I served it with garlic mashed potatoes. I used one bag of russet potatoes, peeled and boiled with 2 large garlic cloves. A teaspoon of jarred will work too.  When they are done mash with a hand masher or on low with a mixer.  My mother made sliced zucchini and onions with diced tomatoes.  It was seasoned with just oregano, salt, and pepper.

The important part of all these recipes is having a plan B for anything that might be left over.  Mashed potatoes can be added to another meal and all the vegetables can be added to eggs in the morning or soups. If you don’t have a plan, freeze it!

I don’t know when this pandemic is going to end but I believe it will change everyone.  In my case, it will change the way I buy, cook and eat food, at least for now. I am embracing it as another personal and emotional way of how to cook.