Table for one: pandemic cooking

That’s it. I’m tired. It has been nine months cooking for myself. The summer is now here in Rio de Janeiro and it is hot. I don’t want to cook anymore.

Pre-pandemic cooking had meant leisurely weekends in the kitchen that would take me back to my culinary roots. It was social; I would have friends over. When the quarantine hit, however, what had been a hobby became a necessity. I confess that setting a table for one had never been an uncommon eccentricity for me—but every day? Preparing meals for myself had never been quotidian, because lunch—my main if not only meal of the day—had been eaten out five days a week for more than twenty years.

 As an organized person, I quickly sorted out what I actually needed from what I thought I needed, and stopped wasting time more than money in shopping, storage, and preparation for the apocalypse. Regardless, I still had a demanding and spoiled client—me—someone who likes to sit down and have a satisfying lunch of 3-to-4 courses, the one that leaves me without further desires and the energy to complete my work and exercise.

I usually try to have a combination of raw foods, meaning a salad, and a steamy soup; rice and beans/lentils are staples. It is a meal that juggles the often-conflicting priorities of eating vegetarian, of having nutritious food, of having variety, of being social, of being environmentally-conscience, of considering ayurveda (because the foods we eat are also our medicines and poisons), of accepting what the Universe has made available on a given day, and, of course, of negating or of complying with desire—our control of which is limited.  Since it is virtually impossible to reconcile all these priorities, some fast footwork is required to make the split-second decisions for best possible options under the circumstances. It is a kind of game for me, but I can understand how those who have disciplines for other things besides food can find the mind map of the finnicky exhausting. And it is one of the reasons why I have always followed mine without perturbing others, preferring to let the inquisitive ask rather than trying to school what was unsolicited.

I did come across some interesting discoveries when fielding the how-to questions. Despite the exceptions, there is clearly a startling generational cut between those who know how to work with their hands and those who don’t. It seems people younger have fallen (even more) victim to a society that has prioritized intellectual production over the problem-solving that can only be worked through the hands. That is not to be taken lightly: it is a profound issue, one that may at the very heart of the global social and environmental crisis that has sent us indoors for a year in a time-out complete with dunce caps.

On the other hand, although I wasn’t feeling so comfortable to post inspirational pandemic food porn after realizing how quarantine was such a privilege, I was pleased to see on the social media how so many discovered what they can do with their hands and how they can create.

The pandemic coincided with the winter in South America and the season of its best and most varied produce, as many first-time foodies discovered. It had always been the time of year for me to spend the entire weekend in the street markets and in the kitchen anyway. Taking advantage of the cooler temperatures to drink red wines, it is a great pleasure of mine and something I cannot do when the thermometer is above 23°C—which is most of the year.

Now it is summer and it is so hot I can neither eat nor drink wine! The season is calling me outside. To the streets. To the beach. I’ve about had it with the pandemic—a dangerous sensation that leads us into a snafu of priorities that are also difficult to reconcile.

Regardless, I’ll always remember the winter alone during the pandemic, because I am fortunate enough to say that if the quarantine wasn’t that bad, it was because of the food—or discovering the gratitude for having been forced to cook and to clean and to fix things as I had been taught when I was young. I am grateful the ground had been prepared: It gave me the resources and discipline to handle a situation no one could have imagined this time last year.   

Even if I’ve fed up with it!

(Thanks, Dad! 😉)

My vegetarian version of Mexican pozole, the corn hominy soup to which I added fresh beans, roasted vegetables and greens.
I’ve already written about the importance of cast iron in Old School. It brings the open fire to the kitchen and many a carnivore will be satisfied by the intense umami taste it lends to grilled vegetables, especially eggplants.
I could never figure out why people would chose pesto over tomato sauces for pasta. Then, I figured out there was no substitute for the traditional large-leaf sweet Italian basil. There are many kinds of basil but they don’t all work for the traditional sauce. It is not always at hand here in Brasil, so I started mixing my own, combining it with the logic of my broccoli pasta, and evem substituting the traditional pignoli or walnuts for pumpkin seeds.
I swore I would not break down and do the clichéd vegan cauliflower steak, but the food porn got the best of me. I smashed garlic, parsley and salt in my mortar, adding drops of balsamic vinegar and lemon. Whatever: it was fine, but no need to repeat it.
I make a different bean every week, but when chickpeas come round, I’m transported back to Delhi, back to cchole, the long-cooked stew of heavy spicy gravy. All my pulse dishes are based on the Mexican logic of melting a sofrito (tomato, onion, garlic), infiltrated by an Indian logic of adding ginger and tumeric, before adjusting my masala of roasted coriander and cumin seeds.
I’ve taught the most notorious haters of greens to like them by eating them young, baby in fact, with a dressing from my mortar of olive oil, the smallest pinch of salt, lemon juice and garlic. Roasted seeds always make them ask for more greens.
Khicchadi, the classic Indian comfort food, a soothing porridge of lentils and rice. Sometimes I stew spicy lentils without the rice, saving the basmati to serve Iranian style with a hevt amount of chopped dill. I now make extra, since the quarantine gave me time to perfect what I never had the patience for: frying. Arancini are the Italian fritters of left over risotto. In my case, the left over “Mexican risotto”, a cross betwee my aunt’s Mexican rice (heavier on the tomato) and khicchadi.
My breakfast green drink of flaxseeds, collard greens or broccoli, celery, cucumber, apple and lemon got skipped one morning. Then it turned into a cold soup with the addition of ice, garlic, red onion, salt, pepper and vinegar for lunch.😋 The logic was that of gazpacho, the classic Spanish cold tomato soup, both the way that I slurp it at home, and the way I post it on Instagram. 😆
It is a wine lover’s cliché, but clichés have their reason.
Veg BBQ. Churrasco.

Stuffed veggies are a pain that goes away when they melt in your mouth. Spiced tomatoes, onion, garlic, rice, lentils, dill, roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I use the same filling for stuffed grape leaves .
Mix batata baroa and regular starch potatoes to a mix of flour with semolina to make these gnocchi for a sauce of garlic, parsley, ghee, white wine, lemon zest, fresh sage leaves and roasted mushrooms.
Plantains hit my iron grill before being stewed with Indian spices and vegetables for a vegetarian version of the Brazilian seafood moqueca. A great friend from the Northeast made his traditional fresh beans and burr cucumber, and  the manioc farofa.
Polenta. Say no more.
Yes, I made sourdough…who didn’t?
Minestrone or Pumpkin ?
Raw/Hot/Carbo: A basic vegetable soup, accompbied by pa amb tomaquet and a green salad
Morrocan couscous with spicy fresh beans and vegetables

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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