cooking the long game

I spent entirely too much time in the kitchen this weekend.

We all have our ways of coping with the sweeping and devastating news that reaches us every day, with the fear and anxiety that crowd in at the corners, with the sudden shift in our priorities and clearances in our schedules. For those of us who are home, safe, still well—for those of us who are fortunate, in short—the question that fills our minds the most is: what on earth do we do?

What do we do? What do we do to help? What do we do to keep ourselves, our families, safe? What do we do with the time that we suddenly have in spades? What, in God’s name, do we eat? This last question is a primal one, but seems to float to the surface these days with more urgency, even alarm, as we consider not only the huge range of possibilities that arrests us with the time we suddenly have, but also the larger picture of why we have that time to begin with. It raises other questions, too: what can I find at the store? Is it safe or prudent for me to run out and buy what I need? Will it be enough?

I’m a fairly anxious person, but I find that the scary noisy questions like this tend to take up only a little space lately. Maybe I’m getting used to it. Maybe years of therapy have strengthened my ability to deal with my own anxious thoughts. But most likely, as I have found with other matters, I just get tired. I get tired of thinking in these dark, tenacious tangents. And when I’m tired, all that’s left to think about seems to be food.

So, I cook.

This weekend, with all the time I knew I would have, I decided to cook the long game. We’re all sort of playing the long game now, waiting this thing out or working hard on the front lines to push it away, keep it at bay, save as many lives as possible. For those of us who can be home, who are home, the long game is more a slow, subtle art. How to fill those long hours with something worthwhile, something filling and comforting, in more ways than just filling the belly.

I’m seldom home on the weekends. There was always somewhere to be, in those days that now seem decades ago, when we were allowed to be somewhere. So I never really get time to make anything that takes long, slow afternoons of simmering and rising, teasing out flavors, letting things ferment and absorb and settle and meld. This weekend, I determined, would be time for some Projects.

That’s Projects with a capital P, mind you.

First, the shopping. I had grocery lists from my elderly neighbor and my mother, who is now forcibly housebound, and a very long list for myself to stock up on as many pantry staples and fresh items as I could for the next week or so. My tiny apartment kitchen has a correspondingly tiny fridge, and zero storage space to boot, so I have to be cautious about how much I really buy, and I can’t stock enough for weeks at a time. I’m OK with that. I don’t need a month’s worth of supplies and we’re told not to hoard anyway. So I spent all morning on Saturday finding what I needed, and that afternoon I got to work.

I started with Marcella Hazan’s bolognese. I cooked it long, deliberately, and slowly. I brooked no shortcut. I suffered no impatience from my unruly spirit. I did it all (except the chopping, which I loathe and avoid successfully thanks to the food processor). I watched it assiduously and waited for the milk to bubble away, then the wine, then the tomatoes to simmer and meld into a beautiful rich sauce. I served it over the fancy pappardelle that I had set aside for a special day (if not now, when?) with a quick tossed Caesar salad. We had Rice Krispie treats for dessert and ice cream, and went to bed with full, happy bellies.

Sunday morning, I laid out my goods for a day of real cooking. I made banana pancakes for breakfast, as I do almost every Sunday. I planned on making my sourdough bread, as well as some fantastic little orange cinnamon rolls that my favorite baking site, Sally’s Baking Addiction, had published and which appeared by the movings of fate in one of my social media feeds. I also knew I wanted to make stock, as I was all out, and Nigella Lawson’s “Mother’s Praised Chicken” for dinner. For the most part, this all worked out. The bread, however, did not. After adding way too much flour to my poor, sloppy, too-wet dough, I gave up and tossed the lot of it. I hate the waste, but it was honestly too much to deal with.

The stock was perfect. It simmered for almost seven hours, and then I removed the bones and vegetables and allowed it to boil down for two more hours. When the praised chicken was done and carved, I threw those bones in the stock, too, for added flavor, and strained it all before bed into six beautiful golden quarts for my freezer. There’s something about having good homemade chicken stock on hand that just makes the world feel a little more secure, pandemic or no pandemic.

The cinnamon rolls—well, they’re almost gone. I will save that story for another post.

All of this is to say, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Maybe a little too much. Keeping yourself occupied is one thing. But keeping something simmering on the stove two days in a row means a lot of time in the house and not a lot of time enjoying the nice spring weather with your boyfriend, who’s getting a little antsy working from home all week and who can’t see a sunny day without itching for his tennis rackets. But it also meant he got to go off and have some time to hit while I cooked and babysat my stock. It meant we had some time apart, so we could appreciate our time together a little more. Because every hour is precious, even when it’s 48 in a row. We none of us know where the days ahead will take us. Or even the next few hours. Do what you love. Hug who you can. We’re playing the long game, and we’re going to find a way through it.

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