Some Meals I Have Eaten since March
July 8, 2020
Like the rest of the quarantined world, I stumble into sourdough. But late, after it’s ceased to feel relevant. My starter is named Valley. Her parent is Shenandoah. She lives in a medium-sized glass jar on the counter and every few days I remember to feed her, when I realize with guilt the sludge of hooch on top has grown thick and sour. And yet, though I am not always a good mother to my starter, she makes delicious loaves. I pour the hooch down the sink and freshen her up with half a cup of flour and half a cup of water, and by the next day, she’s bubbling healthily and happily once more. A tablespoon of starter, now half a cup of flour and a third a cup of water, and in twelve hours, I have levain, goopy and gluey and impossible to scrub out of the measuring cup without a scouring sponge. Time is the thing to have if you want to make bread. There’s minimal fiddling with the dough – every half hour, for three hours, you fold it four times and somehow, magically, in those three hours, a wet-ish dredge of flour and water becomes a smooth, taut hump. You divide the dough and shape it not once, but twice. I love this part, the cupping and shaping, creating surface tension with the rhythmic, mechanical movement of your hands. And then the dough rests again, as if it’s worked so hard at becoming it needs a little break. Four hours on the counter and then baked late at night, the smell of toasting flour is like a lullaby. Or else they rest overnight in the fridge, and I take the lumps of dough to work the next day and bake them in the office oven, so the whole place smells like a bakery and the three of us nearly demolish a loaf before lunchtime. I’m FaceTiming with my brother and trying to convince him to buy a Le Creuset so he can make sourdough. “It seems like a perfect project for me,” he says, “The only problem is, I’m trying to cut carbs.”
2. Ramen, from scratch
In the annals of ambitious cooking, this one is at the top of the list. We buy a pig’s foot from the butcher and collagen-y chicken wings for the stock. In retrospect, we should have purchased ten more pigs’ feet and maybe an industrial-sized pot. The broth could’ve used more bone in it, in spite of it spending a day on the stove, simmering with ginger, shiitake, kombu, garlic, and leek. There’s so little of it when the aromatics are lifted out. An okay first attempt, but we are our own harshest critics. Notes for improvement are taken. Not so for the pork belly, braised for eight hours in brown sugar and soy with green onion and ginger. It’s soft and fatty and sweet and does that appealing tongue-melt thing. The soft-boiled eggs soak up sauce as they cool. Even the ramen noodles are made from scratch. I buy a pasta machine for the occasion, and very quickly regret not shelling out a few extra bucks for a better model. This one eats the dough and it comes out uncut. We end up peeling apart every single noodle by hand. Halfway through this process, I become very despondent. I want to make fun of myself, and also I want to take a nap. I settle for some low-key moaning. We discover that adding more flour to the dough makes it easier to cut. I perk up somewhat. Also I take a nap and that really helps. I put on a dress and earrings, and when the entirety of the dinner party has assembled, everyone agrees that the ramen is very good.
3. All of the indoor foods, outdoors
I’ve gotten tan in corona times. One, because I bike everywhere instead of taking the train. No matter where I want to go, everything is forty-five minutes away, and I am slowly learning which routes have the best bike lanes and which one-way cobblestoned streets to avoid. Two, because picnics have become the de facto way of spending time with people. The first time I meet with humans in public again, in April, it is for a picnic in Tiergarten with two of my dearest friends. It feels transgressive and necessary and we are in part keeping a lookout for police even though we each have our own blankets and are sitting appropriately far apart. We have brought bread and cheese and salami. Truffles from a parental care package. A bottle of rosé. The tiniest green caterpillar slowly descends on an invisible thread from the tree above us. He’s come such a long way on such an impossibly thin wire, and we watch with bated breath as he nears the grass, hoping he’ll reach it intact.
It feels transgressive and necessary and we are in part keeping a lookout for police even though we each have our own blankets and are sitting appropriately far apart.
Sitting along the Spree, feet dangling over the concrete ledge. It’s chilly and we’re on the shady side of the water, because the other, sunny side is far too full. This is a spontaneous picnic, but it turns out we keep good things in our fridge: flower-studded cheese and something hard and cave-ripened. Cured meats with walnuts, olives, eggplant tapenade, halva, baguette. We have both brought wooden cutting boards and sharp knives and cloth napkins and that makes us laugh.
At my birthday picnic, the people I love in this city bring their bikes and blankets to Tempelhofer Feld. Clouds have been forecast, but the day is brilliant and my gray t-shirt is embarrassingly and constantly soaked in sweat. People say hello in all manner of strange ways. The elbow bump. The awkward over-large smile. The stoplight hands. The shoulder shake that’s like the hug equivalent of a thwarted sneeze. Sharing food feels illicit, even though everything is single-serving except the peach salsa. Everyone eyes the salsa askance, and I feel silly for having made it. But there’s an Aperol spritz buffet and after the first toast the salsa seems less scary.
4. Sourdough starter pancakes
Oh, also about the sourdough. The worst part is having to throw away half of the starter each day so you can feed the remainder fresh flour and water. I guess so you don’t Strega Nona the kitchen with starter, watching horrified as it engulfs the appliances and the cat and then starts to flow out the window to the street below. I hate throwing things away, and the internet says one way to avoid throwing away the discard is to make pancakes with it. I discover that with the addition of a little extra flour and water and an egg, you can put almost anything into sourdough discard and make a stunning little a discard-discard pancake. Leftover chili. Cabbage and shredded carrots. Roasted sweet potatoes. Thinly sliced scallions and sesame seeds. There is nothing in my fridge that I do not throw into a pancake to see if it floats. I am getting very good at flipping them in the skillet with the flick of my wrist. I always top them with Sriracha and Kewpie mayonnaise, swiveled across the top in a grid. Black sesame, white sesame, nori.
There is nothing in my fridge that I do not throw into a pancake to see if it floats.
5. Tortilla chips from the bottom of the bag, crumbled, in a bowl, with a spoon
It’s very much a place I’m in sometimes.
6. Baby’s first kimchi
But not just kimchi, I’m cooking a lot of Korean. Budae jjigae and Yukgaejang and dak-galbi and bo ssam. I finally find the tiny shelf in GoAsia where they keep the jangs hidden away beneath the mirin and sesame oil and entire range of Kikkoman soys. After the success of the sauerkraut, I am on a fermenting kick. Kimchi seems the next logical place to go. After I make the kimchi I forget that I’ve made it, because it’s on the top shelf of the pantry, a place I can only see if I stand on a chair, so it gets an extra week of funk time, which, it turns out, is quite alright with me. I’ve gone a little rogue with the recipe, replacing Asian pear with pineapple, and I’m convinced it’s the answer to everything. Every morning for weeks I eat a slice of toast with caviar crème, a fried egg, and kimchi for breakfast.
7. Shakshuka with a side of the great outdoors
We rent a campervan and drive it two hours south to Saxon Switzerland, because this seems like a good way to make up for all the vacations we’ve had to cancel while avoiding other humans at the same time. The van is ingeniously equipped with a table that turns into bunk beds and a kitted-out kitchen with a gas burner, a sink, and some pots. There’s a foldable table to set up in the grass and camping chairs and all the cups are mugs stolen from hotels. Our first night, for dinner, we make shakshuka with black beans and jalapeños and two perfect little eggs baked on top.
Some of the routes are precarious, and it feels like half the country had the same idea as us, and the tiny, winding roads are clogged with vans. But there’s a camaraderie between the drivers. One night, we find the perfect spot on a wide field with a view of Dresden in the distance and the blowsy rain clouds rolling in. But as soon as we settle in, a man drives by in an SUV and tells us through his rolled-down window that he’s a hunter, commissioned to chase wild boars from these fields and that we should find another place to rest the night. “I’d hate to accidentally shoot you.” And so, although it’s late, we drive away again and back to the good, grassy spot we’d found along the Elbe. Of course it’s full. All the lumbering giants have been scouring the countryside, snagging all the best spots hours ago. We turn around to keep looking, and the driver of another camper flags us down. “We saw you look here longingly as you passed. We’ll be out of this spot in an hour, if you want it.” So we nestle our big van behind theirs, and when they leave, repark and spread out behind its protective flank so there’s only the river, golden in the setting sun, to see.
8. Improvisational tacos
I finally find someone who makes good corn tortillas in Berlin and every other week I order too many of them and find myself making improvisational tacos. It’s not unlike my approach to sourdough pancakes, but somehow I’m more excited by the combinations I’m coming up with. It makes me feel like I’ve finally arrived somewhere as a cook – able to freely and creatively combine unlike things. Not that I haven’t always espoused that attitude, but with these tacos it’s like I’ve finally figured out how to practice what I preach.
It’s a reclamation meal, associated strongly with a time and a place and a person, and I want to make it mine. I do.
10. Essentially one household
What saves my life the first two months of quarantine are our weekly dinners. We cook extravagant things – a multicourse Easter menu with crackly roast pork and deviled eggs garnished with black caviar and gold leaf. Carnitas tacos with pickled red onions and frozen margaritas. Summer rolls. Za’atar-roasted eggplant with sesame bread rings and spicy pepper ajvar. We know it’s illegal to meet, technically, but we will go insane if we do not. We’re family, we say, essentially one household, we say. Technically two, essentially one. We open all of the good wine and work our way through a growing collection of board games. We talk through the panic. When restrictions ease, we keep up our weekly dinners. Now it’s tradition. It’s still keeping us sane.