Staying in is the new going out: not because it’s cool, but because self-isolating is now mandatory. And in these war-on-coronavirus weeks, it pays to be prepared. No, I do not mean panic-buying pasta, stockpiling hand sanitiser or hoarding loo paper, but instead just giving a little bit of thought as to how to manage the ultimate staycation.
And talking of war, with rationing on the horizon, make-do could well be the secret to getting through. A reader wrote in to suggest an article about quarantine cooking (great idea, thank you), pointing out that evaporated milk is an excellent substitute for cream in soups and stews, and to ask if powdered egg will work in pancakes (it will) and long-life milk can be used to make yogurt (yes, but you’ll notice the different flavour).
My go-to book for times when the hatches are battened down is Jack Monroe’s brilliant Tin Can Cook (Bluebird Books £6.99), full of dishes that you never imagined you could whip up from a few tins, like the creamy chicken, spinach and ham pie below.
Don’t underestimate the importance of food. When you’re stuck in isolation, mealtimes matter – the social media feeds from passengers on the quarantined Diamond Princess were peppered with close descriptions of the snacks and dishes that lifted the tedium of cabin time.
But for those of us at home there’s an added imperative: cooking gives us something to do, to relieve boredom and anxiety. A recent graphic-style article in the New Yorker pointed out that the Chinese recipe website Xiachufang has become a live journal for Asian quarantiners, many of who belong to a younger generation more used to sourcing their meals from Deliveroo.
The style of food on the website has changed. “Instead of the usual picture-perfect cakes and complex broths, there are thousands of simple stir-fries, experiments in baking and survival food,” says the article. “Quarantine cooking is built on an over abundance of time and a scarcity of ingredients,” it adds, pointing to the elaborate and playful dishes, including “checkerboard apples” and a proliferation of packet noodles.
So before you dash to the supermarket to load your trolley with whatever is left, or negotiate rationing on Ocado, take a deep breath and check your cupboards and freezer. This is a perfect moment for improvisation, and to use up the dustier packets from the corners of your kitchen cabinets. For once, strictures to do more with less may make good sense.
A two-week shopping list
There’s no need to stockpile ludicrous amounts of food, but if you are faced with two weeks of self-isolation then these are handy essentials.
- Allow 75g per person per meal; a family of four eating pasta every other day for two weeks will need 2.1kg. Allow 2.5kg for bigger appetites.
- About 70g person in risotto or as a side dish. 2kg will be enough for a family of four, eating rice every other day.
Bread flour and yeast
- The smell of freshly baked bread is guaranteed to lift the spirits. You’ll need 500g flour and 1 sachet (7g) of easy-blend yeast for each small loaf.
- Dried continental, Puy or green lentils, plus dried haricot or borlotti beans and dried chickpeas. Dried pulses take up much less space than tinned, and 100g of dried weight will swell to around 240g (roughly the amount in a tin) once cooked.
- Puree a tinful with a hand blender to make a basic passata.
350g jar of tomato puree
- Once opened, press a piece of greaseproof paper on to the surface of the puree and store in the fridge. Two tablespoons of it mixed with 90ml water makes a substitute for tinned tomatoes or passata.
Frozen vegetables and herbs
- Such as peas, grilled Mediterranean vegetables, leeks and leaf spinach. For herbs, big bunches of chives, dill and parsley are best washed and dried, then stored wrapped in kitchen paper in plastic bags in the fridge. Any that you aren’t going to use in the first three or four days should be chopped and frozen in tubs. Use them straight from the freezer.
Fruit and vegetables
- Citrus, apples, cabbages, carrots, garlic and onions should all last two weeks in the fridge. Vac-packs of cooked beetroot are useful for salads and stews, but avoid bagged salads and other pre-prepared veg, as they keep only a couple of days.
- Last at least four weeks from laying (the date stamped on British Lion Eggs) if stored in a cool room or a fridge, but generally much longer. To check, put the egg in a bowl of cold water. If it sinks to the bottom, it’s good to eat.
- Cheddar and Parmesan: hard cheese will last a good two weeks in the fridge. And beeswax wraps aren’t just greener than clingfilm, they are better for wrapping cheese, too.
- Soft cheese: most soft cheeses, including mozzarella, can be frozen, and although the texture may not be ideal for the cheeseboard or salads, they’ll be fine for use in cooking.
- Tinned sardines, tuna and anchovies, plus olives and capers, to liven up salads and pasta sauces.
- Milk: plastic bottles freeze well if you have space. Defrost them standing in a bowl in case of leaks. Filtered milk like Cravendale is worth looking out for, as it doesn’t have the strong cooked flavour of long-life milk but has a three week shelf life.
- Butter: will easily last two weeks in the fridge, or freeze for six months.
Easy store-cupboard dressings
When you need to pep up a dish – such as leftovers – whip up a quick blend from a bottle or two.
Lemon and soy
- Mix together 1 tbsp lemon juice (from a bottle or fresh), 1 tbsp soy sauce and a pinch of salt, then whisk in 2 tbsp olive oil.
Honey and mustard
- Whisk together 1 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar, 1 tbsp grain mustard and a pinch of salt, then 3 tbsp olive oil.
Lime and sesame
- Whisk together 2 tbsp lime juice (fresh or from a bottle), 1 tbsp sesame oil, 1 tbsp fish sauce, 1 tbsp brown sugar, one tiny chopped garlic clove, and chopped or dried chilli to taste.
Yogurt and garlic
- Mix together 60ml plain Greek yogurt, a tiny crushed garlic clove, ¼ tsp salt, 1 tbsp olive oil, some chopped parsley if you like, and 1 tbsp water, adding a little more water if necessary to make a pouring consistency.
- Whisk together 1 tbsp rose harissa, 1 tsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp olive oil, a pinch of salt, 1 tsp tomato puree and 1 tbsp water.