Story by Sharon Hudgins
During the past three months, many of us have “sheltered in place” at home, willingly or not. Early into the lockdown, bloggers began posting stories about how they planned to spend their newfound leisure time learning to speak Mandarin or reading all the unread books on their shelves, starting with War and Peace. Others vowed to run five miles a day, perfect their putt in the backyard, clean out closets, lose 30 pounds. Most of those manifestos lasted as long as New Year’s resolutions do. The only “pandemic promise” everyone seemed to share was a desire to expand their culinary horizons—at home.
But people deemed essential workers didn’t have the luxury of time off from their jobs. They didn’t even have a McDonald’s or Jason’s where they could drop by for a quick lunch with stressed-out colleagues. At least the liquor stores were open, even if the bars were closed.
Suddenly millions of Americans had to face a frightening fact of life: They had to cook their own meals.
Sure, you could order takeout barbecue for curbside pick-up, or call for a pizza delivered to your door. But even those options soon lost their luster. How much cholesterol can you absorb before clogged arteries keep you from lifting the phone?
Connoisseurs started ordering expensive goodies online from gourmet grocers, local wineries, and farmers’ co-ops. Parents caring for out-of-school kids made weekly trips to the nearest supermarket to stock up on canned beans, rice, pasta, peanut butter, and spaghetti sauce. Single mothers with small children began to wonder if the whole family could just live on jars of baby food. College students who’d never cooked before didn’t have a clue how to start. But everyone seemed to agree that the two basic necessities of pandemic survival were toilet paper and pet food. Those sold out fast.
Never underestimate the inventiveness of Americans. Moms suddenly having to home-school their kids turned kitchens into learning labs and incorporated culinary skills into their lesson plans. (Let’s bake! It’s math! It’s science! It’s fun!) Dads turned cooking into a masculine outdoor adventure. (Breakfast in the backyard today, everybody! Bacon, eggs, and pancakes on the grill!) And young singles grappled with 1,001 ways to upgrade cups of ramen noodles.
College students suddenly sent home from their dorms re-discovered the joys of Mom’s cooking. The whole family met for meals around the big kitchen table, swapping stories of how they spent their long boring days, telling bad jokes everyone had heard before, and asking why Mom couldn’t serve a vegan meat loaf, organic mashed potatoes, and fat-free apple pie. It was enough to kill anyone’s appetite.
In homes with other anxieties, making sourdough bread became the therapy of choice. Recipes for sourdough breads took over culinary blogs from coast to coast. Flour disappeared from supermarket shelves. Amazon sold out of specialty grains. And in fridges across America live sourdough starters began to bubble, growing like monsters in a science fiction film.
There were also heartwarming stories of closed restaurants keeping their staff employed to cook meals for doctors, nurses, and first responders fighting the virus on the front lines. Unemployed hair dressers grocery shopped for their elderly neighbors. Laid-off auto workers volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels. Two of my friends donated their entire $1,200 stimulus checks to their local food bank. In a country divided along political, economic, racial, religious, and generational lines, many Americans became more united in their response to an invisible, but deadly, threat.
Comfort foods took center stage on everyone’s table, as people retreated to the familiar when faced with the unknown. Calories be damned! When the future seems more uncertain than ever, who cares if you can’t get into those skinny jeans you bought just before the pandemic landed on our shores.
My husband and I counted ourselves among the fortunate: We already knew how to cook from scratch, and we liked working together in the kitchen. Since mid-March, we’ve been trying out new recipes from cookbooks that we didn’t have time to read before. We’ve swapped recipes with friends by email and found new culinary ideas online. And we’ve been making our favorite dishes from T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russian Far East—my latest cookbook about our culinary adventures eating our way around that part of the world.
Even in the blistering heat of a Texas summer (or maybe because of it), hot-spicy foods have been a big hit on our table recently. Here are the recipes for four of those tongue-tingling dishes we made in Siberia, too. So what’s the connection between Siberia and the Pandemic Summer of 2020? Back in Russia of the 1990s, millions of people had lost their jobs, stores were poorly stocked, and we often had to make-do with whatever was in our pantry that day. (Sound familiar?) On top of all that, Siberian summers could be hot, with temperatures soaring into the 90s. So cooking at home in Texas today isn’t much different from surviving summer in Siberia many years ago. If we could do that, surely we can make it through this pandemic, too.
►NOTE: The following easy-to-make recipes are adapted from T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks (University of North Texas Press, 2018). Even if you’re sheltering-in-place and avoiding grocery stores, you probably have all the ingredients at home already, or can order them online for home delivery.
MACEDONIAN SALMON SOUP
When we first tasted this spicy soup in Macedonia, long before we moved to Siberia, we realized that it was flavored with red chile powder like that produced in New Mexico. Later we carried New Mexican chile powders to Siberia, where salmon was plentiful and we could easily make this delicious soup there, too.
One 15-ounce can of pink salmon (or 3/4 to 1 pound skinless salmon filets, cut into 2-inch squares)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
4 to 5 large garlic cloves, chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons New Mexico ancho chile powder (mild)
1 tablespoon New Mexico ancho chile powder (hot)
2-1/2 to 3 cups fish (or chicken) stock
1/4 cup cream, at room temperature
Chopped fresh parsley or green onion tops
- Drain canned salmon, reserving the liquid to use in the soup. Remove all bones from canned or fresh salmon.
- Heat the butter and oil together in a medium pot over medium-high heat until bubbling. Add the onions and sauté until soft and golden. Stir in the garlic and sauté 1 minute longer. Reduce the heat to low and sprinkle in the chile powders, stirring constantly for about 1 minute, until the ingredients are well mixed.
- Pour in the stock (plus the reserved liquid if using canned salmon). Stir well. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the salmon and cook for 3 to 5 minutes more if using canned salmon (or 5 to 7 minutes if using fresh salmon), stirring gently, to heat the fish throughout.
- Stir in the cream, then remove from the heat. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish each serving with a large dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped parsley or green onions on top. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings as a first course, or 2 to 3 main-course servings.
This spicy, garlicky cheese is a popular appetizer in many parts of Russia, especially as a stuffing for ripe red tomatoes or mounded atop thick slices of tomato. It’s also great for topping baked potatoes and spreading on rye bread.
1/2 pound medium-sharp white cheddar cheese, finely grated*
1/2 pound Emmentaler cheese, finely grated*
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
8 to 10 large garlic cloves, squeezed through a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper or hot paprika (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
* Use a box grater, not a Microplane grater (which makes the cheese too fluffy and soft).
- Toss the grated cheeses together by hand in a large bowl. Whisk together the sour cream, mayonnaise, pressed garlic, hot pepper, and salt in a small bowl, then add to the cheese, stirring to mix well.
- Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours (preferably overnight) for the flavors to develop. Let the cheese mixture come to room temperature before serving. Use as a stuffing for small firm ripe tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, a topping for baked potatoes, or a spread for dark bread.
Makes approximately 3 cups.
►Tomatoes Stuffed with Garlic Cheese: Use small, firm, ripe round tomatoes or large cherry tomatoes. Slice off enough of each tomato’s top to remove the stem but retain as much of the whole tomato as possible. Carefully slice each tomato 2/3 of the way down from the top toward the bottom, without cutting all the way through. Rotate the tomato a quarter of a turn and slice downward again in the same way. Gently open up the tomato, scoop out and discard the seeds, and fill the tomato with some of the garlic cheese (at room temperature), mounding the cheese into a small dome on the top. Garnish with chopped chives for color. Refrigerate any leftover cheese.
CONFETTI COLE SLAW
We made this pretty red-and-green-flecked cole slaw for our Christmas parties in Russia, using sun-dried tomatoes we’d brought from Texas and green onion tops from the Russian markets. (In Texas we always add fresh jalapeños, too.) Our Russian guests—who ate cabbage in myriad ways at home—were surprised at this combination of ingredients, which they’d never tasted before. At one party, they quickly wiped out an entire big bowl of this confetti cole slaw!
1 green cabbage (2 pounds), cored and finely shredded
1 medium onion, chopped medium-fine
12 green onion tops, thinly sliced crosswise
12 sun-dried tomato halves, rehydrated in hot water, drained, and sliced into thin strips*
2 to 3 fresh jalapeño peppers, finely chopped (optional)
1/3 cup sunflower oil
3 tablespoons white or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon hot-spicy mustard (Russian brown mustard or French Dijon)
2 large garlic cloves, squeezed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon mustard seeds (yellow or black)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
*If your sun-dried tomatoes are oil-packed in jar, just blot them with paper towels and slice thinly.
- Put the shredded cabbage in a large heatproof bowl. Pour enough boiling water over the cabbage to cover it completely. Let sit for 3 minutes, then drain thoroughly in a colander and let cool.
- Combine the cabbage, onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and jalapeños in a large bowl, tossing them together to mix well.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil and vinegar until emulsified (thick and cloudy). Whisk in the mustard, garlic, mustard seeds, salt, and pepper. Let this dressing sit at room temperature for 10 minutes, then whisk again.
- Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss to mix well. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Toss the salad once more before serving.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Russians love their own traditional gingerbreads and cake-like spice cookies, which they call prianiki. We also made our own version of gingersnaps in Russia, sometimes kicking up the heat with cayenne pepper. Crunchy and not too sweet, these easy-to-make cookies are addictive!
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup dark honey
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon powdered ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- Beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in the beaten eggs, honey, vinegar, and vanilla extract, until all the ingredients are well combined.
- Whisk the flour, soda, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, nutmeg, and cloves together in another bowl. Add to the other mixture (about 1/3 at a time), stirring with a large wooden spoon to form a smooth dough. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter a large baking sheet.
- Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll them by hand into small balls, no larger than 1 inch in diameter. Place on the buttered baking sheet, 1-1/2 inches apart. (Keep the remaining dough refrigerated while the cookies are baking, so it won’t become too sticky.)
- Bake on the middle rack of the oven, 1 baking sheet at a time, at 350° F. for about 15 minutes. The cookies will puff up at first, then flatten out as they bake. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Roll the remaining dough into balls and bake, 1 sheet at a time. Store the cookies up to 1 month in a tightly covered container.
Makes approximately 130 spicy cookies.