Kitchen Tips I’ve Learned While Cooking During Quarantine

Expanding my culinary world one recipe at a time.

BY ADAM SCHUBAK | Country Living

(This article first appeared on June 18, 2020)

JENA ARDELL / GETTY IMAGES

Prior to the pandemic and mandatory stay-at-home order, I was never much of a cook. I had maybe three quick and easy dinner recipes in my repertoire, and one of them involved just pouring a jar of salsa over some chicken in a slow cooker. When dining out was no longer an option and ordering delivery involved a certain level of risk and exposure to germs, I had no choice but to up my kitchen game.

I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but the underlying fear of burning down my apartment kept me from experimenting much beyond slow-cooker recipes or baking something in the oven. Quarantine forced me to confront that fear and get to know my kitchen a little better. Although I don’t plan on opening my own restaurant anytime soon, the spring of 2020 provided me with an opportunity to expand my horizons and add a few new dishes to my routine. Using meal kit delivery services like Sun Basket introduced me to new ingredients and cooking methods that took me outside of my comfort zone. It’s a great way to get your feet wet instead of just diving head first into the deep end.

This time spent measuring and mixing taught me some invaluable lessons that I’ll rely on for years to come. The most important being that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Even folks with a penchant for burning toast can benefit from these helpful tips for creating simple meals that don’t sacrifice flavor.

1

Spice up your life.

spice rack
CATHERINE FALLS COMMERCIAL / GETTY IMAGES

A sprinkling of salt and pepper isn’t always enough. There’s a whole world of spices out there that can bring out the flavor in any meal. I tried a few of the spice blends and rubs from Spiceology, and it’s simple way to elevate a boring meal. Cooking for one, a single package of chicken breasts can feel like a different meal every day by using a new seasoning. There’s a reason they say variety is the spice of life.

2

Know your oils.

olive oil and vinegar in bottles on the table
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Not only did my world change when I moved beyond cooking exclusively with extra-virgin olive oil, but I also learned that not all olive oils are created equal. California-based Enzo EVOO offers bottles crushed with Fresno chiles, clementines, and other ingredients perfect for salad dressings or to zhuzh up just about any meal. They offer a noticeable difference in flavor from the Costco-size jug I’m used to cooking with.

I also started cooking with sesame oil in an attempt to re-create some of my favorite Asian dishes that I would normally order for takeout. It’s given me a whole new cuisine to explore. Switching out the oils you’re used to is a simple first step toward new adventures in the kitchen.

3

Every meal doesn’t have to be a feast.

man frying vegetables
10’000 HOURS / GETTY IMAGES

Nobody expects you to whip up a holiday dinner every night. There’s also no reason for you to feel like you have to cook every component of your meal from scratch. As someone who’s getting newly acquainted with my stovetop, it’s a lot easier for me to focus solely on the main course and not have three burners going at once. I started keeping easily microwaveable sides handy at all times whenever the entrée requires a little more TLC and my undivided attention.

4

Switching things up can be a good thing.

burlap bag with oats and oat milk, zero waste concept
AIBEKOV DANIYAR / GETTY IMAGES

Once I find something I like, I tend to lean in really hard. It’s pretty much how I ended up relying on the same three meals to cook throughout most of my adult life. The older I get, the more I realize that moderation is key. Limited access to certain food (and higher prices) at the grocery store during the pandemic pushed me to branch out. It inspired me to dedicate some days where I try to go dairy-free or meat-free. I’ve reached a point where I actually prefer Planet Oat products to regular milk and ice cream, which can be a lot heavier. I’ll always love a good steak, but I also appreciate the days where I get to enjoy some plant-based foods.

5

Don’t fear the flame.

macro closeup of modern luxury gas stove top with blue fire flame knobs and stainless steel pot with reflection and bokeh blurry blurred background
KRBLOKHIN / GETTY IMAGES

Aside from boiling pasta, stepping up to the stove to fry, simmer, sauté, or anything else that required a more attentive approach has always been intimidating to me. Trying out different meal kit delivery services that offer precise instructions on flame settings helped me get more comfortable adjusting the knobs as needed while cooking. I used to think just cooking with a higher flame meant my meal would be ready faster. It didn’t really occur to me that it would affect the food in other ways. Now when I step up to the plate (pun intended), I do so with confidence. I can cobble together a quick lunch over an open flame without fear of setting off the smoke alarms.

6

Put your own spin on it.

preparing pizza
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Once I got into my cooking groove, I started making small tweaks to the recipes. The basic structure remained the same, but I added and took away certain elements as needed. For example, meatloaf is one of my favorite comfort foods and I have used the same recipe for years. I was preparing it one night during quarantine and realized there was room for improvement. I added a little bit of Truff Hot Sauce along with some bacon and cheese (because, why not?) and the end result felt like an entirely new recipe. I made little substitutions/additions in other meals, and they don’t always work, but I don’t regret trying. You don’t have to limit yourself to exactly what the recipe says…in fact, it can be way more fun when you use it as a jumping off point.

7

Veggies don’t have to be just a side dish.

person spooning sauce over freshly cooked green vegetable medley
10’000 HOURS / GETTY IMAGES

Years of nutritional misinformation had me convinced that vegetables should be the precursor or the accompaniment to the meal, but never the main event. In my attempt to have meat-free days, I sought out recipes where veggies were the star of the show. For the record, there are seemingly endless possibilities for what you can do with a head of cauliflower. This loose foray into vegetarianism taught me to never doubt the tasty power of produce.

ADAM SCHUBAK

Adam is a writer based out of New York City who loves video games, horror movies, and cats (the musical and the animal.)

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