I like to joke that I was depressed and anxious way before it became cool. It’s a really bad joke. At my first public relations job 25 years ago, my colleagues got a kick out of me carrying around a leftover brown paper lunch bag in my purse in case of an anxiety attack on the subway, in line at the butcher or in the middle of a meeting. This same year, I began culinary school on nights and weekends. My plate was definitely full.
Fast forward 25 years, my pandemic “paper bag” safety net now is cooking. And menu planning. And shopping. And chopping. In fact, slicing through leeks is one of the most therapeutic things out there. The gentle tension on the knife that gives way to a satisfying soft crunch is a sensation that puts me in a meditative state.
Everyone who knows me knows I try to talk a good trend game. The truth is, living the food trends first-hand grounds and inspires me while advising our food clients here at Current Global. In fact, some food trends move so quickly across social that if you don’t act in real-time, like we did here by pairing Sicilian wine with the trending Mediterranean-style #bakedfetapasta, the opportunity is long gone. So, let’s talk about what’s #trending. But instead of a list and links to various trend reports, here’s a human take featuring a few ways that I lived and breathed them in my own kitchen in the last year. *
THE JOY OF BEANS – Beans are a cheap, yet luxurious, backdrop to so many different types of food and international flavors. I grew up on red beans and rice and once a week I make beans either in my Instant Pot or in my Dutch oven and I do NOT follow a recipe. Whether it’s chickpeas sauteed and cooked in turmeric, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, salt and water (which creates the most incredible brodo), or a riff on a Mexican bean dish with sofrito and salsa, cooking beans is about as low risk as you get when trying new flavor combos. But the rewards are vast and go well beyond the resulting creamy flavor-infused gems that can bring so much comfort and joy. The best part is that you’ll always make enough to share – which is a good reason to check in on your neighbors on a snowy Sunday night.
MY NEW BEST FRIEND, THE MICROWAVE – While the use and effectiveness of the microwave oven is a polarizing topic for top chefs, the surprising thing is that the defrost feature is one of the most useful tools in my kitchen these days. Much like most of America during this pandemic, in the absence of a restaurant meal, a well-stocked freezer with multiple sources of not plant-based proteins helps people feel better about their choices. In fact, data shows that meat made an unexpected comeback in the freezer and frozen aisles. From ground beef to bone-in pork chops to whole chickens and Gulf shrimp, being able to order “off the menu” in my freezer and create a restaurant-quality meal (with the help of a microwave) helps me feel like I am in control in a largely uncertain time.
RECREATING THE RETRO DINER – It’s certainly not new news that Diner Culture has been taking a nosedive for decades, but recreating a retro experience while watching Seinfeld reruns can fit the bill quite nicely. Take for example, smashburgers. Digging through my freezer to find pre-formed frozen beef patties and cooking them on my cast iron skillet atop a sizzling and steaming pile of onions, while smoking up the entire apartment feels, smells and tastes pretty good. Served alongside a salty, garlicky, fresh pickle and you’ve got a pretty solid Friday night.
CHINESE TAKEOUT SHORT CUT – I don’t love take-out or food delivery because of the hassle, cost and inconsistent quality. Unless it’s Papa John’s Epic Stuffed Crust pizza delivery, of course (another client). But one of the things that I absolutely love is a deliciously comforting chicken wonton soup. Back to the freezer we go for frozen wontons or dumplings sourced from my local Asian grocery store and the several quarts of homemade chicken stock I routinely have on hand. For some reason, I draw the line at making my own dumplings – maybe because the frozen ones from the market are so good. Either way, this simple and satisfying short cut for a Chinese takeout favorite just makes me feel smart.
A CITRUSY LIFT – Beyond their “unfair advantage” when it comes to people’s perceptions of immunity-boosting benefits, lemons and limes are having another day culinarily as well – either as the key ingredient in an Italian pasta dish or tart replacement trick for alcohol in a mocktail. As we look past long winter nights and ahead to the optimism of spring, citrus provides that streak of acid that wakes up the palate. It’s hard not to smile at pork tostadas topped with lime and love (again, no recipe to be found here).
While these culinary salves have helped me, they’re not for everyone. As the fall-out from the pandemic will continue for months and years to come, people need more help than ever. In fact, depression symptoms nearly tripled last year as a result of COVID-19. Everybody is going through something so listen hard to your colleagues, friends and family and maybe even share a bowl of beans, a bad joke or a brown paper bag, if it helps.
* It’s only fair to mention that I’ve been pandemic-ing with a chef, whose practice is more about patience, which I predict will continue to be an area of improvement for me well after the pandemic.
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