Ask Us Anything About Cooking While Social Distancing

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Hello! It is a very confusing and scary time, and while there is much discussion about the benefits of social distancing—which cannot be overstated—during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s less talk about what self-quarantining and isolation means on a lived, day-to-day level for most people. Social distancing affects all parts of daily life, including mental health, finances, and food. I, along with several members of the Autostraddle team, want to help you out with that last one!

Not everyone is used to cooking for themselves every day. Lack of access to certain ingredients, the ripple effects of panic buying, and limited ability to be outside of the home add even more strains even for experienced cooks. We are here to help! Ask us anything at all about cooking, food, meal prep, etc. right here in the comments of this post, and we will answer to the best of our ability.

Need help figuring out what to prioritize buying at the grocery store? Want to know what to make with what you already have? Wanna make pasta sauce from scratch with mostly/entirely shelf-stable ingredients? Want to know the best way to still eat fruits and vegetables during self-quarantine? Need ideas for what to do with all the random shit in your freezer? How about alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages that you can make for happy hour at home? How to stock your pantry on a budget? Pickling—what’s that about? I’ve got you on all of these and more! Be as specific or general as you want!

Here are some more of the other topics our team members can offer advice on:

Himani: vegan cooking; what to do with random produce/non-meat foods when that’s all you can find in the supermarket

Al(aina): baking; quick meals using mostly canned shit; SOUP; stock making; and the joy of setting your table

Kamala: making a dish with whatever you have in your fridge/pantry; elevating your pre-prepared meal (frozen or bagged or instant noodles etc); how to make different sauces to put on the same base food; I can do variations on a theme (like 5 ways to eat your frozen broccoli)

Sally: what to do with a lot of flour; how to make things taste better by adding lots of sherry

Vanessa: baking; making fun meals for kids; alison roman; general “i have these things in my fridge/pantry what should i make” vibes

If you have a question for a specific person, feel free to include our name in your comment since we will be ctlr+f-ing ourselves. But feel free to ask general questions for the group! Even if you have a question about something that isn’t mentioned here! We collectively have a lot of kitchen knowledge, tips, and tricks to share!


Right now, Autostraddle needs your support as much as ever. We are seeing our role expand as the world moves online in search of community, and we’re working to be here for you. If you donate or join A+, you will help us keep doing our work building queer community and getting queer, BIPOC, and trans writers paid. We know there are many worthy causes, but if you can, please consider donating or joining A+ because your gift will help support our writers and staff, as well as our efforts to provide resources, entertainment, and community to our family of readers like you, always and especially during this time. Thank you for anything you can give!

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Las Vegas. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 227 articles for us.

112 Comments

  1. LENTILS are one of the things I have in my kitchen that should probably be very useful right now but I’m feeling uninspired about how to use them! I’ve got both red split lentils and whole green lentils, and I’m vegetarian. What are some things I can do with them with flexible ingredients/ingredients I’m likely to already have?

    • Defrost in the fridge overnight, on the bottom shelf in a bowl or pan so their are no leaks; or in a plastic bag in cold water if you want it faster. You can just sauté them with any seasonings, if you are worried about making sure it is cooked then I recommend cutting it into strips. You can go any flavor here- Italian seasoning, fajita seasoning, soy sauce etc. serve with rice, pasta, any veg you have and it will be good!

    • ok FIRST, my thawing advice:

      i am personally a fan of the long route for defrosting which is just putting the frozen chicken in the refrigerator. it takes 24-48 hours but the best part about this method is you don’t have to use it right away (can wait a day or two for chicken).

      BUT if you want to do it quicker, it’s still safe to do the water method. put the chicken in a sealed bag and place it in a bowl of COLD tap water (make sure it’s totally submerged, which requires a large bowl). change the water every half hour. sometimes it takes as little as half an hour but it can take up to 2-3 hours. if you choose this method though, you gotta cook it that day.

    • here is my personal favorite chicken breast marinade:

      – olive oil
      – sesame oil
      – soy sauce
      – garlic (fresh or powder in a pinch!)
      – ginger (fresh is ideal or paste but can use ground in a pinch!)
      – lemon juice (optional! could sub another acidic thing like rice vinegar)
      – black pepper (if you’re using low sodium soy sauce then also use some sea salt)

      in the oven at 425 for 17 minutes!

    • Depending on what you have in your pantry, chicken with sage & butter pasta? Or frozen spinach?

      Boil pasta as normal.

      Heat olive oil (if you have clarified butter add a spoonful) and slowly sauté a small onion and minced garlic. Add dried sage, pepper, salt. Don’t let it colour, keep it on low heat. Add diced and thawed chicken. Cook this for 7-10 minutes. You can cut the largest piece of chicken to see if it’s done.

      Add pasta to a plate, add a spoon of butter, add chicken. Mix. Serve with a salad. Enjoy!

      Sage is a pretty specific taste, so not everyone will like it. You could also leave the sage out, add (frozen spinach). Cook untill heated.

    • riese, what’s your spice situation look like? I like to do a defrost in a brine scenario where you toss your frozen-ass breasts into a bag with yogurt, curry powder (or any flavorful situation you want the 21 Seasonings Salute or Everything Bagel ones at TJ’s also do great here) and a generous amount of salt and rub it all around in a bag. And then when it’s a reg temp, smush it all around again before you pat it dry and just cook it in a pan.

      my tips for pan frying a chicken breast:
      1. always brine overnight
      2. steam it with the lid on but cracked for half the time at least
      3. cook it low and slow
      4. bring up the temp at the end to get crispies on the outside if that’s your jam

  2. is there anything i can bake if i don’t have eggs or white sugar?? i have brown sugar and flour and olive oil and butter and (oat) milk and…i dunno, peanut butter?? fruit roll-ups?? and i could probably steal a tablespoon or two of baking soda from my roommate.

  3. This gets more into the mental health side of things rather than the actual mechanics of cooking, but…how can those of us who live alone try to make our meals more enjoyable and less depressing, rather than just, “I know I have to eat food to stay alive”?

    As of right now I’m still going to work every day, but even the thought of coming home and just being alone in my house from 5 pm til I go to sleep every evening is feeling a little scary. And I’m an introvert who likes to cook anyway, so I’m really feeling for everyone out there who’s having to make way bigger adjustments.

    So, any advice on how to make cooking and eating by myself more fun?

    • I second the answer about audiobooks/music/podcasts!

      I’m not sure if you use social media, but posting food pics and process videos to instagram stories has genuinely made me feel more connected to people and connected me with other cooking queers!

      Also, don’t hesitate to make meals feel special. Light a candle, set the table, do all the things you would do for a dinner guest but for yourself.

    • omg omg omg set the table!! table setting has been a JOY for me! put flowers in the center, light a candle! use cloth napkins, if you have them. I feel so much more satisfied after eating a meal at a set table, and it makes something v ordinary be filled with beauty

    • Blast some tunes you love or make you feel motivated when cooking.
      Put the recording of a live performance on while you eat, give yourself dinner and a show.
      Some big opera companies, orchestras and playhouses are streaming some of their previous recorded performances for free this month.

    • Thanks y’all, I love these suggestions! This is gonna be my chance to make so many good playlists, I can’t wait.

      This whole comments section inspired me to make an actual dinner last night consisting of spaghetti with tuna and cherry tomatoes, and a green salad. As opposed to stress eating chips and salsa which is what I was seriously considering doing.

  4. This thread is a great idea! Thank you all for nurturing this community for us all year round.

    What is something vegetarian that I could make with great northern beans? I have about half a pound of them (uncooked, not canned) left behind by a former housemate, but I only ever really cook with pinto or black beans. Do I just make them the same way I would my pinto or black beans?

    • so great northern beans are gonna be a little more mild in taste than pinto, so if you’re subbing them for recipes that you usually do with pinto keep that in mind! might need to up the spices since pinto beans stand on their own a bit better than great northern in my opinion!

      cook them with canned green chilies and spices for a lot of flavor! they’re also a good addition to soups.

    • Water them overnight, then cook with a pinch of baking powder. (check the web for details)
      Let them cool off and have them f.e. as a salad with cucumber in pieces, parsley, vinaigrette (olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper).
      Or mash them and mix with grated carrot/whatever to make patties.

    • great northerns are also very good crisped up, as a treat! toss them with olive oil, salt, garlic, some sort of chili flake, then roast on 375 for 20-30 minutes, give em a lil toss halfway through. great alone but also as a salad topper

    • I love great northern beans! They are so creamy and delicious! Here is a tasty soup recipe where you can basically swap out all the vegetables you may or may not have on hand:
      https://knownquantities.livejournal.com/35017.html

      No carrots? Great – Use another root veg instead, like turnips or parsnips
      No green beans? What about broccoli or kale or spinach?
      No soy sausage? No problem! It’s optional anyways because you’re getting protein from the beans!
      No canned tomatoes (although those have been pretty well stocked in my supermarket)? They’re optional anyways – just use a good veggie soup broth + a little more olive oil

    • oh mannn GNBs are my bffs lol.

      you could just cook them in a crockpot or stovetop, freeze what you won’t use in a week, and use them as additions to meals:

      add to spaghetti sauce or soups (like that pallet of Top Ramen everyone bought).

      a bowl meal that’s ??? but good I swear: yellow corn, beans, salt, pepper, butter, and a dollop of good yellow mustard.

      vegan tuna salad: mash white beans, a sheet of dried nori, olive brine (the juice leftover in the olive jar), diced celery, dill, and some nutritional yeast. Eat on toast with some fresh greens.

      my favorite white bean soup: 2-4 cups GNB dried, 1 sauteed onion, 1 lb (2 cartons) sauteed mushrooms, 1/2 cup barley (opt), greens (opt), rosemary, thyme, garlic, 1 each celery rib and carrot chopped, salt, black pepper. Add water (according to beans) and cook in crockpot. So good; hearty and comforting. Add liquid aminos / soy sauce / nutritional yeast if you have some.

      The taco shop by my office that always had a line out the door had ‘side of beans’ on their menu. We ALWAYS ordered it. Eventually I asked the recipe: ‘beans, oil, salt.’ lol. They were blended to a texture like refried beans. There was a little cheese on top; irrelevant, we scraped the bowls clean every time. Those were peruano beans, similar to GNB.

  5. a general note: stuff varies a lot between cities/neighborhoods/stores etc., but I’ve observed that a lot of shops still have the following canned ingredients even while other things are selling out: canned tomato products, coconut milk, chopped green chilies, chipotle peppers in adobo, canned/tinned fish, jarred curry paste

  6. I’ve got a tip:

    For greens like cilantro, lettuce head leaves, that spoil quickly but are so nice and fresh when you have them:

    Wash the whole batch as normal, shake off excess water, lay flat on a dry kitchen towel. Roll up into a snug little loaf and tuck into a plastic bag. Place in produce bin in the fridge.

    It will stave off leaf rot and wilting for a surprisingly long time.

  7. Does anybody have any dipping sauce/ drizzle recipes? I am sick of spicy ranch. I have the following in my pantry/fridge: mayo, raspberry jam, lemon juice, mustard, soy sauce, syrup, butter, milk, pickle juice, salsa, several types of vinegar including some fig balsamic, olive oil, most common spices, ketchup. In particular I have a lot of breaded frozen fish and also potstickers that I’m looking to dip/ get drizzled. Thanks!

    • SIMPLE AIOLI:
      – mayo, lemon juice, and minced garlic if you have it…i have experimented with using garlic powder in place of minced garlic and it’s actually not that bad! but I would add a little bit of olive oil if doing that

      (FIG) BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE:
      – one part balsamic, one part olive oil, a little bit of syrup, salt and pepp

      TARTAR SAUCE:
      – mayo, pickle juice, salt and pepper (if you have pickles too then chop em up real fine and throw them in there), optional: little bit of onion powder

      CUMIN CHIPOTLE KETCHUP:
      – ketchup plus ground cumin and ground chile powder. lime juice if you have it but can use lemon juice in a pinch

      FRY SAUCE:
      – ketchup and mayo mixed together with a splash of vinegar (optionally, you can add paprika, mustard powder, and/or onion powder)

      Other ideas: if you have time on your hands and also have eggs and want to experiment with making your own mayo, it tastes very different than regular storebought mayo. the only ingredients you need are egg yolks and an oil. I recommend Samin Nosrat’s recipe/guide https://www.rachaelrayshow.com/recipes/samin-nosrats-basic-mayonnaise

      If you have eggs, you can also make homemade hollandaise with yolks, lemon juice, butter, cayenne https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/tyler-florence/hollandaise-sauce-recipe-1910043

    • For the fish I love tartar sauce- mayo, pickle,lemon, salt and pepper. You can also add some mustard and hot sauce/ cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder to this to make a more remoulade-type thing.
      For potstickers: soy sauce, sugar, rice/apple cider/white wine vinegar, garlic and ginger if you have it.

    • okay, you have SO MUCH for sauces!

      lemon juice + mustard + evoo + a touch of rasbberry jam + herbs
      ketchup + balsamic + mayo = maybe good for fish??
      butter + herbs = a compound butter sitch, not neccessarily a drizzle, maybe for crackers or toast or to sauté something in
      soy sauce + a touch of syrup (is it real maple??? if not maybe no) = good for potstickers

    • My vote for super-easy but fiendishly delicious dipping sauces would be anything made with roasted sweet red peppers, either home-made or store-bought in jars is good!

      Here are a couple of classic recipes, but I usually make hybrids/variations of these with whatever we have at hand. It’s impossible to not make something that tastes good with red peppers and olive oil as a base, and ideally some kind of nut. All quantities are approximate, please vary to taste!

      ROMESCO
      Blend 2 or 3 roast red peppers, a tomato (substitute with canned or puree/paste if needed), a handful of flaked almonds, a clove of garlic, teaspoon of lemon juice (substitute with white wine or sherry vinegar). Slowly add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and keep blending to emulsify and add salt to taste. Add half a teaspoon of smoked paprika and/or some chilli flakes if you want to!

      MUHUMMARA
      Blend 2 or 3 roast red peppers, about half a cup of breadcrumbs (or dry out some bread in the oven and crumble in), half a cup of walnuts, a teaspoon of tomato puree/paste, garlic clove, some kind of chilli powder (ideally Aleppo pepper but I’ve never found any). Optionally add pomegranate molasses if you have them. Blend/emulsify with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and add salt to taste. Add some cumin if you like!

      • I now realise these use virtually nothing in the available ingredient list in the opening comment, but I hope my enthusiasm persuades anyone who has or is able to get jarred red peppers to make these sauces immediately.

  8. Mung beans. Never had them in my life, no idea what they taste like or what regional cuisines they’re used for. We have a bunch dried, at least a few pounds.

    I *could* google recipes but it would be more fun to read straddler suggestions.

  9. If anyone has SMOKED paprika on had that’s one of the necessary secret ingredients to a quick stovetop bbq sauce.

    The other necessaries are ketchup, apple cider vinegar and brown sugar.

    The rest of the seasoning you’ve got leeway cumin and garlic are your best bets with some S & P.

    Things I’ve added before : cinnamon, nutmeg, chipotle, ancho, allspice, cloves, that standard American chili powder, chinese 5 spice, coriander, cardamom, sumac and turmeric even because I need to balance out the sweetness one time.

    Sweet ingredients
    I believe replacing brown sugar with something else is wrong but I’ll supplement with maple, honey and have considered light molasses.

    • YES! Cannot overstate the need for smoked paprika in every avenue of life! Not just for BBQ sauce, but also add to tomato-based sauces for pasta or various canned beans that you are looking to turn into some kind of edible meal. I truly believe that if we were limited to one spice, then smoked pap should be your choice!

  10. I love all of the love in this thread! We are now a large family including younger kids and teenagers, and my goodness with school out there are a lot of meals per week to make! So Vanessa I would love to hear kid friendly recipes. I was a vegetarian for years but most of my family is big on meat.

    • i’m curious how old your kids are, if they are interested in cooking, and how many teenagers you have! and also if there are any food restrictions or allergies.

      for really young kids, i love doing an assortment of cut up foods and just being like, “pick what you want!” that way nothing has a value judgement, it’s just whatever they feel like and they don’t get weird feelings about food being “good” or “bad.” maybe some cut up fruit (can be canned), some steamed veggies (can be frozen), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some rice cake with hummus, and some leftovers from last night’s dinner. for snacks i like pretzels, seaweed, kids cliff bars (i think they’re called z bars), fruit gummies.

      if the kids are a little older and they like cooking, you will absolutely have an easier time if you get them engaged. they don’t have to be capable of like, making a whole meal on their own, but even just getting them on board with what you’re serving or making them feel like they have some autonomy can go a long way. frozen stuff is your friend in this scenario. chicken burgers, chicken nuggets, veggie burgers, spinach pancakes, scallion pancakes, etc etc…whatever is quick and easy and can be dressed up with a fresh salad (if you have fresh veg) or some delicious condiments.

      i also think if your family is down with meat there’s a great opportunity to make some big dishes and freeze half of them so it doesn’t feel so stressful to always be making them. you can do a pot roast, a lasagna (with meat or without), enchiladas…ohhhh my absolute favorite group dinner that isn’t too fussy and is VERY exciting is breakfast for dinner! make a ton of pancakes, let people fry their egg to their satisfaction, stick some bacon and sausage in the oven…

      if none of this sounds good or useful for your family lmk and i’ll think up more suggestions. in general i’m very into being inclusive of kids so everyone is eating the same thing and it’s not like, an overwhelming meal for a child, but we don’t need to baby everything down to a ridiculous amount – kids will mostly eat what you put in front of them if you seem excited about it and if you don’t get weird about forcing them into things they don’t wanna eat.

      GOOD LUCK <3

  11. I have a recipe that I used to make a lot as a student, because it was so cheap and you can put portions in the freezer. It’s an old recipe of my dad.

    It uses white cabbage, I bought one for less then €2 and it was over 2 kg. The quantities below are for one medium sized cabbage.

    – Take a large pan, like a stewing pan. If you make a smaller amount a high frying pan works too.
    – Chop 3 medium onions, large pieces. Sauté in oil, slowly.
    – Mince garlic, as much as you like. I’d use 4 large pieces. Add. Don’t let it burn.
    – Chop 1 white cabbage in thin strips, about 5 cm long. You do not need to be precise at all. Wash. Add to pan. At this point you may realize that once it’s chopped up this cabbage looks so much larger then in real life.
    – Add about 1/2 liter boiling water.
    – Spice: salt, pepper, stock pouder if you like, and so much of the curry powder. A few table spoons. Add some chilli if you like. Don’t forget to taste.
    – Mix. Make sure there is a layer of water in the bottom. Put the lid on and let it boil for 20 minutes. Mix once or twice.
    – Add about 600 g mince. Add soy mince straight in, or if you have meat mince cook this in another pan and add it. Cook for about 10 more minutes.
    – Cook rice as usual.

    Eat with the rice. Don’t forget to add some juice. I make about 5 portions from one cabbage. The extra I freeze, but without the rice because that becomes to mushy if frozen.

    To taw simply take it out the freezer and leave it out if your kitchen is cool. In a hurry you can stick it in a pan frozen with some water and heat it slowly. Or the microwave probably, but I don’t have one.

  12. If you can get ahold of yeast and flour (preferably bread/strong but whatever will work) making bread is almost foolproof:


    https://www.waitrose.com/content/waitrose/en/home/recipes/recipe_directory/p/paul-hollywood-swhitebloomerbread.html

    This loaf halves really well; is great with any sort of sandwich. It doesn’t do french toast super well unless you add something acidic/funky (I make a goat cheese-honey syrup rather than maple for this bread)

    But honestly getting your hands on some yeast rn makes it so much easier to make sure you have bread, no matter what happens to the supply chains.

    • oh i’ve GOT YOU.

      – heat oil in a skillet or pot and add chopped garlic and chopped onion (or shallot), saute for a couple minutes without burning garlic and then add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and stir
      – add two cans diced tomatoes and two-ish cups of stock or water or white wine (sometimes I do half stock/half white wine)
      – add a pinch of sugar; salt to taste
      – add herbs! if you don’t have fresh, it can be dried oregano, basil, parsley, italian blend, etc.
      – simmer, stirring occasionally, until it cooks down to a thicker sauce consistency (I like a slow and low method here: low to medium heat so it’s simmering without bubbling TOO much and letting it cook for a while so all the flavors meld)

      If you don’t have fresh garlic, I recommend adding garlic powder or onion powder.

      Other optional things: at the beginning when you’re sauteing the onion and garlic in tomato paste you can also throw an anchovy or two in there for a deeper, salty flavor. Also, save the rinds of parmesan (or similar) cheese and throw those rinds in the sauce as it’s simmering because that also deepens the flavors!

      • Oh, I totally agree with Kayla, that’s how I usually make it.

        To make it extra tasty, if you have the time, add some (clarified) butter to the oil. Sauté the onion and garlic (if you have it) on a very low heat for 15-20 minutes, without letting it colour. Everything else stays the same.

        Butter makes everything better.

    • Kayla’s got the general process down but my inner nona is tsking about a couple details.
      The diced tomatoes should go thru the blender a bit, not looking for total liquidation there def should be some chunk left.
      The herbs in order of amount: basil, oregano, and a lil pinch of thyme.
      If you’re going to add a bunch of extra liquid in there don’t do it 100% wine please save most of that for drinking.
      Just a dash of it is good it’s not the star of the show.

    • hotttttt, yesss, kayla has definitely got you!!

      my only extra ingredients in the realm of adding an anchovy and parm rinds to the simmer, is a couple of glugs of soy sauce in there, for depth of flavor and a little blip of honey or something sweet, to cut what can be a very acidic situation with the tomatoes, depending on your brand.

  13. Tips for getting over the disappointment of putting in time and energy to something that tastes bad and you can’t really eat much of it :( I know there’s some beauty in trial and error and learning and all that, but I also am low on patience and endurance for food that ends up bad that I still had to make and clean up after.

    • Oh I have definitely been there – many times. It feels like being betrayed like the one and only thing I can count on in my life. This was the sort of situation that would lead me to tears at a time in my life when I would say “I’m not one for crying” – let it all out!

      If you are able to, get take out. If not, make something quick and easy: mac & cheese, frozen dinner, boil some pasta & toss with a jar of sauce or even just salt and olive oil, ramen noodles. You are undoubtedly tired and hungry, so get something to eat that isn’t disgusting but is very low effort!

    • this reminds me: i learned the hard way that you have to sautee onions separately when putting them in a soup. Every other veggie you can put it raw and it cooks in the soup; boiling raw onions just makes the whole pot taste bad in my experience.

    • Sometimes time is the only balm, but making yourself some easy to prove to yourself you can to stuff soothes a lot of people. Also getting food in the body in general can improve mood.

      One thing that helps me is typing up what I can recall of what I did because; if I write it down it’s science,can work out what went wrong, and hypotheses on how I can resolves the issue.

      If you haven’t tossed out the food you tried to make take Kamala up on the offer to try to save it.

  14. West-African ground-nut stew (peanut stew) with squash and sweet potatoes is a great option for making your staples taste hearty and delicious.

    You likely have most of the ingredients (tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, peanut butter, dried red chili flakes); lots of substitutions are possible. It’s really fool-proof.

    I am v glad to use up the cheap peanut butter I bought by putting it in this soup, rather than enduring it as a pb&j sandwich.

    https://moosewoodcooks.com/2011/09/west-african-groundnut-stew/

    Many different versions of this recipe online with regional variations from different African locales.

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