Milk and chocolate chip cookies, fresh from my pandemic kitchen

Over the past many months, as Tom and I have reminisced about our travels, rather than actually traveling, food memories—and food making—were a constant around our house. Our pandemic kitchen became a jolly mess as we cracked out tattered cookbooks, searched online, and rummaged in the pantry. We made dishes we had first tasted in Malaysia or India or Morocco. And we made cookies. Lots of cookies.

At the beginning of 2020, we looked forward to a train journey across Europe and a long stay in Italy. When that trip was cancelled early on, we took solace in some of our favorite Italian comfort foods. I surfaced ideas from a cookery course in Tuscany with Jack McNulty of My Fresh Attitude, along with some of Jack’s healthy recipes. Mediterranean food pairs beautifully with Portuguese wines, so this was a win-win.

I spent a lot of time fiddling with spices and dough and figuring out substitutions for ingredients in pandemic short supply. Tom jumped in as our household’s “senior taster”, grill master and sommelier. And thanks to friends who put our wants on their grocery lists, and to regular home deliveries from an organic farm in the Douro Valley, we were blessed with fresh produce throughout the dark days of Lockdown 1.0.

Man pouring wine, woman smiling in her kitchen as she cooks

Cooking & dining in

When our social life went missing, a lot of culinary pleasure went with it. As we settled into our first lock-down, though, Tom and I began setting up time with friends via Skype and Zoom. Even as pandemic confinement prompted us to put the “comfort” in “comfort food”, we activated connections that had never occurred to us in the Before Times.

Meeting friends online, over food and wine, turned out to be a great way to try new dishes from our pandemic kitchen, toast the results, and compare notes. Our virtual dinners took us half-way around the world at a fraction of the cost, and with at least some of the pleasure.

Our pandemic kitchen bread project

If not for the Great Yeast Shortage of 2020, Tom and I might never have enjoyed homemade sourdough bread—by that I mean made by me, for our table, in our kitchen. My starter, the intrepid Sourdough Rose, supported creation of a number of crusty boules.

With the publication of her book on bread, Heddi Nieuwsma of Cuisine Helvetica, helped me take that a step further. By the time my copy arrived, yeast had returned to grocery shelves, and I was able to make Zopf, that marvelous challah-cousin that recalls weekend breakfasts in Switzerland. I carried on across the Alps to the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, with loaves of pull-apart Pane Ticinese, and other Swiss favorites. Kudos to Heddi for her clear instructions! I’ll be working my way through Swiss Bread for some time to come.

At home in Morocco

It’s been way too long since we were able to visit our little house in Morocco. Travel from many countries, including Portugal, is still blocked, so it will be a while yet before we can get back to Fez and check in personally with our house and friends there. Meanwhile, food is our mode of transport, and Sahar Elhallak of At Home in Morocco has often been our guide.

During our time in confinement, Sahar beamed cookery sessions from her medina kitchen, and when I was feeling nostalgic for Moroccan flavors, she went into the souk, found the freshest produce available and set out a menu for us to prepare together. Two aromatic dishes—Moroccan style lentils and Tahini cauliflower with Zaatar—helped bring the medina into our Porto kitchen. Tom agreed with me that the results were the next best thing to being in Fez ourselves. Thank you Sahar!

Cooking Malaysia

Chef Norman Musa offers cook-along travel to Malaysia via YouTube. A recent session featured a presentation by Jennifer Tan of Melaka’s Donald and Lily’s Restaurant. It was a treat to say hello to Jennifer and her mother, whose Nyonya cuisine we know from our month-long stay in Malaysia several years ago. The dish from our cooking session took us back to one of our favorite food destinations. A quest for tofu puffs and pandan leaves gave us an excuse to raid the shelves at Porto Asian markets, including the new Suasa Indonesian shop.

Deliciously organic

Good food starts with great ingredients, so imagine our delight when an organic food shop appeared in our neighborhood a few months ago! Portugal has marvelous produce, and we are regulars at Porto’s organic market and several long-standing organic shops in town. But a lovingly curated stock of top-quality merch practically on our doorstep? That ticks many boxes.

Mercearia 100 Saco launched after several members of the Guerra family, including cousins who had returned to Porto from abroad, got creative while waiting out the pandemic here. Vegans Diogo and Mariana joined forces with cousin Tiago and his mom Teresa, who brought hotel and restaurant experience to the venture. The team has been in overdrive in the new year, sourcing vegan cheeses, tofu and alheira(!) from Portuguese suppliers, and laying out fresh produce in small quantities. The shop sells some things—nuts, seeds, legumes, spices—in bulk, along with spice mixes, organic wines and chocolate, and locally roasted coffee (7g in Vila Nova de Gaia). And they have marvelous fresh bread, too!

Now that restrictions have been eased, shoppers can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea at a small service counter. And Teresa says 100 Saco plans to offer culinary events and workshops that support a plant-based lifestyle.

A world of inspiration

For the past decade of a year, our culinary experiences at home have enlivened long days and countless dinner times. Talented home cooks and creative chefs—from a grandmother in a Sri Lankan village to Puglia’s masters of Cucina Povera to fellow foodies—continue to inspire us with their boundless enthusiasm for sharing home and food. Time in place has made us appreciate this even more. Ramping up our pandemic kitchen, and inviting accomplished cooks into our home, helped us turn an otherwise drab culinary epoch into something of a global dinner party!

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