At the time of my writing, we find ourselves facing social isolation, if not a national quarantine. Toilet paper hoarding has gone on for weeks now, but recent reports have now triggered a buying spree of food staples. In normal times, our freezer bulges with two-for-one sale items my husband can’t resist. The pantry is packed with exotic mustards, relishes and hot sauces – more than we can consume in a lifetime. The latest news compelled us to rush to the grocery for more practical staples. I panicked just thinking about going a day without onions.
Everyone else must have had the same thought, because there was not an onion of any variety, color or size to be found. But while we were there, we thought of other staples we could enjoy while stuck in the house for weeks at a time. Visions of pasta, rice and polenta danced in my head. This is no time for a low-carb diet. All parties are canceled, so I don’t need to fit into that tight dress anyway.
It’s hard for me to imagine cooking from a box, but there are some brands that taste good even without doctoring them up (which in my case involves sauteed onions). If your market carries Alessi products such as penne or linguine, grab some. Alessi’s risotto with porcini mushrooms as well as their Tuscan white bean soup will not disappoint you.
Our favorite pasta sauce is Cucina & Amore’s Puttanesca sold at The Fresh Market. Delicious by itself on pasta, it’s even better with shrimp, chicken or any kind of smoked sausage, such as andouille, chorizo or kielbasa, which all keep for weeks in the fridge. Another tasty sauce is Luquire Family Foods’ Carolina Creole sauce available at some Harris Teeter locations and online at carolinacreole.com. While you are ordering, stock up on their amazing long-grain rice.
Zatarain’s and Tony Chachere both make flavorful rice mixes. My favorite is Zatarain’s red beans and rice to serve with those long-lasting smoked sausages. Tony Chachere’s Creole Gumbo Base Mix doesn’t really taste like homemade gumbo, but it’s a good vehicle for shrimp, chicken or sausage in a pinch or during a quarantine.
Now is the perfect time to cultivate a taste for polenta. You don’t need a box labeled “polenta” – this is a fancy name for cornmeal mush made from your favorite brand of plain yellow cornmeal. Polenta begs for butter and good Parmesan (keep plenty of both in the fridge), or you can top it with roasted vegetables or a jarred sauce. We brought home a jar of Butternut Bourbon sauce by Mia’s Kitchen. The name sounded irresistible, though the jar’s lonely presence on the empty pasta sauce shelf proved other shoppers felt differently.
As for veggies, spinach, collard greens, corn, artichoke hearts and English peas are your best bets in the freezer compartment and taste almost fresh with a little butter added. Canned legumes such as Bush’s Best or Luck’s black-eyed peas and pinto beans are reliably well seasoned and available most everywhere. Of course, adding sauteed onions perks up a can of beans considerably.
Usually I serve a salad with every meal, but fresh lettuce may be hard to get. On the other hand, a cabbage will hold for weeks. Here’s a salad that keeps well in the fridge, is good for your immune system and is delicious even when it’s not your only salad choice.
Cabbage and Cucumber Salad
1 small green cabbage, shredded or chopped coarsely
1 tsp. salt
1 Persian cucumber, sliced
2 Tbsp. fresh dill, chopped
3-4 green onions, chopped
3 Tbsp. avocado, sunflower or olive oil
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
More salt and black pepper to taste
Place chopped cabbage in a colander with 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix thoroughly and let sit for 30 minutes or longer. Rinse the cabbage well and drain. This optional step releases water from the cabbage and keeps it from getting soggy after dressing it.
Mix cucumbers, dill, green onions and the well-drained cabbage in a bowl.
Mix together oil and lemon juice. Pour over the vegetables. Add salt and pepper and combine well.
If you can’t get fresh dill, substitute 1 teaspoon dried dill, and if you can’t find green onions, use 2 tablespoons chopped onion, preferably red or sweet. Vinegar can fill in for lemon juice if necessary.
Substitute red cabbage and shredded carrots for part of the green cabbage.
Substitute lime juice for lemon and add chopped bell peppers and a chopped jalapeno pepper.
Add thawed, rinsed, uncooked green peas to the vegetable mixture.