It’s been a crazy year so far: COVID-19 has escalated into a global pandemic and recently the Black Lives Matter movement has gained significant worldwide support, just to name a few. These are serious problems but it’s inspiring to see that there are people and organizations working on providing treatment and taking actions to reform.

I’ve found that reading other people’s daily experiences, even just the mundane ones, can bring some level of enjoyment and I wanted to try to do the same. Stuck at home I wanted to reflect on my past few months and I thought the topic of food and cooking was a good place to start.

Cooking for fun

I had planned to cook more often this year but back then I never thought I would be cooking for every meal. My original motivation was that cooking at home is healthier than eating out since I had full control over what goes into it. Back in January a big factor for me was minimizing the amount of time cooking and cleaning so I would cook a large batch on the weekends, enough for a couple of meals.

I kept a good streak in the first two months, but looking back it was mostly the same dish: [meat] + [vegetables] + [noodles]. Yes, almost every meal had noodles, albeit varying types! If it were today, it’s hard to imagine being able to stand eating the same dish more than once a week, but back then I had a much larger variety of meals during the week.

But then in March I started working from home, which meant that I would be cooking every meal. That’s when I knew I had to mix up my recipes…

Cooking to live

I knew that cooking can be time-consuming so I wanted to continue cooking in large portions that can be stored for multiple meals. This way although it might take two hours to prepare, all I had to do was to heat up the next three meals. It also had to be a balanced meal, and something that I would not get tired of repeating every week.

I discovered that baking chicken breasts and vegetables satisfied these requirements and it became my goto dish during the weekday. I would toast the bread, add cheese and mayonnaise for flavour, then add the microwaved chicken (pro-tip: add a splash of water to the plate before microwaving to maintain moisture). It sounds like it would be too plain to keep on the menu for more than a meal, but surprisingly the chicken was very tender and delicious when cooked this way, while the mayonnaise adds a bit of delight to keep you wanting more. In a way, perhaps this lack of complex flavours actually reduces the chances of losing interest in this dish.

Chicken has become one of the staple foods in my rotation every week. However, I’ve begun to mix it up a bit too: I’ve tried coating the chicken in garlic and flour, making spinach stuffed chicken, and, most recently, marinating the chicken in buttermilk (turns out I don’t like it that much).

Cooking to schedule

After a few weeks of staying at home all day, time blends together and everyday feels like all the ones before it. Previously the act of getting ready and commuting to work used to help delineate weekdays and weekends. Now, when I can see my work computer from my bed, it seems like sleep is the only thing that separates each day.

I began to use meals as a way to schedule my week. I realized I hated cooking weekday lunch because there’s not enough time in the morning to both work and cook before lunch. Instead I made sure that there was always food that could be heated up for lunch. I actually found this constraint helpful in reducing the amount of thinking required. Thus, as part of my “schedule”, I would never cook lunch during weekdays. Sometimes I would cook dinner even though there was leftovers since I would save that for the following day’s lunch.

One fallout of working from home is that time is hard to grasp. It leads to indecision and overthinking: “Is this really the best approach?” “I have the entire day at home so I should just spend a bit more time making this is correct.” “Should I make mashed potatoes or potato chunks?” “Scrambled or hard-boiled?”.

I remember reading how Barack Obama only wears gray or blue suits because by paring down the number decisions he has to make, he has more mental capacity to make more important ones. I tried to do the same thing by always having a pre-prepared weekday lunch.

Cooking to relax

To compensate for the repetitive and simplified weekday menu, I began to explore other recipes on the weekend. In a way this also helped mark the start of the weekend and something to look forward to.

One of the first dishes was stir-fried pork butt (it’s actually the shoulder) with celery and carrots. This particular cut has a good amount of fat which really adds to the flavour.

I’ve also began to bake more often, starting with bread. Did you know that many brands can include up to 5g of added sugar per slice?. I was surprised to learn this when I checked the ingredients list in search of topping ideas that I could add to my own bread. I don’t add any sugar when I make it and now I feel less guilty about eating bread :).

Shortly after my bread adventures, I began to make pizza as well. It turns out the secret is stir-frying the ingredients first. My parents told me this tip and it makes a big difference in flavour.

Here’s a simple pizza recipe:

- I would make the dough and let it rise for about two hours.

- Then put in your baking tray and preheat the oven to 400ºF.

- While the oven is preheating, stir-fry your toppings (for me it was garlic and serano peppers with pork shoulder, then add in bell peppers)

- Next roll out the dough and put a bit of oil on top

- When the temperature is reached, flip the dough on the tray so that the side with oil is on the tray. You should hear a sizzle :)

- Put on your tomato sauce (I use pasta sauce), cheese, and the stir-fried toppings

- Cook for about 13-15 mins. Enjoy!

Creative cooking

After months of cooking every single meal I was looking to mix things up. This was the start of branching out and trying new recipes, from slow-cooked lamb shank, to green onion egg pancakes, to braised short-ribs. Thankfully the experience and practice that I gained during the first few months was very helpful in making this creative cooking possible.

I’m also glad that I purchased an excellent ceramic pot and frying pan, as well as baking trays and other essential tools early in January. As I started baking more I bought some measuring cups which was really useful not only for learning the initial recipes, but also to maintain consistency and provides the ability to accurately alter the portions.

Cooking my own meals has made me appreciate food — both the accessibility and enjoyment of it — a lot more. It makes me more curious to try out other cuisines and see how other people prepare food.

Food is the essence of life.