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Retrospective 2020: My Inner Chef

Many people, like me, discovered their inner chef this year. What choice did we have? Between sheltering-in-place and living 20 minutes from the closest take-out, the only option was to prepare every meal at home. I enjoy cooking, but prior to 2020 my life was filled with travel and local events that provided a lot of opportunities to dine out. During the in-between times, I’d cycle through my repertoire of meals—lots of curry dishes, some kind of chicken, and pasta. I didn’t realize how limited my repertoire had become until the stay-at-home order dragged on. Friends, family, and the Internet provided me with suggestions on how to be more creative, particularly with methods of cooking and types of ingredients.

In the past, I relied on stove-top (gas range), oven, and outdoor grill. This year, I didn’t use the outdoor grill much because of all the California fires. Summer is the perfect time to grill, but I really didn’t want to add any more smoke to the air. Instead, I purchased a water circulator which I use for meat and shrimp. Commonly referred to as sous vide cooking, sous vide technically means without air. Food goes into a pouch with seasonings. You remove the air from the pouch and put the pouch in a container of hot water whose temperature is precisely controlled by the water circulator. After cooking, meat needs a very quick sear on a hot frying pan but shrimp and fish don’t. The price of shrimp dropped so much due to the close of restaurants, that I prepared a lot of shrimp dishes. (Image: A spatchcocked heritage turkey from Rainbow Farms.)

I own a slow cooker, but rarely used it until this year. Now I make at least one meal a week in it because it is easy to set and forget and I know I’ll get leftovers. With both sous vide and the slow cooker, the meal can sit until I am ready to eat. In other words, neither method has a definitive end-of-cooking time at which one must eat it. The food can sit in the water bath almost indefinitely and not get overcooked. Same with the slow cooker. Very convenient.

When I heard about yeast shortages, I secured some thinking I might get into making bread. As is turns out, when there are only two people, making bread isn’t practical. Eating a lot of bread only serves to increase one’s waistline. For the entire year, I made one, and only one, loaf. That was on Christmas Eve—Herb and Onion bread from the Vegetarian Epicure. I got the bread making out of my system! (Image: Shrimp and persimmon stir fry for tacos.)

Pickling is another method that became popular with stay-at-homers. I made a short foray into pickling eggs with a recipe and coaching from my niece Koren. Although I enjoyed the eggs, I wasn’t raving mad about them. But that exercise got me to pull out a deviled egg recipe, which I have made several times this year. I had forgotten how good they are.

My friend Lari loaded me up with persimmons, a fruit which I’ve never liked in the past. I discovered that the crunchy kind (Fuyu) doesn’t have the tannic content of the soupy kind (Hachiya). I improvised an orange, persimmon, raspberry, peach vinegar fruit salad. Then I discovered persimmons taste as good as mangos in such dishes as shrimp tacos. AND, unlike the mango, a persimmon does not have a giant pit. It is solid fruit.

My friend Hoy channeled her inner chef to me by gifting me a lot of Chinese ingredients and giving me a book on cooking with Native American foods. She also gave me dumplings from Dumpling City, which made me learn how to use my rice cooker as a steamer. The spices she provided prompted me to learn to make Lu Rou Fan and to order lotus leaves which, in the New Year, I’ll use to make Lo Mai Gai.

Ingredients for Native American foods are difficult to find, as many are seasonal or unusual. I managed to get chia seed and mesquite flour. It turns out that chia seeds are used for things other than chia pets! They make the best ever cornbread. I used the mesquite flour to make tortillas. As I never before made tortillas, they ended up looking more like amoebas than discs. The fix is to top them with so much filling that no one notices. (Image: Breakfast outdoors, carrot-lemon juice, fresh tomatoes and basil, blueberries.)

My summer meal preparation was driven by my incursion into gardening. I chose some plants because they looked lonely on the sale shelf. That’s how I ended up with two types of hot peppers. I never used hot peppers much in cooking, but this year I found many ways to use them and how to use just the right amount. My garden was small, but my friend Janice ended up giving me lots of goodies, like several varieties of tomatoes, lemons, herb plants, and more. There was a period of several months where I ate tomatoes, cheese, and basil for breakfast. Yum!

Cooking with the New York Times, to which I subscribed this year, has been an endless source of inspiration for new recipes. My virtual recipe box is full. I enjoy subscribers’ comments on how to tweak the ingredients or make substitutions.

Looking back on 2020, I must admit that it has been one full of tasty food and culinary adventures. I’ve only touched on a few of my adventures here. It has taken time and planning and the willingness to try new things. But it has been worth it. Eat on!

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