Sometimes, just thinking up a topic in advance for this column tempts fate. For example, I knew months ago what today’s would cover. It was going to be a breeze to write, as I would have so many delicious meals to chronicle from the fantastic weeklong food tour of Mexico City I was taking in March.
Well, that didn’t happen.
Like everyone’s plans for this spring, mine were upended. I wasn’t eating tacos in Mexico City last month. I wasn’t even eating them in Napa. Instead, I was home, foraging in my pantry. I’ve been sheltering in place and have barely left my house in weeks.
Tacos haven’t been on my menu, as I don’t have the right ingredients on hand, but my larder is absurdly well stocked otherwise. I have an irrational fear of running out of anything, which causes me to purchase back-up items before I need them. When they first started issuing stay-at-home directives, I didn’t need to join the hordes sweeping everything off the shelves in our local markets. I already had my own small supermarket at home.
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In fact, between the contents of my freezer, 18 varieties of beans and lentils and a 20-pound bag of rice, not to mention the shelves of canned goods, I could feed the entire neighborhood (though I don’t have any six-foot long serving spoons, so that isn’t happening).
With the constant low level of tension that is permeating our lives these days, I can’t seem to stop cooking, even though I’m the only one around to consume what I make. Unfortunately, that isn’t as big a problem as it should be, since I also can’t seem to stop stress eating. By the time we are released from house arrest, I may have avoided the virus epidemic only to join the obesity one.
I have to admit, though, that concocting meals from what I have on hand, rather than shopping, has been a fun challenge. Until this week.
Wednesday night is the first night of Passover, my very favorite holiday and the best and foodiest Jewish celebration of all. And my pantry just isn’t up to it. I hadn’t planned for it because I was supposed to be heading to Los Angeles. With no one flying, our family gathering has been rescheduled to a virtual Seder via Zoom, which means that coming up with the ritual foods for dinner will now be an individual effort for each of us.
To me, it just won’t be Passover unless I can find a way to make matzoh ball soup, score a jar of gefilte fish and some fresh horseradish, and find a chicken to roast. But I can’t do it without shopping, so I may have to take my life into my (well-sanitized) hands and risk a trip to Whole Foods, praying that the crowds clearing off the shelves during senior hour did not mistake the matzoh for toilet paper and grab it all up (the taste is quite similar, though I think matzoh has a slightly better texture).
The gods are already laughing uproariously at me, because Wednesday also happens to be my birthday — which means a candle stuck into some very disappointing, unleavened, kosher-for-Passover dessert (as if it weren’t insult enough that the government insists on calling me “elderly”). So I’m hoping that they will give me a break and let me find what I need at the store.
But if not, I have a back-up plan.
I’m still jonesing for the Mexican food I didn’t get to eat in Mexico. And I hear my favorite taco stand is open for takeout.
Corn tortillas are flat — they could qualify as unleavened bread. Cilantro is a bitter herb (at least to me). Fish tacos with jalapenos could be a tasty alternative to gefilte fish with horseradish. And tortilla soup might be a good replacement for matzoh balls. There’s even chicken in the soup, so I wouldn’t need to roast a bird.
As for my birthday cake, I have an even simpler solution.
I’m not going to need it.
I see no reason that I should continue to get older while everything else in the world is standing still.
Pasta with Tuna and Tomato Sauce
I may need to go to the store this week, but I prefer that you stay home so I don’t run into a crowd there. I’m reprinting this favorite pasta recipe because it relies almost entirely on staples that are likely already in your pantry. Well, you may need to go to the farmers market or run into a store quickly to pick up some parsley — just be quick about it and try not to breathe or touch anything.
3 Tbsp. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 large pinch dried hot peppers (or to taste)
1 large can (28 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes in juice
1 can (6 ounces)* high-quality tuna packed in olive oil
Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. capers
1 lb. vermicelli or spaghettini
Coarsely chop the tomatoes and set aside, with their juice. Drain the oil from the tuna into a large sauté pan over medium heat, and add the additional olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color (don’t let it burn or it will get bitter). Add the parsley and hot pepper flakes, and cook for about another minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice and lower the heat, simmering uncovered for about 25 minutes. Stir frequently. If the mixture gets dry, add a bit of water.
Stir in the tuna, gently breaking apart the pieces. Don’t pulverize it – you want some texture. Stir in the capers, and salt and pepper to taste. (Be sure to taste – the tuna and tomatoes both have salt in them, so the sauce may not need more.) Cook for about 3 minutes more, to blend the flavors.
To serve, cook the pasta of your choice according to package directions, drain, and toss with the warm sauce. (If the sauce has thickened, thin it with a couple tablespoons of the pasta cooking water.)
*Note: The tuna is mostly a flavoring in this sauce. If you want to make the dish heartier, you can add another can. And I have also successfully substituted canned salmon.
Betty Teller fervently hopes the curve flattens out before she loses her mind. Tell her how you’re handling house arrest at email@example.com.