Enjoy Food

8 Quarantine Cooking Essentials and Chef-Recommended Substitutes to Spice Up Your Meals

Lara McCaffrey  |  April 16, 2020

No pasta? No problem! Culinary experts dish about noodle substitutes, pickle tricks, canned veggies and other pandemic cooking workarounds.

Stay-at-home orders have driven panic shoppers to stockpile, leaving aisles of items like pasta, canned goods, and precious, precious toilet paper perpetually wiped clean. That leaves the rest of us with a random assortment of whatever’s left on grocery store shelves and in our pantries to rely on for our quarantine cooking.

We asked culinary experts to help us manage meal time and elevate our quarantine cooking. They weighed in on which (usually) available staples we need, good substitutes and offered creative ways to keep our palettes happy. Do try these tricks at home!

Meal plan around these versatile veggies

Non-perishable food sales spiked sharply in March, according to Nielsen, a consumer insights group. Yeast shortages actually dominated headlines for several days. The demand for fresh produce is also up. But vegetables are still very much available in local grocery stores.

Veggies are highly versatile — think roasting, blanching, frying. In particular there’s a lot you can do with onions and peppers, says cookbook author and owner of San Diego Food Finds Blog, Maria Desiderata Montana.

“Peppers and onions are extremely versatile when roasted and placed on top of omelettes or polenta,” she says. “Add some sausage to roasted peppers and onions and enjoy it inside a crusty Italian ciabatta bread.”

Try these pasta and rice substitutes

Meal planning is rough when you can’t find even the most basic ingredients at the supermarket. Maile Carpenter, the editor in chief of Food Network Magazine, recommends checking out the international aisle if you need a substitute for staples like pasta and rice. Rice noodles and udon noodles are perfectly good in the same recipe, she says. “My kids are now obsessed with Israeli couscous. It’s so delicious and it’s a perfect replacement for pasta or rice.”

Shoppers can also check the frozen section for frozen grains. An added plus: Carpenter says frozen rice cooks much faster than regular dry rice.

Experiment with Instagram’s favorite ingredient

If you’re baking (like literally everyone else is) and lucky enough to snag hard sought after baking ingredients, level up your creations by adding instant coffee. “You can add it to brownies or cake — anything you’re making,” Carpenter says. “It gives it a nice, rich undertone.”

Instant coffee is also a key ingredient in that whipped cream coffee drink that’s all over Instagram, much to coffee aficionados’ dismay. Bonus: The instant coffee beverage makes for a family a fun Instagram project. 

Freshen up with bottled citrus

Not sure you can use an entire bag of lemons or limes? Pick up a bottle of the juice concentrate instead. (You’ll find this helpful ingredient in the produce section.) “You can add it to so many dishes to give a little pop and help it taste fresh if you don’t have other fresh ingredients on hand,” Carpenter says. Plus, they have a long shelf life.

Even when added to the greasiest, heaviest foods, lemon still manages to change flavor profiles enough for a fresh, clean taste. 

Stock up on the king of canned foods

Fresh tomatoes are still readily in stock at supermarkets. But unless you use them right away you’ll have a bunch of rotten tomatoes on your hands. Instead, stop snubbing the canned food aisle and pick up some canned tomatoes — the ingredient with limitless possibilities for quarantine cooking and anytime cooking!

“Those are the most invaluable cans that you can have,” says food writer Caron Golden. You can use canned tomatoes for sauces, soup, to add to roasted vegetables and more, Golden says. And if you decide not to make chili this week, just make it next week — the canned tomatoes will still be good to go! Meal planning just got a lot easier.

Pump up the flavor with pickles

One item panickers forgot? Pickles, which Golden recommends for building flavor and adding to light, spring-centric dishes. Pickles amp up the flavor of salads. Chop up pickles and canned fish and mix with either mayo or olive oil, lemon and vinegar. Then add to a salad with other veggies and enjoy! Another option is to make your own pickled veggies with vinegar, water and salt.

Schedule a (cooking) oil change

Oils make home cooking easier and tastier. Golden’s picks for quarantine cooking include a nice extra virgin olive oil, a neutral oil (like canola or vegetable), and sesame oil for Asian recipes. 

If you already have any of these in your pantry, check the expiration date. Oils decompose over time, and even faster if stored in the light. That’s why she advises against buying huge canisters of olive oil: “It may seem like you’re saving money when you’re buying this stuff in bulk, but if it ends up languishing on the shelves and you have to throw it out, you’re not saving any money.”

The spice is right

Spices are, well, the spice of life. But they can be pricey, so stocking up on a lot of different kinds doesn’t necessarily make sense. Plus, spices eventually go stale and lose a lot of their flavor.  

Before you buy, consider the type of cuisine you like to cook. For Mediterranean dishes, pantry must-haves include oregano, thyme, and basil, Golden says. If Indian food is your go-to, you’ll need turmeric and garam masala.

As you get more comfortable with new cooking techniques and ingredients, let yourself get creative with the foods you have and can get. The quarantine cooking skills you gain will continue serve you well during post-pandemic  meal planning.

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