‘Oh good, a 12-year-old box of ground cinnamon’ (Photo: Getty Images)
‘Oh good, a 12-year-old box of ground cinnamon’ (Photo: Getty Images)

KaiMarch 20, 2020

So you’ve forgotten how to cook

‘Oh good, a 12-year-old box of ground cinnamon’ (Photo: Getty Images)
‘Oh good, a 12-year-old box of ground cinnamon’ (Photo: Getty Images)

Some sensible, non-doomsday-prepper-style advice for making sure your provisions are in good shape for what may be in store.

For many of us, eating and drinking is inextricably intwined with the social activities around it. Going to cafes, restaurants and bars, or eating with friends or colleagues has become increasingly important for our psychological and emotional wellbeing.

But social distancing, which all of us, at least in theory, should be practising, makes the above activities hard. Self-isolating, which a mercifully small proportion (so far) of us should be doing, makes them nigh on impossible. This really sucks for hospitality businesses, with the sector as a whole estimated to be losing $10 million a week. In response, many are innovating: removing tables to create more space between diners, offering takeout and delivery options. It also sucks (much less, but still) for the many avid customers of those businesses – people who rely on the social contact those experiences bring.

So if you can continue to support those business, please do. Whether you’re fully self-isolating or just staying in a bit more than usual, you can also, of course, continue to cook and eat at home. For some, this will be something they’re doing more than usual, so to avoid being stuck with depressing wartime-rations-esque fare, you should – in a low-key manner that does not even slightly resemble panic buying – be a little prepared. Here’s some advice for what you might like to have to hand.

Spice is your friend (Photo: Getty Images)


If you drink coffee, being without it at any point when you crave it – let alone in the midst of self-isolation when you’re all alone with your horrible thoughts – does not bear thinking about. So please, stock up a little on your preferred variety, whether that be Nescafe, supermarket plunger or a lightly roasted fruity Ethiopian single origin that you’ll lovingly grind by hand and weigh out before embarking on a lengthy pour-over situation (you might have a bit of spare time on your hands, after all). PSA: Coffee Supreme is doing free delivery on beans until the end of April. (Also if, like me, you really can’t go past a cafe flat white, perhaps start mentally compiling a list of people you might be able to convince to deliver one to your doorstep every once in a while.)


I’m pleased someone addressed the elephant in the room before I had to: is it OK to drink alone if you’re in self-isolation? New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says yes. To be honest, it seems like an extremely obvious answer to me, but I wasn’t about to go out on a limb and put that in print before anyone else had. I live alone, so quite often have one or maybe two drinks when only the lord (aka my dog Stanley) is present. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If I was self-isolating, I imagine this would continue – boredom and stress levels would be elevated, after all. So I’ll be making sure I have some nice beers in the fridge, and I suggest you have some nice [beer, wine, spirits, fuckin’ Pals or whatever you kids are drinking these days] in the fridge too. Or perhaps the ingredients to whip up a nice quarantini?


Fairly obvious, these ones: they keep indefinitely and you can turn them into all sorts of tasty (or at least filling) meals. Supermarkets near me seem to be pretty short on pasta, rice and noodles, so perhaps try your nearest bulk-buy outlet (Bin Inn, GoodFor or similar). There are some very nice pilaf and noodle recipe suggestions in this store cupboard recipe piece from the Guardian, and Spinoffer Matthew McAuley recommends this one-pot turmeric coconut rice from the New York Times (paywalled, sorry). “All you really need is rice, coconut milk/cream and turmeric, everything else is extremely modifiable and it’s basically impossible to fuck up,” says Matthew. If you really want to challenge yourself, you could give tahdig a whirl (and listen to this episode of Dietary Requirements while you’re at it – Samin Nosrat’s recipe is here). 

Photo: Getty Images


An easy way to bulk out any dish is to chuck a tin of fish in. See the noodle suggestion from the Guardian link above, or try this pasta from the Telegraph featuring tinned sardines and frozen peas to boot, ticking multiple boxes for a tasty isolation dinner. 


The can aisle was fairly decimated at my local supermarket yesterday, but if you’ve got a can of beans, chickpeas or lentils you’ve (pretty much) got yourself a meal. I like the look of the lentil spag bol from the Guardian post above, or check out UK writer and food poverty activist Jack Monroe’s bootstrap chilli – she wrote an entire cookbook based around tinned ingredients, so knows her stuff. Or whip yourself up a batch of Spinoff can fan Leonie Hayden’s creamy pantry chickpea curry:

Chop up an onion and sauté on medium-high for 8 minutes (the longer you cook the onion the tastier this is and tbh that’s true of most recipes that require sautéed onion). Add two cloves of grated garlic and a 4cm knob of grated fresh ginger, and two tsp each of ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, and ground ginger (or two tbsp of curry powder sorry sorry sorry), a generous grind of pepper and salt and chilli to taste.

Toast spices for a couple of minutes then add drained and rinsed can of chickpeas. Cook for a minute or two, making sure they’re evenly covered in the spice paste. Add a can of coconut cream and a can of whatever tomatoes you have in the cupboard. Simmer for 10 minutes. Optional: add a big handful of spinach near the end. Serve on rice.


Get some veg in your freezer stat for a burst of green goodness when you’re not in a position to get your hands on fresh produce. Peas are the obvious option, but a bag of frozen beans, broccoli or spinach wouldn’t go astray either: check out Wellington food writer Lucy Corry’s recipes on Stuff for inspiration. You can freeze fresh veg yourself, but unless you grow your own, the ready-frozen stuff would probably have been fresher to start with. Telegraph food writer Xanthe Clay advises washing, drying and freezing big bunches of fresh herbs – worth a go, I reckon.


In all the haste to stock up on the staples, it could be easy to forget the stuff that actually adds flavour. Please, don’t do that. Make sure you have an arsenal of whole spices, condiments like soy sauce, vinegars, fish sauce, mustard, chilli sauces and pastes of your choosing. Miso adds umami depth to anything and lasts forever. And don’t forget oil and butter! (Butter freezes OK if you’re worried you might be battening down the hatches for a long period). Peanut butter and Marmite or Vegemite are not only lifesavers on toast, you can use them to add depth to all kinds of dishes. Oh, and make sure you’ve got capers and pickles, preserved lemons, ferments like kimchi and sauerkraut – they also last forever and make stuff yum. I go through phases of putting sauerkraut on everything when I don’t have any fresh veg to hand. Sauerkraut and peanut butter on toast? Absolutely *chef kissing fingers*. Pickles and peanut butter? This story introduced me to that combo and I have not looked back.


Not much of a baker? If you’re stuck in isolation for a couple of weeks, you might become one, so you best get some flour. There are heaps of simple bread recipes online, and you can’t really go wrong starting with a flatbread. You need yoghurt for Jamie’s version, but this one’s just flour, water, oil and salt – simple as. If you’ve always wanted to get into sourdough, this could be your chance – making your own starter from scratch takes time, but you’ll have plenty of that, and Jane Lyons showed us how back in January. Sam Ellis’s sourdough pan loaf is a good place to kick off, and you can do it with yeast if starter is in the too-hard basket. Stick with sourdough, though, and you can move on to Emma Boyd’s crumpets, crackers and pasta.


That long-life UHT milk business leaves me cold, but Xanthe Clay reckons plastic bottles of milk freeze OK (see Telegraph link above). Or you could ditch the dairy and get long-life cartons of almond, soy or oat milk: vegan baking like Meera Sodha’s delicious-looking cake using almond milk and olive oil could be your saviour. If you don’t want to go vegan, butter will definitely last a few weeks in the fridge and supposedly freezes OK too. Same goes with cheese: hard lasts for ages in the fridge, soft freezes OK for use in cooking (chuck some mozzarella into that bad boy and test it out). Eggs? They’ll last a good while longer than their best-before stamp: just do the float test

Good luck out there! And remember, there ? is  ? absolutely ? no ? need ? to ? panic ? buy. The supermarkets are not going to be shut down. Think about those more vulnerable than you before you nab that last tin of baked beans. (And if you do end up with an empty pantry, check out your local eateries – plenty have innovated in response to the outbreak and are offering pick-up and delivery options.)

Keep going!