Dig Into Your Childhood Memories (and Your Pantry) To Find Simple Meal Inspiration During Quarantine

By Common Threads | May 28, 2020

I’ve reached the part of my quarantine cooking where I’m digging into my childhood for recipes that feel comfortable and familiar, things I don’t let my adult self indulge in with any frequency. I could eat macaroni and cheese, like my grandmother Peggy Lou used to make, every single day. Her recipe is a can of evaporated milk and a block of Velveeta cheese. But I have neither of those and I’m working on cooking through my pantry before heading back out for cooking supplies.

That means I’m eating a lot of rice. A lot of my favorite dishes are rice-centric, including sushi, arroz con pollo, paella, white rice with a fried egg on top, grape leaves and fried rice. I’ll happily take rice pudding as a dessert.

It’s lucky that I have a pretty wide pick of cultures to draw from when I’m craving comfort food and have limited ingredients. My father is half American (that’s the Peggy Lou side) and half Cuban-Lebanese. My mom is Panamanian but her father is half British. Family parties could have anything from kibbeh to tea sandwiches, empanadas to hot dogs.

This week I could start to feel, at the pit of my stomach, that maybe I was getting a little bit tired of cooking. My husband, who usually plays sous-chef, has been splitting the role of executive chef quite evenly with me throughout our time in quarantine, but the circumstances that we’re cooking under are heavy and the stress that we’re all feeling comes out in ways that we don’t always understand.

That’s how I found myself tossing a bunch of kale and Swiss chard pesto into a pan filled with butter, Vienna sausages, and leftover white rice. The smell of the butter melting on the pan and the meat slices sliding around, getting a nice light sear, a word that feels a little more formal than the $0.75 can of frankfurters merits, took my husband back to a meal he used to share with his dad when he was a kid. We fried an egg to put on top, leaving the yolk nice and runny (one of life’s great pleasures is breaking a yolk over rice). We kept it simple and true to the way we both ate this treat when we were younger but then added a few tablespoons of the pesto I’d made with some greens that were right on the brink of going bad the night before. We enjoyed the added benefit of magnesium and iron-rich Swiss chard and fiber, calcium, and more from the kale, but I’ll be honest, this meal was good for us in other ways too.

Eating food that makes us feel good, balanced with food that is actually good for us, reminds us of comforting moments and meals shared with people we love. Even if we can’t physically be with these people, because of the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, because they live across the country, or because they’ve passed, like my granny Peggy Lou, is one small kind thing that we can do for ourselves and a small way to honor our culture, family memories and better times. And while all I can think about as I write this is macaroni and cheese, I’ve made a real effort to keep my eating healthy and nutritionally dense (the leftover kale pesto was frozen into cubes to preserve them for a future boost in a dressing, pasta or marinade) because I want my immune system in tip-top shape. That’s another small, and incredibly important, way that we can care for ourselves.

Common Threads was founded in Chicago in 2003 by CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, celebrity chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, as a way to bring under-resourced children together, help them celebrate different cultures and teach them about healthy nutrition. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, Common Threads now services children and families in 12 markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, El Paso and Erie. For more information, visit commonthreads.org or search #CookingForLife on social media.

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