What shall we do? What shall we cook? What shall we buy?

by meike peters

In the last few days, as things became more and more worrying due to the worldwide pandemic situation, I thought a lot about my granny, my Oma Lisa. I thought about her life during war times and poverty, and I thought about her way of cooking that was fundamentally shaped during those times. The ingredients cheap and accessible, recipes made to feed and nourish a large family of six children without too much fuss. Lisa had to keep things running, cooking wasn’t a question of lifestyle, it was a necessity. But still, she managed to turn it into something so joyful and special that she instilled this feeling into all of her six children who then passed it on to her grandchildren – and I’m one of them.

It was a very rational way of cooking. Potatoes were a staple, they store well, are healthy, and versatile. Whenever I visited her she used them abundantly, for latkes (Reibekuchen), or with a dollop of quark with chives, or she mashed and served them with sauce, or fried with bacon and onions. In her times, vegetables were used according to the seasons, cabbage and legumes during the winter months, cucumber salad as soon as spring opened its wings. She was a food loving mother and grandmother who naturally followed the calendar in her kitchen, and we, her hungry children and grandchildren, followed her to the kitchen in awe and excitement.

Last week I was stuck in Malta, all flights to Germany were cancelled and we were put into mandatory quarantine as my man arrived on the island the day as this decree was declared. There weren’t many other countries that still kept their borders open to flights in and out of Germany. I left via Budapest, scared for hours that my connection flight to Berlin would get cancelled and that I’d be stuck in Hungary for weeks. It worked out, yet that day was a changing point. It was the day I understood that the world had changed.

The biggest difference between my granny’s and my own kitchen is the large pantry she had in the cellar of her house. Cool and dark, it was home to endless shelves filled with jars of pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables, of jams and baked treats. Lisa lived on a farm before she moved to that house. Nature taught her well when she was a young woman. Humbly, wisely, and gratefully, all her life she used what nature gave her to eat. Nothing went to waste, everything had to be used. Lisa had a plump cherry tree in her garden. An old swing dangling from a thick branch was my happy place where I’d sit and dream while she was cooking. The harvest from that tree was always abundant and she made use of every single fruit. And she gave to others what she didn’t need for her family, or she swapped.

This memory came back as I found myself in my Berlin kitchen after Malta. I immediately started to think of my shopping and cooking plan for the weeks and months to come. And I reconnected with friends and family to see what they need. Staying calm and sensible, I tried at least. So what do I need to stock up on? I don’t have a large pantry. What dishes am I going to cook or what dishes should I cook? What should I buy and how much? I tried to channel my inner Oma Lisa and assimilate her skill to humbly adapt to whatever life puts in front of you. The women of her generation just got things done when they needed to be done, so why shouldn’t we do the same now? Although times have changed – our way of cooking has changed since her days – my decisions should be just as responsible and deliberate as hers. And beyond my personal worries in this situation, now more than ever is not the time to only think about myself but also about the people around me. In our little community we are staying in close touch and letting each other know if anyone needs something. We share and swap food and stories, like Lisa with her cherries. We talk about our fears, we laugh and cry together (on the phone), but we know that we’re not alone in this and that feels really good.

The list below reflects the way I cook, what I store in my pantry shelves, fridge, and freezer, it’s personal (that’s why you won’t find quinoa on this list). I hope it gives some help and inspiration but you should adapt it to your preferences. You can find many recipes that I will be using myself in both my cookbooks (365 and Eat In My Kitchen) and in the blog’s archive and I’m sure that the internet, all the great cookbooks that are out there, and especially the culinary chats with family and friends offer enough inspiration to cook and bake for years. At the end of this post are two recipes from 365 that indulge in the joy of pasta (recipe no. 59 and no. 102 from the book): one is based on pantry staples – Spaghetti with Sun-Dried Tomato and Pistachio Pesto – and the other is a seasonal celebration of ramp pesto and green asparagus crowned by a creamy burrata.

But let’s start with our SHOPPING:

I generally go shopping once a week. Especially now, I’m trying to minimize contact with others. In the first days after my shopping, I use the fresh vegetables, meat, and fish that don’t last long. Wilting greens and leftover bones are used for cooking broth, which I freeze in small portions. Pantry staples help out when the vegetable drawer is empty.

My cooking will gravitate around carbs in the weeks and months to come, adding fresh ingredients as they will be available. Roots, legumes (dried and canned, also for protein), and grains/ pasta will be my daily playing field.

-Essentials-

Pantry and window sill staples:

Olive oil, dark and white Balsamic vinegar, tahini, mustard

Sea salt (mine is from the Cinis in Gozo)

Spices (black peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, nutmeg, juniper and allspice berries, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, dried oregano and marjoram)

Nuts (pistachios, cashews, and pine seeds for snacks and pesto) and dried fruits (dates, prunes, and apricots are a great addition to minced meat)

All-purpose flour (I use white spelt flour/ Type 630), sugar, fast-acting yeast, baking powder, baking soda, oats (for baking and breakfast: cooked with water, tahini, a pinch of salt, and whatever fruit is at hand), plus fine durum wheat pasta flour and chickpea flour for special cooking projects

Additional note for baking with yeast (March 28th): I started a little kitchen experiment, I decided to grow my own sourdough starter. It’s impossible to get yeast in Berlin at the moment, so why not use and cultivate the wild yeast that’s naturally in the air and flour? Yesterday was Day 1 and you can follow the daily progress in my Instagram Highlight Stories called ‘Sourdough’. I will update and share new stories every day. Click here!

Green and black olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, preserved artichoke hearts, anchovies, canned sardines (for sandwiches and pizza) and canned tuna (for mixed salads with hardboiled eggs)

Onions and garlic

Fresh herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, mint)

Citrus fruit (lemon and orange for zest and juice)

Roots/ winter squash:

Potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnip, and squash (Hokkaido and butternut squash are still available and store well)

You can roast roots/ squash in the oven or boil and mash with olive oil (or milk and butter) and add fresh herbs, spices, lemon zest, chopped olives. I boil a bunch of beets every week to add to salads or simply dice roughly and enjoy with olive oil and sea salt. Roots and squash make a minestrone a little richer (squash is often used in the Maltese minestra, roughly mashed for a thicker texture).

Legumes:

Dried and canned beans (butter beans, cannellini, cranberry/ borlotti, and kidney beans) and chickpeas; dried lentils that don’t require soaking (French green Puy lentils, yellow, red, and black beluga lentils)

Dried legumes can be cooked in unsalted water with fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary (dried beans/ chickpeas need to first soak overnight) then add a splash of olive oil; or add them to soups/ stews; leftover green and beluga lentils can be turned into patties (drained then adding flour, egg, and seasoning)

Canned legumes can be used uncooked for salads and hummus, added to minestrone or other soups/ stews, or cooked briefly in a splash of olive and refined with spices. Then you can either serve them directly or mash with olive oil, something I became particularly fond of in the last couple months.

Fresh green beans, fava beans, and peas can be blanched in salted water and served immediately or frozen (I always have a large bag of frozen peas and fava beans in my freezer).

Grains and dried pasta:

Spaghetti, short pasta, lasagna sheets, polenta, whole grains (buckwheat, spelt, farro, couscous, bulgur), and rice

For pasta there are no limits, yet a bowl of simple spaghetti just with butter, Parmesan, and black pepper (Cacio e Pepe) can be heaven on earth. Leftover pasta can be used for Froga tat-Tarja (Maltese pasta omelette). Short pasta (rice size) can be cooked like a risotto (see Maltese Kusksu with Poached Eggs and Goat Cheese).

When I cook polenta, I like to cook more than I need and serve it soft and smooth on the first day as a side for vegetables or braised meat. Then on the second day, you can spread it in a baking dish (finger thick) and bake for a few minutes then cut into squares and serve with sage butter; or turn it into polenta lasagna: layer the baked polenta slices with Bolognese sauce (or any other red sauce) and Parmesan and bake in the oven.

Buckwheat, farro, and spelt may sound a bit uninspiring but taste surprisingly good when they are boiled in salted water and then served with a knob of butter and some salt stirred in (added fresh herbs or spices won’t harm it either)

Cheese (that stores well): 

Parmesan, pecorino, feta (plus mozzarella, raclette and blue cheese if available and needed)

-Fresh produce and products-

Fresh vegetables and fruit:

I buy fresh produce once a week according to what I need and what’s available and use it raw or cooked for salads, raw as a snack with pesto or sautéed in olive oil, to mix with legumes and pasta/grains, or for soups. I always cook more soup from the start and freeze any leftovers. Wilting vegetables are used for broth then frozen for soups and risotto. Red and white/ green cabbage stays fresh in the fridge for weeks and shredded they are a crunchy addition to salads.

Eggs, yoghurt, milk, butter:

I buy them fresh once a week according to what I need. I barely use butter, olive oil is my go to fat (it also stores much easier), however you can also freeze butter, which is helpful for spontaneous baking.

Meat and fish:

We usually eat meat or fish once a week. It will be one of the first things for us to skip if necessary, especially fresh fish.

If the meat is braised (beef or lamb shanks/ oxtail/ rough cuts for braising), I cook more from the start and freeze the leftovers, which are great for pasta and potatoes. Any leftover bones are turned into broth. I’m a huge fan of minced beef, be it meatloaf or small patties/ burgers, which taste great both cold and warm (there’s a leek and mountain cheese meatloaf in Eat In My Kitchen and a meatloaf with spices and dates in 365). One of my favorite minced meat dishes since my childhood days is Labskaus (also in 365), a stew made of potatoes, beets, minced beef, and pickled gherkins. It’s a traditional dish that sailors used to eat on their travels during the times of the great ships (they made it with corned beef). In Northern Germany, some even add pickled herring. It sounds strange but I love it and it freezes well.

Coarse sausages (such as salsiccia) also freeze well (uncooked) and when you peel and cut them into small portions you can shape them into little polpette and turn them into the quickest meatballs.

Tomato sauce (canned tomatoes) with bacon and fennel seed is an easy substitute for classic Bolognese sauce (for spaghetti and lasagna, you can also add fresh fennel).

COOKING AND BAKING

Cooking is like building a house, it’s assembling blocks and you choose which blocks you want to use to make it your own. There are many ways to build this house, yet at the moment keep in mind that it’s important to strengthen your body and boost your immune system. We often underestimate the very simple, frugal dishes and now’s the time to rediscover them. A couple months ago I found a cauliflower recipe in Anna Del Conte’s Gastronomy of Italy. I’m generally not too fond of cauliflower but I love Anna’s honest Italian cooking so I gave it a go: She sautées onions and garlic, adds tomato pasta and broth (which makes a fantastic sauce) and cooks the cauliflower for around 20 minutes. At the end she adds parsley, I added basil. This recipe also works with broccoli, potatoes, and green beans, capers or anchovies would also fit.

Try to establish special traditions that keep feeding your curiosity in the kitchen, sparking excitement and inspiration, even in tougher times. Every Sunday, we bake pizza from scratch – the reason I always have flour and yeast in stock. The toppings vary, the pleasure is real. You can also introduce a special sandwich day for your family and declare a sandwich challenge/ competition (check out the blog’s Sandwich Wednesday). Is there a cooking or baking technique you’ve been wanting to learn for years, like sourdough? Now go for it! Apart from sweet baking you can also opt for savory treats like quiche, which is just as rewarding and the vegetable filling easily adapts to the seasons (fennel, green beans, peas, squash, tomato, leek). And if you feel close to a breakdown, just bake cookies. Nothing is more satisfying than filling the cookie jars to the rim with your own creations.

-Regular kitchen projects-

Homemade pesto and hummus:

Pesto is a thing of genius, and so is hummus. Both last for days, freeze well, and turn all kinds of raw and roasted vegetables, cooked grains, poultry, fish, and sandwiches into a burst of flavor. I like to stretch the terms ‘pesto’ and ‘hummus’ in my kitchen and use it for every vegetable, legume, and herb that my food processor can turn into something dollop-able.

Inspiration for pesto: basil, ramps (the season just started), arugula, parsley-black olive, dried tomato-pistachio, tapenade (French black olive dip), cilantro-pistachio, blanched peas or fava beans, mixed leftover herbs, walnut-parsley

Inspiration for hummus: chickpeas, beet-chickpeas, white or fava beans, lentils (I’ve also seen carrot hummus but never tried it myself)

Preserved lemons:

If you can find small lemons, now’s the time for this rewarding kitchen project. I use them for sandwiches, pizza, sautéed vegetables, and pasta. For the recipe click here, it’s also in Eat In My Kitchen).

Yeast dough:

Making pizza and focaccia (click here), or your own pretzel buns (click here/ also Eat In My Kitchen), is better than any therapy and can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner for a couple days.

General links to recipes on the blog

You can also use the Search function at the top of the blog’s Recipe page for inspiration (click here): search for any ingredient and it will show the related posts and recipes that I wrote about in the last few years.

General pasta and grain recipes (click here)
General salad recipes (click here)
General vegetable recipes (click here)
General soup recipes (click here)
General meat recipes (click here)
General fish and seafood recipes (click here)
General cake and dessert recipes (click here)
General sandwich recipes (click here)
Quiche, pizza, and focaccia recipes (click here)

Restaurants all over the world are struggling to survive at the moment. A lot of them offer take-out, which allows them to keep operating. Please support them if you can.

Cooking and baking goes beyond necessity, it nourishes our body but the effect it has on our mind and soul is just as essential. It calms us down and puts things in perspective when life feels utterly overwhelming.

Writing these words is a very strange experience. I find myself in a world that I wouldn’t have imagined just a few weeks ago. A world I don’t really know how to deal with, not yet. When I’m absorbed in cooking or writing these days, not thinking about the current situation, it feels like visiting my old life, but I feel physically shocked when reality comes back to mind without warning. It feels like waking up from a dream. The only thing that helps is knowing that we’re all in this together. We are not alone. Despite my fear, there’s a beautiful, strong feeling of togetherness, unconditional help, and solidarity. I guess that’s the same feeling that helped my Oma Lisa to get through.

Stay safe, stay home as much as possible, stay away from others but stay positive and hungry for life.

Sending a big virtual hug,

Meike xxx

Spaghetti with Asparagus, Burrata and Ramp Pesto (from 365)

Serves 2

For the pesto*
2 ounces (60 g) ramp or ramson leaves
1 ounce (30 g) Parmesan, finely grated
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
1/4 tsp fine sea salt

For the pasta
1 pound (450 g) trimmed green asparagus 
6 ounces (170 g) dried spaghetti
Olive oil
7 ounces (200 g) burrata (or mozzarella di bufala), torn in half
Fine sea salt
Coarsely ground pepper

For the pesto, purée the ramp leaves, Parmesan, olive oil, and salt in a food processor or blender until smooth. 

For the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the asparagus for about 3 minutes or until al dente. Using a slotted ladle or spoon, transfer the asparagus to a colander, reserving the cooking water in the pot, then drain and quickly rinse with cold water. Cut each stalk into quarters lengthwise.

Put the pot used to cook the asparagus back on the heat, adding more water if necessary, and bring to a boil. Cook the spaghetti, according to the package instructions, until al dente. Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add a splash of olive oil and toss to coat. Divide the spaghetti and asparagus among the plates. Add the burrata and drizzle with the pesto. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

* You can double the recipe and use the leftover pesto for sandwiches, potatoes, and salads.  

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Spaghetti with Sun-Dried Tomato and Pistachio Pesto (from 365)

Serves 2

For the pesto*
2 ounces (60 g) sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in salt
2 ounces (60 g) salted pistachios, plus 1 to 2 tbsp chopped pistachios for the topping
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
1 large clove garlic, crushed

For the pasta
7 ounces (200 g) dried spaghetti
Olive oil
Coarsely ground pepper

For the pesto, bring a small pot of water to a boil and cook the sun-dried tomatoes for 3 to 4 minutes or until soft. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted ladle or spoon and transfer to a plate; reserve the cooking water. Drain and rinse the sun-dried tomatoes under cold water, dry with paper towels, and transfer to a food processor or blender. Add 4 tablespoons of the cooking water, 2 ounces (60 g) of pistachios, the olive oil, and garlic and purée until smooth. If the pesto is too dry, add a little more of the cooking water.

For the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti, according to the package instructions, until al dente. Drain the spaghetti, divide among plates, and drizzle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with the pesto, chopped pistachios, and a little pepper and serve warm.

* You can use leftover pesto as a spread on bread.

Enjoy!