These are not normal times. The coronavirus is tearing its way through the nation's health system, economy and workplaces and many Australians have been forced into home isolation. A heartbreaking number of restaurants have shuttered or turned to takeaway menus only, and staples such as pasta, meat, tinned tomatoes and milk are increasingly scarce commodities.
Extraordinary times don't have to mean substandard food, however. Certainly, spag bol ingredients and frozen yum cha might be difficult to source at supermarkets, but independent grocers, butchers and bakers still have plenty of produce waiting to be turned into cracking meals. And if you don't feel like cooking, but can't leave the house, Australia's restaurants are at your service with delivery menus (see Sydney and Melbourne lists below) featuring rib-eyes, fried chicken ramen, whole roasted fish and all manner of delicious things for eating at the family table or in front of the telly.
Here's the Good Food team's guide to eating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staying in just became a lot more interesting.
- Shopping and storing
- The list: Melbourne restaurants offering delivery and takeaway
- What Sydney restaurants and cafes are doing during the COVID-19 crisis
- Chef's fridge, freezer and pantry tips
Cooking without borders
Now is not the time to slavishly follow recipes, but to be flexible, agile and spontaneous (unless you're baking a cake – cakes don't like spontaneity). Bust those rules. Shower grated parmesan over tuna pasta and to hell with the purists who say no cheese with seafood. Make a knockout pasta dish by using up all the leftover packet ends in the pantry in one dish – all the long, short, curly, bobbly ones; the butterflies and the corkscrews. Do the same with nearly-finished packs of dried beans and chickpeas – soak them all overnight and turn into a brilliant melting pot of soup.
Bake yourself sane
In times of struggle, there's nothing quite so soothing as kneading a soft, amorphous lump of oily dough. Even if your baking skills leave a bit to be desired, focaccia is extremely forgiving. All you need is a sachet of yeast, 420 grams of flour, salt, a little over a cup of lukewarm water, a third of a cup of olive oil and a generous amount of patience. In a bowl, combine the yeast with water, and let stand for a minute. Add the flour, oil and a decent pinch of salt. Knead the mixture for about 10 minutes (if you have a standing mixer, this part will be significantly easier) then let stand for around an hour.
While you're waiting, put on volume eight of The Anthology of African Music and jump around the living room. After a few tracks, preheat the oven to 200C. Knock back the dough, which should be quite oozy, then pour into an oiled 20x30cm tin or small casserole dish. Cover with a tea towel and let stand for another hour or until it doubles in size. Scatter with sea salt flakes, pop into the oven and bake for around half an hour. Let it rest in the pan while you're thinking about what to serve with it. It could be as simple as a bit of rosemary, or you could go all out with a blob of good ricotta or burrata and any cured meats you have handy.
Put a lid on it
Mum once told me, if you want to make a man happy, put pastry on it and call it a "pie". Mince or chicken are the obvious crowd-pleasers, but you can also get away with whatever's lurking in the crisper draw, folding it into bechamel, laying a sheet of instant puff over it, and hey ho, it's a pie, guys! (see also Jill Dupleix's chicken pot pie, pictured top).
The path to happiness
We all need good things to look forward to, and food is on the top of the list for many of us. So get the entire family involved with menu planning and give everyone a turn at nominating their favourite dish for dinner, or decide by votes. Write up the day's menu and post it on the fridge for all to see. Appoint a Director In Charge of Salad, and say "surprise us". Keep some continuity in your lives, whether it's maintaining your meat-free Monday, or your cafe-style Sunday brunch (here's my perfect eggs benny). We're doing Black Tie Dinner at our place every Saturday with something special on the menu and wine to match – something else to look forward to. JD
Go nuts for nuts (and seeds)
The simplest way to add a bit of crunch and luxury to your cooking is throw a handful of raw or roasted cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, pepitas or – go you – macadamias to your salads, stir-fries and pestos. Or just munch a handful when you need a break but not another bickie. Healthy too, bonus!
Make friends with fish
Although sustainably sourced seafood is easy to find at most retailers, many Australians don't feel confident cooking a whole flathead like they might, say, a leg of lamb or vacuum-packed chicken thighs. For this reason, independent fishmongers and supermarket seafood sections are often well-stocked when the meat aisles are bare, especially in the current climate. First-time fish cooks should look for fillets of whiting, swordfish, dory (john or king), tuna, goldband snapper, barramundi, orange roughy and ling, which are readily available and forgiving to the frypan or grill or both. Lemon, butter and herbs are also your friends here. For anyone who really wants to increase their seafood skills over the next few weeks, the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook published by Murdoch Books is an excellent, no-fuss resource.
Adam Liaw's beer-battered fish and chips. Photo: Adam Liaw
Breaking the boredom
Avoid cabin fever by creating at-home events that involve preparation, planning, anticipation, nostalgia and creativity. It could be fish-and-chips where there's a need to scrub, peel, soak and drain the spuds before preparing beer batter for the fish. How about weekend "backyard bonfire" (actually a small woodfire in a brazier or backyard wood barbecue). Sit outside and cook sausages and marshmallows on sticks. Or what about homemade sourdough? Start a sourdough culture, feed it and watch it grow. In a week you'll be baking your own sourdough loaves.
You might also like to bake a big batch of Anzac biscuits, wrap and tie them in stacks and drop them on neighbours' doorsteps. In the 1980s television series M*A*S*H, Hawkeye Pierce, to raise morale, would throw themed parties based on the Kentucky Derby, among other things, complete with poorly made costumes and improvised cocktails. There's a lot to be said for imagination and a strong sense of playfulness.
Overbought on 'nanas? If they're already blackening, there's always banana cake. But before they get to that point, peel and roughly chop them, bung into a freezer bag and freeze overnight. Soften for 15 to 20 minutes out of the freezer then whiz in a food processor until thick, smooth and creamy. Add a tablespoon of sweet cocoa powder if you like, or a dash of a sweet, fragrant liqueur such as Nocello. Do a final whiz, and serve immediately as soft-serve, or re-freeze in a container and soften 10 minutes before serving. JD
Reuse your brine
Brine is a liquid that should never be thrown out. If you've just finished a bought jar, hold on to that magic juice and put just about anything – batons of fresh cucumber, carrot, cauliflower florets, cooked beets or slices of radish – back into the jar, provided it's completely covered by the liquid.
Alternatively, make your own brine using equal parts water and quality vinegar. To every cup of liquid, add at least one teaspoon of salt and another of sugar. From there, it's up to you. Add a clove of garlic and any mix of dried herbs, fresh herbs, ginger, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cloves, cumin and ground spices such as turmeric for colour. Your pickles should last a couple of months refrigerated, but reuse the brine, which becomes concentrated and develops new flavours. Drinking the stuff is also said to cure a hangover.