(by Lydia Carlston)
Well, here we are. Locked down, socially distanced, quarantined. My husband is working from the home office; two daughters are in school via Zoom, while the third, a grownup, is texting from her apartment asking for a recipe. I am feeling a little out-of-sorts, while strangely elated to be able to reset, renew, recharge, realign, and re-everything. Meditation is my best friend, while gratitude is my most prized possession. Although my exercise bike may not help to achieve the much-coveted “thigh gap” in however long this quarantine lasts, at least it helps to lay my thoughts down long enough to clear my head. I did manage to raise and tighten my bum, which is a good thing if I plan on wearing a swimsuit after stress eating for the first three months of 2020.
As it is, life is slow. No auditions, no drop-offs, no pick-ups, and no responsibilities outside the home, save for a trip to the grocery store to see what’s been left behind by hoarders in preparation of an imagined apocalypse. I miss driving my girls to school every day. New York City traffic is never fun, but it was the only time I could spend with them free from distractions. It is nearly impossible to find time with a teenager and a preteen. Schoolwork, college prep, and extracurricular activities eat up the afternoon and early evening hours. Family dinners resembled speed dating, with Dad in the mix, catching up on the news of the day and the girls rushing back to their desks to complete homework assignments or to begin a tutoring session. Since being homebound, I don’t understand how we can all be so close in proximity, yet so far apart at this particular time. They are at the age of explosive growth and multiple interests, while establishing their independence. Understood, but we must find balance.
My quest is for the best food items to fortify and sustain my family for as long as possible without having to make multiple trips to the store. Just because we’re quarantined doesn’t mean we should abandon our good sense and healthy choices. So I opt for fresh vegetables that last well in the fridge (carrots) or can be frozen (okra, collard greens, spinach). With the right ingredients and spices on hand, the most ordinary things can become extraordinary, so my pantry is stocked with everything from tarragon to Ethiopian berbere. From my travels around the world, picking up new flavors and ways of cooking has forever changed my outlook on food.
All is calm in the kingdom until lunchtime when the girls come barreling down to the kitchen (at different times, on different schedules) in search of food. The elder is 16 and not too keen on preparing her own meals, while the 12-year-old is becoming quite the chef. She’s made quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes for breakfast or scrambled eggs, sometimes with cheese. And two batches of brownies—one gluten-free for herself, one regular for us.
I began planning dinners that my youngest and I can prepare together by thumbing through cookbooks and The New York Times food section, scanning techniques of famed chefs while searching for uncommon culinary inspiration to drop some new flavors on my peeps, but this is a dream vanished, as evaporated as the water I put to boil for rice and forgot about. In quarantine, I see less of the girls than I thought I would. How is this possible? Schoolwork and binge-watching Gilmore Girls, I suppose. I think I'm the hip mother, the one who likes some of the same music they do and wears kinda cool clothes. It's a losing battle—I’m just boring “Mom.” It has become apparent that the only way to capture their attention is to call them to the table, so I make special meals every night to ensure that dinner will last a little longer. Besides, it satisfies my creative energy after writing and sewing masks for donations to healthcare workers. I post every dish on Instagram, and I now have followers who tune in just to see what I’ve cooked up. I am proud of my work but most proud of how my cooking brings my daughters together for food that feeds their bodies and company that feeds my soul.
Easy 20-Minute Butter Chicken
1 T. oil
1 T. butter
1 medium onion diced
1 t. fresh ginger, finely minced or grated (or use paste)
2 - 3 cloves garlic, finely minced or crushed
1 1/2 lb. (about 2 – 3) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3/4-in. chunks
6 oz. tomato paste (or 8 - 10 oz tomato sauce)
1 T. garam masala
1 t. chili powder or paprika, or to taste
1 t. fenugreek powder or seeds or mustard seeds
1 t. cumin
1 tsp salt
1/4 t. black pepper
1 c. heavy cream (substitute half and half or yogurt to make it lower fat)
hot cooked basmati rice and naan for serving
Heat a large skillet or medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
Add oil, butter, and onions, and cook until onions are lightly golden, about 3 - 4 minutes.
Add ginger and garlic, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring.
Add chicken, tomato paste or sauce, and spices.
Cook for 5 - 6 minutes or until everything is cooked through.
Add heavy cream, half and half, or yogurt, and simmer for 8 - 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve over basmati rice or with naan.