COVID-19: Home-cooking tips from the pros: 3 Vancouver culinary stars share advice for newbies

Get out your crockpot, keep things simple, and spice it up

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      As a registered dietitian whose late father had diabetes, Vancouver’s Renée Chan has had a lifelong interest in healthy food. Add to that her travels to Hong Kong to reconnect with her roots through Chinese cuisine and her experience working as a restaurant cook in New York, France, and beyond, and the founder of the True Nosh Company draws on a breadth of flavours, techniques, and experience to teach people how to cook.

      Under normal circumstances, she’d be offering multiple classes a week in person in her company kitchen and studio, making everything from gluten-free dumplings to sugar-free fruit preserves. Now, the learning is taking place online. (See True Nosh for more info.) 

      Chan (who’s also a certified yoga instructor) is one of a few local culinary talents who shared tips with the Georgia Straight for folks who may be doing more cooking with stay-at-home orders in place and who could use a little guidance.

      For starters, Chan recommends getting some basic sauces (like tomato, curry, or black bean), which are highly versatile.

      “You can add some vinegar and oil to it to make it a dressing or even just add it to a simple stock or bouillon with water to make a soup,” Chan says. “Adding a whole can of stock to the sauce can make a soup where you can throw in some noodles and mixed veggies and protein like chicken, tofu, or even dumplings to make a noodle bowl.”

      To thicken a sauce, cook and let some of the liquid evaporate or stir in a little bit of potato or flour starch or soluble fiber like psyllium husk whisked with some water. “Use this as a gravy to brighten up some leftovers like chicken or turkey or even mashed or baked potatoes. You could even pour it over steamed rice with some roasted veggies and protein like chicken, pork, beef, or tofu cubes or slices.”

      Look for different kinds of frozen mixed veggies. A Thai version with red peppers, baby corn, green beans and water chestnuts can be added to a noodle stir-fry with Asian black bean sauce or hoisin sauce. Or add basic frozen vegetable mix to tomato or curry sauce and pour over oven-roasted chicken breast, pork tenderloin, or pan-seared fish or firm tofu. 

      Adding a can of beans or chickpeas to soup or rice increases nutrients and make for easy one-pan meals. “I always have a variety of different coloured canned beans and chickpeas in my pantry because they add wonderful protein and fiber, hence thickness, to my stews and curries without adding any starches.

      “Spices I always have in my pantry are garlic powder, black pepper, sea salt, and paprika,” she adds. “Paprika adds colour, some flavour, and a little sweetness and smokiness to dishes that need a little pick-me-up.”

      The Dirty Apron Cooking School's David Robertson, whose cookbooks include Gather, says fresh pasta is easier to make than you might think.
      Dirty Apron Cooking School, Delicatassen & Catering.

      David Robertson, cofounder of the Dirty Apron Cooking School, Catering & Delicatessen, says that these days of staying home present an opportunity to keep things simple. But he encourages people to try something new, too.

      “There’s no need to have tons of dried pasta on hand, as most pasta recipes are as simple as water and flour or eggs and flour,” says Robertson, author of Gather: A Dirty Apron Cookbook. “Fresh pasta recipes can easily be found online. Fresh pasta can be cooked in two to three minutes and tossed in olive oil or butter with garnishes like cheese and nuts and fresh herbs.”

      Now’s also a great time to dust off the crockpot, especially if you’re new to cooking; it’s much less intimidating than having multiple pots and pans going at the same time.

      “Another simple way of cooking that our family does at our house is a simple salad with a hot protein to go with it,” Robertson says. “That might be a barbecued steak, roasted chicken breast, a nicely cooked piece of fish, or even Portobello mushrooms. This way you focus on just one hot item, which is a lot less pressure than having to juggle two or three hot pans.”

      Besides greens, consider having legumes and grains on hand for salads: lentils, barley, wild rice, quinoa, couscous, and the like. 

      Chickpeas are a go-to for easy, nutritious meals, says Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of Vij's and Rangoli restaurants.
      Vij's Resturant/Instagram.

      Meeru Dhalwala, a self-taught chef who creates the menus for Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants, recommends turning to healthy, filling staples such as chickpeas, bulk mung beans (which have a universal likable taste and take half an hour to cook) and sweet potatoes, especially Japanese varieties. Ready-made hummus and baba ganoush make great dips.  

      “I grew up with a mother who insisted when your mind is stressed, your body has to be ‘inside strong and clean’ so as not to add more subliminal stress,” says Dhalwala, whose cookbooks she coauthored with Vikram Vij include Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey. “She would make me and my younger sister, Ritu, munch on celery, green bell peppers, and carrots to help us ‘stay smart’. And she never made it seem a necessary chore. She let us choose our dip. I got a bit of peanut butter and my sister got a tablespoon or two of strawberry ice cream that she would gleefully stir into a soup. I can still smell the combination of cardamom, imitation strawberry, and peanuts.  

      “You can sauté onions and add them to anything,” she adds. “And do remember the celery, bell peppers, and carrots.”

      The Dirty Apron Cooking School, Delicatessen & Catering, Vij's Restaurant, and Rangoli are among the hundreds of restaurants in B.C. and across Canada that are offering takeout, delivery, curbside pickup, and other options in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. See Breaking Bread for more info.