COVID-19: Tasty dishes that inexperienced cooks can make with stockpiled food during self-isolation

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      If you have stocked up on canned and packaged dry foods in anticipation of self-isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic, you will soon have to figure out what to do with all that pasta, rice, and sauce.

      Besides, there aren't a lot of options, what with most or all of the sit-down restaurants closed.

      You might not have done all that much home cooking in your life, depending on your age (most parents will already have a grounding in how to put together cheap and nutritious dishes), and you might not even know if you have most of the ingredients you need to be able to create food you actually want to eat. 

      Here are some ideas about what to have available and how to begin thinking about putting those supplies together in ways that won't have you tasting one bite and consigning your improvised masterpiece to the compost bin. Most of these suggestions are for what are commonly referred to as "comfort foods", and what better foods to have during times like these?


      If money is a consideration (and for many people out of work or on fixed incomes, it is the major determining factor as to what they will be eating), most casserole-type dishes are economical and supply lots of leftovers. Familiarize yourself with protein, vitamin, and mineral content of your foods of choice to make sure you are not shortchanging yourself nutritionally.

      If you ae not used to cooking large(ish) quantities of food for yourself and/or others, don't worry too much about ingredient measurements. You can always look up recipes online or in books, but these ideas can almost always be thrown together by eye and taste. You will know if you are adding too much sauce or too little, and excess or unused ingredients can be refrigerated and used in other dishes. (Worry about exact measurements in baking, where it actually is essential.)


      These are pretty much no-brainers: dried pasta of all kinds (spaghetti, macaroni, rigatoni, fettucine, etcetera); rice (again, many varieties, depending upon whether you prefer cooking from scratch or going with the quick-cook kinds); beans (many types, both canned and dried, with canned being by far the easiest to prepare); canned tuna (lots of varieties, but "flaked light" usually the cheapest); canned meats (corned beef, luncheon meats, flaked ham and chicken, etcetera); and dried noodles of all types.



      Sauces hold ingredients together, prevent them from drying out during cooking, and add lots of flavour. They are essential for many dishes that require mixing and baking/heating in large casserole containers or cast-iron skillets. You can get them canned or dried (with these, you add liquids, usually water or milk). The most common are tomato sauces (pureed, crushed, diced, strained, or whole, with or without added seasonings); soups (again, in cans, pouches, or dried, with canned cream of mushroom or cream of celery being two faves for a break from tonato and for many casseroles that call for a white sauce); and canned or jarred cream-based sauces like alfredo and others, which can be used for pasta or whatever you prefer. Chicken, beef, and vegetable broths can be used in many dishes as well; these can also be made from cubes or powders. Always have a bottle or two of your favourite hot sauce or salad dressings (some of which can be used in cooking), as well as mayo, mustard, ketchup, and other condiments and sauces (including barbecue and steak-type sauces such as A1 and HP).

      Herbs, spices. etc.

      Salt and pepper are the obvious starters, and have tomato-friendly dried herbs handy, like thyme, basil, and oregano. Powdered garlic is essential, and rosemary is useful. Some people like to have parsley around, and maybe give smoked paprika a try. Cayenne and chili powder comes in handy for lots of dishes, and don't forget to keep dried and grated cheese in the fridge (like parmesan or romano). If you use garlic or celery salts, keep in mind that they will be adding to the salt content, so use table salt sparingly so as not to overseason. Some grinder-type containers of pepper-lemon-dill mixtures are good to have for seafood casseroles.



      Other than the canned ones noted above, bacon, hamburger, and smoked sausage or ham are the go-tos here. Freeze hamburger in one-pound blocks, and take it out of the freezer to thaw in the fridge the night beore you cook. Bacon can be frozen, but it usually keeps for a long time in the fridge. Check the best-before dates, and ask your butcher/deli attendant about the longevity of smoked meats and sausages in the fridge.

      Putting it all together

      While you cook your pasta and rice, you can be browning/frying your hamburger and bacon, if that will be going into your dish. Remember not to overcook pasta and rice, as they will still be going in the oven, often with liquid ingredients.

      Simply mix the meat and pasta or rice with the desired sauce in a casserole dish or oven-suitable container. You will almost always want a tight-fitting cover for cooking/heating, so the dish doesn't dry out. Add any cheese on breadcrumbs on top for melting/crisping, and pop in the oven. You usually don't need more than 300 degrees F for 20 or 30 minutes to prepare; you are, essentially, marrying and heating ingredients that are mostly already cooked.

      Some ideas

      Remember that you are putting together ingredients that you and your family/friends alerady like and are familiar with. You be the judge about the suitability of mixing things. You might surprise yourself and others. In a good way. (Just don't conduct wild experiments in large quantities, so as to avoid waste.)

      Baked BBQ beans with bacon.

      BBQ beans

      This is great by itself or as a side dish with lots of things like burgers, ribs, whatever. Combine three or more types of canned beans (standard "baked' beans, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, etcetera), including the liquids they ae canned with. If there isn't enough liquid, put in some tomato sauce. Add a few squirts of prepared barbecue sauce(s) to taste, along with a bit of ketchup and a dash or two of worcestershire sauce. A tablespoon of HP or AI steak sauce adds savoury background; a few (only) drops of "liquid smoke", usually hickory-flavoured, can add BBQ cred. A small amount of molasses and/or brown sugar gives it a sweet profile, and dijon mustard balances that out. Add anywhere up to a pound of crumbled/torn cooked bacon and you are in business after heating long enough to fuse the flavours. This can be done on the stovetop, in a suitably large and thick pot, as easily as in the oven. Give it at least an hour.

      Tuna casserole

      Tuna casserole

      The old standby for some families. A quick and easy way to prepare this dish is to make a box of Kraft Dinner according to instructions, add a can of drained tuna, season, mix thoroughly and top with breadcrumbs and grated cheese (cheddar works fine), and pop into the oven for 20 minutes at 250 F, just long enough to melt the cheese. You can remove the cover and put under the broiler for a few minutes if you like bubbling/slightly browned cheese and crisper crumbs. Triple the base ingredients for a large casserole to feed more or for extra meals. You can, of course, use plain macaroni or any pasta and try any kind of cheese sauce you like.

      Corned-beef hash

      Corned-beef hash

      This is a meat-and-potatoes dish that can be used for breakfast (served with a fried egg on top) or any meal. It can be made on a stovetop in a large covered skillet, and leftovers taste great. For prep, peel and quarter a half-dozen large boiling potatoes and chop two medium-to-large onions. While you parboil the potaoes (just until they are half done, because they will be cooking more and you don't want to make them mushy), saute the onions until translucent. Then open two or three cans of corned beef and slice and chop it until in smallish chunks.Put a layer of partially cooked potatoes and onions in the skillet, top with a layer of chopped corned beef, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and worcestershire sauce (and a few squirts of HP sauce). Repeat with another layer or two until ingredients are all used. Cover and cook over medium to low heat for 30 to 40 minutes on your stovetop's largest burner, opening to turn over periodically with a spatulaa to thoroughly mix and brown evenly. Check every 10 minutes or so in order to avoid burning.

      Shepherd's pie

      Various other dishes...

      Rice can be combined with chciken, turkey, sausage, etcetera, in any number of dishes, often with canned soups in casseroles (try substituting various broths for the water when you make the rice initially). Any pasta can be mixed with tomato/alfredo sauce, and you can then add whatever you fancy for a complete dish (keeping in mind that many vegetables, canned or fresh, may be added, according to taste and preferences).

      Shepherd's pie has many variations, but it is basically a layer of seasoned precooked ground meat and onion (sometimes with creamed corn, peas, or carrots added) covered with a thick layer of cooked mashed potaoes and baked in a covered caserole dish for about a half-hour. Hamburger can be mixed with almost any sauce and pasta, then baked. And so on...

      There are, literally, as many variations as ingredient combinations, tastes, and imagination allow.

      Remember to familiarize yourself with safe-storage recommendations for whatever perishables you have.