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Pandemic cooking revival

First We Eat: In unstable times there can be comfort in cooking

Food has always been essential, right up there with sleep, water and shelter. But it’s more than that: food is what we use to mark momentous occasions and events — brunch with the bunch, cake for a birthday, anniversary suppers, restaurant date nights, cookies with the kids after school. We’ve lost many of those occasions to the pandemic, and I know we all mourn the loss.

So as the pandemic grinds on, I’m making more of an effort to cook foods Dave and I really like, foods that give pleasure — beyond the necessity of fuel and the comfort of familiarity. I’m talking real pleasure, sensory eye-rolling pleasure. It’s little enough to offer when the world is so unsafe and so broken. It’s hard to be positive in the face of environmental degradation, political stupidity, and ongoing lockdowns that limit my connections with friends and family. So that leaves food.

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There’s a lot to contemplate about food in a pandemic as I cook and eat. What kids are eating at school. What economically challenged people are eating in this time of supreme economic instability. What restaurants are doing to stay in business, including online ordering, meal kits and heat-and-eat meals available by curbside pickup. Whether it’s safe to eat foods made by someone else, and if it’s safe to dine in at any restaurant. How migrant farm labourers are coping. What food prices will do come spring. What those who can’t cook are eating as their income drops.

To stave off the worries, we are collectively baking bread, cookies and cakes, cooking carbs, using our Crock-Pots and Instant Pots, making sheet pan suppers, rummaging deep in our pantries and freezers for ingredients. Such an involvement in cooking is reassuring to witness. As a cooking-school teacher in Calgary for 25 years, I saw close up the decline of interest in home cooking.

It’s sad that it’s taken a pandemic to prompt a return to the kitchen, and I pray that when the pandemic eases, we will keep the cooking habit. For one thing, we will face a changed world, with fewer restaurants. But hopefully, more of us have realized that cooking is not a chore. It can be therapy. It can be pleasure. But always, home cooking results in better food than most of us can afford to buy from a restaurant.

So much for venting. Now let’s cook. First we eat this vegetable-centric sheet pan supper, and then we can start asking and answering all those questions about food.

Sheet Pan Supper

This supper has endless variations and is ideal for all of us who adore vegetables. I use it to cook up a variety of vegetable dishes simultaneously, with or without a protein roasting on top. Serves 4 to 6.

Onions and apples:

  • Butter for the pan
  • 2 firm apples, sliced, skin on
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • Garlic to taste, minced
  • 1/4 c. white wine, apple juice, stock or water
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil or thyme Salt and pepper to taste

Mushrooms:

  • Olive oil to taste
  • 12 mushrooms, sliced
  • Garlic to taste, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil or thyme
  • 1/4 c. white wine, stock or water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brussels sprouts:

  • Olive oil to taste
  • 12 brussels sprouts, quartered
  • Handful of cauliflower, trimmed into bite-size pieces
  • 1 bell pepper, cubed
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. dried basil or thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Meat:

  • 4 smoked pork chops, chicken thighs or sausages
  • 2 tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 2 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. hot sauce, or to taste
  • Olive oil to drizzle

Set the oven at 375 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.

Heat a sauté pan, add the butter and sauté the apples, onions, and garlic until half-done and wilting. Add the wine and seasonings, mix well and pour it all onto one end of the sheet pan.

Stir together the mushroom mix and arrange in a heap on the pan next to the apple mix. Combine the brussels sprouts mixture and arrange it on the pan next to the mushrooms.

To glaze the meat, mix together the mustard, maple syrup, lemon juice and hot sauce. Spread it over all surfaces of the meat.

Top the vegetables with the glazed meat, leaving space between the pieces to encourage crisping and colouring.

Drizzle with a little olive oil, then roast uncovered, turning twice, until the meat is cooked, the glaze is brown and the vegetables are brown and crisp, to your taste, about 45 minutes.

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