Dining in

Using pantry staples is a skill home cooks need to flex more than ever as we stay at home. (Photo sourced by CC0 1.0 Universal)

Dining out isn’t allowed. Families are cutting expenses. So dinner is often whatever is in the pantry.

Weekends used to be a time to hit a sun-kissed patio, enjoy a few cold drinks and eat a delicious brunch with a crew of close friends.

But with the coronavirus pandemic keeping Sacramento area residents at home, dining out with friends is out of the question. And with thousands losing their jobs, many can’t afford to enjoy the restaurant scene as often anyway.

Now more than ever, people are turning to the ingredients stocked in their pantries and refrigerators to decide what’s for dinner. Several posts on social media even show people surprising their spouses with restaurant-style experiences at home—complete with handwritten dinner menus that tout multiple courses—even if the dessert portion is simply splitting a sleeve of frozen Thin Mints.

“A lot of people like to eat out and that’s becoming less of a thing that they’re going to do in order to save money,” says Dillon O’Dea, executive chef at Kupros Craft House in Midtown. “With the time that you have to stay home, get excited, go look up a recipe and try it out and see what you can do.”

Cooking shows abound on streaming services such as Netflix with dozens of food competitions, chef challenges and dining documentaries that put audiences right in the heat of the kitchen. Viewers may not be able to dine alfresco, but they’re certainly finding comfort learning how to bake a sticky toffee pudding.

“I think it all goes back to comfort food. Right now, we’re in a time where a lot of the usual things that we enjoy are taken from us,” O’Dea says. “We’re sheltered away. We’re hidden in our homes. You want to eat something that makes you feel comfortable, something happy. Food has the power to escape or transport you and make you feel like you’re somewhere else, which is what a lot of people want right now being trapped at home.”

For O’Dea, hearty dishes such as thick slices of lasagna or creamy, baked buffalo chicken mac and cheese takes him back to the sunnier days. But he also says he will never turn down the chance to make a homemade, crispy chicken sandwich.

“I’m a sucker for a chicken sandwich. There’s nothing more comforting than that to me,” he says. “So take a chicken breast with flour, buttermilk and fry it up; throw it in the oven and make sure that cooks through the center; throw some pepper Jack cheese on there; make a jalapeno mayo for it; some nice greens, tomato, onion, avocado and then like a really nice, fresh brioche bun.”

“Food has the power to escape or transport you and make you feel like you’re somewhere else, which is what a lot of people want right now being trapped at home.”

Dillon O’Dea, executive chef at Kupros Craft House in Midtown

Still, with curbside pickup and delivery apps including DoorDash, ordering takeout to give dad a break from doing all those dishes in the sink is doable. In fact, O’Dea was in the middle of planning this weekend’s Easter brunch menu when SN&R called.

“We’re still trying to do more exciting food during these times. I’m going to put out a brunch menu this weekend for Easter with a breakfast pizza, biscuits and gravy, churro French toast and probably some doughnut holes,” O’Dea says. “Just really big, hearty comforting food that people can order in bulk and eat it with people that they love and enjoy the holiday while we have this time together.”

Home cookin’

When it comes to cooking from scratch and getting creative in the kitchen with pantry staples, Amber Stott, founder and CEO of the Food Literacy Center, has made a career out of blending nutrition with food education and hands-on cooking demonstrations in elementary schools. But during these stressful times, it’s not just the kids who need to remember to eat their veggies. Parents do, too. (I’m looking at you, quarantine snackers.)

“I think it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself right now. This type of pantry cooking is not going to be gourmet, and right now we want to be comforted, so think very simply and very much about nourishing,” Stott says. “We want to stay healthy, we want to get those whole grains, those fresh fruits and vegetables when we can.”

Braving the grocery store aisles donning a face mask and gloves while social distancing also means that people often have to buy what they can find. There may not be exciting choices left on shelves, so cooking with what’s available is an important skill to learn.

“We have specifically designed our recipes with items that are readily available at a food banks because many of the kids that we serve are food insecure, and we know that they have a limited number of ingredients,” Stott says. “We try to keep things very, very simple for those who maybe have never cooked from scratch before.

“We want to stay healthy, we want to get those whole grains, those fresh fruits and vegetables when we can.”

Amber Stott, founder and CEO of the Food Literacy Center

Stott recommends stocking up on ingredients such as beans (canary, black or pinto); oats–bonus if they are the quick-style; fresh fruits and veggies whenever available; and pastas, any shape or size. Remember, it’s a great time to try something new such as farfalle (bowtie) or bucatini (thick, hallow spaghetti).

“I made a very simple chili with canned tomatoes, beans and some spices,” she says. “I had onions on hand and some fresh veggies as well, and I’ve been using that pot of chili.”

For breakfast one day, she wrapped some chili up in a tortilla with a scrambled egg. As a snack later in the week, she warmed up a bowl of chili and scooped it up with tortilla chips. For dinner one night, she enjoyed it as is. Making a large, one-pot meal on the weekend will save busy moms and dads time during the week while balancing work and home.

“Pasta is a fun one because you don’t necessarily have to have spaghetti every night. If you happen to have a little leftover salad dressing, but you don’t have anymore salad, you can use that and make a little pasta salad,” Stott says. “You cook your pasta, throw in that leftover jar of salad dressing and whatever you have on hand.”

Turn to the fridge. Leftover black olives in a Tupperware container? Slice them into halves and toss them in. Happen to have a red onion on hand? Thinly slice a few rings and add them to the mix. If you have fresh or frozen veggies, saute a few and finish off a new weekday lunch or snack.

“There’s just all kinds of fun ways where you can turn that one big pot of something into a new meal so you can stretch it to make different dishes throughout the week just so you feel like you have unique options for meals,” Stott says.


Food Literacy Center: Need recipe ideas or want to learn kitchen knife skills? Food Literacy Center hosts live cooking demonstrations on its website each week. What’s more, you can view past videos and recreate all the nutritious recipes they’ve created.

For those who can’t grocery shop: Online services such as TaskRabbit, Instacart, DoorDash and even Safeway offer delivery to your door so you can stay at home and get cooking.

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