The joy of cooking: How to embrace quarantine and focus on a basic life skill
Last week was the weirdest ever for chef Troy Selby, who founded 520 Grill on Cooper Avenue 10 years ago this May. On Tuesday, Selby ceased takeout operations from the restaurant, despite a provision allowing food to-go under the Colorado governor’s 30-day coronavirus ban on dine-in restaurants beginning Monday. Normally 520 Grill is one of few affordable Aspen eateries to run through offseason, but the easygoing small-business owner felt uneasy about staying open now.
“I have a great staff of hardworking Latinos who are near and dear to me,” explains Selby, who faced dozens of customers daily at 520’s counter along with four full-time employees. “We’re family. I feel responsible for their lives, too.”
A silver lining to shutting down shop? “I am cooking at home again because I’m not at the restaurant all the time, coming and going, coming and going,” Selby says. “It’s a great time to cook for fun, out of my routine, and that inspires me. We’ve been enjoying family time, eating breakfast and dinner together.”
Aspenites on lockdown may or may not share Selby’s enthusiasm for home cooking, but it’s what we must do. While supporting local restaurants that offer takeout and delivery is important, it’s financially unsustainable for the average citizen long-term. Now is time to sharpen knives and fire up the stove. Cooking is a basic survival skill, and embracing the task will make quarantine most tolerable.
“Best place to start is with food that you like to eat—whether Mexican or breakfast food, things your mom made for you or your grandmother made with you,” Selby notes. “Soup’s good because it gets you chopping ingredients and cooking.”
In fact, when we talk, Selby is about to make soup for Sunday dinner, having received a pile of random ingredients (wild mushrooms, pâté, hearty vegetables) from The Little Nell. The goods were doled out to friends and employees in an effort to salvage perishables from Ajax Tavern, element 47, and various Aspen-Snowmass on-mountain restaurants. (May Selby, Troy’s wife and ATW “Mountain Mayhem” columnist, manages the Nell’s public relations.)
“I’ll make a nice potato-leek-fennel soup out of that,” the chef muses. “One of my greatest talents is making something from nothing, from the mystery box. ”
Take that cue, dear readers! Confidence is key to kitchen success. While you might not possess the ingrained expertise of a professional chef, following a few simple tips can help soften the stress of feeding yourself day in and day out during trying times.
FIRST, BELIEVE IN YOUR ABILITY
“There are things you do know how to make, even though you think you don’t know how to cook,” quips Aspen-based nutritionist and holistic health practitioner Sheridan Semple. “It doesn’t need to be fancy. Charlie Tarver made a comment, like, Everybody can make a sandwich. You could live through this whole time just making sandwiches! You’d probably get bored, but you’re gonna be able to feed yourself no matter what.”
Consider your cravings, and decide to make foods you enjoy eating. Then, go for it.
“Try to make it fun,” says Selby, whose six-and-a-half-year-old son, Remy, helps shred lettuce with a plastic kids’ knife. That might include making French toast or pancakes for dinner, or starting a kitchen dance party with music cranked loud. “It’s hard with children,” he adds, “some are interested in food and some are not.”
Meanwhile, Semple suggests the copycat method. Lately, she shares, “My stepson’s mom is having fun replicating the things she’d normally go out to eat, and figuring out how to make them at home.”
“Nowadays there are so many premade items available at the store to get you started: salad in a bag, rice pilaf,” Semple says. “Start (there), then add in a fresh ingredient. You don’t have to be Julia Child to get yourself through this time.”
While Google is a click away, consider acquiring a book that contains a breadth of information in one package. (Semple recommends “The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom,” which includes a comprehensive guide to preparing all sorts of omnivore foods in various styles, including eggs, produce, lean meats, and fish).
Depending on your budget, experiment with a subscription meal-delivery service such as Blue Apron or Green Chef, which sends pre-portioned ingredients and step-by-step instructions to your doorstep.
LET CREATIVITY FLOW
“As long as you’re not baking or creating a soufflé that requires exact measurements, you don’t have to follow a recipe to a T,” Selby notes. Taste your work often, and season with salt accordingly. Sometimes all that’s needed is a splash of acid (vinegar, lemon juice) or a sprinkle of heat to enhance flavor. Trust your tastebuds.
COOK IN BATCHES
While chefs and restaurateurs have access to a wide array of ingredients on hand at all times, Selby proposes that home cooks practice efficiency by batch-cooking foods in advance. He cites 520 Grill’s go-to “taco fiesta bar” catering spreads, a hit with the police department, fire station and other local organizations that require a mass of food at a reasonable price. Begin by buying ingredients in multiples (but no hoarding!)
“If you’re cooking steak on the barbecue, cook a little extra steak, chop it up, and make tacos the next night. Instead of cooking one whole chicken, cook three chickens: one for dinner, one for chicken soup, one for chicken enchiladas, that kind of thing.”
JUST ADD VEGETABLES
When considering what to cook, go green. Your body will thank you. “Even if you’re eating junk food and it’s so hard to stop, just start adding vegetables,” Semple says. “That’s going to alkalize your body and give you nutrients. You might be surprised: after you do that, you might not want as much pizza or chips. When your cells’ needs are met, you have fewer cravings.”
RELAX, IT’S JUST COOKING
Give yourself a break if you mess up. “Everybody is stressed out right now. The more you can love yourself where you’re at, the better your immune system will be,” Semple concludes. “Start adding vegetables, pat yourself on the back, and call it good!”
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