Pandemics and Pasta: Sustenance in the Viral Age

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Tonight, I am roasting ripe Heirloom tomatoes with onions, garlic, and olive oil in a 400-degree-oven while a blend of mushrooms, garlic, and white wine bubbles in a sauté pan on the stove. Leftover seared pork chop bones add flavor and depth to the rustic mushroom mixture, which will be combined with the tomatoes, simmered, and ladled over whole wheat rotini.

This is Pandemic Pasta – a savory repast prepared with care and served up to myself with love.

Cooking and eating solo is routine for me. As a single woman of a certain age, I’ve no children under my roof to care for and no partner, either. I’m accustomed to coming home from school, kicking off my low-heeled shoes, and creating my solitary supper.

What’s changed during these weeks of isolation brought on by COVID-19 is the reality of cooking and eating at home – alone – all the time. School’s closed, so I’m teaching from behind my own closed doors. No students, no colleagues, no bosses.

No last-minute gatherings with friends to grab a quick bite and a beer at the end of the week.

Just me.

Every moment. Every meal. Every day.

My grown daughter lives across the country. I’ve very little family left, and my small assemblage of friends is hunkered down in their own homes.

This prolonged period of isolation raises the stakes on cooking and eating at home. Just getting food to the house requires skill and cunning once reserved for cat burglars and jewel thieves.

Shopping for groceries in the flesh means you can choose your own items among those available on any given day. But a routine trip to the store now seems a dangerous gauntlet that requires mask, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and a taser for anyone who might come too close.

I have my groceries delivered – an exciting event that feels like company’s coming even if I never see the person who brings the bags. Hello! Just drop those right there on the straw mat and go away. Fair warning, though. You never know what you’ll get until the food arrives. Substitutions are frequent because supplies of pantry staples are running low everywhere.

I’ve chased the specter of flour, baking soda, and baking powder via grocery click lists all over town. There is none to be found. I ache to try my hand at making sourdough bread, but a coworker assured me via text that a flour shortage isn’t such a bad thing.

Try something different, she urged. Homemade loaves are so last month.

Some of my friends prefer curbside restaurant takeout over home cooked fare. I don’t get that. Comfort comes to me through the preparation of a meal as well as the eating of it.

Consider my Pandemic Pasta. I’ve made tomato sauces from the sharply acidic to the buttery mellow and mild. But a recent episode of The Splendid Table about home cooking in the pandemic age ramped up my flavor game.

The host, Francis Lam, revealed that he prepared chops one night and used the bones to flavor a tomato sauce for another meal. That’s going to happen right here, right now. I pulled up a local grocer’s web page and loaded my virtual cart.

Center cut port chops: Click.

Heirloom tomatoes: Click.

Pepperidge Farm Dark Milano Cookies: Double Click.

Along with a wonderful meal, chocolate is a necessity.

__________

Recipe Break – aka – How I Did It:

Slice the tomatoes in half and set aside. Chop the onions and garlic, then sprinkle them onto a sheet pan drizzled with olive oil. Top with tomatoes cut side down and roast at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with oregano and fresh ground pepper and roast another 10 minutes until the skins pull away from the flesh.

Meanwhile, coat a sauté pan with olive oil. Sear the pork bones until brown, add onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Add a splash of white wine and red pepper flakes and cook until the mushrooms are soft.

Combine tomatoes with the mushroom mixture and simmer until the sauce reduces by about half. Cook pasta until just a shade softer than al dente and serve.

Oh, the perfume of caramelized onions and earthy mushrooms, their aroma released in a heady rush of steam. The roasted tomatoes add a piquant flavor that mellows with a swirl of butter for balance.

Alone in my kitchen, tongs in hand, I imagine myself the head chef in a Michelin starred restaurant in New York. Or as Nancy Silverton creating cheesy masterpieces at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.

Picture me as Julia Child, who declared: “It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions.” For what it’s worth, I concur.

The creation of that savory, comforting pasta dish tickled me so that I took pictures along the way and texted them to my friend Pat. She, too, lives alone and appreciates the culinary arts. I hear she makes a mean chuck roast.

 

Image: “Roasted tomatoes” by Ruth Hartnup, licensed under CC 2.0.

 

 

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