Two Loaves and Choices (Plague, Day 22, March 25, 2020)

You know the world is in the shithole, when I start baking.

I do not enjoy baking. I don’t like measuring cups, the fine dusting of flour over counters, meticulous reading of recipes, timers. Last night’s pot roast is more of my style of cooking — throw a bunch of good things in a pot and then walk away for two hours.

Also, I’ve so been conditioned by middle age diets to look at all carbs as things of evil. Little slices of heaven, too. Have you ever had a slice of pizza, after restraining one’s self for a couple of weeks? OMG. Your brain explodes. So, there’s a lot of complicated feelings wrapped in bread right now.

But with everything going on, I felt a deep need to kneed. Yesterday I pulled out my super easy recipe for bread making and spent the afternoon making two loaves.

Two loaves, almost identical, cooling on a rack. Which one to cut open first? Either way, there is no bad choice.

***

But now our president is ready to make a choice between two evils, as he sees the options before him. He can either badger the country to stay in the house, shut down businesses, keep the schools closed, which will very quickly lead to massive Great Depression-like levels of economic strife.

Or he could let business do it what it wants to do. Open those restaurants. Open the factories. Let people fly wherever they want. Money comes in, but the virus will spread. People will die, but people die every day, he said. We can’t stop the economy to save a handful of old people.

He later added geography to that calculus. Mostly, the problems are going to be in the hot spots, like the New York City metro area, so it’s unfair to rural areas in Texas to conform to rules that are appropriate for NYC. And those people in NYC are doomed anyway, so let’s just move on.

Those are bad choices: the economy versus dead old people. To be fair, the economy doesn’t just mean that some rich CEOs will suffer. It means that a whole of lot of minimum wage workers will be laid off, won’t be able to pay their rent, and children will go hungry. So, in the spirit of fairness, let’s revise that equation: hungry children versus dead old people in one part of the country.

But that equation still isn’t quite right. The dead people are starting to pile up around here, and they aren’t just 90-year olds in a nursing home. Our church just sent out an email asking for prayers for a 20-year old, a former high school athlete, who is in ICU.

I live in a virus hotspot, though things will be worse on the other side of the Hudson River, in the heart of the city. Anybody paying attention knew that this was going to be a big issue. The mayor took too long to shut the schools and get people off the streets and subway. Too long.

Friends who had an outlet and a brain to see the writing on the wall got out of the city seven days ago. They are in seclusion already in second homes and in the guest rooms of extended family. Others are trying to get out now.

My in-laws live in the shore of North Carolina, where those communities have shut their doors to outsiders. Police demand proof of home ownership before letting people cross the bridge to the barrier islands. Locals say they don’t have enough beds or bags of flour for the New Yorkers heading their way. No room in the inn.

I reject the presidents’ choice, because I think he’s wrong. I have faith in charts and trajectory curves. If we say, “Fuck this flattening curve stuff. Give me the high peak and get the pain over with quickly,” the losses will be too significant and probably won’t save the economy anyway. I say let’s save lives first, the economy second.

***

I’m not the only one baking like crazy. Flour, like toilet paper and dish detergent, is not to be found in any supermarket right now.

Why do we bake during a pandemic?

For many of us, we associate bread with comfort. It’s a way to nurture our families, when they’re in the midst of stress and pain.

We have time. Yes, the lucky among us are still working on our laptops and computers just a few feet from the kitchen. It’s not hard to let some dough rise in a bowl on the counter for forty minutes in between Zoom meetings with co-workers.

Bread is something Biblical, an ancient tie to the Gods. Mosaics in 2,000-year old churches in the Mediterranean depict the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Matthew 14:13-21: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

We bake because we are in the midst of an Old Testament-like plague. This doesn’t feel real. It’s an ancient evil, not something that belongs in our worlds of sterile Apple stores or smart cars. An ancient evil must be fought by an ancient good. For some, that ancient good might come in the form of God, an old man with a beard. For others, the ancient good is formed by women with large forearms over a fire.

Of course, we can’t be saved by bread or prayers or by loud curses at the tv during presidential press conferences. Let’s just be safe, friends. Using whatever comforts and crutches that we have around us, let’s stay in our homes for another few weeks.

Me? Despite an afternoon aberration with baking, my real crutch is writing. Words are my loaf of bread. So, I’ll be here, as long as I can manage it.

Coronavirus Survival — Cooking From the Pantry, Baked Pasta Recipe

So, what staples do you have in pantry? Beans, pasta, root vegetables, some dairy, meat in the freezer, cans of tomatoes? Need some ideas for all that? I can help.

Last night we made chili, which we will have again tonight with baked sweet potatoes. Tomorrow’s lunch will be chili dogs. Here’s my chili recipe.

Today, let me share the most basic of recipes, Baked Pasta. Super easy. And a local favorite. With Steve and I eating low carb stuff lately, I haven’t made this dish in ages. With a house of boys, it seemed like a good time to return to a classic.

Baked Pasta, Jersey Style

  • 1 box of Pasta (acceptable shapes penne, medium shells, ziti, cellentani)
  • 1 or 2 eggs, depending on size. This is just to bind everything together
  • 1 jar of sauce (pay more for better)
  • 1 large brick of Polly-O mozzarella
  • 1/2 plus two spoons of the medium container of Polly-O ricotta
  • 3/4 of a bag of spinach
  • parsley
  • parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare the guts. Chop the mozzarella into small squares. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the mozzarella. Chop up the fresh spinach. Mix together the mozzarella, ricotta (remember don’t use the whole container), half a cup of parmesan cheese, lots of fresh pepper, 1 egg, and spinach.
  3. Prepare the pasta in salted water. Cook until very al dente. Like still a little white in the middle. Drain. Do not rinse pasta. Add about half the jar of sauce to your pasta. I used some generic Whole Foods sauce for this. There is some much better stuff on the shelf these days, as well as homemade, of course, but I don’t think that’s necessary for a baked dish like this. All the effort should go into bringing good stuff together.

4. Now you’re ready to build. Add a glug of the sauce to the bottom of a baking pan. Then add 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta. Then add half of the cheese combo, then 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta, 1/2 of the cheese guts, last of the semi-cooked pasta on top.

5. On top of the pasta layers, pour out the rest of the sauce and spread it around with a spoon. Add the last of the mozzarella, more parmesan cheese, and freshly chopped parsley. Cover everything with aluminum foil.

6. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes until the cheese is bubbling all the way through and the pasta is entirely cooked. By this time, the spinach will be cooked, too. If you like your pasta dish slightly crispy, take off the aluminum foil ten minutes before it’s finished.

There are plenty of ways to upgrade this dish and make it more interesting. You can make a white sauce or add different kinds of meat and vegetables.

Recipe: Spinach With Pancetta and Feta

I’m such a food blogger wannabe. Indulge me. I’m having fun taking pictures of food.

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Spinach With Pancetta and Feta

Sassy spinach — Not overcooked and with a lot of flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup(s) red onion diced
  • 1/4 ounce(s) pancetta small cubes
  • 1-1/2 bunch(es) fresh spinach chopped
  • 2 tablespoon(s) olive oil
  • some feta cheese crumbled
  • salt and pepper

Preparation

  • I was tempted to use garlic and red pepper in this recipe, because that’s how I do most greens. But today I was in a dainty mood.
  • If you want to be especially fancy, then lay the spinach out on some paper towels to dry. Less water in there, means a nicer presentation.
  • Sautee the onion and pancetta in olive oil. Add a little salt and pepper while it is cooking. Salt helps the onion break down faster.
  • Add the chopped spinach. Use tongs to flip it over and over, so it cooks evenly.
  • Cook it until it’s 90% done. You want a little crunch and sass left in your spinach. It takes some practice to get to that 90%, but no one is going to the emgency room from ingesting undercooked or overcooked spinach, so worry not.
  • Put it on the plate and add two big spoonfuls of feta cheese.