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How to make up for not going to restaurants
‘God I miss restaurants!’ has been the plaintive cry on Twitter from quite a few of us lately. This lockdown makes me realise how often I normally eat out and how much I enjoy the warm, welcoming buzz of my favourite places. Not to mention those cosy suppers huddled with friends round the kitchen table.
Given that we’ve got to be socially distanced for the foreseeable future and that nobody knows when restaurants will be open again we need something to look forward to in order to survive. And I think I’ve nailed it.
Like everyone else I’ve discovered Zoom but instead of just using it for online drinks (fun though that is) I’ve been cooking and eating with friends I’ve previously cooked with in real life.
Cooking on Zoom
The first experiment was over the Easter weekend when a group of us made my Guardian colleague Rachel Roddy’s Torta Pasqualina, a celebratory spinach, egg ricotta pie. Understandably Rachel chose not to hang out with us online while we made it - would you want your recipe picked over by a group of food writers? - but joined us for a drink afterwards while we proudly showed off our results. (The very light, crisp pastry, which also contains ricotta, is particularly good.) I will definitely make it for Easter again.
A week or so later two other friends and I had a go at a couple of recipes in Ben Tish’s Moorish, the stuffed piquillo peppers with brandade and stuffed aubergines with almonds and preserved lemon - the first time I’ve ever made brandade. (Yes, it did involve a lot of stuffing, including stuffing our faces.)
Another small group I'm involved with tackled Sami Tamimi’s lovely new book Falastin, making the really excellent muhammara (roasted red pepper and walnut dip below) and koftas with tahini and potato. Meanwhile Group 1 had a go at his cauliflower and cumin fritters (another winner) and seared seabass with lemon and tomato sauce.
The rules of the game are that you decide on a book then discuss which dishes to make. Obviously that’s limited by your skills - my friends are all keen cooks - whether you have, or can get access to the book and what ingredients you have available. My friend Fi for example lives on the Isle of Wight which would make a Korean cooking session, say, challenging while having no outdoor space I couldn’t do a barbecue - let alone manage the practicalities of broadcasting from the garden. But you can always improvise and substitute ingredients - and we did.
Another bonus is the general cooking tips you pick up just in the course of chatting: storing your walnuts - or other nuts - in the fridge or freezer so they don’t go rancid, for example. And often individual elements of a recipe are as useful as the recipe itself. The simple orange and thyme oil, Ben Tish suggests to drizzle over the brandade-stuffed peppers really makes the dish. Sami Tamimi's idea of blitzing a tin of tomatoes in a blender or food processor - richer flavoured and cheaper than using passata - is genius. And, also from Sami, roasting potatoes on baking parchment so they don’t stick to the baking tray.
Then there’s the useful and reassuring process of comparing notes on timings and textures. 'Hey, does this look right? you can ask your mates showing them on-screen though preferably avoiding spilling the juice you’ve carefully strained off a grated tomato onto your laptop. Fortunately I seem to have got away with it.
In terms of numbers I reckon three or four is ideal for Zoom's Gallery View. With a bigger group than that you can’t really follow the conversation or see what’s going on. Or it could just be the two of you. I’m planning a meal with a couple of friends this Saturday based on the kind of food we’d eat if I was staying with them for the weekend, the cookbooks in this case being two established favourites, Diana Henry's From the Oven to the Table and Sabrina Ghayour's Bazaar.
Although it’s fun to cook something that stretches you, there's no reason why you shouldn't cook something as simple as a plate of pasta. I'm plotting a carbonara night with a couple of pals to recreate a fun evening we had at a wonderfully retro Italian restaurant just before lockdown when we downed a classy couple of bottles from the Burgundy tasting we'd been to beforehand. One other consolation, you can at least do BYO under lockdown - no hefty restaurant markups!)
An alternative approach is to eat with your friends but not actually cook with them. Fellow sherry fan Elly Curshen came up with the genius idea of #finofriday for which we made our own food in advance. That could take the pressure off if you don’t feel that confident about your cooking skills or are a bit of a tortoise like me. We’re planning a French-themed follow-up next week in memory of the late, lamented Bar Buvette which I imagine will include charcuterie, cornichons and cheese toasties.
Is your local restaurant online?
You may also find your favourite restaurant online. Owen Morgan, the owner of my local tapas bar, Bar 44, for instance is making videos showing how to make croquetas and their legendary patatas bravas while Freddy Bird of littlefrench did a hilarious cooking demo with TV producer and drink writer Andy Clarke last night showing how to make his awesome roast guineafowl with olives, aioli and chips. For restaurants it’s a good way of keeping the relationship with their customers going. (If you live in Bristol you can still buy ingredients from littlefrench)
It all helps to make up for not being able to go out despite the fact that the endless shopping, chopping, clearing and washing up is a bit of a nightmare. ('Why can’t you just tidy up as you go along?' my husband used to ask plaintively when he walked into a kitchen that looked as if a bomb had hit it.) 'Because I’m concentrating on the FOOD' I used to say. I still am, to my cost.
Please come back soon, restaurants. We miss you.
The top image is not me but a stock image from Marina Andrejchenko at Adobe Stock whose copyright this is.
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