Easter in Quarantine

Easter used to be a constant thing in my life. Up until my young adulthood, it was always held at my grandparents’ house. In college, the celebration shifted to my aunts’ houses on alternating years. My mom came from a big Polish family – she was the middle of seven children – so, Easter was a BIG DEAL. An average gathering was about thirty people, and there was always a huge spread consisting of eggs (hard boiled and scrambled, possibly deviled some years), pierogies, kielbasa, chrzan, golombki, beets, babka, ham, turkey, hash… and some things that were not traditional polish, like soda bread, banana bread, fruit salad, etc. It was a FEAST like none other.

Easter got weird in my mid-adulthood. First came the year I was pregnant- I crossed the 38 week line on Easter Day, and my doula recommended I stay close to home. In my late-pregnancy nesting insanity, I cooked a Polish brunch for my spouse and myself. So, you know… enough food for six.

Little Chef’s first Easter was the last hurrah for my Grandmother after not hosting for years. She was selling her house, and it was the last scheduled gathering there. Bittersweet.

For Little Chef’s second Easter, my mother had broken her leg and was temporarily living at my grandmother’s apartment. I brought full Polish Easter on the road to serve to my immediate family, my    mom, and my brother while the rest of the extended clan gathered at my aunt’s. In a strange, dazed sort of way, I was VERY proud of myself for pulling that off on incredibly short notice.

Little Chef’s third Easter was fairly “normal.” We went to my Aunt’s house and picked up my Mom along the way. Unbeknownst to us, that would be my mom’s last Easter.

In 2019, we had a barely 2-month old baby and we’d only been in our new house for 3 months, but we hosted Easter for my in-laws, and I cooked a feast.

Then…. this year.

You know that monologue the Grinch has about Christmas coming “without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes, or bags?” That’s how Easter felt this year. Holy Week services were held over Zoom. I spent more time in front of a computer than I think I ever have.

I was hell-bent, though, on having a special day for Easter. We dressed up. I had managed to stock all of the essentials by the big day – we had mimosas, pierogies, kielbasa, eggs, and babka. I decided to skip making a ham, and then my neighbors mentioned that they had too much ham. We traded pierogies and babka for some ham, and everyone’s day got more delicious.

The babka was the real triumph; it was so hard to find yeast, because everyone went crazy when it was clear that we were locking down, so there was a run on it. I ended up getting a two-pound package from a wholesaler! I have plenty of yeast for the forseeable future.

If you’re looking for a good babka recipe, this one is the closest I’ve found to my great-grandmother’s babka. My family came from a part of Poland that is now part of the Ukraine (my great-grandmother left when World War 1 was brewing, so the lines were different then.). I had a hand-written copy of the original recipe, but it’s buried somewhere. This one is delicious. If you’re wondering, yes, you can substitute all-purpose flour for the bread flour. I never bother with the bread flour.

I hope with all of my heart that by next Easter, this is all behind us. That we can gather and feast and relax and laugh. It was strange and and somehow fitting to be celebrating the resurrection in the middle of a plague. I’m proud of pulling off the celebration that we did, and I’m glad we have these strings of tradition, of familiar and comforting foods, that can still be there in the midst of these crazy times. Having a touchstone of normalcy in these days is worth its weight in gold.

Executive Function in a Pandemic

If you follow my Instagram feed (and really, if you don’t, you should), you’ll know that I have been cooking like crazy but suffering from a variety of writer’s block. .There are all sorts of things at play here, to one degree or another. I could easily attribute it to my days being full of childcare, or I could point to my exhaustion at the end of the day. However, what resonates the most with my lived experience is a struggle with executive functioning.

In layman’s terms, the “executive function” system in your brain is the part of the brain that keeps you organized. It’s the part that makes to-do lists, has a sense of time, and nudges you to begin and continue tasks. It’s the part that needs support in individuals with ADD, and it’s one of the first things to misfire in people struggling with anxiety.

I know this. I’m a special ed teacher by trade.

I was reminded recently, in a tweet that has long since scrolled on by, that it is a very real, and common, response to trauma to have your executive functioning go all screwy. It really clicked with me – the malaise, the inertia, the confusion, the disorganization. It all matched what I was going through.

In short, this living through a pandemic thing is hard. I’m sure it doesn’t help that childcare and keeping the house stocked with necessities combine to take up most of my brain’s function.

My good intentions are with this blog, and as things feel less dire, hopefully my consistency will improve.

For now, I’ll leave you with a locavore tip that has little to do with cooking, but lots to do with enjoying things that are delicious: Four City Brewing, in Orange, NJ, makes delicious beer and delivers. We ordered from them on Friday, to go with a delivery meal from The OAK Barrel Pub. It was a welcome vacation from homemade meals.

By the way, if you’re concerned about the safety of ordering out, I totally understand. I was really hesitant to for the first few weeks. A doctor friend of mine posted this article about food safety, though, and I’ve heard others chime in in agreement that it is safe. We’ve adopted a policy of moving the food from the containers to our own dishes, then disposing of containers and washing hands before proceeding. I’m comfortable with this state of things, and it’s allowed us to continue to have some small comforts (and support some local businesses).

Quarantine Meals #5 – St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is usually a big deal in my house. We usually have two separate celebrations – first, on parade day (the Sunday before) and then on the actual holiday. There’s usually corned beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, farls, soda bread, cheese, and plenty of beer. In recent years, I’ve been making shepherd’s pie, as well. We usually have people over, so the abundance of food is welcomed.

I already mentioned my brisket escapades; we ate that on March 16th. So, for the actual holiday, I made vegetarian shepherd’s pie!

I roughly follow the Minimalist Baker’s recipe for veggie shepherd’s pie. I add some cheese on the top (because I can’t help myself, and I’m a glutton for punishment like most lactose intolerant people), and I tweaked the filling a little. I read in another recipe that someone suggested mixing barbecue sauce in with the lentils and veggies, and it’s a delicious twist that I’ve kept.

It may not have been the usual raucous celebration, but St. Patrick’s in quarantine was still delicious.

Quarantine Meals #4

March 16th. Our first Monday out of routine.

I’d purchased a beef brisket the previous week, with the intention of making my own corned beef. Normally, I take the easy route and buy corned beef at Shop Rite, but I did not want to brave the madness as everyone shopped for lockdown. I’d always wanted to do my own corning, but – you’ll notice this as a theme, I think – I never had the time.

Well, once again, even on lockdown, I didn’t allow myself enough time. Whoops. Turns out I really needed 5 days to do it right, and I only took the beef out of the freezer 2 days ahead. So, rather than stress, I looked up good ways to make a regular beef brisket. I went with a slow cooker recipe that can be found here.

IT WAS DELICIOUS. 100% would make it again. We’re not generally a beef-eating household, and everyone DEVOURED this. So good. It was also pretty easy. I used to balk at slow cooker recipes that were anything more than “dump a bunch of stuff into the crock and hit go,” but the cooking onions and sauce make the house smell divine  as you set this up. If you don’t have beef broth in the house, by the way, this works fine with vegetable broth. (I make my own, so I usually have chicken or vegetable available, but not beef.)

Comfort food has been the name of the game for the most part, as you’ll see in our next installment.

Essential Business – Greengrocer Foodhub

Longtime readers will be familiar with the mention of Chelsa. Over the past couple of years, she’s been mentioned in my blogging in several capacities – first, as an urban farmer with a microgreen CSA and then a regular CSA, then, as a friend, and finally, as the owner of Greengrocer Foodhub, a small grocery in Bloomfield that specifically sources locally.

Well, throughout this whole Covid-19 situation, Chelsa has been in full-on Superwoman mode. Despite having a three-month-old son, she has managed to steer her store through a huge surge in sales. They’ve moved to an online-ordering format, and customers can pick up curbside. They’re keeping their neighbors fed and safe throughout this whole mess. Personally, I feel indebted to Chelsa and her (very small) team for helping to ease my anxiety… I have two small children that are BOTTOMLESS PITS, and thanks to this store, I don’t have to stress about how quickly we’re running through fruit and milk. The thought of going into a large supermarket right now frankly terrifies me.

Why do I take the time out to mention all of this? First of all, if you’re local, I highly recommend sending your business Chelsa’s way. Once this is all over, you should also visit the interior of her store in person – it’s adorable. Secondly, while the masses panic, there are local options all around to piece together your provisions. You don’t have to be part of the supermarket herd. Thirdly, it’s more important than ever right now to choose to support the little guy. This is going to be a very hard stretch for everyone, economically. One of the important questions to ask yourself is where you want your money to be going. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’d rather support the local shop, run by a woman I know personally, whose son I’ve held, who takes care of her employees and customers, rather than a branch of a corporate tree, who’s more about volume than quantity.

You can visit Chelsa’s (online) store here.

Quarantine Meals #3

We’re up to March 15th.

This was supposed to be Parade Day here in West Orange. It was kind of devastating to have it canceled, though it was completely understandable.

We ended up with a beautiful day, and I decided to tackle assembly of my Garden Tower. I’d entered a sweepstakes to win one of these babies, and I won third place – a deep discount, rather than a free one, but enough to make me pull the trigger.

The manual was SIX PAGES LONG. However, it turned out to not be as intimidating as I thought.

For dinner, I made the filling for Thug Kitchen’s Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas, except I chopped the squash, instead of shredding it. I then put the mixture over rice. It was delicious.

Not a bad way to spend the Parade Day that Wasn’t.

Quarantine Meals #2

Fun fact: one of the weird things that can happen to you after you have a baby is that you can become lactose intolerant! This happened to me after having Little Chef five and a half years ago. Like many other lactose intolerant people, I do have my items that I throw caution to the wind for, though I’ve tried hard to cut back the amount of dairy in my life. That’s what’s led me to so many vegan cooking recipes in the past few years.

Fun fact number two: another thing that can happen to you after pregnancy is gall bladder disease. This happened to me as well. I had an attack when Little Chef was young, and I treated it with diet and acupuncture. I had further issues after having Littler Chef and had the offending organ removed last May in a rather dramatic, emergency situation. The intervening period, about a four year stretch, was a time in which I sought out low-fat recipes to mitigate any issues.

The crossroads where the two meet is Nava Atlas’ “Enlightened Alfredo” sauce. I get my copy of this recipe from “The Vegetarian Family Cookbook.” It’s an alfredo-style sauce made with silken tofu, rather than cream. It’s a nice, low fat content, and it doesn’t send my digestive tract off the rails. Everyone wins!

On day two of quarantine – Pi Day, for those keeping track – I made this Enlightened Alfredo. I paired it with cremini mushrooms, mushroom linguine, and peas. It was delicious. The final touch was a baguette, again from Supreme Bakery.

Lunch that day was a bit simpler, though incredibly delicious. I had a really satisfying salad, mostly courtesy of Greengrocer Foodhub.

No actual pie for Pi Day, though I wore my Pi shirt, and I watched the episode of The Office where they go to the Pie Stand, while I made vegetable soup.

I also had the notion to start assembling my Garden Tower, but I got intimidated by the instruction manual. That would wait until the 15th… which is where I leave you for now.

Quarantine Meals #1

These first few (or many) posts will be a retrospective… as I write this, it’s March 31st, but we officially quarantined our household on Friday, March 13th. That’s two and a half weeks – so far – for those who are counting. The existential dread of waiting to see if we have the virus has lifted, so let’s look back at the excellent ways we’ve been eating.

Friday the 13th, Little Chef went to school for the last time, and Littlest Chef and I ran some errands. It was Spouse’s first day working from home, as well. We did one more “panic stock-up” at Greengrocer Foodhub, and I stopped at Supreme Bakery for some bread and rolls.

That night, we had delicious sandwiches – tomato for the 5 year-old, but BBQ Baked Tofu for the adults.

Everything about this sandwich was amazing. The tomato came from Greengrocer – I don’t know what voodoo the farmer was working, but that tomato actually tasted like it was in-season! The greens were also from Greengrocer – pea shoots and swiss chard. Barbecue baked tofu is easy, though requires a little time. You take the tofu out of the packaging, wrap it in paper towels, and place it in between 2 cookie sheets. Place some gentle weight on top – I use soup cans – and leave it for an hour or two. Then slice, put into a container, and top with the marinade of your choice (in this case, barbecue sauce). Leave it in the fridge to steep as long as you please – the longer the better – and when you’re ready, put the slices on a baking sheet lined with foil (you’ll thank me at cleanup) and bake at 375. Flip the tofu after about 10-15 minutes, and bake for another 10-15, until the texture seems right. It should be dense and not watery anymore, with a little more backbone than regular firm tofu. Don’t fear any burned bits of barbecue sauce – just like when cooking wings, that’s bound to happen. The finishing touch here was the Portuguese rolls from Supreme Bakery.

After my delicious dinner and the usual routine of getting the kids to bed, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law that spooked me. She felt that we should be prepared for longer than the official reports were saying (and it turns out, she was right, though not as dire as she was warning). Of course, this came at the worst time of year for me – we’re skidding through the end of the off-season. I was purposely letting my freezer run down so I could defrost it before the mania of CSA season. I didn’t can much of anything last year, because I had an infant. I began to panic… and blanch and freeze every vegetable in my fridge that would tolerate it.



No harm done. Actually, the broccoli in the last picture went into my dinner tonight, but that’s a post for a different time. Stay tuned for further quarantine meal chronicles…