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COVID-19 is changing the way we think about food. We are becoming do-it-yourselfers during this pandemic, especially when it comes to cooking. Did you ever think you would be making your own bread or cooking at least two meals a day?

Here are 10 recipes to help you take your quarantine cooking up a notch, from a stunning strawberry jam to homemade ricotta to chili crunch, used all over Asia as a condiment but hard to find here. Make a jar of salad dressing to last all week and discover the difference between homemade and store bought. How about instant gravlax or three-day steak aging?

Pickles are easy and the only real challenge in this group is making your own sourdough starter. Never fear: You can also buy it.

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Skip to a recipe:

Ricotta | Sourdough starter | Buttermilk | Gravlax | Quick pickles | Basic salad dressing | Chili crunch | Basil pesto | Strawberry jam with apples | Strawberry jam with lime | Quick dry-aged steak


Ricotta

Creamy homemade ricotta is far superior to any that you buy. Making it is easy; all you need is a pot, some cheesecloth, and a few simple ingredients. It is rich, not too calorific and keeps for a few weeks.

The longer the ricotta hangs, the drier it will become. I usually save some whey just in case it seems a little too dry. If you do not want to make your own, make sure you buy a creamy ricotta. Ferrante and Santa Lucia make good ones.

  • 2 litres whole milk
  • Large pinch salt
  • ¼ cup lemon juice or 3 tablespoons white vinegar

Bring milk and salt to a gentle boil in a pot. It should reach 185 F on an instant read thermometer and be bubbling around the edges. Add lemon juice or vinegar and stir until mixture forms curds. Turn off heat and leave pot on burner for 20 minutes.

Line a strainer with two layers of cheesecloth and place over a very deep bowl or pot. Pour mixture through cheesecloth. Let hang for 35 to 45 minutes, or until soft curds form in the cheesecloth. Place ricotta in a bowl and reserve, refrigerated, until needed. You should have about 2 cups. The remaining liquid is whey. You can use it for fermentation or instead of buttermilk. It makes great scones. If you want your ricotta creamier, stir in some of the whey. Use the cheese for pasta dishes, cheesecake or as a spread on top of fruit. It makes a great avocado toast when topped with mashed lemony avocado.


Sourdough starter

Food stylist Eshun Mott makes divine bread and her sourdough starter is her secret. If you have never made a starter, this easy recipe explains what you need to do. Essentially, you are fermenting flour and water. “I have found this method to be relatively easy and effective,” says Mott. “It will take several days of feeding before a starter will begin to look and smell active. Try to feed it at about the same time every day. I recommend looking for images of active sourdough starter on the internet to let you know what you are aiming for.”

Getting a bit of sourdough starter from someone you know, or a local bakery is ideal because making sourdough is fairly advanced level baking and having someone to ask questions of is extremely helpful. That said, you can of course make your own.

Day 1: Combine 20 grams (1/8 cup) whole wheat flour and 20 grams (5 teaspoons) warmish water in a clear jar or container. A chopstick works well for mixing. Cover loosely and store in a warm place (ideally about 26 C).

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Day 2 & 3: Weigh out 20 grams of mixture and discard rest. Add 40 grams each whole wheat flour and water and stir to combine. Cover loosely and let stand at room temperature.

Day 4 and onward: At this point you can start feeding your starter white bread flour instead of whole wheat if you prefer. You are looking for bubbles and dimples in the surface of the starter, and eventually a starter that is aerated and rises and falls in a predictable manner 4-6 hours after feeding.

Around Day 6: Use the float test to see if the starter is working. Add a little piece of starter to water and if it is full enough of air it will float — this is a sign your starter is ready. If it is not ready, continue to feed it as before. Test each day; it can take as long as 10 days for it to react. Once ready, you will need to feed it every 12 hours if on the counter or keep it in the fridge and feed it at least once a week when you aren’t planning to bake with it.

Tips: If a grey liquid appears on the surface of your starter it means that the starch has been consumed and turned into alcohol. Stir it back in and feed as per usual (or drain off and replace with an equal amount of water). Mature starter should smell pleasantly sour like overripe fruit and not too much like vinegar.


Buttermilk

How often do we have a recipe that calls for buttermilk and we don’t have any? Here is how to make it yourself.

  • 1 cup milk, either whole, 2 per cent or skim
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar

Pour milk into a 1 cup measure and stir in lemon juice or vinegar. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes. The mixture will curdle and become thicker. Keep refrigerated.

Alternatively use ¼ cup yogurt thinned out with milk to make 1 cup.

Gravlax

Amy Rosen’s latest cookbook is the bestselling Kosher Style. Her instant gravlax is beyond delicious. You can make as much or as little as you want, and it keeps four or five days if refrigerated. Add different herbs or some grated beets to give it a red glow.

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (or white)
  • 8 ounces skin-on salmon filet
  • Fresh dill or cilantro
  • Mix kosher salt with brown sugar. Set cure aside.

Slice salmon into thin (1-cm thick) slices on the bias. Spread half the cure on a large plate and lay salmon slices evenly overtop.

Sprinkle the rest of the cure on top of salmon slices, making sure salmon is completely covered, then top with sprigs of fresh dill or cilantro. Lay plastic wrap overtop and press down firmly, making sure everything is coated.

Refrigerate for 1 hour, then brush off cure and herbs. Pat salmon dry. I sprinkled with a touch of olive oil before serving.


Quick pickles

The secret to quick pickling is the ratio of vinegar to water and the amount of sugar and salt you include. The more vinegar, the more acidic the pickles. The more sugar, the sweeter the pickles. As for added spices, there is a whole world out there.

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The most popular pickle is cucumber. Buy mini-cucumbers, Persian ones are ideal. They should be very firm. A slightly soft cucumber when pickled never has the crunch you want. My favourite pickles are radishes, baby turnips, onions, tiny cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, carrots, and daikon radish, but you can pickle any vegetable. If I do green beans, I tend to blanch them for a minute then toss into ice water to retain the colour.

I prefer to use either rice vinegar or apple cider as I like a mellower taste. However, white vinegar and wine vinegar work too. They tend to make a sharper pickle.

  • 1 cup vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, optional
  • Flavourings to taste (can include star anise, togarashi (Japanese peppers), coriander seeds, peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, thinly sliced garlic or ginger, dried chillies or chili, dill, tarragon or oregano. Use as much or as little spice as you prefer)
  • 6 cups vegetables

Slice the vegetables in the best shape for each. Rounds of cucumber and radishes or batons of carrots, for example. Place in a big bowl.

Bring water, vinegar, salt and sugar and your spices to boil. Let boil for 2 minutes. Pour over vegetables and leave on the counter until cool. Place in jars and refrigerate. Will keep for 2 months.


Salad dressing

Every week, I make enough basic salad dressing for the whole week and then flavour it as I want.

The oil is what carries the flavour of the salad dressing. Use olive oil, preferably extra virgin, which has a richer flavour. When you want a less assertive flavour, use safflower, sunflower, peanut, canola oil or avocado. Nut oils add a flavour change.

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Vinegar gives spirit and tang to a dressing. Use white wine vinegar for a more mellow taste, and red wine vinegar for a rosier colour. Milder rice wine or apple cider are good when there is fruit in the salad. Balsamic is mellower and slightly sweeter, sherry vinegar is softer and more rounded. Fresh lemon juice adds lots of zing.

Salt is the great leveller of salad dressings. When the dressing tastes too oily, add salt. The oiliness will be gone. Use Kosher salt for a better flavour. For a special treat, finish the tossed salad with a sprinkle of finishing salt, such as Maldon.

Oil and vinegar do not combine without an emulsifier. Dijon mustard is the best choice, adding tang. Mayonnaise also works and will make a creamier dressing.

Basic dressing

Makes about 1 cup

I call this my house dressing as it is the basis for most of my salad dressings, plus it is a wonderful marinade for steak or lamb chops. Make the dressing in quantity and store in a jar in the refrigerator. It tastes better, is healthier and cheaper than store-bought dressing.

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Shake just before using to re-emulsify. I prefer to use white wine vinegar, but substitute others if you wish. If the dressing tastes oily add some more salt. It makes all the difference. Maple syrup, honey or sugar will give a sweeter edge.

  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil.
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk together vinegar and mustard with a stick blender or by hand. Slowly pour on the oil whisking as you go. If you pour the oil too quickly it will not be absorbed. Season well with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until needed.

Add-ins: chopped garlic, grated ginger, miso, any herb, sugar, maple syrup, honey, balsamic vinegar, cream, shallots, soy sauce, sherry vinegar, grainy mustard, lime juice.


Chili crunch

This is a take-off on a Chinese condiment that is sprinkled over everything to give it some heat and punch. It is a bit time consuming to make, but the results are spectacular. Sprinkle it on eggs, tofu, pizza, over steak, on a toasted cheese sandwich, or fish – just about everything tastes better with a sprinkle. It also makes an excellent marinade, and can be sprinkled on meats and in sauces to boost flavour.

I used a small handheld mandoline slicer for the shallots and garlic, but you can do it by hand. Use a coarser grater for the ginger so as not to turn it into mush. I take dried Chinese mushrooms and bring them to a powder in the blender.

Chili crisp (adapted from Bon Appetit)

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Makes about 1½ cups

  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (I used grapeseed) 4 shallots, thinly sliced 2 heads of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 6 star anise
  • 2 small cinnamon sticks
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 2 generous tablespoons ginger, grated or finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup chili flakes or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons mushroom powder (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

Place oil in pot and stir in shallots, garlic, star anise, cinnamon sticks and cardamom. On a medium heat, simmer all the ingredients for 15 to 20 minutes, adjusting heat so garlic and shallots cook slowly and eventually turn a golden brown but do not blacken. Place ginger, chili flakes, soy sauce and sugar in a medium bowl. Strain hot oil on to this mixture so it cooks slightly. Stir in the shallot/garlic mixture. Cool. Place in a jar and refrigerate. It will keep for 2 months.


Pesto

Pesto is a marvellous condiment to have on hand, and it is easily customized. While basil is the most common herb used, you make pesto with any green herb or soft vegetable, including spinach, dandelion greens or kale. And instead of the classic pine nuts, try hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts or pepitas for a nut-free choice. Refrigerated, pesto keeps for a week or so. Use over pasta, dotted on eggs, with grilled chicken or pork, or over vegetables. Use this recipe as your blueprint.

Basil pesto

Makes about 1 cup

  • 2 cups packed basil leaves
  • 2 medium garlic cloves (about 2 teaspoons chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped pine nuts or any other nut
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine basil, garlic and nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. With machine running, pour olive oil through the feeder tube. Turn the machine off as soon as the oil is incorporated. Pulse in cheese and season with salt and pepper.


Strawberry jam

Strawberries do not have enough pectin to set properly for jam. I wanted to test whether I could use a lower percentage of sugar to allow the strawberry taste to come through and at the same time have the jam gel without pectin. The test worked by grating some green apple into the strawberries before cooking. Green apples have lots of natural pectin to help the set. The second test worked with lime juice added.

Strawberry jam with apples

  • 2 cups quartered fresh strawberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup grated tart apple (with skin)
  • 1 250 mL jar with snap lids and screw bands

Place strawberries, sugar, and apple in a non-reactive saucepot. Cover and let stand without heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Bring mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce to medium heat and boil rapidly, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until mixture gels and reaches 220F, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 20 minutes.

Ladle into sterilized jar, leaving ¼-inch head space at the rim. Cover with two-piece lids.

Once cool, check for proper seal (lids should be concave) and store in the refrigerator.

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Strawberry jam with lime

The second test was with lime juice added to give the needed pectin. This, too, worked.

  • 2 cups quartered fresh strawberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 thin slices lime
  • 1 250 mL jar with snap lids and screw bands

Place strawberries, sugar, and lime slices in a non-reactive saucepot. Cover and let stand without heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Bring mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce to medium heat and boil rapidly, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until mixture gels and reaches 220F, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 20 minutes.

Ladle into a sterilized jar, leaving ¼-inch head space at the rim. Cover with two-piece lids.

Once cool, check for proper seal (lids should be concave) and store in the refrigerator.


Quick dry-aged steak

A hack suggested by my nephew Dan Geneen, who produces and is co-anchor of the Eater Digest podcast. It is not quite as funky as real dry-aged, but it does have an edge to it.

  • 1 10-ounce rib eye
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce

Brush rib eye on both sides with fish sauce. Place in a freezer bag, squeeze out the air and leave for 2 days, refrigerated. Unwrap and then rewrap tightly in cheesecloth.

Refrigerate for another day or until needed. Unwrap and grill or pan fry.

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