Curious Cook: The new normal


  • Food News
  • Saturday, 02 May 2020

Growing your own vegetables and herbs is a good idea during this period, especially as there are fewer opportunities to shop. — Reuters

It is a bit depressing to be able to date a TV show or movie just by looking at the number of people in the studio or film set. Anything filmed after March 2020 would have people socially distanced from each other and/or wearing face masks. Those filmed earlier would look “normal”, though it would seem like we should be prepared for a new “normal” in the immediate post-lockdown era. Note that I am not using the phrase “post-pandemic”. That is because it looks like the SARS-CoV-2 virus will be with us for some time.

Barring a scientific breakthrough which can deliver a safe vaccine for everyone, it looks certain that we will all have to somehow adapt to life together with the virus, possibly for a considerable length of time. In some ways, it may mean a better diet for many people as it would be healthier to choose to cook at home rather than dine out as often as in the past. I personally would miss this aspect of life as I like good restaurants but perhaps I should not pine so much for high-fat, high-calorie meals, even if it is served with a nice Margaux.

Cooking at home

So during the lockdown here in France, I am cooking every day at home, and it has become second nature to cook meals which are not only enjoyable, but healthier and significantly more economical. One metric I use to manage the quality of food is to estimate via my wife and neighbours how much they would pay for a dish. If they all consistently rate it as worth more than the cost of the plat du jour at a reasonable restaurant, then I would file that recipe in my mind for use another time, perhaps for a dinner party when we are finally allowed to socialise again.

The columnist has used his lockdown time in France to create inventive meals, like this plate of Asian fusion noodles. — CHRIS CHANThe columnist has used his lockdown time in France to create inventive meals, like this plate of Asian fusion noodles. — CHRIS CHAN

Fortunately, I have brutally honest people eating my food, so it is not often they would admit that they would pay top dollar for my cooking, but a high bar is good to have. Some of my ex-schoolmates in Kuala Lumpur are also constantly messaging me pictures of their superb culinary efforts at home and they are quite motivational.

I like Asian food and with a bit of effort, it turned out quite easy to recreate a semblance of “fusion” Asian cooking. For example, it proved feasible to use Western staples such as spaghetti to replace Chinese noodles, but if you can get it, capellini (very thin spaghetti) is even better.

A simple, satisfying plate of fried “Lockdown Noodles”, fusion-style, can be achieved by first boiling the pasta in salted water, exceeding the recommended cooking time by one minute, then drain, but keep about a cup of the boiled water. In a large pan on medium heat, add in small pieces of pork belly (or bacon or any fatty meat) and stir constantly till they start to melt and brown. Then fry a mirepoix mix (celery, onion, carrot and garlic all finely chopped) in the fat till softened, adding a dash of olive oil as required.

Meanwhile mix together a marinade of some dry marsala, madeira or sherry (though Shaoxing wine is better), oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar and a dash of water. Now add into the pan whatever extra ingredients you like such as vegetables, prawns, sliced beef or chicken, even leftovers, and stir until barely cooked.

Plonk the cooked pasta into the pan and stir fry until just a little sticky at the base. Splash the marinade all over the pasta and stir in vigorously for about a minute. Now optionally, crack in an egg or two and stir fry until the egg is cooked. If the pasta sticks too much to the pan, pour in some of the kept pasta water and unglue the base with a wooden spatula. And that is it.

You might wonder why I have not written down any specific quantities above. That is because this is offered as an idea which anyone can develop into their own version, so please feel free to adjust and tune the dish according to personal tastes.

Grow your own

As we have a lot more time and much fewer opportunities to go shopping, a sensible idea might be to grow some plants like herbs and simple vegetables at home – especially those items which are harder to find in the shops.

Chillies are one of the edibles that people should think about growing at home. — FilepicChillies are one of the edibles that people should think about growing at home. — Filepic

Here in France, we are growing our own chives, mint and chillies, mostly from seeds scavenged from fruits or from stalks. And beansprouts as well, which are easy and nutritious, as all I need to do is sprinkle a layer of mung or red beans onto wet layers of kitchen paper in a container and leave in a dark cupboard, keeping the paper wet every day. The mint plant is already threatening to overflow from the pot, so that is an easy plant to cultivate. It is a handy herb for seasoning couscous, salads and other dishes.

Sunlight

Despite having to stay confined at home, it may be important for people to get a little exposure to sunlight every day. This applies especially to children as statistics show that young children with insufficient or no access to sunlight are three times more likely to develop allergies to eggs, 11 times more susceptible to developing nut allergies plus varying higher chances of other allergies.

This may be due to a lack of vitamin D, an interesting multi-faceted compound which needs transformation by various organs before it is finally usable by the human body.

Getting a little bit of sunlight every day is very important, especially for children. — AFPGetting a little bit of sunlight every day is very important, especially for children. — AFP

Although classed as a vitamin, vitamin D is technically not one. This is because human bodies can synthesise a version of this compound by itself called cholecalciferol (or vitamin D3). Vitamin D3 is also found in fish, liver, butter, eggs and very few other foods. Dietary supplements and some plants (e.g. mushrooms) usually provide a different compound called ergocalciferol (or vitamin D2) which is slightly less easily absorbed by the body. Vitamin D2 is also created commercially by exposing plant sterols to ultraviolet energy.

When humans are exposed to sunlight, the production of vitamin D3 starts with a precursor: a common cholesterol molecule called 7-dehydrocholesterol. Upon exposure of skin to sunlight, the ultraviolet UVB rays in the light acts to convert this precursor into vitamin D3. However such exposure to sunlight must be balanced against the dangers of overexposure (with its attendant risks of skin cancers or diseases), so it is best done in the early mornings or evenings when the sun is not too strong. Either that or use a screen to filter out very strong sunlight.

At this point both vitamins D2 and D3 are unusable by the body. As they both go through the same processing paths, from now on both will be referred to as just vitamin D.

The first stop is the liver where vitamin D is transformed by the addition of several oxygen and hydrogen molecules into 25-hydroxyvitamin D. This is the compound tested by doctors to diagnose vitamin D deficiency.

But 25-hydroxyvitamin D is still unusable by the body until it has passed through the kidneys, where a final pair of oxygen and hydrogen molecules are attached, creating the active form of vitamin D called calcitriol or 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D. It is this form of vitamin D that is crucial for the body’s ability to absorb calcium and for regulating cell growth. How this compound calcitriol is linked to childhood allergies is unclear but its cell regulation functions may play a part.

There is one little thing to add. Ingesting excessive amounts of vitamin D (e.g, via vitamin pills) is not a good idea. Excess vitamin D is stored in body fat up to a certain limit, but overdosing on vitamin D can mean large amounts of calcitriol circulating in the blood – this can become a toxic situation.

Stay safe

Finally, one can view the current pandemic lockdowns as a boring stretch, or one can use the time to develop some useful skills (like cooking delicious healthy food) and good hobbies or habits. Whatever you choose, please stay safe and healthy.

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