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2020 In The Kitchen: The Year We Spent Making, Baking, Frying And Trying

Fernando Cobelo for NPR

Renee Horton has spent a lot more time than usual in her kitchen this year.

Horton, a NASA engineer from New Orleans, has been working from home almost exclusively since March. With her desk just steps away from her home's kitchen, she often tries out new vegan recipes and also makes her classic comfort food staples in between video meetings.

For Horton, cooking during the coronavirus pandemic has meant consistency at a time when everything has changed.

"I think I ate chicken and waffles at the beginning because that was, like, my true comfort food," Horton tells NPR.

Horton is single, but she doesn't cook like it, she says. She's always sharing dishes with family and friends — and now that they can't eat together, people regularly drop by to pick up the extras.

She's not the only one who got acquainted with their kitchen this year. Many people who found themselves at home more started to cook more. And they took to social media to chronicle their attempts at making family dinners, learning to bake bread, trying out new cooking tools and gadgets and finding new uses for the forgotten items at the back of the pantry.

Like Horton, the Coker family in upstate New York has been busy trying new things in the kitchen this year. Rachel Coker tasked her two teenagers with regular dinner duties.

"School wasn't really happening at all, so we kind of joked that this was like a home ec class," Coker says.

The kids used guided meal kits, and they introduced some new favorites to the household. Risotto has become a new staple, and they've enjoyed making Thai food at home for the first time.

Other home cooks have used food as a way to feel closer to faraway family this year.

Lauren Sklba lives in Colorado, but her family is in Wisconsin. When she couldn't safely get home for Thanksgiving, she dug up her great-grandmother's stuffing recipe.

"I had no idea if I was actually doing it right, but then it turned out great," Sklba tells NPR. "It just tasted exactly like I wanted it to taste like, and I wanted it to taste like the stuffing I'd grown up with."

Many at-home chefs also couldn't get to the store as regularly this year or felt uncomfortable going out as much as they used to. That's why pantry staples, like beans, had a moment in the limelight, says Washington Post food and dining editor Joe Yonan. He's the author of a cookbook called Cool Beans.

"Probably the biggest thing we've seen is people wanting more flexibility in their recipes and looking for ways to substitute things," Yonan says.

Doing it all from home also became more of a norm during a year of economic hardship, when many families couldn't afford to eat out as much and were looking for cheaper ways to get dinner on the table.

Yonan says that's probably not going to change anytime soon.

"People will still be looking for frugal ways of cooking, I think, for a while to come," Yonan says. "Beans certainly fall into that. Making your own bread certainly falls into that."

In Chicago, Sofi LaLonde tried a lot of new recipes at home as part of her New Year's resolution — one a week for 2020. Her resolution project included baking — something that has called to many during the pandemic.

Most of the recipes LaLonde tried turned out great, she says. Bread, not so much.

Her cinnamon roll dough, for example, was a fail.

"When I tell you it was hard as a rock, I am not exaggerating," LaLonde says. "I could hit it, like pounding on it, with a fist, and it would not make a dent. That totally sucked."

But even if a recipe is a fail, it's still practice. Author of cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat hopes this year of extra practice — all the chopping, dicing and meal-prepping between Zooms — will create a generation of better cooks.

Plus, it gets us off our devices for a bit.

"Even if you're making bad bread, you're off your computer, you're off your screen, your hands are in dough," Nosrat says. "You're trying to be attuned to how wet is this dough, how does it feel when I'm turning it, when I'm kneading it. And that kind of stuff, to me, is what makes us human."

It's human to be getting tired of the kitchen, too, says Nosrat. Even the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author is getting sick of the taste of her own cooking while stuck at home.

That's where Nosrat suggests going to a new place with your cooking — trying to incorporate elements of a new part of the world or new cuisine into your old staples. Nosrat says some kimchi or chili crisp can, literally, spice up a bowl of rice, or fried egg.

The author of a hugely popular roast chicken recipe also went on a grocery store rotisserie chicken kick this year.

"I will say, I have really, really explored a lot of new condiments this year," Nosrat says.

And if you're just not in the mood tonight, there's no shame in takeout. Nosrat stresses that restaurants can use our help this winter — so relax and set those newly acquired pandemic cooking gadgets aside. Your air fryer will still be there tomorrow.

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Nina Kravinsky
[Copyright 2024 NPR]