NOEL KING, HOST:
Home cooking is now just a fact of life for many people. Many restaurants across the country are closed. Grocery store shelves are sometimes bare. So in recent days, amateur cooks have posted about their less than delectable quarantine dinners, dishes like hot dogs with strawberry jam, fish fingers and custard and, as one Twitter user confessed, microwaved cheese on a plate with barbecue sauce. Actually, that one doesn't sound so bad.
If you are clueless in the kitchen, we have some help from Food Network star Amanda Freitag. Amanda is a chef, author and judge on the competition show "Chopped," and she joins us now from New York City. Hi, Amanda.
AMANDA FREITAG: Hi. Good morning.
KING: Can I start with a confession?
KING: I do not like the word pantry because I spent most of my adult life in New York City, where there is no such thing as a pantry; there's a cupboard. So let me ask you - what should be in my pantry and/or small cupboard? What are things I really need right now?
FREITAG: You know, this is not a unique list but obviously, dried things and canned things. So we're talking about, you know, legumes like lentils and beans. They can either be, you know, dried or canned. I prefer the dried beans, but I think canned beans for the novice is a great way to go. Lots of different shapes of pasta - don't keep the same shape. We need to mix it up a little bit, and I think they all feel a little different when you cook them. I have a whole bunch of stuff ready for baking and then just lots of, you know, stuff for breakfast, like oatmeal and dried fruits that can turn into granola and a loaded freezer. I've got lots of frozen vegetables and broths, and I'm stocked with eggs right now. So that's...
FREITAG: ...What I've got. And - but I think that's a pretty good way to start.
KING: So let me ask you about beans - right? I am a lover of rice and beans...
KING: ...But I will admit I'm getting a little tired.
KING: They're there now, so I'm making them often. Do you have anything interesting I can do with black beans or pinto beans?
FREITAG: Oh, my God, yes.
FREITAG: Perfect question. There's a really excellent Cuban dish called congri. When you cook your rice, it starts with bacon and scallions and onions. And then you put in your beans and your dried rice, and you cook it all together. And it's just a flavor bomb, and it's beautiful. It turns this beautiful sort of purple-y color with the beans cooking with the rice - not after the rice has been cooked but together with the rice. And if you really pump it up with the bacon flavor, you have a dish that's very different from your average rice and beans. And that's, to me, something that you can have with a protein for dinner or, you know, with a fried egg on top for lunch or breakfast.
Black beans also, to me, make a great salad. And I think we have to switch up our bean dishes, right? It can't always be hot beans with rice.
KING: Flavor is obviously very important. I've been working through my spices like a demon.
KING: I am actually concerned about running out of some things.
KING: Aside from spices, what can I have on hand that will give things more flavor?
FREITAG: Something like green and black olives in a jar or in a can; capers are something that I always have in my fridge, you know, like, bacon or cured meats or pickles - I think those are all great briny things to have on hand to just sort of brighten up any meal.
KING: Let me ask you about meat. I've always been a little suspicious of meat in the freezer, but it's good. It's good to go - right? - as long as you keep it frozen through.
FREITAG: Oh, absolutely. You know, the freezer is a great way to keep proteins, especially at this time. Keep them just wrapped really well. I think that it's good to have packaged them into portions because I think the difficult thing for most people is they get a big package of something, freeze it in its entirety, and then you have to pull out the whole thing without being able to use it all.
KING: Portioning - portioning out is the way to do it. Some of the people on our show who have been in the grocery store recently have noticed a lot of the shelves of meat are bare. Corned beef was something that we noticed was going like hotcakes. I'm assuming that was because of St. Patrick's Day.
FREITAG: Because that's pretty much when everybody cooks it. So you might find that your stores have that and only that leftover. I have a recipe in my book for corned beef and cabbage because my mom loves to make it every year (laughter) once a year only, and it seems like that is, you know, the general consensus.
But you know, corned beef is not a bad thing to have on hand. You know, if you found one and it's the only protein and you bought it, you can definitely cook it slow and low until it's really tender. And then that's something you can use in multiple ways. Go ahead and have your, you know, delayed St. Patrick's Day dinner with potatoes and cabbage. But then that could turn into corned beef hash in the morning. That could turn into a delicious sandwich for lunch. You know, you could put that into pasta even.
KING: Health experts are saying that we should not go to the grocery store unless, you know, we kind of really need to. So I want to ask you about substitutions. I'm going to run through a couple of quick things with you...
FREITAG: Oh, great.
KING: ...And I'm hoping you can tell me if I don't have X, I'm able to use Y. Can we do that?
FREITAG: I love this game.
KING: OK. If I don't have eggs, what can I use?
FREITAG: Oh, well, you're probably now stocked with some beans or maybe even some chickpeas in a can. And chickpeas, the liquid that they're in is called aquafaba. And that's actually an amazing egg substitute. Aquafaba, if you were to whip it - you know, by hand or in a stand mixer - whips up just like meringue. You just drain out the liquid that the chickpeas have been cooked in. It doesn't give off bean flavor, and it really works.
KING: That is extraordinary. Can we agree there's no substitute for garlic?
FREITAG: Oh, my God.
FREITAG: Well, I always talk about this for those garlic naysayers out there. But you can use onion - if you like onion - or a scallion or shallots.
KING: How about pots and pans? So for people who don't have extensive cooking tools, what are the absolute must-haves?
FREITAG: So I have a 10-inch skillet that I use for a lot of things. I have a 12-inch skillet if I need something bigger - with an oven-ready handle, which is very important. You just cook in that same pan in and out of the oven. And I think a Dutch oven is such a great tool. You know, that Dutch oven, you can cook just about anything in it.
KING: So that and keep your knives sharp.
FREITAG: Oh, of course. Oh, yes. And I think this is going to be a great time for everybody to sort of hone in on their kitchen skills.
KING: Amanda Freitag is a chef, author and judge on "Chopped." Amanda, thank you so much for being with us.
FREITAG: Thank you so much. Stay well, everybody. Happy cooking.
KING: We're going to post some of Amanda Freitag's simple home recipes, including her corn and black bean salad, an all-around mustard sauce recipe and her rice pudding recipe. You can find those at npr.org.
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