Of course, not everyone loves to cook, and pandemic times have raised a series of questions and contrasts. Are people grabbing anything simply to eat, or have they embraced culinary invention? Do families take their plates and dine at separate workspaces? No talking, only texting? The eternal optimist, I want to believe many folks took advantage of these times to try something, anything, creative and soulful.
I realize it’s not so easy. My friend Satish recently texted me a picture of boiled confetti new potatoes in a bowl, asking, “Do these look done?” They looked beautiful (though slightly overcooked). “How long will they last?” he queried quite seriously.
Satish is a doctor. He, his wife, Sujaya, and I have become quite close over our shared love for our hometown Buffalo Bills, food, flowers, flowing conversation, and politics. When he fretted about the potatoes, Sujaya was stuck in India; she’d gone to be with her ailing mother but then, though vaccinated, she tested positive for Covid and was, with the rest of the country, on lockdown. Satish was stuck for a very different reason, namely, what to prepare for dinner as Sujaya’s one-month absence stretched to two.
The whole dining experience had become a distant snapshot in time—the social aspect of exchanging ideas or simply enjoying food dissolving with his darling far away. His attempts to line up weekly meals from his freezer and refrigerator, good in theory, became difficult to coordinate with his fluctuating hospital schedule. Food frustration was building for my friend.
The potato quandary spurred regular phone conversations between us about what to cook—usually while I was concocting dinner myself, often toasting fennel seed, coriander, cumin, turmeric; or a Mediterranean blend of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage—whatever struck my mood and would coordinate with what my pantry or refrigerator held. Legumes figured prominently; garlic, onion, shallots, scallions, played supporting roles. To me this is just habit: The aromas alone are fantastic, and welcoming. “What’s cooking?” I’m often asked by neighbors out on their exercise walks. Toasting spices, roasting nuts were not Satish’s strong suit, though he liked and missed them terribly. Ham, sauerkraut, and potatoes were more like it. My suggestion once of a quick sauté of kale from his garden met with laughter, as Satish could only imagine yet another pan to clean. Plus, he’d be reminded of how Sujaya prepared kale using spices and nuts. One night as we chatted, I was making a marinade for salmon. Satish perked up; he wanted the recipe.
Voilà ! This one is also good for chicken, tempeh, or pork tenderloin. The marinade keeps in the refrigerator. Quantities can be multiplied as needed.
- 2-4 salmon fillets or 1 piece (I prefer skin-on unless serving a large group)
- 6 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
- 4 Tbsp. rice vinegar (seasoned or plain)
- 3 squeezes honey (adjust according to taste)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-4 scallions, chopped, white & green parts
- 1-2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced (or 1/4—1/2 tsp. powdered ginger)
- 2 additional scallions, sliced, for garnish
- 1-2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish
Combine soy, vinegar, honey, garlic, ginger, and scallions in a glass jar, and shake. Place salmon in glass or ceramic dish. Pierce with fork. Spoon marinade to cover salmon, reserving remainder in the jar for later. Marinate 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450-500, moving rack to upper position.
- Prepare baking sheet with foil (easy cleanup) and spray with grill spray.
- Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet.
- Roast 10 minutes (for moist, luscious texture).
- Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes; remove skin.
Toss some peppery lettuce like arugula (or baby kale, an assortment of spring greens) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Plate that, and top with fish. Using a clean spoon, sprinkle the reserved marinade from jar over the salmon and greens. Garnish with lemon wedges and scallions.
Accompany with Satish’s boiled potatoes, or with black japonica rice with mango, diced red onion, EVO, the zest and juice of fresh lime and orange, salt and pepper, and chopped cilantro. Experiment!
This recipe has been a favorite among Kopkind “campers” in Vermont, where, until the pandemic, I had lovingly prepared summer meals since 2011. I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients, and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s to whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects. Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks Andy and his partner, John Scagliotti, had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.
I will miss Vermont again this year, and look forward to summer 2022. Here, the fog is lifting as we begin to enjoy life again, whatever form that takes. Sujaya is back. Her surprise arrival relieved Satish of his dilemma over her homecoming dinner: bucatelli and meatballs? Goat curry?
As vaccinations progress, I am more hopeful. I liken our reemergence to the arrival of Brood X, the cicadas that lived underground for 17 years and appeared in our town square in May. Each of us cracks our pandemic shell individually, at our own pace, and also together, quite similar to cicadas shedding their exoskeletons. Imagine if humans had the cicadas’ lifecycle. “Cicadas,” my amateur entomologist brother texted, “are here to eat, sing, and find love during their short lives.” As we cautiously embrace what we hope is the post-pandemic era, find bits of joy through laughter, loved ones, and all that can come from the deeply human art of cooking and sharing food, Bon appétit !
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.