Tanzina Vega: As the weather cools down and the pandemic drags on, many of us are bracing for a tough winter and even some of the hobbies that people took up to relax back in the spring might be starting to wear thin. Cooking, for example, is one of them. At the start of the pandemic, some people were fortunate enough to have the time and resources to try elaborate time-consuming recipes but seven months in, that sourdough starter might be losing a bit of its magic. To recapture some of that joy of cooking, we turn to an expert.
Sohla El-Waylly: My name is Sohla El-Waylly, I am the video host of Stump Sohla, and a resident at Food52.
Tanzina: Sohla's new YouTube show is all about experimenting in the kitchen.
Sohla: We need another plan. I don't think the floating mushroom islands are going to work, 18th century mac and cheese. It's not going to look anything like the mac and cheese from right now, but it's the 18th century. Grand finale, Twinkie. I'm going to turn the Twinkie into an ice cream sandwich. I'm going to try and make a liquid Sablé cookie with the cake, and then swirl the cream and some ice cream that we also got from [unintelligible 00:01:02].
Tanzina: Outside of her show, Sohla has been trying to keep it a little simpler lately.
Sohla: I, just like everyone else at the beginning of the pandemic, was really indulgent and baked lot, made a lot of cakes, bread, pies, cookies but now I think I need to move into the healthier food route, meaning a lot of quinoa and beans.
Tanzina: Before we got into some of Sohla's cooking tips for the coming months, she told me how cooking has helped her cope during the pandemic.
Sohla: There's something just really comforting about making yourself a meal that really helps in this chaos, to just come home and take some time. Well, I guess we're not going anywhere, stay home and take some time to make a really nice dinner, sit down with your family because I didn't really have that. My husband works crazy hours, so we rarely got to eat together. It's really nice being able to have meals together, and it just centers our life a little bit.
Tanzina: What about how you cook? You talked a little bit about what you're cooking, but what about how you cook? Are there specific routines? Are there things that you do during this time? Like you said, we're not going out much. Are there any routines that you've tried to stick with?
Sohla: Yes, I've definitely gotten more into meal planning and trying to focus more on cooking stuff that's one-pot or one-pan because cooking three meals a day, it's just an incredible amount of dishes, and it's quite a lot of work. I've just been trying to be a bit more organized, like roast a bunch of squash to eat for a few days. Things like that have really helped make it a lot easier.
Tanzina: Is that part of what you would recommend for folks, especially as we head into these colder months? One of the things I learned the first time around was making sure your freezer is as stocked as it can be with frozen vegetables and if you eat meat, with meat. I was doing it ad hoc, but this time I made a concerted effort to go out and get frozen vegetables and different cuts of meat that I could then separate and freeze.
Sohla: Actually, we have a really small New York City refrigerator, which doesn't work very well so we can't really depend on our freezer very well. Our freezer doesn't really freeze things. We're more of stocking up on the pantry people but for me, I don't really like making my meals in advance because I get bored, but I like prepping out parts of different components of dishes that I can play around with later, like make a big pot of beans, cook up a quart of quinoa, roast a bunch of vegetables, and then you can mix and match during the week without getting bored but we don't really have freezer access unfortunately. I think that if we did, we would be stocking up in there too.
Tanzina: Let's talk about the pantry then. What should people be thinking about in their pantry?
Sohla: Well, I believe that you must always have three kinds of rice. [laughs]
Tanzina: Three kinds of rice? Okay.
Sohla: Three kinds of rice, a long, a medium and a short. They'll do very different things for you. I like to have a really good aged basmati, a nice aromatic Jasmine, and then I love a really high quality sushi rice like Tamaki Gold. That's our standard in the house and it's just really nice. Those three kinds of rice can help you cook the globe. You can have tahdig one day with your basmati rice, and then make hand rolls the other day with a sushi rice. I think having a bunch of rice is great. I love having lots of beans. I've been really into giant white Lima beans lately because they are so creamy and they taste so indulgent, it feels like something a little bit more special than your typical cannellini or kidney bean. Then I've just been a big fan of quinoa lately. We're on a weird quinoa kick.
Tanzina: Holidays are coming up and lots of folks associate holidays with food and unfortunately, a lot of us are not going to be spending time with our families in-person because of the pandemic. How do you cook for the holidays this year? What should people be thinking about? Part of the joy is making huge meals that everyone can share, but we can't do that this time.
Sohla: I honestly think that you should still make the huge meal.
Tanzina: You do?
Sohla: Yes, I think it feels really fun, celebratory, even if it's just you and your immediate family, because you can have leftovers. I still want to feel like I'm having a celebration. For me, this year more than ever, it's very important to have a really fun and exciting Thanksgiving and Christmas because the year has been terrible.
Tanzina: I'm not going to disagree that it has definitely-- There are already Christmas ornaments that have 2020 displayed over a roaring dumpster fire, so I'm not going to disagree with you there but one thing I will say is that not everybody is as talented as you, Sohla, in the culinary art. For those folks who are listening and saying, "I don't even know. I don't have one kind of rice and Sohla wants me to get three kinds of rice," what advice would you give to the folks who are not as adept at the culinary arts?
Sohla: Well, I think a really easy thing that can also be very comforting is a braise. You really can't mess up a braise. You can get a tougher cut, like pork shoulder or lamb shoulder or beef short ribs. It's really easy. You can do a larger quantity or a smaller quantity and you just sear it, you cover it halfway with some broth or another flavorful liquid, and then you just let it simmer on top of your stovetop really delicately, partially covered or throw it in the oven and let it go. You just let it cook until it's totally tender and you really can't mess it up.
You can't overcook it and it's one of those things that I feel like, especially when it's cold, it makes me feel really cozy. The great thing about it is it gets better the next day so you can still make a big cut of meat, feel like you're having that festive feeling, but you're going to have it for a week and it's only going to get better. Anyone can make a braise and I think it's a really good skill to have in your back pocket. It's so much easier than you think. You just cook it forever, that's all there is to it.
Tanzina: You mentioned earlier one-pot or one-pan meals. Are there any that you recommend that are particularly simple to make? Are there any go-to for folks who might be juggling other things like kids and work and now back to cooking?
Sohla: I think there's a lot of things. I have a one-skillet chicken and rice that I just did for Food52 but besides that, I think you could do any kind of stew, any kind of braise that's a one-pot situation. I think that a soup is just a really nice thing. You could really use whatever's in your fridge, start by cooking out some aromatics, add some water or broth, and then throw in whatever you have around and just let it simmer. It's one bowl, really wholesome, really comforting and it's one of those things that you can just like put on low, it will do its thing, and then you can go take care of the kids or take care of the dogs or whatever else you have to do, and it'll take care of itself.
Tanzina: Sohla, what about all those sourdough starters? Are you sensing that we're heading back that way?
Sohla: I never really got into the sourdough thing, to be honest. [laughs]
Tanzina: It's a tongue-in-cheek question, but people seem pretty serious that that was a thing that they were getting into. My sense is that people may be dissuaded from going there again.
Sohla: I know a lot of people went really hard into it. For me, it feels like too much like another pet and I have a hard enough time with my current pets, but I think that there are people who are still going do it. I have a friend who bought actually-- At the beginning of this, she bought a 50-pound bag of flour and she's still making her way through it.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, that's another thing, are there things for kids in our lives? Are there ways that kids can be entertained in the kitchen as we head into the colder months here, particularly around the holiday? Should we be thinking about cookies and other treats for the kids?
Sohla: Oh, definitely. I think that there's always simple tasks that you can give kids in the kitchen. Pretty much, that was how my mom would keep me out of trouble, by having me just stand next to her in the kitchen and clean vegetables and roll out rotis. There's a lot of stuff that kids can do that don't require any knives at all. I think, yes, decorating cookies is a really fun one and it's very easy and inexpensive to make a really simple sugar cookie dough. I think that you could entertain kids for hours, having them roll out dough, cut out shapes, and then decorate it with icing. I truly believe kids should always be in the kitchen. I did it, I have all my fingers, other kids can do it too.
Tanzina: On a more serious note, we have been talking about the number of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table at all right now. I'm wondering if you and any other chefs that you know have found ways to help support others in this pandemic.
Sohla: I know in the beginning, a lot of restaurants were cooking for hospitals and things like that, and it is difficult, but I think that the thing that they need the most more is money rather than donations of food because a lot of these Food Banks buy in bulk. There are specific things that they need because a lot of times when you donate, it's stuff that you don't want, which means it's stuff that they don't want either so I think doing little fundraisers on Instagram have been really cool because I've been blown away.
I can do a half hour live and raise a few thousand dollars, which I think can be really helpful. I know that it's tough right now for everyone. Money's tight for a lot of people, but yeah, I think if you can give a few bucks here and there, that's really helpful and really adds up. I think it might actually be more helpful than taking random, canned goods to your local Food Bank, but it's all good. Do whatever you can possibly do, honestly.
Tanzina: Shifting gears for a minute here this summer, we've been covering on this show, we've been talking about the lack of diversity in media on so many levels, and it is happening across the board. We know that it happened at Condé Nast magazine, Bon Appétit. This summer, you spoke out about that culture of racism and pay inequity there and since then, you've created your own YouTube show. How's the transition been for you from a more traditional magazine outlet to being on your own on YouTube?
Sohla: It's been interesting. With my new show, I actually have a lot of creative freedom and control so that is really fun and exciting, but also a little scary because if I put something out there and people don't like it, I got no one to blame but myself.
Sohla: It's a transition I'm still getting used to. It's all happened really quickly, but I am very pleased with the positive feedback so far.
Tanzina: How do you feel about the future of food media right now?
Sohla: I think that a lot of people in food media have become aware of these issues, and I think that there will be a lot of changes in the right direction. It's unfortunate how it had to come about, but I think we're going to get there. I really have a lot of hope.
Tanzina: Any remaining tips that people should be thinking about when they're preparing for this winter and their pantries?
Sohla: Go for a lot of grains, stuff that maybe you haven't tried before because it can be boring cooking out of a pantry if all you have is pasta. Don't be afraid to try something new like farro or couscous or quinoa. At the end of the day, you're just boiling stuff in water so you'll be okay, you'll figure it out.
Tanzina: Sohla El-Waylly is the host of the YouTube series Stump Sohla and a resident at Food52. Sohla, thanks so much.
Sohla: Thank you.
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