Life, love, and easter in the time of coronavirus
As we close in on a month in lockdown, many of us have found our groove, our routines, a way to make the best of things. We discovered new (okay, new to us) technology to keep us connected, we deepened relationships with the people we live with; assuming, of course, we didn’t kill or divorce them first.
We found a way to deal with the various challenges we faced, including cabin fever, the dearth of toilet paper and rubbing alcohol, and the relentless onslaught of information both fake and real, one nearly indistinguishable from the other.
We also found our various coping mechanisms. On Instagram and Facebook, I watched people work out, declutter, rant, rave, and cook. Confirmed restaurant habitués and takeout junkies posted photo after photo of the increasingly complex and stunning dishes they made.
I noticed, too, both in the photos and in my own food business, that people craved comfort food. We wanted solid, hearty fare that grounded us, childhood favorites that transported us to a safer, simpler and more soothing place.
And, as we slowly adjusted and evolved, many of us found one of the most powerful coping mechanisms of all: gratitude. We learned to be grateful for the comfortable homes that we could complain about staying cooped up in. We learned to be grateful for the bored children that we had to homeschool, parents that wouldn’t stay home until we threatened to tie them up, and the friends we could only hang out with via Zoom. We were grateful that they — and we — were all alive and healthy.
We even found ourselves grateful for the supermarkets despite their bare aisles and long lines, because we at least had money to spend and food to buy. And we found ourselves especially grateful for our frontliners, our heroes in the hospitals, as well as the cashiers, guards, and countless other employees who continued to work to make sure our lives ran just a little bit more smoothly.
And, as we were forced to look inward, we found ourselves looking outward as we learned not only to appreciate, but also to celebrate and to support. In our state of disconnection, we learned how connected we really were and how we needed to each do our part by staying home and helping those who couldn’t afford to do the same.
Easter lunch for many of us brings back memories of luscious roasts — beef, lamb, turkey — and other delectable dishes we only indulge in a few times a year. But if nothing else, this time of COVID-19 has taught us to appreciate the beauty of the simple and the mundane, all the things we take for granted until they are made scarce or even taken away completely.
I grew up with Arroz a la Cubana, a simple dish made with ground beef or pork, tomato sauce, and raisins, garnished with fried bananas and eggs. When I moved to New York, I tried Cuban picadillo for the first time and realized this was probably what our beloved Arroz a la Cubana was based on.
It’s essentially the same recipe, but with so many more layers of flavor, thanks to the addition of various Latino spices, as well as red bell peppers, olives and capers. Cubans usually serve this with beans and rice, but, as much as I enjoyed the far more complex flavors of picadillo, I preferred it served Pinoy-style with the requisite fried bananas or plantains and runny eggs.
To me, this is a perfect dish for the times, fulfilling every craving but easily prepared and with readily available ingredients. It transports me back to my childhood and yet is somehow elevated by the reconnection to its Cuban origins and flavors. I also add a little bit of Spanish chorizo, because really, what’s a Filipino celebration without chorizo? Best of all, it’s incredibly forgiving and will still be delicious if you leave out an ingredient or two because you don’t have them or just don’t like them.
The recipe as it is serves eight and can easily be halved. I chose to make the full amount since it freezes and reheats very well for future meals.
And so, I wish for you all a lovely Easter celebration. Jesus has risen. I hear the Easter Bunny is also up and about. Even during these uncertain times, we are at least certain that every day, the sun will rise. And with a little bit of luck, love and a good lunch, so will we.
Arroz a la cubana (Cuban Picadillo)
(Yield: 8-10 servings)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped white or red onions
1 cored and seeded red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 Spanish chorizo, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 kg ground beef or pork, or a combination of both
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup pimento-stuffed olives plus 2 tablespoons of liquid from the bottle
2 tablespoons capers
Salt and pepper to taste
Accompaniments: sliced fried bananas (saging na saba), eggs cooked sunny side up
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, bell pepper and chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay leaves and cook until fragrant and tomato paste darkens in color, about 2 minutes. Add wine and cook until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes.
Add meat and cook, stirring and breaking up chunks, until no longer pink (5 to 7 minutes). Stir in tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, raisins, olives, liquid and capers.
Cook until liquid is nearly gone, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove and discard bay leaves. Serve with white rice, fried bananas and eggs.
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