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Helen, Help Me: Advice on Coronavirus-Quarantine Cooking and Other Quandaries

If you have quarantine cooking questions for Helen, send them to themail@newyorker.com with the subject line “Helen Help Me.”

I’m a college student who mostly has existed off of Trader Joe’s frozen meals, but I’m isolated with my friend who can really cook. I have cooked one meal by myself for her, and cooked a few meals with her, but she’s been doing the heavy lifting. I’m trying to make sure that I’m not being a mooch. What’s a good way to make cooking equitable in our apartment? —Siri C., Brooklyn, New York

If you don’t want to cook, or if your roommate prefers to do more cooking than you do, why force an unnecessary equity when you can pull your weight in other ways? For instance, take an hour (or a couple of hours) to write up an inventory of your pantry, fridge, and freezer—noting expiration dates—so that your roommate knows exactly what ingredients she has on hand. If she asks you what you want to eat, be ready with real answers—don’t leave her to do all the work of choosing how to feed you. If you’re healthy, offer to be the one who makes the weekly grocery run. Make sure you’re kicking in at least half of all the food costs, and maybe cover a little more than your share of the booze and other staples. (On that note, learning to make a killer cocktail is a lot easier than learning how to make a paella, and goes a long way toward insuring the good will of one’s friends and neighbors.) Most of all, take a few minutes to talk to her directly about this unevenness in your skills and labor. Let her know that you see it, let her know that you want to find ways to pitch in, and make sure she knows that you don’t expect her to churn out high-effort meals every day.

Last but not least, I’m assuming that when she cooks you clean, right? If you’re not the one cooking, you’re doing all the dishes, and cleaning the counters, too.

What is the best potato-soup recipe for filling the chasm of existential dread where my chest cavity once existed, and can I make it in a Crock-Pot? —Evan R., Portland, Oregon

I know of exactly two potato soups that don’t instantaneously fill me with a soul-deadening sense of boredom (which I know, from experience, is a condition that compounds existential dread). So, please, only make potato soup if you absolutely have to, and if you have the materials on hand to make it great.

The first soup, luxuriously simple and absolutely absurd: use an abundance of meat bones and scraps—especially turkey or duck, if you have them—to make a stock, then turn that into a double stock, and then (bear with me here) a triple stock. When you have a quart or two of the densest, richest, meatiest stock in the world, scrub and dice two pounds of potatoes (for soups, I prefer Yukon golds) and add them to the stock. Simmer the potatoes until they’re soft, then use an immersion blender to purée the whole thing, or purée it in small batches in a blender. (It’s hot, be careful!) Stir in a full cup of heavy cream, a generous blizzard of salt, about twenty grinder rounds of black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. If you have chives or scallions to top it off, go for it, but don’t worry if you don’t; this obscenely rich liquid velvet stands alone.

The second soup, if you’re a normal person who doesn’t have ten to fifteen pounds of poultry scraps in your freezer, operates on a similar principle. Start the whole thing off by sautéeing as much chopped onion and garlic as you can manage in a huge hunk of butter, plus a tablespoon or so of curry paste, or a savory masala blend if you have one that you like. Then add your diced potatoes and simmer the whole thing in regular chicken or veggie stock (or water with a splash of soy sauce and a splash of wine). At the end, stir in the cream. (You can’t skip this step, I’m sorry; the secret of any good potato soup is that it’s actually heavy-cream soup with some potatoes in it.) Add salt, pepper, and something with a bit of heat, like cayenne, Aleppo pepper, or a dash of hot sauce, and then, at the very end, add a few fistfuls of shredded cheese—any kind, though sharp cheddar is best.

You can make pretty much any soup in a Crock-Pot. Just don’t add the cream (or anything that comes after) until the very end.

My family loves bread. All the bread in stores is gone. I do not have a bread machine. I do not have a stand mixer. I just want to make some good, simple white bread that doesn’t involve becoming obsessed with a sourdough starter—but not focaccia, because I want something I can slice for toast and sandwiches. Bonus points if I can toss it together with the kids in the morning, or throw the ingredients together and let it rise in the fridge overnight. I tried to make no-knead bread a few months ago, and it came out all flat and terrible. —Anne A., Manhattan, New York

If no-knead didn’t work out for you last time, one of two things is to blame. One, you may have been using dead yeast. Most official recipes for no-knead bread ask you to first combine the indicated quantities of flour, salt, and yeast in a medium bowl, and then add 1⅓ cups of cool water. Do me a favor and don’t do that. Instead, put 1⅓ cups of warm water (about 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit, or the same temperature as the inside of your wrist) in that medium bowl, and sprinkle the yeast on top. (Do this even if you’re using instant yeast, which supposedly can never be a dud but, in my experience, still sometimes is.) Wait three minutes, maybe five: the bowl of yeasty water should now be foamy. If not, you’ve got a yeast problem.

If your yeast is good, and your dough rises glorious as the dawn, but the bread still emerges from your oven in a flat, depressing disc, it might be that you’re baking it in a pot that’s too large. Serious physical kneading develops gluten in the dough, which is what gives bread its structural integrity; the long rising time in no-knead recipes accomplishes the same thing, but not to the same degree—hence the need for a relatively narrow, high-walled Dutch oven, which slows the outward spread of the dough once it hits the heat of the oven. If your pot is wider than eleven inches, you’re likely to end up with something closer to a Frisbee than a proud, domed loaf.

If it’s still not working after these fixes, you might just be bread-cursed. I’m not a superstitious person, but there are some people for whom beautiful loaves of bread just don’t like to work. In that case, maybe reconsider your opposition to focaccia.



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