Shut in my house due to coronavirus, I actually haven’t spent much time in the kitchen (unless that entails standing in front of the pantry eating Doritos). Instead, I’ve left the cooking to my boyfriend Mike, who normally works most nights as a bartender but since restaurants in New Jersey have been closed for dining-in, has been stuck at home as my personal chef.
Not that it’s much of a difference than what my average cooking routine entails. Since starting a weight loss plan about a year ago, I cook pretty boring meals at home – think baked salmon, grilled zucchini, a warmed-up 70-calorie brownie if I’m feeling adventurous.
Just a few years ago, though, the kitchen was my favorite place to be. After finally learning some cooking basics from my college roommate Alex – prior to that, I was raised on microwave meals, although I loved real food – I headed to Italy for a semester in Florence and, as any smart college kid does, I signed up for a Pairing Food And Wine class.
Partly because I was a senior, a year older than all of the other students, and partly because I had some semblance of cooking skills thanks to Alex, I felt more confident in the kitchen in that cooking class than I ever had before. Whenever we divided into groups to conquer one piece of a dish from our hastily-bound ‘textbook’ assembled by Dottore (Dr.) Giancarlo Rossi with photocopied pages from other cookbooks, I quickly assumed the role of group leader, showing the other students how to properly dice an onion or simmer a sauce.
One dish that we made that I’ve continued to make from that cookbook throughout the years is gilded chicken breasts, which are simply baked chicken breasts topped with Dijon mustard and a mixture of pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, rosemary and parsley. Even though I’ve lived in eight homes since I stood in Rossi’s kitchen classroom, I still have that gnarled cookbook.
Following my college graduation a semester after my semester in Florence, cooking was my main creative outlet after I spent eight hours per day in a mind-numbing job. But, since I found my footing in journalism, grew busier and became more committed to my weight loss, my creative cooking mostly died.
Cooped up at home during coronavirus, I was looking for an outlet once again, and Mike didn’t feel like cooking one night. So, I dug my old cookbook out from under the sink and got to work creating a recipe that was simple but I knew Mike would appreciate – those tasty gilded chicken breasts.
All of a sudden, I was my old self again, even if I still couldn’t venture very far from my house. I was chopping up pine nuts and mixing them with herbs to create the rich chicken topping. I was seasoning the chicken and spreading the Dijon mustard on top. I was even making my own tomato sauce, ready to be combined with some pasta I found hiding in a cabinet. I was flitting about the kitchen, my zapped energy from too many days on the couch back in full force. I felt proud of this creation that I had made with my own hands, even if it was only a couple of chicken breasts apt for the dinner table.
Throughout this pandemic, it’s been hard for me – and maybe you, too – to remember myself and who I am when everything that has defined me is pretty much on the back burner – travel, food, friends, fashion, fun. But sometimes, all it takes is a little zest – hey, maybe just some lemon zest – to bring it right back.