Let's Get Organized, Pandemic Cooks! Tips from a Legendary Chef
Updated: Mar 11
By Bonnie Fishman
Part I: How I Ended Up Living In California in an Off-the-Grid Barn
It was December 2019, and my husband Bob and I were going through our annual ritual of driving out to California for the winter. This was our seventh drive across the country (Route 66) to get out of the cold Michigan weather and to be with family. Both of my older sisters live in a small city filled with horse ranchers, vintners, farm workers. Our kids live in Los Angeles. Usually, Bob and I have rented a 1940s beach bungalow in Ventura. Sounds glamorous, not so much. It’s nice having the beach down the street, but not so nice having chronic plumbing problems, drafty windows, saggy couches, and an ill-equipped, minimal kitchen. We loved it anyway. Gorgeous Mediterranean weather, fresh fish right out of the ocean, strawberry farms, avocado ranches, orange groves around every turn. A cook’s dream for fresh raw materials.
That winter, we had chosen to settle in the San Francisco Bay area, where my sisters Nancy and Marcia now live. We moved in with Nancy (the oldest) and her husband Ronnie for what was supposed to be three months while we watched our new “snowbird” home being built out of a barn next door. The best laid plans. You know where this is going. The Bay area was the first part of the country to lock down due to the pandemic. Life as we knew it stopped, including our construction. The three months grew into “we’re never going back to Michigan.” We lived together for a year.
Marcia, who was also building a cottage next door, had no place to live either. Hence, we were three sisters and two husbands hunkering down under one roof. Many people would call this a nightmare scenario. We Fishman girls do not fall in that category. We get along famously. On our mother’s deathbed, when we were still teenagers, she told us to stick together and look out for one another. We sisters took that to the nth degree. Nothing has EVER come between us. EVER.
Being a chef, I was drooling with the prospect of communal dinners. My sister’s kitchen is large and well-stocked. My only gripe was her electric stovetop, which I never got used to. Most mornings, we’d have a discussion about what was for dinner, who was making it, what could anyone contribute. We ate really well. Being around the kitchen table every night is what we looked forward to during the doldrums of the day. It was the glue that kept the group together. Over dinner, we’d rehash the news of the outside world, since so little was happening within our compound. One of the best things about cooking for others is the conviviality of the meal. And if one is lucky enough to cook alongside someone else, even better. Many nights, I would make the entrée and my brother-in-law, Ronnie, would do the sides, or vice versa.
In December, 2020, we finally moved into our dream barn, with a large communal great room for cooking, eating, visiting. We had officially joined the Fishman Family Compound, three homes designed by my brother-in-law. One casita, one swimming pool with cabana, one office cabin and beautiful grounds surrounded by foothills. We have been quarantined as one pod here for almost a year, cooking together and for each other, making bread, cheese, jams, growing herbs. We’re in a semirural area with chickens and quail out my kitchen window, a small sheep ranch five houses away, and goats around the corner, not to mention the occasional horse hanging out. It’s not THAT rural, though--I can walk to a Starbucks!
Part II: An Unconventional Career Path
You don’t know me well yet, but it’s all about cooking. My road to having a food business was unorthodox, weaving from camp kitchens to ultimately opening a fine French pastry shop at the mere age of 27. I was fortunate that my job choices, though not deliberate, resulted in a wide variety of culinary and business experiences. I was in the food business from age 14 to 56. I’d call that a good run.
In the early years, I was a cook’s helper at Camp Michigama, my father’s summer camp in West Branch, Mich. At the ripe old age of 19, I ran the kitchen at Innisfree on Lake Michigan, near Sleeping Bear Dunes, a hippie do-what-you-want-to-do camp—planning the meals, buying the food, teaching teenagers how to cook said meals--for 100 people, three meals a day.
Where did this knowledge come from? I believe it was innate. My mom was a wonderful cook and I was glued to her leg. Mom was ahead of her time, culinarily speaking. She entertained with such grace. Her dinner parties were a full-on assault of delicious and beautifully presented food. Hey, she was making chocolate leaves back in the 50s. Her favorite store was Kitchen Glamour in Detroit. I remember tagging along to go shopping. Great kitchenware shops are still among my favorite places to go. I visit them wherever I travel.
My camp kitchen days were followed by making soup for an Ann Arbor deli while attending the University of Michigan and getting a degree in cultural anthropology. By the way, there is a huge connection between my major and cooking. Ah, but that’s for another column. By 23 years old, after being a kitchen manager for Win Schuler’s, a renowned family-owned Michigan restaurant group, and attending the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London, I landed a plum job as the general manager of The Money Tree, a downtown Detroit fine dining restaurant. At first, I was way in over my head. I kept that secret from everyone, including me! But I managed to turn the business around from in-the-red to black over a three-year period. I left it thriving.
What followed was a side gig in the San Francisco Bay area as a pastry chef and caterer. Upon returning to suburban Detroit , I opened Bonnie’s Patisserie. My shop was in the black from day one, there was such a demand for “from scratch” quality baked goods and food. I stayed in this location for 25 years, subsequently moving to a much larger, swankier space to create Bonnie’s Kitchen & Catering. I owned and ran that for almost five years until I had a career-ending accident. Ah, but that’s for another column too.
Part III: Let's Get Organized, Pandemic Cooks!
So here we are, a year into lockdown, something none of us thought would happen. We didn’t even know to consider this could happen. But for those of us who cook, it has been a joyous time for recipe development, cookbook and internet surfing, consultation, recipe-sharing, and experimentation. Many people have taken a serious interest in cooking and baking during the pandemic. This is partly out of necessity, because we aren’t eating out, but also because we never had time to explore the wonderful world of combining ingredients to nourish ourselves. What a creative outlet, right? Regularly on Facebook, I see friends’ and family members’ beautiful meals, breads, desserts that they would have never had time or the inclination to make. So proud!
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during my 40-plus years in the food business is how to organize and run a kitchen, no different than what you can do in your own home. My Prepared Pantry was important before the lockdown, because it makes practical sense. Who wants to run out to the store for a tablespoon of soy sauce because you haven't stocked it in your cupboard? Also, if you are a creative cook, you have more raw materials at your fingertips And personally, I find it very satisfying to work with what I have on hand.
Because of the pandemic, now planning ahead is essential. Many of us have limited our trips to the grocery store to twice a month or not at all, getting deliveries. But the latter has inherent problems, because with deliveries, you can’t spontaneously buy things as you do when roaming the aisles. Hence, this is an even better reason to be organized with lists. Every household that plans to cook at home should be prepared.
My daughter-in-law always remarks how I whip stuff up without having to run up to the corner to buy ingredients. Hey, I’m so prepared that I could probably feed 75-100 people or so out of what exists in my pantry at any given time! I will admit that I take preparedness to the nth degree. So let’s pare it down for Insiders who are cooking for their own households. Here’s my advice for your home: Bonnie’s Prepared Pandemic Pantry
Part IV: Bonnie's Prepared Pandemic Pantry
Something to remember when consulting the following list: it is a guideline. You may not cook with the same ingredients as the next guy. You may prefer a specific ethnic-food group. Adapt this to your needs. Another thing to note, and this is important: I’m a “winger.” I’m at the point in my life where I instinctually know how to put ingredients together to make a tasty dish. I recognize that not everyone is like this and that many people adhere to recipes.
If this applies to you, when creating your pantry, you’ll have to take an extra step. Map out some meals you plan to cook in the near future, and be sure to include those particular ingredients in your shopping list. You can learn how to adapt, though, if you don’t have just the right vegetable or nuts or cheese. Lots of substitutions can be made without compromising the outcome. When offering recipes in future columns, I will suggest some alternatives, say, if you HAVE to have sour cream but you only have yogurt!
I invite you all to follow my column for new doable, flexible recipes. I encourage questions and input about what our readers are cooking at home. Sharing food is one of the most comforting, nourishing activities we can do for each other, particularly during a pandemic. Won’t you join me in this journey?
THERE ARE 3 PANTRY AREAS IN EACH KITCHEN:
DRY GOODS, FREEZER, REFRIGERATION.
This is probably the most important area to be properly stocked because it is not perishable. Included in this group are Baking Products: flours, sugars, honey, leavening agents, spices, assorted nuts, dried fruits, cooking oils, chocolates and yeast. Next (and this will be your largest group),is Legumes, Rice, Pasta. I always have a large selection of dried legumes, such as split peas, lentils, white beans and barley. I stock several types of rice, such as basmati, brown, wild and arborio. I enjoy having various pastas of all shapes so I can make a linguine with clam sauce, a baked ziti or mac & cheese. Next, Condiments. This category is the most personalized selection because it has so many variations. Take vinegars, for example. You can stock balsamic, white wine, red wine, sherry, tarragon, fruit flavors--you get the picture. This section has mustards, catsup, soy sauce, Worcestershire, salsas and Asian sauces. A variety of dried herbs and spices, salts and pepper is a must. Lastly, Canned Goods: You should not skimp on this section. Canned tomatoes, sauces, pasta are imperative; canned beans, artichokes, Asian veggies, broths, coconut milk--whatever you like.
Look to your freezer to store most of your proteins. Have a good variety of what you eat in different forms. For example, chicken - buy whole, pieces, skinless/boneless and so on. Don’t forget ground meats, too. Keep frozen vegetables, bread, tortillas, raw doughs such as phyllo and puff pastry. You want to be ready for anything. Lastly, I store extra butter and cheeses in the freezer for a backup supply.
I have friends come over and they are in awe of the varieties of produce I have at any given time. Not just one type of berry, but three; not just one type of lettuce but four. Produce is essential. Also, an abundance of eggs, cheeses, milk products, yogurts, butter. The other day my sister asked if I had some feta for her beet salad. “Do you want a chunk or crumbled?”, I answered. Be ready. I don’t usually stock deli meats because of their perishability, but if you stick with cured meats, you’ll be fine.
As you can imagine, I almost NEVER run out of ANYTHING!
To make your life easier, I have divided my shopping lists in “should haves” and “could haves." I vote for getting both “haves” during pandemic times.
Olive oil--regular or extra virgin
Vegetable oil--soy or canola
Vinegars--balsamic, white wine
Wine, dry - white, red
Vinegars --red wine, sherry, rice wine
Chinese sauce--hoisin or oyster
Chili paste with garlic
Crushed tomatoes in puree
Stock--chicken, beef, vegetable
Beans--white, kidney, garbanzo, black
Chinese vegetables--bamboo shoots, baby corn, water chestnuts
Pasta, Rice, Grains
Pasta--long noodles, short sturdy noodles
Flour--white, whole wheat
Sugar--granulated, light brown sugar, honey
Leavening--baking powder, baking soda
Split peas--green, yellow
Black pepper mill
Mediterranean herbs--basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, crushed red pepper flakes
Ground spices - cinnamon, cumin, chili powder, paprika, dry mustard
Indian spices--curry, coriander, turmeric, garam masala
ground pepper--black, white
Produce, Dried Fruit & Nuts
Nuts--almonds, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts
Raisins, dried cherries
Citrus--lemons, oranges, limes
Mushrooms--fresh or dried
Green veggies--broccoli, green beans
Frozen peas, corn
Fleshy fruit--melon, stone fruits
Dried cranberries, figs, dates
Cabbage, kale, arugula
Sliced whole grain bread
Crackers - whole grain, graham
Crusty loaf--baguette, sour dough
Plain yogurt/fruit yogurt
Shredded cheese--cheddar, Swiss
Dough--phyllo, puff pastry
Soft cheeses - goat, feta, bleu
Ground meat--beef, turkey, veal, pork
Boneless chicken breasts
Pork--bacon, sausage, ham
Fish--salmon, cod, tilapia, tuna
Chops--lamb, pork, veal