Need Help Cooking Through The Coronavirus Pandemic? Chef Amanda Freitag Has Tips

Mar 25, 2020
Originally published on July 31, 2020 12:54 pm

Coronavirus home cooking is now a part of American life.

Many restaurants across the U.S. are empty. Grocery store shelves are often bare. And in recent days, amateur cooks have posted about their improvised, less-than-delectable quarantine dinners — dishes including hot dogs with strawberry jam, fish fingers and custard and, as one Twitter user confessed, microwaved cheese on a plate, with barbecue sauce.

But in case you're clueless in the kitchen during this era of coronavirus, chef and Food Network star Amanda Freitag has shared some ideas with NPR.

What are some pantry staples?

Freitag recommends starting by keeping "dried things and canned things" in stock in the kitchen: legumes such as lentils and beans, dried or in cans; quinoa; barley; ground cornmeal for polenta or grits; pasta sauces and lots of different shapes of pasta.

"Don't keep the same shape. We need to mix it up a little bit," she says. "I think they all feel a little different when you cook them."

And the following:

  • Baking staples, including all-purpose flour, white sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, butter and yeast. Also keep stocked up on eggs, for baking and other uses, as well as oils, such as olive and vegetable.
  • Oatmeal and dried fruits that can be turned into granola, along with some nuts and seeds.
  • A freezer loaded with proteins, frozen vegetables and broth, as well as frozen fruits for smoothies and for baked items such as muffins.

Tired yet of rice and beans?

Try that dish with a twist. Freitag suggests Cuban congri: Start with handfuls of chopped bacon, scallions and onions, as well as some garlic, cumin and olive oil, in a pot.

"Then you put in your beans and your dried rice, and you cook it all together," she says. "It's just a flavor bomb – and it's beautiful. It turns purple-y color."

She suggests pairing it with a protein for dinner — or try it with a fried egg on top for lunch or breakfast.

Aside from spices, what else can give things more flavor?

Freitag suggests trying the briny, salty taste of red or black olives in a jar or a can — or the vinegary punch of capers. There's also bacon, cured meats and pickles.

What if the only thing the meat department has is corned beef?

You might have discovered last week that corned beef is all that's there, so that's what you bought. Thank Saint Patrick's Day grocery ordering. Freitag says if you have corned beef in your fridge or freezer, cook it slow on the stove and on low until it's really tender. (She says to cook a 3-pound corned beef at a simmer, covered with water or a water-beer mixture, for 5 hours or until fork tender.)

Then use in multiple ways: Go ahead and have your delayed Saint Patrick's Day dinner with potatoes and cabbage. Leftovers can be turned into corned beef hash in the morning, be put in a sandwich for lunch and be added to pasta.

For other kinds and cuts of meat you're planning to keep, make sure to portion them into smaller sizes so you don't waste any after thawing.

(See the mustard sauce recipe below for something to top onto leftover corned beef.)

Need ingredient substitutions? Try these.

  • For garlic: Substitute onion, scallions or shallots.
  • For shallots: Spanish onion or onion powder
  • For fresh tomatoes: tomato paste or canned diced tomatoes
  • For scallions: either basic onion or a fresh or dried herb like parsley, basil or chives
  • For fresh cilantro: ground coriander or dried parsley or basil
  • For fresh corn: frozen or canned corn, peas or edamame
  • For jasmine rice: any basic white rice or Arborio rice
  • For white wine: It can always be omitted, or a white wine vinegar can be used (use 1/4 of the amount of wine).
  • For eggs: Substitute the liquid that comes from soaking chickpeas. It's called aquafaba, and you can whip it by hand or in a stand mixer. "It whips up just like meringue," Freitag says.
  • For heavy cream: Try coconut milk, and for some recipes, you can even use vanilla ice cream! (That worked for Freitag's rice pudding recipe below.)

Looking for some simple, easy-to-prepare recipes? Here are a few.

Freitag suggests these below from her cookbook, The Chef Next Door. See the list of substitutions above, should you need some.

All-Round Mustard Sauce

Chef Amanda Freitag's mustard sauce — shown here on a corned beef sandwich.
Courtesy of David Malosh

Makes 2 cups

5 shallots
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup grainy mustard
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


Peel and thinly slice the shallots.

Simmer shallots and white wine in a small saucepot until dry.

Add heavy cream and reduce by half.

Use a fine mesh strainer to strain out shallots. Return smooth cream to the pot over low heat.

Add both mustards and whisk until smooth.

Simmer on low for 5 minutes before serving.

Corn And Black Bean Salad

Freitag says her corn salad — from her book, The Chef Next Door — is a simple dish prepared with mostly pantry items.
Courtesy of David Malosh

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil
5 ears corn
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup cooked black beans
1/2 cup tomatoes
2 tablespoons sliced scallions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup lime juice
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup grapeseed oil


Cut kernels from cobs.

Dice the tomatoes.

Trim and slice the scallions.

Chop the cilantro.

Juice the limes.

Heat the canola oil in a large, wide sauté pan. Add the corn kernels and sweat over medium-low heat. Season with salt.

After a few minutes, once the corn is bright yellow, warmed through and tender, transfer into a large mixing bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the sautéed corn and mix well to combine.

Allow the salad to sit for a couple of hours before serving.

Rice Pudding

Makes 4-6 servings

1 cup jasmine rice
10 cardamom pods, optional (or substitute 2 cinnamon sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups milk, plus 1/2 cup to finish
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream


Add just enough water (approximately 2 cups) to cover the rice in a medium saucepot, and bring to a simmer, cooking until completely tender.

Add cardamom, sugar, salt and 4 cups of milk to the cooked rice. Simmer over low heat, occasionally stirring to prevent the rice from sticking, until all the milk is absorbed, about 40 minutes.

Finish the pudding by adding the remaining 1/2 cup milk, vanilla and cream.

Transfer the pudding to a glass bowl, and chill in the refrigerator before serving.

If you want to make individual servings, transfer the pudding into ceramic ramekins or glass dishes before placing in fridge.

No matter in what container you store the pudding while cooling, make sure you place a piece of plastic wrap flush on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.

Serve with whipped cream or a dusting of cinnamon.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


Home cooking is now just a fact of life for many people. Many restaurants across the country are closed. Grocery store shelves are sometimes bare. So in recent days, amateur cooks have posted about their less than delectable quarantine dinners, dishes like hot dogs with strawberry jam, fish fingers and custard and, as one Twitter user confessed, microwaved cheese on a plate with barbecue sauce. Actually, that one doesn't sound so bad.

If you are clueless in the kitchen, we have some help from Food Network star Amanda Freitag. Amanda is a chef, author and judge on the competition show "Chopped," and she joins us now from New York City. Hi, Amanda.

AMANDA FREITAG: Hi. Good morning.

KING: Can I start with a confession?

FREITAG: Please.

KING: I do not like the word pantry because I spent most of my adult life in New York City, where there is no such thing as a pantry; there's a cupboard. So let me ask you - what should be in my pantry and/or small cupboard? What are things I really need right now?

FREITAG: You know, this is not a unique list but obviously, dried things and canned things. So we're talking about, you know, legumes like lentils and beans. They can either be, you know, dried or canned. I prefer the dried beans, but I think canned beans for the novice is a great way to go. Lots of different shapes of pasta - don't keep the same shape. We need to mix it up a little bit, and I think they all feel a little different when you cook them. I have a whole bunch of stuff ready for baking and then just lots of, you know, stuff for breakfast, like oatmeal and dried fruits that can turn into granola and a loaded freezer. I've got lots of frozen vegetables and broths, and I'm stocked with eggs right now. So that's...


FREITAG: ...What I've got. And - but I think that's a pretty good way to start.

KING: So let me ask you about beans - right? I am a lover of rice and beans...


KING: ...But I will admit I'm getting a little tired.

FREITAG: (Laughter).

KING: They're there now, so I'm making them often. Do you have anything interesting I can do with black beans or pinto beans?

FREITAG: Oh, my God, yes.

KING: Yes.

FREITAG: Perfect question. There's a really excellent Cuban dish called congri. When you cook your rice, it starts with bacon and scallions and onions. And then you put in your beans and your dried rice, and you cook it all together. And it's just a flavor bomb, and it's beautiful. It turns this beautiful sort of purple-y color with the beans cooking with the rice - not after the rice has been cooked but together with the rice. And if you really pump it up with the bacon flavor, you have a dish that's very different from your average rice and beans. And that's, to me, something that you can have with a protein for dinner or, you know, with a fried egg on top for lunch or breakfast.

Black beans also, to me, make a great salad. And I think we have to switch up our bean dishes, right? It can't always be hot beans with rice.

KING: Flavor is obviously very important. I've been working through my spices like a demon.

FREITAG: (Laughter).

KING: I am actually concerned about running out of some things.

FREITAG: (Laughter).

KING: Aside from spices, what can I have on hand that will give things more flavor?

FREITAG: Something like green and black olives in a jar or in a can; capers are something that I always have in my fridge, you know, like, bacon or cured meats or pickles - I think those are all great briny things to have on hand to just sort of brighten up any meal.

KING: Let me ask you about meat. I've always been a little suspicious of meat in the freezer, but it's good. It's good to go - right? - as long as you keep it frozen through.

FREITAG: Oh, absolutely. You know, the freezer is a great way to keep proteins, especially at this time. Keep them just wrapped really well. I think that it's good to have packaged them into portions because I think the difficult thing for most people is they get a big package of something, freeze it in its entirety, and then you have to pull out the whole thing without being able to use it all.

KING: Portioning - portioning out is the way to do it. Some of the people on our show who have been in the grocery store recently have noticed a lot of the shelves of meat are bare. Corned beef was something that we noticed was going like hotcakes. I'm assuming that was because of St. Patrick's Day.

FREITAG: Because that's pretty much when everybody cooks it. So you might find that your stores have that and only that leftover. I have a recipe in my book for corned beef and cabbage because my mom loves to make it every year (laughter) once a year only, and it seems like that is, you know, the general consensus.

But you know, corned beef is not a bad thing to have on hand. You know, if you found one and it's the only protein and you bought it, you can definitely cook it slow and low until it's really tender. And then that's something you can use in multiple ways. Go ahead and have your, you know, delayed St. Patrick's Day dinner with potatoes and cabbage. But then that could turn into corned beef hash in the morning. That could turn into a delicious sandwich for lunch. You know, you could put that into pasta even.

KING: Health experts are saying that we should not go to the grocery store unless, you know, we kind of really need to. So I want to ask you about substitutions. I'm going to run through a couple of quick things with you...

FREITAG: Oh, great.

KING: ...And I'm hoping you can tell me if I don't have X, I'm able to use Y. Can we do that?

FREITAG: I love this game.

KING: OK. If I don't have eggs, what can I use?

FREITAG: Oh, well, you're probably now stocked with some beans or maybe even some chickpeas in a can. And chickpeas, the liquid that they're in is called aquafaba. And that's actually an amazing egg substitute. Aquafaba, if you were to whip it - you know, by hand or in a stand mixer - whips up just like meringue. You just drain out the liquid that the chickpeas have been cooked in. It doesn't give off bean flavor, and it really works.

KING: That is extraordinary. Can we agree there's no substitute for garlic?

FREITAG: Oh, my God.


FREITAG: Well, I always talk about this for those garlic naysayers out there. But you can use onion - if you like onion - or a scallion or shallots.

KING: How about pots and pans? So for people who don't have extensive cooking tools, what are the absolute must-haves?

FREITAG: So I have a 10-inch skillet that I use for a lot of things. I have a 12-inch skillet if I need something bigger - with an oven-ready handle, which is very important. You just cook in that same pan in and out of the oven. And I think a Dutch oven is such a great tool. You know, that Dutch oven, you can cook just about anything in it.

KING: So that and keep your knives sharp.

FREITAG: Oh, of course. Oh, yes. And I think this is going to be a great time for everybody to sort of hone in on their kitchen skills.

KING: Amanda Freitag is a chef, author and judge on "Chopped." Amanda, thank you so much for being with us.

FREITAG: Thank you so much. Stay well, everybody. Happy cooking.

KING: We're going to post some of Amanda Freitag's simple home recipes, including her corn and black bean salad, an all-around mustard sauce recipe and her rice pudding recipe. You can find those at

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "VOYAGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.