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CNN —  

It started with sourdough. Or maybe it started with beans. But over the past few weeks (or months), cooking projects have begun to creep into our Facebook and Instagram feeds. As it turns out, for a lot of us, staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked some serious culinary inspiration. It’s also pushing us to be more creative because ingredients can be hard to find, dishes we may have exclusively ordered out now have to be made at home and trips to the store are pushed as far apart as possible. It could even mean that we feel inspired to tackle things we’d never have made ourselves, like doughnuts or stock.

If you need some inspiration for your next culinary project (or six), we asked six chefs and bloggers what their deceptively easy standbys are. From homemade pickles to pesto, you might not go back to store-bought ever again.

Pesto

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Most store-bought pesto is made with basil, but if you make it at home, you can play around with different greens and herbs. Suzanne Cupps, executive chef at 232 Bleecker in New York, likes making a spring pesto with ramps, scallion greens or arugula. (Cupps’ favorite mix is half ramp greens and half arugula.)

Cupps quickly cooks the greens before making the pesto and uses a blender rather than a food processor, since it’s better at breaking down greens. Besides tossing it in pasta, Cupps will use it to spread on sandwiches or serve with grilled fish. Pesto is also one of our favorite ways to use up a CSA farm share box.

Pesto recipe

  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds (or your other favorite nut — traditionally, pine nuts are used)
  • 1 tablespoon + 3/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt
  • 2 quarts spring greens, cut into 1-inch pieces (ramp greens, spring onion greens, scallion greens or arugula — traditionally, basil leaves are used)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 small garlic clove, sliced
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Toss nuts in 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt. Lay out evenly on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 5 to 8 minutes, rotating once, until almonds are golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the oven and let cool.
  3. Put a medium-size pot of water on the stove to boil. Season liberally with salt, as you would pasta water. Separately fill up a large mixing bowl with cold water and ice. Put spring greens into boiling water and submerge using a long-handled spoon or skimmer. Allow them to cook on high for 30 seconds, then immediately remove with a skimmer or strainer and submerge into the ice-cold water. Leave the greens for 2 minutes so they are fully cooled down, then strain out the water and gently squeeze out any excess.
  4. In a blender or food processor, combine toasted nuts, greens, grated Parmesan and garlic. Start blending on low and slowly add in the 3/4 cup olive oil. Gradually turn up the speed until the mixture is pureed.
  5. Scrape out the pesto into a mixing bowl with a rubber spatula. Season to taste with salt. If pesto is thick, stir in a few tablespoons of olive oil to loosen.
  6. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to a month.

The equipment

Vitamix A2300 Ascent Series 64-Ounce Smart Blender in Black ($449.95, originally $549.95; amazon.com)

Vitamix A2300 Ascent Series 64-Ounce Smart Blender in Black
Vitamix A2300 Ascent Series 64-Ounce Smart Blender in Black

Cupps prefers a blender to a food processor for this spring pesto. She recommends a Vitamix. “They are expensive but will last forever and are much stronger than most other blenders,” she says.

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Checkered Chef Baking Sheet and Rack Set ($22.95, originally $37.95; amazon.com)

Checkered Chef Baking Sheet and Rack Set
Checkered Chef Baking Sheet and Rack Set

This pan with a built-in removable baking/cooling rack is so handy in the kitchen that it’s hard to imagine life without it once it’s in rotation. From roasting nuts to cooling cookies, cakes and doughnuts (see below) or even baking bacon, burgers and sheet pan meals, this dynamic duo works hard for home cooks.

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All-Clad 4-Quart Stainless Steel Dishwasher-Safe Soup Pot With Lid ($199.95, originally $279.99; amazon.com)

All-Clad 4-Quart Stainless Steel Dishwasher-Safe Soup Pot With Lid
All-Clad 4-Quart Stainless Steel Dishwasher-Safe Soup Pot With Lid

A medium-size pot is a solid addition to any kitchen cabinet, whether boiling water or making homemade soup.

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Kitch Easy-Release White Ice Cube Trays, 4-Pack ($11.95, originally $19.95; amazon.com)

Kitch Easy-Release White Ice Cube Trays, 4-Pack
Kitch Easy-Release White Ice Cube Trays, 4-Pack

Creating an ice bath for blanching vegetables and cooling hard-boiled eggs before putting them in the fridge requires a lot of ice. Even if you have an ice maker in your freezer, it may be useful to grab a few of these trays for cases like this.

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MyLifeUnit Japanese Hot Pot Skimmer ($6.99; amazon.com)

MyLifeUnit Japanese Hot Pot Skimmer
MyLifeUnit Japanese Hot Pot Skimmer

For this pesto recipe, a skimmer is used to scoop the blanched greens out of the boiling water. However, a skimmer can be used for lots of different jobs, from scooping out hard-boiled eggs to gently dropping food into and out of hot oil for deep-frying.

Doughnuts

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Even experienced bakers may balk at the idea of making doughnuts at home. After all, the doughnut machine at Krispy Kreme isn’t exactly something that can be squeezed into a home kitchen. Thankfully, Dzung Lewis, YouTuber and author of the forthcoming “Honeysuckle Cookbook,” has found a way to avoid the messy grease and still bring the beloved treat home.

“I love making baked doughnuts, which are a little healthier than their fried counterparts, and as far as flavors go, you can make them as indulgent or as light as you want with just a few ingredient swaps,” she says. Lewis has experimented quite a bit with doughnuts, from matcha green tea to maple glazed doughnuts topped with bacon.

While baking is a lot easier than frying, you do need to invest in one piece of specialty equipment: a doughnut pan. After some experimentation, Lewis finds that a silicone one works much better than nonstick steel pans, even when they’re sprayed with oil. Lewis stabilizes the mold on a regular baking sheet in the oven. The dough is then piped into the molds using a piping bag, though a large food storage bag with a corner trimmed off can also be used.

See some of Dzung Lewis’ doughnut recipes on her YouTube channel:

The equipment

Wilton Nonstick Food-Grade Silicone Donut Baking Pans, Set of 2 ($12, originally $16.69; amazon.com)

Wilton Nonstick Food-Grade Silicone Donut Baking Pans, Set of 2
Wilton Nonstick Food-Grade Silicone Donut Baking Pans, Set of 2

Lewis likes that these silicone doughnut pans are not only nonstick but also roll up and store easily.

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Wilton Perfect Results Nonstick 20-Cavity Donut Baking Pan ($14.93, originally $22.89; amazon.com)

Wilton Perfect Results Nonstick 20-Cavity Donut Baking Pan
Wilton Perfect Results Nonstick 20-Cavity Donut Baking Pan

Watching Lewis make mini doughnuts on her YouTube channel, however, you will see this nonstick mini doughnut pan in use too.

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Ateco 18-Inch Disposable Pastry Bags, Set of 10 ($10; surlatable.com)

Ateco 18-Inch Disposable Pastry Bags, Set of 10
Ateco 18-Inch Disposable Pastry Bags, Set of 10

Piping bags allow you to neatly transfer the dough into the mold.

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Measuring Cups and Magnetic Measuring Spoons Set ($29.99; amazon.com)

Measuring Cups and Magnetic Measuring Spoons Set
Measuring Cups and Magnetic Measuring Spoons Set

Making doughnuts from scratch requires a bunch of ingredients measured in varying amounts. This set of spoons and cups should do the trick.

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Oxo Good Grips 11-Inch Better Balloon Whisk ($9.99; amazon.com)

Oxo Good Grips 11-Inch Better Balloon Whisk
Oxo Good Grips 11-Inch Better Balloon Whisk

A good whisk will mix up all sorts of amazing things, including both the dry and wet steps in making doughnut batter.

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Cooptop Silicone Spatula Set in Red ($10.99; amazon.com)

Cooptop Silicone Spatula Set - Rubber Spatula - Heat Resistant Baking Spoon & Spatulas
Cooptop Silicone Spatula Set - Rubber Spatula - Heat Resistant Baking Spoon & Spatulas

Spatulas are great for mixing batter and scraping out every last bit to make as many delicious doughnuts as possible.

Falafel

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Falafel and doughnuts don’t have a lot in common at first blush, but then again, falafel can be a wildly popular treat that we may (wrongly) assume requires a deep fryer and isn’t worth attempting at home. Hannah Messinger, a food writer in Nashville, Tennessee, has become a falafel evangelist in part because of her podcast, “Pantry Raid,” where she encourages people to cook with ingredients they already have. Falafel, as it turns out, might be not so far out of reach. Pro tip: Falafel is a great way to use up extra beans, herbs and vegetables!

That’s because Messinger’s recipe is what she calls “loosey-goosey as hell” and “one of the most forgiving recipes you can imagine.” While her recipe calls for dried chickpeas, she is quick to add that you can use just about any dried beans. The dried beans are soaked overnight, drained, then pulsed in a food processor with onions and parsley or whatever herbs you have on hand.

Then gather the processed dough into small balls and pan-fry them. Falafel is best eaten fresh, but you can store the dough in an airtight container for up to five days and fry them fresh as needed.

Once fried, the falafel can be added to a salad, put in a pita or even served on a platter with some olives, pickles and feta for a Mediterranean take on a cheese plate.

The equipment

Cuisinart Mini-Prep Plus Food Processor ($39.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)

Cuisinart Mini-Prep Plus Food Processor
Cuisinart Mini-Prep Plus Food Processor

No space or budget for a full-size food processor? No problem! Messinger says a tiny one works fine — you just might have to mix in batches.

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Norpro 679 Stainless Steel Scoop ($17.80; amazon.com)

Norpro 679 Stainless Steel Scoop
Norpro 679 Stainless Steel Scoop

Messinger gets uniform falafel balls by using a stainless steel scoop. This size can also be used for meatballs, extra large cookies and even scooping ice cream.

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T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick 12-Inch Fry Pan With Lid ($67.95; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick 12-Inch Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick 12-Inch Fry Pan With Lid

Rated the best nonstick frying pan of 2020 by CNN Underscored, this pan delivers a serious nonstick surface for a great price. Those yummy, crispy falafels won’t stick to this pan!

Labneh

Tenaya Darlington

Messinger also recommends serving the falafel with labneh, which, depending on where you are in the country, might be hard to find even pre-pandemic. A kind of cheese made from strained yogurt, you can make it at home by — you guessed it — straining yogurt. Tenaya Darlington, better known on the internet as Madame Fromage, started making her own labneh after finding a recipe for it in “New Feast” by Lucy and Greg Malouf. You can find the full recipe here, but like with quick pickles, it’s a recipe that is as much about waiting as anything else.

Labneh is made by letting the whey drain off slowly. In “New Feast,” the authors recommend tying yogurt in a cloth bag and hanging it from a wooden spoon, but Darlington found a much easier workaround: She lines a strainer with cheesecloth and lets it sit in a larger mixing bowl. Throughout the night, the whey will slowly drain, leaving you with a fresh, tangy cheese in the morning.

While labneh can seem close to Greek yogurt — and Greek yogurt is just about everywhere these days — Darlington prefers to start with a regular yogurt.

“I find that a lot of Greek yogurt contains thickening agents, and sometimes the consistency reminds me of wet cement,” she says. Using regular yogurt (Darlington likes to go with the organic, grass-fed kind) actually gives you more control over the texture and taste.

Labneh can be used as a spread or dip, but Darlington is particularly enamored with using it to make labneh bowls for breakfast. Swirl some around in a bowl and top it with fruit, crunch (like seeds or nuts) and spices and you have a surprisingly sophisticated answer to oatmeal.

The equipment

Organic Valley Grassmilk Whole Milk Yogurt Plain (prices vary by location; instacart.com)

Organic Valley Grassmilk Whole Milk Yogurt Plain
Organic Valley Grassmilk Whole Milk Yogurt Plain

Because it’s basically the only ingredient in labneh, choosing a high-quality yogurt is important. Darlington prefers grass-fed plain yogurt like this when she makes it.

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Oxo Good Grips 8-Inch Double Rod Strainer ($19.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)

Oxo Good Grips 8-Inch Double Rod Strainer
Oxo Good Grips 8-Inch Double Rod Strainer

Yogurt drains through a fine mesh strainer overnight to leave a thickened and tangy labneh behind.

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Regency Natural Ultra Fine Cheesecloth ($5; surlatable.com)

Regency Natural Ultra Fine Cheesecloth
Regency Natural Ultra Fine Cheesecloth

Even if you don’t have a fine mesh sieve, you can line a colander with cheesecloth to strain yogurt.

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’New Feast: Modern Middle Eastern Vegetarian’ by Lucy Malouf & Greg Malouf ($29.99; barnesandnoble.com)

'New Feast: Modern Middle Eastern Vegetarian' by Lucy Malouf & Greg Malouf
'New Feast: Modern Middle Eastern Vegetarian' by Lucy Malouf & Greg Malouf

This is the cookbook that inspired Darlington to attempt making her own labneh at home.

Quick pickles

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You can make quick pickles out of nearly anything, and it can be an easy way to use up and preserve produce before it goes bad. They’re also a great way to jazz up meals that are starting to feel repetitive with all of this home cooking going on. Carolynn Spence, chef at Shaker + Spear in Seattle, nearly always has a jar of what she calls “all-purpose pickled fresnos.”

“I’ll be honest, as a chef … I don’t cook much at home. I’m more of a snacker. But whatever I eat usually requires heat and acid,” she says about pickled peppers, which she adds to pizza, egg salad, veggies and sandwiches. Quick pickles don’t last as long as traditional preservation methods, but they’re way easier and still last for several months in the fridge. Plus, Spence adds, she doesn’t need to worry about preserving them for more than a few months — she’ll eat them way before they expire!

Fresno peppers have a rounded heat and are less distinctive than jalapeños, making them a great condiment. But you can do this with jalapeños or another pepper — just be aware that while pickling takes some of the heat away, if you pickle something like a habanero it will still be plenty hot.

Pickled fresno peppers recipe

  • 16 red fresno chili peppers (or similar amount of any vegetable)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  1. Slice the chilis into thin rounds and soak them in water to de-seed.
  2. Bring the 2 cups of water and vinegar to a boil and dissolve the salt and sugar.
  3. Place the chilis in a 1-quart Mason jar and cover with liquid.
  4. The pickles will be ready to eat the next day and will store for a few months.

The equipment

Ball 32-Ounce Smooth-Sided Mason Jars, 12-Count ($10.59; target.com)

Ball 32-Ounce Smooth-Sided Mason Jars, 12-Count
Ball 32-Ounce Smooth-Sided Mason Jars, 12-Count

Spence stores her quick pickled chilis in 32-ounce Mason jars. They’re great for long-term storage, and the glass won’t absorb odors or smell.

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