Sherri Roberts, a busy single mom, was trying to decide on dinner one recent evening at her home in Canton. She looked in her fridge and found pizza dough, brie, blackberries and prosciutto. In the back of her pantry was a long-forgotten jar of pesto.

So she made a pizza. With brie and blackberries.

Sherri Roberts of Canton made this pizza with brie and blackberries she found in her refrigerator. Photo courtesy of Sherri Roberts

“It was surprisingly good,” she said, much better than some of the “horrid” stews she’s made while quarantined, like the one made with leftover pot roast and canned potatoes.

Quarantined Mainers have become amateur culinary archaeologists, digging through their refrigerators and freezers and burrowing into the back of their pantries for the odd, or old, ingredients that got shoved back there in, say, 1982. And they are making meals out of them – things like canned snails and hearts of palm and miso paste that was used once for that recipe that time.

Every day Brian Ross of Hampden, founder of the Facebook page Quarantine Kitchen, sees photos of  dishes made with unusual ingredients. The page – which he started three weeks ago as a place for Mainers to share recipes while they are stuck at home during the pandemic, show off their cooking, and ask each other for advice – has grown to more than 4,000 followers and now has members from all over the world, including Thailand, China and South America.

“I have two cans of chicken that are getting long in the tooth,” one member posted. “Does anyone have any good recipes that incorporate canned chicken?”

Another member asked what to do with the six pounds of tomato sauce she accidentally bought online from Wal-Mart.

“There was one person who made Gen Tso’s chicken,” Ross said, “but they used Dino Bites (frozen chicken nuggets) that came out of the freezer.”

The Quarantine Kitchen page has become “an enormous potluck supper,” Ross said, with home cooks from Europe interacting with home cooks from Vassalboro. “I equate it to the world’s largest harvest table, and everybody is bringing something to it. But what’s cool about it is there are people sitting next to each other at this table that would never sit next to each other in life.”

Ross has done a little pantry cleaning himself. He discovered a can of scungilli, or Italian conch, in his kitchen and made a snail salad and fritters.

Roberts found her pantry and two freezers filled with items she’d bought on sale or with coupons. She’s finding creative ways to combine ingredients so they will appeal to her children. One day, for example, she cooked frozen chicken breasts with spinach dip and a half a jar of salsa and served it over rice. The next day she added an old can of black beans to the leftovers and made chicken enchiladas. The rest (yes, there were still leftovers) she put into the freezer, with plans to add corn to it later for a chicken tortilla soup.

“My kids do not like leftovers, so I’m trying to be creative and not wasting food, especially now,” she said. “I made a steak dinner last night and turned it into steak hash today.”

Another Quarantine Kitchen member, Meryl Kelly of Bethel, used farro she found in her pantry and bear meat given to her by a neighbor to make bear pelmeni, or Russian dumplings. Kelly, a waitress and cook, has been furloughed from her job at Salt & Libby’s in Gorham, New Hampshire.

Kelly ground the farro into a flour and fermented it like a sourdough starter. “It gives the pasta really good depth,” she said.

Meryl Kelly, a cook and waitress from Bethel, made these Russian dumplings with bear meat and farro she found in her pantry. Photo courtesy of Meryl Kelly

Because bear meat is very lean, Kelly ground the meat up with salt pork before stuffing the dumplings. “I’m from New England, so I put salt pork into everything,” she joked. She seasoned the meat with caraway, onion and garlic. For brightness, she added lemon zest. Kelly served the pelmeni to her husband with a sour cream-dill dipping sauce, “and it was really good,” she said. “We ended up making some more and freezing them.”

The Turin Show

In late March, Portland chef David Turin started “David’s Pantry Games,” a fun exercise where he asked his Facebook followers to send him a list of the ingredients they found in their pantries. He created recipes from those ingredients, and in return asked that they make the dish and send him a photo.

“As much as I think the grocery stores are doing a heroic thing – I think they’re doing an amazing job – I don’t know of anybody who’s eager to run to the grocery store right now, myself included,” Turin said. “I just made this assumption that a lot of people have a lot of stuff in their house that they choose not to eat because they don’t know how to cook it, or they’re not interested in cooking.”

With his restaurants closed for now, Turin also found the challenge a good way to occupy his time and put his skills to use helping people, especially those who may be out of work and minding their pennies.

Amanda Petersen of Kennebunk, who works in the financial industry, sent Turin this list: hearts of palm, coconut milk, sriracha, a jar of Stonewall Kitchen raspberry-peach-champagne jam, gluten-free beer, capers and coconut aminos. Petersen had discovered a lot of jars of jams given to her as gifts in her pantry, and several cans of hearts of palm. Normally, she likes adding hearts of palm to her salads, but like many Mainers, “I’m getting sick of salads right now, and I just want comfort food.”

Turin responded with a recipe for beer-battered palm sticks with coconut remoulade and spicy fruit sauce. The recipe adheres to Petersen’s diet, which is both vegan and gluten-free. She made his recipe, but drizzled the sauce over the entrée instead of serving it as a dip for the palm sticks. “We ate it all, even the kids,” Petersen said. Petersen made onion rings with the extra batter, and plans to use up more jam making thumbprint cookies with her children to share with neighbors.

Kennebunk resident Amanda Petersen made beer-battered hearts of palm from a recipe chef David Turin developed from a list of ingredients she had in her pantry. Photo courtesy of Amanda Petersen

Camden banker Skip Bates sent Turin this list: quinoa, French lentils, artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, dried coconut, green curry paste, black truffle-infused hot sauce, and 1/2 ounce of culinary-grade black ants.

Yes, ants.

Bates recently made Turin’s recipe for a sweet and spicy roasted artichoke and garbanzo medley on green curry dal. The ants were used as a garnish.

Camden resident Skip Bates made this curry, garnished with ants (!), from a recipe created by Turin.

Bates’ verdict? Turns out the ants had spent a little TOO much time in the pantry. “Overall, the dal, curry and chickpeas were great,” he said. “Ants, not so much!”

The most difficult challenge, Turin said, came from one of his former sous chefs, Trey Humphrey, who listed beef franks, vanilla and chocolate Snack Pack pudding, a cherry Jell-O Snack Pack, white cooking wine, pickled pepperoncini, crunchy peanut butter and angel hair pasta.

Turin had to come up with three recipes to use all the ingredients. The first one was a sweet-and-spicy African peanut soup that used the peanut butter, pepperoncini and vanilla pudding. The second was cold peanut sesame noodles, which used the angel hair pasta, more of the peanut butter, the pepperoncini and its brine, and the white cooking wine. The third recipe was for beef franks in a spicy cherry glaze, which used the franks, the cherry Jell-O, and more of the pepperoncini.

“The Snack Pack chocolate pudding, I told him he just had to eat it,” Turin said, laughing.

Cooking school

Turin recently ended the Pantry Games because they took too much time. But the project inspired Mark Hannibal, a culinary arts instructor at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, to try the same game with the 17 students he’s now teaching online. The students are studying nutrition and learning from books, but the class is meant to be hands on, so Hannibal thought the challenge was a good fit – something to hold their interest in the class.

“It’s been funny and odd,” Hannibal said, laughing. “Some of the kids are really going for it. They’re really having fun with it.”

One student, Noah Collins, gave Hannibal this list: sweet and sour sauce, sunflower seeds, polenta, Vienna sausages, panko bread crumbs, sliced canned potatoes, Similac baby formula, habanero jelly, shredded cheddar, cream cheese, lemon juice and peanut butter powder.

Noah Collins, a culinary arts student at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, made Vienna sausage croquettes and scalloped potatoes using ingredients – including baby formula – he found in his family’s pantry. Photo courtesy of Noah Collins

The Similac is basically a milk protein, Hannibal said, so he figured it should be used like canned milk. Following Hannibal’s recipe, Collins made scalloped potatoes topped with cheese.

Collins used the Vienna sausage, polenta, and panko crumbs, along with an egg, to make croquettes with a spicy habanero sweet-and-sour sauce made with a touch of lemon, as Hannibal instructed him to. The sunflower seeds were roasted with the peanut butter powder for garnish.

Collins said though the croquettes were watery and wouldn’t bread or fry properly, they still tasted good. He said his family loved the meal and asked him to make it again.

“One kid had grits, Hannibal said. “He wasn’t quite sure what they were. He actually made a shrimp and grits dish, which is not very obscure but he’s a pretty good cook and he did a nice job on that and he learned what grits were.”

The exercise is teaching the students what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen.

“Sometimes things happen in a restaurant situation where something doesn’t get delivered, or they deliver the wrong thing, or so and so burned something you were going to use,  and you need to think on the fly and come up with something because people are going to be coming through the door, and they’re hungry,” Hannibal said. “And they want something creative and delicious.”

But probably not Similac.


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