the quarantine diet

J. Kenji López-Alt Quarantines With Carnitas and Breakfast Strata

“We eat a lot of pancakes, but not today.”

Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images

Last week, New York and Grub Street asked some of our favorite past Grub Street Diet subjects to keep one-day diaries of what they eat while self-quarantining, which we’ll be running over the next few days. Here, author and restaurateur J. Kenji López-Alt walks us through Monday, March 23.

The first thing my daughter usually does when she wakes up is use up her daily allotment of screen time on Tumble Leaf. After 25 minutes, she says, “Papa, it’s breakfast time,” and we head to the kitchen. This morning’s project: strata with bacon, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and Colby-Jack. She always wants pancakes. We eat a lot of pancakes, but not today.

I put Alicia to work tearing up bread heels. We have lots and lots of Japanese shokupan heels that came from the 16 loaves of bread I made sandwiches out of yesterday. The heels of all those loaves of bread ended up in a plastic bag in my kitchen.

Like most restaurants, mine, Wursthall, is facing some tough times. Part of our revitalization plan is to work with a couple of fundraising organizations (as well as our fundraising initiative) to raise some money and put our team to work making free meals for folks in need — first responders, emergency room and other hospital staff, folks out of a job, people with kids home from school, etc. Everyone’s having a hard time, but some more than others. We’re building the plane as we’re flying into new territory here, and this has been occupying nearly all my free time since the pandemic started in earnest.

The day before, Alicia helped me drop off deviled-egg-salad sandwiches and roasted broccoli with pumpkin-seed vinaigrette to San Francisco General and the Oakland Fire Department, a trip I almost had to postpone because, in all my planning, I didn’t think about how I would fit 75 individually packed meals and a toddler into my car. (I finally found a couple big boxes in the shed.)

Incidentally, that amazing shokupan came from Andersen Bakery, and it’s likely the last Andersen shokupan heels I’ll ever see, as I just got an email announcing that this Friday’s delivery will be their last ever. They are closing the business for good. Damn, this one really stings.

We whisked the custard together, layered everything in a buttered casserole (she loves buttering things), and popped it in the toaster oven to bake. It was pretty darn delicious, and I decided then and there that breakfast strata is gonna be the first recipe if and when I ever start doing the Food Lab Jr. column I’ve been dreaming of.

My wife, Adri, woke up and we all sat down to eat. I used a hot sauce that my buddy Greg Kuzia-Carmel made at his (excellent) restaurant Camper in Menlo Park. He calls it “NAPALM.” I think he needs to up his spice tolerance (I love you, Greg). Adri used a hot sauce we picked up in Colombia (the brand is Codi) made with uchuva (gooseberries) and habaneros. I’m sorry — we sound like hot-sauce snobs. We aren’t, I swear. I’d be lost without my Frank’s.

Alicia went au naturel.

I’ve lost 30 pounds in the last year or so, finally hitting my ideal weight, with a combination of exercise and portion control. Since social distancing began, I’ve gained back ten of those, because we can’t go to the gym, and eating just seems like a good way to pass the time. I hope I’m not going to gain back the full COVID-19. Gotta find another way to exercise.

Lunch was chili that Adri made from one of those Sun Basket kits. Up until a few months ago, I did 100 percent of the cooking in the house. Adri wanted a chance to cook for us, and meal kits seemed like a good way to ease into it. It’s fun for her, I love when other people cook for me, and the chili is pretty darn delicious with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a dash of Tapatío.

Adri is still working full-time from home, so I hang out with Alicia all day on most days, taking a precious hour or two during her naps for Zoom conferences and work-related phone calls. Currently, those phone calls are with virologists and food-safety experts I’ve been consulting with to write a comprehensive food-safety guide for Serious Eats, that I intend to keep updated as new information on the virus continues to roll in.

Taking my daughter during the daytime is a fine arrangement for me, as hanging out with my daughter is my favorite thing to do (I’ve missed her since she started going to preschool a few days a week), and keeping happy is one of the best things we can do. Happy people have stronger immune systems, and we should all be taking whatever steps necessary to make sure that we don’t get sick, whether it’s COVID-19 or anything else that’ll put a strain on our medical system.

But it does mean that I’m left to nights for the restaurant and writing. Ever since the restaurant closed for dine-in service, I’ve been spending a few nights a week there, prepping and cooking for the free-meal deliveries. I was going to head in at six, then thought twice. Nobody has ever said on their death bed, “I wish I had spent less time with my children,” and fuck it, I’m the chef —I can just work extra late tonight.

Dinner was another meal kit Adri was going to make, but she was busy playing with Alicia, so I took over. I crisped up the prepacked pork carnitas in a cast-iron skillet while I heated the tortillas on a Baking Steel griddle (easily top-five most used things in my kitchen). Alexa played Beethoven and Beatles, my usual cooking mix. The tacos were legitimately delicious. (Though, I admit, I did not follow the directions that came with the kit.) This time, on the table was El Yucateco XXXtra Hot Kutbil-Ik, possibly my favorite widely available hot sauce.

After dinner, I gave a good-night hug and kiss to Adri and Alicia and finally headed into Wursthall. These days, we’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (so my incredible and tireless sous-chefs, Erik and Orlando, can have a full two-day weekend), which means I had the whole place to myself. The night before, I braised a few pork shoulders, sauerbraten style, in wine and vinegar. Today, I pulled, seasoned, and shredded them, cooked ten pounds of chickpeas I had soaking overnight (in salted water — it helps prevent the skins from blowing out during cooking), and shredded 20 pounds of cabbage.

This particular batch of pork sandwiches should feed 48, and was destined for the San Mateo Samaritan House, where I’ll deliver it bright and early.

My last meal of the night was a test-fire of the pork sandwich I’ll pack into cook-at-home meal kits later this week. Half of them will go to the Samaritan House, and the rest will go to currently furloughed employees, especially those with kids out of school and families to take care of. It’s heartbreaking what’s happening, especially the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. A good sandwich can help a little. I crisp up the pulled pork, glaze it with a vinegary pork jus, and pile it on a buttered brioche bun with a red-cabbage slaw and pickled Fresno chiles (which I could eat by the fistful they’re so good). The kits will also contain a marinated chickpea and carrot salad.

But before I started cooking, I strapped a GoPro to my forehead. For some reason, people seem to enjoy watching first-person cooking videos on my YouTube channel. I’m fine with that, I guess, as silly as it is. These days, I relish any opportunity to be silly.

*A version of this article appears in the March 30, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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