Adapt, improvise, overcome. And some strategies for coping with that cabinet full of shelf-stable STUFF.

Hey, folks,

I’ve been working on the page proofs for Machine, which are now a week late due to apocalypse delay, and (sadly) cancelling my guest of honor appearance at Hal-Con next month. It would be wildly irresponsible to go to Japan right now, because of reasons, so I guess I will get back to work on The Origin of Storms again once I hand this book in which I will do today if it means staying up way past my bedtime.

I’m finding my focus is just not there, and the emotional cost of reading a book about an emergency responder (in SPAAAACE) dealing with a massive outbreak means that I get really tired really fast. The whole world is on coronavirus delay, though, so… I’m not alone.

One of the precepts of emergency response is the title of this email: Adapt, improvise, overcome. It’s a phrase that gets mentioned several times in Machine, and I found myself thinking of it last night as I chatted with friends in various corners of the internet about the economic repercussions of the current xombie apocalypse. I see a lot of fear, and a lot of people saying “If we have to do this quarantine bullshit for 18 months the economy will never recover.”

A problem here is that we’ve been taught (by entertainment) to think of massive catastrophes as The End Of The World because that makes a better story. And I don’t want to minimize the grief and suffering that we endure in a catastrophe, be it a hurricane or an earthquake or a war or a pandemic. That is real.

But it’s also true that we adapt.

One of my biggest bones to pick with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is that the people in it don’t adapt. It’s a brilliantly, sensitively written novel, and of course the stuckness of the characters constitutes an important metaphor… but I still found myself literally yelling at the audiobook while driving across Arizona, “PLANT A FUCKING POTATO! MOVE OUT OF THE AIRPORT! PLANT A POTATO!”

(I know, it ruins the metaphor if they move out of the airport. I still yelled. Sometimes literary-criticism me and SF-futurist me don’t get along.)

My local businesses are already adapting. My farmshare is offering curbside pickup. (Target already was.) Restaurants are hiring delivery drivers or offering pickup. The list goes on.

My point is, yes, this is a huge shock to our systems. Yes, it’s bad. Yes, people are dying and will continue to die, and it’s to mitigate that that we’re doing these things.

But people adapt. Systems adapt. Our economy is moving to a crisis footing, just as it did in the US after Pearl Harbor. This is a time of tremendous and overwhelming change. But things are not going to be chaotic and incomprehensible forever.

Breathe. Do what you can. Don’t panic. Don’t just look for the helpers: be one of the helpers. Get angry at the broken parts of the system and do something about them.


Anyway, back to the quarantine cooking portion of the program. It’s early days, and with a little luck (assuming you are so fortunate as to have food in the house) you might, like me, be looking at a cabinet full of boxes of pasta and wondering where the hell to start.

So we’ll begin there, and then look at strategies for if you don’t have a lot of food in the house and the grocery stores in your area are still kind of bare.

So, that closet full of beans. It’s kind of intimidating, especially if you’re the sort of person who likes to shop every day for fresh ingredients.

So what do you do?

If you are a list-maker, you can inventory, and see what you have on hand and what you might do with it. Menu-plan for a week, and then see where you are. I roasted a chicken yesterday; today it will be chicken fried rice; tomorrow it will be chicken soup. This also helps me use up fresh vegetables before they go off, which is high on my priority list. Get through the fresh stuff, and then go to the freezer.

If you’re more of a wing-it type, figure out what the oldest stuff or the stuff that needs using is. If you have milk you need to use up, there’s nothing wrong with cereal for dinner. Especially with bananas. (Bananas that are getting overripe can be chunked up and frozen until you are ready to make banana bread, by the way.) If that salad mix and lunch meat is the most fragile thing in the fridge, chef’s salad. Look at the use-by dates on canned goods and deal with that three year old soup today.

You may be eating a lot of pasta e fagioli in the coming months, but… that’s what you get for buying a pallet of pasta and a pallet of dry beans and not leaving any for the rest of us.

Anyway, pasta e fagioli is good.

(I’m wishing I hadn’t decided not to bother with canning tomatoes last summer right now, let me tell you. Oh, well.)

So, what if you have the opposite problem, and there’s not much in the house at all? This is where the growing up broke skills come in, and the glory that is refrigerator soup. The trick to a good refrigerator soup, by the way, is not to actually throw in everything that’s in the fridge, but to make the choices look intentional. It’s like all found art in that way.

You will need: a savory thing (umami); an herby or vegetal thing; and a salty thing at bare minimum. Other things that are nice: a protein (beans, frozen meat, an egg, tofu); actual vegetables; carbohydrates; alliums if you eat alliums.

The first thing to do is imagine a flavor. Look at the options you have an pick a place to start—the savory flavor—and think about what would go with it and what you want the end product to taste like. Visualize (flavorize?) that, and hold the idea in your mind.

Then make your broth, which you do utilizing the savory thing. It could be miso, dashi, kombu, mushrooms, chicken stock, a bullion cube (some of these also handle the “salty thing” portion of the program), chicken bones, shrimp skins and tails, pork knuckles… whatever. Brown or sautee it to get some color on it (not the dashi, kombu, or the bullion cube. Or the miso, which you should actually stir in after the cooking is done and the soup is off the boil.) but not so hot you burn the brown stuff on the bottom of the pot. (That brown stuff is flavor.) Deglaze the pan with water or a little wine if you have some or whatever. Add water and then cook (as appropriate) until the broth is flavorful, or as flavorful as it’s likely to get. You can add hard dried herbs like rosemary or a bay leaf now as well.

If you are using vegetables and/or alliums, now is a good time to sautee those, too, in a separate pan.

Strain your broth.

Deglaze the vegetable pan with a splash or two of broth and then put everything together.

If you are adding a starch, you can put it right into the broth, or you can cook it separately. if you cook it separately, your soup will be more clear and won’t get gummy on you. You can keep the starch and the soup in two containers in the fridge and combine and nuke them at will.

Add your protein and cook until done or warmed through, depending on the protein. If you are using dry beans, those also count as a starch for cooking purposes in terms of their effect on the broth.

Acid only after the beans are soft, as previously mentioned.

Now add the fresh or soft dried herby things: dill, celery leaves, cilantro, ginger, whatever. Taste it. See if it needs salt or more umami or pepper or garlic powder or spicyness (it’s okay to use garlic powder in an apocalypse, I give you permission, now is not the time to be a snob) and if it does, put some in: Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce, chili crisp, a pinch of sugar if it seems flat, squeeze of lemon, soy sauce, a little more salt, pick two. Soft greens go in now, and this is a great way to use up that arugula or spinach that’s just a leeetle bit ehn. It’s gonna wilt anyway, nobody will know.

And there you have it, refrigerator soup.

Actually I think I’m going to go make some for lunch. I need to use up this open thing of tofu.

Stay well, folks. Wash your hands.