When the coronavirus pandemic put food manufacturers in a tailspin trying to keep grocery shelves stocked and families fed, we decided to put a hold on our Taster’s Choice column. This summer would have marked 16 years since we started asking a panel of “judges” to sample foods from local grocery stores and share their top three favorites among the brands.
Our goal was to help shoppers navigate the variety of choices from food makers. Some of our panelists, who have been with us since our first tasting, have been hankering to get back to work. Instead of tasting, these foodies, nutritionists and chefs wanted to share some of the meals they have been preparing since the world as we knew it changed.
Julie Overton, a cooking school graduate, canner and mother of four, likes to eat lighter, healthier meals on weekdays and “cheat” on Sundays. One of her weekday mainstays is Tomato and Olive Pan Seared Cod. “I like to make this meal because it is really easy and very tasty,” she said. She marinates the cod in lemon juice for about 20 minutes before dredging it with flour and searing it in a cast iron skillet. She adds chopped olives, capers, garlic, lemon juice, chopped tomatoes and white wine. She also finishes the dish with a little shaved Parmesan. “I like this dinner served with a nice loaf of bread that I make using the premade pizza dough in the bakery section,” she said. Take the dough out of the bag and place it on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Let it set for about an hour. Gently rub olive oil on the top and sides, sprinkle with garlic salt and pepper and bake in a 375-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let it set for about five minutes before slicing.
Mary Jane Park, a retired writer and food editor, said she has been doing her best this summer to avoid standing over a hot stove or in front of an oven. Instead, she has been replicating some of her favorite sandwiches and salads from some of her favorite restaurants. She loves a sandwich with arugula, fresh figs, Brie, prosciutto and Dijon vinaigrette. “It’s inspired by one of my favorite seasonal sandwiches at Pane Rustica in Tampa, where I have not been in way too long,” she said. “I’ve also been making a burrata salad with fresh berries and sliced peaches or nectarines over arugula. I add toasted pecans and use a honey-vinaigrette dressing made with champagne vinegar,” she said. Another no-fuss favorite is adding cooked shrimp to the vegetarian pad Thai she buys frozen at Trader Joe’s. She’s also a fan of pregrilled, refrigerated chicken strips for adding to salad greens “with kalamata olives, cooked fingerling potatoes, grape tomatoes and a vinaigrette with whole-grain Dijon mustard.”
John Hehn, the owner of All Brite Lighting & Power Design Inc., has been a longtime taster and home cook. “When the quarantine started I thought it would be a couple of weeks so we treated it like a vacation. We were eating expensive tuna and enjoying cocktails in the backyard. Little did we know,” he said. As time went on, he said, “I thought I should prepare for the long haul by starting a garden and growing my own herbs. I even made homemade kimchi and settled for drinking an occasional beer.” After his family vacation to Italy was canceled, he decided to keep teaching himself Italian and working on his pasta creations. “I wanted to get the most out of my Publix purchases so I would make a double batch of homemade marinara sauce and separate it into three or four freezer bags,” he said. “I would buy chicken breasts and make parmigiana di pollo and save the leftover chicken for chicken curry later that week.” With the extra marinara sauce, he said, “I would make large and small meatballs the next week and use the large ones for a nice, weekend meal and the small ones for meatball subs.”
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Laura Jolly, a cook and food blogger at politicsandprovisions.com, has spent part of the quarantine near her parents’ home in Pennsylvania where she has been able to grow her own vegetables and herbs. She enjoys making watermelon arugula salad with fresh greens, crumbled feta cheese, mint sprigs and a spritz or drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “This light and flavorful salad is a fantastic lunch item during the heat of the summer. It can also be a great predinner salad for any backyard dining experience.” As an appetizer or side dish, she recommends her Roasted Beets and Lemon Mascarpone recipe. “A bed of mascarpone adds sweetness to the earthiness of the roasted beets and makes a statement on any plate or platter,” she said. For dessert, her Summer Peach Pie is divine. “It’s the easiest fresh peach pie that puts those August peaches to good use.” All of her recipes are available on her website at politicsandprovisions.com.
Personal chef Kay Hodnett has been making a lot of strawberry salads this summer. She uses fresh greens, fresh strawberries, slivered almonds, purple onions and crumbled blue cheese with whatever vinaigrette dressing she has on hand. “It’s a light, but filling and healthy meal,” she said. For a weekend meal, she likes to prepare a shrimp boil with fresh corn, shrimp (with shells still on), andouille sausage, Dutch yellow potatoes, onions, garlic, lemons, butter and, of course, Old Bay seasoning. While it’s easy to prepare this meal on a sheet pan, she prefers to boil water with the seasonings and then add the ingredients, starting with potatoes, which take the longest to cook. After draining the pot and transferring the cooked foods to a dish or tabletop, she adds more seasoning and parsley for garnish.