The Best Kind of Food to Cook During a Pandemic

I chose risotto, but any recipe that requires your full, constant attention is a good distraction from anxiety.

Naomi Elliott

Somewhere around the seventh ladle, I resigned myself to the idea that this was my life now. The chicken stock had been simmering for what seemed like an hour, and my weary right arm had grown accustomed to its new raison d’être: stirring my first-ever batch of risotto until it reached the vanishing horizon of al dente. Or until the apocalypse arrived.

At that point, it still seemed unclear which might occur first. But something else had happened somewhere between the sauvignon blanc evaporating and the grains cooking: For the first time in days, I’d stopped obsessing over the impending doom I’d been imagining, as news of the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic spread. There was no low thrum of anxiety beating alongside my heart, no voice in my head taking inventory of family members’ diseases or tallying the number of onions I’d have left in three, six, or eight weeks in the event of grocery-store shutdowns. There was just me, my right arm, and my stubborn risotto. A comfortable tedium, a congenial struggle.

Confined to my apartment for most of the week, and for the foreseeable future, I’d entered the weekend in a mild panic. Though my generalized anxiety most often feels specific and personal, this new strain was nauseatingly big and amorphous. It lived outside of me; it hung in the air and snaked its way through every corner of my life. After days spent reading helpful but stressful articles, and countless conversations with friends about the anxiety we feel, I needed to quiet the noise. I wanted to lose myself in something, to relinquish my focus without dulling my senses in a dangerous manner. (As much as I enjoy Nancy Meyers’s oeuvre, wine-drunk is not a state I can or should sustain for the length of a quarantine.)

But binge-watching movies and TV shows, even my favorite ones, had already lost its appeal. No matter how many voices emitted from my screens, or how warm the banter, the static in my own head remained louder. The glare of my many screens, and the creeping knowledge that there are always other shows I should be watching for work,  further strained my ability to find relief on the other side of a remote. But more pressingly, viewing is an idle pursuit; I needed an activity that demanded my full attention.

Enter the finicky arborio. While I cooked rice somewhat frequently, this variety had always daunted me. My experience with risotto ended at Italian-restaurant menus and cooking-competition shows. I’d seen too many Chopped contestants become meme fodder by attempting to prepare risotto at breakneck speed. I had known it was called the “infant of grains”: It requires both time and constant attention, things I’m rarely willing to give any dish at once. But faced with the prospect of indefinite social distancing—and mounting anxiety—I welcomed the challenge of attempting a new culinary feat.

In a still-baffling shift from my younger years, I’d been able to ensure my pantry was well stocked; being able to acquire enough food wasn’t a real concern. (I’m still shaped by the calculus and creativity that my mother employed to keep a family of six fed through layoffs, WIC assistance, and a devastating recession, but my circumstances now allow for a spaciousness that hers didn’t.) And for once, I seemed to have an abundance of time to putter about my New York apartment. If I succeeded, I’d be learning to cook something that could serve as a household staple. But if I failed, I reasoned, then the wasted hours would at least have served as a helpful distraction. The stakes were low, but the allure of accomplishing something was enough of a thrill.

Like many Millennials, I’m no stranger to anxiety cooking. The curve of my culinary skills has seen a steep spike in the past few years. In 2017, I rage-baked a cornucopia of carbohydrate-filled indulgences: gingerbread cake, frosted with caramel cream-cheese buttercream; salted-caramel-apple upside-down cake; blood-orange cardamom cake; peach cognac cupcakes; so, so many brownies. But this weekend’s endeavor felt different. I wasn’t concentrating on the final product or anticipating my friends’ eager reactions to the treats I’d giddily bestow upon them to celebrate a birthday or jazz up some big social gathering. My needs were more immediate. I wanted to channel my fear about the months ahead (and intensifying cabin fever) into a task that would make sense of all that nervous energy.

And while baking has its obvious upsides, especially for those with a sweet tooth, it wasn’t the right vehicle for me this time. Jittery and unnerved, I didn’t trust myself to measure ingredients meticulously. My rickety old oven doesn’t always stick to one temperature. Nor does it display the temperature digitally, or have a window I can see through. The prospect of assembling a dessert, only to see it misshapen or otherwise ruined when I removed it from the oven, was too disappointing and final for me to entertain. The risks of baking, an undertaking that requires precision above all, felt too high. But cooking, even dishes that demand more focus than I’m accustomed to, is an art that often allows for improvisation. Salt can be added along the way; heat can be adjusted as needed. The meal comes together in full view. There may be surprises, but there are no secrets.

So I found myself stirring. And stirring. And, just when I thought I might be done, I still had more stirring left. By then, the tedium had become a soothing companion. Even before beginning that arduous task, I approached the dish with an appreciation and attention to detail that I rarely make time for in my everyday cooking. I’d eased my way into the recipe with a familiar culinary distraction: the visceral, raw catharsis of chopping onions. But now, with the hours stretching out in front of me, I focused on my knife work. I appraised the allium more thoroughly: Were the pieces evenly sized? Had I rushed the job and left unsavory bits to sully the risotto I knew I’d expend extensive energy on later? Peeling and chopping butternut squash, a labor I often dreaded, took on a more serene quality, too.

By the time the ingredients began coming together, still dry and rigid, I felt something akin to peace wash over me. I concentrated on my gestures, the wrist motions with which I moved the grains around my pan. I’m not naive enough to think I can permanently fix my whirring brain with a rice dish, no matter how much parmesan or sage it incorporates. And I know that as the days add up, and the serious catastrophes build, such escapes may not be enough to keep me occupied (or safe, for that matter).

But for two hours on Sunday night, I forgot how much all of that scares me. I turned to my stove for more than convenience, and for comfort that extended beyond taste. And though the risotto certainly didn’t offend my palate, the routine was its own reward.