Cooking projects that calm you and teach you new kitchen skills while you’re staying at home include everything from sourdough baking and making homemade pastas, noodles and dumplings to fermenting, pickling and preserving, and making things from scratch – from fruit jams and curry pastes to chilli oils and Sriracha sauce. The key is to find food projects that engage you.
Compelling cooking projects have been key to keeping our anxiety at bay during the last 16 months of staying at home and self-isolating, as the coronavirus spread around the planet and the world went into lockdown. Quarantine cooking, ie. stretching meals out for as long as possible to prolong the period between supermarket shopping trips, and engaging cooking projects have been crucial to keeping our sanity.
Back in March-April 2020, when we lost all of our work, clients and income as projects were cancelled or postponed, our stress levels shot up – only to go through the roof after international flights to and from Cambodia stopped and borders closed. Even if we hadn’t planned on returning home to Australia immediately (our cat Pepper, our Cambodian cookbook and culinary history research, and the inability to pack and ship our things in a few days all prevented a fast departure), the feeling of not being able to get home if we needed to can only be described as anguish.
Without engaging cooking projects to focus on – along with our epic Cambodian cookbook, and other cookbooks and books we’ve been developing – I’m sure that I would have gone mad, gone completely off the rails, been hospitalised for panic attacks, or ran screaming into the jungle forests of Cambodia, never to be seen again.
Our lockdown cooking projects – which have included everything from exploring Cambodian samlors (soups and stews) to developing Aussie-Asian fusion recipes for sausage rolls and meat pies – have distracted us from the tragedy that’s been unfolding around the world, kept us focused and calmed us, and given us a greater sense of responsibility to the projects, ourselves, each other, and our connection to food and culture. Nobody wants to kill their sourdough starter, right? Especially if you’ve named the thing!
Published 15 May 2020; updated 13 July 2021.
Cooking Projects To Calm You and Teach You New Skills While You’re Staying At Home During Lockdowns
While life appears to be getting back to normal in many countries, others such as Cambodia, where we’re based, and much of Australia, which we’re trying to return to, are in lockdown or have curfews and restrictions in place. Others are slowing opening their borders. Wherever you are, I imagine many of you are like us, remaining cautious, resisting the urge to rush out and return to ‘normal’, whatever that may look like, and continuing to stay at home.
If you’re choosing to do as we are, then I really encourage you to take on some cooking projects if you haven’t already. Not only will they keep you engaged, focused and calm, you’ll eat well, you might learn new kitchen skills or you will at least master the skills you already have. Here are some tips on why and how to choose your lockdown cooking projects:
Choose Cooking Projects That Are Engaging and Absorbing
The key is to find cooking projects that engage you and involve you over time in the same way that a good course of study does. You want to be actively learning, to have the same kind of motivation to continue that a learning programme gives you, with tasks to undertake, challenges to overcome, new knowledge to be gained, skills to be acquired, and a sense of accomplishment once your project is complete. Find cooking projects that really interest you rather than choose food projects that everyone else is doing.
Don’t Embark on Overly Ambitious Cooking Projects
Don’t be too ambitious so you set yourself up for failure, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you get bored and find that pickling or making sourdough bread is not your thing and want to give up. You’re not training to be a chef, you just want the distraction and concentration that comes with doing something new, while you make some delicious food, learn new skills in the kitchen, stay off Facebook, and stay away from all the bad news. When you’re ready to move on, simply stop and start another food project.
Start with Easy Cooking Projects if You’ve Been Under Stress
While we think sourdough baking is one of the best cooking projects you can embark on because it requires focus, it’s so satisfying, and it can absorb your interest over a long period of time, and become a ritual, some people find making sourdough a little stressful until they get the hang of it. If you think that might be you, then start with easy cooking projects that don’t require a great commitment but offer fast rewards, such as teaching yourself to create a perfect omelette or making your own chilli oil. Links to both below.
Ideas for Cooking Projects to Keep You Calm and Focused
Below is a list of some of the lockdown cooking projects that we’ve undertaken over the last 16 months, as well as some food projects that are underway. I’ll add to this list periodically and update the post. Some of the cooking projects, below, we’ve covered fairly extensively on the site (eg. curries, Cambodian food, Thai food, Terence’s pies and sausage rolls, etc), some are underway (my soup series, tropical fruit jams, and preserving and pickling), and others I’m starting soon (watch this space!).
If the cooking projects I’ve suggested below don’t excite you, research your own, browse our Recipes on Grantourismo, head to your favourite food blogs or recipe sites, recreate dishes you discovered on your travels, or buy a cookbook by the chef of your favourite restaurant to re-live your most memorable meals out at home. An Aussie chef I know is cooking MasterChef Australia dishes with his kids after each show. The opportunities are endless. If you have any other ideas for cooking projects, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Bake Sourdough Bread
Few things in life taste better than home-baked bread, fresh out of the oven, spread thick with quality butter, which is one reason why learning to bake sourdough bread was one of the biggest trends of pandemic cooking. So much so that there was even a sourdough backlash, which Terence responded to with this post on how easy, cheap, and deeply satisfying sourdough baking was and is for him. Terence had been baking sourdough bread for a couple of years before the pandemic, but he’s probably baked more sourdough in the last 16 months than he’s ever baked in his life. From maintaining a sourdough starter to perfecting your sourdough boule, sourdough baking is one of the best cooking projects you can undertake as it’s so involving and becomes a ritual. If you haven’t attempted homemade sourdough yet, see Terence’s simple sourdough starter recipe and beginner’s guide to easy sourdough baking. If you have mastered sourdough, try some sourdough starter discard recipes, which is one of our ongoing cooking projects. Start with our sourdough discard scallion pancakes recipe, then our sourdough crumpets recipe tomorrow, followed by these sourdough crackers, which should be used to scoop up with heavenly hummus. Update: we now have an Ultimate Guide to Sourdough Baking (link below), which includes a guide to essential baking tools you’ll need to get started.
Make a Perfect Omelette
If you don’t think you’re ready to take on sourdough baking yet, start with something simply like learning how to make the perfect omelette. Or even if you’re on your sourdough journey, teach yourself to make a perfect omelette anyway. Some of the best things to serve on sourdough bread are eggs, from pesto scrambled eggs or creamy curried eggs piled on top of toasted sourdough. Learning how to make a perfect omelette is another one of the best cooking projects to begin with as it’s manageable in a short time so you have a sense of accomplishment that will inspire you to move on to your next food project. Learning how to make a great omelette is one project, but learning different methods of making omelettes is another. Terence makes the world’s most perfect omelettes in my opinion, so start with these two omelette recipes (link below) that show you how to make a perfect omelette two ways. Terence also has this fast omelette recipe if you want quick results.
Explore an Ingredient, Technique, Dish or Cuisine
Taking a deep dive into a single ingredient, technique, dish, or cuisine is another one of those cooking projects that can occupy you for days, weeks, months, even years. Let’s stick with eggs for a bit. Terence spent a few weeks experimenting with different times for boiled eggs and testing out various peeling techniques last year. Now he gets perfect soft boiled eggs every time. If you want to explore eggs, see our series on Weekend Eggs recipes from around the world, which Terence made during our 12-month global grand tour focused on slow and sustainable travel, local travel and experiential travel that launched Grantourismo in 2010, and these egg recipes for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner. Early in the pandemic, he was somewhat obsessively perfecting crispy chicken skins and Japanese tonkatsu (both sublime so I didn’t complain!). Over the years I’ve had my own obsessions: from making Vietnamese spring rolls to, more recently, inspired by the seasons here in Cambodia, making mango dishes, from mango sticky rice to mango gazpacho, and corn dishes, from grilled corn on the cob with lime butter and lemongrass mayonnaise and a corn salad with lime, chilli, lemongrass mayo and sourdough croutons to sweet corn soup with ginger, turmeric and chilli oil. Terence has been barbecuing and grilling for his Cambodian barbecue series and I’ve been perfecting different Cambodian samlors (soups and stews). We’ve also continued to recipe-test for our Cambodian cookbook projects and have compiled these 60 Cambodian Dishes that you could work your way through.
Make Handmade Pasta
The main objectives of that year-long Grantourismo trip we did back in 2010 (which we celebrated pre-pandemic with a renewed commitment) were to inspire you all to travel more slowly and more sustainably, more locally and more experientially. It was the reason that we settled into holiday houses and apartment rentals for two weeks at a time that year – so that we could get an insight into living like locals by shopping the markets and learning to cook and eat local food. We managed to achieve our goals while simultaneously forming many of our fondest travel memories, some of which were with Maria, the caretaker of a traditional trullo that we settled into in the countryside just out of Alberobello in southern Italy. Terence had been making pasta long before our Puglia stay, but Maria taught him to make Southern Italian pasta specialties, including a handmade pasta served with a super simple sauce called orrechiette con sugo al pomodoro. One of the biggest lessons we learned was that it really wasn’t so hard to make a homemade pasta (especially if you use a pasta maker, although Maria used a rolling pin and hands), that it tastes a million times better than a shop-bought pasta, and that it’s immensely satisfying. Learning how to make a variety of homemade pastas is one of those cooking projects that can really absorb you over a long time.
Make Pizza from Scratch
Another one of the best cooking projects you can undertake is to teach yourself to make pizza from scratch. Let’s face it, learning how to make anything from scratch is so tremendously satisfying if you enjoy cooking and like to eat well. For starters, when you make things from scratch you know exactly what you’ve put in them so they’re healthier for starters. Maria from Alberobello, who I mentioned above, not only taught us how to make the local pasta specialty, she taught us how to make homemade pizza in a wood-fire oven that was attached to the trullo that we stayed in. It was a two-day process and we used olive oil and fresh ingredients from her own farm. If you’re also making sourdough, see my easy no-knead sourdough pizza dough recipe that you can make with your sourdough starter discard. Jamie Oliver also has a great step by step guide to making pizza from scratch.
Make Passata and Homemade Pasta Sauces
Apparently, along with toilet paper, flour and chick peas, tins of tomatoes and pre-prepared jars of Italian pasta sauces were some of the most stock-piled products when the world first went into lockdown. We were surprised about the bottle pasta sauces as they’re expensive. People would have been far better off buying tin tomatoes for a fraction of the price and making their own. We’ve long made our own Italian sauces. It’s so easy to make your own basic Italian tomato sauce and it’s so versatile; you can use it with pastas, in lasagne and on pizzas. Of course you can always make a tomato sauce fresh when you make a pasta, but if you’re a busy person or have a family to feed, making a big batch to freeze, refrigerate or store in your pantry is a fantastic food project. See Jamie Oliver’s easy basic tomato sauce or this more detailed guide to bottling your own tomato sauce and guide to hot water bath canning. If you have access to plenty of fresh tomatoes, one of the best cooking projects is to make your own Italian passata – bottled tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded, boiled and preserved to make tomato sauces for pasta and pizza. There are some excellent step by step instructions with images here.
Create Your Own Condiments
Creating your own condiments is another one of those really rewarding cooking projects, like making anything from scratch. Choose condiments that you use frequently and consider making a big batch so that you can gift some bottles and jars to family and friends. Terence makes a lot of his own fresh condiments, including some of the Asian essentials in our pantry that we love so much, such as homemade Thai sweet chilli jam and these homemade Sichuan red chilli oils (which we love too much, as we go through jars of these so quickly). He also makes fresh condiments such as mayonnaises, tartare sauces and dipping sauces, when he’s making the meal that they go with. Homemade Thai Sriracha sauce is another condiment that’s easy to make and Terence makes the best Sriracha I’ve ever had and I reckon we’ve sampled them all. You could also have a go at making homemade XO sauce. On my cooking project list: pesto experiments, my own curry powder, dry spice mixes, chilli salts, and other flavoured salt seasonings. The results so far: this Southeast Asian pesto and my own homemade furikake with Southeast Asian flavours. You might be surprised how many of your favourite condiments you can make at home and store in the fridge or pantry.
Pound Your Own Curry Pastes and Pestos
Like creating your own condiments, making your own curry pastes is also immensely satisfying, as well as therapeutic, and is another one of those fantastic cooking projects that can keep you engrossed for weeks. I have to say there are few things I love hearing more than the ‘bok, bok, bok’ sound as Terence pounds a spice paste in a mortar and pestle in the kitchen. The rhythm of pounding the paste is as soothing to the listener as it is to the curry paste-maker. It’s hard to go back to the shop-bought pastes after having made your own, as freshly-made curry pastes just taste so much better. Having said that, we always have a store-bought curry paste in the fridge for when we’re too busy or too tired to make our own. So where do you start if you want to produce your own homemade curry pastes? Pick your cuisine or dish first. There is more than one kind of Italian pesto although the basil-based green Genoese pesto is best known. The basis of many Southeast Asian curries are spice pastes. If you love Thai food, try your hand at making pastes for your favourite curries. We have a great Thai red curry paste recipe, along with tips for using a mortar and pestle. If you fancy cooking Cambodian curries, start with this yellow kroeung. A kroeung is a herb and spice paste and there are four kroeungs to learn if you want to start cooking Cambodian food, as they can be used in everything from soups, stews and curries to marinating barbecued skewers. Fresh kroeungs also keep in the fridge for a while, but can also be frozen.
Make Pickles, Preserves, Jams, Relishes and Chutneys
One of the cooking projects that was at the top of my list forever, long before any damn coronavirus kept us all indoors – was to do some pickling and preserving. It’s not as hard as some make it out to be either. I’ve seen my Cambodian friends pickle vegetables directly from the garden in minutes. My Russian grandfather had a vegetable garden out the back when I was a child (my grandparents had been market gardeners) and baboushka used to make her own dill pickles for many years. Super crunchy, tangy and aromatic, they were far superior to the jarred Polish dill pickles they’d buy when they ran out of their own. As cucumbers are grown almost all year-round in tropical Cambodia (the dill is harder to get hold of), that was high on my list. Here’s our beginners guide to pickling for starters, but I’m still perfecting my dill pickles recipe. These dill pickles look exactly like my baboushka’s although she didn’t use chilli flake, but they were a good start. We’ve also been making jams with seasonal tropical fruits, and this mango jam that Terence made is fantastic. I’d also like to try to make some Indian relishes and chutneys. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a primer on jams and preserves with links to recipes. I was also very happy with how this kaya coconut jam turned out and recommend giving that a go.
So, what cooking projects have you undertaken while you’ve been staying at home? Or do you have food projects you’re planning on taking up soon? We’d love to hear your ideas for cooking projects in the comments, below, and please share them with us on Instagram by tagging us.