Food is a neighborly connection when everyone’s distancing

My nephew in New Hampshire sends photos to my phone of his latest cooking creation. Not photos from a restaurant, like the foodie fotos are, but of his own kitchen cooking. My sisters, in New England, send me digital meal pictures, too. And I send back my own.

Everyone’s still sheltering in place, distancing, isolating, trying to socialize without falling prey to the yet-to-be-defeated pandemic. Video chats and digital pictures of a newly lonely life are one way folks are coping.

There’s another, and more personal way that has been trending in our area, and might even be an unsung phenomenon elsewhere in New Jersey, a bona fide hotspot for Corona virus infection. It is behavior practiced by neighbors taking to heart the plea that we should be “checking on,” well, on each other.

I’m not sure what’s happening in the more crowded areas, the up near New York or Trenton vicinity, but here in South Jersey where residents work the land, the garden, the green areas of spring, and pride themselves on their independence, there’s a lot of “checking in” going on. It might be a phone call: “How you doin’?” A wave while walking the dog or riding the bike, “You OK?”, or an email, “What’s up? Everything alright?”

The actual words don’t matter. The checking in is not nosiness, not a call to gossip. It’s a neighbor concerned for another neighbor. Many of the residents in rural S.J. fall into the risky category for catching and falling to the Corona virus. They are accustomed to seeing each other out and about and chatting as time permits. That used to be the check in on health, good news, business dealings, trips, any and all the trivia of socializing life.

Now we take turns going to the store for each other. By design, we don’t see much of people isolating and sheltering but we know how to help on an “in case” level. I called a neighbor when I needed a run to the feed store for horse provisions. Did they need anything? Pet food? Batteries?

A neighbor called me to see if I wanted anything from the grocery store, since she had to go, and she wrote down my requests and let me pay with a check.

In case you are checking in, too, here are several ways, and three recipes, to be a good neighbor. My sisters pack extra food and leave it for friends or nearby households with at-risk, isolating, residents. Because she’s alone, though not at risk, kids show up at her door and put homemade cookies or a canister of freshly-cooked soup on her step. A neighbor drops by a home-made mask, a small box of chocolates, and waves “bye” as my sister opens the door to say “thanks”.

That neighbor who offered to get me groceries? She delivered the food, took my check, and then reached in her bag to give me, “just a little gift.” Out of the bag came one roll of toilet paper. We both broke into laughter.

It turns out toilet paper, these days, is the trendiest gift item!

Another neighbor, out of work because of the virus, decided to gift the locals with Neighbor Baskets. She filled small baskets with items like crackers, a small can of tuna, a tiny jar of honey, some cheese dip, cookies and chocolates, which are very anti-depressant, say experts. It was a delightful and mood-lifting surprise, left on the porch.

So, if you are “checking in” with a friend, buddy, neighbor, let the kids help you pack these suggested items you might want to include in your bag or basket, which you could personalize, for children or pets, as necessary. It needn’t be much to delight any neighbor you visit. Consider these items and deliver while observing all safety rules:

  • Any or all of the three recipes below (cereal, soup jars; cookies)
  • A gift card to a local restaurant or drug store that offers takeout and/or delivery
  • Homemade mask
  • Hand sanitizer, if available; liquid soap if not
  • Whole fruits and-or small bottles fruit juice
  • Some candy and especially something chocolate
  • Crackers or other snack material and dip or cream cheese spread
  • A pet toy or treat
  • And last but certainly not least, a roll of TP

BREAKFAST OR SNACK JAR

Fun to put together and fun for everyone to eat

1/4 C flake cereal with fruit, like Fiber One © with strawberries or Total © with blueberries

3/4 C old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats, but not instant oats 3 Tbls light brown sugar

1 tsp. EACH ground spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves; pick one or more or all

2 to 3 Tbls chopped or sliced nuts: Walnuts, almonds, pecans, or your choice of nuts.

Layer the ingredients one at a time, beginning with the cereal flakes, into a pint jar or any jar that will hold the contents without packing too tightly. Do not shake or mix, the layers are attractive to the gift. Close the lid tightly and tape to the lid or jar a typed or written “recipe” card or sticky note with the following instructions.

Instructions to include with the jar:

Pour contents of the jar into a suitable large bowl. Mix lightly with a large spoon to distribute the ingredients. Add 1/2 to 1 C of fresh, cut-up fruit, if available. Pour in a 1 to 2 Cs of milk, or enough to cover the cereal and fruit and mix gently with the large spoon to distribute the cereal and milk. Place in refrigerator, covered, for 4 to 5 hours or overnight.

To serve, remove from refrigerator and stir again, then divide the mix between 2 to 3 bowls, depending on size desired. Add more milk if cereal seems too dry or sticky.

Mixture, covered, stores well in refrigerator for several days.

ORZO ROTINI SOUP JAR

Easy and quick meal, ready to be customized

1 1/2 C small pasta such as rainbow rotini, miniature shells or short macaroni

1 C orzo

1 C dried peas

1/2 C dried minced onions

Layer the ingredients into a pint or quart jar with a lid that closes securely. You want the pasta portion on the top. Close and tighten the lid and attach the following recipe:

Instructions to include with soup jar:

You will need 1 lb. of ground meat, beef, chicken or turkey, sausage, or a mixture of meats as you wish. Heat a large pan or kettle and lightly coat the bottom with olive oil. Add the meat and cook until browned, turning a few times.

Separate out the pasta at the top of the jar and set aside. Pour the rest of the ingredients into the kettle with the cooked meat. Add 10 to 12 cups of water and bring the soup to a boil, stirring every so often. Once boiling, turn heat down and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir at least once.

After simmering for 45 minutes, add the pasta and simmer another 15 minutes or until pasta is al dente. Makes about 8 bowls of hearty meat and pasta soup. Stores several days in the refrigerator in a covered container.

Tip: Make this hearty soup a satisfying and filling stew by adding one or more: a stalk of celery, a couple of potatoes and carrots, cut into chunks and cooked with the ingredients before the pasta is added. You can also customize this meal with herbs and spices to taste, such as salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, hot pepper flakes and dill weed or any of your favorite flavors that would combine well with the soup/stew.

 CLASSIC CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE

DIY without store-bought mix and let the kids help

1 C plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

¼ tsp baking soda

¼ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ C + 2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¼ C + 2 Tbsp brown sugar

½ tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

1 C semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Combine the baking soda, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl, and set it aside. In a separate bowl, use a spatula or large plastic spoon to beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together until the mixture is creamy. Add the vanilla and egg and beat again until the mixture is blended. Slowly add in the flour mixture, beating as you add to fully combine ingredients. Stir in the chocolate chips. Use a scoop or a 1-Tbsp measuring spoon to evenly place dough onto a cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until lightly golden. Remove from oven and let the cookies cool for 2 minutes, then move them onto a cooling rack and let them cool completely. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on size of cookies.

 By Jean Redstone

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