How to cook with your family during the holidays via Zoom

Emily Larson prepares a lobster for her lobster bisque as she teaches a remote class on winter soups for Phipps Conservatory at her home Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Shaler. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
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Gretchen Mckay Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — Like so many during the pandemic, Galadriel Strauser has kept contact with people outside her socially distanced COVID “bubble” to a minimum.

The mother of seven owns both a commercial cleaning business and a facility management facility, “and I’m charged with keeping everyone safe,” says Mrs. Stauser of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

She knew her family would not be together during the holidays, which presented a problem: Her daughters, one recently married and another a recent college grad, were counting on learning how to make her famed stuffing.

“They’ve been asking for recipes as they are kind of growing up,” says Strauser, who grew up cooking with her maternal grandmother, DeVona Stewart, in Harmony, Pennsylvania.

Enter Zoom.

The videoconferencing service launched in 2013 with an eye toward enterprise and business customers. When COVID-19 hit, virtual hangouts suddenly became a thing for just about anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone who wanted to connect with family and friends from the safety of home.

Strauser decided to give the platform a try, figuring it was the best way for her to “be a mom” from far away.

“They are navigating these things without their mom there to wag her finger and tell them what to do,” she says. “I wanted them to have traditions they could start in their own homes.”

She’s been mailing her kids care packages throughout the pandemic, so sending one more with the three types of bread and spices she uses plus a grocery list for perishables like butter and eggs was no big deal. She had already mastered Facetime and didn’t have problems with Zoom. Five of her kids participated in the 9 a.m. session on Thanksgiving morning.

“We did it like a cooking show,” she says, with her demonstrating and them following along.

“It was a good time, and we all laughed and laughed,” she says.

Being able to see and chat with one another on the family holiday made everyone feel a little less alone. They’ll most definitely do it again, they said.

If you’re going to be separated from loved ones over Christmas or Hanukkah and are fretting over not being able to roll out dough for cut-outs or teach them how to properly grate potatoes for latkes, Zoom might be an answer for you, too.

Online cooking classes are fun and provide valuable life skills at a time when more people are cooking at home.

Emily Larsen, a freelance culinary instructor, private chef and caterer who operates spillingthesoup.com, is among the many local chefs who successfully pivoted to virtual instruction when COVID-19 hit. She draws on her husband’s AV background to make it as enjoyable for students as possible.

For the culinary classes she’s currently teaching for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, including one last week on winter soups, she has four cameras in her Shaler kitchen. Speaker view allows participants to see exactly what she’s doing at all times. While the class itself is muted — “my kitchen is really noisy,” she says — a moderator reads questions from the chat function.

“It was an adjustment, but I love it and people really seem to like it,” says Larsen, who also runs the Food Program at Providence Connections Family Support Center.

With a little bit of prep, you, too, can run a Zoom cooking session. In fact, getting everyone to agree on a day and time might be the hardest part! Here’s some expert tips to help grease the wheels.

Choose a dish people want to cook. You might love homemade ravioli, but maybe your sister is more into soup. Now’s the time to pick everyone’s brains for a favorite dish. If it’s a cherished family recipe no one’s ever written down, you may have to interview grandma.

Get organized. Jayashree Iyengar, who teaches Indian cooking for Phipps, advises sending the recipe to participants well in advance, along with a detailed shopping and equipment list. If an ingredient is unfamiliar, include a photo or tell them where to find it in the grocery store or include a link to Amazon. The recipe should also include any substitutions.

Set a timeline. Zoom limits its free personal meetings (for up to 100 participants) to 40 minutes. Carefully plot out the recipe steps, being sure to work in a little time for questions or chatting. Be aware of others’ time constraints.

Think about the camera setup. Do you want participants to see the food or the cook? If you only have one camera device, you’ll have to choose between an overall view or something more detailed. Angle the camera head-on and at eye level, or people will get an unflattering look up at you. Wherever you set up, don’t place the camera too close to the stove.

Who gets to talk? Some chefs find conversation to be a distraction. Decide if you’ll keep the microphone on for everyone or mute it during the demo.

Prepare everything you can in advance. Practice what chefs call “Mise en place” — gathering all of your ingredients and equipment in one place before you start cooking. Not having to run to the fridge to grab a forgotten item or search through a drawer for a measuring spoon “makes it relaxed and easy,” says Larsen. Having all your ingredients at the ready is also a visual reminder of the recipe.

Know your audience. Chances are there’s going to be a wide range of skill sets. Are they experienced, or complete beginners? Don’t be afraid to ask, says Iyengar. “If they’re family, I’m sure they’re forgiving.”

Think about lighting. You want to make sure there is light in front of you, along with overhead lights. The last thing you want is to be backlit, so make sure you close the blinds if there’s a window behind you, advises Larsen. If you can, test your video before your call to make sure the light and camera angle are good.

Don’t forget to send a reminder. People get busy and can forget, especially if they’re not logged in all day.

Stay engaged, move slowly and give visual clues. Describe what you’re doing at every step, and don’t rush. Ask, “Does this make sense?” Larsen likes to indicate the end of a step with a thumbs up sign.

Above all, have fun. Sure, you want to cook something that’s tasty. But you also want your Zoom session to be a good time. If someone makes a mistake, be forgiving.

“And I always wear bright lipstick,” says Larsen, not just to add color but “because we understand and learn [cooking] with our mouths and not just our ears.”

FRENCH ONION SOUP

French onion soup is a winter classic. It features a richly flavored beef broth with slow-cooked caramelized onions and nutty, cheesy Gruyere croutons on top. It’s an indulgence, but a fairly inexpensive and easy one. You might even call it a certain cure for a cold and dreary winter day.

Emily Larsen, a freelance culinary instructor and private chef, recently made this recipe for a Zoom cooking class offered by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens via Zoom. It takes less than an hour and makes a simple and delicious meal.

4 yellow onions

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup butter

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 cups red wine

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

6 cups beef broth

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 French baguette

8 ounces Gruyere or Swiss cheese

3 sprigs fresh thyme

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Thinly slice the onions and mince the garlic. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add onions, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and salt and pepper and cook until the onions are very soft and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

Add wine, and bring to a boil while scraping the bottom of the pot to release any brown bits that may have accumulated. Reduce heat and simmer until the wine has evaporated and the onions are dry, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaves.

Dust the onions with flour and give them a stir. Turn the heat down to medium low so the flour doesn’t burn, and cook for 5 minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Now add the beef broth and Worcestershire sauce. Bring the soup back to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat your broiler on high. Shred the Gruyere or Swiss cheese and slice the baguette. Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet in a single layer. Sprinkle the slice with the cheese and broil until bubbly and golden brown 3-5 minutes.

Ladle the soup into bowls and float cheese croutons on top. Sprinkle on the fresh thyme. Serve immediately.

A lobster bisque is ready to serve as Emily Larson teaches a remote class on winter soups for Phipps Conservatory at her home Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Shaler. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Serves 8.

— Chef Emily Larsen

LOBSTER BISQUE

Luscious and just a bit decadent, lobster bisque is a perfect starter for an elegant holiday meal. It’s usually made with a stock of lobster shell, which can be intimidating for some home cooks. But it shouldn’t be, says Emily Larsen of Spilling the Soup, who created this recipe for a winter soups cooking class at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

To make the process easier, she offers these tips. Purchase your lobster no more than 48 hours before you plan on cooking it, and store it in the refrigerator. If your fridge has a meat or crisper drawer, that’s a great place.

When you’re ready to make the soup, put live lobsters in the freezer 15-30 minutes before cooking. This sedates them so they won’t thrash about. Also, leave the bands on the claws when cooking. Those rubber bands won’t affect the taste or quality and leaving them on will lead to a calmer experience, she says.

“The sense of accomplishment [cooks] will get from conquering this ingredient and recipe will build up their confidence in the kitchen,” she says.

Not your cup of tea? You also can make the recipe with lobster tails, or ask your fishmonger to steam the lobsters for you and simply pick the meat.

The soup is traditionally served with oyster crackers. Rich and filling, it also pairs wonderfully with warm bread. Add a salad for a light meal.

Kosher salt

1 whole (1 1/2 pounds) live lobster, or 2 lobster tails

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 carrot, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup sherry

2 cups seafood stock

4 tablespoons butter, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup heavy cream

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs fresh tarragon, chopped, optional

Oyster crackers, optional, for serving

Prepare lobster: Fill a large pot with 1 1/2 inches of water. Stir in 2 teaspoons kosher salt and bring the water to a boil. Add lobster, cover with a tight-fitting lid and return the water to a boil.

Once boiling, lower heat to a gentle boil and steam the lobster until it is bright red, about 12 minutes (6 minutes if using lobster tails). Remove lobster, reserving liquid. When lobster has cooled slightly, place in a bowl and remove the meat from the claws and tail, again reserving any liquid that comes out of the shells. Chop meat and refrigerate. Reserve the shell pieces and legs, discarding the head and body.

Swirl olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, then add carrots, celery and onions. Sweat until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes, then increase the heat to medium-high and add the garlic. Then add lobster shells and remains.

Saute for 5-6 minutes, add tomato paste and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Add sherry and cook for 5 minutes, until the alcohol has evaporated. Add seafood stock to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the broth to remove all solids.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a pot. Add flour and mix well to form a paste. Continue to cook for 3 minutes. Whisk in the lobster stock. Bring to a boil until thickened and then reduce to a simmer.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a separate skillet over medium-low heat. Gently saute the lobster meat until warmed through. Whisk heavy cream into the soup along with thyme leaves and tarragon, if using.

Spoon bisque into a bowl and top with lobster meat. The bisque is traditionally served with oyster crackers.

Serves 6.

— Chef Emily Larsen

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