The late, great Paul Prudhomme, who put Cajun cooking and blackened redfish on the culinary map of our nation, once said: “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.”

While I feel that this is certainly true, there are definite ways to make food good, and this extended time at home due to the Covid-19 quarantine has allowed for ample opportunity in the kitchen to do just that. Since dining out and travel are still somewhat limited, and virtual interviews and museum tours are the new reality, incorporating ethnic cuisines and cultures can add interest to home-cooked meals, and perhaps conjure up memories from past travels.

As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life,” and experimenting with spices and ingredients in cooking can enhance our dishes and add flavor to our meals. If Asian-inspired foods, as in stir-frys and noodle bowls are a favorite, using spices such as ground garlic, coriander and ground ginger can be used to flavor the food. Soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and fresh garlic and ginger are also staples used in Asian cuisine. Mexican food gets its flavors from spices which include cumin, chili powder, onion and garlic powder, along with the use of cilantro, limes, avocados, onions and peppers.

A great way to re-use grilled meats or seafood is to season them lightly with Mexican spices and sauté them with onions and bell peppers in a lightly greased skillet. Wrapped in a corn, flour, or healthy whole wheat tortilla, left-overs are transformed into a flavorful new dish.

Italian-inspired dishes are a favorite among many, and those dishes can be replicated easily at home with the addition of garlic, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme into white or red sauces.

Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, canned or fresh tomatoes, olive oil or olives, pesto, lemons, and mushrooms, are all ingredients that add deliciousness to mouth-watering Italian meals.

Another ethnic cuisine which has become more popular in recent days is that of Indian food. Indian-inspired dishes such as tikka masala, butter chicken, lentil dal, and curry rice have spicy, rich and diverse flavors. The spices commonly used in these dishes include garam masala, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, curry powder, and ginger and garlic powders. A simple technique I recently employed, while attempting to enhance the flavor of chicken breasts was to cut the boneless, skinless chicken into large cubes.

Using Cajun seasoning to season the pieces, I then made a marinade of one cup of plain Greek yogurt, combined with the juice of one lemon and a teaspoon of garam masala. I seasoned the pieces in this marinade throughout the day before grilling them as kabobs and enjoyed a new variation of chicken dishes. Cooking techniques of marinating meats and slow cooking foods, and ingredients of coconut milk, tomatoes, cilantro, chickpeas, potatoes, and basmati rice, all make for a unique dining experience.

The Mediterranean diet is considered to be one of the healthiest for aiding in weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention and diabetes prevention and control.

In addition to encouraging being physically active and keeping moderation in mind, it emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish and olive oil. Processed foods, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats are avoided. Enjoying a meal with family, which these days of confinement have allowed, is also part of the Mediterranean lifestyle.

Though no one knows at this time what the future may hold, we do know that our lives will be changed in some way. Perhaps the simple pleasures of home-cooking, family dining, and discovering our creativeness in the kitchen will be one of those more positive lasting impacts.

The following recipe is a simple and tasty side dish that may lend itself to the flavors of an Italian or Mediterranean meal:

STUFFED ARTICHOKE CASSEROLE

2 (14 oz.) cans quartered artichoke hearts, drained

1 tsp. minced garlic

1 onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. butter

2 cups Italian bread crumbs

½ to 1 cup olive oil

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ tsp. salt

Dash of black pepper

Juice of 1 small lemon

Directions:

Cut artichoke hearts into small chunks. Discard any hard pieces.

Sauté minced garlic and chopped onion in butter.

Combine artichoke hearts, garlic and onions and add remainder of ingredients.

Gently mix together well until combined.

Place in a casserole dish and gently pat mixture to make an even surface.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

CATHERINE WATTIGNY embraces the “jour de vivre” as a wife, mother and grandmother, inspired by her prior nursing experience with a new focus on good mental health for all.

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