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Easy recipes provide a remedy for social isolation

With the swift changes in our daily lives and Tuesday's order from Sonoma County officials to shelter in place, many of us will be hunkering down at home for the time being.

Whether you're an extrovert wondering how you'll manage with little, if any, socializing or an introvert who might be looking forward to self-imposed quiet, I have an answer: home cooking.

If you already love to cook, you might welcome the chance to indulge at your leisure. If you've always wanted to cook but feel you don't have the time or skills, this social pause might be a good time to learn. And if you hate cooking, you might try exploring a few simple recipes based on local seasonal ingredients. The rewards are improved health and a deepened sense of community as you realize the best fresh ingredients come from our farmers and ranchers.

If you have a well-stocked pantry, you don't need to do much except shop for produce and protein. If you don't have a well-stocked pantry, you'll find my suggestions on how to create one at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You'll find more detailed suggestions at micheleannajordan.com, along with a list of suggestions crafted to make home cooking easier and more fun.

If you do not feel comfortable going to a farmers market, consider subscribing to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), a subscription service that puts a bag or box of very fresh produce on your porch weekly. Some CSA programs offer extras, such as eggs, bouquets and cheese. Find local CSAs by visiting farmtrails.org and entering “CSA” in the search bar. More than a dozen options pop up almost instantly.

Several local ranchers have shifted from selling their local meats at farmers markets to offering meat CSAs. Green Star Farm, located on the southern edge of Sebastopol, and Heather's Custom Meats, on Sanford Road in far west Santa Rosa have moved to this method of sales.

The benefits of subscribing to a single farm are several. First, you know the source of your food. Equally important, you support local farmers and ranches. Everyone will take a hit because of this pandemic, and it is a good idea to support as many local businesses as we possibly can. If you care about the source and seasonality of your food, CSAs are the way to go if you can't get out to a farm market, local meat shop or farm stand.

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Joe's Special, a San Francisco vintage dish, has a history that extends back to at least World War II, when it was sold at Original Joe's in the Tenderloin for 75 cents. Today, it is still served in cafés and restaurants throughout the city, with each location contributing its own variation. I've been making my version for decades and recently revived it because my grandson, Lucas, now 18, loves it. This is a very easy recipe to teach to children tall enough to stand at the stove comfortably.

Joe's Special

Serves 4

6-8 ounces ground beef, preferably chili grind

2 garlic cloves, pressed

- Kosher salt

3-4 ounces small spinach leaves, rinsed and drained on a clean tea towel

4-8 large or jumbo farm eggs, well beaten (see Note below)

- Black pepper in a mill

4 ounces (1 cup grated) Jack or cheddar cheese

- Hot sauce of choice

- Sourdough hearth bread, lightly toasted and buttered

Set a large frying pan, preferably cast iron, over medium high heat, and when the pan is hot, add the beef. Cook, breaking it up with a fork, until it loses its raw look, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the pressed garlic and a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir and cook for 1 minute.

Add the spinach, cover the pan and cook for 2 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted. Use a thin metal spatula to turn the ingredients a time or two.

Pour in the eggs, distributing them over the other ingredients. Do not stir. Cook until the eggs appear to be almost set and use the spatula to turn everything a time or two again. Season with salt and several turns of black pepper.

Scatter the cheese on top, wait for about a minute until the cheese starts to melt, then remove from heat.

Transfer to individual plates, add toast alongside and enjoy right away, with as much hot sauce as you prefer.

Note: Your appetite should determine how many eggs to use. For breakfast, I find one per person sufficient. At lunch or dinner, I often use two per person if everyone has a big appetite. A happy medium is six.

Variations

Vegetarians can use thinly-sliced mushrooms in place of the ground beef. To do so, sauté the mushrooms in butter until they release their liquid, then continue to cook until the liquid evaporates. Commercial white and crimini mushrooms will release more liquid than specialty mushrooms. There is no vegan version as eggs are essential in this dish.

For the most traditional version, use regular ground beef, stir the eggs as soon as you put them in the pan and omit the cheese.

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Everyone should know how to make a quick tomato sauce for pasta, one that does not rely on short cuts or bottled sauce. There is no need to gussy it up with chopped carrots, celery, zucchini or other ingredients, which diminish the purity of the flavors and textures. Use the full amount of olive oil, keep it simple, keep it delicious.

Spaghetti Marinara

Serves 6

- Kosher salt

1 pound dried spaghetti, preferably an Italian brand, such as Pastificio G. Di Martino or De Cecco

½ cup olive oil

½ small yellow onion, cut into small dice

1 28-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes, preferably an Italian brand, such as Carmelina ‘e San Marzano

1-2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

- Estero Gold, Vella Dry Jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano (in one piece)

Fill a large pot two-thirds full with water, add a generous 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water boils, add the pasta and stir until the water returns to a boil. Cook according to package directions until al dente, drain, do not rinse and tip into a large warmed bowl. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons or so of the olive oil, toss and cover with a tea towel.

While waiting for the water to boil, set a sauté pan over medium heat, add the remaining olive oil and the onion and sauté until the onion softens and becomes fragrant, about 12 minutes. Do not let it burn.

Season with salt. Add the tomatoes, garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper. Stir gently, and if it seems a bit too thick for your liking, add 1 cup of water. Stir again and simmer gently until the pasta is cooked. The sauce should simmer gently for about 15 minutes and no longer.

Pour the sauce over the pasta. Use two dinner forks to lift and drop the pasta several times, until all the pasta is coated with sauce. Enjoy hot, with the cheese and a grater passed alongside.

Variations

Add 1 cup of sliced black olives along with the tomatoes.

Just before pouring the sauce over the pasta, top the pasta with about 6 ounces of shredded mozzarella fresca. Add the sauce and use two forks to lift everything over and over until the cheese melts. Top with about 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh Italian parsley.

Divide the finished pasta among pasta bowls, top each portion with a dollop of Italian-style fresh ricotta or creme fraiche and omit the cheese called for in the main recipe. Finish with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and enjoy hot.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook's Tour of Sonoma.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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