COVID-19 and self-quarantine have forced a lot of us to learn to cook these past few months.
Since the quarantine, top search trends online have been about cooking. Even as recent as this week, there was an increase of people searching how to cook Bagel Bites.
But Paxton chef Dave Palmer says cooking doesn’t have to be so intimidating.
Palmer was the owner and chef at Dave’s Café & Gifts (now closed); there he created simple and unique meals for his small community, where the only nearby restaurants are diners and fast food. Even after the restaurant closed, his customers wanted to re-create recipes at home, so he’s been sharing ways to create colorful, healthy meals at home during the pandemic on his site Chef My Life.
“There’s so much pressure to be a gourmet cook — especially on parents,” he said. “Even some of the simplest dishes you can be proud of if you made it yourself.”
Last month, restaurants were given the green light to increase capacity to 50% in Florida. But as the number of COVID-19 cases rise in the state, and Friday’s spike of 3,822 cases — the largest one-day spike — more people might be thinking of staying inside.
Palmer is a stay-at-home dad to young four kids while his wife, Heather, works at her family’s chiropractic clinic. He approaches feeding kids the same way he approached his café menu: recognizable dishes with updates. At his café, he had to be creative since he didn’t have a stovetop in his kitchen. He became known for creative pressed sandwiches using goat cheese, or his pineapple and ham flatbread with sesame ginger sauce, which was inspired by his grandfather.
When it comes to the age-old struggle to feed kids vegetables, Palmer said he mixes them to avoid just one flavor or color.
“My son doesn’t particularly care for mushrooms, but if I mix them with some tomatoes and garlic, he eats it,” Palmer said. “Cheese is also important when making vegetables appeal to children.”
He also invites them to cook with him.
“I got kicked out of the kitchen a lot as a kid, so I let my kids cook at a fairly young age,” he said. “It helps them develop good habits and then they feel proud of what we made.”
During the pandemic, Palmer said he works to use whatever is in the pantry to avoid unnecessary grocery store trips. He also advocates for the Misfits Market subscription boxes that send imperfect, but edible produce to your door.
“It’s helped me change up meals since they can only send what’s available,” he said. “I love red onions, but when they weren’t available for several weeks, I had to substitute.”
Canned beans, canned tomatoes, a good quality olive oil, and onions — “the base of a lot of dishes” — are some of the pantry staples Palmer suggests. And while fresh is always preferred, canned vegetables are more than OK.
“When you think about it, they’re picked at the peak of ripeness,” he said. “Check the label to make sure there’s no preservatives and it’s no different than canning at home. Except it’s way faster.”
Palmer is also an advocate for one-pan dishes, like his baked cavatappi and meatballs, or making good use of your pressure cooker for easy meals like beans and rice. For those simple meals, Palmer says seasoning is key and his favorites include cumin, parsley, garlic and oregano.
Palmer has come a long way since his college days cooking on a George Foreman grill, but he credits those early experiments for teaching him how to cook. Eventually, he landed on some popular dishes and was nicknamed “Chef Boyar-Dave.” He hopes to encourage more at-home meals with his recipes.
“Cooking is something anyone can do,” he said. “You might even learn that you love it if you try.”