This time last week, you could walk into a grocery store and buy chicken thighs or ramen noodles — as many packages as you wanted, even.
School buses ambled along our roads twice a day, March Madness brackets were about to be filled out, festivals were planned, restaurants hummed.
Not anymore. Life as we know it is altogether different. Lots of people have isolated themselves and their families, schools are closed, and many people are working from home to prevent possible contact with the coronavirus.
But we still have to eat. Lots of local restaurants are doing their best to accommodate a fearful public, in many cases offering takeout options where they hadn’t before and taking additional sanitary precautions. Still, if you’ve decided that restaurants and other public spaces are too risky, there’s an alternate method to getting some of your favorite meals: Make them yourself.
Copycat recipes for popular restaurant foods are everywhere. Granted, their authenticity can’t be verified — corporate recipes are often kept under lock and key — but your taste buds know what’s up, and some recipes come very close to the originals.
Craving mac and cheese from Panera Bread or Panda Express’ chow mein? How about Olive Garden’s signature Italian salad dressing, or fried ice cream like you find at your favorite Mexican hangout?
There are plenty of copycat recipes for each of those, and, thankfully, they’re not complicated. In fact, they all can be made with things you either already have or probably bought last week when you panic-shopped for toilet paper.
You know who you are.
And while we’re at it, let’s pay homage to all of those ballpark and stadium hot dogs we’re not eating at any sporting event, anywhere, anytime soon.
So what’s on the homemade menu tonight?
Copycat recipe No. 1: Panera Bread Mac & Cheese
This one uses sharp white cheddar and, surprise, white American cheese slices to achieve a silky smooth sauce. No surprise, I couldn’t find the pipette rigate pasta the recipe called for — pasta was yet another item nearly out of stock when I went shopping over the weekend — so I used orecchiette. But you can use elbow macaroni or whatever pasta you like.
Apparently I have something in common with Panera Bread: We both use Dijon mustard in our macaroni and cheese. But theirs goes one step further, with just a little hot sauce.
This mac and cheese is mild yet flavorful from that sharp cheddar, and the benefit of making it at home is that you can double the portion sizes.
Copycat recipe No. 2: Panda Express Chow Mein
If you need your fix for Chinese takeout while you’re stuck at home, try this quick recipe for chow mein that starts with a favorite pantry staple: ramen noodles. Add some cabbage for heft (and celery, too, if you like) and then combine with a simple sauce that’s not too heavy or overpowering. It’s also not greasy like some restaurant chow mein.
I’d definitely add chicken, but there was NO CHICKEN in my grocery store, so we ate it plain. It was still pretty tasty, and it’s even better as leftovers.
Copycat recipe No. 3: Jumbo Pigs-in-Blankets
The sports world is on hiatus, and we’re missing out on one of the best things about sporting events: the food. By food, I mean the hot dogs.
But I’ve taken your traditional stadium dog and upped the ante a little with a jumbo hot dog wrapped in cheese and puff pastry, then slathered with everything-bagel seasoning and baked until puffy and golden brown and cheese oozes out the sides.
Don’t tell your neighbors, though. These smell so good coming out of the oven that self-quarantines will be hard to maintain once other people know what you’re making. Served with a good spicy mustard — OK, ketchup, but only if you must — these will satiate your longing for a hot dog at the ballpark.
Copycat recipe No. 4: Mexican Fried Ice Cream
I’m not sure about you, but ice cream was definitely higher on my quarantine list than toilet paper. So was cereal. Which works out well, as fried ice cream is a sweet little treat that takes very little prep time.
There’s no actual frying involved here. Scoops of ice cream are frozen, then covered in a buttery cereal coating and put back in the freezer. I used Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which eliminates using a cinnamon-sugar mixture to coat the outside, as is done at restaurants. When it’s time for dessert, top the ice cream balls with whipped cream and chocolate syrup (or even warmed hot fudge topping), and watch your family’s eyes light up.
Copycat recipe No. 5: Olive Garden Italian Salad Dressing
You shouldn’t live on just hot dogs and ice cream while you’re home, so maybe throw a salad into the mix to keep things balanced.
Italian dressing generally isn’t hard to make, using pantry staples, such as oil, vinegar and dried herbs.
The one difference I noticed with the restaurant version was the addition of just a little bit of mayonnaise, which helps thicken the dressing ever so slightly. Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward: Just combine everything and mix vigorously. Make a large salad topped with all sorts of vegetables, and you’re set.
These dishes will have you feeling as if you went out to eat, minus the crowds and the waitstaff. Remember: Tipping is appreciated.