Cara Gallardo Weil quarantined in a small Hong Kong apartment for three weeks in January.
She made elaborate meals in a tiny kitchenette with just a microwave and an induction cooktop.
Weil suggests bringing your own knives, keeping meals simple, and using pre-made seasoning pastes.
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Cara Gallardo Weil has quarantined five times in three different countries since last year, and she knows that delivery food is only appealing for so long.
“It’s depressing eating restaurant food for an extended period of time,” Weil told Insider over a phone call.
Weil, the creative director for Mount Mayon Premium Pili Nuts, spoke to us from a hotel room in Hong Kong, where she was most of the way through a mandatory three-week quarantine period.
“We can get my favorite restaurant to come and deliver here, but to have to eat it every day for two to three weeks? I don’t like eating out of boxes all the time,” she added.
Read more: A chef cooking elaborate meals with hotel room appliances has become a TikTok star – and even Gordon Ramsay is a fan
For 21 days straight, Weil and her husband lived entirely out of a studio hotel room with CM+ Hotels and Serviced Apartments.
There, quarantine guests cannot leave their room or even open their windows to get fresh air.
While quarantine food has often been compared to “struggle meals,” with students at New York University sharing videos of their makeshift meals on TikTok, Weil has garnered attention for her delectable quarantine cooking.
She’s made everything from prawn and oyster mushroom pappardelle with roasted peppers and broccoli to a crab and artichoke pasta.
In an interview with Insider, Weil explained how she managed to feed herself and her husband so well in just 400 usable square feet of living space, using only a microwave and a two-burner induction cooktop.
Weil traveled back home to Hong Kong after spending Christmas in the Philippines.
On January 5, Weil sat inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila while waiting to board a two-hour flight back to her home in Hong Kong.
Weil and her husband, David Weil, had traveled to the Philippines in December to spend Christmas with her mother.
The last time Weil visited her mother was in July when the 87-year-old was first hospitalized with pneumonia and then spent five additional weeks receiving medical care for COVID-19.
Under the Philippines’ COVID-19 regulations, Weil and her husband stayed in a hotel room until they received negative test results before finishing their 14-day quarantine at Weil’s mother’s home during their December visit.
“Because of her age, I didn’t want to leave her on her own for Christmas,” said Weil.
“So, I knew that we would have to do quarantine on our return to Hong Kong — I just didn’t know at the time of booking that it would end up being three weeks,” Weil said, adding that Hong Kong officials are “really, really strict” about quarantine protocols.
On Christmas morning, while Weil and her husband were still in the Philippines, the Hong Kong government announced that it had further tightened quarantine requirements and would increase the two-week quarantine period to three.
Officials enacted the extra week due to concerns over the highly contagious COVID-19 variant that was first identified in Britain.
Although the room Weil and her husband booked for their Hong Kong quarantine was advertised as a 706-square-foot room, she said there was really only about 400 square feet of usable space.
Weil, a cooking enthusiast, deliberately tried to find a room that resembled a service apartment with a kitchenette.
Her passion for cooking blossomed at an early age when her mother edited a food column for a Hong Kong women’s magazine, and she eventually owned a deli with friends in London.
“I didn’t have the kitchen the first time I did this,” said Weil, referring to the first time she quarantined in Hong Kong for a period of two weeks.
“It was my husband and myself — and that’s when he said never again. And now here he is, doing it with me this time,” she added with a laugh.
So far, Weil has quarantined three times in Hong Kong, twice in the Philippines, and completed self-isolation in London. Her husband was also present for two of the Hong Kong quarantines, one in the Philippines, and the self-isolation in London.
“I’m so happy that we do have this kitchen because you end up spending a lot when you’re ordering food all the time,” said Weil.
The kitchenette was quaint, to put it lightly, with a two-burner induction cooktop and an overhead microwave. Counter space — like the rest of the room — was scarce.
“But as long as you’ve got a burner and a pan, you can make good food,” she said.
Hotel staff provided some cooking supplies, like a frying pan and two plates, but Weil opted to bring her own. She’d packed everyday cooking utensils like a cutting board but also brought back things from the Philippines.
“I brought a couple of additional things with me from Manila: a French rolling pin, a small silicone pastry mat, a salt and pepper grinder, some bread flour, and active dry yeast,” said Weil, who shared a photo of homemade garlic, cheddar and coriander naan on Instagram.
One surprising kitchen tool suggestion that proved extremely handy was a Microplane grater, Weil told Insider.
“The Microplane is really useful because you can grate cheese, ginger, garlic,” said Weil.
She also suggested people expecting to quarantine should pack their favorite knife set just in case.
“I’m extremely fussy when it comes to knives, so I would always travel with my own knives anyway. Maybe that’s the kind of chef thing — you always want to have a sharp knife,” Weil said.
“And I did bring a chopping board and a small knife for things like if I want to slice my lemon for my Gin and Tonic,” she joked.
Being virtually locked inside a single room for three weeks forced Weil to get creative about cooking challenges – like seasoning and smells.
Weil relied on workers from Deliveroo, a UK-based online food-delivery company with locations in Hong Kong, to drop off grocery store items at her hotel room. But there were some ingredients she just couldn’t get.
“My biggest challenge is not having my usual cupboard full of spices. If you don’t have a cupboard full of spices, then you’re limited,” said Weil.
Weil also realized that because the windows couldn’t be opened, per quarantine rules, potent cooking smells could sometimes linger and bog down the room.
“The other challenge is not having an oven and being mindful about cooking something that isn’t going to leave heavy cooking smells,” she said.
“The extractor hood isn’t bad, but it’s a studio and it’s not pleasant if the room constantly smells of cooking,” Weil said.
Weil also had to adjust to using a microwave to heat up certain foods.
Besides the induction cooktop, a microwave was the only other kitchen appliance in the hotel room. But Weil told Insider that she doesn’t use a microwave in her home, meaning she had to figure out the power settings and cook times on the fly.
“I don’t have a microwave at home and have very limited experience of using one, so I had to Google what to do,” Weil said.
“I wasn’t sure how long to cook salmon for, and when I looked that up, it said five to six minutes. So I did it at five, and I found it was a bit too cooked for me because I like it a little bit on the pink side,” she said.
Not having a proper grill or oven also threw a wrench in Weil’s plans.
“Like when I did the grilled peppers on the induction hob, that was quite challenging because it doesn’t behave as it normally would,” said Weil.
“You have to keep turning. It’s just not the same as doing it under a grill because you can get the heat much higher. Also, because we’re in a small room, I didn’t want to create too much of a burning smell,” she added.
One benefit of Weil’s quarantine cooking challenge was that she picked up plenty of tips for how to get by with minimal ingredients and supplies, like using pre-made paste for seasoning.
“I think the key to cooking in a confined space is to try to keep it simple,” said Weil. “Keep it simple, keep it fresh, and then you can have delicious flavors by just doing that.”
When it came to spices, Weil supplemented her usual spice selection with pre-made sauces and pastes from Mark & Spencer Hong Kong.
“Ready-made pastes such as lemongrass and ginger, turmeric and ginger, black bean and garlic, and Moroccan paste can be used to marinate or create spiced yogurt,” said Weil.
Her favorite paste was the Cook With M&S Moroccan paste because “it was really versatile.”
“The first time I used it, I slathered a salmon in it before I put it in the microwave, and it was really nice,” said Weil, adding that she also used it for a courgettes.
“I zapped the courgettes for two minutes in the microwave, then finished it off in the frying pan with a bit of butter and some olive oil until it caramelized. Then I put the Moroccan paste on top and some feta,” she added.
Dishes can also get extra flavor and look especially pretty by adding herbs.
“Always have some fresh herbs and spring onions or chives. In addition to flavor, they can also be used for garnish, which makes any dish look more appealing,” she said.
The microwave is excellent for par-cooking potatoes, while a frying pan can roast peppers.
According to Weil, par-cooking potatoes in the microwave for about 3-4 minutes prior to pan-frying speeds things up.
“You can get the potatoes nice and brown similar to roasting them in an oven by pan-frying,” she said, also adding that vegetables retain a nice crunch with this cooking method as well.
“If you like peppers, you can dry roast them in the frying pan. I usually do three at a time,” she added. “I keep them diced in some confit garlic olive oil to add to dishes or salads.”
To avoid heavy smells, Weil said to keep the space neat and clean the induction hob’s filters constantly.
“Make sure you wash up as you go along. Otherwise, you will have zero space to work. Wash the filters of the extractor fan frequently to stop the cooking smells from building up,” said Weil.
She added that she also travels with a diffuser and essential oils to combat any bad smells.
Weil posted photos of the delectable meals she’d made on social media, where they delighted her followers.
Scrolling through Weil’s Instagram feed is like leafing through a polished cookbook, with each photo accompanied by a step-by-step recipe or thoughtful tidbits from the author.
“Quarantine cooking in an apartment hotel,” read a post from January 22.
“Fresh pasta. I brought a French rolling pin and a small silicone pastry mat with me. I have to dry the pasta on a plate. It seems to work ok,” wrote Weil.
Another post from that day details how to make prawn and potato cakes with Moroccan spice yogurt, complete with a list of needed ingredients and measurements for each.
“I started doing all those posts because my friends were like ‘that’s great,’ and a lot of people would learn from what I was posting,” said Weil.
In fact, Weil is in the process of setting up a website for her recipes after posting them separately on social media.
“Over the years, friends have always asked me, ‘Can you send me that recipe? Or ‘how did you do that?’ So, I thought I should archive it,” said Weil, adding, “it’s partly for myself and mostly for my friends.”
Her recipes have also helped prove that cooking — even in limited space — can be easy.
“I think that’s what a lot of my friends have found. They’re looking at the posts, and I’m just saying ‘throw a bit of this, throw a bit of that.’ It demystifies cooking,” she said.
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