Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Sheet Pan Potatoes of the Apocalypse

roast potatoes
Sheet-Pan Potatoes of the Apocalypse, best consumed while reclining on a chaise lounge.

I don’t know about you, but I experience the pandemic and lockdown as this weird mingling of fear, rage, despair, joy and religious awe.

Now, granted, I was a volatile, giddy creature before Covid-19 came into our lives. But now I have a heightened sense of doom, mingled with awe and simple pleasure.

Take this week, for example.

On Tuesday I did exactly what I said I should in my last post: I pulled a Lyndon Johnson, approaching my tech lead and confessing, “I need a bit of your wisdom, friend.” We had a long, raucous talk, and I came away feeling much encouraged. So, that sent me gamboling around my living room like a riled Siamese, chirping and knocking objects to the floor.

By midmorning Wednesday, I’d succumbed a mixture of boredom and terror. Here’s how it works. I’m itchy and restless because I have a long string of stupid tasks to do. I sit down to do them, and become embroiled in email chains that would be funny if they weren’t so paralyzingly dull and perverse. One of the things that fascinates me about engineering is that for the want of a nail, a kingdom truly can be lost — witness the Challenger space shuttle explosion. And for every lost kingdom, there are volumes of anguished emails and white papers wrangling over how to mitigate the risk of three dozen lost nails, only one of which will prove critical.

The horseshoe nail of my Wednesday morning involved three solid hours spent trying to order a long-lead connector with female pins. Don’t ask. It’s stupid. And, no, the wretched thing is still nowhere near being ordered.

So I took a little break and doom-scrolled through the news on my phone, spending a few minutes with each of the Four Horsemen the Pandemic: The TimesPost, and Guardian, and YouTube.

This left me feeling sad and dirty, so over lunch I drafted a passage of the upcoming volume of Inglorion’s biography, Duke of the Underdark. The episode opens with Inglorion walking the streets of Liamelia, stopping to see his tailor, tobacconist and tattoo artist, striving to sense the mood of the city. That made me feel peevish and lonely, because I miss strolling Fourth Avenue and swapping gossip with my peeps.

That mood prevailed throughout the afternoon, as I crammed a dozen white papers into a single, incoherent test report. A half-dozen more horseshoe nails, each one framed with its own documented, disciplined and sober consideration of whether a horseshoe, horse, battle and kingdom could conceivably be lost.

sausage and greens
Sausage and greens that somehow left the author empty.

A made a thing involving sausage and greens, which I based on this recipe from the New York Times for pasta with sausage and nettles. I’d been assured that nettles, though delightful, weren’t entirely necessary. A good thing, since I’ve only ever seen nettles for sale at the Time Market, a casualty of the pandemic. I used Italian beef sausage from a local ranch, Sky Island. It turned out greasy and creamy and nice, but not quite as good as my go-to for marrying meat and pasta, Easy Bolognese from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Lesson learned. And it’s not a fair comparison. The Times promised a quick dinner, not a masterpiece of hot caramelization.

The weekend passed as it typically does. Yesterday I played Dungeons & Dragons via Zoom, with a guest appearance from an earnest half-orc paladin played by my friend Lucas, then made fried rice from a tried-and-true Moosewood Cooks at Home recipe.

This morning was given over to sketching maps of Liamelia, the better to think through the dockworkers’ strike and militia violence that punctuate Duke of the Underdark. I drafted a chapter in which Inglorion watches, appalled, as stevedores clash with army reservists on the streets of Liamelia.

These stories have been hard to write. You’d have to be depraved to revel in scenes of rape, torture and combat. To quote Harlan Ellison, I write because I can do no other. The stories demand to be told.

Apocalyptic times have freed me to experiment in the kitchen. This afternoon I reviewed a handful of Times-recommended sheet-pan dinners and came up with my own, seen below.

Sheet-Pan Potatoes of the Apocalypse

Set the oven at 450 F, disregarding the fact that it’s already 80 F in your tiny adobe home. As the oven and kitchen heat up, jumble the following ingredients in a Pyrex bowl:

1 yellow onion, cut into eighths
Two handfuls of frozen Brussels sprouts (small is better)
Any heirloom cherry tomatoes that aren’t suspiciously squishy or wrinkled
6-8 small Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled and cut into quarters or eighths, or whatever
Quite a bit of olive oil
Dried rosemary, since the live plant expired in the heat
Dried oregano, ditto
Cumin seed, past the expiration date but never opened, and therefore probably fine

Spread these in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, stir with a dissatisfied air, douse with enchilada sauce from Trader Joe’s, reasoning that enchilada sauce doesn’t burn so much as it forms a tasty crust.

Bake for an additional 15 mins, occasionally checking the living room thermostat, though there’s no clear course of action if it should exceed 85 F.

Worrying is always appropriate, of course.

Stir contents of baking sheet, which look pretty good. Note that the potatoes are still crisp, while the Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes and onion have caramelized precisely as they ought. Return the baking sheet to the oven, silently inviting the potatoes to emulate nearby, softer vegetables.

Bake for an additional 15 minutes. Serve topped with thin slices of Fiscalini bandage-wrapped cheddar.  Consume while reclining on a down-stuffed chaise lounge, and considering the numbers below.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 143,624
Current hospitalizations: 3,136
Deaths: 2,761

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