How a series of 60-second videos helped a hapless cook like me whip up date-night dinners in lockdown
Carving out romantic “couple time” with my wife was pretty difficult during lockdown. In addition to all the pandemic-related chaos, it included a house move, the birth of our daughter and home schooling our energetic five-year-old son.
Before our first child was born, knowing friends urged us to feast at as many upmarket restaurants as time and money allowed, given the impending, limiting reality of life with a baby. It’s advice that we have passed on to other expectant parents. During lockdown, however, it was impossible to play restaurant-going gourmand.
But when my wife suggested we make an effort to pencil in some food-focused “date nights”, I silently balked at the prospect for fear of my hopeless cooking skills. It wasn’t a case of can’t cook, won’t cook: shamefully, I just haven’t clocked up many hours in the kitchen. After an internalised pep talk, convincing myself it would be a cinch, what with my – ahem – natural creative flair and love of food, I informed my grinning wife that I would relish the opportunity.
I determinedly set about my task and reached for the dusty cookery books on the shelf above the oven to find winning recipes for our favourite cuisine: Italian. Leafing through the oil-slicked pages, I quickly became overwhelmed by the dull, lengthy, hard-to-follow instructions. I needed a shortcut, and fast.
Funnily enough, it was my son’s relaxed home schooling that provided me with the perfect solution. We afforded him a carefully monitored 10 minutes a day on TikTok and usually admired the dance routines, laughed at the pranks and cooed at the cute animals. Shortly after we had formed the dinner-date plan, he swiped to reveal a video of a charismatic Italian chef explaining how to cook spaghetti al limone in her 20-second film. The quick, instructive video begins with Nadia Caterina Munno – @the_pastaqueen, who has 1.5 million followers on TikTok – saying: “When life gives you lemons, make spaghetti.”
So I did, following Munno’s short and straightforward guide, which was part spoken, and mostly visual. The dish was a modest hit on our inaugural lockdown date night.
I’d seen boiled-down recipe videos on social media – often called “hands and pans” videos – before. But, because of my lack of hunger to cook, I never paid too much attention, save to marvel at the satisfying brevity and beauty of the mini films. The successful spaghetti al limone changed everything, though.
Encouraged by my wife’s reaction, and slightly surprised at my ability to present a respectable main course that took me mere minutes to master, I sought out more ambitious Italian dishes on TikTok.
To start the next date night, a couple of weeks after the first, I served rolled aubergine slices, momentarily deep-fried in olive oil (Italian, of course), stuffed with mashed up ricotta and mozzarella, and topped with chopped parsley.
Munno was my inspiration once again. And she also helped with the main: a hearty bowl of seafood linguine, accompanied by slightly chewy, oozy and warm garlic bread. For the latter, I took Munno’s advice to rub the garlic clove over the bread “passionately”; and for the former, I easily followed the – unusually – wordless video.
Wishing to round off the meal with something extra special, I typed “Italian dessert” into the TikTok search bar on my smartphone app, and immediately found a tiramisu recipe. It was the perfect sweet course for our date night. There is a family joke about the coffee-flavoured pudding – which translates literally to “pick me up” – being so similar to our surname, Pickup.
For the tiramisu, my guide was Arturo Avallone: a refreshingly cool LA-based Italian chef, with 31,000 TikTok followers. His 60-second film – featuring dark rum, Savoiardi sponge ladyfingers dipped in cold coffee, and a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese, plus a sprinkling of cocoa powder – proved a doddle to understand, even for a beginner like me. “And no,” Avallone says at one point to the camera, shaking his head, “in the original recipe, there is no heavy cream.” So now you know.
And, more importantly, now I know how to wow my wife with home-cooked food. All thanks to the fun and free videos on TikTok that pack a lot into less than a minute. Moreover, since I started engaging with the hands and pans films on the platform, I’ve discovered a love of cooking and newfound kitchen confidence.
As for those sticky old cookery books, you’ll be relieved to read we have “decluttered” them. Ciao!
The article was first published by Guardian Labs in November 2020