As I write this, no one knows what a new normal will be, but if it includes some of the skills that quarantined cooks have newly discovered, that normal could look more like 1970 than 2020. Back then, many young people (myself included) headed back to the land, where they proceeded to grow and preserve their own food, keep chickens and meat animals, bake bread, and forage for greens and mushrooms and natural remedies Then they grew up, over time remembering that it was also good to have a working car, health insurance, a college savings fund for the kids and an IRA. Lots of those skills were then tucked away with the tie-dyed clothing and vinyl records. Sometimes it seems no time at all elapsed between brown rice casseroles and GrubHub deliveries.

Old habits die hard, fortunately. When we lived on a farm in Vermont, where winters were long and brutal and employment uncertain, we stocked up each autumn on all those things people are stocking up on now. In addition to our squirreled-away jars of relishes and jams and freezers full of vegetables and venison, we bought 25- and 50-pound bags of rice and oats, flours and dried beans and peas. Even after moving to Maine we continued to keep buckets of dry goods stashed away in our cupboards, prompting friends to say they’d know where to go if natural disaster struck.

These lessons in self-sufficiency, it turns out, did not go unnoticed by my children, all of whom have joined the proud novice bakers who post photos of craggy brown sourdough loaves online. My Vinalhaven daughter, an experienced sourdough baker, has been using the same starter we put together when we first moved to the island, a strong specimen we called Rambo and share with friends on and off the island. The other kids also have starter of their own, joining city dwellers new to the art of sourdough baking, who pass on their discard starter by taping bags of it to utility poles or passing it on to neighbors so they can create their own starter.

If you don’t have access to starter, remember that wild yeast is all around you, just waiting to mingle with your flour and water and make bubbles; simply combine flour and water and let it sit for several days. You don’t need any fancy ingredients to “capture” the wild yeast or get it going — it’s already there in the flour. Just mix together equal parts flour and water in a glass bowl, cover loosely with a towel, and let it sit for at least 24 hours. After a day or two, bubbles will start to form in the starter, indicating that the wild yeast is starting to become active and multiply. To keep the yeast happy, feed the starter with the same amounts of fresh flour and water over the next several days, until the starter is bubbly and billowy. Once it reaches that frothy, billowy stage, the starter is ready to be used. If it never bubbles, or smells bad, start over. Starter likes to be warm, around 75 degrees, and on cool Vinalhaven, our first several attempts never got off the ground. So we resorted to the pineapple solution, mixing equal parts pineapple juice and flour and voila! A star was born.

The Vinalhaven contingent has also been supplementing their diet with spring greens. City dwellers probably will not want to forage in any park, but the rest of us can social distance by getting outside and foraging for nettles or, soon, for ramps or fiddleheads. The dandelion pesto, I heard, made when the leaves first appeared, was delicious, although better spread on crackers than mixed with pasta. Now that the dandelion greens are past their prime and plants are blooming, nettles are the island favorite. Nettles are said to have a flavor somewhere between spinach, cabbage and broccoli, although I have found that anything that is supposed to taste like something else never tastes like anything but what it is. So nettles taste like nettles, just as fiddleheads taste like themselves, not asparagus, and alligator tastes like alligator, not chicken. If you like fresh greens, you’ll like nettles, wilted and buttered as a side dish, or added to anything from soup to ravioli.

When the prickly plants were newly unfurled, the island nettles were used as picked, but now the bristly plants need blanching. Because nettles make you itch, gloves are in order when picking them. To blanch them, plunge them in boiling water for five minutes, cool in ice water and then dry by twisting in a towel. One way to use them is to make a bright spring-green risotto. If you don’t know where to find nettles, use any spring greens, either wild, like lamb’s quarters, or cultivated, like spinach or chard, but nettles are the greenest — and most nutritious.

N E T T L E   R I S O T T O

1 cup risotto rice, like carnaroli or arborio
1 cup cooked, drained nettles or spinach, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. butter
12 cup minced onion
3 cloves minced garlic
3-4 cups stock, beef, chicken or vegetable
3 Tbsp. grated fresh Italian hard cheese, like pecorino or Romano
salt to taste
Heat two tablespoons butter in a heavy pot set on medium-high. Add onion and cook for several minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and rice and stir to combine. Stirring constantly, cook everything for a minute or so or until all the rice is well coated with butter. Add a teaspoon of salt and a cup of stock and turn the heat to high. When it starts boiling, turn the heat down to medium and stir often, at least every minute or so, until the rice absorbs the stock. Repeat with a second cup o f stock. When the second cup is absorbed, add the nettles and the third cup of stock. Stir well to combine. Keep stirring constantly now to develop the creaminess in the risotto, and to distribute the nettles evenly.

Taste the risotto, and add salt if needed. You may need some of the fourth cup of stock, as you want the dish to be loose, not firm, so you can add the cheese and the final tablespoon of butter. After adding them, stir well and let the butter and cheese melt in the risotto for a couple minutes, still stirring often. Serve at once.