I have loved cooking for my family during this troubling time, even if some of my efforts were met with shrugs and a few reactions of just, “It's fine.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept most of us in our homes – and kitchens – more than ever before. It restored some folks' passion for cooking or, for those that didn't fare well, restored their passion for restaurants.

Among the dishes I churned out that I had never attempted before was a traditional Italian braciole – stuffed steak rolls cooked in a pot of sauce – potato gnocchi and good old-fashioned graham cracker pudding. I also mixed in some classics such as mom's meatloaf, potato soup and smoked pork ribs.

What makes recipes dear to us usually has little to do with ingredients, complexity or even flavor. Often, it is the memories that are attached to it. It is my grandma's homemade noodles, my mom's meatloaf or my great-aunt's fudge. Maybe for you it is that shrimp pasta you made for your spouse the first time he or she came over for dinner.

My favorite recipes are anything but cheffy and you won't see anybody on the Food Network making something so simple. But nothing is better than those dishes and those people whose smiles I saw as I savored every morsel.

Family pride

For Jim Todoran of Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island, it is a recipe that comes straight from his mother's Romanian family tree. And though it invokes all of those memories and warm feelings for him now, that wasn't always the case.

“I typically make Sarmale two to three times a year – usually for a Sunday night family dinner – and always during the Christmas season, along with some other Romanian baked goods,” Todoran said of the cabbage rolls. He adds that his wife, Karen, likes it, and sons James, 17, and Jack, 14, will eat it – though it is nowhere near a favorite – but son Kyle, 26, “has yet to acquire a taste for it.”

“Come to think about it, sarmale probably wasn't my favorite as a kid growing up either. Now I absolutely love it,” he continued. “I tend to think that it's a combination of your taste buds changing as you get older and I also think part of it is sentimental.

“I have vivid memories of my grandma making sarmale and other Romanian treats. Food definitely has a way of linking generations of families together. Traditions like Romanian dances, clothes or weddings dilute over time, but family recipes are a way to connect to your past generations when most foods were considered a treat or a symbol of celebration. Someday I hope my boys will absolutely love sarmale and their kids will think its OK ... and I'll be one happy grandpa.”

Romanian Sarmale

2 heads of cabbage (or one jar Dobrova Soured Cabbage Leaves; available at George's International Grocery)

11/2 pounds ground pork

1/2 pound ground chuck

1/2 cup long-grain rice soaked in water

2 smoked ham hocks

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion finely chopped

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

2 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped

3 cloves of garlic minced

1 teaspoon savory

1 sprig of dill (optional)

1 jar of sauerkraut with juice (or drained if you have juice from soured cabbage leaves)

8 ounces tomato sauce

8 ounces tomato juice

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

In a frying pan, heat oil, onions and parsley until they start to brown, add paprika and let cool.

In a large mixing bowl, add ground chuck, ground pork, drained soaked rice, garlic, savory and onions and mix thoroughly by hand. This is the filling.

Pull the outer leaves from the cabbage and thoroughly cut out the bottom core of the head. Place the head in boiling salted water and one by one, carefully remove the leaves with tongs and place in ice bath. Remove center vein before filling. (This step can be omitted if you use the jarred soured cabbage leaves. The jarred leaves should have the center vein cut out).

Place two tablespoons of the meat filling in center of cabbage leaf and fold one side of leaf over filling, then roll from base to bottom of leaf and use index finger to gently tuck opposite side of leaf into cabbage roll to make a nice, neat roll.

Place half of the jar of sauerkraut in bottom of pot. Chop any leftover cabbage and place on top of sauerkraut. Place pork hock on top of sauerkraut.

Arrange cabbage rolls, seam side down in pot in neat layers. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper between layers. Place second half of sauerkraut on top of cabbage rolls. Spread tomato sauce and tomato juice over kraut, place one bay leaf (and optional dill sprig) on top and cover rolls with just enough water/kraut juice to cover rolls.

Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 21/2 to 3 hours. Serve with Mamaliga (cheese polenta) for a true Romanian meal.

Expert move

For Matthew and Nicky Nolot, owners of Tolon, the recipe that hits home with them is not an original creation by the talented chef, and it isn't from his or her family. It is a dish swiped from another chef's cookbook.

The late Paul Prudhomme is a legend when it comes to Creole and Cajun cooking, so there is no shame in using his recipe for red beans and rice.

“We like his recipe over others. He is the 'Father of Cajun cooking,'” Nicky said. “Traditionally this would be a meal that is prepared (by me) on 'wash day,' which is Monday, because it could be put on and left to simmer while the wash was being done.

“It's a favorite of ours but not one that I often make because it takes several hours.”

This story was the couple's excuse to make it again and it was the side for a gorgeous pork chop Matthew prepared to go with it.

Red Beans & Rice

1 pound dried red kidney beans

Water, to cover beans for overnight soak

3 pounds ham hocks (we preferred smoked)

1¼ cups celery, chopped

1 cup onions, chopped

1 cup green bell pepper, chopped

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (we prefer cayenne)

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3 links Andouille sausage

Cooked white rice

Chopped chives for garnish

Cover beans with water two inches above the beans, soak overnight then drain.

Place eight cups water and remaining ingredients in a 6-quart stockpot or large cast iron Dutch oven. Stir well. Cover and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until hocks are fork tender (approximately one hour but, depending on size of hocks, can be up to 2 hours. Use pressure cooker to speed up process). Stir occasionally.

Remove ham hocks and set aside. Add drained beans and four cups of water to pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add remaining two cups of water and simmer another 30 minutes, stirring often. Stir in Andouille sausage – cut lengthwise or in small pieces – and continue simmering until beans start to break up (approximately 30 minutes). Scrape bottom of pan fairly often to prevent sticking.

If beans begin to stick to bottom of pan and scorch, do not stir. Immediately remove from heat and change to another pot without scraping.

Add ham hocks and cook another 10 minutes, stirring often. Serve immediately over hot white rice. Garnish with chopped chives. We like to add a bit of Crystal hot sauce (a Louisiana staple).

– Recipe taken from Chef Paul Prudhomme.

Menu staple

The recipe Jerry Perez of Solbird Kitchen & Tap and the Sol Kitchen food truck wanted to share pays homage to his heritage but also carries great memories from a trip years ago.

“Growing up, in a family of six children, my mother only made arroz rojo (rice in red sauce) that I recall,” Perez said. “I first tasted green rice on a vacation in Puerto Rico. In creating my own recipe, I did what I think most of us do and looked at several recipes and then played with creating my own combination and quantities of ingredients.”

His “Sunday night special” rice is a favorite of his wife, Laurie, and regularly is featured with other dishes at his restaurant.

Arroz Verde

1 cup spinach leaves – packed tight

1/2 cup cilantro – packed tight

1¼ cups coconut milk (from carton, not canned) – can substitute regular milk

1¼ cups chicken stock

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1½ cups long grain rice

1/2 cup onion diced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1/2 poblano pepper, seeded and minced (together with the jalapeño, should equal approximately 1/2 cup.)

3 small cloves garlic minced

Zest from 1/2 to 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime

Cheese is optional; he suggests Chihuahua, queso fresco or cotija

Place first 5 ingredients in a blender and puree until well combined while leaving tiny flecks of spinach/cilantro visible.

Combine olive oil and butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Once butter has melted, add rice and sauté until lightly golden. Add onion, peppers and garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes.

Pour in liquid mixture, stir well and bring to a boil. Place lid on pot and reduce heat to low. Cook undisturbed 20 minutes covered. Give rice a stir, cover and cook another 5 minutes

Turn off heat and leave undisturbed 10 minutes or until done.

Fluff with fork. Sprinkle with lime zest and the juice of 1/2 a lime, and salt to taste. Top with your choice of cheese if desired.

Chef's favorite

Copper Spoon chef Aaron Butts' go-to dish requires very little cooking at all, which was a bit surprising to me coming from a chef of his ilk. But, then again, if I cooked for a living instead of eating for a living, I might find an easy, versatile offering like his pimento cheese spread to be my favorite, too.

“Pimento cheese is such a comfort food to me,” Butts said. “A nice platter of cured meats, cheese, pimento, pickles and bread is all I really need in life. It's also the easiest thing for me to eat if I'm busy at the restaurant.”

This cheese spread was on his menu when he owned The Golden and it continues to draw raves.

Pimento Cheese Spread

3 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped

4 ounces cream cheese

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon your favorite hot sauce

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon paprika

1/4 cup cornichons (or dill gherkins) finely chopped

1/4 cup cornichon brine

1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

Roast peppers over an open flame until skin is blackened and charred. Place peppers in a bowl, wrap in plastic wrap and let sit until cool. Peel charred skin, cut pepper in half, remove seeds and chop into small dice.

In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together cream cheese and mayonnaise until smooth. Add hot sauce, seasonings and chopped cornichons, mix until incorporated.

Slowly mix in cornichon brine, scraping down sides of bowl until smooth. Slowly mix in shredded cheese until combined. Lastly, mix in red bell peppers on low speed until just combined. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.

Chill until ready to eat, and serve with crusty bread or crackers, assorted charcuterie, pickles or whatever you like!

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.