In her recent memoir “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food” (2008), Judith Jones, the editor of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” urges singles to get in the kitchen and cook. In her new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One, Jones shows readers just how easy, adventurous, and rewarding it is to do so.
Cooking for one on a regular basis tends to be seen as problematic. Most recipes serve at least four people, a turnoff for solo cooks who don’t enjoy eating the same meal three days in a row. Reducing recipes isn’t always that easy: For example, how does one use half an egg? And sometimes cooking and eating at a table set for one can feel just plain lonely. It all adds up to enough to keep the stove top cold and frozen meals humming in the microwave for weeks on end.
Jones, who has edited and cooked alongside such household names as Edna Lewis, Marion Cunningham, Lidia Bastianich, and James Beard, insists it doesn’t have to be this way.
“After my husband, Evan, died in 1996, I was not sure that I would ever enjoy preparing a meal for myself and eating it alone,” she writes in the introduction. “But ... I was wrong, and I soon realized that the pleasure that we shared together was something to honor.”
Jones has been interested in food since she lived in Paris as a young woman and discovered life beyond a plain Vermont Yankee palate. Meal preparation centered her life with her husband, but as Jones demonstrates, taking an interest in the food you serve yourself is a way to practice creativity and delight. It’s also a way to care for yourself.
Jones is ready with tips on ordering your kitchen, which tools are essential, and what shortcuts to take if you have little counter space. For instance, instead of setting out numerous mixing bowls, simply mix dry ingredients on a piece of wax paper, and then funnel them into the larger mixing bowl as the recipe proceeds. She offers wisdom about portion size and what to keep stocked in your refrigerator. And always, she suggests ways to transform any leftovers you have into something else interesting and new.
This isn’t a cookbook heavy on one-dish pasta recipes either, although those are included, such as “Penne with Tuna, Plum Tomatoes, and Black Olives.” The timid cook can find many entry points such as “A Small Meatloaf with a French Accent,” and the cook who once churned out family-sized meals with factory precision can still enjoy such flavorful dishes as “Baked Bass with Fingerlings and Zucchini” without swimming in leftovers.
Jones believes in using the whole animal, a tradition found in European recipes, particularly French. “Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce” and “Beef Shank and Oxtail Ragù” may be off-putting to the American cook who is used to cleanly presented chicken breasts in plastic-wrapped packages. But this is part of learning to think outside the frozen-dinner box. Bear in mind: There aren’t too many options for the vegetarian cook here.
“The Pleasures of Cooking for One” is beautifully illustrated with color photos right from Jones’s own Vermont kitchen. There are no granite countertops or walnut cabinets. Just a sturdy gas stove and lots of worn pots and well-loved wooden spoons. It’s enough to make you want to putter right alongside her.
Don’t be surprised if – as you cook your way through this book – your dinner table begins to expand beyond a setting for one. Because as you gain (or regain) confidence and enjoyment in the kitchen, friends may start to turn up at your door, eager to sit down and break bread.
Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor and a solo cook.