Shortly after I’d moved to Chicago the first time, I bought a half ham. Trying to figure out what to do with it, I consulted "Joy of Cooking," where I was greeted by these cheery words: “Someone defined eternity as a ham and two people.” Standing there alone in the galley kitchen of my tiny studio apartment, I did the math—my half ham and I were in for a long haul.
Marion was out of town this past weekend. I knew I would be cooking for one, and that got me thinking about that half ham and the rewards and problems of cooking for just one person. It also got me heading to the library. I’d recently read a couple of reviews of food legend Judith Jones’s new book, "The Pleasures of Cooking for One," and hoped to grab a copy. Apparently I wasn’t alone in that hope. I know I should have headed for the bookstore to support the ailing publishing industry, but our bookshelves are already crammed to the breaking point. So I got on the waiting list for Ms. Jones’s book, but managed to nab a copy of "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone," a fascinating and often funny collection of essays by an interesting mix of food writers and foodies, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.
In her introduction, Ferrari-Adler points out that while information abounds on the how-to aspect of cooking for one, there is very little out there addressing the “why.” This book does that beautifully – and with a healthy dose of eccentricities. Laurie Colwin, whose essay gives the book its name, put it like this: “Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.”
Colwin’s own solo cooking experience is more charming than weird. She tells of living in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village [7×20 feet] with a two-burner hot plate and not even a kitchen sink – she washed her dishes in the bathtub. She loved her cramped apartment – and she happily cooked eggplant for herself there every chance she got.
But plenty of the essays live up to the book’s confessional subtitle. Jeremy Jackson [author of "The Cornbread Book: A Love Story with Recipes"] admits to turning down a dinner invitation because he’d already selected the can of black beans that would be part of his solitary black beans and cornbread dinner that evening. And even though she’s an accomplished cook, left to her own devices, writer Ann Patchett is happiest eating Saltines with slices of white cheese and a dollop of salsa, then smoothly transitioning to “Saltines spread with butter and jam for dessert.”
The periods of solitary cooking described in the book range from ongoing to semesters in grad school to the occasional weekend alone, like mine, which are viewed almost universally as guilty pleasures.
As a nation, America ranks high in people living alone. And while New York City may the epicenter – according to New York magazine, an amazing 50.6 percent of the households in Manhattan are single-individual households – you’ll find people living alone pretty much everywhere. In fact, about 26 percent of all Americans live in one-person households.
Since 26 percent of all Americans aren’t dying of starvation, one has to assume at least some of them cook. This despite the protestations of so many single friends that they can’t be bothered to cook for just one person. Here’s why I enjoy cooking for just one person and a few ways to keep it interesting.
First the why. For starters, you only have to please one person. No worrying about someone else’s taste buds, dietary restrictions or “ewwww!” factors. And the only “you know what I’m in the mood for” you have to consider is your own. Ditto for dining/hunger schedules. You can eat exactly the same thing 15 times in a row if you want to, either obsessing over perfecting it or just because you really, really like it. You can get wildly, fearlessly experimental – if the dish fails miserably, no one but you need know that you threw it out and ordered a pizza.
I am blessed with the perfect culinary partner in crime. If anything, Marion is a far more adventurous eater than I am. And when things take longer than I think they will in the kitchen [aka pretty much any time I’m in the kitchen], she is unfailingly patient. Still, there is just something freeing, relaxing and almost meditative about occasionally being in the kitchen cooking for myself alone, knowing that no one else is depending on my food choices, cooking skills or even efficiency at the moment.
Now the how. Okay, this isn’t so much how-to advice as it is probably reminding you of stuff you already know. But here goes.
Keep it simple. Cooking for one can be fun. Cleaning every pot and utensil you own afterward, not so much. So save elaborate for guests. And choose dishes that are quick to fix or that spend much of their cooking time unattended—this time of year, stews, soups and roasts are ideal. They have the added bonus of filling your home with delightful smells, prolonging the cooking experience with no additional effort and making you feel cozy and smug about your self-sufficiency.
Keep it imaginative. You know all those fascinating recipes you find online, in cookbooks, in magazines? The ones that take you tantalizingly out of your comfort zone because of unfamiliar techniques or new-to-you ingredients or cuisines? Try some. There’s nothing like occasionally challenging yourself to make the kitchen more interesting.
Keep it on hand. A well-stocked pantry [grains, rice, canned or dried beans, tomatoes, pastas, oils…] plus basics like onions, potatoes, garlic, butter, cheeses, eggs and such can make it easy to throw something together with very little else. For pantry inspiration, visit The Perfect Pantry and check out Lydia’s Pantry Inventory List.
Cook for more than one. Despite the fact that 26 percent of us live alone, many grocery stores sell meat, produce and dairy in packages better suited for feeding small armies. So cook with leftovers in mind. Again, soups, stews and roasts are perfect. Or break “family valupaks” down into individual-sized portions and freeze them. When a single friend of ours buys bacon for a recipe, she divvies the rest up into two- to four-slice batches and freezes them. Then it doesn’t go bad, and when the bacon mood strikes, she doesn’t have to buy a fresh package.
Home alone: My solitary culinary adventures
So what led me to lamb chops and couscous this past weekend? Interestingly (and indirectly), it was "The Pleasures of Cooking for One," the Judith Jones book I failed to get at the library. A brief review I read at Tasting Table caught my attention with this line: “Some of the recipes school cooks on how to extend one dish into a ‘second round': Leftovers from Moroccan-style lamb shanks are reincarnated in couscous with lamb, onions and raisins.”
I love lamb shanks. Some day, I’ll tackle them here. But last weekend, I was following my “keep it simple” approach. And since my home alone go-tos tend toward steak, lamb chops or pork chops [in no particular order], lamb chops it was. At first, I toyed with something Mediterranean/Moroccan/Middle Eastern, but then decided not to go all matchy. Regarding the couscous dish, I just liked the way the flavors sounded in the single-sentence description above. I have no idea what Ms. Jones’s version is like – and won’t until the library comes across with the book – but my version was just fine, thank you. Simple, flavorful and a little fiery.
Couscous with Raisins and Onions
Serves 2 (think leftovers)
Adapted from a recipe at Cooks.com
For my version of this dish, I use Israeli couscous. I like the size and texture of it. You can also use regular couscous; see Kitchen Notes for the required adjustments.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
2/3 cup onion, chopped
1 cup Israeli couscous
1-1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 cups raisins (I used golden raisins – plain are fine)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add oil and swirl pan to combine. Add onion. Cook, stir occasionally, until wilted but not brown, about 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Add couscous and sauté for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the boiling water, raisins, lemon juice, cumin and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
3. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with a fork, season with salt and pepper and serve.
Pan-grilled Lamb Chops
1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped
2 loin lamb chops, about 8 ounces total (see Kitchen Notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (be generous)
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary needles, roughly chopped
1. Spread chopped garlic on lamb chops, pressing it gently into them. Set aside for about 15 to 20 minutes, unrefrigerated. Scrape garlic from chops. Season with salt, pepper and rosemary. Heat a grilling pan over high heat for 2 minutes or so, getting it really hot.
2. Brush a little canola oil in the pan, then cook the ribs until desired doneness, 3 minutes or so per side for medium-rare. Serve.
A lamb chop by any other name. I used loin chops – note the 1-inch thickness and the thick, flattened bones. You can also use rib chops, but they tend to be thinner. Adjust cooking time accordingly. If you come across lamb shoulder chops, a flavorful, inexpensive cut, here’s how to cook them.
If you’re using regular couscous, soak raisins in a small bowl of lukewarm water for about 20 minutes, then drain them. Brown the onions, then add boiling water, raisins, lemon juice and cumin and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the couscous. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork, adjust seasonings and serve.