Monday, March 26, 2012

Cooking for One...a few ideas

I was home alone this past weekend. It was a welcome interlude for the most part. I find the occasional patch of solitude to be peaceful and restorative. The downside of course was that my situation meant that I would be dining alone. It has been a long time since I was in this position every day, and to me this can be the worst part of solitude. The table really is a gathering place...a place for conversation. But it is also a place for necessary physical nourishment. And in order to be nourished, we have to eat well.

My weekend reminded me of how many people eat alone on most days. I know that many of these people feel that it just isn't worth the effort of cooking (and cleaning up) to feed just themselves. But, it really is worth it. And meals of real food don't have to be complicated. As proof of this, today while it is still fresh in my mind, I thought that I would share a few snapshots (literally...blogging has put me in the weird habit of taking pictures of my food) of the things I cooked and ate over the course of the past five days. My hope is that it will provide some ideas for others concerning what to cook when home alone and facing dinner.

I started my long weekend of solo dining with a plate of pasta. This is honestly my favorite "easy" meal for one. If you have vegetables, some kind of fat (olive oil, butter, bacon), and dried pasta, you have dinner. Additional pantry items like stock, heavy cream, a hard grating cheese (Parmesan or Pecorino), onion and/or garlic, anchovies, fresh herbs/spices will make your possibilities almost without limit.

Some of the easiest pastas can be made from start to finish in a sauté pan—particularly when you are cooking just one or two servings. I thought everyone made their pastas in a sauté pan, but this must be a restaurant habit because in the past year I have come across two magazine articles that teach this method as if it were insider information. The one that ran in Bon Appétit last spring (May 2011) was detailed and very helpful. It is available on line and is definitely worth a look. If you are cooking for one, you will need an 8-inch sauté pan (measured across the cooking surface...not rim to rim). Other than the sauté pan you will only need a few utensils (wooden spoon, tongs...) a 3-quart (or thereabout) saucepan for boiling 3 or 4 oz. of pasta, and a strainer or colander to drain the pasta. Of course, not all pastas are made this way...but a great many are...and it is an especially convenient method to know if you are cooking one portion.

I have always believed that any vegetable could be turned into a respectable sauce for pasta. The pasta I had for dinner the other evening was a good example. When I opened up the refrigerator to see what I had to work with, I ran into the last little chunk of a large head of cabbage. I had a vague memory of seeing a cabbage-based pasta sauce in a favorite pasta cookbook (Four Seasons Pasta), so I went to look. The resulting pasta was delicious—shredded cabbage cooked with caramelized onions, some garlic, pepper flakes and fennel spice....topped with a shower of Pecorino.

If you are at a loss for ideas for pastas that use seasonal vegetables, check out the recipe page of my blog and scroll down to the section on pastas. Or, plug the vegetables you want to use into an internet search engine along with the word "pasta" and see what pops up. If nothing else, you will definitely get some ideas. Almost any pasta sauce recipe can be made for one—just calculate the amount of each ingredient you will need based on 3 or 4 oz. of dried pasta. For most recipes this will mean you will be dividing all of the ingredient quantities by four (for some of mine you will divide by two since I frequently post recipes that are for two portions).  If this is still too much food for you, the leftovers will make a great lunch.

My next evening meal was a substantial green salad. Just as pasta can be used as a vehicle for vegetables, so can salad greens. A large handful of lightly dressed greens is a great canvas for some roasted or blanched vegetables (these can be dressed with vinaigrette too) and a piece of grilled/sautéed meat or fish...or a nice poached egg. But you don't even have to have meat or fish...or even an egg. For my salad, I roasted a generous quantity of baby potatoes (6 oz.) and when they were done, I topped them with a few slices of brie and a scattering of crisp bacon and returned it to the oven for a minute or two to allow the cheese to just begin to soften. For people who don't think salads are filling, I encourage you to try a salad like this one.

Potatoes, Cheese & Bacon--just out of the oven--in a small "single serving" stoneware baking dish (4 1/2- x 6 1/2-inches)

One of the things that can be an issue for a solo household is food spoilage and waste. You might be wondering about the use of fresh greens, bacon (which must be purchased by the pound), etc. But these things are not insurmountable. If the greens you purchase are fresh and are properly stored, they will typically last a week or more. A small 4 or 5 oz box of greens will make about 4 salads...depending on your appetite. And even if the greens are not used in such a prominent way on your plate, it is never a bad idea to get into the habit of adding a small mound of lightly dressed greens to your meals on a regular basis. Having them on hand will encourage it.

As far as the bacon is concerned, it can be kept in the freezer. Unless you want to cook whole strips, it is very easy to use frozen bacon. Freeze the bacon as it comes in the package, then when you are ready to cook, pull the frozen block of slices from the freezer and take just what you need by cutting crosswise across the shingled slices. Once cut, it can be thawed or cooked while still frozen (it will begin to thaw immediately).

As for the Brie...I admit, I purchased it just for this salad. But cheese is never wasted in my house. And many cheeses will keep for quite some time. Brie however, will not. But that's OK, I have been enjoying the remainder of the mini wheel I purchased with apples and toasted semolina bread for's almost gone.

But I could have used some of that brie on a sandwich...or in a quesadilla. One of my favorite solo meals is a cheese quesadilla. They are equally good with an avocado and tomato salad, a green salad, or some fruit.  For one of my meals, I had just that: 

If you are feeling energetic, quesadillas can be filled with cooked vegetables and/or meats in addition to the cheese. Sandwiches too are a great option for solo meals. Some of my favorites are grilled cheese, fried egg, egg or tuna salad and BLT. Like the bacon, sliced bread stores very well in the freezer. Slices can be thawed in the toaster or covered in plastic wrap and thawed on the counter at room temperature (where they will thaw very quickly).

I finished up the weekend with another great meal for one: a pan-fried piece of meat/fish served with a medley of vegetables. You can of course make a dish like this as complex as you like, but if you aren't in the mood to wash a lot of dishes, this type of meal can easily be completed in two pans—one for the meat/fish and another for the vegetables. Just as for the pasta, the vegetables can be cooked in a single pan on the stovetop. Or, they could all be roasted together in one pan in the oven. Whether braising, poaching, sautéing or roasting, just make sure all of the vegetables are cut the same size so they will take the same amount of time to cook. They can be cooked plainly, or enhanced with bacon, olives, herbs, spices, nuts, etc. A little extra olive oil or butter to finish is always a good idea. Make sure everything is well-seasoned before mounding it on your plate and topping it with your simply prepared meat or fish.

For my dinner I had a pan-roasted lamb chop served on a bed of potatoes and artichokes. I posted a recipe for a similar vegetable medley served with chicken a couple of years ago. For an idea using salmon, check out my Salmon served on a bed of Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Potatoes from last month. As with the pasta sauces, there are lots of ideas for seasonal vegetable medleys to be found on my recipe page.

If you have time, it's always nice to add a little flavor with a rub or a marinade.  For my lamb chop, I used some olive oil, toasted cumin seed, lemon zest, crushed garlic and fresh mint.

Lamb with baby potatoes, chunks of artichokes and a few spears of asparagus.

Finally, for me, life is not complete without cake (...or cookies...). So I even made a small cake this weekend. After enjoying a slice, I portioned the remainder of the cake, wrapped the slices individually and put them all in a zip lock bag in the freezer. Like sliced bread, they will thaw quickly if allowed to sit (still wrapped in their individual wrapper) on the counter for an hour or two. Or, if you can't wait that long, the microwave does a fine job of thawing sweet (unfrosted) baked goods. If you aren't a cake person, cookies freeze well too.

As you have probably noticed, I use my freezer a lot—whether I'm alone or feeding my normal household of two. For small households, in addition to maintaining a well-stocked pantry of favorite staples, learning how to use your freezer can be one of the keys to having really good, fresh, homemade food on a regular basis.

I hope this random snapshot of my solo meals was helpful. I honestly didn't feel like I spent a lot of time in the kitchen this weekend—cooking or washing up—and I truly enjoyed my meals. Feeding oneself well when you live alone is a learning process—learning how to shop, how to store food and how to plan...not to mention how to cook. There is no way that I could address all of these things in an exhaustive way in a short blog post. (Entire cookbooks have been written on the subject.) Mostly my purpose today has been to provide a few ideas, so that the occasions when you find yourself in front of the computer with a bowl of popcorn...or the TV with a bag of pretzels and an open jar of peanut butter...will be few and far between. (I admit to having done both of these things...although, not this past weekend.) It is worth it to cook. Maybe not every day...but most days. The more you cook, the easier—and more enjoyable—it gets.


Molly R. Braley said...

My family tells me that some of my 'cooler-cleaner' meals are the very best; made-up dinner using this and that from the fridge and freezer. For 1,2,or 3 people...I think you are right on the mark!
Thanks for your post.

Katrina said...

Great post, Paige. And though I don't ever eat alone (sigh, jk), it's still a great lesson to learn from to cook meals at home.