Cooking for One: Learning how to ‘Serve Yourself’


Serve Yourself, a new cookbook about cooking for one by The Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)
March 29, 2011

An edited excerpt from Joe Yonan’s new book, “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press).

It was a Facebook comment that finally did it.

I had just posted a link to one of my Cooking for One columns, and amid the chatter about the recipes for mulled red-wine syrup and salmon braised in pinot noir, I got this: “At the risk of getting too personal, perhaps you might find someone to share life/meals with. That would kill your column concept, but could change your life in a positive way. The pleasures of the table are so satisfying when shared.”

Well, of course they are, and I share them all the time. Just a few days earlier, I had paid up on a promised birthday meal for two friends by kneading flour and egg until it was smooth as a baby’s skin, running it through thinner and thinner settings on a pasta machine and hand-cutting it into pappardelle. I made a ragu bianca — chicken thighs ground with chicken livers and simmered in white wine — and tossed it with the pasta, olive oil and shaved pecorino.

Sometimes, naturally, I go out with friends, trying a viognier with the avocado-pistachio brus­chetta at Cork Wine Bar or marveling at the liquefied olives at Minibar. And other times, like anyone, I’m so angry and hungry at the end of a workday (a combination I call “hangry”) that it’s all I can do to grab a wrap on the way home, or dial up Great Wall Szechuan House for delivery that’s so speedy it makes me wonder if they’re stir-frying in my basement.

But those are all exceptions. Most nights, cook and eater are the same person, and I keep those pleasures of the table all to myself. And why wouldn’t I? Not to break into “The Greatest Love of All” or anything, but to me, cooking is the ultimate act of self-appreciation.

When I cook for myself, I tend to make something more off the cuff, a little less refined than what I make for friends, but I always strive for sustaining, even energizing. It’s partly that I want to have control over what I eat, but it’s also about answering my particular, ever-shifting cravings. After all, I know better than anyone what I want, and I usually know how to make it. If I don’t, I’m willing to learn, an attitude that has formed the basis of my cooking explorations for most of my life.

The Facebook comment was innocent enough, I guess; but frankly, I found it incredibly naive and even a little insulting. Cooking for yourself doesn’t need to feel like a chore, or, perhaps worse, it doesn’t need to bring to mind that character in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Remember Miss Lonely Hearts? As Jimmy Stewart’s character watched through his binoculars from across the courtyard, she set a table for two, raised a glass, forced a smile and mimed a romantic dinner with an empty chair.

Naturally, I’d love to share my life with someone. And I spend plenty of energy looking for and nurturing the possibility of good relationships. But until the right one comes along, I gotta eat, I gotta cook, and I’m determined to do both well. When I make myself dinner, I don’t pretend my true love is sitting across from me; I’m too busy eating.

Of course, food-loving single cooks need ideas to help them face some of the most common challenges: How do you avoid continually resorting to recipes that serve four or six or more, leaving you with leftovers for days or, God forbid, weeks? Some meals are worth eating more than once, but we solo artists deserve just as varied a diet as anyone. Although I love having leftovers that can morph into new dishes, I also appreciate the beauty of starting and finishing a single cooking project on a given night. If I want more, it’s much easier to double a recipe that’s written for one than it is to shrink one for six.

And these strategies aren’t just for singles. Most modern couples I know consist of at least one person who frequently works past the dinner hour or is out of town for days at a time on business.

Still, single-person households have been the fastest-growing census category in America since the 1980s, making up more than a quarter of all homes, and the category is continuing to grow. Young people are waiting longer to get married or are forgoing it altogether, while older people who outlive their spouses are healthy enough to live independently.

My own lessons in independent living and cooking began when I was a kid, thanks to my mom and my stepdad, Vern. My mother let me use her stand mixer to whip the cream or potatoes, and Vern taught me to make chicken-fried steak and cornmeal-coated, pan-fried catfish. Perhaps most important, I started grocery shopping for the family at age 8. That happened after my parents’ divorce, once my mother realized that although she had lost privileges to shop at the commissary, the steeply discounted grocery store on Goodfellow Air Force Base for military personnel and their dependents, her kids had not. So she made up a list, handed me cash and drove me to the store.

The first time, she worried: “Are you all right doing this, honey? I’ll be right out here if you need me.” When, an hour later, the store worker who bagged our groceries followed me outside to the car, he initially didn’t see my mother waiting for me. As she loves to tell it, he took one look at the car and said, “Don’t tell me you can drive, too.”

My mother wasn’t worried about me for long, because my enthusiasm was so obvious. I would follow her list to the letter, but I had to make choices among brands, look for cheaper substitutions and remember the all-important goal: If I finished under budget, I could pick out something just for myself.

It was the first of many little things that helped me feel comfortable many years later when I moved to a new city and an apartment all my own, especially once I learned how to shop and cook for just one rather than a family of four.

The thing to remember is this: You don’t have to resort to takeout just because you live alone. You can keep the right (delicious) foods in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer; learn to shop with an eye for ingredients that support a single cook’s lifestyle; and cook without worrying about satisfying anyone’s hankerings but your own.

After all, if you don’t feed yourself well, who will?

Recipes

Smoked Trout, Green Apple and Gouda Sandwich

Cappuccino Tapioca Pudding With Cardamom Brulee

Personal Paella With Squid and Scallions

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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