Cooking for One: Together, independently

February 16, 2011

Solo cooks don't always live alone. Somewhere between college and married life, for instance, lies a world created by high housing prices and low incomes: the group house, where single folks share a roof. But perhaps not much more.

"We probably should cook together more often," Aubrey Delaney tells me, in the kitchen of the Capitol Hill rowhouse she shares with Lucy Novick and Will Ardinger. "But we don't, for some reason."

Well, it's not so easy, of course. They have different tastes and needs. Delaney eats everything but doesn't cook much meat at home. Novick doesn't consume red meat. Ardinger is on a mission to down as much protein and as many calories as possible to support his intense workout routine. Their schedules are erratic, the two women don't have a car and their budgets are disparate - especially since Ardinger just got laid off from his job.

Unlike families, they feel no obligation to make dinnertime any kind of bonding time.

All of which got me thinking: Could some strategies help these 20-something singles realize the benefits of living together, while supporting their ability to eat independently?

I spent a few hours on a Monday night, watching them fend for themselves. Delaney, the most ambitious cook of the group, made a delicious cauliflower potato curry dish, off the top of her head. "One of the things I'm really bad about as a cook is reading recipes," says Delaney, 25, who works at a consulting firm. "I'm comfortable making new things, but the things I really want to make are ones I already know how to make."

What she's not so good at is making dishes in portions anywhere close to a single serving - and she's not particularly crazy about leftovers, either: "My mom makes fun of me that one day I'll have nine kids because that's how many people I typically cook for."

Meanwhile, Novick, 24, opened a can of black beans and tossed them with carrots, avocado and chunks of cheddar cheese. "It's either this or a bowl of cereal," she says.

For his part, Ardinger sauteed a mound of kale and plopped it on two cups of leftover rice and another two cups of leftover shrimp/pepper stir-fry he had made the day before. "I'm not that proud of my cooking," he says, although he likes the creation, which serves four (or two, in his case).

Ardinger, 23, doesn't mind leftovers but struggles with shopping strategies. "I tend to buy big packs of meat, use a little bit and then throw the rest in the freezer and forget about it," he says. Sure enough, inside the freezer was a three-quarters full family pack of chicken breasts, with a few removed and the rest frozen solid.

What about wrapping and freezing them individually? "Yep, you're not the first person to tell me that," he says.

As I rummaged through their pantries and quizzed them about their eating habits, I started composing in my mind a Venn diagram of their common tastes. Beans were one obvious area of agreement; their shelves were full of canned beans of various types. Fish is another. And they all like root vegetables.

What they needed, I decided, were two kinds of recipes: First, large quantities of things such as roasted vegetables and home-cooked beans that they can make on a weekend and split the expense. Dried beans, a fraction of the cost of canned, would be particularly appropriate for Ardinger's new unemployment-check budget. Second, they needed ways to use those shared ingredients in dishes they could throw together at the end of a long day. If they wanted such dishes to be single-serving, they easily could be.

In a sense, it's a way of thinking about cooking for one that turns the idea of leftovers on its head. Rather than make a finished dish and eat it for days, you make some of the components of many dishes in advance and then use them to make different things night by night.

I returned a week later, with four recipes: a base of smoky roasted vegetables and three for meals aimed at each housemate. When I laid them out on the counter, it was easy for the single cooks to guess. Ardinger, who had professed his love of an overstuffed burrito, could roll the vegetables and cooked black beans in a whole-wheat tortilla with salmon, sour cream, avocado and salsa. (I showed him how to quickly cook the salmon in his trusty toaster oven.) Novick could toss those veggies and beans with spinach, feta, dried tomatoes and barley for a hearty vegetarian salad. And Delaney could combine more of the salmon and veggies with coconut milk and Thai curry paste for a spicy fish stew to eat over rice.

The recipes can be modified with seasonal veggies and different varieties of beans and grains. Because some of the same ingredients show up in all three dishes, the trio could pile into Ardinger's car to grocery shop once a week or so and return with the makings of several nights' worth of food apiece.

I coaxed Delaney, Novick and Ardinger into making their Cooking for One recipes, which they managed with ease. The most satisfying moment, though, came when they looked at one another, switched plates and kept eating.

"You know what?" Ardinger said. "I think we should do this again this weekend."

Yonan is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," coming in March from Ten Speed Press.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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