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Customize, and Light Some Candles

By Judith Jones
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I love to cook for myself. It is relaxing and creative, and you have only yourself to please so you can follow any whim. In the years since my husband died, I have found increasingly that it is a comfort to come home from work and fill the apartment with good cooking smells.

But for many people the idea of cooking for oneself is not appetizing. Even those who otherwise enjoy cooking balk at the prospect. All that fuss, just for me? And the waste: buying so much stuff and then feeling obliged to eat what's left, cold or warmed over, until you throw it out. Furthermore, it's expensive. Recipes today call for so many exotic ingredients, such as two or three different fresh herbs, and you go out and buy several costly little plastic packets of wilted leaves that are dead the next day.

While I do recognize the legitimacy of such objections, there are ways of overcoming the obstacles. I try instead to regard them as a challenge, and that often stirs my creativity. Here are some of the strategies I have developed:

- I don't focus on one recipe at a time but think through the week ahead when I'm shopping. There is a rhythm to home cooking, one dish leading to another.

For instance, I might buy a small chicken or Cornish hen to broil or roast on the weekend. In the next day or so I'll use a few slices for a sandwich or salad, then later in the week I'll make a delicious dish of leftovers. And I always search for the cook's treat tucked into the cavity: the package of liver (particularly delicious with shirred or scrambled eggs) and the gizzard and neck (to be saved for chicken stock). So I've come up with four chicken dishes to play with that week, each one different-tasting.

Or I might buy a tenderloin of pork, lop off the thin end and store it, to be cut later into cubes or strips for a stir-fry. The bulk of the meat I'll roast, after rubbing it with garlic and salt and maybe some fresh ginger, and I'll roast some vegetables alongside so everything is done at once with flavors intermingling -- and only one pan to scrub! What I don't consume the first night, I'll save for a savory hash or for spicy fried rice.

- I always try to buy manageable amounts, particularly of fresh produce. If I'm doing a recipe that calls for broccoli (such as Chicken Divan; see related recipe) and the supermarket has only a huge bunch that they won't let me break up so I can take home just one branch, I'll get broccolini instead. It's more expensive but it won't go to waste, and it's always good chilled with a sharp vinaigrette.

If the pork tenderloin has been shrink-wrapped with a second tenderloin, as is usually the case, I ring for the butcher and persuade him to break open the package and let me have just the one tenderloin. If the dairy section stocks eggs only by the dozen, I take the carton to the checkout and ask to have it broken in half. These confrontations are sometimes tiresome, but it's the only way to get what you want; maybe eventually we'll change the supermarket's disdain of singles. I also shop as often as possible at farmers markets or street stands, where the vendors are more responsive to the lone cook's needs.

- As to those expensive herbs, just substitute dried where feasible, using less than half the amount called for. The only herbs that I find lose much of their character when dried are parsley and basil, so if you can grow them on a sunny windowsill, you're in luck.

- When I'm preparing a basic cream sauce or tomato sauce or pastry dough or salad dressing, I always make extra to have on hand in the fridge or freezer in small amounts. I also make my own chicken stock. I just freeze the necks and backs and gizzards and sometimes carcasses, and when I've accumulated enough I put them in a big pot with an onion and a little carrot and celery, fill it with water and let it simmer slowly on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

When I store the broth, I make a point of freezing some of it in ice trays so that I can readily extract a cube or two when I want to deglaze a pan and make a little sauce for one.

There are, of course, lots of other strategies that each of us is bound to develop as we shop and cook alone. The truth is that because cooking for one is challenging, it makes us that much more resourceful. You can experiment as you wish, using a dash of good balsamic vinegar if you're out of lemons to dress up a vegetable, or supplementing your dwindling supply of fresh mushrooms with a few dried (and thereby discovering how drying intensifies their flavor). If you botch something, you eat it anyway, no apologies. And you learn from your mistakes.

Above all, you can create -- or re-create -- recipes based on what you find in the fridge. Some of the world's most cherished dishes evolved that way: croquettes, timbales, layered casseroles, hashes and minces, pastas and bean dishes. If you're young and new to cooking, some of these "made" dishes will be a revelation. If you have lived a long time, as I have, they will conjure wonderful taste memories.

I was thinking recently about a little French restaurant in Manhattan's East Fifties that helped introduce me to French food in the postwar years. One of the dishes the place was famous for was Chicken Divan. So faced one evening with half a cold roast chicken, I decided to try it again, using broccolini instead of overgrown broccoli. It took me only 10 minutes to prepare the dish, having all the ingredients at hand, and 25 minutes to bake it while I made a salad, set the table, uncorked the wine and lit the candles. Then I sat down alone to enjoy one of those infinitely satisfying, timeless dishes.

Recently a widowed woman, who had been a fine cook, got in touch with me after seeing the picture in my book of me sitting at my little dining table with the candles lit. She said that image had given her the courage to finally prepare a meal again just for herself and to enjoy it. There are lots of us sharing that pleasure and finding that the more we do it, the more gratifying it becomes.

Judith Jones, Knopf vice president and senior editor, is the author of "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food." Do you have Cooking for One questions? Send an e-mail tofood@washpost.com.

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