Cooking for One

Looking to Scale Down A Recipe? Go Figure.

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's hard to pick an all-time favorite cookbook, but if I had to, it would be Paula Wolfert's 2003 "The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen." The recipes for Moroccan fish with sweet onion jam or flatbread stuffed with cheese, squash and wild greens are tempting and satisfying. Most important, they work.

But the truth is that, most of the time, the book lives on my nightstand, not in my kitchen. The recipes require too much time and make quantities too large for a weeknight dinner for myself. I love stuffed flatbread, but I don't want to eat it all week. I could freeze it, but I know how that will turn out. It's usually months before I pull it out -- and throw it in the trash.

"I hate cooking for myself," Wolfert told me when I called her at home in Northern California to ask for advice. She talked me through how to divide saffron. (Dissolve the precious strands in water, then tip enough into the pan to flavor your dish to taste. The rest can be frozen and used at another time.) But she counseled against trying to re-create these tantalizing dishes for one. "My recipes are so complicated they don't really work for the single person," she admitted.

For single people, most cookbooks are one more sign that the world is displeased with you. Single people get no tax breaks, no two-for-one travel deals and, apparently, no Moroccan fish with sweet onion jam.

Recipes are a big part of the problem when you're cooking for yourself. The standard feeds four, and it's not always easy to scale down the ingredients or cooking times for smaller portions. How do you divide a pinch by four? How much less do you need to cook one pork chop than a 2 1/2 -pound pork roast?

My survey of expert cooks unleashed an unsatisfying chorus of "it depends." But it did reveal a few useful guidelines.

Pick the right recipe. Whole chickens, yeast breads and anything that requires you to divide three eggs by four are out. Instead, look for recipes with proteins that can be divided easily, such as fish fillets, shellfish, chicken breasts and steaks.

When scaling, it's helpful to choose recipes from cuisines with which you are familiar. I lived in Italy, so even if the quantities don't break down evenly in a recipe, I have a sense of what things are supposed to taste like, and I can adjust ingredients. I'm less confident, however, about which way to err on the amount of kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce called for in a recipe for Laotian chicken curry.

If you do try an unfamiliar dish, a good rule is to slightly reduce the amount of spice. (If a recipe for six calls for two tablespoons of cinnamon, start with three-quarters of a teaspoon instead of a whole one.) As with most cooking, you can always add, but you can't take away.

Use the right pan. Most recipes caution against using too small a pan, but it's equally risky to use one that's too big, says James Peterson, whose most recent book, "Cooking," teaches fundamental techniques. Add one steak to a large saute pan, and the juices will release and quickly evaporate because such a large surface area is exposed to the heat.

The same is true if you deglaze a pan with broth or wine; the liquid will vanish and probably burn before there's time for it to unlock the color and flavor that has accumulated in the pan. If you don't have a smaller pan, Peterson recommends filling the empty space in a larger one with trimmings or vegetables so the pan doesn't overheat.

A six-inch pan is just right for one piece of meat, Peterson says. But Jane Doerfer, author of "Going Solo in the Kitchen," says such sizes are often too small to be generally useful. For basic cooking, Doerfer recommends three pots for solo cooks: a two-quart Dutch oven with a lid, an 8 1/2 -inch skillet and a 9 1/2 -inch oval gratin baking dish.

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