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Cooking for One

Petite Perfection

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My father used to tell me something every time we stood in line at Luby's Cafeteria in my West Texas hometown: Your eyes, he would warn, are bigger than your stomach.

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That has only gotten truer over the years. I don't eat at cafeterias too often anymore, but another buffet of options still tempts me, especially at this time of year. At the farmers market every week, it's just too easy to go overboard, buying whatever looks good -- which some weeks is just about everything. And for the most part, these are not petite ingredients. Have you seen the size of some of those squashes, melons and cabbages? At three or four pounds apiece, any one of them is enough to feed me for a week. Though leftovers can be nice, I'd sure like a little more dinnertime variety than that.

Some farmers have been helping, by cultivating smaller varieties of fruits and vegetables (or harvesting them earlier) so that single cooks and others interested in less of a cruciferous commitment can get their fix. It's a bit of customer-service savvy that makes perfect sense at urban markets, where the proportion of singles is high.

I've long bought fingerling potatoes at the market because of the ability to microwave or roast just two or three for an appropriately sized side dish, and I always keep shallots around to do the job of onions when all I need is a pinch for a downsized recipe. In the spring, when baby vegetables abound, I can't keep my hands off tiny yellow squashes and zucchini, which I roast whole. And while I love to roast a big eggplant or two for "caviar" or hummus, those small ones are life-savers when all I want is a quick accompaniment to that night's pasta.

It wasn't until I met Jim Dunlap of SnowBear Farm in Loudoun County that I thought I'd ever see a butternut squash the size of a hand weight (and only about 10 ounces). "I hear it from single people all the time," he says. "They say, 'I'd like to buy this, but it's just too big.' "

As he put it, "Many customers want the flavor but not the size."

Those tiny squashes make the most perfect side dish, cut in half and roasted until sweet and tender. But they also provide just enough flesh for a single-serving pasta topping, a quick soup or a curried risotto spiked with pistachios and coconut flakes.

From McCleaf's Orchards in Biglersville, Pa., I've been buying up Little Lopes like mad. I eat these softball-size cantaloupes like grapefruits: cutting them in half, scooping out the seeds and spooning the fragrant, ripe flesh right from the shells. (On more ambitious occasions, I spoon Greek-style yogurt into the seed cavity, drizzle with honey or jam and sprinkle with nuts.) The flesh from small cantaloupes can take its turn in recipes, forming a beautiful sauce for just a cup of bow-tie pasta tossed with crisped prosciutto.

Naturally, I realize I could be roasting three-pound squashes, and, after making my first night's dinner, I could set aside the extra flesh for another day (or two or three). And I know I could peel and cut up a huge cantaloupe, eat a cup or so, then freeze the remaining chunks for use in smoothies throughout the week. I do that sometimes.

Judith Jones, renowned cookbook editor and author of "The Pleasures of Cooking for One" (Knopf, 2009), calls such pre-prepped ingredients "treasures," not leftovers. "You open the refrigerator door, and there's always something that you can make if you have those treasures," she said in a phone interview.

Indeed, Jones's new book helpfully devotes its core to the strategy of, say, braising lamb shanks Moroccan-style for one meal, then shredding some of the leftover meat and cooking it with onions and raisins and serving it over couscous for another. Her Stuffed Eggplant takes twin "treasures" -- leftover meat and leftover rice -- and combines them with pine nuts, tomatoes and spices for a separate Mediterranean-inspired meal.

The base of that meal, though, is a small eggplant, just five inches long and perfectly sized for one.




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