When my father walked out one hot August morning, my mother left the kitchen, not to return for more than a year. Though she once ran her own cooking school and gourmet catering company and lovingly fed a family of four for more than three decades, at age 58 my mom decided it was too depressing to start cooking for one person.
Living hundreds of miles away, my brother and I had little success prodding her back into the kitchen. Instead, like many New Yorkers, she learned to subsist on Vietnamese takeout, prepared meals from Zabar's and cereal for dinner -- the Jerry Seinfeld favorite. She rarely took out a pot or a pan, and her fridge became the lonely home of condiments and soy milk. I recall a phone conversation in which she sang the praises of frozen dinners. I worried.
Losing interest in her own cooking, she became the epicurean equivalent of a stage mom. I was greeted at my computer each morning by a barrage of cooking tips and recipes via e-mail, only to return home at night to a well-timed phone call just as I had started dinner to see if I needed any advice.
She used to read cookbooks as if they were salacious romance novels. Now she had no interest in them, and instead sent them to me by the carton load. For a short but memorable period, I received biweekly packages at my office in Washington filled with various kitchen supplies. To the amusement of my co-workers, a fairly macho group of Pentagon reporters, in a matter of weeks there were cheese platters, pasta pots, ramekins, fondue pots and omelet pans spilling forth from under my desk.
However, all that cookware was soon put to good use when, at age 25, I moved into a one-bedroom Dupont Circle apartment with my boyfriend of several years. In the euphoria of our early days of living together, I became an elaborate home chef, wooing my sweetheart with homemade peach cobblers and pork chops smothered in Vidalia onions and figs. I spent my days discussing high-speed missiles and undersea warfare with my sources at the Pentagon. But at night, all thoughts of Tactical Tomahawks left my head as I patiently roasted chickens stuffed with my mother's famous cornbread and apple stuffing, and fed my new roommate garlicky stuffed mushrooms.
And I felt guilty -- while my mother's fridge stayed nearly barren, mine was suddenly filled with leftovers.
That, too, would change. Barely one year after we moved in together, my boyfriend moved to North Carolina to start graduate school. My career revolved around Washington, forcing us to live apart at least five days a week. Before I knew it, I found myself suddenly single as well -- at least when it came to the kitchen.
Now soldiers in arms, Mom and I vowed to tackle the difficulties that face the solo cook. Both of us were living alone on tight budgets in increasingly pricey cities, meaning neither of us could afford costly ingredients. Without the joy of sharing food, we agreed there was less incentive to spend lots of time at specialty grocers or walled up in the kitchen. Still, we did not want to resign ourselves to uninspired singles staples such as spaghetti and tomato sauce or tuna salad. We wanted sophistication. And if there were not too many dishes to clean up afterward, that would be good too.
With my mother's culinary juices boiling again, we decided to adopt some solo dining staples that fit our set criteria -- quick, cheap and interesting. We embarked on a cooking spree that left the next two months a blur of pork chops, panko-crusted fillets of fish, rice salads and chicken sausages. We shared notes and obsessively tinkered with recipes, culminating in a week-long "working" vacation on Nantucket Island where we holed ourselves up in a house with nothing but groceries and a laptop computer to record our findings.
The winner (and sentimental favorite) was a homey, one-pot turmeric chicken and basmati rice dish that my mom discovered in a box of old recipes from her early years of cooking. After updating the recipe, we realized we had hit upon gold -- a flavorful but unfussy meal that requires no more than 15 minutes of attention before you plop the whole thing in the oven. It is the kind of meal that would be great for simple entertaining, but in smaller portions is the perfect solution for the single cook who wants to eat well.
Oddly, even though we descend from a long line of chocoholics, at first my mom and I did not consider it worth our time to make dessert for an audience of one. It seemed decadent, even excessive. But as we gave more thought to why it was emotionally important for us to cook a homemade dinner for ourselves, it became clear that an occasional treat was equally vital for morale. So we created a kind of deconstructed banana cream pie that uses alternating layers of roasted bananas and velvety mascarpone cheese to form a rich, comforting pudding. It was the hit of our cook-athon in Nantucket and has been a repeated favorite on nights when one of us needs a little cheering up.
I recently told my mother that what upset me most when she stopped cooking was that I feared she had temporarily lost sight of herself. My mother is a cook. That is as central to her character as being a nurturer, a loyal friend or a good Democrat. When she stopped cooking, I felt like a critical piece of her identity had been lost.
But she disagreed. The problem, she said, was more basic. She had simply stopped believing that she deserved a home-cooked meal. It took many months of reflection and healing for her to realize she -- not her husband, or her children or her friends -- was worth the effort. It was the most basic of life lessons, inside or outside of the kitchen. And it is one she plans never to forget again.
With Basmati Rice
1 serving plus leftovers
This one-pot dish is the creation of my mother, Mady Brown. The chicken is delicious, moist, takes only 15 minutes of active preparation and makes fabulous cold leftovers the next day.
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup currants
2 teaspoons mango chutney (may substitute pear or other fruit chutney)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 pieces bone-in, skin-on chicken (white and/or dark meat)
1/2 cup basmati rice (may substitute white rice)
1 cup chicken broth, boiling
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a skillet over medium heat, heat the butter. When butter has melted, add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the turmeric, lemon juice, currants, chutney, salt and pepper and stir thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to a a small casserole or ovenproof dish, add the chicken pieces and turn to coat. Add the rice and chicken broth, stir and cover (if the dish does not have a lid, use aluminum foil). Roast until the chicken is cooked through and the rice is softened, about 1 hour for white meat or 1 hour and 15 minutes for dark meat. There may be a little extra liquid. Stir and serve immediately.
Per serving (based on two servings, using white meat): 631 calories, 51 gm protein, 48 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 147 mg cholesterol, gm saturated fat, 363 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Roasted Banana and Mascarpone Pudding
This layered dessert can be assembled in less than 20 minutes.
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon butter, cut into bits
3 heaping tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped pistachios (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Peel the banana and cut in half lengthwise. Place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and dot with butter. Bake for about 12 minutes, until the banana is very soft. Remove from the oven and use the back of a fork to mash the banana into a pulp. Set aside to cool slightly. While the banana is cooking, in a bowl combine the mascarpone, honey, vanilla and chocolate in a small bowl.
Fill the bottom of a martini or wine glass with half of the warm banana mixture. Top with half of the mascarpone mixture. Repeat with the remaining banana and mascarpone. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios, if desired. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Per serving: 765 calories, 9 gm protein, 75 gm carbohydrates, 53 gm fat, 116 mg cholesterol, 30 gm saturated fat, 55 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Malina Brown is a congressional fellow for the American Political Science Association.