In spring 2010, images of a book began flying around Twitter, accompanied by the comment “Most depressing cookbook ever.” The title? “Microwave Cooking for One.” On the cover, author Marie T. Smith smiles next to an open microwave, out of which spills, cornucopia-style, no fewer than 20 fully plated dishes: a stack of pancakes, sausage and eggs, a birthday cake, what looks like a half-chicken.
I giggled when I saw it (the retro-cheesiness factor is high), but my heart also sank a little, because Smith and I obviously have one thing in common: an interest in recipes for solo cooks. (Smith died in 1987, two years after she published her book, which was a decade in the making.)
When I gently objected on Twitter to the idea of cooking for one being nothing more than a punch line, one friend responded that the “most depressing” label was, of course, about something more: “Do you have any microwave recipes in your book?”
No, I don’t. But the truth is, I do use my microwave for more than just melting butter, reheating leftovers and making popcorn — and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
I don’t crank out apple streusel cake or shrimp omelets or escarole soup the way Smith did, but I do appreciate the microwave’s efficiency at one particular function: steaming vegetables.
Perhaps par-cooking is a better way to think of it, because I don’t tend to eat my vegetables steamed; it’s just the first of a two-step process. I prefer most of my foods to have some crunch to them, caramelization of the type that you don’t typically get in the microwave without special equipment. So I use the microwave to give cauliflower, eggplant, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and the like a head start before finishing them in other ways.
My previous favorite technique was to crank the oven to 500 degrees (and twiddle my thumbs for a half-hour while that happened), then to toss thick slices of, say, broccoli into a cast-iron skillet. Then I’d blast it for 20 minutes or longer, until the slices were beautifully browned on the outside and super-tender within. Now, I microwave those pieces for a few minutes, then flash them under a preheated broiler along with chicken thighs the whole mess doused in curry powder and olive oil.
Start to finish in 10 to 15 minutes, rather than 50.
Obviously, this technique isn’t limited to one vegetable at a time, if you choose foods that cook at about the same rate. Lately, I’ve been combining eggplant and sweet potato pieces in a microwave steaming dish, then broiling them with cooked chickpeas and tossing the whole shebang with baby spinach leaves for a warm salad
I’ve taken to nuking whole vegetables, as well, especially butternut squash, a fall standby. It’s so much easier to scoop tender flesh from the skin after it’s cooked than to wrestle with peeling and cutting the thing beforehand. But roasting can take an hour or more — time that, you guessed it, is halved when the squash takes a quick detour through the microwave first. Then I use it wherever I want: soup, risotto or a miso-spiked sauce that slips inside tubular pasta.
The same strategy applies to whole eggplants for baba ghanouj, whole sweet potatoes for baking and topping, and who knows what else. I’m trying new vegetables this way all the time; up next, kohlrabi.
In case you’re thinking that you’ve read about how the microwave saps vegetables of their nutritional value, in fact many studies have shown the opposite. Microwaving might even do a better job of preserving the nutrients in vegetables than conventional cooking. So rest easy.
What about my combo method? Well, as far as I know, it hasn’t been extensively studied. But I do know that the microwave has helped me eat more vegetables in general, because I can quickly cook them just the way I like them.
There’s nothing depressing about that.
Yonan is author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).