In this column, I try to focus on the upsides of cooking for yourself: namely, the satisfaction that can come from freedom, from the fact that you can follow your cravings wherever they may lead, with no worries about judgment. You can, to paraphrase that saccharine country-music lyric, cook like nobody’s watching. Or tasting.
Still, the obstacles are formidable. At the end of a busy workday, it can seem like a chore to carve out the time — and find the inspiration — to put together a meal, an issue that plagues all busy professionals. For single folks, the burden is even heavier, thanks to that all-too-common (and, in my book, flat-out wrong) feeling that the only time it’s worth cooking is when the table is full of guests. And that’s not to mention the practical matter of shopping for appropriate amounts that don’t go to waste or create a week’s worth of monotonous leftovers.
There’s a subset of single folks for whom cooking for themselves might be the most difficult of all, and that’s professional chefs. Sure, they have the skill and imagination to whip up something interesting most anytime they feel like it, but who wants to find time in the middle of an 80-hour workweek to do the very thing they spend all those hours doing at the restaurant? As the old joke goes, what they probably feel like making most is a reservation.
Anthony Lombardo, executive chef at 1789 in Georgetown, makes the time to cook for himself. Here and there, anyway. The frequency varies quite a bit, depending on how able he is to find a night or two off from the seven-days-a-week restaurant. “Sometimes I’ll cook for myself three or four times a week, then it’s nothing for two months. It’s very random,” he told me. “So I try to never make leftovers, because I don’t know when I’ll get back to them.”
When he does cook, it’s streamlined. He keeps a pretty empty refrigerator but a pantry of dried pastas, dried mushrooms, preserved and pickled vegetables: shelf-stable things that, with the addition of an onion and a garlic clove, can add up to a quick, easy dinner.
For a change of pace from 1789’s rich flavors and American bent, he leans toward healthful approaches and Asian treatments at home. When you’ve been dipping a tasting spoon into the duck confit strudel with foie gras cream all day, you come home and crave something, well, leaner and cleaner. To that end, Lombardo will cook a handful of farro and toss it with sesame oil and soy sauce and chopped salad greens. Dinner is usually mostly vegetarian, with the occasional exception of a piece of fish or a little bacon.
As much as Lombardo, 30, avoids producing leftovers at home, he does make bigger quantities of building-block foods, such as chicken stock or, in the middle of summer, a basic tomato sauce — something that takes him back to his Italian-American upbringing in Detroit. Now, though, he freezes that sauce or stock in individual portions and draws on it for single servings of the aforementioned pasta or a soup. “I would never make a big batch of lasagna and then eat it for a week, or even freeze it,” he said. “That sounds awful.”
And then there’s breakfast. For this Lombardo has been known to take advantage of a better-stocked pantry: the one at 1789. Don’t get the wrong idea; he’s not stuffing tenderloins down his chef’s pants or anything. But he does sometimes scoop out a few spoonfuls of prepped ingredients and toss them into a plastic container to take to his basement apartment in Columbia Heights.
One day last week, it was a handful of kale and bits of cooked quinoa and cannellini beans, which he combined the next morning with egg whites for a protein-packed frittata, smartly seasoned with a little stone-ground mustard. “That’s one of the advantages of being a chef,” he said.
I’ll say. Before I re-created his frittata, I got in the spirit by pretending the Whole Foods salad bar was my restaurant pantry and bought the beans, kale and quinoa there, speeding up my cooking immeasurably — and paying for the convenience.
Haidar Karoum, executive chef at Proof and Estadio, estimates that he cooks at home once a week — then confesses that such an estimate is probably on the generous side. “Cooking for one is a pain,” he says bluntly.
When he does manage it, Karoum, 38, also finds himself drawn to simple, relatively healthful dishes: chicken thighs with salad greens, bread with hummus made from canned chickpeas, or one of his favorites, fried rice. “Give me an egg and some leftover rice and some staple vegetables, even just onions and garlic, and I can have a really delicious meal pretty quick,” he said.
He buys small quantities of vegetables some weeks from the Thursday farmers market at Penn Quarter right near his apartment, tries to make sure to use them before they go off, and always has organic farm eggs in the fridge. Besides going into that fried rice, eggs often show up in his soups, including a jazzed-up ramen he makes from packaged instant noodles, whatever leftover vegetables are around, a little fish sauce for seasoning and Indonesian chili paste for a kick. Like me, he’s a condiment addict. But he saved his strongest praise for those little orbs of protein that are so perfect for single cooks.
“I really think an egg is one of the most versatile foods in the world,” he said.
Karoum enjoys the same restaurant-pantry advantage that Lombardo talked about. On any given week he might find frozen duck, chicken or lobster stock in one of the restaurant freezers, and when space gets tight he takes some home to make room for the next batch. So when soup is on the brain, even when the noodles are instant, the base is packed with flavor. Who needs a seasoning packet then?
Yonan is author of the upcoming “Eat Your Vegetables: Fresh Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).
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