COOKING FOR ONE

For five years, I wrote a monthly column on Cooking for One for The Washington Post's Food section. Here's a selection of those columns.

Paella, for a one-pan man

Squash and Artichoke Paella.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
I’ll cook, you clean. That’s something single folks don’t get to say unless they’re hanging out with friends. When the sole beneficiary of your kitchen time is looking back at you in the mirror, you become cook and dishwasher in one.

This double duty can affect your appetite. Not your appetite for good food, but your appetite for recipes that require you to use this pan and that pot and that dish, recipes that make you think too much about the cleanup part and not enough about the cooking — and eating — part. And that’s before you’ve even so much as reached for a cutting board.

I’m guilty of writing those recipes from time to time. I get excited about a technique or a combination, and one pan leads to another. Even the simplest of dishes, such as pasta with a quick pan sauce, can violate the one-pot rule. At least the stockpot I boiled the pasta in usually needs little more than a good rinsing afterward.

Some of my favorite dishes, though, are far more streamlined. Stir-fries, soups, sandwiches, salads and pizza typically use just one cooking implement — if that. And then there are the single-pan dishes that seem much more complex than they really are.

Which brings me to paella. I can hear the cries already: Paella for one? Blasphemy! “Paella is a sociable dish,” writes Alberto Herraiz in a cookbook called, simply,“Paella” (Phaidon, 2011). And indeed, exhibition-size paellas abound; Jose Andres and his Jaleo team make an annual appearance at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, among other places, to make paella for, oh, 300 or so of their closest friends. It involves tubs of chicken, bushels of vegetables, gallons of stock, bag upon bag of short-grain rice and an oar-size stirrer.

Continue reading here.

My quibbles with quinoa


Black Bean, Quinoa and Spinach Stew.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
I’m a grain lover: wild about wheat berries, fanatical about farro. But keen on quinoa? Not so much.

In some ways, it hasn’t been easy to resist — not in the face of all the publicity this South American staple has gotten over the past several years for its nutritional benefits. But in other ways it has been a breeze, because from the first time I tasted it, I thought, “Meh.” Or worse.

Let’s just get all the negative stuff out of the way. It’s too small. I can’t sink my teeth into it. Instead, the first time I tried eating quinoa as a couscous-style base for a stir-fry, it seemed to slip away in my mouth, only to work itself into the spaces between my teeth. Even after I learned to rinse away some of its bitter coating (which the plant produces to ward off insects, warding off some of us humans in the process), the most generous adjective I could muster to describe it was “fine.”

My favorite grains, on the other hand, are substantive. A little chewy, a little nutty. I would never accuse barley of disappearing when I bite into it, which is just what I love about it.

The thing is, quinoa (KEEN-wah) does have a lot going for it. Besides being quick and easy to cook, its tendency to vanish in a dish, the very quality I complain most vehemently about, is also what makes it versatile. Perhaps most important, now that I’m eating a close-to-vegetarian diet, the fact that it’s a complete protein — a single source of all the amino acids a body needs — makes it worth reconsidering.

Continue reading here.

Scrounging up a summer sandwich

Grilled Kimcheese.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
I’ve never been much for sloppy Joes, despite my name. It’s not because they’re sloppy; some of the best sandwiches are. The problem is that they’re one-note: no layers of texture or flavor, just a soft bun and equally soft, rich, runny filling.

As someone with a big appetite, though, I appreciate the goal promoted by the old Hunt’s slogan for canned sloppy Joe sauce. Remember it? “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.” And now that my mornings are spent doing so much physical work, by the time lunch rolls around, I’m hungry for a Manwich of my own making.

On each side of the noon hour my activities could hardly be more different. Most mornings, I’m working outside around my sister and brother-in-law’s homestead in southern Maine: hauling manure in a wheelbarrow, pushing stone dust through a sieve, inspecting squash plants for beetles and stink bugs and their eggs, picking paths and vegetable beds free of weeds. Most afternoons, I’m sequestered in my little third-floor room, pecking away at the keyboard as I face a cookbook deadline and work on other freelance projects while the trees rustle in the wind outside my windows.

These days begin a good three hours earlier than when I was in Washington, so by 11:30 I’m as ravenous as a bug crawling up the stem of a pattypan. And I can’t walk a few blocks to grab a lobster roll or Cubano.

Continue reading here.

With fruit, I'm flexible

One Peach Crisp With Cardamom and Honey.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Since June, here’s the arduous sequence I have had to undertake in order to satisfy my sweet tooth: Go outside. Stroll through the garden. Pick. Eat.

On my sister and brother-in-law’s homestead in southern Maine, where I’m writing this year, hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t been able to pluck strawberries, raspberries or blueberries from their plants. For a blissful couple of weeks, I could take all three. With no pesticides to worry about, there’s little to no washing required; the only thing I’m looking to avoid eating is a little dirt or perhaps a bug.

The strawberry harvest was disappointing, especially compared with last year. But that merely meant we didn’t have enough bounty to put up my favoritestrawberry-vanilla jam. I still picked, and ate, my fair share out of hand. Sometimes, when the harvest is great or my stomach is full, berries even make it back into the house. (When Peter is picking those blues, plenty make it back — but they’re marked “for the freezer” because he’s thinking ahead. Smart guy.)

Now we’re moving from berry season into stone-fruit season, my absolute favorite, and I have to start looking elsewhere for my fix. I thought some little plum trees on the homestead might come to my rescue, but they’re still too young to produce more than a few fruit every year. At the weekly market managed by my sister, farmers have just started selling peaches, with plums and nectarines and possibly even cherries — the holy grail of stone fruit, in my book — not far behind. Better yet, a good friend recently invited us over to pick our fill of her peaches; we scored a bushel, and all she asked for in return was a jar or two of any jam that might result.

Continue reading here.



Beans, more magical than ever

Asian Bean and Barley Salad.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Beans have been central to my cooking strategy since my college years in Austin. In a little run-down house, I’d light one of the semi-clogged burners on the old gas stove, and in a vintage Griswold cast-iron skillet my mother had given me I’d pan-fry a thin pork chop. Then I’d make a quick sauce out of canned black beans and sliced cabbage, two of the cheapest ingredients (besides ramen noodles and family-pack pork chops) I could find.

I can think of many ways I’d change that recipe if I were to revisit it these days, but the biggest difference is this: I wouldn’t open a can of beans. They may be convenient, but canned beans don’t have anything close to the flavor or texture of those I cook from dried, nor are they anywhere near as cheap. I long ago got into the habit, so I pretty much always have a pound of red, white, brown or black beans — with names such as Snow Cloud, Rio Zape and Jacob’s Cattle — soaking in a bowl, bubbling away on the stove top or sitting in the fridge or freezer awaiting their next use.

Especially because I started eating less meat, their protein keeps me satisfied, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s little they can’t do. I’ve found kindred spirits in my sister and brother-in-law in southern Maine, where I’m living this year and cooking sometimes for the three of us and sometimes just for myself. Every day, we have beans: soup, salad and/or appetizer. (So far, no dessert, although it’s not out of the question.)

That’s not to say we agree on all things leguminous.

Continue reading here.

Advances in grilling for one

Grilled Cabbage.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey
for The Washington Post)
When I was a kid, my older brother and stepdad rigged up a barbecue grill the way good old boys all over Texas did: They got their hands on an empty 55-gallon oil drum, cut it in half lengthwise, added hinges and legs and cut a grate to fit inside.

I remember the grill being black as night, but I’m not sure whether they had painted it that color or that was just the “seasoning”: smoky grime from all the beef briskets that had melted into tenderness over the smoke of smoldering wood and coals.

Like pit masters tend to do, my brother, Michael, cooked for a crowd on the thing, whether a crowd was gathered or not. A family of six can get a few good-size meals out of a brisket, it turns out.

I ate my share of barbecue in my youth, especially once I got to college and would meet my brother for some lessons in evaluating top-notch brisket, ribs and burnt ends in the best joints around our homes in Austin and College Station. I didn’t start tending my own Weber-made “pits” until I moved to ’cue-less New England, but I had internalized some of the most crucial lessons: that Texas-style barbecue is about smoke, not sauce; that low and slow means you have to be both attentive and patient; and that fat carries flavor.

Continue reading here.
  
The egg and I

Spaghetti With Fried Egg and Sardines.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
“Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs,” Mark Twain wrote in “Roughing It.”

I’m not eating much ham anymore, but almost 150 years after Twain’s observation I couldn’t agree with him more about the eggs. From where I sit, writing these words on the third floor of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house in southern Maine, I can see the chicken coop just past the beehives. And, as on most afternoons, I can’t help but wonder whether there might be some eggs waiting for me inside, right this minute, and whether they’ll still be warm when I go out to fetch them. The mere thought of them improves the already gorgeous scenery considerably.

I often think about the chickens. When I’m in the greenhouse next to the coop, helping my sister Rebekah water kale seedlings or train pea shoots to start climbing, I can hear the chickens cluck-clucking as they scratch around their little yard. The other day, my brother-in-law, Peter, reported that the hens were making a strange, low-throated noise as they stood transfixed, staring in the same direction for what seemed an eternity before the spell broke and they went back to clucking and scratching.

When Rebekah and Peter decided two months ago to stop eating animal products (he had read “The China Study,” which advocates a vegan diet for health reasons, and she was an easy convert), my thoughts went to the dozen laying hens — mostly a breed called Buff Orpington — pecking around outside the coop. What about the chickens?

“Don’t give up the chickens,” I casually suggested. “Let me have the chickens.”

Samuel Butler once wrote, rather dismissively, of the animal, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” I want the chickens to be well cared for, but I can see his point. It wasn’t the birds themselves I was so worried I’d miss. I certainly wouldn’t mind giving up the chore of cleaning that coop.

But something has to lay those eggs, because how could I do without them? 

Continue reading here.

Nailing the homemade veggie burger

BGR Veggie Burger. (Photo by Deb Lindsey for  The Washington Post)
It’s easy to take issue with veggie burgers. They have gotten better as demand for meatless options has increased, but in the freezer aisles of supermarkets and on the menus of restaurants, you still find dry, bland or mushy disks that not even a staunch vegetarian can embrace. And many seem to contain precious little evidence of what makes them what they are: vegetables.

That’s frustrating for someone like me who has been moving away from meat eating for a year or two, primarily because of health and environmental concerns (and long before I heard the term “pink slime”). I occasionally crave a good burger — not for the beef so much anymore, but because at its best, a burger can be the perfect iteration of a sandwich, which itself can be the perfect meal for a single cook. As I soldiered on in my hunt for a good veggie burger, I decided at last to bring it all home. If I want to control what’s in it — no long list of unpronounceable ingredients — I figured I’ve got to make it myself.

It turns out that good veggie burgers aren’t all that easy to master. Start with some ingredients you think might do the trick: hearty vegetables such as beans and mushrooms; spices and herbs; maybe some nuts and grains (although not too much of the latter, or it seems too carb-heavy to eat on a bun). But if you don’t also include the right stuff to bind it all, patties can fall apart as soon as they hit the pan. When you put in plenty of sticky binder — sweet potato, say, plus some flour and maybe, if you’re not vegan, an egg or two — you realize only after you’ve cooked one that the inside has about as much texture as bean dip.

Continue reading here



Use it or lose it, with a new attitude

Chickpea pasta. (Photo by Bill Leary/The Washington Post)
I’m as guilty as anyone. I would come home from the farmers market each week loaded down with greens, root vegetables, apples, sometimes some meat. The last went in the freezer, and the rest went in what I like to call the refrigerator’s “rotter” drawer. Inevitably, some of those veggies helped the drawer live up to its nickname by wrinkling, blackening, molding and otherwise going off before I got a chance to cook them.

The use-it-or-lose-it challenge is particularly tough for us single folks. Even if you manage to buy in smaller quantities, you have to shop every day or two to keep on top of fresh produce before it goes to waste. If you’re a farmers market devotee and it’s wintertime, that’s simply not doable.

Tamar Adler has the answer: Instead of trying to keep everything fresh and raw until the clock is counting down toward mealtime and then fitting it into a predetermined recipe, cook everything as soon as you get home from the market. Not all in a jumble or stew, but separately and in ways that maximize each item’s potential.

Continue reading here.

Vegetable shopping, in the freezer

Brussels Sprouts, Rice and Corn Soup.
For those of us accustomed to shopping at farmers markets and/or growing our own, it’s tempting to lament the onset of winter. Sure, year-round markets are selling winter greens and crunchy radishes, cold-storage apples and turnips galore. But what about those beloved snappy green beans, dripping-ripe tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn?

Savvy cooks preserve them, you say. It’s true: I’ve done more than my fair share of pickling (beans and cucumbers) and freezing (slow-roasted tomatoes). But until I emptied it out last month, the jam-packed little freezer atop the fridge in my Dupont Circle co-op was occupied mostly by meats, pizza crusts, make-ahead soup bases and leftover stews, leaving little room for the plain and simple vegetables I start to miss so desperately this time of year.

Now that I’m staying with my sister and brother-in-law in southern Maine on an extended book leave, I have a new, firsthand appreciation for veggies quickly blanched and frozen at their peak. My sister, Rebekah, is a devoted user of the FoodSaver vacuum-sealing system, and stacked in their three — three! — freezers are neat packages of green beans, in-the-pod edamame, peas and garlic scapes (not to mention all manner of stocks, fruits and meats).

Continue reading 
here.


Thanksgiving leftovers for a lighter day

Fresh Fall Rolls with Cranberry Dipping Sauce.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Don’t worry: I’m not here to suggest that you concoct a Thanksgiving feast sized to serve one — and that you then eat it alone, in the dark, in shame. This Thursday is nothing if not community-oriented, and single folks who are able to should be enjoying it in the company of family, friends or both.

But when you leave the party, no doubt stuffed more than sated, you may very well find yourself loaded down with something beyond an expanded waistline: as many containers of leftovers as your host can persuade you to carry. Well-meaning families tend to take pity on us solo cooks, assuming that we can’t possibly have the wherewithal to provide for ourselves and foisting off even more on us than on other guests; wouldn’t we like this turkey, and that cranberry sauce, and wouldn’t we get a lot of good mileage out of some mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing and pie?

I don’t know about you, but after carb-loading for 24 to 48 hours, the last thing I feel like eating a couple of days after Thanksgiving is a big plate of the same meal I had around the groaning table. Or, heaven forbid, some of the more indulgent, over-the-top suggestions for leftovers that start flying around this time of year (pumpkin pie smoothie, anyone?). So I’ve laid out a plan for turning that take-home bounty into lighter, tangier, crunchier meals that can awaken my palate after all the beige, cream-laden stuff I had on turkey day.

Continue reading here.

Microwaving, without shame

Pasta With Miso Squash.
(Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

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.

Continue reading here.

Tofu: To fuss, or not to fuss?

Spicy Basil Tofu Fried Rice.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)

It should come as no surprise that the best tofu I ever had was in Japan. What’s surprising is that it was for breakfast.

At a multi-course meal in a beautiful Kyoto inn, the server, wrapped in traditional garb, poured soy milk into a cast-iron pot set over a candle and topped it with a lid. There it sat for five, 10 minutes — it felt like an eternity — before she uncovered it and we spooned it out: a creamy, nutty, delectable custard made out of little more than soy milk, presumably thickened with nigari, a bitter salt.

Heaven.

Here in the West, meanwhile, tofu gets a bad rap; it’s doomed to a reputation as health food in the worst, most obligatory sense. For everyone who praises its versatility and adaptability to surrounding flavors, others seem to find that same blank-slatedness to be the worst trait imaginable.

Continue reading here.

Slowly, gardening grew on me

The Temple Garden.
(Photo by Astrid Rieken for The Washington Post.)
As Joni Mitchell put it, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” That’s why it took a lack of outdoor space to get me interested in vegetable gardening.

When I lived in Boston, I took my back yard for granted, crowding it with grills and smokers and patio furniture, letting my dog use it for his business, and always telling myself, and my downstairs neighbors, that I’d surely plant something there someday. I never managed more than a few pitiful shade plants, but on my front balcony I did cultivate containers full of basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano and rosemary. As a single cook, I relished the ability, for a few short months, to avoid buying those clam-shell packs of herbs in supermarkets.

Then I moved to the District five years ago, and my list of five must-haves in a condo — proximity to work, affordability, dog-friendliness, gas cooking and outdoor space — was reduced to four. Now what would I do? I sold the gear, took my dog to a nearby dog park. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the garden I’d never have. In my new apartment, there is not even a big enough windowsill, let alone enough sun, for potted herbs.

Just a week after moving in, though, I was walking down 15th Street less than two blocks from my new home when I saw it: a sign sticking above a line of shrubs that said “Temple Garden.” Behind it was a half-block square of green, a community garden.

I opened a little gate and took a walk around. Nobody was tending a plot at the time, as I followed the little mulch-covered paths and ogled tomatoes, eggplant, chard, peppers, basil and plants I didn’t even recognize.

I knew it immediately. This would be my savior.

Continue reading here.

When smoothies and soups converge


Cool and Spicy Mango Yogurt Soup (or Smoothie)
and Green Gazpacho (or Smoothie)
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)
My mother blended up smoothies aplenty for me when I was a busy high schooler, juggling the geek trifecta of band practice, math club meetings and school-newspaper work. The ingredients varied a little — orange juice one day, apple the next — but along with some ice for cold froth, a banana was a must. How else would it get the silky texture that gives the drink its name?

When I was in college in Austin in the mid-1980s, smoothies were just starting to have a moment. At my favorite independent juice bar (long before Jamba Juice bounced into town), the innovation was to freeze the banana first and leave out the ice, making the drink even thicker and more concentrated in flavor. I took the recipe home, where I lived with roommates but we all fended for ourselves. At breakfast and as a post-workout fuel-up, smoothies were my go-to.

In their move to ubiquity (even McDonald’s serves them now), smoothies have also been on the receiving end of just about every health-oriented food trend to come along: protein powder, soy milk, pomegranate juice, acai berry. And then vegetables started showing up, and not just in the form of the already-sweet beet and carrot juices. Once Dr. Mehmet Oz publicized his “green drink” in 2006, the Oprah-worshipping world started throwing kale, collards, spinach, chard and the like into the blender, too, proving that in the right balance, smoothies might be able to handle just about anything.

Continue reading here.

It's time to have a greens party

Animalistic Kale Salad.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)

Here's how Kathy Beach manages to cook for herself: She grills a piece of salmon only partially, eats the thinner, fully cooked end for dinner, then finishes cooking the thicker side with a few seconds in the office microwave the next day. Other times, she invites friends over for dinner, then sends them home with the extras, reserving enough for just a meal or two of leftovers for herself. This year, she's splitting a single community-supported agriculture share with a couple, taking one-third of the produce.

Perhaps most important, after getting home from work by about 4 p.m. and greeting her border collie-husky mix, Charley, she makes cooking a priority. She has positioned the television in her Silver Spring townhouse so she can see it from her kitchen. And she doesn't usually start her prep without pouring herself a glass of wine or perhaps making a margarita. For Beach, making dinner is about unwinding, not stressing out.
Some single cooks have things pretty much figured out.


Nonetheless, the plastic surgery nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center thinks she has more to learn, which is why she asked me to show her some cooking-for-one strategies. Frankly, I wasn't sure I had all that much to teach someone like Beach, especially after she made me her version of fajitas: perfectly seasoned and grilled flank steak with peppers and onions, served with stewed black beans on homemade corn tortillas. (Confession: I did help her with tortilla-making skills.)



So what was she having trouble with? Simple: "I need to eat more greens."



Continue reading here.

Rib-tickling ways to dispatch celery



(Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post


I’ve gotten serious mileage out of joking about celery. At events promoting my new cookbook, I’ve been saying that in a dozen years of writing about food, I’ve looked at thousands of recipes and have never seen one that uses anywhere close to the minimum amount of celery you usually have to buy — no matter how much you want.

That gets a pretty big laugh, partly because I draw out the sentence as long as possible, adding clause after clause of hyperbole before I utter the name of the ingredient. In humor, timing is everything.

People also identify with the frustration, as exaggerated as it might be. Celery isn’t the only example of produce that is all too easy to waste because of how so many supermarkets sell it (an entire bunch or a package of hearts) and how so many recipes treat it (as a background flavor). But it might be the most dramatic.





Some stores are changing the way they sell celery. As part of a pilot project in markets with high numbers of single shoppers, such as the one in Georgetown, Safeway has been experimenting with selling celery by the piece — and depending on turnover to guarantee freshness. That’s a big step in the right direction.







I realized, though, that I needed to attack the other side of this supply-and-demand equation: to find ways to use up more celery when I have it.

Continue reading here.

Soups to heal me

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, the answer to one question would determine whether I would drag myself in to work on days when I felt under the weather: Would my friend Chin accompany me to eat pho ga on our lunch hour? Nothing seemed to heal like that steaming bowl of rich chicken broth packed with rice noodles and clean strips of chicken breast, especially once I dropped in the basil and bean sprouts and squeezed in fresh lime juice and Sriracha.

These days, the best pho around isn't within walking distance of my workplace (although it's getting closer), so my favorite cold-recovery soups are the ones I make myself. And I'm not talking about pho, which requires more time and effort than I want to spend when I'm fighting a cold and losing. 

When I got bitten by a nasty bug in November, I might have attempted a reasonable facsimile of pho if homemade chicken broth had been waiting in my freezer, as is sometimes the case; instead, I had to look elsewhere in my fridge and pantry and improvise. A swing by the Whole Foods on the way home from work was manageable; a Zipcar or bus ride to an H Mart in the suburbs was out of the question. 

I have several criteria for soups to make for myself (and take to work for lunch) when all I really want to do is stay in bed: They need to contain some of my favorite make-me-feel-better ingredients; they need to be pungently flavored to get past my compromised sense of taste; and I should be able to put them together mostly, if not entirely, with things I have around. Although I love to make Mediterranean-leaning soup bases out of beans or potatoes, when I've got a cold I crave lighter approaches. 

Last month, all those criteria converged pretty neatly and pointed me toward Japan, not Vietnam or Italy, for inspiration. 

Continue reading here.


A stir-frying lesson from the wok queen

What's easier than a stir-fry? It's tempting to say "nothing," because stir-frying is so versatile and beloved that we all like to think we can do it, even if what we really are doing is tossing around ingredients in a not-hot-enough skillet, then wondering why the results aren't as good as those from our favorite Chinese restaurant.

I used to be one of you. Then, thanks in no small part to cookbook author Grace Young, I bought a carbon-steel wok, seasoned it properly and, over the past couple of years, have become more than merely comfortable with it. I use it several nights a week, so much so that it pretty much lives on my stove top. I fry eggs and bacon in it. I pan-fry chicken breasts in it. I've deep-fried tofu in it.

But mostly, I stir-fry in it, cooking various combinations of proteins, vegetables and aromatics over high heat, scooping and tossing until they're perfect - or at least perfect enough for me.

Still, everybody needs a refresher course from time to time, so when Young (a.k.a. the Wok Evangelist) offered to give me a stir-fry lesson connected to her latest book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, 2010), I couldn't say no. The diminutive, bespectacled New Yorker packed her own 14-inch carbon-steel wok and hopped on a Bolt bus to join me in my kitchen.

Continue reading here.

Time to make friends with the shallot

When I want to downscale a recipe, the sticking point, often enough, is an onion. I'll have half or even more of some big globe left, so I cover the cut side with aluminum foil and stick it in the fridge, where I of course forget about it until it is time to clean up the mush.

Eureka moments come in the most modest of places, and my onion problems ended once I started depending on shallots, the onion's refined cousin. And I'm not talking about their traditional uses in sauces and as a fried garnish. These days my onions are reserved for dinners I make for friends, or large-quantity dishes I'm planning to freeze or otherwise use for several meals. When I come home from a long workday and want to get some quick pasta sauce or stir-fry going, the first thing I do is throw shallots and garlic into shimmering olive oil.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my shallot dependency: They seem to be getting bigger, at least in the supermarket. And that defeats my purpose. I don't want leftover shallot any more than I want leftover onion.

Continue reading here.

Hot times in the office kitchenette

I'd ask whether you eat lunch at your desk, but I know the answer already: Most days, I bet you do. As companies have trimmed their staffs, those who remain are working longer hours with fewer breaks.

As much as I believe in the power of a midday pause, I'm often as guilty as anyone else of dashing out, grabbing takeout and returning to eat in front of the computer. When I'm not brown-bagging it, that is.

It's not the most healthful approach, perhaps mentally even more than physically. I've read about Take Back Your Lunch, a movement started by the Energy Project that encourages workers to reclaim the lunch hour, and of course it makes sense to fuel creativity by stepping away and relaxing, even to see friends or to network. One colleague of mine is the king of the indulgent lunch, giving no thought to cabbing off to Alexandria for the prix-fixe special at Restaurant Eve or taking the Metro to Arlington for a hit of Ray's Hell-Burger. And he's plenty productive at work.

Even if I made the time, though, here's a news flash: My office is nicely air-conditioned, and in the recent triple-digit heat downtown, I would rather do anything than step outdoors, especially around noon. When I head down to The Post's cafeteria, trying to find something appealing at the so-called Around the World Bar, let's just say that it doesn't bode well for the rest of the day.

The compromise? I take the time to cook lunch myself. I should probably put quote marks around that operative verb, because compared with what I usually do at home, this might not exactly be considered cooking. Nonetheless, for someone like me who finds the kitchen the most meditative room in the house, it's still almost as soothing to cobble together something in our office's kitchenette as it is to chop, heat, slice and stir at home.

I've made a game of it. What ingredients can I bring to work and store in my dorm-size fridge or desk drawers that will last without quickly spoiling (or annoying my office mates); can pack enough flavor to allow me to forgo spices and seasonings; and can be made with the simplest of equipment?

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Finally, I wrestled with a crock

I know, I know: You slow-cooker devotees can make anything in it, can't you? That's the line, anyway. Forget the soups and stews, you say; time to move on to risottos, custards, overnight oatmeal, lasagna. When I recently tweeted news of my early success at a slow-cooker experiment, one local food blogger fired back: "You can do better than chickpeas, try Peking duck."

No matter how much I've heard about the versatility of slow cookers, two issues have kept me from buying one -- until recently. One, of course, is about timing. When I first looked at slow-cooker recipes, as a teenager, I guffawed: Who could possibly wait six hours for soup? These days, I'm more likely to find that the device doesn't cook slowly enough. Who could possibly make it home from work in just six hours?

The other is their size. The appliances seemed so family-oriented that I doubted one could fit my single-guy lifestyle. I've gone on record as saying how much I like variety in my diet, something that prevents me from properly appreciating huge amounts of leftovers.

The latter difficulty has been easier to overcome than the former.

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Hot on the trail of the perfect pizza

Pizza taunts me. Even when it's bad, I have little self-control; the size of the pie I order is the size I try to consume, dinner companions be damned. And when the quality is sublime (a rare occurrence), true gluttony ensues.

That's why I haven't gotten into the habit of making it at home: A 12-inch pizza is not something I should eat all on my own. At least in a restaurant, my tablemates will fight me for the slices.

The solution is obvious, isn't it? Make smaller pizzas. But the other obstacle is my stove. At my sister's house in southern Maine, a wood-fired brick oven provides the perfect excuse for pizza parties every summer; at 800 or 900 degrees, it cooks the pies in a couple of minutes, just what you want for a crisp-but-chewy crust. At my condo in Washington, the gas range seems to top out at 500 degrees or so.

Countless home cooks have come up with their own solutions. A pizza stone in the oven helps; two stones, above and below, might help even more. One company makes inserts that are meant to replicate the brick oven, with side walls as well. The idea is to radiate the heat, intensifying it.

I've played around with the stones and have gotten semi-decent results. But nothing was impressive enough to get me to keep experimenting until I ran across Heston Blumenthal's method.

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My kingdom of condiments

A few years ago, Jane Stern, half of the "Roadfood" writing duo with former husband Michael, told me she simply doesn't like condiments. I was interviewing them about their 2006 book, "Two for the Road," and they joked about the irony of the cover, which shows a mustard bottle and a ketchup bottle standing side by side, an image that Jane finds as repulsive in print as she does on a diner's counter.

The thought mystified me, because I'm a condiment person. What french fry can't be improved by great ketchup, which author Andrew F. Smith calls "America's national condiment"?

Mostly, though, it's Asian condiments that have me hooked. Specifically, their combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Lately, whenever I thumb through another international cookbook, I find myself pausing most often not at recipes for soups or entrees or desserts but at the ones for relishes, chutneys and sauces -- preferably spicy and able to keep for a few weeks or longer in my fridge. They represent the key to a quick dinner on those nights when I can't bring myself to follow an actual recipe but want something more interesting than a piece of roasted fish or stir-fried vegetables.

Of course, I collect store-bought condiments galore. Sriracha, oyster sauce, bean sauce, double-dark soy sauce, mushroom-flavored soy sauce, two kinds of kimchi, along with Tabasco, piri-piri, Pickapeppa and the like, plus smoky salsas in green, brown and red. They all crowd my refrigerator door and shelves. Some of them are fairly easy to come by, but I also like to make my own because I can play with the balance and the heat.

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Soups to start now, finesse later

My favorite soups take a while: Hours of simmering lead to deep, melded flavors. But then I barely dip into that gallon-size pot for a meal or two before I tire of particular combinations and need to get the leftovers into the freezer. Then they'll taste just as familiar (sometimes in a good way, but oftentimes not) another day.

If only soups could be more like stock: a potent flavor base that can be easily adapted into myriad meals barely recognizable as coming from the same beginnings. That way, what ends up in the freezer is merely a starting point.

Of course, they can. The irony is that I clued into that latest strategy, so well suited to solo cooking, while reading the work of one of the food world's iconic crowd pleasers. Lidia Bastianich has made her name proclaiming the joys of cooking for family. She even signs off her public-television episodes with "Tutti a tavola a mangiare!": Italian for "Everyone to the table to eat!"

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The challenge of the single shopper

It was the broccoli that stopped Judith Jones in her tracks at the White House farmers market, and then again at a Whole Foods Market a half-mile away. "Look! Look!" she exclaimed. "You can buy just one branch!"

Jones, the legendary cookbook editor (and, most famously, discoverer of Julia Child), cares about such things because she lives alone and therefore on many nights cooks and eats alone. And nothing burns her up more than the insensitive-to-single-people attitude of too many grocery stores.

"Once, years ago, I was in a supermarket, and they had only these giant heads of broccoli," she said while standing in the produce department of the Whole Foods P Street. "I broke off one stalk and took it to the cashier, who told me I had to pay for the whole head. I was humiliated."

No more. As she writes in her new book, "The Pleasures of Cooking for One" (Knopf), these days Jones fearlessly asks supermarket butchers to open packages of two pork tenderloins and sell her just the one. And she's always on the lookout for signs that things are getting friendlier for the increasing number of solo cooks. That's why when she came to Washington last month for signing events at Zola Wine & Kitchen and Politics and Prose, we decided to invite a few readers in need of inspiration to tag along while she shopped.

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Petite perfection at the farmers market

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.

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.

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Apps for when I'm very, very hangry

The idea of appetizers for one sounds a little silly: What would I do, pass an hors d'oeuvre tray from one hand to another?

Silly or not, at the end of a long workday, I'm so cranky from hunger (what I like to call "hangry") that I need something to snack on quickly while I'm cooking. Otherwise I cannibalize dinner ingredients as I go, turning something like shrimp in tomato sauce over linguini into a multi-course non-meal of shrimp followed by tomato sauce followed by linguini, each element lonely and relatively tasteless without the others.

People with more self-control than I are able to have a fantastic array of cheeses awaiting and can just pull out some crackers and olives to go with them. I can't, really, and I've learned that lesson the hard way: by starting to snack on some aged Vermont cheddar only to finish the entire wedge, no matter how big it is. And then I cook and eat dinner anyway.

No, what I've needed is something vibrant, sharp and satisfying, not binge-inducing.

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Suddenly, I'm the man of the ear

Until recently, I never thought to cook fresh corn just for myself. Why? The huge piles and the low prices seemed to suggest the purchase of a dozen ears, and what's a solo cook going to do with all that corn? As much as I love it, I have tended to reserve fresh corn for dinner parties or cookouts: slathered with sweetened coconut milk and grilled on the cob, or perhaps sliced off the cob and tossed into a salad.

But when a colleague put the corn-for-one challenge to me, I quickly saw the light. Like potatoes and eggs, fresh corn comes in a natural single-serving package. One ear yields about 3/4 cup, enough for a simple side dish or the makings of a main course, be it an open-faced omelet, a bowl of spicy Southwestern soup or a pasta "sauce."

The only caveat: It always tastes sweeter when it's fresher, before the sugars in the corn convert to starch.

As it turns out, just about any corn dish gets an extra boost of flavor from a broth made from everything that's left once you take off the kernels: the cobs, of course, but also the husks and even the silks. The result is a pure corn essence, which unlike fresh corn remains vibrant after refrigerating or freezing.

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Dinner on your terms, and theirs

To some, the idea of cooking for one sounds hopelessly dreary. After all, to paraphrase an acquaintance's reaction to one of my recent columns, aren't the pleasures of the table best shared?

Of course. Food can be a beautifully communal experience, whether you're cooking for friend, relative, spouse or lover. But it also can (and should) be gloriously self-sustaining, and to treat the topic of solo cooking as a mere practical dilemma can mean missing out on the freedom and satisfaction it can bring.
Two new books attempt to change perceptions and to remind people that sooner or later, whether it's for one night or longer, we all eat alone.

Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's "What We Eat When We Eat Alone" (Gibbs Smith) is a delightful stream-of-consciousness romp through the highlights of research they compiled about the solo-dining habits of friends and strangers.

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Sandwiches, stacked in your favor

Here's a challenge: Look at an up-close, cross-section, nooks-and-crannies image of a well-made sandwich, and try not to salivate.

I can't do it, but I love trying. That's why I'm one of the more than 10,000 people a day who log on to a New York graphic designer's blog for a daily dose of hero worship. On Scanwiches.com, I can while away the time scrolling from one beautiful scanned image to the next. Each is labeled with the date, name of the sandwich shop and product. What'll it be today? If it's April 17, it's "Parisi Bakery: Bologna, Lettuce, Cheddar, Mustard, on roll"; on March 31, it's "Alidoro: Salami, Fresh Mozzarella, Arugula on a baguette."


Staring me in the face, poised to be bitten, they render me slack-jawed for a good 10 or 15 minutes. And then my stomach starts to rumble, and I start to feel a little ridiculous, ogling another virtual sandwich instead of pursuing a real one.

Jon Chonko, the 24-year-old designer I think of as the Earl of Scanwich, works in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood near Chinatown, so it's plenty easy for him to run out every day and pick up a different bahn mi, sub or panino to pose cut side down on the glass of his flatbed scanner.

For those of us who don't live in an area full of delis, the daily sandwich hunt is more of a challenge. Which is why we make them ourselves. Sandwiches, in fact, may be the most universally accessible and beloved homemade creation there is, possibly because in their most basic form they don't require any cooking. Just stack your ingredients, cut and serve.

That's also what makes sandwiches perfect for the single cook. They're just as easily eaten over the sink at midnight as at your desk at lunch or on the couch, in front of the tube.

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Kill that bottle, deliciously 

Ask 10 cooks what they do with leftover wine, and, trust me, at least half will respond, "What's leftover wine?" Hilarious.

Of course, these jokesters are mostly members of couples, and they have no problem polishing off a bottle of pinot over dinner; it's just a little more than two six-ounce glasses apiece.

A solo diner faces a higher bar. I've ended up drinking the equivalent of a bottle of wine over the course of a night with friends, but at home I'm usually a glass-and-a-half kind of guy. That means it takes me at least a few days to make it through a bottle, longer if I have restaurant meals on the agenda. (Sure, I could seek out those half-bottles, but they're too limited in availability and variety.)

Like others, I use a vacuum-saving system to buy me a little more time in the refrigerator. But it merely postpones the inevitable, leaving me with a choice: Drink, dump or cook? Those who make meals for others can easily splash extra sips here and there into a stew, while I'm left trying to think of ways to use up larger quantities of vino without creating enough beef bourguignon for an army.

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Just for moi? How sweet it is.

Dessert might be the last frontier of the solo cook. It hardly seems worth the time to whip up something fanciful for a meal-ender when you're the only one who's going to appreciate it. I have never pulled out my pastry bag, for instance, to pipe a rosette of whipped cream onto pie unless I'm serving it to friends.

But that doesn't mean my sweet tooth deactivates when I'm cooking for myself. On the contrary, by the time I've put together and polished off a quick weeknight dinner, I'm ready to grab just about anything sugary that's hanging around. It's a dangerous moment, along the lines of supermarket shopping on an empty stomach. Something left over from a previous baking binge -- say, half a layer cake I made for a birthday dinner the day before -- becomes fair game. All of it.

Which is why I try to pawn off cake or pie leftovers on departing guests and instead stock my fridge, freezer and pantry with lighter ways to get my dessert fix. The most common is probably a parfait I make by layering Greek-style yogurt or its Icelandic cousin, skyr, with honey, nuts and seasonal fruit or jam. In the summer, I'll sometimes spoon yogurt over berries or stone fruit in a gratin dish, sprinkle with brown sugar and run it all under the broiler.

As delicious as that is, sometimes it's just not enough.

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The compact parked in my kitchen

Sometimes I long for a shrinking device a la "Fantastic Voyage" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": something that will zap all those chickens, carrots and herb bunches to a manageable, solo-cook size. The impulse is part portion control, part leftover avoidance.

Thankfully, miniature versions of some of my favorite foods are readily available, no transporter required. But a one-pound Cornish hen looks mighty lonely sitting in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, even when surrounded by new potatoes and (real) baby carrots. And it appears positively forlorn when that skillet is sitting in an otherwise empty oven. Such a picture is what got me thinking about the wastefulness of using such a large appliance to cook such small amounts.

To borrow a euphemistic line from recession-era corporate culture, it was time for some right-sizing. I wouldn't get rid of my range any more than I'd lose the cast-iron skillet; I use both, and more, when cooking for friends or otherwise making large quantities. But I could certainly find room in my kitchen for a toaster oven.

Countertop ovens have come a long way, and I knew as much. Old, cramped models that were good for little more than dorm-room-style "pizzas" on pita have morphed into larger-capacity, multifunctional devices whose names don't necessarily include the word "toaster" anymore. They preheat in only a few minutes without heating up the kitchen, and they use half to one-third of the energy of a full-size oven. In the hands of creative cooks they can handle smaller versions of just about anything.

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My orange crush

At least once a week, my just-home-from-work drill goes like this: Drop bag, turn on oven, put in sweet potato, take dog to park, return, remove sweet potato, slash, squeeze, season, eat. Maybe I'll have a salad or leftover veggies or meat on the side; maybe I won't.

The sweet potato is non-negotiable. And that's the way I want it, because to my mind this tuber -- ubiquitous this time of year in pies, under melted marshmallows and whipped to within an inch of its life -- reaches its noblest purpose when left whole and baked until steaming. As a single cook, I keep sweet potatoes as a year-round staple for some of the same reasons I do eggs: They're self-contained, portion-controlled, quick-cooking and full of nutrition.

In sweet potatoes' case, they're also long-lasting. It's rare, but if I go for a month or more without cooking the onions or garlic in my pantry's wire baskets, I'll see some sprouts here or there. The sweets, meanwhile, look just as they did (a little dusty and homely, it's true) the day I brought them home from the market.

I'm not averse to using them in other ways. I know how versatile they are: great in soups, stews, stir-fries and omelets, comfortable in several ethnic cuisines. But for the most part, those are the types of dishes I cook for friends. Other nights, I'm alone in the kitchen with a sweet potato.

When it comes out of the oven, steaming and ready to split open, it's so different from a white potato (which isn't really related, and neither is a true African yam). Perhaps most important, sweets don't cry out for butter; they won't complain if you put some on, but they're creamy enough without it. Instead, I like to squeeze a little lime juice on top, or maybe sprinkle on a little smoked paprika.

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1 comment:

  1. Great, great blog--I like Judith Jones's book, but like a lot of "cooking for one" books and sites, it's more like "cooking for one, with leftovers". This is more like pre-meditated cooking, greatly taking into consideration what you actually like to eat.

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