Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cooking for One

You there. Eating takeout at your kitchen counter, pots and pans clean and neatly stowed. Third time this week. Your taste buds are getting a little bit bored and your stomach a little bit skeptical of that recycled deep-fry oil. Why don't you cook?

What's that? You are waiting for your roommate or partner. Or you are sad because you have no such roommate or partner. Gastronomic pleasure need not be shared, you know. You can cook for one.

I know what it is like. Losing a cooking partner--especially one to whom I played a supporting role in the kitchen--was one of the more devastating aspects of past breakups. With whom was I going to invent dishes like ancho chile risotto? How was I going to have more than one home-cooked dish per meal? Who was going to test the food to make sure we were not going to die?

And I have suffered for years. I have spent more time than I would like to admit calling Tofurkey sausage, noodles, and a sauteed vegetable "dinner." I have spent more money than I would like to admit eating out because I got bored of this "dinner." "I don't cook," I would say. "Who has time for that?" Then, one day while aimlessly clicking through dating profiles of men in Israel*, I had a revelation. I could start cooking for myself. Not just stir-fries, but soups and casseroles and other things involving more than four ingredients.

Brilliant, I thought. There are so many obvious advantages to cooking for one. You can cook whatever you want. You can cook whenever you want. You can listen to whatever music you want while cooking. You don't have to worry about getting stabbed if you turn around too quickly. You don't need two people to chop vegetables! Recipes still work when you are on your own! Also, Google is surprising helpful for mitigating concerns about imminent death. (Just today, I searched "Can you combine raw tomatoes with raw honey?" I am that paranoid.)

There are some basic lessons in cooking for one. A key insight, my roommate says, is to pretend you are cooking for two and have leftovers. As cooking for two is the same amount of effort, this is an easy way to increase variety across meals. Cooking larger portions also helps you avoid the awkward situation where you are only using one quarter of an onion at a time. There are also other, smaller tricks: microwaves and ovens are great for keeping things warm for when you have to cook in sequence. Having small tupperware containers is good for both smaller leftovers and small left-over ingredients.

There are also some fun challenges: how to get variety; how use ingredients before they expire. With no one to watch, you can get creative. Have basil instead of mint? Basil tabbouleh! Don't want to buy cream just for a soup? Use yogurt instead. Want to cook pears with chiles? Go for it. Sometimes you fail--as I did today with a tomato/basil/honey dessert--but hey, no one is around to see. And who knows, you might create something amazing. My favorite creation is a cold spinach dish based on the Japanese ohitashi appetizer that uses soy and chile sauces instead of tahini. I was once told that if I invent four other dishes this good, I could start a campus restaurant.

The leftover problem also yields a nice puzzle. Most recipes seem to be for at least four people, as are the default grocery store sizes of ingredients like celery. Left unsolved, the problem is that you will have leftovers for lunch not just the next day, but the day after, and often the day after that. Choosing dishes that freeze well (for instance, soups) can help with spacing this out. You can also pretend your weeks are extended Top Chef episodes by reducing recipe portion sizes and finding different recipes for the same ingredient. Even still, you should not be surprised if there are weeks when you eat celery every day**.

But of course, cooking for one is not for every dish. It does not make the most sense, for instance, for dishes like risotto that are labor-intensive and do not keep well. These are what restaurants are for! Eating out for one is also fun--far more fun than romantic comedies would have you believe.

Go on, explore the world of solo cooking. But don't forget to come back out for a meal with a friend every now and then. Otherwise we would miss you.

* I have never been to Israel. I do not have plans to go to Israel. In denial of the true depths of my time-wasting problem, I classify this activity as "anthropological research."
** It is not clear why they sell celery in such large bunches when such small amounts are needed for soup. I am certain this is why ants on a log exists as a snack.`


Anonymous said...

I used to have a food blog called "Dinner for One" that helped me document some of my more successful culinary experiments. Even a pseudo audience often made it feel like I was cooking for someone. Another bonus: my mom learned that I like brussels sprouts.


Anonymous said...

let's cook soon, jean <3 back from SF tomorrow! xoxo

Anonymous said...

man i gotta make my cooking videos soon D:

Xujie Si said...

Hi Jean, I am one of your big fans! I did not cook until I came to the US because my stomach cannot adapt the code food here. When you start to learn cooking, you will find it is an art in life. I recommend you to watch the amazing episodes about the Chinese cooking: "A bite of China" (舌尖上的中國), which is the art of Chinese cooking in my view. All the 7 episodes are available on Youtube, either in English or in Chinese. ( I remember you are also a native Chinese speaker, which is really surprised/glad for me)

Jean said...

Thank you! Yes, my father also learned to cook when he came to school in the US fomr China. :)