First, some back story:
For years, I cooked dinner for a family of four virtually every night of the week. Based on their comments, I got pretty good at it.
But kids peel away in due course. And spouses aren’t always forever.
At which point, you learn to fly solo.
As petty as it seems, one of the biggest challenges of what I’ll call “second singlehood” was learning to feed myself.
Cooking was something I did for others. Dinner was a sacred gathering of the tribe. Those empty chairs at the table looked like holes in my life. And when it came to drumming up a thoughtful meal for a crew that included me, myself and I, was it really worth the effort?
On the other hand, I couldn’t just walk away from the kitchen. Cooking had become a source of solace, fulfillment, adventure. Taking myself to a nice restaurant every night was financially off the table, and I wasn’t about to succumb to a lifetime of frozen pizzas and commercial burritos.
I’m far from alone in aloneness. According to some statistics, 46 percent of U.S. adults are single. Other sources crank it up a notch. Women are no longer compelled to marry for security or status. And guys — even those who eventually surrender their bachelorhood — are waiting far longer than their fathers to do so.
Married or not, cohabiting or not, coupled or not, raising kids or not, we all need to eat. And every one of us should find pleasure in the process.
Paul Simon once sang, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover.” Should you find yourself alone, I’d submit there must be hundreds of ways to fall in love with cooking. Here are just a few:
Party on. I love having people at my table. In the early weeks of widowhood, when my kitchen felt the loneliest, I vowed to have people over for dinner at least once a week.
Entertaining makes a home feel alive. And dinner at home trumps dinner out in any number of ways — guests can laugh as loud as they like; you control the tab, and no one glares when you linger too long at the table.
Leftovers are your friends. Entertaining tends to leave tasty leftovers. That’s heaven for single people — more delicious (and healthier) than that commercial frozen meal you were about to grab.
But only if you know you have them (said leftovers). Last week, I found a stash of pulled pork in my freezer. Nice. But if a trip to the store hadn’t mandated a freezer reorg, it might have languished beyond resuscitation.
Note to self: Make notes to self. Consider a leftovers list on the side of the freezer. Or commit to taking inventory on a weekly basis.
Think small. Be realistic about the quantities you buy. Will you really consume that gallon of milk before its expiration date? This is self-evident for those who’ve always been single, but for someone used to shopping for a family, retraining is probably in order. Wasted food is expensive food, no matter what the price.
Keep it clean. During a recent bout of flu, my kitchen turned into something resembling a frat house. Talk about appetite buzz kill. A clean kitchen says, “Come in, make some chicken soup.” A nasty kitchen says, “Wow, you really do feel like crap. Just go back to bed.”
Know thyself. Sometimes I need protein. Sometimes I feel compelled to plunge into a trough-sized bowl of greens. Sometimes I just want a simple piece of toast.
I’m not qualified to dole out nutritional advice, but now that I’m single, I find myself listening to what my body tells me — something I had no time for when faced with crashing/hungry teens or a cranky/hungry husband.
Funny thing is, the more I listen to my body, the better we get along.
Start a summer romance. Nothing reignites a passion for ingredients like a trip to the farmers market. Sure, you’ll want to take home everything you see. But don’t let those quart containers intimidate you. I’ve found many purveyors happily oblige requests for smaller quantities, mixing you a combo container with, say, a couple of zucchinis, half a dozen patty pan squash and a few of those gorgeous Japanese eggplants.
Get ahead of yourself. I’m easily bored, so the tactic of making a big pot of soup or gigantic grain salad to eat throughout the week doesn’t work for me. (If it works for you, well, major points for efficiency.)
But all of us can benefit from sort of do-ahead cooking. And it doesn’t take much effort. My current deal is keeping a bowl of hard-cooked eggs in the fridge as an instant snack, an almost-instant deviled egg and a nice way to add protein to green salads.
Repeats without repetition. I once had the privilege of meeting with acclaimed editor Judith Jones (“privilege” is an understatement; “discovering” and editing Julia Child could be considered one of her lesser accomplishments).
She shared that since she’d lost her husband, she’d renewed her interest in cooking by seeing how many solo feasts she might conjure with a single purchase.
As an example, she asked me to consider a pork tenderloin, and together we ticked off ways you might portion it out and dine for an entire week: a petite stuffed pork roast followed by roast pork sandwiches, medallions in mustard cream sauce, grilled kebab style, ground up for a baby meatloaf, stir-fried with broccoli and carrots, slung around in a hash.
Her ideal may be too ambitious for some of us. (Her book “The Tenth Muse” describes the “Nine Lives of a Leg of Lamb” and outlines strategies for how a single person might pluck multiple meals from a whole duck — a mini cassoulet, duck breast sautéed with Madeira.)
But there are lots of down-to-earth ways to apply the concept.
My cousin often fries off a pound of ground turkey with nothing but salt and pepper. One night, she’ll sauce it as a sloppy joe. On another, she’ll spice it for taco filling. Still later, it’s given the Asian treatment and folded into lettuce wraps. Vegetarians can take the same approach with a pot of beans or a pound of grain.
If you don’t want to dine alone, don’t dine alone. In my mommy phase, electronic devices were banned at dinnertime. That rule is out the window. Silence is a lousy dinner companion. Depending on the evening, I might have dinner with Josh Ritter, Matt Damon or maybe Melissa McCarthy.
On the other hand, since I often work alone, electronic companionship doesn’t always cut it. If I find myself alone on a night when I crave a crowd, I might sidle up to a sushi bar or hit a restaurant with communal tables.
The pantry is your pal. The spice rack is your route to reinventing leftovers and flavoring dishes exactly as you like. Keep it well stocked with lots of herbs and tons of spices.
Revel in your independence. My husband didn’t like Brussels sprouts. I adore them. Guess what’s now on the menu? I didn’t set out to be single, but now that I’m there, I figure I may as well take the perks.
Pamper yourself. I may eat dinner on the couch tonight, but I’ll do it by candlelight, using real dishes and a sturdy napkin. Who knows? A garnish may even land on the plate.
What’s in store? It may seem like a waste of cranial bandwidth, but I know what day the deli at store X discounts rotisserie chicken, what day store Y has a special on rice bowls and what day store Z runs a bang-up deal on fish tacos. (Surprise. It’s Tuesday.) Good to know when you’re too busy to cook.
Upgrade to first class. And while we’re at the deli counter, did you spy those plump, well-stuffed crabcakes? Bringing enough home for a family might wipe out half of the week’s food budget, but snagging one just for you may not feel like such a splurge.
Channel your inner Mary Poppins. “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” If that notion lives anywhere, it must be in the kitchen. Whether you’re feeding a crowd or dining alone, cooking can be an act of love, a life-giving pursuit and a creatively nourishing pastime.
Think of cooking for yourself as a singular pleasure, and pretty soon, you just might find that it is.
Cheers to you, and you alone.
Mahi-Mahi With Kiwi, Avocado and Coconut Rice
Note: When the cooking times match up, it only makes sense to cook a protein and a starch together, as in this combination of fish and rice. It’s almost a one-dish meal. This method for making rice is an adaptation of the traditional coconut milk rice that tastes good but is high in fat. The use of coconut water (widely available in supermarkets) gives a lighter approach. Be sure to buy juice labeled 100 percent coconut water, as some juice-pack brands have other flavorings you wouldn’t want in this recipe, and some canned products include sugar and preservatives, defeating the purpose. From “Serve Yourself,” by Joe Yonan.
• 1 (6 oz.) mahi-mahi fillet (or substitute halibut)
• Kosher or sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 3/4 c. coconut water
• 1/3 c. jasmine or other long-grain white rice
• 1 kiwi, peeled and cut into 1/2 -in. cubes
• 1/2 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/2-in. cubes
• 1 green onion, white and green parts, cut into 1/4-in. slices
• 1/2 fresh jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped, optional
• Juice of 1 lime
• Leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
• 1/2 tsp. honey, or more to taste, optional
Pat dry the mahi-mahi with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
In a small skillet or saucepan fitted with a lid, combine the coconut water, rice and 1/4 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling.
Place the mahi-mahi fillet on top of the rice, cover and cook for about 15 minutes, or until all the coconut water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the rice and fish stand, covered, for another 5 minutes.
While the rice and fish are cooking, make the salsa. In a small bowl, stir together the kiwi, avocado, green onion, jalapeño, lime juice and cilantro. Taste and add a touch of salt if necessary and a drizzle of honey if it’s too tart. Transfer the rice and fish to a plate, top with the salsa and enjoy.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 560 Fat 13 g Sodium 350 mg
Carbohydrates 76 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 12 g
Protein 39 g Cholesterol 125 mg Dietary fiber 11 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 fruit, 2 starch, 2 carb, 5 lean protein, ½ fat.
Baked Polenta With Vegetables
Note: The vegetables and greens need to be cooked before you begin this recipe. From “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” by Judith Jones.
• 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
• 1/2 small onion, or 1 shallot, chopped
• 1/2 small tomato, chopped
• 3 tbsp. chopped cooked spinach, Swiss chard or beet greens
• 3 or 4 strips roasted red pepper, chopped, or other cooked vegetables (asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, etc.)
• 1/2 tsp. salt, or more if needed
• 1/3 c. medium-grain polenta
• 1 c. warm water
• 2 to 3 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in small skillet, and sauté onion for a few minutes. Then add tomato and cook another 2 minutes. Mix in spinach and red pepper, salt lightly and remove from heat.
Put polenta in a small, shallow baking dish, and stir in 1 cup warm water and remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil.
Add the sautéed vegetables, sprinkle on the rest of the salt and stir everything. Bake for 25 minutes, then sprinkle Parmesan on top. Bake another 5 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed.
Variation: For a more substantial dish, add some slivers of ham or slices of a cooked spicy sausage.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 410 Fat 26 g Sodium 1,440 mg
Carbohydrates 38 g Saturated fat 5 g Total sugars 4 g
Protein 10 g Cholesterol 10 mg Dietary fiber 5 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 ½ carb, 1 medium-fat protein, 4 fat.
Steamed Egg(s) Nestled in a Bed of Greens
Note: From “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” by Judith Jones.
• 2 handfuls of tender greens (spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard or a combination)
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 garlic clove, peeled and slivered
• 1 or 2 eggs
• Freshly ground pepper
If your greens are more mature, trim off the stalks and cut these into 1-inch pieces. Drop the stems into a pot full of boiling, lightly salted water, and cook them for 4 or 5 minutes. Drain and run cold water over them. Tear the leaves into smaller pieces. If the greens are young, the above step is not necessary.
Heat a wok or large sauté pan (use a pan that has a tightfitting cover), pour in the oil and, when it is hot, drop in the slivers of garlic. Cook, stirring, over quite high heat; before the garlic starts to brown, toss in all the greens (plus the blanched stems of the older ones). Stir-fry for 1 minute, than add about 1/2 cup water and cook until almost tender. Taste to gauge when done. Make an indentation in the center of the greens (or two indentations if using 2 eggs), and crack the egg into it.
Check to be sure there’s enough water left to steam; if not, add a little more. Sprinkle on salt and pepper, cover and steam over medium heat. In 3 minutes, the egg(s) should be just nicely done and almost all the liquid boiled away. Remove carefully to a plate, using a large slotted spatula so the remaining liquid runs off. Center the egg(s) in the middle of the plate, with the greens around.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 215 Fat 19 g Sodium 110 mg
Carbohydrates 4 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 1 g
Protein 8 g Cholesterol 190 mg Dietary fiber 1 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 1 medium-fat protein, 3 fat.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer with an appetite for food, history and culture. Reach her at email@example.com.