The joys and frustrations of cooking for one

Linguine with asparagus, party of one, from "The Pleasures of Cooking for One" by Judith Jones.
Linguine with asparagus, party of one, from "The Pleasures of Cooking for One" by Judith Jones.
Posted: July 13, 2012

Some years ago, when, my daughter, Regina, was living on her own in Manhattan, she received a notice from the gas company. The utility offered to shut off service to her stove because the appliance hadn't been used since she moved into her apartment the year before.

Regina was amused by the offer. I was not. My daughter, who was raised on nutritious home cooking, couldn't bother to switch on a burner or heat up an oven to make a meal. Instead she dined on takeout or cereal.

It was little comfort to me that other young singles she knew received the same notice.

Eventually, I came to realize that many of my middle-aged single friends didn't cook either. They stocked up on frozen dinners or made themselves a sandwich. One night a former food editor admitted she had a candy apple for dinner. It was fruit after all, she reasoned.

I was smug in my belief that these noncooks were denying themselves one of life's great pleasures.

Then, seven years ago, when my husband Paul died, I discovered how difficult it was to feed just me.

As of 2010 (the latest year available), more than half of all adults were single, and 31 million, or about 28 percent of all households, were living by themselves. Some are single by choice and others, like me, by chance.

In his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg writes, "Hardly anyone lives alone until they are grown up, which means that those who go solo quickly discover doing it well requires a lot of learning." The learning includes cooking for one, "a challenge worth pursuing," Klinenberg says.

I agree, but the pursuit is difficult. For assistance, I consulted single friends and acquired Solo Suppers by Joyce Goldstein and The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. The two veteran cookbook authors share tips and recipes from years of personal experience dining alone.

Jones writes that when her husband died in 1996, "I was not sure I would ever enjoy preparing a meal for myself and eating it alone." But she soon realized that "the pleasure we shared together was something to honor."

Goldstein writes that though she showered her family "with love, attention, and home-cooked meals" and liked having them dependent on her for "both sustenance and culinary pleasure," she decided that, living alone, "I too deserved great meals."

Some singles make pots of soups and stews and freeze portions to eat all week. But Goldstein contends, "The experience of dining endlessly on leftovers can get old fast." She delights instead in "fabulous one-shot dinners."

The first step toward fabulous dinners is shopping, "the most difficult part of cooking for yourself," Jones admits.

While the food industry's "ready meal" market does more than $73 billion in business every year, it does little to accommodate singles who prefer to make something from scratch.

In fact, says Jones, supermarkets do everything they can to make us buy more than we need.

Avoid "seductive sales," she cautions. "Reality planning and a modicum of self-discipline is required if you are to avoid waste and guilt."

She suggests buying small jars of oils, vinegars, mustards, and spices and storing rice, beans, and pasta in airtight containers to avert weevils.

Though gourmands would disapprove, I keep almost all my foodstuffs in the freezer or fridge. I purchased a small salad spinner from Fante's in the Italian Market and use it to store several days' worth of salad greens. Having a supply of carrots, onions, potatoes, and grape tomatoes on hand is not a problem, but I haven't found a way to keep celery fresh. I've tried wrapping stalks in foil, in plastic, and in paper towels.

When the celery wilts, I chop a seeded cucumber in tuna or chicken salad. Radishes last for more than a week in the fridge and can be used in salads as garnishes and sliced in salads and stir-fries. Frozen blueberries washed in warm water defrost in an instant.

Frustrated by having to buy bunches of herbs when I needed only sprigs, I now grow pots of parsley, chives, rosemary, and a variety of basil that grows in small clumps on my condo balcony.

Jones insists that the butcher in her supermarket sell her one pork tenderloin when all the packages on display contain two. My neighbor Anna Toretch has a butcher in South Philadelphia who will package single veal chops she can freeze.

A glass of wine at night is all I want, so the rest is resealed with special airtight corks I purchased at the State Store.

Appetite and portion size have to be considered. The average recipe is designed for four to six people and not every recipe reduces easily or well. On the other hand, Goldstein reminds singles: "You have only yourself to please. Recipes don't have to be followed slavishly."

Jones finds preparing food for herself a "comforting form of relaxation, giving over a quiet Sunday afternoon to smashing garlic, chopping an onion, getting all those good cooking smells going and then adjusting the seasonings."

Like most singles, I don't have the time or inclination to spend hours preparing food just for me, so I take shortcuts. I'll microwave half a bag of Trader Joe's risotto to serve with shrimp scampi, and serve stir-fry with the chain's frozen brown rice flavored with Trader Ming's Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette.

Goldstein and Jones encourage experimentation.

When another neighbor, Barbara Bravo, had no lemon for her salmon, she sprinkled the fish with limoncello, covered it with waxed paper, and cooked it in the microwave. I do a slightly more elaborate version, coating a salmon fillet with cracked peppercorns and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar, then cooking it in the microwave, which keeps fish moist.

"Don't throw away those few tablespoons of cooked spinach," Jones says, "or the three or four extra spears of asparagus, and particularly the little bit of precious juice left in the pan — these offer the single home cook some creative challenges."

A visually attractive meal is more appealing and worth the extra trouble.

Judith Jones sets an elegant table for herself with linens and napkin rings. I don't bother with linen but I have acquired several colorful plates and bowls. They were a bargain because I didn't need a set of six or four or even two. Simple pasta dishes look festive in the red, green, and white bowls I purchased from the dollar store.

Richard Brukner never received a notice from the gas company when he was single and living in Manhattan. He used his stove to steam fresh vegetables and broil chops and steaks, and sometimes he roasted a chicken.

Now he prepares more elaborate meals for his wife and their 4-year-old — my granddaughter.

Much to my chagrin, Regina never became a cook. Fortunately, she married one.

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