Cooking for one: forget the notion of reheating leftovers forever

Cooking for yourself can be an act of self-care, plus there’s less effort, less time in the kitchen and less food waste

Anita Lo and her cauliflower chaat for one, in her New York apartment. Photograph: Daniel Krieger/The New York Times

Anita Lo and her cauliflower chaat for one, in her New York apartment. Photograph: Daniel Krieger/The New York Times

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Cookbook covers can be like optical illusions. Take Microwave Cooking for One, which features the author, Marie T. Smith, alone with some platters of colour-saturated food. Some readers may see desolation and gloom behind her smile. Some, a dusty meme. But others see a triumphant model of practicality and self-care.

The chef Anita Lo was aware of these polarities when she wrote Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One, a book celebrating the simple act of cooking for yourself, and only yourself, published this month. Her recipes are tailored to feed one and, in most cases, the steps are minimal and require few pots and pans.

In other words, it’s a cookbook that speaks directly to a growing proportion of singletons, with strategic, small-portion recipes, and tips for shopping, stocking the pantry and storing food in a single-person household. Lo first landed on the project after a brainstorming session of funny cookbook titles with her name in it (including the rejected “Lo Cal”).

“I originally told my publishers that the cover should be me and my cat,” Lo said. “But they thought it was too sad.” Instead, the cover is a cheerful illustration by Julia Rothman, whose line drawings fill the compact book’s pages.

Lo’s book is part of a far-reaching canon of cooking for one. Nigella Lawson has written about her “solitary indulgences,” as have James Beard and MFK Fisher. The editor Judith Jones wrote a pioneering text in the genre called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” published in 2009.

Jones took a characteristically precise approach to cooking for herself, but other cooks describe the task as a form of daily self-care. There are plenty of other benefits, too. They note how flavors and textures can often become more delicious because they’re working with such small quantities, and how little to no food can be wasted.

Although Lo read Jones’s book and appreciated her approach, she found the recipes – from blueberry soup to blanquette de veau (a veal ragu) – somewhat dated. Lo, who grew up in Michigan and ran her West Village restaurant Annisa for 17 years before it closed last year, carefully stocks her own kitchen with kimchi, tahini and dried anchovies.

A touch of any of these ingredients can change the direction of a dish. Take Lo’s recipe for pan-roasted cauliflower, which relies on a store-bought spice mix – tangy with dried mango and black salt – to effortlessly turn the vegetable into a quick, South Asian-style chaat.

The cauliflower is broken into florets and browned in a saucepan (an impossible task when cooking a large amount), then seasoned with a sauce of coriander, yogurt and green chiles. To make the garnish, Lo warms chopped almonds in the oven.

In her book, Jones wrote that “the secret of making cooking for one fun and creative is not to think of a meal as self-contained but to understand that home cooking is an ongoing process, one dish leading to another.” This is distinct from leftovers, warmed up as they are.

Lo builds on the beauty of that idea, using the raw cauliflower scraps left over from preparing her chaat to start a new dish by pickling them, always minimising waste and maximising creativity. To preserve vegetables when cooking in small amounts, Lo cuts them with care. “If you’re cutting an onion, you cut it from the growth side, not the root side,” she said. “And you leave the brown paper skin on so it holds the moisture. Then you cut off what you’re going to use and only peel and chop that part.”

From shopping to prepping to eating, cooking for one requires more efficiency to avoid waste or a mountain of leftovers. “I think a lot of learning to cook for yourself is about portions and just making sure you’re cooking the amount you’re going to eat,” Lo added.

Eric Kim, an editor at the website Food52, finds himself in his apartment kitchen in New York almost every night, after he gets home late from after-work drinks with friends. “I cook with a lot of intention,” he said. “There’s so much pleasure in not having anything left over and in eating something new each time.”

He recently wrote about the satisfaction of cooking exactly one portion of risotto for himself and eating it in bed, using the same wooden spoon that he cooked it with. Afterward, he received direct messages on Instagram from readers who were making the dish just for themselves, sending him photos and notes of their luxurious solo dinners.

“People want more recipes for one,” said Kim, who usually pours himself a glass of wine and plays an episode of the Netflix show “BoJack Horseman” on his laptop while he cooks. “Cooking for myself is part of my ritual,” he said. “It keeps me sane.”

Kim also believes that cooking on a smaller scale happens to yield more delicious food. “I think it’s a volume situation,” he said. “If you’re making a huge batch, it’s hard to make it taste the way you want.”

The author Klancy Miller leads classes teaching people how to cook for themselves and helped found a book club. In her first cookbook, Cooking Solo: The Fun of Cooking for Yourself, Miller champions cooking as an act of self-care.

“It’s a way to nurture yourself and nourish yourself,” Miller said. Miller’s approach is exact. “One thing I believe strongly in is buying small quantities of food so you don’t end up wasting ingredients,” she said. When she buys something big, like a whole chicken, Miller might roast it and use the meat for four consecutive recipes, cooking each one differently but still using up every part of the bird. Otherwise, she’ll portion meat or fish individually and pack them in the freezer. “Getting good at using your freezer is key,” Miller said. (Likewise, Lo vacuum-seals bacon in packages of two slices so she can grab a single portion from the freezer.)

Miller also uses ice cube trays to freeze sauces, such as chimichurri, and to store any excess herbs in olive oil before they have the chance to spoil in the fridge. Later she’ll pop out the herb cubes one at a time to finish a soup or stew.

She first began cooking for herself when she lived in Paris while attending culinary school. She started small, with rice and sauteed vegetables from the market, but later, at a restaurant called Mama Shelter, she tasted a shepherd’s pie made with duck and decided to recreate it at home, just for herself, using mashed potatoes and a piece of store-bought, fat-encased duck confit.

“Most people are taught from a young age to be kind and generous to other people,” Miller said. “Why not turn some of that kindness and generosity toward yourself?”

Anita Lo’s cauliflower chaat recipe. Photograph: Melina Hammer/The New York Times
Anita Lo’s cauliflower chaat recipe. Photograph: Melina Hammer/The New York Times

Anita Lo's Cauliflower Chaat for One

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

For the cauliflower:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 small head cauliflower, cut into florets
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
2 teaspoons finely chopped jalapeno pepper
1 tablespoon chopped coriander
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons chaat masala (available in ethnic food stores)

For the sauce and serving:
1 cup coriander
½ jalapeno pepper
¼ small white onion
½ small garlic clove
1 tablespoon plain, full-fat Greek yogurt
Pinch of cumin
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon roughly chopped roasted almonds
Cooked rice or store-bought flatbread, for serving

Method

  • Cook the cauliflower: Heat the oil in a saute pan on high heat, until the oil starts to smoke in small wisps. Add the cauliflower florets and lower the heat to medium-high. Sprinkle with salt and allow the florets to brown in the pan, then stir and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for another minute, then add ginger and jalapeno. Stir well, add coriander, lemon juice and chaat masala, and stir again. Remove pan from heat.
  • Prepare the sauce: Place all ingredients, plus 2 tablespoons of water, in a small food processor and puree until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides and get everything incorporated. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  • Drizzle sauce over the cauliflower and sprinkle with almonds. Serve with rice or flatbread. - New York Times
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