Friday, July 20, 2012

Some Tips on Cooking for One

Most of the recipes I've shared on this blog are meant for one person. I moved here to Cincinnati by myself back in August, and even though I live in a house full of roommates we mostly cook for ourselves. But, on Sunday we'll have a new roommate: Paul. Which means I'll be doing a lot more cooking for two!

But, I don't want to forget all the helpful things I learned while cooking just for myself. One of the reasons I really started to focus this blog on recipes is because I found a serious lack of "cooking for one" resources. Like a lot of solo diners, I cooked too much at first. And then I tried to hack four- and six-serving recipes down to one serving.

Finally, I realized I had to change the way I was thinking about food and cooking. "Serves one" doesn't have to mean "frozen" or "take-out" or "boring" or "complicated ingredient divisions" or even "eat-the-same-thing-five-days-in-a-row-because-you-made-too-much." You can still cook and eat fresh, delicious food--it just may take some adjustments if you're used to cooking for a bigger crowd. So, here are some tips and thoughts.

1.  Cook what you really want. One of the greatest parts of cooking just for yourself is that you can eat exactly what appeals to you. No joke, one night my dinner consisted of two scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, and a side of peas. Because that's exactly what I felt like eating--so I did. The flip side of this is that you have to/get to learn how to make what you really want!

Exactly how and why the sweet potato fry recipe came to be.

2.  Try new things. Being on my own has allowed me to try new foods and test out recipes without worrying if other people will like what I buy or make. Some things are duds, while others--pomegranates, Swiss chard, chicken and bread soup--become staples of my pantry and repertoire. Other examples:

Savory oatmeal: culinary fail.

Ricotta gnocchi: culinary epic win!

3.  Cook just enough. Cooking for one can be a great way to cut down on how much you eat. If you tend to overeat a certain food (ahem, pasta) just measure out one serving, cook that one serving, and eat it. You're less likely to go back for seconds if it's not sitting on the stove already made!

4.  Or, cook more than enough. It's hard to cut a recipe for four down to a recipe for one. It's a bit easier to cut it in half to a recipe for two, though. I often make two servings of whatever I'm having for dinner, then box up half of it right away and save it for lunch the next day.

5.  Re-imagine leftovers. Let's say you took the advice in Number 4 and made extra food, but now that food just doesn't look so exciting. Come up with ways of eating it differently. Leftover risotto can be mixed with an egg and fried in olive oil as a risotto cake. Cooked pasta, rice, couscous, or quinoa can bulk up a soup or become the basis for a cold salad. Cooled polenta can be fried or baked. Cooked veggies can become an omelet filling, pasta mix-in, sandwich topping, quesadilla get the picture.

Risotto cake: mix leftover risotto with beaten egg and pan fry in olive oil.

Another one of my best re-imaginings (sadly photo-less) was mixing leftover shredded chicken with mashed avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to create a "chicken salad" which I wrapped in a wheat tortilla and packed for lunch. The possibilities are endless.

6.  Use your freezer. Sometimes you just need to make more than one or two servings--and that's ok. Stick it in a freezer bag or container, label it, and pop it in. Personally I'm a lot more likely to reach for a homemade calzone or cup of chili than a Lean Cuisine when I'm digging around in the freezer. Plus, the homemade meal is usually cheaper than stocking up on frozen entrees.

 The freezer is also great for baked goods like cookies and muffins; bake up a batch, eat one straight from the oven, and save the rest for later. For muffins and breads, I recommend a 30-second zap in the microwave followed by a visit to the toaster oven--your food will warm through, and you'll revive the crispy-crusty-toasty exterior.

I ate one of these fresh ciabatta rolls and stashed the rest in the
freezer. Now, whenever I have a craving for crusty, delicious bread,
I can have some!

7.  Along with Number 6, portion your food. You don't have to use up a whole pound of ground beef in two days just because you were dying for a hamburger. Instead, open the package when you get home from the store, divide it into an appropriate number of portions, wrap it, bag it, and freeze it. I do this with ground beef, bacon, breads, and just about anything else that's freeze-able. Also works for things you don't need to freeze, like snack foods and other things that come in large packages.

8.  Think about your nutrition every once in a while. It might be tempting to eat Ramen noodles or mac and cheese or whatever for every meal, but eventually a one-note diet will catch up with you. I try to combine a couple of food groups at each meal. Breakfast is usually a grain (oatmeal or cereal), fruit, and dairy (yogurt or milk). Lunch is vegetables, some form of protein, a grain and/or dairy. And dinner is where I try to round it all out.

All five food groups: toast (grain), asparagus (veggies),
banana (fruit), egg (protein), and Parmesan cheese (dairy).

There are many days when I decide what to make for dinner based on what I've eaten for breakfast and lunch. If I had a muffin and pizza, I'll probably compensate with a salad or veggie soup for dinner. But if I've been good all day, I might go for that mac and cheese.

9.  Decide what to splurge on, and where you can compromise. I don't have a problem buying generic cereal or store-brand pasta, and I buy my produce based on what's in season and therefore cheapest. However, there are some items I let myself spend a little more on.

An example: milk. I like to have it around for coffee and cereal, and for a while I was buying the store brand. The problem was that a quart of milk wasn't quite enough for a whole week, and a half-gallon ALWAYS went bad before I could finish it. One of my housemates tipped me off to a solution: buy organic. A half-gallon of organic milk is twice as much as the store brand, but it lasts twice as long after it's opened--so I can finish my milk every time instead of always throwing away the last cup or so.

10.  Find resources by people who think--and cook--like you do. Maybe you're a vegetarian. Maybe you're trying to eat low carb. Maybe you never want to spend more than 30 minutes in the kitchen preparing a meal. Whatever it is, seek out websites, blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows, etc. that have what you're looking for. Even if the resources you find aren't for single chefs, they can still be great places to look for ideas when you're stuck.

I love cooking from scratch and occasionally like to challenge myself with a complex dish, so I like chefs who use classic techniques that I can learn from. So I can chiffonade basil and know what it means to deglaze a pan. Look around, experiment, and see what works for you.

I don't know how many readers of this blog are single cooks--but if you are, I hope some of these tips are helpful.

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