Table for one — pronto!

Watch out, shallot!The summer after high school graduation, I worked as a cashier in a produce market. (It was Robin’s, for any of you New Paltz-area folks). There, I memorized numeric codes for at least 200 kinds of produce, including about 10 varieties each of apples, onions, and potatoes. Although the precise number that went with the purple potatoes has faded from memory, I distinctly remember one customer. He came in one day when I was bagging and a delightfully truculent co-cashier was ringing people up. This shopper unpacked his basket, revealing a series of goods bought in small quantities.

The co-cashier (let’s call her Lucinda) sized up the package of cherry tomatoes, one lemon, small bag of trail mix, and two pears and said, “Single guy, huh? I could see you a mile away!” She proceeded to tease him good-naturedly and boast about her powers of deduction.

Being the kind of 17-year-old who was only going to comment on an order if the jicama had an enormous worm wriggling out of it, I was embarrassed. But I soon realized Lucinda was very astute. The guy chuckled nervously and nodded. I thanked my lucky stars that I had my family to return to that evening, even if we didn’t always sit down together for a meal.

For the next several years, I cooked and ate with my family, in a student dining co-op, or in a group house. Now I’m cooking just for myself, and I can really feel for that guy.

I’m  saddened at my good friend Bestway, where you have to buy at least a pound of jalapenos at once. I like to imagine the families that Bestway and The Store Next to 7-Eleven are made for. There’s got to be a parent or grandparent or oldest sibling cooking up a storm nightly.

I know many are in the same boat as me, though, because Whole Foods is making a fortune on individually-wrapped egg rolls and Safeway offers celery by the stick. Some of us want–need–to buy small.

Here’s the other problem people face in this town: there’s no time to cook, whether it’s for a family, housemates, or yourself. If you’re not blessed enough to have a significant other who whips up delicacies nightly or live in a group house where members take turns cooking dinner, you probably want quick solutions to the daily dinner need. It’s not worth the pomp of prepping and following complex recipes just for yourself. This is why Whole Foods also makes a fortune on pre-sliced vegetables. At the end of a long day, a whole green pepper has become too much to tackle.

So for anyone who furtively buys those pre-trimmed, pre-washed, individual celery sticks or even if you buy a single frozen burrito with pride, I have recipes for home-cooked meals for just yourself or a small crew. They’re made from scratch, starting with (deep breath!) whole vegetables.

I think the key is making food ahead. You can cook multi-purpose ingredients like baked potatoes, steamed vegetables, sauces, beans, and grains in bulk. Then you can reheat or incorporate them into a new dish in minutes.

Here are a few recipes for you to try. These should all make enough for 4 meals. Use them to serve 4 all at once, or serve 1 person 4 times (yes, or 2 people twice! ) If you cook just for yourself, prep the ingredients in one majestic swoop and then cook them as needed (e.g. chop and slice all of the antipasto ingredients below, refrigerate, and then slice the bread and assemble your mini sandwiches when you’re ready to eat).

 

Antipasto Plate

Choose 3 or 4 of the following:

1 12 oz. jar roasted red peppers

2 medium tomatoes

1 can whole or quartered artichoke hearts

8 oz. fresh mozzarella

1 bunch fresh basil

1½ cup olives (Kalamata, Spanish olives, etc. are all good!)

1 baguette

Extra virgin olive oil

Balsamic vinegar

Salt & pepper

Slice the baguette on the bias (diagonally) to create large slices, or cut in 4 pieces and slice each piece open like a sandwich
. Slice everything else small enough to fit on the baguette slices
. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle on salt and pepper
.

Pile everything onto bread slices and enjoy!

 

Super Salad

One key to a good meal-sized salad, IMHO, is lots of veggies aside from the leafy base, including filling ingredients like olives. The other key is protein. I recommend marinated tofu, fried or baked tempeh, or fried or baked seitan. If you’re not veggie, use whatever it is you omnivores eat for protein. If you don’t have marinade on hand, you can go with plain tofu or use chopped hard boiled eggs for protein, or just pile on a lot of nuts.

1 lb extra firm tofu, in ½” cubes

¾ cup marinade OR

½ cup soy sauce/tamari/Bragg’s liquid aminos and 3 tbs sesame oil

5 or 6 cups mixed baby greens OR

Romaine lettuce, sliced or torn into bite-sized pieces OR

Arugula, coarsely chopped, OR a mix of all of the above

Sliced seasonal veggies, olives, pickles, canned mandarin oranges, pomegranate seeds, leftover steamed veggies, etc.

Walnuts, almonds, or pecans, chopped OR

sunflower seeds (toast any of these for a few minutes in a 350 degree oven for extra tastiness and a nice crunch)

Feta or goat cheese, crumbled

Salad dressing of choice (check for recipes in an upcoming post!)

Toss tofu cubes with marinade or soy sauce-sesame oil mixture. Set aside as you assemble the rest of the salad, or let sit overnight.

Toss greens with your choice of salad ingredients, then add tofu and dressing
.

 

Bento Box in a Bowl (vegan)

This is my personal corruption of a delicious Japanese tradition. Learn more about making it authentic at http://www.airandangels.com/bentobox

2 cups brown rice and 41/2 cups water OR

7 cups cooked brown rice

1 lb
. extra firm tofu, cut in ½” cubes

1 bunch kale or collards

1 medium onion (yellow or red)

1 large carrot

¼ cup soy sauce (for a great sauce, add 1 Tbs. rice vinegar, 1 tsp. grated ginger, 1 minced garlic clove, and 1 tsp. sugar or honey)

Japanese pickled vegetables or vegetarian kim chi (if you don’t mind adding a Korean flare…). Beware of MSG and fish products in these. Health food stores carry an awesome veggie kim chi brand called Sunja’s.

Vegetarian furikake (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furikake), sesame seeds, or shredded nori for garnish

Place rice and water in a pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a boil
. When it boils, lower heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for 30-45 minutes
.

Meanwhile, prepare the veggies and tofu like so: wash the kale or collards, tear off the leaf stems, and chop or shred
. In a large sauce pan or medium pot, add water to a depth of about 1” and put in a steamer basket (if you have one)
. Bring to a boil and add the tofu cubes and greens
. Now slice up the onion in wedges and the carrot in thin slices on the bias
. Throw those in, too
.

Allow everything to steam for another 8-10 minutes and poke at each vegetable to check for doneness
. Each one should be tender-crisp
. Steam longer if necessary
.

When ready, spoon rice into bowl(s) and top with tofu, veggies, and sauce
. Eat with pickles or kim chi on the side
.

Try sweet mochi for dessert.

 

Quick Curry (vegan)

6 cups sliced vegetables (green or red bell peppers, carrots, bean sprouts, mushrooms, scallions, cabbage, onions, potatoes, eggplant, etc
.)

1 baked potato, chilled and cubed

½-1 small can vegetarian curry paste (watch out for fish products in this if you don’t do fish) OR

¼ cup (4 Tbs) curry powder and 2 tsp salt (or to taste) mixed with 3 Tbs
. cooking oil… but curry paste is best!

1 can coconut milk (for a reduced fat version, use half a can coconut milk and an equal amount of water)

6 or 7 cups rice or rice noodles

Stir fry vegetables, starting with harder vegetables that will take longer to cook first (onions, carrots, peppers) and adding medium and quick-cooking ones later (mushrooms, cubed cooked potato, and bean sprouts should go in last)
. When vegetables are still somewhat crisp, add curry paste or curry powder/oil mix
. Sauté together for 15 seconds with the seasoning, then add the coconut milk
.

Serve over rice or noodles
.

 

Huevos vegetarianos (can be vegan)

This is almost too simple to require a recipe, especially if you’re using pre-made salsa
. Really, it’s more a concept than a recipe, but I’ll include it here
.

1-2 eggs per person OR

½ cup leftover scrambled tofu per person

2 tortillas per person (either thin or handmade ones)

2 Tbs
. canola or olive oil

Canned diced tomatoes, with some liquid reserved OR

Salsa OR

Pico de gallo

Onion, chopped

Salt to taste

Black beans from Black Beans and Rice recipe below (optional)

Shredded cheddar or
Monterey jack cheese (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

Stack tortillas, wrap in foil, and toast in the oven, or toast for 10 seconds each in a hot, dry skillet as you prepare the eggs
.

Heat oil in a skillet and sauté onions until translucent
. Add partially-drained tomatoes and salt to taste
. Simmer for 5 minutes to create a tomato sauce
. Cook scrambled tofu or eggs as desired (sunny side up is the traditional way), adding cheese in the last minute or two, if desired
. (Covering the skillet helps the cheese melt.)

To serve, top tortillas with eggs, tomato sauce, optional beans and cheese. Serve sour cream and extra tortillas on the side.

For dessert, try easy Almost Churros. Spread tortillas with butter or margarine, dust with turbinado sugar and cinnamon, and toast at 400 degrees until sugar melts.

 

Black Beans and Rice or Barley (vegan)

2 Tbs. canola or olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

Oregano or Italian seasoning

1 tsp. ground cumin (optional)

1 tsp. salt or Adobo seasoning, or to taste

½ or 1 whole dried or canned chipotle, minced (optional)

1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar or 3Tbs. red wine

2 tsp. sugar (optional)

2 cans black beans, with liquid

5-7 cups cooked white or brown rice or barley

Note, if you don’t have cooked rice on hand, steam rice first. Follow the quantities and method in curry recipe above. If you’re cooking barley, use 1 part uncooked barley to 4 parts water. Cook with the same method as the rice, allowing about 45 minutes for it to absorb all of the water and fully cook.

For the beans: heat oil in large skillet and sauté onions for a few minutes. When they’re translucent, add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes or so. Add the next three ingredients and cook another 30 seconds, until the seasonings become fragrant but not burned. Add the vinegar or wine (optional: if using wine, you can simmer at this point for about 2 minutes, allowing the alcohol to burn off and the flavors to infuse). Add the sugar and black beans, with their liquid. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Serve beans over rice, garnished with chopped cilantro, pico de gallo, avocado, etc. if the spirit moves you.

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7 thoughts on “Table for one — pronto!

  1. Thanks Rhea for these great recipes! More than anything I needed a bit of inspiration to start cooking on a regular basis again. It’s tough to cook at home in the fabulous food mecca of NYC. I usually get discouraged when I do decide to cook once I go out to buy all of my ingredients and end up spending more than I would have on a similar meal in a nice, mid-priced restaurant. There is some gratification in cooking your own food, but isn’t cooking supposed to be cheaper than going out? Any tips? (I think you should come visit again and we can use this blog as an excuse to seek out the cheap produce/fresh markets all over the city.)

  2. I also like to toast tortillas or bread, chop them up and throw them in my enormous salads for a nice change of texture. And grated cheese, and hardboiled eggs, and noodles, and whatever else is in my fridge. I also like that canned seitan you can get at Asian markets. Since I try to eat whatever local veggies we can get in Minnesota in the winter, I put raw cabbage and apples in there too. Hurrah for meals for one!

  3. I’m 38, and have been cooking for myself since I was 18. I’ve also cooked for small and large households, and have worked in industrial vegetarian kitchens.

    I consider myself a master of what I call ‘one-pot cooking’. Everything goes into one large skillet. I clean as I go, and at the end of the meal (whether it’s for one or six), I have just the one skillet and whatever dishware we ate on to clean. It makes cooking for myself incredibly easy, and I don’t feel I suffer from a lack of variety, as the dishes I make are extremely simple but tastily complex through the use of a variety of textures — veggies and either some form of protein or carbohydrate (often all three, but it’s not the best food combining, if you are into that).

    The other thing I’ve noticed in cooking for myself is that I tend to fixate on one dish until I grow tired of it. My current dish is extraordinarily similar to the Quick Curry (vegan) listed above, except that I leave out the curry paste, and exclusively use rice noodles. The joy of rice noodles is that they can soak in warm water in a container while I prepare everything else, then I toss them in the pot near the end, rinse out the container they were soaking in, and there is no waiting for them to cook or an extra pot to clean. In the past, my ‘one dish’ was a southwestern stir-fry using corn tortillas instead of rice noodles. I also do a sweet potato based root-vegetable stir fry/stew. Sometimes I do vegan sushi, which requires a little more preparation. There have been others, that escape memory at the moment.

    The point being, though, that I find I tend to like the same thing over and over, both in terms of the psychology of preparation and that of eating. I don’t cook for myself every night — I have a few regular places that I get cheap and good food for take-out, but the psychology of having to cook for myself is never daunting, as I know exactly what I am making, what exactly I need to have on hand, and I’ve done it enough that it doesn’t take me more than 10-25 minutes to do.

    As to Ava’s comment, I find that the ease of eating out is quite often the most appealing, but when I cook for myself I’m astounded at how wholesome everything is. It’s exactly how I want it. I can eat as much of it as I want (no too big or too small portions). There isn’t any taste I don’t want to be present. And I participated in it. The food just feels entirely more nourishing.

    But, modern life what it is, even that fact doesn’t cause me to cook for myself every night.

    If anyone’s interested, I can spend a few more moments describing how I go about cooking everything in one pot, and especially how to clean as one goes. It’s really the simplest thing and makes cooking for oneself or a dinner party so much less daunting. I’m always overwhelmed when I see the vast multitude of cookware that needs to be cleaned at someone else’s party. At mine, when the guests ask to help clean, I can honestly say there isn’t anything to do, and show them a sparkling kitchen as proof.

  4. I thought of you, Rhea, today when I was messing with a left-over batch of brown rice. Like so many, I cook for myself. I tend to not have a lot of mental energy to get everything for a complicated dish together, so try to anticipate the ingredients with which I could do something creative and have them on hand. “Concepts” are more useful to me than recipes. Inevitably I don’t have everything on hand for a recipe. But a concept can be elaborated or simplified to heart’s content.

    Today I made pilaf but didn’t have any orzo or any pinenuts or cashews… So I tossed in some Trader Joe’s raw trailmix. The perfectionist cook in me was silenced by the years of creative group cooking improv I did from college. I was skeptical as I added other things. But it’s quite tasty. The best pilaf I’ve ever made, in fact.

    I think, as much as anything, the creativity of making magic appear out of seemingly nothing is what keeps me cooking for myself.

  5. Rhea! You have done the world a great service by posting these recipes and the great stories that go along with them for everyone to read and try! I’m so excited to try the recipes. I’m currently in the cooking for one period of my life, and I haven’t been there for that long, but I’m already running out of good ideas. So, You Are Delicious, is a godsend! I know I should have been more proactive about learning from you when we lived together and you were always cooking up yummy meals…but since I didn’t, your posts are giving me a second chance. Thanks!
    Ellen

  6. This is awesome – thanks Rhea. When I think of cooking for one, I think of soup. Squash soup, lentil soup, chili, black bean soup, minestrone….. They usually take longer than some of your recipes (especially if you soak beans, which I think tastes better but I don’t always have time for) but when I make soup it lasts all week. Plus you can freeze it and have something homemade on hand for when you get back from a weekend out of town or haven’t had time to go grocery shopping and don’t feel like going out. Yay for soup!

    I also just learned a bean-soaking tip from my mom, who is utterly opposed to canned beans. Soak and cook a whole bunch of them – as much as you can fit into a pot – then use what you need for whatever you’re making, and freeze the rest. Canned beans aren’t all that expensive, but you still save a little money and they taste much better.

  7. Pingback: You are Delicious » Blog Archive » A few mouthfuls and a little more than an earful

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