Cooking for one doesn’t have to be a drag
Reviewing Cooking Solo
Yep, it’s officially been a year of quarantine now for most of us, and as we stare down this dreadful anniversary, I wanted to continue to focus this month on books that help you cope. Last issue we talked about a book that will inspire you to get back in the kitchen. This week’s issue goes out to all of you living alone or with roommates you don’t share meals with: let’s talk about cooking for one.
Last summer, my close friend Claire was settling into a new work from home job at a tech company in San Francisco when her girlfriend had just started working at a bakery. While Claire was at her desk from 9-5, her partner now worked from 6pm to 2am, with an hour commute on both sides, meaning Claire was on her own for dinner five nights a week. Hoping to make the best of a dreary situation, I sent her a copy of Cooking Solo by Klancy Miller, which I hadn’t cooked out of myself but had read good reviews of.
With her girlfriend bringing home fresh-baked sourdough bread all the time and the farmer’s market brimming with Early Girl tomatoes, Cooking Solo’s panzanella (bread salad) became Claire’s go-to, and she steadily worked through her way through close to 20 recipes in the book. I spoke to Claire about her personal cooking-for-one strategies and what made Cooking Solo a boon for that long stretch of solo dinners last summer as well as a resource she returns to now that her partner is no longer working a night shift.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first start cooking for yourself frequently?
I started cooking for myself in my freshman year of college to save money by using the kitchen in my dorm and things I got to take home from my job at a grocery store. I started cooking really basic meals that I learned when I was young. My parents cook like true Midwesterners, so I made a lot of egg casseroles, cheap staples. I also became the person who made friends’ birthday cakes.
What do you think are useful dishes or skills to have to know how to cook for yourself?
Useful things in my mind have always been knowing how to cook meat, grains, and eggs in a very basic way. I’ve worked hard to understand and remember the different [doneness] temperatures for meat; be able to find grains that I like and don’t like and know how to make them in small and large quantities; and be able to make eggs because they’re really cheap.
Are there cheap dishes you make that punch above their weight?
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at grains that fill me up for cheap protein. Also, not being afraid about dry beans. That was a game-changer for me, recognizing that you can make them really well and tasty. I swear dry beans got me through college--I would make giant pots. And you can really tzsuj them up with spices--I would dump in hot sauce from the dining hall after cooking them, and I feel like that’s a really cheap protein that has kept me going.
There’s a recipe in Cooking Solo--Scavenger Hunt Fried Rice. I feel like I’ve eaten a lot of variations on Scavenger Hunt fried rice, and if I don’t have leftover chicken or beans or protein, I would just throw a fried egg on top. It’s a really good, cheap staple to have--repurposing takeout rice.
How did the pandemic change your cooking routine?
Today is the perfect example; I’ve been boiling chicken feet all day. It gave me the opportunity to do more longform cooking in ways that [in the past] I’ve tried to rush it at night or end up eating at like 10pm. It’s allowed me to make more slow broths and actually utilize different parts of meat I would normally cast aside--I’ve saved beef bones from a number of recipes and have been able to make beef broth; I’ve saved chicken carcasses in ways that I’d normally be like “ugh, I don’t have time for that” or wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable leaving something on the stove when I’d be leaving for work. And also I think it’s given me the opportunity to buy different cuts of meat that need to be cooked lower and slower. I feel like all the recipes that I used to save as weekend projects now have the possibility of being a weeknight project.
What excites you about this Cooking Solo?
I was single for a long time and I’ve spent a lot of time reading about cooking for yourself. Usually, writing about cooking for one takes one of two avenues. The first one is, “Here’s a big dish you can make in this massive amount, and you can eat it all week;” and the second one is, “It’s so sad we’re single, but let’s make the most of it.” This resisted both of those tropes. It was like “these are genuine things that can make singular meal.”
And, a lot of recipes from other writers that are supposed to be meals for one actually end up being a meal for two, and so you still end up with leftovers. It always felt like a strange reminder, like, “this is sad, this could’ve been a meal for two, but this is just for me.” The portions of this book genuinely excited me because they really were for a solo person.
Tell me about your favorite dishes you’ve made from the book.
My top three (in no particular order) were:
Lemony kale risotto. I have resisted making risotto forever. There’s a lot of risotto snobs who make you think that you can’t cook it, but it really isn’t that hard. The instructions in this recipe were very specific. Like, “You’re gonna feel like a child but you're gonna follow me step by step and it’s gonna be delicious.” It was very precise on minute amounts. I have a bad habit of neglecting recipe timing--it’s totally my Achilles heel in cooking. The way this recipe is written, you can’t read the recipe without tripping over the time stamps, so you can’t not pay attention to it. It’s the difference between being delicious and still having a bite, or being risotto mush.
Ribeye. It was a perfect portion because it gave the exact weight of what ribeye you should buy, and it had very few ingredients. Also, it’s nice to have a recipe that doesn’t rely on a meat thermometer. It was like “You’re gonna leave it on the counter for this long, you’re gonna sear it for this long, you’re gonna think you want to leave it out for this much longer, but actually it’s done.” It’s a really approachable way to cook meat.
4 Meals in One: Tarragon Roasted Chicken. I am a sucker for roasted chicken. I think it’s a super cost-effective meal. This recipe for the chicken is delicious, or you can buy a rotisserie chicken. Then there are recipes to make tacos, then chicken salad, then a chicken sandwich throughout the week, and it works perfectly.
What did you find unique about the book?
There was a healthy amount of storytelling without it droning on. I’ve bought a number of cookbooks recently that are like those annoying blogs where you’re scrolling and scrolling trying to get to the recipe. It’s a small cookbook and there’s not a lot of space for top notes. It’s a cookbook that you could really read cover to cover comfortably without it being a year-long investment.
Is there anything you found challenging about the book?
Harkening back to my days of not having as much disposable income for cooking solo, a roadblock is recipes that have a “random” ingredient in them. In Cooking Solo, there was one recipe for mackerel, and that’s not always an easy fish to find. Another one is Roasted Salmon with Shiso. If you’re cooking solo, you want to make it delicious and not take a lot of time, and not everyone’s out there running around trying to find shiso. I wish there was more “if you can’t find that or that’s too expensive, here’s another recommendation that works just as well.” But I don’t think there’s anything you can’t skip without yielding something just as good.
Is there anything else you want to make sure readers know about this book?
It’s so great for work from home lunch--if you’re living with roommates, if you don’t share cooking responsibilities, if you need a quick and filling lunch, and to feel accomplished. It’s hard for me in this work from home setting to get away from my desk. These solo recipes are an empowering way to say “I’m going to step away from my office for the next 45 minutes, cook this delicious meal, and eat it, and get back to work.”