Devotees of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock may well remember a scene in an episode that goes something like this: Liz Lemon, the perennially single character played by Tina Fey, is at home on the phone talking with her boss Jack Donaghy (played by public radio fan Alec Baldwin). Donaghy asks, somewhat unkindly, what Lemon did last night. She responds: “Well, I was going to go to my cooking for one class but my instructor committed suicide.” Cue laugh track now.
Joe Yonan, the James Beard Award-winning food editor of The Washington Post, recalled that scene at a recent book signing at Omnivore Books, where he talked up his adventures in cooking for one, which he documents in a monthly column of the same name at the Post, and in his recent cookbook Serve Yourself (Ten Speed, paperback, $22).
Spend even a few minutes with Yonan and you’ll figure out he’s one funny guy. But Yonan isn’t terribly amused by those who mock singletons who make a meal for themselves. That’s because, he tells folks at the event, it feeds into people’s perceptions that it’s not worth “bothering” to make something delicious when “it’s just me.” He says such sentiment makes him tear up a bit and you believe him. He simply discounts the commonly held notion that cooking for one is depressing or sad. Alone and lonely are not synonymous in his mind. He’s living proof: As the youngest of eight kids he has a highly developed sense of narcissism, he admits, and never ever thinks “it’s just me.” And you believe that, too.
That kind of secure thinking is worth imitating. Yonan’s feed-yourself-well mantra boils down to this: Standards for what goes on the table shouldn’t slip because there’s only one place serving. That territory has been covered in other recent recipe books on eating alone, including those by culinary legends Judith Jones, Deborah Madison, and Joyce Goldstein, as well as an anthology of essays on the subject edited by Jennie Ferrari-Adler. (For reviews on these see my colleague Megan Gordon’s piece on same, as well as her post on the lighter side of eating alone.)
Still, Yonan thought there was room in the genre for his male perspective (hello taco chapter) and his easy-to-make recipes aimed at food-fancying singles — the fasted-growing segment of U.S. households. Young ones are waiting longer to get married (if at all), while many older folks who survive their spouses are healthy enough to live independently.
Serve Yourself is full of useful tips, walking readers through the three concerns of single amateur chefs: portion size, shopping, and spoilage. (In short: the freezer is your friend (cooked rice, broth, or pizza dough, can form the beginnings of many a meal), as is the fridge (condiments like chutney, kimchee, and salsa can brighten lots of dishes), and the pantry (dried beans, pasta, or grains, can get things started at the stove). He offers solutions for storage to minimize waste and recommends that soloists make it a goal never to have to stop at the store on the way home from a long day at work, which sinks many home cooks, regardless of how many mouths there are to feed.
Yonan views cooking for one as an opportunity to take a few risks and diversify one’s repertoire, since there’s no performance anxiety issues at play, like those that can surface when cooking for a crowd. There aren’t any unknown eating quirks or allergies to cater to either, he notes, there’s only your sweet self to satisfy.
Cooking for yourself is literally a way of taking care of yourself, adds Yonan, who’s quick to acknowledge he frequently cooks for and eats with family and friends. But there’s no question that learning your way around a kitchen makes you less dependent on others, whether paid or not, to provide you with nourishment. It’s both a selfless and selfish act. It’s certainly cheaper and healthier than eating out or ordering take out every night.
There’s a growing audience for this book. “Lots of people become single later in life because the relationship or marriage goes south, and I’ve run into lots of those on book tour,” says Yonan. “Some of them are a little more open to the idea of cooking for themselves than you might think, because they see it as something of sweet revenge — finally getting to make the things that they’ve wanted to, things that damn partner never wanted them to make. Some find it soothing to nurture themselves when they’re heartbroken, of course,” he explains. “And some are ready to move on, big time. I had one recently single gentleman slip me a note at a signing that read, ‘If you’re ever ready to cook for two, you know where to find me.'”
Yonan’s cookbook includes over 100 recipes for both weeknight dining and more complex cooking projects for weekend meals, when time is potentially less a factor. Not surprisingly eggs feature prominently (there’s a whole chapter on these portion-controlled, versatile, long-lasting, fast-cooking, protein-filled friend of the single cook) and it’s good to find another eggs-for-dinner advocate. Pizza gets a chapter too and Yonan reveals his Texas roots with his fondness for salsas, beans, and those tacos. Bonus: The man is a sweet potato fan. Dishes that sound worthy solo endeavors include Mushroom and Green Garlic Frittata, Sweet Potato and Orange Soup with Smoky Pecans, Catfish Tacos with Chipotle Slaw, and Smoked Trout, Potato, and Fennel Pizza. Meat lovers will find pulled pork, short ribs, and sirloin steak, no worries. And there are desserts too, like Cappuccino Tapioca Pudding with Cardamom Brulee.
The only drawback to solo cooking, as far as Yonan is concerned: There’s no one to help with the clean up after dinner, which, since he lives alone, he often leaves until the morning, as there’s no one to nag about dishes in the sink.
Yonan needs to send a copy of Serve Yourself to Tina Fey pronto. With his enthusiasm for the pleasures of cooking for one, even the cynical Liz Lemon might be won over.
Makes 6 (1/2-cup) servings
3 cups milk, preferably low-fat
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 egg yolks, whisked to combine
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pour 1 cup of the milk into a heavy saucepan. Add the tapioca and let soak for at least 30 minutes.
Pour the remaining 2 cups of milk into a mixing bowl or glass measuring cup, sprinkle the espresso powder over, let it sit for a minute or two, and then stir to dissolve.
Whisk the espresso-milk mixture into the tapioca mixture, along with the egg yolks, salt, and 1/3 cup of the sugar. Over medium heat, slowly bring the mixture just barely to a boil, stirring constantly; it will take 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat until the mixture is barely simmering, and continue cooking the tapioca, stirring occasionally, until the beads swell up and become almost translucent and the custard thickens, another 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let it cool. Spoon the pudding into 6 individual 1/2-cup ramekins and wrap each in plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled. It will keep it the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
When you are ready to eat, unwrap one of the ramekins of pudding (thaw it first if frozen), and sprinkle the top with 1 teaspoon of the remaining sugar and a pinch of cardamom. Use a small culinary blowtorch to caramelize the sugar on top, keeping the torch moving so you deeply brown but don’t blacken the sugar, then eat.