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Cooking For One: A Privilege, Not A Chore

This fettuccine dish for one person is quick, easy and satisfying — and can easily be doubled for surprise guests.
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
This fettuccine dish for one person is quick, easy and satisfying — and can easily be doubled for surprise guests.

The things we do for love: I've cooked eggplant for a boyfriend even though I hate it, experimented in vegan baking for Dad, banished my adored beets from salads because Mom can't stand them. But maybe the sweetest — and most surprising — love is discovering what a pleasure it can be to cook just for oneself.

I do love cooking for others. It's a way to provide not only simple nourishment, but also affection. I love the entire act of cooking dinner — from planning even the simplest Sunday supper of heirloom tomatoes simmered soft and slow with white beans, roasted potatoes and green beans from the market to actually cooking it, to then sitting down together.

Food is so often meant to be shared.

Yet there's also a joy in cooking alone. Judith Jones' The Pleasures of Cooking for One (Knopf 2009), which provides tips and tricks for the solo cook, and Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's What We Eat When We Eat Alone, (Gibbs Smith 2009) crammed with stories and recipes about our secret (and sometimes guilty) pleasures, illustrate this theory. After a breakup last year — ending years of cooking for two — I found myself in the long-forgotten position of cooking mostly for one again. It was strange, but thrilling.

"What would I really like tonight?" I now ask myself while looking at the vegetables crammed in the drawer. What would make me — just me — happy to eat for dinner? Often it involves lots of roasted vegetables, quinoa, tahini, garlic, scrambled eggs with feta and pumpkin seeds.

Some Friday nights I arrive home late to the kitchen bare and still. The pots gleam, enticing me to rough them up a bit with olive oil, garlic and salt. After a long week, I might like nothing better than to flop down on the couch with a book and a bowl of potato chips, but I'm hungry and don't feel like going up the street to forage for dinner (potato chips, while delicious, do not a meal make).

Cooking solo also offers an opportunity to ... experiment with recipes ... taking a chance and substituting ingredients to make use of what's on hand. If it's not perfect, who's to know?

So I cook. I toss a handful of pine nuts in a frying pan and toast them on high heat, watching carefully to make sure they don't burn. Meanwhile, I boil water for whole-wheat penne, chop chard quickly in fine ribbons and wilt it in a bit of cooking water and tomato sauce. I throw in some feta and test the pasta. Almost. I pour myself a glass of wine, stir all the ingredients together and sit down at the table to watch night fall slow and sweet outside. Dinner just for me. It feels good.

I've realized there's a marked difference between that occasional night of cooking for yourself because a partner is away — "anomaly cooking," I call it — and cooking for yourself because you live alone. Each is equally satisfying in its own way, and I've become better acquainted with my kitchen.

Cooking just for me has led to roasted cauliflower and bread spread with good cheese, ravioli and a garlicky tomato sauce devoured so quickly it's good I don't have to worry about saving a lick for anyone else, salads full of radishes, broccoli, green beans, roasted portobello mushroom and red pepper sandwiches, big pots of vegetable soup to nibble on throughout the week — fairly easy dishes that make me feel as though cooking for one is a privilege rather than a chore.

The solo cook will be well served by a stocked pantry. Staples should include canned or dried beans, pastas, grains such as couscous and quinoa, olive oil and dried herbs. You also need a hearty appetite, a willingness to take a bit more time than heating up a pre-made meal and an immersion blender (for quick soups). Paring down and cooking dishes full of fresh ingredients nourishes both body and mind. Nearly every dish can be cut back for just one person.

Cooking solo also offers an opportunity to page through neglected cookbooks and experiment with recipes that look appealing, adapting them to feed one or taking a chance and substituting ingredients to make use of what's on hand. If it's not perfect, who's to know?

I'm a vegetarian, so most of my meals involve beans or tofu as my main source of protein, but it's just as simple to bake a piece of fish with a little olive oil and lemon juice for about 15 minutes, and eat that along with a potato or a scoop of wild rice. A friend who regularly makes steak just for himself says it takes less than 20 minutes to go from pan to plate. There's no shame in cutting up a pile of fresh vegetables and eating them along with a bowl of hummus and some whole-wheat pita if that's all you find in the fridge. One key to successful cooking for one is flexibility.

Summer can be problematic for the solo cook because farmers markets are overflowing with fingerling potatoes, beets battered and sweet, stone fruits cheap enough to buy a whole flat and beautiful bunches of greens. This bounty is nearly impossible to resist, but I've finally learned prudence. (I've also learned to make good use of my freezer.) I'll make batches of pesto when basil is cheap. It makes a perfect quick meal. In the fall, I roast cauliflower from my favorite farmer with chickpeas and olive oil and pile it atop toasted bread. It's a nourishing and simple dinner that always satisfies.

Alone in my kitchen, time simmers and slows. The wind may bang against the windows, but inside, my oven hums along quietly. I leave butter to soften on the counter while I go for a run. I sift flour and brown sugar and core pears, hoping I have enough cinnamon in the jar to make an upside-down cake. I stir spinach into a pot of split pea soup and open a bottle of wine. It's a simple treat to cook by myself, with good music on in the other room, my apartment clean and cozy as I like it. It is mine, and I'm grateful to have it.

You may find yourself content as can be. As poet Daniel Halpern wrote, "Before you begin to eat, raise your glass in honor of yourself. The company is the best you'll ever have."

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Nicole Spiridakis