Thoughts on Cooking for One - A Stream of Consciousness Bit of Writing

Monday, August 18, 2008

The way some people appear to cook by the way their food blogs read amazes me sometimes. Maybe amaze isn't the right word? Befuddle might be better. Or even bemuse or astound.

Who are these people with these infinite budgets, superior cameras, and affluent amounts of time on their hands? Reading something like, "Oh, I found a lovely bit of rhubarb today, so I whipped up this tagine of wild duck with rhubarb compote. So simple!" which is then followed by a recipe that is double the length of the actual introduction.

It is, as they say, to laugh. Really? You actually had the time to throw that together in the middle of the day for that perfect outside lighting? Ass. But that's jealousy talking.

My cooking is for the most part dictated by how tired (or lazy) I am and if impending deadlines are threatening my pay check or grades. How do these people do it? If it's your job, I understand, but between the full time job, grad school and three part time jobs I pull, fancy-shmancy food has as little chance of happening as aurora borealis spontaneously lighting up my living room.

Given, I'll treat myself once in a while. I'll make a coq au vin or braise some lamb shanks and serve them with a fresh salad. For company, I'll make a delicious curried soup with manchego palmiers served with a tame Shiraz. My desserts are usually never anything to scoff about. Most of this you readers never see though because, damn it, my camera sucks and can't do pictures inside with bad yellow light when it's dark outside. Plus, this isn't a recipe food blog. Resulting pictures I do attempt to take are more I vomit than eye candy, and regardless how well I praise the recipe people won't try it unless a purty picture is there to seduce you. So as such, most recipes rarely make it here.

But photography is a bit off topic right now.

For the most part, I cook alone. For one. Well, actually, I cook for three. It's just me at different times. Dinner tonight, lunch tomorrow, and then dinner tomorrow night because I'll probably be too tired to cook after classes or the gym. As such it's simple food that I doubt would intrigue most of you. Partially because much of it is adapted to my own quirky tastes.

I do not have the time for complicated meals using hoity-toity ingredients like fresh parsley (yeah, I know what you're thinking, shut it, the dried-n-shredded stuff is fine). My meals must meet certain criteria in my kitchen: It must be fast. It must be tasty. It must be nutritious. It must be cheap.

The fourth part of my Mantra for Mastication is particularly important to me. My budget every week for food is about $25 (it could be more but I'm saving), which at the Farmer's Market can easily get you enough produce, rice, and fresh eggs to last you a week or more for one person. Meat is a luxury so tofu makes many appearances in my food and I keep a bag of frozen chicken tenders around because they're easy to portion. Thus my diet is mostly vegetarian, not out of compassion for any of God's tasty creatures but out of my near-hermit like frugality. I do keep a ready supply of bacon because sometimes the air around the stove just seems to plead to be aroused with it's delicious, salty smell.

I find that Asian food is by and far the quickest and easiest of cuisines dictated by economic hardship. Jennifer 8. Lee noted in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles that traditional Chinese food is a fairly simple vegetarian fare. A lot of stir-fry and a lot of soups, all for the most part consisting of a few vegetables and one or two spices to flavor the oil or broth. This practical style of cooking has made me a near expert at Asian cooking techniques, or so I boast.

The wok is by far the best kitchen investment I ever made. It's used at least twice a week which equals four dinners and two lunches for me. It's perfect for boiling, stewing, soups, braising, deep frying, and steaming. Let's see George Foreman beat that.

It is my opinion that any intelligent boy on a budget (or girl, if you are so inclined) should immediately invest in taking time to explore the wok. However, some days even I dread the chopping, cleaning, heat, and so on that preparing food seems to employ.

One of my favorite things to make is what I call my cracker stacks. I open a can of tuna and squeeze in a bit of mayo and mix, chop a few slices off a block of orange cheddar, and break out the saltines. I then place a piece of cheese on the saltine and top it with a dollop of the tuna. If I feel crazy, I add a bit of curry powder to the tuna. Freaking delicious. I have many happy memories of locking myself into my closet sized dorm room with my homework and munching these with a tall glass of milk. It's something I still make today.

Still, I think I eat very well. My leftovers are nothing to scoff at. My last sammich consisted of last night's antelope, heirloom tomato, homemade mayo, and crisp arugula from a friend's garden on slices of stale sourdough that I toasted. No complaints here. My leftovers are 'effing bistro, yo.

I've learned that one can be a foodie and eat well on a budget, it just takes time to find your step. Like walking, you have to learn to take a step before you can walk. Soon enough you're running to the stall that has the fresh Chinese long beans for a dollar, then zoom! off to the grocer with the cheap chicken feet to make stock with, then ping! a short drive to your friend's place who has the fruit trees producing way too much for them to eat alone.

After this its a sort of fun bit of amusement to see what sorts of alchemy I can whip up over the wok. Plums with the last star anise and a splash of the red wine a friend brought over that we didn't finish last night? Stir fry that up into a tasty dessert, my friend.

Eating alone has become more of a journey of self-discovery, I find it as time to reflect on my day, my (blossoming?) career(s), what I've learned, the people I've talked too, and what I want from life.

Any other simple meals you make alone in the kitchen for one or thoughts on cooking for one or dining alone? Leave them in the comments as I would love to hear them!

This little incohesive rant was inspired by the essay collection,
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. Fabulous read and, like, $6 used on Amazon.


  1. That WAS a fabulous read, wasn't it? And I hear you on the tuna + saltines, though have you tried mustard instead of mayo? It's my favorite tuna add-in. I too cook with an eye to leftovers, so I can bring them for lunch. And I like eggs, eggs are cheap. Also a good way to stretch leftover veggies or meat: frittata anyone?

    P.S. AMEN on the easy-breezy tone of some food blogs. I'd love to have unlimited funds and time, but alas budgetary/time constraints limit me to weekend-only gourmet behavior.

  2. Hi Garrett - I've been reading for a long time and always love your posts.

    I thought I'd toss in my two cents on this one, because I can definitely relate. When I was living with roommates and generally cooking alone, I didn't think much about food. My fallbacks were pasta-and-red-sauce and stir fries of various varieties, and I had a hell of a tight budget to work with. I just ate whatever I could afford that tasted good (tuna salad on crackers was one of my favorites, too, and still is! And I still add a ton of veggies to it to stretch the tuna and get more life out of it. Some habits just die hard.)

    Now, although I'm still neither rich nor drowning in free time, I find that I am willing to spend much more time and money on food because my partner and I enjoy cooking and eating together as a hobby. Its a high priority for us, right below paying rent. We also don't have as many drains on our time and expenses as many people do, so we can afford to eat well on a regular basis and take an hour or more to cook dinner on a weeknight. We also plan and prep ahead a lot, using weekends to their fullest potential so that we can have interesting and exciting food all week.

    We still phone it in once in awhile, but its worth it to us to sacrifice other things to have good food to eat every day.

  3. Eri-Chan - Interesting you mention that. I agree that eating well and doing it on a budget is doable. Tonight is short rib with wild rice and steamed beets for dinner. Yesterday, I called Pizza Hut. Tomorrow will likely be curry or leftover beef and beets. Props to ya' and yer partner. =)

  4. You of the Tarragon Vanilla Bean Cupcake is using freeze dried parsley? The horror! Actually, I love crackers and tuna. Soul food.

  5. What an interesting post. I've been meaning to get that book, will have to look into it a little more. :)

    Personally, I feel like cooking just for myself has made me a much better cook. I know a lot of people who only enjoy cooking when it's for others, and I can understand that mindset, though I wish they didn't look at me like an alien when I say that I cook most of my meals just for me. But cooking for one takes off all the pressure. I can follow a recipe that takes me out of my comfort zone, or I can stray from a recipe to try something new, or I can throw together random things in the kitchen and see what happens. If the results aren't great, well, I'll probably eat them anyway and know better next time. But more often than not, the results are pretty darn tasty, and I've tried something new in the process.

    Plus, even though making good food for yourself all the time can be tricky when you're on a budget, no matter what it's a million times cheaper (and healthier) than eating out!

  6. I can fully sympathize! i thought that even cooking for 2 was easier said than done, with so many recipes designed for 4 or more. but now that i'm single again, it seems i'm cooking even less for myself. i always love cooking for friends and family, but for some reason i seem to be way too lazy to provide a healthy and delicious meal for just myself.

    i do try to cook for myself a couple times a week when i actually have the wherewithal to have groceries in my fridge and cupboard. and since you shared your love of simple asian delights, i thought i'd share with you one of my favorite go-to comfort foods that is really really easy.

    Teriyaki Salmon (care of my mom)

    **the special ingredient in this recipe is Yoshida's Original Teriyaki Sauce, SO delish!** (you can find it at most grocery stores near the bbq sauces, Safeway definitely carries it)

    -in a measuring cup/bowl you mix together 1/2 cup of Yoshida's Teriyaki Sauce, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, 1 or 2 cloves of crushed garlic, a squirt of Sriracha sauce (depending on your preferred spice level), and a couple drops of toasted sesame oil or chili oil, or regular oil would do just fine.

    -pour the mixed sauce over your salmon fillets in a baking dish (obviously increase the sauce quantities if you're making more than 2 fillets) and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top of the fillets then cover with tin foil and stick in the preheated 350 degree oven. bake for about 20-25 minutes then finish with tin foil removed under the broiler for your desired doneness.

    -i serve it with rice, or even better garlic mashed potatoes, as well as steamed broccoli or brocolini. the sauce on the rice or mashed potatoes is a meal in itself to me, it's so good. and the salmon is even quite delicious as cold leftovers the next day.

    this is one of my favorite dishes, hope you enjoy it as much as i do if you choose to try it!

    and PS- LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog, i read it regularly : ) keep up the good work!

  7. Hi there!
    This summer, I found myself eating alone a lot because I arrived at home pretty late, and I still am eating alone this month because my boyfriend is doing overtime at work.

    One of my favorite and quickest meal idea for the summer is couscous. It's quick, and adding some cherry tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, onions and sometimes black olives to it just makes it a little different from time to time.

    I also like summer rolls; if you leave out the shrimps, it's really cheap and tasty, especially with a tangy sauce to dip it in.

    And personally, I would love to read more of your fast, tasty, nutritious and cheap recipes, with or without pictures to support it (although I admit I'm more incline to try a recipe when there's visual support!)

    Keep on the blogging; I love reading you!

  8. LOVE your blog...wish I could share the bounty of parsley from the garden with ya, but alas am in Madison, WI. A favorite "I'm on a budget food" is deviled eggs. Who doesn't like a good deviled egg?

  9. My DS works 3rd shift and I enjoy getting up when he comes in around 4 or 5am. It's the only time I can cook for him. I don't want to eat in the middle of the night so it's a one person meal. It needs to be quick and easy so he can get some sleep before class and I can go back to bed. An Omelette works for us. I pre-cook and chop turkey breakfast sausage and keep it in a baggie in the freezer. I also have a baggie full of chopped peppers and onions frozen. (You know when you only need 1/2 an onion or pepper. I go ahead and chop the whole thing and freeze it.) Oh I almost forgot the frozen brown rice. I can throw a chunk of that in with the veggies as they cook and the sausage warms. Scramble 3 or 4 eggs with it and cover with cheese and salsa. Toast some bread and TJ is fed.

    I just found my way here from Simply Recipes. It was the Coconut Cupcakes that caught my eye. I haven't made them yet but they are next on my list.

    Did you really have antelope for dinner?

  10. Amen to that! I've been reading your blog for months now, and this was the post that brought me out of the woodwork.

    Silly as it sounds, my favorite quick n' easy food is canned, vegetarian refried beans. My Mama used to make them all the time, so now when I need quick, cheap comfort dinner I either whip up a bean and egg scramble, or a quesadilla with beans inside. Grab a bag of baby carrots for veggies on the side and I'm good to go.

  11. Hi Garrett--
    I've been lurking here for a while, but as a fellow writer could not let the statement "my leftovers are 'effing bistro, yo" pass by without showering you with praise for having come up with it.

    As for the food. I'm a healthnut veggie-head, much to the dismay of my children. And I generally end up consuming most of our leftovers. I tend to pile a bit of this and a bit of that into a bowl, heat it up, and dig in. My favorite? Pasta primavera on top of sauteed kale with a bit of mixed baby greens on top. Sometimes I'll throw a few sunflower seeds in there if I'm feeling saucy.

    Thanks for the great read. You're a lovely writer.


  12. my favorite one person meal is Pasta Carbonara.. eggs, cream or half and half, parm. cheese, cracked pepper, salt. Mix pour over hot pasta.. you can add cooked veggies or a little of that bacon. Another is quesadillas.. I always have flour tortillas in the freezer.. grate some cheese add some of those chicken tenders that have been chopped up (saute if desired).. you can add onions, cilantro some good salsa.. fast and easy.

  13. I find it interesting that the comments are everyone's quick, poor day foods. I'll throw in the good ol PBJ. I also keep cans of chopped clams so that I can do clam pasta. Clams, garlic, chili pepper flakes, parm, pasta.

  14. While I don't have a lot of experience cooking for one, I do have a good bit of experience cooking for two - and freezing or otherwise saving leftovers to be used again in something equally delicious (most of the time).

    I'd have to say my favorite of all time was when I was absolutely broke. I couldn't afford to buy a single package of ramen at the grocery store, let alone any meat, and I was dreading what I was going to cook for dinner. Low and behold, I discovered a bag of lentils in a cupboard, and a freezer bag full of stock leftover from making a yankee-style pot roast several weeks earlier - which still had some bits of roast in it along with all of the flavorful juices. Throw the two together, add a few pickled chili peppers for some heat and added depth to the soup, and call it dinner. I threw in toasting some stale bread and slathering it with butter and it was one of the best meals I have ever had. Plus, having used an entire 1 lb bag of lentils, it served me for several more meals to come and was eventually finished off by some friends and I a few weeks later (having again been frozen in the meantime).

    I really truly enjoy cooking for a crowd of friends or family, and everything that goes with it: the shopping, the prepping, the recipes (or the lack of recipes, I'm pretty flexible), having friends and family hovering around the kitchen with me and everyone talking away the day or night.

    But for whatever reason, the thing that makes me the happiest as a cook, is being able to pull off a lovely soup from old beef stock and a lonely bag of lentils. I must be channeling my grandmother.

  15. I wonder how people can afford some of the ingredients they have. Or the frequency that they can cook great dishes. I used to get down about not being able to measure up to their blogs. But realized that not everyone likes that. Some people like simple, home made food. So that is what I make and make no apologies. Great stream!

  16. This was a great post Garret! I am a student as well and I eat mostly vegetarian to make my dollars stretch. I think this will make us better cooks since we don't rely on the crutch of "meat and potatoes".

    Long live tuna and saltines!

  17. Personally, I'm a fan of "anything in a tortilla". I don't cook fancy but I do cook most every night after work because I like to know what I'm eating.

    I have an enormous list of what I consider staples and am very spontaneous, depending on my energy level. I keep beans of all kinds. Cheese. Veggies. Stuff in cans. Stuff in jars. More stuff in the freezer, like broth. Both corn and flour tortillas.

    My favorite thing to cook up when I'm left to my own devices is liver...mostly because my husband and kids gag at the smell of liver
    in the house. I cook up more than I can eat then use the rest in tacos or with eggs for breakfast.
    Leftover smashed potatoes are handy as well. You can mix a wealth of evils in there...
    tuna, peppers, clams....make patties and fry. Not healthy. Not fancy. Very yummy.

  18. All I can say is long live Beans Chickpeas, and Lentils, cheap and easy food, curry it, soup it, have it with rice and a bit of ground cumin.

  19. Absolutly wonderful post... needs to be said more often. Enjoyed your writing as always :)

  20. Love the "cooking for one (well, really for three)" idea. Thanks for the thoughtfulness - I think we all might pay closer attention to getting quick suppers on the table.

    Great post, Garrett ...

  21. What a coincidence! I just sadly moved away from my boyfriend to start grad school at Sac State and have been trying to psych myself up on cooking for one. Remember Edna Krabapple from the Simpsons eating her depressing "soup for one"? That's me- unless it is wretched hot out, I eat soup 4-5 nights a week: miso soup with tofu, noodle soup w/ veggies, tomato soup with grilled cheese, butternut squash, lentil...etc Homemade whenever possible, but I like a can of campbells too. And it always makes good leftovers!

  22. Great post. I think the part about 'perfect food blogs' that bothers me the most is how clean their kitchen always is.

    Pasta ORG is one of my favorets. Pasta, olive oil, ramano chesse( I usualy use parm), and garlic. Quick, easy, and easy to change it up. Add cherry tomoatoes, roast the garlic, add other veggies or chili flakes.


  23. Figures! I just got Alone in the Kitchen... from my library's sale rack yesterday! Two bucks!

    This summer was my first experience living and cooking alone. To be honest, I didn't appreciate the experience much. I need good ingredients, sharp knives, and bubbly company to recover after ten hours of total frustration at my desk. The company part means fewer leftovers, but it also means that occasionally someone else pays the grocery tab. Altogether, I got to consume a fair number of God's tasty creatures, plus had a good stock of nuts and berries OOH BERRIES for around $40 per week. But I know what you mean about some of these food blogs, and most pedigreed cocktail blogs too. I sometimes feel like a lost little child peering through mansion gates because I don't just happen to have saffron and french triple-creme and a bottle of Dubonnet lying around.

    What I DO have is a fair number of awesome recipes that use pretty much only staple ingredients with the occasional novelty, like a mango or tomatillo or side of bacon. Lentils are one of my best friends. Cook them, mix them with brown rice, and dress with olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, etc. Delicious hot or cold, and just a few shovelfuls can keep the tummygrumblies away for hours! Pan-fried chicken is also wonderful. Flour, salt, and pepper on the pieces; butter in the hot skillet; throw in the pieces; dice garlic and throw that in; turn pieces over, cover and forget about it for twenty minutes. When chicken's done, take it out, deglaze with cooking wine or vinegar or Juicy Juice or whatever and make a yummy sauce. It's my favorite way to cook chicken (well), and probably also one of the easiest.


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