‘Chef Solo’ debuts
A few years ago, someone gave me a well-intended cookbook for Christmas: “Cooking for One,” or something like that.
I was publicly grateful but privately dismayed. I had spent years cooking for a family of five as well as assorted friends, neighbors and relatives. I never imagined I would need to learn to cook for one.
But most of us on the Cape live in households with only one or two people, according to U.S. Census data [pdf]. It’s not as if we need to be whipping up huge pots of spaghetti sauce most nights. Yet, I found cooking for a small household was almost harder than dishing up meals for a family. Make a casserole and I was stuck eating it night after night. Buy a plastic box of lettuce and the second half went yukky before I could bear another salad. And if I didn’t feel like cooking, it was too tempting to spend money on takeout or find solace in a bowl of cereal.
I am not alone in my frustration with cooking for few. Amy Rose Sager RDN, LDN, CLT, a digestive health specialist, sees it in her work with clients from Cape Cod Healthcare, the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod and in her private practice based in West Barnstable.
Clients tell her, “I make something there’s so much left over.” Or, “I don’t really want to cook for myself. It was different when I had more people around.” And too often when people do cook for small households they rely on highly processed convenience foods high in sodium, she said.
Over several years, I’ve learned to do better. I’m better at planning meals, looking for recipes I can freeze in one-portion containers, and being imaginative with leftovers. And I’ve learned to cut myself some slack: I don’t have to be a perfect cook because I often only have one person to please – me. And despite all that magazine advice that single people should cook the perfect well-balanced meal every night and sit at a beautifully set table, nothing horrible happens if I occasionally eat mac and cheese from the supermarket hot bar while bingeing on “Outlander.”
To share what I’ve learned about how small households can eat well without too much effort or unnecessary waste, Cape Cod Health News will feature a regular column – “Chef Solo.” The column will be about experimenting and having fun with food, no matter how few are coming for dinner. It will be about knowing short-cuts and healthy quick meals, and about being flexible – breakfast for dinner or vice versa.
Cape Cod Healthcare dieticians will offer their expertise on nutritious and tasty meals, and we will provide recipes and menu suggestions from them and from local cooks, based on healthy, delicious ideas.
And, it will be about buying into the first commandment of small-batch eating: You and your well-being and happiness are worth the trouble.
Now, I’m not a five-star chef and this is not a how-to-sauté column. Rather, it’s an idea exchange; an exploration; a fun way to expand our food universes. We’ll try to answer questions and share labor – and time-saving strategies.
Let’s start with some important basics:
- If you go to the trouble of cooking, never cook just one meal.
- Fall in love with leftovers, or at least become more creative.
- Love your freezer. It will allow you to eat something other than that beef stew five nights in a row.
- Learn to use your microwave with finesse. (I’m talking about you, defrost button…)
- Develop some easy go-tos that you can cook quickly instead of spending on takeout.
- Figure out how to entertain in a way that isn’t overwhelming for one person and provides you leftovers.
- Consider lunch the most important meal of the day.
- Clean up as you go along, unless the butler is coming later to do the dishes. You don’t want to cook a great meal and then face a sink full of dishes alone.
- Call a friend. Sometimes, a small batch is better shared.
To get you started, here are a couple of recipes that have worked well for me. Both could feed a crowd but freeze well in small batches. (This month’s tip: Splurge on glass storage containers; they are safer in the microwave.) Both are good for the last days of winter, when you still want something warming and one works great in a slow cooker. (This month’s second rule: Don’t dismiss your slow cooker as being only for a crowd. It’s good for small households when someone isn’t home to watch the pot.)
I’ve never been on a yacht but one of my favorite cookbooks is “The Yachting Cookbook” by Elizabeth Wheeler and Jennifer Trainer. Recipes are straightforward and simple, since they are written to be cooked in a galley or carried on board. This recipe uses beer. If you’re not one to cook with alcohol, the non-alcoholic kind will do or substitute a good chicken broth. You can vary the hotness or the amount of chili flavor. And to stretch it, add a can of kidney beans. This is made in a skillet, although I usually use a Dutch oven or a slow cooker.
8 or so servings
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken or turkey, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 4 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced
- 4 fresh jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced
- 6 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes in puree
- 1 12-ounce beer or 1 ½ cups chicken broth
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken or turkey in batches until lightly browned on all side, setting the pieces aside as they are cooked.
Lower the heat and add the onions garlic and peppers to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are softened. Add the chili powder, cumin, oregano and cinnamon and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and beer and simmer until the sauce is thickened, about 20 minutes. Salt to taste.
Return the chicken to the skillet and simmer until the chicken is done, about 20 minutes. Test seasoning and serve with scallions, sour cream, cheese, whatever you like as toppings.
This recipe is a bit of a pain since it involves a blender or food processor, but it freezes well and is fun since you can load on any toppings. You might put a baked potato – bacon, cheese, sour cream, whatever pleases you. The cauliflower ups the nutrition. Freeze the base in one-portion containers and then add a little milk or cream when you reheat it. You don’t have to cook it all at once; you can roast the cauliflower and then blend it all together another day. It’s adopted from nutritionist Sidney Fry, who has her own food blog.
LIGHT POTATO SOUP
8 servings of 1 ¼ cups
- 1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or about ½ teaspoon dried
- 3-5 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 pound baking potato, peeled and cubed (about 2)
- 1 pound Yukon gold potatoes (about 4)
- 5 cups unsalted chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 pound cauliflower, cut into florets
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- Cooking spray
- Reduced-fat milk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Combine 1 tablespoon oil, cauliflower, ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper on a jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray. Toss to coat. Roast at 450 degrees for 30 minutes or so, turning once.
Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons oil, swirl to coat. Add onion, thyme and garlic and sauté 5 minutes until tender, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes, stock, ½ teaspoon salt, and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 35 minutes or until potatoes are very tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. Let cool.
Using a blender or food processor, a bit of the potato mixture and a bit of the cauliflower, until it is all smooth.
At this point, you can either add 1 ½ cups milk (non- or low-fat is fine), or freeze the base and add milk or cream when you defrost it. Then, bring on the toppings – bacon crumbles, scallions, salsa, cheese, whatever suits your fancy.
Susan Moeller is an award-winning former newspaper editor and writer who has covered health, aging and the environment, among other issues. She has three grown children, one granddaughter and one rescued dog. She is active in several Cape community organizations, plays in a handbell choir and loves travel, bluegrass, British detective novels and listening to a good story.