5 Essentials for Solo Cooks from Joe Yonan

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

One of the biggest challenges for cooks are those days (or weeks, or years) when we find ourselves cooking for one. Joe Yonan, the Food and Traveler Editor of The Washington Post, has written a lot about this in his columns and in his two cookbooks Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One and Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook. Today he offers us sage advice for how to be a well-fed, well-nourished, mostly vegetarian single cook.

Joe has been writing about solo cooking since he took over the Cooking for One column in The Washington Post in 2008.  He soon discovered that many solo cooks were also interested in vegetarian recipes and he noticed that in his own cooking he too was tending towards using less meat. Joe points out that “vegetarians aren’t always single, but sometimes they are the only person cooking meat-free in a household.” 

These days Joe is cooking for two more often (hello Carl!) but he finds that he still relies on the skills he developed as a single cook, such as thrift and efficiency. Joe’s biggest wish is to encourage single people to cook for themselves and not succumb to the ‘why bother?’ syndrome.  “You’re worth it!” he encourages.  

1. Make building blocks, not recipes.

The danger of burning out on leftovers is higher for single cooks, says Joe.  “A couple will make a recipe for four and only have to eat leftovers once.  When a single cook does this, they are stuck eating that same meal three more times, making that pot of chili less and less enchanting as the days go by.”  

His solution? Make larger quantities of the building blocks for dishes rather than the complete dish.”Over the weekend or when you have time, make and freeze bags of staples such as rice and beans,” Joe recommends. Always have some braised greens or roasted vegetables in the refrigerator so when you get home, it’s possible to have a stew or chili bubbling on the stove in no time. Fried rice is another dish that has endless variations to adopt, depending on what’s in the freezer or refrigerator.

2. Don’t start with a recipe.

When you come home from work and you’re hungry, don’t start with a recipe.  Start with what you have on hand and what your appetite is calling for rather than a recipe in a cookbook.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I love flipping through cookbooks for inspiration,” says Joe. “I’m a cookbook author after all! I just want to encourage people not to start with an overly ambitious recipe that involves a trip to the grocery store with a long list of ingredients.” Start thinking about what what you want earlier in the day. “Ask yourself: what do I have on hand, what needs using up, what am I in the mood for?”

3.  Don’t be a slave to the clock, or to a recipe.

“Resist the temptation to follow the exact time given in a recipe.” says Joe. “Smell, touch, taste your food as it’s cooking. When I cook, I’m always getting  in there, sniffing and poking to check doneness at every stage.”  

Slow down, develop an intuitive approach to cooking, and don’t slavishly follow a recipe. “Single cooks have an advantage in that they can cook their dishes exactly to their liking without having to adjust to someone else’s palate. They can determine how spicy or how cooked they want it to be.” 

Teach yourself how to interpret a recipe, how to adjust for the size of ingredients as you downsize it, and how to adjust it to your liking.

4. Get a wok!

wok is a perfect piece of equipment for the single cook,” advises Joe.  “You can stir fry, pan fry, deep fry just about anything. I love a good cast iron skillet, but I find a wok to be much more versatile.” Meals come together in minutes, especially if you’ve frozen some cooked rice (see Building Blocks, above). “Fried rice with cauliflower and kimchi, an egg with roasted vegetables and chili lime pickle — the possibilities are endless!” Joe owns a 14-inch flat-bottomed, stainless steel wok that he is definitely bringing to that proverbial desert island, should the occasion arise.

5.  Use your broiler.

“It can’t be over estimated how important a broiler is for speed, utility, and flexibility. Start your ingredients on the stovetop, in the oven, or even in the microwave and finish them in the broiler to add color and crispness. I love broccoli done in the broiler with a little curry, oil, and salt. It’s great for asparagus because it gives it a nice char without overcooking. And I love doing my pizzas in the broiler, too, using one of those steel slabs as a base.”

And it doesn’t have to be a fancy broiler, either. Joe happily cooks on an off-brand, 24-inch rental stove. “I’ve developed two cookbooks using that stove!” 

Bonus: Joe wanted to emphasize two things that really help him in the solo kitchen: Dried beans, and his freezer. People forget about dried beans since beans are one of the few vegetables that aren’t bad when commercially canned.  But dried beans taste even better, are much less expensive, and can offer a wider variety than canned. 

“It’s the easiest thing to cook up a big pot of dried beans on the weekend, let them cool and then spoon them into single-serving plastic freezer bags. Try to get as much air out as possible and freeze them flat for easy stacking.” Be sure to label the bags, too!

Joe has a small, top of the refrigerator freezer but he it makes it work by keeping it as organized as possible.  An important part of this is keeping an inventory list tacked to the freezer door so he knows in advance what he has.  “Our freezers are often our smallest storage space and we’re usually in and out of them as quickly as possible,” he says.  “So the inventory list is a good reminder and inspiration as well.”

Thank you, Joe!

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