Eating alone is OK

9780451493606As a single person who cooks, I often find myself eating alone–and I don’t find that to be a problem.  Eating alone doesn’t mean that you are lonely.  It simply means you can please yourself as to what you cook and eat.  Many seem to think that it’s a barren occasion and one that does not deserve much attention to the food.  I disagree.  It’s when there can be the most attention to food.

What Do You Cook When No One Is Watching? from Taste magazine sums it up nicely.  True it’s promoting a cookbook (SOLO by Anita Lo) which I suspect I will buy after I’ve seen the sample on my Kindle.  There are not many cookbooks addressed to cooking for one so it’s delightful to think there is another to peruse.

A son gôut!

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Comfort food: baked potatoes

It’s another chilly day here, but at least the rain has stopped and the sun is out off and on now, but the thermometer is still reading only 51 ° F .  Despite the chill, a neighbor and I ventured out to go to the wine tasting at the Wine Authorities.  as well as the usual great wines, there was cheese from the Reliable Cheese Company (with samples).  The Tomme de Savoie was very tempting, but when I saw the raclette, I passed on the Tomme since it’s only for me (and the cat). I got the raclette instead so that I could  make one of my favorite special comfort foods:  baked potato with raclette cheese melted over it.

Just plain baked potatoes are one of my favorite comfort foods!  I don’t mean anything fancy like “twice-baked” potatoes  (love those too)—just a really good baked potato that has seen neither the inside of a microwave oven, nor the inside of a foil package.

Russet (baking potato)

a baking potato

When you select your potato for baking, you want one that is as evenly shaped as possible, in addition to being a good potato in general.  (See potatoes.)

Here are three basic recipes for baked potatoes (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated).  Easy…and worth the time.  Cheaper than eating out too–you’d have to go to a really expensive restaurant to get as good a baked potato as any of these recipes will give you.

Basic oven-baked potato

This method will give you a baked potato with a really great  skin to munch on along with that lovely interior.

  • Preheat oven to 350 ° F
  • Scrub a russet potato thoroughly and dry well.
  • Place potato in the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
  • Remove and open immediately (to let steam escape) and serve.

Salt-baked potato

This method can give the potato a flavor boost, especially if you include herbs and/or garlic in the covered dish while the potato is baking.  It will give you the fluffiest inside and a tender but lightly crisped skin on the top.

  • Preheat oven to 450 ° F
  • Scrub a russet potato thoroughly and dry well.
  • In a small baking dish, place a layer of kosher salt about 1/2-inch thick (about 1 cup for this particular dish).
  • Place the potato on the salt, broad side down.
  • Cover with foil or place in a covered baking dish and bake in the middle position of oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes
  • Remove foil, brush the potato with 1 teaspoon olive oil and return to the oven until tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife.
  • Remove, brush off excess salt, open immediately, and serve.

Oven-baked sweet potato

This is for the orange-fleshed, wetter varieties.  If you have a white sweet potato (yum) it has much drier flesh, and I typically treat it as a russet potato.

  •  Scrub thoroughly. Prick lightly with a fork in three places, or multiple times with the tip of a paring knife.
  • Preheat oven to 400 ° F
  • Rub the potato with olive oil and place on a foil-covered pan, on the middle rack of the oven.
  • Bake 40 to 50 minutes until it’s tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
  • Open immediately, season to taste, and serve.
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Wedge of raclette cheese

Raclette cheese

When you want to be a little extra special with even the most comfy of foods–just add more comfort food.  One of my favorite extra comfy foods is baked potato with cheese; and my all time favorite for baked potato with cheese is baked potato with raclette.  Never mind the butter, sour cream and all that stuff (admittedly wonderful), but in this case it’s totally unnecessary.

Raclette is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that is mellow, nutty and earthy.  A dish by that name is typically served with the cheese melted over potatoes (usually

black cat looking at potato

Is it mine?

boiled) and gherkins (pickles made from specially grown small cucumbers). While what I’m having here is not traditional raclette, it is a real treat.  (All cooking and recipes are tested and approved (or not) by Keiko, the cat.)

I made a salt-baked potato and finished it as directed in the recipe, and after opening it, laid slices of raclette over the top, and put it back into the oven to let the cheese melt (not under the broiler).

baked potato topped with raclette cheese

Comfort food for supper

The  main course was just that big baked potato and cheese, with a glass of champagne (no cornichons though)!  I had really intended to have a first course of roasted baby carrots and baby zucchini with vinaigrette dressing….but that was not just BIG potato–it was a HUGE potato, so it was my evening to have just that–I had fruits and veggies for breakfast and lunch anyway.)

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Another cookbook for single-serving cooking

Cover of Serve YourselfI’m always browsing cookbooks–especially those that appear to deal with single-serving cooking.  A friend recently mentioned Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One to me. True to form, I immediately went in search of it–and was pleased to find it available in Kindle format.

I really identified with a statement made in this book: “…we solo artists deserve just as varied a diet as anyone.  While I love having some leftovers around that can morph into new dishes, I also appreciate the beauty of starting and finishing a single cooking project on a given night.” (Kindle location 173)

One of the things that I find delightful is that there are suggestions and recipes that are incredibly helpful in allowing morphing leftovers.  These include condiments (to use not only on leftovers) but suggestions on using those extra ingredients that seem to be the bane of single-serving cooking–such as what’s left of that bottle of wine that you opened to go with dinner yesterday evening.  Personally I think that this is a book worth having in your library if you cook for one, but I suggest that, at least, you check the local library and peruse this one.

I’d also recommend his website for fun reading of his “Cooking for One” column for more thoughts on cooking for one, and more recipes.  Even cooking for one it can still be a son goût!  

Pot roast with brown gravy

You’ll notice that I said “gravy”–this is too much of a comfort food to use “sauce” because what you’re getting is plain, down-home gravy that needs bread or potatoes to complement it.

After I got my Christmas present (See The Petit Brasier) I had to give it an immediate test run.  What better to test than a favorite braised dish:  pot roast.  This was nothing fancy at all.  You’ll note that I’m not even saying it had a sauce–I really did mean good, old-fashioned, down-home, satisfying brown gravy, lots of onions, and good tender beef.

Even though I say I dislike leftovers, there are some exceptions and pot roast is one of the exceptions.  Sometimes I get the great big chuck roast and make a lot of it and put it in the freezer in single-serving packages, right with the chili, the stock, and some soups so that I can have an “instant” meal–the microwave is great for defrosting and individual portion.  I don’t always want to have to pack and freeze leftovers, so with the small braiser, and a cooperative butcher or meat department at the supermarket, I can make a small pot roast that’s good for two, or maybe three meals since there are some very easy ways to kind of spiff it up for the reruns.

This is really not a recipe–it’s a happening–quantities are approximate as the amount of oil you need will vary with the size of you pan, the amount of mushrooms and onions you are going to sauté–just use what you need.  (Improvise! Wing it!  Just do it–it will work.)

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pound piece of chuck roast
  • 4 or 5 small onions (or 3 medium to large ones) sliced moderately thinly
  • 2 teaspoons flour, plus flour for dredging the beef
  • about 3 tablespoons olive oil (divided as needed for  sautéing mushrooms and onions.
  • 8 ounces of mushrooms, sliced (more if you really like mushrooms)
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups of water or stock
  • salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
  • about 8-10 medium garlic cloves.

Preparation

  1. Pat the pot roast dry with paper towels and dredge in a flour seasoned with salt and pepper.  Let it stand while you cook the onions and mushrooms.
  2. Slice the mushrooms and sauté in a little of the olive oil until they release their liquid and brown.  When brown and liquid has evaporated, remove to a bowl.
  3. Add a bit more olive oil, and sauté the sliced onions until they start to brown and caramelize.  When partly browned, remove to a bowl with the mushrooms.
  4. Add the additional olive oil, as needed, and brown the beef well on both sides. Put it to the side for final assembly.
  5. Take the rest of the olive oil, and the 2 teaspoons of flour, and brown the flour in the oil until it turns a nice golden brown and smells toasty.  Turn the heat down, add the stock or water to the browned flour.
  6. Add the sautéd onions and mushrooms, and return the browned roast to the pan, with the onion/mushroom mixture around the sides, sprinkle the garlic cloves over the top.
  7. Bring to a simmer on the stove top, cover and place in a 295-300 ° F oven and cook until fork tender–about 2-3 hours (unattended).  Check periodically to see if you need to add more liquid.  You need just enough to make nice thick gravy, and the onions are going to cook down to help thicken the gravy.

For that first meal, all you really need is a salad, maybe a baked potato….or some noodles.For the second serving, stir a tiny dollop of sour cream into the portion of brown gravy for this serving to add some tang and be a bit “stroganoff-ish”, add some steam-sautéd (See Cooking Vegetables Quickly) carrots, or spinach as a side.   What about the third?  As you reheat, add some tomato paste, or some tomato sauce to the last bit for a different taste.

It’s pure unadulterated comfort food.  Even if it’s not a single serving, it’s an appropriate quantity for small-time cooking, but it sure has big-time taste.  It’s great what having the right size pan does for cooking for one.

A son goût!

Storage containers

One of the perennial problems with liking to improvise, and wanting to have a well-stocked pantry is that one person uses things more slowly than you would cooking for a family of four.  I think that it’s important to store supplies carefully in closed containers rather than bags or boxes which can let some interesting beasties into your staple supplies.  For years, I carefully cleaned and saved glass jars and their lids.  Great solution?  Well–until the lid loses its seal.

Then what do you do?  My solution was to buy some Mason  canning jars (Ball or Kerr) with wide mouths, in the pint and quart sizes.  They are inexpensive, and lids are  no longer a problem.  The same lids fit all the jars, so I’m not standing around with a jar full of something and trying to find a lid to fit.  The rings last, and last–a bit like the Energizer bunny–and you can replace the seals as needed!  I think that my kitchen shelves even look rather nice…but then I kind of like a homey look.

If your pantry space is cramped,  the wide-mouth jars stack well!  Another advantage of the wide-mouth jars is that a 1/4-cup dry measuring cup will fit through the mouth of the jar easily–so you can dip and measure from the easily. Got to store that 10-pounds of rice that was such a great price?  Well the same lids will fit the half-gallon jars.

With some minimal additional equipment you can even put food by in these same jars–just be sure that you have new lids  if you’re going to use them for long-term preserving of foods.

Fresh-baked bread

The smell of fresh-baked bread is one of the best that I know (along with bacon and fresh-ground brewing coffee).  I cannot think of anything much more pleasurable than hot, fresh bread with butter and maybe some exquisite (unprocessed) raw honey.  I’ve found that even when cooking for one on a busy schedule it not impossible to bring that wonderful taste and aroma into my kitchen with a minimal investment of time.

Buying bread from the bakery is fine, but for me, I keep ending up with stale bread.  I can make bread crumbs for later use, but that fills my freezer with more bread crumbs that I’ll ever need.  I could freeze part of the bakery loaf, but even though that helps, it’s still not the same as fresh bread from the oven.  I’ve baked bread the usual way: proofing, letting it rise, punching it down, letting it rise…successfully.  I put small loaves in the freezer, and as long as I remembered to pull them out to defrost in the fridge over night, I could have fresh bread with minimal effort and in quantities appropriate for one person.  That was fine when I was a telecommuter; I could use my breaks to knead the bread, and take the few minutes necessary to pop it into the oven.  I had my small loaves; but, I had to remember to defrost it. When I was no longer a telecommuter, that did not work quite so well, so when I heard about the dough being kept in the refrigerator, I had to try it.

Deli-style rye breadThe no-knead, wet-dough technique described in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois lends itself admirably to cooking for one.  I was skeptical when I first heard about this, but since I love good, fresh bread, I bought the book and gave it a try.  It has made fresh bread for one an easy thing to do.  When I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, nothing does it better than to go into the kitchen and with minimal effort have my home smelling of fresh bread.  The main attraction of this method for me was that the dough could be kept in the refrigerator for about two weeks (less for dough enriched with eggs).  I can reach in and grab a handful of dough, form a small loaf, let it rise (shorter time for small loaf), and bake.  The hands-on time is minimal.  The results are wonderful.

To give you a sample, here is an adaptation of the Master Recipe a free-form boule from Artisan bread in Five Minutes a Day.  For measuring the flour, just dip and then level your measuring cup with a spatula (scoop and sweep)–no sifting required.  You can bake this on a cookie sheet, but if you really get into this, you will probably want to get a baking stone, but even baking on a cookie sheet, you have some good bread.  Be sure to use dry-ingredient measuring cups for the flour. I assuming that you likely don’t have a stand mixer or  a large food processor, so I’m given the hand mixing instructions here.  I think that the only “tricky” part is shaping the loaf; not having the pictures in the book, here is a link to a video which will show you the mixing and shaping technique.

Ingredients for dough to make four 1-pound loaves:

  • 3 cups lukewarm water
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or other coarse salt
  • 6-1/2 cups unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour
  • cornmeal for your cookie sheet or parchment paper

Add yeast and salt to the lukewarm water in a 5-quart bowl or lidded (not airtight) container.  Mix in the flour all at once with a wooden spoon.  If the mixing becomes too difficult with the spoon, use your hands (wet) to work in the flour, but do not knead the dough.  Now, allow to rise at room temperature (covered) for about 2 hours until the dough as doubled, or starts to collapse (flattens on top).  Refrigerate the dough overnight since it’s easier to shape the loaves with cold dough.

When you’re ready to bake, prepare you cookie sheet, or parchment paper with a light sprinkling of flour or cornmeal.  Now, sprinkle a bit of flour on the surface of the dough and pick up a handful (about grapefruit-size for a one-pound loaf). Sprinkle with flour and shape, as if you were pulling a blanket from the top down around it to the bottom side.  Don’t knead–this shaping should take only about a minute.

Place the loaf on cornmeal on the cookie sheet or on parchment paper, and let it rest for about 40 minutes for the one-pound loaf.

Preheat you oven to 450 ° F  with the rack in the middle of the oven.

After the bread rests for 40 minutes, dust the top of the loaf with flour.  Using a serrated knife, slash a 1/4-inch deep cross on top so that you control how the crust breaks open when it expands in the oven.

The crust will be best if you use steam in the oven; you can do this by using the broiler pan on the lower rack, and pouring in a cup of hot tap water when you put the loaf in to bake.  Baking will take about 30 minutes, or until the crust is brown.

Store the remainder of the dough in the refrigerator until you’re ready to make another loaf.

I started with the master recipe, and have now worked my way through a number of others: deli-style rye, brioche, chocolate bread (yum), brioche filled with chocolate ganache, the Portuguese broa (a corn bread–great for the Thanksgiving holidays), olive oil dough, and others.  Every recipe has worked as it should.  It’s great to be able to make myself a crusty baguette one day, and a boule, or sandwich loaf the next time–all from the same batch of dough.  Since I use some bread for sandwiches, I frequently bake mine in an Italian bread pan which lets me have an oval loaf , larger than a baguette, that works well for the kind of sandwiches I make.  This pan is perforated so you get a better crust than using a non-perforated pan.  The pan is nonstick, but with the wet dough you will still need to us a cooking spray to prevent sticking, and the dough will ooze into the perforations sightly, but it can usually be removed easily.

The container that I use to hold my dough is a Rubbermaid that I got from the grocery store.  It has a good lid, and is not airtight.  If you are hand mixing you could , just mix in this container.  The corners are slightly rounded, but I find it’s difficult to get all the dry flour mixed around the edges, so I usually mix in a bowl and transfer the dough into this container.  If the lid on the container fits very tightly, you will need to leave it loose of because of the gases that are formed during the fermentation.

Of course, I was excited when the second book, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day appeared.  I’ve just gotten the Kindle version of that one, and  anxious to try some of the recipes there.  I’ve been interested to see comments about this technique on other blogs.  An adaptation of the master recipe for whole grain bread can be found on the Former Chef blog, along with some helpful photographs that should make you want to run to the kitchen and bake.   I intend to take this evening to peruse this book and see what gems I can find.  To be on the safe side, I’ll start with the master recipe to see how the dough handles.  Based on my previous experience with these recipes I’m expecting great things.

More recipes and baking tips can be found in Zoe Francois’s blog, Zoe Bakes. New recipes and tips are available at Artisan Bread in Five website as well.

I’m hooked on having fresh bread in such an easy way.  The loaves in the photograph are brioche just out of the oven.  If you really need an attitude adjustment, the smell of the brioche (especially when filled with chocolate ganache) will definitely do it!  More about brioche coming  soon.  Happy baking!

Cookware for small-time cooking

One of the important things in cooking for one is to have the right size pan for the quantity you are cooking.  Small-time cooking with big-time flavor doesn’t happen when you have  one chop in as 12-inch skillet!  This may mean that you don’t buy that prepackaged set that is more appropriate in size for a family of four, but buy smaller pans as your needs are likely to be different.  Cook’s Illustrated has a great article on “à la carte” selection of cookware.  When cooking for one, you won’t need the sizes, but pans with the same functionality will give you a lot of flexibility and room for you cooking to evolve.   To  stretch you dollars, you want to look for multifunctional cookware.  If you are really going to enjoy cooking for one, you do need the best pans that you can afford and it is better to have a few good ones than many not-so-good ones, or even good ones in the wrong sizes.  It’s worth saving for good pans (or you drop all sorts of hints to friends and relatives, if not to give you the pans you want, at least to give you the means to purchase them).

At the time I needed to make the decision about cookware, I was fortunate to be working in a gourmet food store with an excellent kitchen ware department, and I was able to have hands-on experience with top-line cookware (All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, Emile Henry, and others).  I was able take advantage of employee discounts so I started with All-Clad cookware.  I cook for one (and a cat) most of the time;  but do like to have friends come for meals when I cook something special (like roast goose and stuffing) that is not just for one.  I bought standard starter set of All-Clad stainless steel cookware that had nothing huge in it, but did cover even making stock (for one).  That set consisted of a 10-inch fry pan, a 2-quart saucepan, a 6-quart sauté pan, a 6-quart stockpot, and a  4-quart casserole with lid.  I got a bonus of an 8-inch nonstick fry pan with the set.  That was so many years ago–but I’m still hooked on the All-Clad cookware.

Over the years, I’ve added various other pieces to fit my cooking needs–from the steamer insert, and double-boiler insert (with rounded bottom corners that make it easy to stir with a whisk) that fit the 8-inch saucepans or the casserole, a smaller sauté pan (2-quart), a larger, tall stockpot with pasta/colander insert.  Even cooking for one, I use all these–the smaller ones more frequently than the larger.  I’ve been using this cookware now for more years that I am going to admit to publicly–but it has performed well, so that I’ve never questioned where to go for additional pieces.

The latest piece that I have added is the 1-quart open saucier pan.  I added that because I frequently do reductions of stock or sauces and make custards over direct heat–which means that the rounded bottom edges of this pan don’t let custards stick and curdle in the squared off corners as they would in a sauce pan.  I had to make a decision on whether to add a Windsor pan or the saucier–difficult because the both have their uses, but I opted for the saucier.  (I was given a saucier pan as a gift–from another manufacturer–and it is languishing in the back of a cabinet somewhere because it did not heat evenly, and it was easy to see why just by the heft of the two pans.

My very first high-end cookware was a great set of Le Creuset, enameled cast iron (a gift).  Looked great, cooked great–I really liked it, but it was heavy.  After I had used All-Clad, so much easier to lift, and found out how well it did, I decided that I’d rather have the advantage of lighter weight, easier care, and great performance.  I passed on my Le Creuset saucepans and fry-pans to a friend, and got the All-Clad.  I confess that I kept the Le Creuset dutch oven for a number of years even though I always reached for the equivalent All-Clad since it was so much easier for me to lift into and out of the oven when filled with stew or stock.  When I was convinced that the All-Clad performed as well as that, that particular piece also went to join its mates with the same friend.

So where do you start if you’re going  to purchase cookware?  I’d start with Cook’s Illustrated website (unless you’re a subscriber to the Cook’s Illustrated magazine) since they do some pretty stringent and objective tests of cookware (Note that there is no advertising in the magazine).  Then, I would go to a brick-and-mortar store that carries different brands, e.g. All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, and look, lift and see how the pieces look and feel.  I think that it’s important, just like I advised with knives, that you actually handle the different pieces and brands.  But, don’t commit to buying yet!    Think about it, sleep on it.  It’s not quite like buying a car, but it is an investment.  After you’ve thought about it, I’d go online to Cooking.com. They have customer reviews which are helpful to read; look at the pieces you think would make sense for you, check prices and compare.

Think about your favorite foods–what you’d like to cook for yourself.  I like to do soups and stews in the winter, but don’t always want huge quantities, so the small covered casserole (4-quart) which can function like a small stockpot,  or dutch oven (oven or  stove-top) is a necessity for me.  It’s the workhorse in my kitchen.  Another that I reach for a lot is the small sauté pan–just the right size for one or two chops.

There are other things to consider in your choice of cookware:  What is the manufacturer’s recommendation about putting it in the dishwasher?  Can the pans (with lids) go from stove-top to oven cooking?  This last is the much more important consideration (at least for me) since in order to cook with minimal attention I use the oven a lot for finishing stews, making stocks–anything that requires long, slow cooking.

Dishwasher safe if less important when cooking for one. The All-Clad stainless steel is dishwasher safe, but other finishes are not.  Stainless steel is my preference for appearance–and for the fact that it can be used with induction cooking.  Copper clad is beautiful–if you don’t mind the maintenance–I ogle a friend’s copper All-Clad enviously, but know that mine would never look like that!   For other information you can go to the manufacturer’s FAQs.

As you cook more, it’s likely you’ll want to add other pots and pans.  I’ve got a couple of All-Clad pans on my wish list:  Right at the top of my wish list is the petit braisier. I have (as a gift) a Calphalon 12-inch “everyday” pan.  It performs very well, but it’s too big for many of the things that I cook as single servings.  It can function is so many ways–skillet, brasier, omelet pan, and the short handles make it ideal for things that go from stove-top to oven. Another on my wish list is the round dutch oven for one.  I  use my pans directly from oven/stove-top to table–and not because I’m cooking only for myself (and the cat).  I think that the rounded bottom corners and the domed lid would be great–and besides, aesthetics do count, too; it’s a great looking pan.

I’d love a domed lid to fit my sauté pan (if possible), rather than buying another pan.  The flat lids that I have fit so well and have handles that can go in the oven, but every once in a while, that domed lid would be great since it give you a bit of extra capacity. Then there is the French brasier…another to the wish list!  There are times when the stainless steel rack would be wonderful….

You might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned nonstick cookware.  I do have two nonstick pans–which are very infrequently used.  For dishes that may go stove-top to broiler, I’d be concerned about the temperature effect on the nonstick coating.  For frying, I often want to use high heat, so for me, nonstick is out.  The two places where it is useful are an omelet pan and a pan in which you sauté delicate fish.  Generally, I think that if you have good cookware that distributes  heat well, you warm the pan before adding oil, and let your oil heat before you put anything in, any pan is nonstick!  Nonstick cookware has the disadvantage of not forming fond as well–which can keep pan sauces from being as flavorful as when it develops well.  If you like to do quick sautés and make pan sauces, then you might not want nonstick; however, you cookware needs to fit you style of achieving big-time taste with small-time cooking.  To help you make that decision, I’d recommend the Cook’s Illustrated article on nonstick cookware.

Shop carefully, compare prices.  It’s possible to find even some of the high-end cookware at special prices, so check prices.  Have to love the Internet.  Just to give you an example, I did price comparisons for that petit braisier that tops my wish list:  I found it ranging from $99.99 to $179.95.  The lowest price (excluding shipping–don’t forget that) was from Cooking.com (and that was with free shipping and a coupon code given)! I think I just found the Christmas present that Keiko, the cat, is going to give me!