Cooking for one (it’s about more than simply not starving)

Being in the kitchen is one of the things that makes me happiest. Give me a handful of hungry guests, a couple of hours and a list of inexpensive ingredients and I’m the proverbial pig in mud. But it’s a little different when you find yourself having to cook for one. After almost seven years of whipping up meals for the multitudes (okay, between two and five people), I’m back to cooking for just myself, and it’s been an interesting transition.

Preheat

Growing up, I remember my mom often asking us what we wanted for dinner, well, when we were old enough to actually have an opinion beyond “tinned spaghetti and Oros”. And I recall her frustration when teenaged me would say “ugh, whatever”. I only really “got it” years later when I was cooking for someone else. There’s only so many times you can cycle through your index of five dishes before you’re totally and utterly bored of having to decide which one to make that night. All you want, need, crave is for someone else to make a bloody decision. You don’t mind cooking it…. You just don’t want to have to actually decide.

So, when I eventually found myself in her shoes, and with not all that much input from the lounge, I realised the only way I was going to solve it was to mix things up a bit. I needed to add some more options to my go-to list so things weren’t quite so dull. Besides, being in the kitchen has always been a kind of therapy for me. I’m at my happiest when I’m cooking or baking. So, I scrounged around online and found a great site that had a bottomless supply of interesting (LINK) recipes, and I got stuck in. Some days I’d have a hankering for something tasty and search specifically, others I’d plug in the ingredients I happened to have and see what it came up with. Either way, I found some superb dishes that we both enjoyed and that I returned to time and again.

Cook

Fast forward a couple of years and I’d got the hang of taking on new recipes. I’d even (mostly) learnt to remember to read the full recipe before starting. There was one unfortunate incident when I thought I was in for a 45 minutes wait and it actually turned into close to two hours… It said so, plain as day in the recipe, I had just allowed my taste buds to yank me into action before my brain had had a chance to process the instructions.

I went from cooking for two almost every day, to cooking for five once a week. Which was great in that it meant that the other four days someone else was slaving away in the kitchen, and when it was my turn I could make something exciting that took a little more effort and sometimes a slightly more generous budget. I tried all sorts of things, from gnocchi and ravioli, to chicken pad thai and tacos. It was great. I not only had immense fun cooking on a huge stove and oven, but I also absolutely love to see people enjoying what I’ve made. And, what is it they drill into us as kids? Practice makes perfect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say my cooking is perfect, but I have learnt a heap from following tried and tested recipes and the reviews of other home cooks beneath them. Enough to occasionally wing it successfully when I either don’t have quite the right ingredients or enough time.

Allow to cool

And then, from five I was back down to one. I need to preface this by saying that the change was also accompanied by quite a heavy emotional shift for me. So possibly, in any other situation I would have jumped into the kitchen a riot of spatulas and freshly ground spices, but this was a more subdued transition. Not only was I faced with the tiniest stove known to man (trust me, I can MAYBE fit six cupcakes in there at once), but I was also having to gradually try to find a new routine in my life in general.

So, it should be no surprise when I tell you that my first few meals in my new house were crumbed chicken burgers. The kind where you get six frozen patties in a box and watch them sizzle forlornly in a pan before whacking them on a stale roll you forgot you bought yesterday. Yeah. Gastronomic genius it wasn’t – but at least I didn’t starve.

I allowed myself to have a couple of weeks of uninspired meals, before I realised it was time to shake out my apron, pull my hair into a pony and get cooking again. Proper, exciting, adventurous cooking. One thing that counts in my favour (much to my colleagues’ dismay) is that I really don’t mind eating the same meal four days in a row. So long as it’s delicious. So, I’m slowly getting myself back into the habit of getting creative in the kitchen and preparing a feast for one for four meals. I started with Cajun chicken pasta, moved on to Mongolian beef and have just landed on sweet and sticky spicy chicken this week.

I’m also only buying ingredients as and when I need them. Gone are the days of veggie racks upon which a lush sweet potato forest is growing, or baby marrows turning to juice in the fridge. I try to plan my next dish before I get to the supermarket so I know exactly what I need to buy, and I also know that it’ll take care of dinner for the next few nights.

Serve

There was a brief moment, standing in my new kitchen staring mournfully at my tiny stove, when I thought “what’s the point? It’s just me”. But cooking is one of my passions. I’ve realised that right now, more than I ever I should be indulging that. And of course, I’ll have other people to cook for sometimes (Ladies Night Dinner gals, I’m looking at you). But in the meantime, I’m totally worth the extra time in the kitchen and the careful grocery list-making. And I certainly don’t have to lapse back into cycling through the same five dishes I used to make the first time I lived alone. There are too many fantastic recipes out there begging to be tried and perfected. Cooking for one has never been to exciting.

And for the days the sadness seems a bit too inspiration-crushing, well, then there’s always a back-up box of chicken burgers in the freezer.

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