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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First (cauli) base

There’s this important thing you’re supposed to do when you make a new dish… read the recipe properly. And I did, the only problem was that I also read six other recipes properly, so when it came to making my pizza sauce this evening I accidentally added heat to a mixture that didn’t need it. Ummm, oops?

But hey, it was a kick-ass sauce regardless, so, ya’know, whatever. When baking I tend to be pretty precise, but when it comes to cooking I have an “understanding” with the recipe. We’re not exclusive.

The whole point was that I was having my first bash at cauliflower pizza bases.

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Husband Person once joked that we should put a camera up in the kitchen and give me my own YouTube channel… to be honest, that would make me seem a whole lot less nuts. Seeing as how I behave like I’m on a tv show EVERY TIME I cook anyway.

The general consensus with cauli bases is that you blitz the cauliflower, steam it, squeeze the bejeezus out of it then add the other ingredients. Blitz, no problem. The next two steps: a little problematic.

In lieu of a steamer I just bunged it in a bakkie with a sploosh of water and gave it about 8 minutes in the microwave. Then for the draining I was feeling all very hipster as I know for a fact I was given a cloth bag for making almond milk at Christmas last year. Yeah, but could I find it? I located the instructions crumpled in the bottom of a box, but no sign of the dratted bag itself.

My imaginary YouTube channel would’ve needed and age restriction as I clattered around the kitchen trying to find a solution. Eventually, I whipped a tea towel out of a drawer and yelled “Aha! Take that cauliflower.” Then I proceeded to burn my hands because I am not at all patient in the kitchen and didn’t give the cauliflower mush enough time to cool (like the recipe very earnestly suggested I should do. And I’m pretty sure it gave me an “I told you so” sneer as I flapped about hissing. Recipes can be jerks).

Having withstood as much pain as I could, and satisfied I’d extricated a suitable amount of liquid I chucked in the rest of the ingredients, mixed it all up and squished it out onto a baking tray.

They’re not skew, they’re rustic. Anyway, I’d like to see YOU fit two perfectly shaped circles on a tray that size. And Ven Diagram pizzas are cheating.

Once the bottoms had started to brown nicely, flipping them over took a large dose of ingenuity. These bases are nowhere near as sturdy as their wheaty counterparts. It took another sheet of baking paper, a tray, and a great deal of psyching myself up for the actual flip. But it ended in another “Aha! Take that cauliflower!” and a victory dance my imaginary subscribers would have paid good imaginary money to see.

I topped them with the kick-ass sauce, chicken, mushroom, green pepper, onion, jalapeno and cheese. And then let them crisp up around the edges in the oven for a while longer.

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All that bravado of managing to flip them not 20 minutes earlier? Completely obliterated when I made a complete dog’s breakfast of shifting the first one to a plate. That little episode raised the age restriction even more, I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit.

But besides all that, I’m satisfied with how they came out. I think next time I may add a tad more parmesan, and maybe some spices to give the bases themselves a bit more of a bite. And possibly make a bunch of tiny ones instead of the big kind that are prone to rearranging themselves into a lowcarb horror show with the smallest miscalculation involving the egg lifter.

Or next time I’m eating it straight off the baking paper. Cos I’m classy like that.

* And no, I haven’t made almond milk yet, and it doesn’t look imminent unless I find the ruddy bag.

 

RECIPE

Half head cauliflower, blitzed
Half cup parmesan (or similar)
1 tsp dried parsley
1 egg
Quarter cup coconut flour
1 tsp chopped garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 230°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Steam the blitzed cauliflower till tender.
Let it cool in the fridge. No, really.
Mix in parmesan, parsley, coconut flour, egg, garlic, salt and pepper.
Scoop out portions and flatten onto baking tray.
Bake till lightly browned. Flip, carefully, add toppings and bake till the cheese is melted and the edges are crisp.

Gourmet giggles

It’s taken me two days to recover from the awesomeness that was Monday night – and I still have leftovers.

Bianca and I attended a class with Jenny “the Giggling Gourmet” Morris at her new kitchen/classroom in Greenpoint, and ohmigosh it was amazing. The whole evening was simply superb. We made a delicious (and healthy) broth with pork and Asian veg, fantastic roast potatoes, roast chicken, roast pork belly, green beans with chilli, egg fried rice and pears poached in red wine and served in little pastry cases.

I was most impressed with my pork. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not a big fan of chunks of meat. In fact, I’ve never even attempted to make a steak before, let alone actually order one when I go out for dinner. So I was a little nervous about the prospect of being given a prime cut of pork belly to learn on.

Thing is, Jenny makes it so much fun and the whole vibe in her kitchen is just so relaxed, that even when I freaked out because I’d “broken” mine she appeared at my side and convinced me all was not lost. Scraping off the spices I’d accidentally smeared all over the top of the pork, I salted it generously and popped it in the oven – turning my attention to the pears at my station which needed peeling and popping into the bubbling red wine and spices mix on the stove.

While Bianca and I laughed, cooked, drank wine and generally made a mess I tried to decide what in my lifestyle I could cut out to enable me to join her class every Monday. It’s at times like these that I wish I were a smoker – so I could quit and use the extra cash for classes.

Jenny encourages hands-on cooking. There’s no light sprinkling of salt between dainty fingertips and no carefully measured olive oil. Think “lashings”. That’s the kind of cooking I enjoy. And the great thing is, she doesn’t just encourage it – it’s expected.

I will certainly be back for seconds (and yes, most likely thirds). Right now, however, there’s some leftover pork belly waiting for me in my fridge.

If you want to find out more about the Giggling Gourmet courses (and I know you do) either give them a Google, or call 021 425 3000.

There’s a risotto week coming up which also involves the perfect Crème Brulee and gosh darn it I can’t wait!