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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The (most marvelous) Mess

When you take a bite and before you’ve even had a chance to chew, you’re overwhelmed by the most sublime flavours, leaving you wide-eyed and reaching for more – that’s culinary perfection. Over the years I’ve had many good meals, and numerous great ones – but dinner at The Mess in Napier Street, Green Point, was superb from start to finish.

When Husband Person and I were invited to have a meal there I was thrilled – close to work, gorgeous location, and an online menu that’s beyond tempting – how could we refuse? Early one evening, as Green Point was slowly starting to empty and the clubs in the Village were getting ready for a night of fun, I strolled through the enchanting fairy light-draped courtyard. Pro tip: it’s going to be a marvelous spot for a cold glass of wine this summer.

All images supplied

All images supplied

I was pleased to note the new owners have kept much of the architectural design that the space featured in its previous incarnation – pillars disguised as stylised “trees” and the chic bar.  A few minutes early, I perched on a bar stool and ordered a Morello Cherry G&T. Actually – forget the glass of wine in the courtyard – this cheeky pink drink may just become my new staple. Refreshing and delicious, I sipped on it contentedly as I chatted to owner and restaurateur Carlene de Gouveia.

Her enthusiasm about the restaurant and the menu is contagious. Together with chef Luke Wonnacott of Lukefoodalways consultancy, she’s created an eclectic menu of exciting flavours and interesting ingredients. And this isn’t just a case of plonking things on the menu because they sound good. There’s a lot of tasting and discussion that goes into each dish. The lunchtime press group had polished it all off – but the pan fried gnocchi with asparagus and samphire was apparently unbelievable (I’d spent the afternoon living vicariously through everyone’s tweets and building up a pretty decent appetite). The chef’s team had initially gone the traditional gnocchi route – rich heavy sauce – it was delicious, but a little too much. And when the chef came across some samphire, a plant that grows along the shoreline, he reimagined the dish into something fresh, textured and flavoursome. It’s that kind of ingenuity that is bound to make The Mess a place you can visit often without getting bored.

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Husband Person and I decided to start with confit duck rillette and pickled beetroot served with a warm yoghurt and thyme flatbread. The mezze offering is great for communal nibbling while you decide which of the other dishes you’d like to share. That moment of wide-eyed wonder I mentioned earlier? The pork belly tacos. Bite-sized smoky perfection – BBQ layered pork belly, smoked apple and charred corn slaw. And while we were meant to be sharing the portion, I may have claimed most of them…

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While the main plates are perfect for those not keen on sharing, we ordered the pork belly, pork loin ribs and thick-cut fries with truffle mayo on the understanding that we’d be sharing those too. Because life’s too short for food envy. That said – at The Mess, I don’t think food envy is going to be a common occurrence.

The pork belly was delicious, with just the right fat to meat ratio, and the crackling was perfect (no soggy sadness, or 24 hr dentist visits needed). The succulent meat was beautifully complimented by braised red cabbage, smoked apple, fennel jus and braised baby vegetables. And the pork ribs? Well, I nudged them gently with my knife and they fell apart… heavenly.

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By the time I’d scooped up the last streaks of truffle mayo (one of my weaknesses) with the last lone chunky chip, we were both full and ready to roll home. But… I couldn’t bear to leave without at least “looking” at the dessert menu. Who was I kidding – I’d had my eye on the crème brûlée from the moment I spotted it on Twitter earlier in the day.

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I’ve had many versions of the custardy stuff before – some fantastic and others absolutely appalling (not naming names, but the worst was from a hotel who really should have known better). And I’ve even had a bash at making my own. A crème brûlée made properly is a thing of great beauty, and it starts with the delicate crack of the caramel shell. The first spoonful at The Mess had me falling back in my seat, beaming. It was smooth, light and creamy, and the portion was generous. Too good to share – so I didn’t. (Writing this, I’m seriously considering hanging around the office a little later today, just so I can pop in and treat myself to another helping before heading home… don’t judge me till you’ve tried it.)

The Mess open Monday to Saturday from 6pm, and the kitchen closes at 10pm.

 

Round-up

Our meal was comped, but would have cost R464, excluding drinks

In and out in a lazy two hours

Absolutely delicious dishes, attentive service and a cosy ambiance – perfect for a special night out