Joe Yonan is the author of the new cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook.
Too many single people think it’s only worth cooking when the purpose of their efforts is to feed anybody but themselves. It’s the why-bother-if-it’s-just-me syndrome, a recipe for disaster — or at least an unhealthy lifestyle. And it’s understandable: At the end of a long work day, if you’re “hangry” (hungry meets angry), the last thing you want to do is spend time trying to get dinner together. That’s when you reach for a frozen dinner — or, worse, ring up the local pizza joint or get Chinese delivery. Not bad from time to time, but do it too often and the results will eventually show up at your doctor’s office.
It needn’t be thus. Even single cooks can learn to cook fresh, vegetable-focused dishes that are interesting enough to hold the pizza deliveries at bay. You can shop efficiently without buying excess food that goes bad in the fridge’s “rotter” (a more accurate descriptor, sadly, than “crisper”). You can satisfy your “hanger” without resorting to take-out. And you can cook in a way that makes productive use of what you buy without being left with a mountain of tedious leftovers. Here are a few tips:
1. Turn the idea of leftovers on its head. Think of almost everything you make as the building blocks of future meals. So rather than make a vat of black bean chili and freeze it for countless meals later, make just the black beans and refrigerate or freeze them, and then add them to this or that as the week goes on. On any given weekend or whenever your time is more flexible, make a pot of brown rice, or braise a load of greens, or marinate and bake a batch of tofu, or roast a pan of seasonal vegetables. Keep them in the fridge or freezer and combine them with quick-cooking pasta or fresh salad greens, or puree them into soups.
2. Shop smart. At the grocery store, look for smaller versions of your favorite items: shallots instead of onions, cherry or plum tomatoes instead of beefsteaks, Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage. And lobby the store, if it doesn’t already, to sell more items in individual pieces or by the loose pounds rather than pre-bagged or boxed. (God help the single cook who is looking for a manageable amount of celery.) Better yet, shop at farmers markets, where vendors are far more likely than big supermarkets to let you buy small quantities of produce, right at its peak, cutting down on waste.
3. Learn storage strategies. That leftover celery? Wrap the remaining bunch in aluminum foil — really! — and refrigerate it for up to 2 weeks. Treat sturdy herbs such as basil, mint and parsley like cut flowers: Strip off the bottom leaves so they won’t be immersed, then cut the stems on the diagonal and put them in a glass of fresh water on the countertop, changing the water and cutting the stems every day or two. Store more delicate herbs, such as cilantro, oregano, thyme and dill, by wrapping them in a damp paper towel, enclosing in a perforated plastic bag, and refrigerating for up to 1 week.
4. Freeze right. Freezing foods flat in zip-top bags means they will thaw faster on the fly. But you need to get the extra air out to prevent freezer burn. Mark the contents and the date, and lay it flat in the freezer until firm. To make sure you use items in your freezer, write out an inventory and tape it to the front of your fridge.
5. Make your own dressings. Store-bought dressings often contain high levels of sodium and sugar (not to mention stabilizers, preservatives and other processing ingredients), but it’s super-easy, and healthier, to make your own. Whisk together ½ cup each olive oil and red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar, 1 minced garlic clove, and salt and pepper to taste. Other times, vary the types of oils and vinegars, and add your favorite herbs, cheeses and nuts if desired. It will last for a week, helping you pull dinner together in a flash.