On cooking for one

For some peculiar reason, we in North America seem to equate the number of dinner guests with degree of lavishness the meal should assume. In cooking for one, the assumption is that the meal should hardly take any effort at all. I don't mean this to sound boastful, because that's certainly not my intention, but  I'd like to think I take decent care of myself. I find it vitally important. I get up early to run before work. I do my best to cap my coffee consumption, which trust me, when you are surrounded by coffee shops all day long and free (albeit awful) coffee and former clients asking if you'd like to catch up over coffee, presents quite the challenge. I go to bed early most nights, except during the months of June and September, so insanely busy that in catering, all anyone needs to say is "It's June," so ominously, and everyone stands around in their pressed shirts and black ties nodding, setting aside their exhaustion with another java hit. And lastly, I eat well, or at least I try to, when I'm not eating potato salad out of cartons or picking at a plate of fries over martinis on a Friday night.

"Don't you find it hard, cooking for one?" people ask. Not really. I've cooked for one and two and six, and really it is all the same. Putting a meal together doesn't have to be a lot of work, especially if you are an obsessive menu planner.

Not that I would know anything about that.

When I waxed enthusiastically about a meal I'd made -- creamy white beans with leeks and creme fraiche topped with sirloin, and a salad with avocado and blood orange -- someone asked, "Just for you?" I ate that meal for three days and it tasted equally delicious every time, chilling me down to the tips of my toes.

I do have a few rules. I hold to a two pot maximum. I stick to recipes that serve four or less unless it freezes well, because that's my tolerance level for leftovers. If I will be eating the leftovers at home, they must re-heat well in a pot or in the oven, because I (gasp) live without a microwave; this one is practical. It must be the kind of thing that I can start and leave midway to fetch my laundry from the basement or to read a section of the newspaper, because these are things that invariably happen because I'm an easily distracted sort of person. I know they say to never leave the kitchen while you are cooking, but I do, unapologetically. It helps to develop a sixth sense where you just know when a pot of pasta is finished cooking or when a butternut squash has finished roasting, because you can smell it, or it occurs to you, or a little of each plus tasting.

This entry wouldn't be complete if I didn't confess the following: sometimes I wish I were cooking for more than one. Dinner parties are fun and intimate in their own way; cooking for two is pleasant because it means as you cook you will never risk an empty wine glass. You can keep conversation with this person as you stir a pot of tomatoes into a simple marinara sauce, or keep an eye out on your arborio rice, which will stubbornly stick to the bottom if not coerced otherwise. But the fortunate news is that the more often you cook and eat alone, the more you might not mind it, and sometimes, at least in my life, when the days fill up with the responsibilities beholden in a 9 to 5 or with volunteer work or with catering work or with writing or with classes or who knows what, it is welcome.

And then most nights do not involve a recipe at all. Some nights are eggs, slow poached and served with a bit of smashed avocado and lime and coarse sea salt, perhaps with some roasted sweet potatoes or a salad or sauteed, slick garlicky rapini. Many nights are a piece of fish served over a salad, or some leftover lentils tossed with who-knows-what, or a can of chickpeas dressed liberally with red wine vinegar and a bit of parmesan and maybe some arugula if there is any. Some nights are a tub of hummus and a head of broccoli, especially during the summer months when it is too humid to turn on the gas or I am too tired or I accidentally sat down for a snack and made it my meal. And sometimes the night goes like this, where there's a spaghetti squash that you roast, whole, in a 400 degree oven, because slicing it would mean your knife would get stuck in the middle of the squash as it is wont to do, and one of your deepest fears is stabbing yourself in the eye by accident with the tip of your knife.

You dress the cooked squash with some basil pesto and toss in some fresh basil, sliced ala chiffonade, a few ovendried tomatoes left from August's beautiful, sweet bounty and some greenhouse Romas whipped into submission, blistered and oozing olive oil and balsamic as they emerge, glowing like rubies, from the hot oven. You serve this over a modest amount of organic arugula and top it with plump, just-pink shrimp that have been cooked simply in butter and salt, and you take your microplane and zest a flurry of parmesan over the whole thing. Drizzle it with a nice olive oil and sprinkle chili flakes, and there you have it, a meal good enough for one that requires so little effort. Guzzle -- I've stolen that word from Avis DeVoto, who uses it when informing Julia Child how to eat lobsters -- voraciously, like your life depends on it, and savour each morsel by devoting each minute exclusively to eating and tasting.

I don't know what the secret is to living well, but this is the loveliest base I know.


The optimists

Dear reader -- are you still with me? It's awfully quiet out there. Everyone is off drinking beer on a patio or burying their noses in good books, as people are wont to do when the temperatures skyrocket to record highs in mid-March. I'd like to tell you that I've been out gallivating on patios myself, taking advantage of these prime weather conditions to work on my alcohol tolerance or to practice my cider-sipping techniques, but instead I've been sitting cozily in my living room, reading and drinking peppermint tea and feeling virtuous by digging the tines of my fork into a piece of salmon and a small mound of French lentil salad mixed with fiery, mustardy vinaigrette.

But don't go accusing me of turning Puritan. There was the six-dollar breakfast -- a sort of urban legend in the land of exorbitant rentals and forty-dollar cheeseburgers -- at a place in Kensington Market near Augusta and Baldwin, where I ate eggs and peameal bacon with two lovely ladies as we sat discussing the dreaded "five year plan", future road trips and things that generally perturb us (of which there were not that many. We are optimists.)

I was carded at the liquor store when I went in to buy a bottle of wine. That's always nice. But I also volunteered for Canada Blooms this past weekend and someone there was under the impression that I was collecting hours for my high school diploma. It is especially nice to know someone thinks you are sixteen when in fact you are twenty-six and a half. Unless that person is a prospective male interest -- never good.

Trust me.

I'm being kept company by a book on emotional intelligence, a book on finding the next Starbucks, one on French seduction, and a volume of food writing by Tamar Adler that is remarkably appropriate for these economically depressed times; that is fine company indeed. Just last week I sipped on very good wine and ate a lovely piece of salmon (of course) with white beans, mushrooms and clams -- and this ridiculously delicious sort of pan sauce -- at a place in Riverside. K. and I chatted about many good things, including her recent meditation trip, and I even tripped on a stool as I walked out.

It is always a superbly good night when somebody trips.

I don't even care that the women sitting there by the door made fun of me.

I saw a documentary on Greta Garbo with some fellow co-workers and friends of mine, and we drank Wolf Blass and talked fashion. We made our way to this very retro bar across from Honest Ed's, where we watched a woman sing Celine Dion in a red bolero. There may have been shots of "liquid cocaine." The woman singing karaoke likely had a little too much liquid cocaine. We drank whisky sours and paged through 90s fashion magazines featuring Chanel and Versace back before Donatella took over.

Just like the weather, I hope these days choose to stick around. I wouldn't mind a few more months of exactly this.


Chills down to my toes

Bacon reminds me of the mother of an ex-partner of mine.

I hadn't fathomed meeting her the way I did. I imagined I would hop off the plane, well-dressed and fresh-looking, and charm her with my sense of humour and dimpled smile (indulge me.) She'd like and approve of me and hopefully we would become friends. But traffic from Tallahassee to Tampa had been unusually brutal that day, with several accidents lining the highway. By the time my partner picked me up and we had dinner, stuffing ourselves stupid on ribs and pulled pork, fries and coleslaw -- it was late and everyone had gone to bed.

Instead we met while I was still groggy and disheveled, and looked anything but fresh. I put a brake on my neuroses and decided to just own it, crazy bedhead and all.

Her lean body was wrapped in a slinky, leopard-print robe and her straightened blonde hair lingered around her shoulders as she drank her black coffee. As I went to shake her hand, she hugged me. "We hug around here," she said, lips breaking into a loose grin, and in the time that I knew her she turned me into one, too. It seems ridiculous to associate greasy, nitrite-filled meat with one of the most elegant women I've ever met, but sparkling wine also reminds me of her, thanks to her penchant for drinking it routinely around the pool after dinner, so I suppose the two cancel each other out.

And the watermelon. Once, as we sat around the large dining table playing a game of Sequence, she breathed enthusiastically, "If I know there's a watermelon in the fridge, I will get up at 3am and eat all of it."

Where does the bacon come in, you might ask? No, don't go believing she was as much a bacon afficionado, the way she was watermelon, sparkling wine, peel and eat shrimp, and a bowl of warm, creamy grits. It was the manner in which she cooked it: flat, on a foil-lined baking sheet, in the oven. "Easy clean-up," she said to me one hot Plant City morning as we drank our coffee and put breakfast together. Not only was she lovely, as it turned out, but she was a mean cook. It's easy to clean up, certainly, but the bacon doesn't curl up the way it does in a greasy pan.

She taught me the value of letting a man win sometimes, which shells to search for and how to heal a jelly fish wound. And one day, as I expressed growing concerns over my inability to land employment, she glanced over at me and said, "I know," as sympathetic to my pains as my own mother. It was the verbal equivalent of a bear hug and the liquid equivalent of an Old Fashioned. I couldn't tell whether it was the sparkling wine going to my head or the comfort this woman so readily offered, but I felt lighter.

There is nothing particularly innovative about bacon, or watermelon, or sparkling wine, or wonderful women who slip into leopard-print robes to crack a few eggs into a hot pan or buy you a black, cowl-necked sweater because they thought it would "look so sexy on you." But I wondered how I might be as I got older, what habits I might adopt, what I might come to value. This was a woman who clipped up her hair as she waded in the ocean in search of specific shells without regard for the laws of beach combing, whose face lit up when she'd tasted something truly delicious, who kept a spare bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge when she left the Sunshine State so that when she'd return, she'd be able to promptly pour herself a glass and sit by the pool in the damp heat of the Florida night.

As Betsy, R.W. Apple Jr.'s wife allegedly said after biting into a slice of cherry pie, "I have chills down to my toes." It seems to me it chilled Johnny, too, since he included the snippet in the article. Reading it gave me chills down to my toes, made me want to dip the tines of a fork into the sweet filling and pull on the plump fruit, holding it on my tongue until the sweet-tart flavour seeped fully through my tastebuds. And like these women, I'd like to live a life that gives me chills down to my toes, that tastes so delicious I can only sigh and smile like I've gone to a heaven where the pool water is always warm and there's an abundant supply of chilled, sparkling wine, and ladies confess to leaving their warm beds in the middle of the night for sweet, red watermelon.

Baked Raisin Oatmeal with Bacon

Adapted from Bon Appetit and Sugar-Free Mom

6 strips of good-quality bacon
2 cups unsweetened applesauce, preferably homemade
2 large eggs
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup agave nectar or honey
1 tsp sea salt
3 tsp baking powder
5 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ripe banana, mashed
2 3/4 cup milk (I used unsweetened almond milk)
1/4 cup ground flaxseed/flaxseed meal
1 tsp real vanilla extract
1/2 lb raisins
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts (optional)
1/4 cup almond meal/ground almonds (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 350F.
2. Cook the bacon -- preferably in the oven!
3. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, agave nectar/honey, applesauce, banana, and vanilla. Mix well to combine.
4. Add the brown sugar, oats, sea salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and flaxseed. Mix thoroughly again to combine.
5. Finally, add the milk, raisins and walnuts. The mixture will be fairly loose.
6. Grease a 9 x 13" casserole dish and pour in the mixrture. When cooked and cool enough, crumble the bacon or chop into pieces and sprinkle over the top. Top with almond meal, if desired, and any additional raisins. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
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