I have always happily cooked for myself. Partnerless for twenty years now, I've become a very creative cook for one at home. With my dog Beau, and my cat Bit, keeping me company, I am often confronting my refrigerator with the question, "what am I having for dinner tonight?" There are 31 million of us according to Joe Yonan, the highly personable and creative food and travel editor of The Washington Post. He provides plenty of solo dining inspirations in SERVE YOURSELF: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One (Ten Speed Press; $22.00; ISBN: 978-1-58008513-7). Here is a cookbook that is loaded with creative, doable, fun, and flavorful food that we crave today.
Handsome, charismatic, and adored by many in the food world, Joe Yonan (with the help of his deputy Bonnie Benwick) oversees one of the most imaginative food sections of a major daily newspaper in the country. It was Ms. Benwick who urged her single boss to write the "Cooking For One," column, which has become a popular feature in the newspaper.
Like all smart cooks, Joe Yonan likes to keep his refrigerator and pantry shelves fully stocked. "As a single cook, why do I have so much food," he writes early on in SERVE YOURSELF? "I'm a zealot about the fact that if you're fully stocked, making something quick a the end of a long workday is that much easier." He is so right. Most people who when faced with cooking for themselves, don't face it at all. They resort to expensive and not-always-healthy take-out options, or go out to restaurants, sitting solo miserably by themselves (astonishing to me, as I love to eat alone), or stare at the empty spaces in their fridges and cupboards. Instead of another night in front of the TV with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, it's time to get real about all the good eating possibilities that could be right in front of you.
SERVE YOURSELF is divided into interesting chapters. Basic Recipes, Condiments and Pickles covers salad dressings, salsas and jams. Yonan's recipe for Blueberry Lemon Jam takes advantage of the current blueberry market and is a surprisingly easy recipe. Too ambitious? Cilantro Vinaigrette is a snap to make and last three weeks in your refrigerators and can be used in "all manner of salads, plus avocados, tomatoes, green beans, even cold rice." And Citrus-Pickled Onions are a great condiment for sandwiches, burgers, dogs, salads, or brightening up a taco and a million other dishes. There is a really good egg chapter here with a swooningly-good Shrimp and Potato Chip Tortilla worthy of your attention. A chapter on Sweet Potatoes, Beans, and Other Veggies showcases Yonan's Texas upbringing. Peasant's Bowl, is a soulfully addictive vegetarian of cheese, brown rice, black beans, tomatoes, scallions, shallots, garlic, ground cumin, chill and oregano, all zipped up with a few dashes of hot pepper sauce. After eating this, you'll never touch a bowl of cereal for dinner again. And an Ex-Texas Salad is a riff on a dish his mother made for the family. It's got romaine lettuce, black beans, a scallion, crumbled feta cheese, tomatoes, a crispy bits of corn tortilla, all dressed in his Cilantro Vinaigrette.
Many of the recipes in SERVE YOURSELF can be used with other recipes. So in the meat chapter, a Texas Bowl O' Red can be enjoyed by itself, or incorporated in Chili Cheese Enchiladas, a zesty exercise in flavorful simplicity. The zip in Spicy Glazed Mini-Meatloaf comes from Yonan's Blackened Salsa, which can also be spooned over grilled pork chops or steak, in addition to tasting great with tortilla chips to get the appetite for dinner started. Two standout chicken dishes are must-trys: Roast Chicken Leg with Gremolata and Sunchokes and Wine-Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Prunes and Almonds, put dark meat (my preference) in the center of the plate for a change. Sticking close to his Texas roots, Yonan presents an entire chapter devoted to tacos, from Austin-Style Breakfast Tacos and Tacos with Mushroom and Chile-Caramelized Onions to Korean Short Rib Tacos. Yonan also presents worthy chapters on pizza, sandwiches, rice, grains and pasta, and finally dessert (I liked his version of his mom's No-Bake Chocolate Oat Cookies and the Cappuccino Tapioca Pudding with Cardamom Brulee is a much simpler to make than its rather formal title suggests).
The recipe I'm reprinting here is Personal Paella with Squid and Scallions, which I think rightfully belongs on the cover of SERVE YOURSELF. I love squid and rice and this recipe is utter simplicity--not too many ingredients to overwhelm the flavor of the squid and it is just the sort of thing I want to make on a Friday night after a long work week. Break out a bottle of Albarino (my favorite Spanish white wine), or a crisp rose and start cooking. Invite a friend over to share. Or not--hours later those leftovers taste mighty good right from the refrigerator.
Scattered throughout this charming book are thoughtful essays, some new and some previously published. There is one on dining alone when traveling. Yonan draws us into the world of the iconic, Texas dish, chicken fried steak (taught to him by his stepfather) and makes you want to eat it right now. He tackles his conviction of farm-to-table experience by killing a chicken for his dinner (better him than me). And in a remarkably frank closing essay, Yonan explores his own past cooking for two.
I liked Yonan's sage advice on storing and using extra ingredients (often a deal-breaker for solo cooks). And there are lots of advice and tips sections highlighted in yellow for easy reference. A few years ago cookbook writer, Deborah Madison, wrote a charmingly funny book called What We Eat When We Eat Alone and revealed some of the appalling things we consume when we think nobody is looking. While providing plenty of options for delicious eating, Joe Yonan says "you don't have to resort to takeout just because you live alone. You can keep the right (delicious) foods in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, learn how to shop with an eye for ingredients that support a single cook's lifestyle; and cook without worry about satisfying anyone's hankerings but your own. After all, if you don't feed yourself well, who will?
Indeed! Set the table. Pour a glass of wine. Fire up the stove and begin your own nightly ritual. SERVE YOURSELF.
Personal Paella with Squid and Scallions
1 cup seafood stock or clam juice
Small pinch of crumbled saffron
1/4 teaspoon pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
4 to 5 ounces cleaned squid, bodies cut into
1/4-inch rings and tentacles halved lengthwise
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup Arborio, Bomba, or other short-grain rice
4 large cherry tomatoes, quartered
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Combine the seafood stock, saffron, and pimenton in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer; reduce the heat to very low and cover.
Lightly season the squid with salt and pepper. In an 8-inch cast-iron or other heavy skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the squid and cook, stirring frequently, just until the squid lose any translucence and exude their juices, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer the squid to a plate and decrease the heat to medium. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil, then the red pepper flakes, scallions, and garlic and sauté until the scallion starts to soften, another 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the rice and cook until the grains are well coated with the pan mixture, 1 minute.
Pour in the hot broth and bring to a gentle boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste, then let it continue to gently bubble, swirling the pan occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the rice has swelled and absorbed much of the liquid; it should still be slightly soupy.
Stir in the squid and tomatoes. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the rice is al dente, or mostly tender but with a little resistance in the center.
Remove the pan from the oven, cover with a lid or aluminum foil, and let it sit for about 5 minutes, until the rice is tender. Uncover and return it to the
stovetop over medium-high heat and cook for about 2 more minutes, to brown the bottom of the rice.
Spoon it out onto a plate, and eat, Don’t worry if it sticks. Just scrape it up and know that this is what the Spanish call soccarat, the crispy pieces that are considered a sign of a great paella.