After a lifetime of cooking for a family, consider recipes for one or two

How you cook and how you eat go through many changes in the course of a lifetime.

As a teenager, you gobbled up a mountain of home cooking and were hungry again an hour later. Still, you kept your svelte frame.

As a young adult, you learned to cook for yourself. Or find someone to do it for you.

As a spouse and parent, you figured out how to prepare food for a family. And how to battle the creeping bulge by eating more healthfully yourself. When you hit your 50s, you just couldn't eat the way you used to. And, darn it, if there weren't health issues that forced the limitation of salt and fat. Quantities became smaller, too. Now, as an empty nester or newly single person, the rules have changed again, but, for many people, cooking for one, or even two, just isn't as fun.

There's something about making that big mess in the kitchen that doesn't have the payoff when the diner is me, myself and I. Perhaps you never really liked to cook anyway and now that the kids are gone, you don't feel you have to.

But you've got to eat, and nibbling badly isn't a good option. Nutrition is just as important to physical and mental well-being as we age as it is for a growing child. Nutritious food keeps us sharp and can increase resistance to illness and disease. For some, proper diet helps manage weight, which can keep the need for some medications at bay.

In short, a decent diet makes us feel better. That decent diet starts in your own kitchen.

LESSON NO. 1: SHARING IS CARING

Share what you cook with friends or start a cooking club with a fellow single cooks and rotate duties during the week.

Mary Ann Wesney cooked nearly all her life. She grew up in a family of 10, then went on to marry and raise four children. She made dinner every night and worked, too, as a registered nurse for a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. Pasta and CrockPot meals were in heavy rotation, along with anything else "quick and easy."

"We never ate out," says Wesney, 66 and living in a condo at Isla Del Sol in southern Pinellas County. The children, all in their 40s now, are on their own; Wesney's husband passed away three years ago.

But she is still cooking. She eats three meals a day — though less bread and fried foods than when she was younger — and hasn't scaled back much on what she prepares. Some things, like her favorite stuffed cabbage rolls, are hard to make in small amounts. "You can't just make a few of those," she says.

Wesney has found a way to fuel her love of cooking even though she's now a party of one. Her friends at Isla Del Sol are regular recipients of the fruits of her labor. If she's making a pot of soup, she'll divide the bounty among a few people. If she sees some friends by the pool, she'll invite them for dinner. And she freezes food for another day.

On those nights when it's just her, she sits down to a good dinner with a good book. Or sets up a TV tray in the bedroom off the kitchen — "the coziest room in the house" — and eats by the light of the TV news.

LESSON NO. 2: YES, YOU'RE WORTH IT

Look at downsized cooking as an opportunity to prepare and try new foods that have always intrigued you but your family wouldn't eat. Goat cheese and fig salad, anyone?

Legendary Knopf editor Judith Jones — she worked with Julia Child and James Beard — knows something about the joys of single servings. Her recent book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, tells the story of how she was unsure she would ever want to cook again after her husband died in 1996. She found, though, that cooking was a way to honor her husband, and something that they loved to do together: eat.

Pleasures is a book for experienced cooks with sophisticated tastes, though anyone can take away a few tips from Jones. More than recipes, the lessons here are about thinking enough of yourself to bake a piece of chicken or make a small casserole rather than ripping into a TV dinner.

In the book's introduction, Jones tries to head off the criticism at the pass. She knows that some readers will say cooking for one is too much trouble and too expensive. And the leftovers, who wants a freezer packed with individual portions of chili?

Jones suggests you look at it this way: After an entire adulthood of cooking for others, you have only yourself to please. In one way, that's very freeing.

"There's no need to be a perfectionist, trying to win applause from your guests. If a sauce curdles, you'll eat it anyway. And you'll learn from your mistakes," she writes.

LESSON NO. 3: A LIFETIME COOK

You don't have to cook seven nights a week to eat well. Cook two dishes and have leftovers for a couple of meals. Lunch at a restaurant could result in a to-go container fit for dinner. Maybe you're eating at church one night or a family member invites you over.

Margaret Pruitt of St. Petersburg has been a cookie baker since she was a young girl. And at 88 she still bakes birthday cakes for friends and family — her own and her extended family at First United Methodist Church.

As a wife and mother of two daughters, she cooked dinner every night. Pork chops with creole sauce. Sweet and sour pork. Chicken breasts wrapped in bacon. And then there's the Columbia restaurant bean soup. She has been making it for about 50 years, having gotten the recipe from a place mat at the original Ybor City restaurant.

Her daughters have been on their own for decades and her husband passed away five years ago. Pruitt is still cooking though. Maybe not as often, but just as much. Rather than scale down recipes, she makes the full amount. She gives some away, invites people over or eats leftovers.

She's not too keen on Judith Jones' notion of making single servings, especially since she has a soft spot for the hundreds of recipes tucked here and there. "Sometimes when you change the amounts, they don't work out," Pruitt says. So she roasts an entire chicken or prepares soup that serves eight.

Oh, she has got plenty of friends that have given up on their pots and pans, and eat their meals from a microwaved box. But frozen dinners aren't the same as a home-cooked meal, in taste or nutrition.

"You don't eat very well when you eat like that," she says.

• • •

The truth is, if you hated to cook when you had family at home, you may not enjoy it much as a single person. But if you did enjoy it, don't give up because of all that fuss for a single portion. Plenty of recipes serve two or four. Just enough for a good meal, and then some.

Times lifestyles editor Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes or (727) 893-8586.

FOR BRIDGE CLUB

Crunchy Chicken Salad

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 1/2 teaspoons honey

3/4 teaspoon snipped fresh dill
or 1/4 teaspoon dried

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cubed, cooked chicken breast

3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup chopped, peeled apple

1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted

Mix mayonnaise, honey, dill, Dijon and salt and pepper. Add 2 cups chicken, cheese and apple. Mix well. Stir in pecans.

Serve on bread, or with crackers or on
a bed of lettuce.

Serves 4.

Source: allrecipes.com

Some tips for
downsized cooking

• Buy smaller containers of food such as milk, sour cream and cottage cheese to avoid spoilage. Also, buy fruits and vegetables in small amounts. Two bananas and one each of apple and pear, plus a pint of strawberries, can see you through the week. Eat the bananas and berries first; the others keep longer.

• When you get home from the store, break up packages of meat into smaller servings. Wrap well and use a Sharpie to identify and date packages.

• Buying in bulk doesn't always mean huge quantities. Whole foods stores sell small amounts of spices, and olive bars allow you to purchase just a spoonful. Same with deli meats and cheeses.

• Most savory recipes can be cut in half, which isn't necessarily true for baked goods. Tinkering with the "formulas" for cakes, breads and cookies can throw off the balance.

• When making pasta or rice, make enough for 4. Eat what you want and freeze the rest, and you're on your way to another meal.

• Use a toaster oven instead of the oven when you can. It doesn't use as much energy, nor does it heat up the kitchen during a Florida summer.

• Avoid recipes that make more than 4 servings unless you really want to eat them for a while or are giving some away.

• Invite a few friends to form a cooking club and share meals throughout the week.

Handy cookbooks

EatingWell Serves Two: 150 Healthy in a Hurry Suppers by Jim Romanoff and EatingWell magazine (Countryman, 2006, $24.95)

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones (Knopf, 2009, $27.95)

Cooking for Two: 2010, the Year's Best Recipes Cut Down to Size by America's Test Kitchen (Boston Common Press, $35)

Rachael Ray 2, 4, 6, 8: Great Meals for Couples or Crowds by Rachael Ray (Clarkson Potter, 2006, $19.95)

COOKING FOR TWO

Bacon-Wrapped Chicken

4 bacon strips

2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt

2 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies, drained

2 garlic cloves, minced

In a skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until cooked but not crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain; keep warm. Pound and flatten chicken to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle chicken breasts with seasoned salt. In a bowl, combine the cream cheese, chilies and garlic. Spread half of the mixture on each chicken breast. Roll up chicken and wrap with two bacon strips; secure with toothpicks.

Place chicken, seam side down, in a greased, shallow 4 1/2-cup baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Cover and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer or until chicken juices run clear. Discard toothpicks.

Note: Buy a 4-ounce package of cream cheese rather than an 8-ounce bar
if you are worried about spoilage. Use
the remainder on toasted bagels during the week.

Serves 2.

Source: allrecipes.com

FAMILY'S COMING

Sweet and Sour Pork, right

1 pound bulk sausage

1 medium onion, diced

1 large green or red pepper, large dice

1 (20-ounce) can pineapple chunks, drained

1 1/2 cup ketchup

2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 to 2/3 cup scallions, sliced and green part only

3 to 5 dashes favorite hot sauce

Cooked white rice for serving

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown and crumble sausage. As sausage is browning (it will take about 15 minutes), add diced onion and pepper. Cook until slightly tender and sausage is no longer pink. Add drained pineapple with ketchup, sugar and garlic. Once well blended, add remaining ingredients. Heat 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste. Serve over warm rice.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Margaret Pruitt, St. Petersburg

Note: This recipe was given to Margaret Pruitt years ago and is one of her kitchen staples. It was from a Bob Evans restaurant recipe card. For the sausage, she uses reduced-fat Jimmy Dean sausage.

COOKING FOR ONE

A Potato Dish for Julia, (on today's cover)

2 medium new potatoes

1 small garlic clove

Salt

4 teaspoons butter, divided use

Freshly ground pepper

Peel the potatoes, and slice them very thin. Peel and mince garlic. With the flat of your chef's knife, mash with a little salt until it is a paste. Work a little butter into it. Heat 2 teaspoons of the butter in your small frying pan over medium-low heat, and lay in half the potato slices, overlapping slightly, to fill the bottom of pan. Salt and pepper them lightly, and smear the garlic paste on top. Add the remaining layer of potatoes, and cook gently, setting a small cover askew atop the pan. After about 8 minutes, turn the potatoes, which should be brown on the bottom, by setting a small, sturdy plate on top of the pan and flipping potatoes over and onto the plate. They won't hold together perfectly, but don't worry. After heating the remaining butter in the pan, slide the potatoes back in and arrange as neatly as you can. Let cook, semi-covered, for about 5 minutes, and uncovered for a few more minutes, at which point they should be done and browned, top and bottom. Serve with a juicy meat, or perhaps a fried egg.

Serves 1.

Source: Judith Jones' The Pleasures of Cooking for One (Knopf)

After a lifetime of cooking for a family, consider recipes for one or two 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 2:47pm]

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