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'What We Eat When We Eat Alone,' 'The Pleasure Is All Mine' show solo dining can be more than a sandwich over the kitchen sink

WASHINGTON — To some, the idea of cooking for one sounds hopelessly dreary. After all, aren't the pleasures of the table best shared?

Of course. Food can be a beautifully communal experience. But it also should be gloriously self-sustaining, and to treat the topic of solo cooking as a mere practical dilemma can mean missing out on the freedom and satisfaction it can bring.

Two new books attempt to change perceptions and to remind people that sooner or later, whether it's for one night or longer, we all eat alone.

Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's What We Eat When We Eat Alone (Gibbs Smith, $24.99) is a delightful stream-of-consciousness romp through the highlights of research they compiled about the solo-dining habits of friends and strangers.

Madison, the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco and the author of 10 cookbooks, took a departure with this one, illustrated by McFarlin, her husband. "I tell people, 'Well, this book doesn't have too many redeeming qualities,' " she said with characteristic modesty in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico. "It's not about being sustainable, organic, local or anything. It's just about people, and what we do."

What could be more redeeming than that? Built around McFarlin's whimsical artwork, the book explores the intensely personal and sometimes bizarre (saltines crumbled in milk, leftover spaghetti sandwich), the practical (linguini dressed with the oil from a tin of smoked oysters) and the possibly brilliant (eggs with crunchy bread crumbs). Rather than try to organize them in menu-type format, Madison let the mountain of collected stories divide into patterns: the different habits of solo cooks depending on gender, age and situation.

When it comes to solo eating, "nothing is predictable," Madison says. "All the rules get broken. It doesn't matter how much we know about food, how to cook, what's good for us, healthy eating, all that kind of stuff we hear about all the time so endlessly. People go into the kitchen and they cook something that doesn't have anything to do with that, mostly. It might have to do with a kind of sentiment or with pure ease. People revert to foods that are family foods or their own particular tastes that aren't necessarily shareable. So there's this great surprise."

Madison says she didn't intend to write a cookbook, but though it's nothing like her acclaimed Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or The Greens Cookbook, it does include 100 recipes, interpreted through Madison's unerring palate and sense of the way people want to cook. The recipes have an off-the-cuff feel; specific amounts are given in some cases, but some recipes also include "a handful of salad greens" or "potatoes, as many as you want to eat in a sitting, any kind."

Suzanne Pirret takes the same approach in her tongue-in-cheek book, The Pleasure Is All Mine: Selfish Food for Modern Life (William Morrow, $24.99). Pirret's message is clear from the introduction's second paragraph: "To be perfectly honest, some of my best meals have been eaten on my own and some of my worst with other people."

A classically trained actor, voice-over artist and former restaurant cook, Pirret says the book's satirical quality has been better appreciated in Britain. "In America, interviewers have asked, 'Do you really wear dresses and heels like you do on the cover of the book when you cook for yourself?' " she said in a phone interview from her London home. "And I say, 'Of course. Every night.' "

Pirret's hilarious recipe headnotes, fictional interludes and essays are worth the price of the book even if you don't make a single dish. Take Steak au Poivre With Fries: "This is my death row dish — all I'd want before my big sendoff. The recipe is choreographed so that your fries will be in sync with your steak. Because, if my steak was cold and my fries were soggy, I'd just go straight to the chair. Eat (well) or die, as they say. Or in this case, eat well; then die."

Some recipes are intoxicatingly indulgent (sea urchin risotto, pasta alla bottarga); some entail quantities better suited to two or more (fried chicken), and others are perhaps more involved than most solo cooks will likely be up for (raisin bread gnocchetti with cream of peas and fresh goat cheese). But in many ways, that's Pirret's point: Cooking for yourself doesn't need to be about self-deprivation or about you're-not-worth-anything-better recipes.

Pirret technically isn't single. "I have a lover," she says. But that, too, is part of the point; just because she is in a relationship doesn't mean she can't, or doesn't, need to feed herself.

"I treasure my solitude," she writes. "My privacy. To prepare an exquisite meal for myself — even if it's a plate of cheeses and charcuterie — is peaceful bliss. Of course, it'd be with a hunk of fresh Poilane, a handful of cornichons, a few spoonfuls of an interesting chutney, and a nice little tumbler of chilled Brouilly, but it's beautiful. Because in the end, it's only a meal."

If that's not something you can relate to, single or not, more's the pity.

. MODERATE

General Tsao's Chicken

6 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast or chicken tenderloins, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

Dash ground white pepper

1 large egg white, beaten

4 teaspoons cornstarch, divided use

1/2 teaspoon water

1 medium clove garlic, finely chopped (about 1 teaspoon)

1-inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated (about 1 teaspoon)

1/2 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, or more to taste

1/4 cup homemade or low-sodium chicken broth

Peanut oil, for frying

1 scallion, white and light-green parts, cut into thin slices on the diagonal

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Combine the chicken, soy sauce, white pepper, egg white and 3 teaspoons of the cornstarch in a small bowl; stir until the mixture clumps together.

Use a fork to whisk together the remaining teaspoon of cornstarch and the water in a liquid measuring cup to form a paste. Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, vinegar and chicken broth; mix well to form a sauce. Taste and add sugar and/or vinegar as needed.

Heat enough of the oil to measure 1/2 inch deep in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Add the chicken to the skillet or wok in a single layer and stir-fry, scraping it from the bottom to keep the chicken from sticking. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until the chicken is golden and crisped. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to transfer it to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Pour out all but 1 teaspoon of the oil, then return the skillet or wok to medium-high heat.

Add the scallion and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the sauce and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture thickens.

Return the chicken to skillet or wok, stirring to heat through and coat with the sauce. Eat hot over rice.

Nutritional information per serving (using low-sodium chicken broth): 342 calories, 44g protein, 18g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 2g saturated fat, 99mg cholesterol, 522mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber, 5g sugar

Source: Adapted from Suzanne Pirret's The Pleasure Is All Mine (William Morrow, 2009).

. EASY

Pasta With Spicy Cauliflower and Walnuts

1 1/2 cups (about 5 ounces) cauliflower florets, broken or cut into 1-inch pieces

2 ounces dried whole-wheat pasta, such as penne or rigatoni

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste

Leaves from 2 to 4 stems of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

1 large clove garlic, minced (1 1/4 teaspoons)

1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the cauliflower and cook for about 2 minutes or until it is just starting to become tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer it to a bowl, then add the pasta to the boiling water. Cook until the pasta is just al dente (according to the package directions).

While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and cook for about a minute, then add the parsley, garlic, walnuts and the blanched cauliflower; stir to combine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to low to keep the mixture warm.

When the pasta is ready, use a slotted spoon to add it to the skillet, then toss to incorporate. Taste, and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with the cheese once the portion is plated.

Note: Author Deborah Madison calls for a range of amounts: 1/4 to 1/2 a head of cauliflower, "as much as you want to eat, by eye;" 2 to 4 ounces of pasta; a handful of parsley leaves; and the like. More exact amounts are given here, but adjust according to taste. After all, you have only yourself to please.

Nutritional information per serving: 601 calories, 21g protein, 54g carbohydrates, 38g fat, 5g saturated fat, 9mg cholesterol, 478mg sodium, 12g dietary fiber, 4g sugar.

Source: Adapted from What We Eat When We Eat Alone, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith, 2009).

>>moderate

General Tsao's Chicken

6 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast or chicken tenderloins, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

Dash ground white pepper

1 large egg white, beaten

4 teaspoons cornstarch, divided use

1/2 teaspoon water

1 medium clove garlic, finely chopped (about 1 teaspoon)

1-inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated (about 1 teaspoon)

1/2 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, or more to taste

1/4 cup homemade or low-sodium chicken broth

Peanut oil, for frying

1 scallion, white and light-green parts, cut into thin slices on the diagonal

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Combine the chicken, soy sauce, white pepper, egg white and 3 teaspoons of the cornstarch in a small bowl; stir until the mixture clumps together.

Use a fork to whisk together the remaining teaspoon of cornstarch and the water in a liquid measuring cup to form a paste. Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, vinegar and chicken broth; mix well to form a sauce. Taste and add sugar and/or vinegar as needed.

Heat enough of the oil to measure 1/2 inch deep in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Add the chicken to the skillet or wok in a single layer and stir-fry, scraping it from the bottom to keep the chicken from sticking. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until the chicken is golden and crisped. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to transfer it to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Pour out all but 1 teaspoon of the oil, then return the skillet or wok to medium-high heat.

Add the scallion and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the sauce and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture thickens.

Return the chicken to skillet or wok, stirring to heat through and coat with the sauce. Eat hot over rice.

Nutritional information per serving (using low-sodium chicken broth): 342 calories, 44g protein, 18g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 2g saturated fat, 99mg cholesterol, 522mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber, 5g sugar.

Source: Adapted from Suzanne Pirret's The Pleasure Is All Mine (William Morrow, 2009)

'What We Eat When We Eat Alone,' 'The Pleasure Is All Mine' show solo dining can be more than a sandwich over the kitchen sink 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 4:30am]

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