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- Published on Amazon.com
In the past few years, I've regularly found myself at home with the cats while my husband goes on 10-day business trips. To keep myself sane, entertained, and fed, I've gotten in the habit of grabbing a "cooking for one" cookbook from the library, each time he goes away. Eventually, I figure, I'll find a recipe collection that suits every one of my solo-foodie needs. I like this book a lot, but it's not so wonderful that I'm going to keep it around.
The cookbook has an excellent pedigree. The two authors include Deborah Madison and her artist partner (husband? well, she mentions they've been together for 20 years). Madison is the author of several excellent cookbooks. Among them is Greens Cookbook, one of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks, which has earned many honorable food stains over the past 20 years. (This cookbook isn't vegetarian, but it's very vegetarian-friendly; you shouldn't be drawn to or frightened away in that regard.) So I feel that the recipes can all be _trusted_, and she has the gift of giving excellent instructions. There are 100 recipes, and they are all over the map, from "what to eat" ideas that are meant to be inspiration for when you just want to throw things together but didn't happen to think of THIS, to meals in which you go all-out for yourself.
The premise behind the entire book is that, over many years, Madison and McFarlin got in the habit of asking people, "What do you eat when you eat alone?" and keeping track of the answers. Some of the people they queried are well-known chefs, others ordinary folks like you-and-me, such as someone they met on a vacation. The authors categorize the answers by theme, write a whole bunch of interesting anecdotal analysis (such as how solo men and women eat differently), and then supply recipes for the most interesting answers, the dishes that you and I probably do want a little help with. So instead of "take some kale or spinach or whatever you have on hand and mix it with some Whatever," Madison gives you a tested recipe that helps you figure out how much kale-and-whatever you should buy at the store. Yet the laid-back descriptions are a reminder that you're cooking for yourself, after all, and if you want to throw in more garlic, who's gonna stop you?
For example, there's a chapter called "Saved by sardines, rescued by pasta," reflecting a relatively high use of tinned fish (my own solo-meal is likely to involve tuna), which Madison reassures us is a healthy choice with lots of Omega-3s, and -- more often by men -- pasta dishes with sauces made while you wait for the water to boil. She follows it up with recipes for sardines on toast; pickled onion rings; salmon cakes; tuna spread with capers; spaghetti with tuna and capers; green penne with potatoes and broccoli; spaghetti with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers; hungry man's pasta with arugula and almond pesto; and short pasta with cauliflower, pepper flakes, and parsley-walnut crumbs. As the list demonstrates, few of these could be described as exotic, and if you're an accomplished cook you can probably make the dish just from the descriptions. But I think the strength here is in "encouragement to stretch yourself a little" and "Hmm, that does sound like a good combination." Both of which are valuable.
A good chunk of the book is targeted at ME: a person who occasionally has the freedom to eat anything she darned well chooses, when the family is away. There's also a chapter at the end for meals you cook with a purpose, such as "What you cook for dinner when you aim to seduce your guest" (which I find more _interesting_ than anything else; for instance, plenty of people cook a hunk of meat or delicate fish, but seduction menus don't include chicken). But the authors also pay attention to people who live on their own all the time, including young folks who newly cooking for themselves (such as a college student who realizes that she doesn't exactly know how to roast a chicken, and then what to do with the leftovers). For these readers in particular, there are suggestions for how to cook a batch of something and then use it in different ways, and reassurance that you're perfectly normal if you just graze for a few days, then make up a big batch of Bolognese sauce for yourself. This is somewhat different from the "Let's cook a whole meal for one" premise (and recipes) in Cooking for One: A Seasonal Guide to the Pleasure of Preparing Delicious Meals for Yourself or Judith Jones' The Pleasures of Cooking for One. But in the long term it might be more realistic. I think it's just a matter of what you want, and how you prefer to cook.
There were a few things that sounded very good to me in this book, such as the aforementioned salmon cakes, "polenta with corn, scallions, and sauteed shrimp," and "exotic rice pudding on demand." But none of them made me say aloud, "Oh I gotta make THAT," and as it turned out I never did any cooking on my husband's last trip (I was traveling too).
Bottom line: I really liked reading this book, and if you cook for yourself even randomly, I think you'll enjoy it too. But it may spend more time in the living room than in the kitchen -- which is just fine with me.