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THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR EIGHTY

What would it be like, I wondered, to cook for eighty hungry people, particularly for someone like me who is used to cooking for one. So I decided to try it and last Saturday I joined forces with the seasoned crew at Holy Trinity Church in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, who prepare a supper every week for anyone who is in need of a warm, nourishing meal.

Usually between eighty and a hundred people show up and the kitchen crew has to be ready to serve by 5:15 with the tables nicely set. The schedule is tight because the premises are given over to the Trinity Thrift Shop that same day and there are stacks and hangers full of secondhand clothing spread out all over the ample basement with last minute purchases being toted up. Then suddenly it’s time to clean up the clutter and transform the space into an orderly dining hall before the doors open and the hungry, lined up outside, descend. But this moment of tension only lends to the drama. And that’s always part of the fun when you are giving a dinner party.

Meanwhile, we the sous-chefs have been busy doing the prep work, slicing the baguettes and boules from six large sacks of crusty breads (made even crustier because they are yesterday’s loaves) that Eli’s has donated. That’s a lot of bread. But just when I start to ache I remember Julia Child’s characteristic remark when someone complained about beating the egg whites by hand: “Nonsense. It’s good for the upper arm muscles.”

Suddenly as we are finishing up, about a dozen teenagers descend the basement stairs and are introduced by our pastor as new helpers. It seems that they are from a Staten Island high school and that they wanted to do something helpful so they Googled soup kitchens and read about Holy Trinity’s program. They immediately throw themselves into the work, quickly clearing out the dining room, arranging the long tables, covering them in sheets of white paper to simulate linen table cloths, and setting places with real cutlery—no plastic knives and forks for the HTC guests.

As I look around the busy kitchen, I realize that the unassuming Bob Noorsesion, whom I’ve just met, is secretly the maitre de cuisine here, as though he had been born to the task. He doesn’t give orders; he just performs, gracefully and efficiently. It’s as though he had a timer in the back of his head, and we fall into step, taking up the choreography as we fill big baking trays with commercially prepared breaded chicken breasts, which he pops into the hot oven and automatically clocks. At the same time he tends to the frozen vegetable mix that goes into one of the huge pots of boiling water on the large restaurant stove and to the pasta which he shovels into another pot. When his automatic clock goes off, he hoists the pot (which I couldn’t have lifted without a crane) from stove to sink and drains the chunks of pasta, then tends to the veggies.

At last a cook’s task falls to me when the bowl of steaming pasta is put on the table. I get to toss it with butter and season it with salt and pepper until the balance is right. Fortunately as part of our bread service, we had peeled the foil wrappers from masses of those little pats of butter that restaurants serve so there is a huge pile of butter pats waiting to be tossed in and absorbed (Julia would have approved of that!).

Even the dishing up, arranging the food on real plates with a dollop of tomato sauce on top, is done with care. Just before everyone dives in, Lydia Colon gives the guests a touching welcome. As a seasoned hostess of this kind of neighborhood service, she has learned how to handle the sly ones who try to stuff their pockets with sweets. The Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, just below 86th Street, always sends a dazzling array of beautifully wrought cakes to the suppers, and evidently if we’re not careful they’ll disappear before everyone gets a fair share. But Lydia knows how to fox them: she has the cakes artfully cut up in the kitchen, each slice containing one of the enchanting flowers sculpted with the different color icings and these portions are served with the dinner so that no one can say “I didn’t get my piece of cake.”

Anyway, the night that I am here, there is plenty to eat and second helpings to go around. Of course, there are a few complaints from some about what they can and can’t eat but there is a good feeling all around and, as I pour coffee at the tables, I feel the warmth and the appreciation. These people are our guests and they are glad to be at our table. There is even one table made up only of women, who seem to come regularly less out of a need for food than for the company.

A part of me wishes that we had really cooked the food we are offering. But then I thought of what that would entail: probably forty pounds of meat to make enough for a beef stew that would satisfy these appetites, to say nothing of all the prep work and careful tending involved in cooking up a really good boeuf bourguignon. We’d have to chop up enough onions to rival the pile that Meryl Streep produces in Julie and Julia. And think of all the big skillets needed for braising the onions and mushrooms separately to get a good glaze. No, I am enough of a realist to reluctantly bury that fantasy. But I do learn that by early summer the HTC kitchen gets fresh vegetables from the Community Supported Agriculture group that supplies garden produce as it comes into season. So I’ll be back to peel the carrots and wash the greens.

Meanwhile I cherish what one of the old regulars said to me as I poured him a second cup of coffee, and the look on his face as he said it: “Thank you, sweetheart, for bringing the sunshine.”

The Pleasures of a Plate-Licker

There’s nothing like having a dog around when you’re cooking. He (or she) is always there to catch whatever morsels you may drop, to show his appreciation with a lick of the tongue, and to relieve you of the job of scraping and rinsing all the dishes before they go into the dishwasher. That pre-rinse is particularly appreciated when you’ve given a dinner party and had to play chef and chief bottle-washer, to say nothing of hostess, all at the same time.

It’s more than a year now since my Corgle (short for Corgi-Beagle) Prince Madoc died of old age and I still miss him every time I come home. As I headed for the kitchen he would be several steps ahead of me. If I put down a plate that had a mishmash of leavings (never my plate!), he would always maneuver his long tongue around it to separate the meat scraps and juices from the veggies. When he’d consumed the good stuff, he would look up longingly, hoping there was just a little more to come. Then he would return to the plate for a final lick after I’d put it in the dishwasher just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

Madoc 

I would often speak French to him because it was a good way to practice my langue de cuisine. I liked the fact that he never talked back, correcting my accent and grammar. And I could tell that he loved the expressive lilt of spoken French.

Some months after Madoc was gone, I tried to get a small dog from a rescue shelter in Long Island and I foolishly picked a very forlorn little creature, naming him Precious as I snuggled him in my arms and took him home. But I should have been suspicious when I gave him his first bowl of food and he hardly touched it. It developed that he had been so abused that he couldn’t trust human beings, and in the ensuing days, though he gingerly ate a little more, nothing really worked, neither love nor good food, and I had to face the painful lesson that he was as unhappy as I was. So Precious had to be returned.

Now I am looking again and I’m a little wiser. I realize that the refusal to eat is a profound sign of distress in a dog. Moreover, it’s a handicap to humane training methods because how can you use a treat to give a command or reward a fellow when the lure isn’t tempting?

I’ve often wished I could take a dog to Paris with me. I love the way the French treat their dogs, taking them everywhere, letting them run free in the parks and treating them to lunch at a neighborhood bistro, where the chef is likely to send out a little bowl of something delicious pour le chien settled under the table. I am told that the French are considerably less indulgent these days than they used to be, but they are still more civilized than we are. You can see it in a dog’s cocky stride as he accompanies his family shopping in the busy outdoor markets of Paris.

When I was about nine years old, my parents agreed to let me have my first dog. I had been begging for one and they finally gave in when they thought I was old enough to take care of the creature myself. That meant not just walking her but cooking for her because in those pre-World War II days canned and dried dog foods couldn’t be found in your local grocery. So when we brought a Scotty named Sally MacGregor back from Vermont, she settled happily into New York life—primarily, I liked to think, because she loved my cooking.

I certainly loved cooking for MacGregor. It was my first experience alone at the stove and I could do what I wanted, cooking up chopped meat with whatever leftover tidbits I could find. She particularly loved liver and bacon (perhaps that’s where I got my early start appreciating organ meats).

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a delightful piece some years ago for Vogue describing his moment of revelation as he was grilling fat sausages for himself over an oak and mesquite fire, and his companion, Sky King, a young male Golden Retriever, looked on. After he had been given his bowl of dog food, “Sky King’s look was eloquent,” Jeffrey wrote. “‘I know that you are a fair-minded human,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and that you have only my best interests at heart. But are you absolutely sure that I should be eating this pile of dead and desiccated pellets while you experience the feral delights of flesh? Who’s the carnivore here anyway?’”

It was a turning point and from then on Jeffrey dedicated himself to preparing such delicious and healthful dinners as Roasted Marrow Bones for his canine friend. He talked with French chefs and, of course, got a positive response (and more recipes), but most of the vets and dog food company spokesmen he consulted worried that Sky would not be getting a “complete and balanced” diet.

But Sky is doing well and Jeffrey is doing well and I think I will join them in practicing what’s-good-for-me-must-be-good-for-my-dog as soon as I find the perfect hungry creature, just little enough so I can tuck him or her under the seat when we fly off to Paris.

ERRATA

The bane of every food writer’s existence is the careless mistakes we can make: mistyping the amount of an ingredient or a detail in the directions, thereby sending out to trusting readers a flawed recipe. It happens all too often.

After my book The Pleasures of Cooking for One had gone to print, I discovered to my horror two such mistakes in it. The first disturbing revelation occurred when I was describing to a friend the flavor of the Sauce Gribiche that I love as “mustardy and pickly,” and she looked at the recipe and said, “But there’s no mustard in it.” She was right—it didn’t cut the mustard!

Then recently I had a letter from a former rector of the church I have been a member of for many, many years here in New York. He is now living in a retirement community in Ohio and was enjoying a copy of my book. In fact, he said he was cooking his way through it à la Julie with considerable success. BUT he met his Waterloo over Blanquette de Veau. Not enough liquid, so what there was boiled away and left the veal dry and stringy. With trepidation I looked up the ingredients listed in the setting copy, hoping it was the printer who had been at fault. No such luck: I had called for only ¼ cup broth, when clearly I had intended 1 ¼ cups.

Usually a sharp-eyed copyeditor can catch most errors, but in both these instances the omissions were hard to spot. There was no reason than anyone would know that the Gribiche had ½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard in it (except for me—after all I wrote the recipe and have made it dozens of times) and you’re not going to know that the blanquette needed that extra 1 cup broth until you see that the pan has almost dried out.

Fortunately, the errors have been corrected now in subsequent reprints, and I hope those who have early books will find this blog and make the changes. Meanwhile I am consumed with guilt over my pastor’s dried-out veal. I console myself that it at least put us in touch again (food has a way of doing that) and that he revealed himself as an instinctive cook by adding more broth, even if it wasn’t quite enough and a little too late.

What is important is for the author to come clean and confess to the mistake and then for the publisher to correct it. In the old days errata slips were sometimes tucked into copies in the bookstore but in this automated age that is hard to do. And many publishers would rather not be embarrassed by admitting errors. With good reason. Years ago, when Craig Claiborne was the food editor at The New York Times, I persuaded him to do a cookbook for beginners, which we called A Kitchen Primer. Alas, the first printing contained about a dozen errors. As soon as they were discovered we printed one of those errata slips and they were inserted into the books. The Primer was very successful and was nominated as one of the best books of the year by what we then called the Mustard Awards (this was before the days of the James Beard Foundation and the IACP cookbook awards and the modest ceremony was sponsored by French’s mustard). But when the company discovered those errata slips they withdrew Craig’s name and he was disqualified—for being honest.

It isn’t just cookbook writers, of course, who suffer the humiliation of errata. Mysterious things can happen to any writer’s work—usually beyond his control and often without his knowledge. For years every edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems contained a slip of the printer’s finger which changed the whole meaning of a line in one of my favorite poems of his, Among School Children. Aristotle in the botched version was called “Soldier Aristotle,” which never made much sense to me. Finally it was discovered that what Yeats had written was “Solider Aristotle,” comparing him to Plato in the line above, who “thought nature but a spume that plays/Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” And that did make sense. Poor Yeats. All those years of being misrepresented.

Was it Yeats’s fault? Was it the printer’s? We’ll never know. Whereas with the cookbook writer, it is usually the careless author who is to blame.

Mea culpa.

CHRISTMAS DINNER, THEN AND NOW

Ah, a family Christmas dinner. It was once so simple: a wintry, hearty meal, perhaps embodying some of the ethnic accents that we all carry with us in this land of immigrants. Being of English origin my family invariably enjoyed a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. We were usually about twelve at the table and I, being the youngest, had to wait the longest to get my share of what seemed to me pitifully thin slices of that rosy beef. My grandfather, dressed in Sunday spats and vest, was the designated carver and he performed with considerable flair, being particularly adept at those thin slices. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining, and anyway I was rewarded with a generous spoonful of beef blood that had accumulated on the platter as the roast was carved.

For dessert there was always a steamed pudding, set alight and carried to the table as the blue flames flickered around the molded dark cake. The young ones didn’t much appreciate the strong brandy taste that lingered after the flames had burned out but there was lots of foamy sauce to soften the flavor. And we certainly would not have thought of suggesting an alcohol-free serving.

Today it’s a different story. What with the divided and extended families that many of us are a part of, we never know quite who the players will be. In the old days it was not only the menu but the cast of characters at table that remained the same until one by one we fled the coop.

Several days before Christmas I got a call from my niece whose extended family was coming to me for the holiday feast this year. Could her beloved’s adopted son’s girlfriend be invited to dinner? I counted my chairs and fortunately there was still one left that could be fit into my smallish dining so, of course, she should come.

Then I went over in my mind the various dietary restrictions I’d been told about: my niece is poisoned by garlic; she and her daughter are lactose intolerant; my cousin’s son is a near-vegetarian. So I had to devise strategies to get around these constraints (and still have a good dinner). I would forego the slivers of garlic that I like to insert in the lamb as it roasts and instead I’d indulge in the special sauce that Julia Child always loved with her gigot, which calls for a whole head of garlic. However, as she points out with its two blanchings and slow cooking in milk, the cloves turn buttery and tame. But not tame enough for the allergic, and my niece was warned not to go near the sauce. I also served her a little dish of leftover wild rice because the flageolets—those lovely little French dried beans—that I love to prepare with lamb cook gently with several plump cloves of garlic to enhance their flavor. Then I made a rich, filling ratatouille and a big salad for the meat-cautious.

Everything seemed under control until the day before Christmas when I got another call from my niece. She just wanted to remind me that the men in her family have huge appetites. Evidently they all work out fiendishly, thereby charging up their appetites. So I’d better be prepared.

I panicked. Was my 7 pound lamb going to be big enough to offer seconds all around? I rushed out to the Food Emporium to buy a couple of packages of lamb shoulder chops to strew around the roast—just in case. And I chased down an extra packet of those hard-to-find French flageolets.

I need not have worried. Everyone ate heartily and there was plenty for seconds.

For dessert I had decided to forego the traditional steamed pudding (I could predict anxious looks about all that suet in it) and I settled instead on rich, molten chocolate cakes. So far I haven’t found anyone (except dogs) allergic to chocolate so I thought it would be a safe bet. Arranged on individual dessert plates with a garnish of strawberries and several dollops of vanilla ice cream (non-lactose for the afflicted), each cake had been purposely undercooked so that when it is broken into, warm molten chocolate pours out and mingles with the other flavors and textures. A delectable sensation!

It was Joan Nathan who first introduced me to this dessert in her book The New American Cooking. It seems that the extraordinarily talented chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created these delights by mistake. Somehow the little cakes had been removed from the oven when they were not yet fully baked and, before he could retrieve them, they had been served to his customers, who were in ecstasy as they devoured their first bite.

Trust a Frenchman to turn a mistake into a triumph. It is a good reminder that the goal of a dinner—any dinner for that matter—is to give pleasure. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?

Jason Epstein at Di Palo in New York

Although Judith won’t be there, I’m sure she’d want you to know about her friend, colleague, and author, Jason Epstein, author of Eating: A Memoir, who will be signing copies of his new book on

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21

at the wonderful Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy in New York. It’s at 200 Grand Street, NY, NY 10013, between Mott and Mulberry, and it’s one of the most fascinating cheese (and assorted other Italian goodies) shops that you’ll find in the city.

Waste Not, Want Not – According to Lidia

So many times when I have been out talking about my new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, or joining in panel discussions about food, someone in the audience will ask what I think of the current crop of television food shows, and I have to admit that I don’t think much of them. In fact, it irritates me profoundly when the Food Network boasts, “We’re more than about food.” Why should they want to be “more” when food alone is such an endlessly fascinating subject? Why do they have to turn cooking into a competition, with testosterone as the main ingredient? But then I’ll pause: there is one exception, and often before I’ve said her name, someone will cry, “Lidia!” Everyone loves Lidia Bastianich—and with good reason. Lidia loves food with a passion and conveys her pleasure in cooking so persuasively that you can’t wait to get the pasta water boiling and to follow her lead creating yet one more delicious and often unexpected way of dressing it. Furthermore with every show we learn from her invaluable lessons in the finesse of cooking really good Italian food.

Recently I was in Boston with her where both of us were promoting our latest books, and we did a joint appearance at the Brattle Theatre. Talking about the research that she did for her just published, wonderful new book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she described vividly and lovingly the people she had met in some of the little-known parts of Italy she explored. Because the subject was food and food immediately creates a common denominator, she was able to get to the heart of each recipe, confirming her long-held conviction that what gives a regional dish its special distinction is the terroir, the soil and the environment that produces the fruits and vegetables, the olives and wine and cheeses, that lend a special character. In carefully ferreting out these secrets, she has been able to recreate the genuine flavors and bring them home to our kitchens.

But there was a deeper revelation that emerged in her search for recipes from the heart of Italy. In her introduction to the book, she says: “As overconsumption and greed have come to haunt us, it is now a time for reflection, for looking back at the generations before us, to understand their approach to the table. In my research into the twelve regions of Italy that I explore here, some answers came to light. The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food—growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted . . . This kind of respect also leads to a much more sensible and balanced intake of proteins, legumes, vegetables, and so on. In most of the recipes, it is evident that the dish is rooted in the reality of the times, when frugality went along with hard work, and home cooks made do with what was on hand. And of course they wanted dishes that would taste good. So you’ll find these recipes tasty, satisfying, relatively easy to prepare. But, most of all, they are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.”

As we chatted together on the stage of the Brattle Theatre, sparring with one another about whether it’s more fun to cook for oneself or for a tableful of family and friends (both quite different experiences, we agreed) and whether or not almost any recipe can be successfully reduced to serve one (some disagreement there), I realized how much I have learned over the years from this extraordinarily creative, ever curious, and deeply responsible woman. In fact, my own theories about cooking for one took shape as I absorbed some of Lidia’s techniques for recycling leftovers in creative ways.

Several years ago when I was in her kitchen watching her prepare a lasagna with fresh pasta, after the dish had been assembled, there was just one stocking-like strip of pasta left, and I asked her (knowing full well the answer) if she was going to throw it out. “Of course not,” she answered, and promptly picked up the pasta, fit one end into a small baking dish and plopped a bit of yesterday’s bits of cooked meat lurking in her fridge on top. Then she folded and swung another portion of the pasta strip on top and covered that with her own tomato sauce (always on hand), and, of course, there was a layer of cheese. When the baking dish was filled she put it away for tomorrow when it could be quickly baked. Cook’s treat, she declared.

As our onstage conversation continued, Lidia offered a few examples from her book of the inventive ways in which yesterday’s bread can be used. One was a soup for which you first make a pasticciata, or layered casserole, of bread and fontina from Valle d’Aosta as well as Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, all moistened with chicken broth, and when that has baked, portions of it are transferred to bowls and broth is ladled over it. The other treasure she revealed with an enthusiasm that was contagious was of Chocolate Bread Parfait. Here the leftover bread is soaked in chocolate and espresso and then spooned into glass parfait dishes with layers of whipped cream and sliced almonds.

This is the kind of cooking that is so satisfying, particularly in these days of soaring food prices, and we can all say grazie to Lidia for giving such a wealth of recipes to have fun with.

Two Legendary Editors, One Extraordinary Evening

If you’re in New York, come hear Judith Jones and Jason Epstein chat about the pleasures of cooking and eating. They’ll take questions after.

Tonight, Thursday, November 5, at
The Strand
828 Broadway (at 12th St.)
New York, NY 10003

It’s free!

THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD

I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

A brief video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal site

Greetings, all. There is a pleasant little video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal’s website. It’s worth a look. It’s accompanied by a brief Q&A.

The Pleasures of Cooking for One

I hadn’t planned to write another book after The Tenth Muse, which included at the end about fifty recipes that represented different phases of my life in food. The final items in that recipe section reflected some of the ways I go about cooking for myself today; in “The Nine Lives of a Leg of Lamb” and “Wanna Buy a Duck?” I was trying to show how many reincarnations a roast leg of lamb could have, and that the single cook who indeed wanted to buy a duck could have a great time using every part of the bird in different ways.

The response to that section convinced me that I ought to share more of my experiences cooking alone. People would come up to me full of questions—from how to make chicken breasts taste good to what to do with all the leftover food that you’re invariably stuck with because supermarkets force you to buy more than you need. Young people on their own for the first time are lost; they don’t know what equipment to buy for one, what essentials they need in the fridge and the freezer and on the limited shelf space their first tiny kitchen offers. And they want to know what book I would recommend to help them. There I was stumped. A number of books have been published aimed at the solo cook, but they are mostly made up of recipes for one and don’t deal with all the strategies involved in cooking for oneself through the week.

So I decided to meet the challenge and to give myself a year to record my own cooking and to experiment with new ideas that would be useful to any cook preparing small amounts. Thus was born The Pleasures of Cooking for One.

The first important principle is not to think of just a single dish at a time but instead understand how one dish leads to the next. So when you’re doing your major shopping, think through the week ahead and visualize how you might use that skirt steak you brought home: how good it will taste not only the first night but later in the week in a hash or a Provençal gratin layered with breadcrumbs and garlic and mushrooms, or just chilled and sliced and slathered in a pickly Sauce Gribiche.

Instead of shunning leftovers I make a point of having extra cooked foods on hand so I can improvise a meal out of whatever may be lurking in the refrigerator. When I make a tomato sauce or a cream sauce or a pesto, I make extra so that I can put small amounts away in the freezer for easy access when I want to whip up, say, a soufflé.

As I was finishing the book, I had lunch one day at the brasserie Cognac, across the street from the Knopf office. I saw on the menu a single cheese soufflé and it seemed so long that I’d had a good soufflé I couldn’t resist ordering it. As the last cheesy, foamy bite slipped down my throat, I thought what fun it would be to go home and make a soufflé—just for me. So I bought a small mold, whittled down the proportions from Julia’s classic recipe, and in about forty minutes (yes, I did have the necessary white sauce all ready-to-go in my freezer), out of the oven came a perfect little puffed-up cheese soufflé. I knew as I put it on the table and poured a glass of chilled white wine that that should be the image on the cover of the book because it represented what I want the book to say.

Not that I think you’ll want to make a soufflé every night—most of my recipes simply represent good home cooking done with care. That means they’re not for the faint-hearted or the people who only think they want to cook but really just want quick and easy shortcuts. That lovely soufflé represents doing something creative, treating yourself well, and, above all, enjoying.

I always feel that a good cookbook is like having someone right there with you at the stove. The kitchen can be a lonely place without that stimulation, so let’s share ideas and empower one another.

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