One of my pre-theater rituals in New York was a plate of spicy cumin lamb noodles at the Xi’an Famous Foods on W. 43rd street. I’d fashion an oversized bib out of napkins to avoid dripping red chili oil on my clothes (I usually did anyway), crouch over my plate, and shovel the slippery noodles into my mouth with chopsticks. I could be in and out of the restaurant and in my theater seat in under an hour, bathroom stop included. That location of the restaurant is closed now, and Broadway is shuttered until at least next January.
My homemade attempt at Xi’an’s lamb noodles is nowhere near the real thing. I just wanted to taste some of those flavors and textures together, maybe in honor of a ritual I didn’t know I was about to lose. I got ground lamb and cooked it like a Thai larb, browning quickly with spices, then adding a splash of soy sauce and a pinch of sugar to get those crispy bits. I tossed with rice noodles and whatever veg would add a pop of color. Here, it’s a couple handfuls of baby spinach and curls of sweet, crisp carrot, though I’ve also loved this with broccoli, yellow squash, and thinly sliced radishes.
This dish is now one of my go-tos when I crave something quick and spicy, but I’m also glad it doesn’t really measure up to the original. It gives me an excuse to go back again soon.
Inspired by the classic at Xi'an Famous Foods, though by no means a substitute for the original. A little crushed red pepper goes a long way here, but feel free to adjust to your heat preference.
Prep Time 10minutes
Cook Time 10minutes
Total Time 20minutes
2ozwide rice noodles
⅓lbground lamb(you could also use ground beef or turkey)
1garlic clove, minced
¼tspcrushed red pepper
2tsplow-sodium soy sauce, divided
2tspunseasoned rice vinegar, divided
1generous pinch granulated sugar
1½cupsbaby spinach, torn
Bring about 4 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add rice noodles and cook 4-5 minutes or until tender, then drain. If you want to use a heartier veggie, add it to the boiling water in the last couple minutes of cooking.
Meanwhile, heat an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the lamb, scallion, garlic, cumin, crushed red pepper, and salt. Use a spatula to break up the meat and work in the spices. Cook 3-5 minutes until the meat is browned. Stir in 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar, and a pinch of sugar. Cook another 3 minutes (you should see some crispy bits in the pan). Remove the pan from the heat.
Peel the carrot and then keep peeling into wide ribbons, working on one side of the carrot at a time. Add the carrots in a single layer over the lamb in the skillet, then the spinach. Drizzle over the remaining teaspoon each of soy sauce and rice vinegar. Add the hot noodles, cover with a lid, and let sit off the heat a couple minutes until the spinach is slightly wilted, then stir everything together.
I crave in color. More than a specific dish, more than something wildly decadent, I just want a compilation of colors. If I don’t see them I don’t feel satisfied. In college, I’d circle the hot and cold bars endlessly trying to compose a rainbow on my plate (I still do this at every buffet and potluck). These days I throw spinach or parsley into almost everything I cook… I just need to see it there. No one forced me to eat veggies as a kid, and I don’t follow any particular diet. It’s just what I want.
What we crave is both physical and emotional (this is my highly unscientific opinion). The physical: Our bodies crave what’s been missing from our meals or our hormones make seemingly odd combos irresistible. The emotional: When we feel the need for comfort or pleasure, we want the foods we ate as kids or what we’ve learned to love since then. I’m not sure where my color thing came from, but it’s just my version of every person’s inexplainable, wonderfully weird food preferences. There’s no rhyme or reason and no consistency either. What I want changes as often as my mood (so, pretty much constantly).
As single cooks, our craving is the loudest and often only voice in the kitchen. It’s obnoxiously loud, to the point where it’s hard to be satisfied with eating anything else. Answering that craving is giving your body what it needs, whether that’s a big salad or a big burger. It’s not giving into a lifetime of junk food because our bodies crave variety and moderation in all things. Something super rich and heavy gets just as boring as something super light after awhile.
I think we also crave what’s within reach: What’s in our fridge right now, what we know how to cook right now, what we can get delivered thirty minutes from now. The more we cook, the broader the foods we crave because we know we can achieve them at home. There’s less settling for what we don’t really want (old leftovers, a frozen entree) because we know how to give ourselves exactly what we do.
Knowing exactly what I’m craving and acting on it is so satisfying and empowering to me… it’s what drives me into the kitchen as a solo cook and makes me feel I belong there. It’s one of the best things about cooking for one.
Sometimes I just can’t let go. One specific craving for a not-too-sweet carrot cake led me down a rabbit hole of recipes and whys. How could some recipes call for 11/2 cups of sugar while others call for half that? Is there really a difference in the end between butter and oil? Is that little bit of buttermilk really necessary when I’ll have a quart of the stuff left over? I wanted an everyday loaf that could be a breakfast, snack, or dessert… something I’d always have the ingredients to make.
I tried five different recipes, combined amounts from one with the techniques of another, looked to completely different recipes and adjusted again and again. Baking truly is mad science in this way—you can do a million different things to arrive at one simple cake, and you won’t quite know what you’ll get until you pull it out of the oven.
Quick breads and cakes (really anything out of a loaf pan) are great bakes for the single cook. They can hang at room temperature for a while without going stale. There’s no multi-dozen batch to stare you down. You can carve off as much or as little as you like and dress it up (a slather of butter or cream cheese or ricotta and chocolate chips). In the end, this carrot loaf (cake? Quick bread?) checked every box.
Really though, if you want to bake, bake. You don’t need an occasion or someone else to share it with. If it brings you joy and satisfies your sweet craving, that’s reason enough.
Warm-spiced and not too sweet, this carrot quick bread is a perfect quick breakfast, snack, or dessert. I like to leave off the glaze and dress up a slice with a slather of cream cheese or dollop of ricotta.
Prep Time 15minutes
Cook Time 1hour
Total Time 1hour15minutes
2large or 3 medium carrots
½cuplight brown sugar
⅓cup+ 2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
⅓cupplain Greek or regular yogurt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
Grate carrots on the large holes of a box grater to measure 11/2 cups. In a large bowl, stir together carrots, sugars, oil, yogurt, eggs, and vanilla until well combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg until well combined. Add flour mixture to carrot mixture and stir just until combined. Pour carrot mixture into prepared pan and bake at 350°F for 55-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then turn out and cool completely.
The weight of the world is crushing. You’ve been living in isolation for months, cooking every meal and washing up afterward. It’s too hot to turn on the stove. You’re out of inspiration, having shopped nowhere but your neighborhood store, having dined nowhere but your own home. Even if you love it, cooking for one can lose its appeal… especially now.
What I’ve realized is that cooking for myself is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s not about committing to a certain number of home-cooked meals over a certain number of days. It’s not about creating a gram-worthy plate every night. Cooking for one is about showing kindness to yourself in whatever way you need on any given evening, whether that’s preparing a thoughtful meal or not cooking at all.
The most important thing is that you get to choose. You shouldn’t be stuck with random snacks when you really want an exciting, satisfying meal. You shouldn’t be locked into a meal plan when you don’t feel like making that day’s scheduled dish. You shouldn’t have to eat the same leftovers three nights in a row when you really want something new. No lack of cooking skills, fear of food waste, or feeling that you don’t deserve more should stand between you and what you really want to eat.
And when you just can’t bear to cook, order takeout. Pile the random foods from your fridge onto a plate. Pop some popcorn. Just take the guilt out of the equation for tonight. Depending on your mood, you can choose something totally different tomorrow.
Some of my favorite can’t-bear-to-cook dinners: – A soft-boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, Greek yogurt topped with olive oil, and a little smoked salmon – Frozen veggie dumplings steamed with veggies over microwaveable brown rice. – A mile-high cheese sandwich
– A couple slices of prosciutto, walnuts, sliced cheese, apples wedges, and celery sticks
I will always be on board for simple, starchy comfort. Risotto, steel-cut oats, polenta laden with Parmesan… if it’s warming and clings to a spoon, I’m on board. Congee is starchy comfort at its best. It’s a rice porridge that’s most common in China, though you’ll find other versions in the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and India. Congee is kind of magic: A small handful of rice simmered in lots of water transforms into something luxuriously creamy and filling.
The only problem? Congee takes a long time. Most recipes call to simmer a big batch for a few hours. I don’t have that kind of time, but a congee craving is a congee craving. So what’s a solo cook to do?
I found the answer by way of Nadiya Hussain’s Ginger Rice with Spiced Chickpeas. You’ve got to whisk it. By boiling the rice first, then whisking constantly for about 5 minutes, the grains broke down and became porridge in less than 20 minutes. Magic. It’s definitely not traditional, but it totally works in a pinch.
The best part is topping with whatever you have on hand—why this is one of my favorite “use it up” meals. I added leftover roast chicken, microwave-steamed snap peas and yellow squash, sliced radishes, and an extra scallion here.
More topper ideas: – Protein: Any cooked meat or fish, cubed tofu, or a soft-boiled egg – Veggies: Any steamed veggies or thinly sliced cucumber and radishes – Drizzles and sprinkles: soy sauce, chile-garlic sauce, sesame seeds, garlic chips, or crushed red pepper
The consistency of your congee is really up to you. Let it simmer a little longer after whisking to thicken, or add a little more water if it feels too thick. Just don't skip the swirl of sesame oil or butter at the end—it's what makes the texture so luxurious.
Course Main Course
Prep Time 5minutes
Cook Time 20minutes
Total Time 25minutes
1tspgrated fresh ginger
1tsptoasted sesame oil or butter
1small scallion, thinly sliced
Combine the ginger, rice, and water in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes (the rice should be cooked through at this point).
Uncover and whisk constantly for about 5 minutes (the rice should start to break down and the water should turn milky white). Let simmer another 5 minutes, uncovered, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in sesame oil, scallion, and salt.
Ladle congee into a wide bowl and top with the veggies, protein, and condiments of your choice.
Is cooking really worth it, just for me? Yes, and it’s easier than you think. This is food for the busy, social, single cook, with hacks and use-it-up strategies that make the most of everything you buy. It’s solo cooking designed for real life, and it’s never been more delicious.
Hi, I’m Hannah. I’m a food writer, recipe developer, and content manager based in Brooklyn, NY. I’m aslo passionate about helping single cooks of all skill levels find confidence and joy in cooking for one. Learn more.