The New York Times recently published an article called Scaling Down Recipes for Small Batches by Erin McDowell, a resident baker at Food52 and author of The Book on Pie. The article talks about a growing need for small batch recipes in light of the pandemic, when smaller households don’t want to be stuck with leftovers or when baking ingredients are in short supply.
One line jarred me immediately. “I love to bake,” McDowell says, “but I live alone with my husband.” This is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms that a second grader could spot but that the Times chose to overlook. One commenter provided the basic math: “Alone is just one person. Add a person—the first is no longer alone.”
Cooking for two is often lumped together with cooking for one, but they couldn’t be more different. When you cook with and for another person, the entire dynamic shifts. A negotiation takes place at every meal: what to eat, who is doing the shopping/cooking/cleaning, whether or not to order takeout/where from/what to get. You also have someone to share in the cost, the preparation, and the cleanup, someone to help you eat the leftovers. The only similarity is that single cooks and couples both need less food than a standard recipe makes. It’s important to make this distinction. It’s important to define “alone” as one person and to own it.
The article was otherwise unremarkable, but the comments were both fascinating and infuriating. For every one person who thanked the author for the article or explained why small batches worked better for their lifestyle (ingredients are expensive, storage space is limited, they don’t want the extras or don’t have people to take them), ten more rose up to disparage them and the entire small batch idea. These commenters didn’t understand why you wouldn’t just freeze the extra three dozen cookies or give the majority of what you make to neighbors or friends or organizations in need. They couldn’t fathom why you would bother baking at all just to produce so little.
It’s an example of a conversation I’ve had and heard many times. It goes something like this:
Solo cooks: Your recipes/meal plans/shopping guides don’t work for me. What I need is THIS. Everyone else: Why can’t you just deal with it? Spend more! Freeze it all! Give it away! Solo cooks: Because for me that’s a waste of food and money. I like to cook and bake. I like fresh, homemade meals. I just need recipes that work for me. Everyone else: But WHY can’t you just… (see first response).
Getting others to hear and understand the needs of single cooks and our potential power as an audience feels like shouting into a void. It feels like pushing against a gale force wind that’s howling, “You don’t exist! You don’t matter! Just deal with it!” It’s exhausting. But I’ve had too many conversations and seen too many comments about this to give up now. We may be a chorus of cooks shouting into a void, but the void is getting smaller. And we’re only getting louder.
Cooks of all skill levels know one basic equation: Starchy thing + red saucy thing + cheesy thing = quick, cheap, comforting meal. I started, as most college kids do, with dried spaghetti from a box and sauce from a jar. I still wouldn’t turn this down (pasta snob I am not), but over the years I’ve found many ways to make it so much better, and just about as cheap and easy.
First, the sauce. Like most packaged products, the jarred stuff doesn’t work for me as a solo cook. It’s too big and goes bad too quickly. The flavor also seems overwhelmingly sweet or dried herb-y or burnt tomato-y. Instead, I zhuzh (juj? juge?) up a can of crushed tomatoes with a couple pantry ingredients, just like Italians do.
There’s a wrench here though. A 15-oz can of crushed tomatoes is near impossible to find. For some reason, this style of tomato comes almost exclusively in 28-oz cans. If you can’t find a 15-oz can, you can blitz a can of whole tomatoes until just shy of a puree, using some but not all of the tomato liquid. You can also buy that 28-oz can, transfer the rest to an airtight container, and use in future pastas, soups, shakshukas, etc.
Next, the pasta. Dumplings are a fantastic upgrade from noodles, no fancy equipment required. This recipe comes from @the_pastaqueen. Nadia combines panko, ricotta, Parm and egg, forms into balls, and simmers in the sauce. They double in size and become feather-light as they cook—a cheesy cloud floating in a robust homemade tomato sauce. I’ve scaled down and streamlined her recipe here.
This dish does make enough for two servings, but it reheats like a dream for a late night snack or tomorrow’s lunch (I’ve had it both ways). Go easy on the black pepper here, as ricotta amplifies big flavors much more than you’d think.
Light-as-air ricotta dumplings cook right in a quick homemade sauce—no need for a second pan. Use a large skillet since they will double in size, and cover as they cook to keep the liquid from evaporating.
Prep Time 15minutes
Cook Time 20minutes
Total Time 35minutes
½cupfinely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
2tbspfinely chopped Italian parsley
2garlic cloves, minced
¼tspcrushed red pepper
115-oz can crushed tomatoes (about 1½ cups)
½cupchicken stock or water
Combine ricotta, panko, Parmesan, parsley, egg, salt, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and garlic and cook 1 minute or until the garlic just starts to sizzle and turn golden. Stir in oregano and crushed red pepper. Stir in crushed tomatoes and broth or water. (You’ll think there’s too much oil in the pan, but keep stirring to combine—it adds great flavor and texture to the sauce.) Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 4-5 minutes.
While the sauce simmers, divide and shape the ricotta mixture into 12 (1-inch) balls. Add ricotta dumplings to the pan with sauce in a single layer. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Gently turn the dumplings over with a large spoon, then cover again and simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve with extra grated Parmesan.
I’m talking about leftovers with a capital “L”—the big batch recipe that I’m supposed to chip away at for days on end. If I have to eat anything more than twice I do a lot of internal moaning and groaning about it. I know this puts me at odds with most cooks. Leftovers are generally heralded as a boon—a promise that you won’t have to cook for the next several days, that dinner is just a plate and microwave nuke away. If that works for you, that’s fantastic. For me though (and I suspect other solo cooks), it’s a burden. Let me explain.
I resent what leftovers represent
When I first started searching for solutions for single cooks about 7 years ago, all I found were meal planners telling me to freeze giant batches of food, then ration and reheat for weeks. The message: Cooking is a terrible chore, especially if you’re only feeding yourself. Better to avoid it altogether by subsisting on the same dish for weeks. The subtext: Endless leftovers are your punishment for living alone.
I love to cook and resent the assumption that I don’t or shouldn’t because I don’t have others to feed. If solo cooks had more and better resources and the pressure was relaxed a bit, I bet they’d love to cook as well. Leftovers are a cop out, non-solution for what single cooks really need: scaled down recipes, streamlined steps, and new ways to use up ingredients.
Leftovers are rarely satisfying
No dish is really as good the third or fourth time it’s eaten. The textures, smells, colors, and flavors have been dulled beyond recognition at that point. You’re stuck eating the same boring dish because it would go to waste otherwise. You’ve avoided the terrible chore of cooking, but now eating has become the chore.
What makes a meal satisfying isn’t just how filling it is, but how much joy and excitement you get from eating it—easier with a hot, fresh, homemade meal. The fact that you took the time and effort to feed yourself well makes it even more satisfying. Endless leftovers rob you of that kind of satisfaction. It cuts you off from interacting with and enjoying your food.
Leftovers are risky
If you cook one serving and don’t really like it, you only have to eat it once. If you cook multiple servings, you’re stuck with it because you don’t want that food, money, and effort to go to waste. There’s always a chance a recipe won’t work or you won’t like the result. I’d rather halve or quarter a recipe and find different uses for the remaining ingredients than be stuck with a lot of something I didn’t really enjoy the first time.
Leftovers can’t keep up with my cravings
My cravings are frequent and fickle. I’ll be desperate for something for about a week, eat it once, then want something totally different the next day. Satisfying your cravings, however weird and random they are, is one of the best things about cooking for one. Seeing what others are cooking also makes me want to drop everything and try it myself, regardless of what I already had planned. Endless leftovers mean fewer chances to to learn, to experiment, to discover new techniques and flavors.
Again, I’m not opposed to all leftovers… A second serving has definitely come in handy for a hot lunch (the Asian Meatloaf from ATK’s Cooking for One cookbook, above). There are also times where I can’t bear to cook and wish I had something stashed away. For the most part though, I love cooking too much exchange the experience for a fast yet fairly disappointing meal. I’m worth more than that, and so are you.
I’m not a big fan of big-batch leftovers—the kind you make at the beginning of the week and reheat again and again. I get bored easily, and I feel like foods lose all their oomph after a second reheating. Soups are no exception. To me, the bigger the batch of soup, the more tasteless it becomes. It also seems to multiply in the pot no matter how much you intended to make. Chicken stock also isn’t that cheap at my store, so using the whole quart container for one recipe—especially one I might not like—seems a shame.
This tomato soup checks all the boxes for a solo-friendly recipe. (Okay, it makes enough for two, but the leftovers are rather wonderful for lunch on a chilly day.) It uses a whole can of diced tomatoes and not too much broth. Heavy cream seems to be the default lightener for puréed soups, but I don’t buy it because one: I’m lactose intolerant and two: I don’t know how I’d use up the rest of a carton. Instead, I use the Greek yogurt you probably have in your fridge right now. The result is richer, more vibrant, and more velvety than anything you can buy, and it’s ready in about 20 minutes.
If you don’t think warm, crusty, fresh-out-of-the oven bread is possible on a weeknight, this small batch soda bread will blow your mind. I adapted this one from The English Kitchen’s sweet version. Think of it as a fantastic upgrade to the usual grilled cheese, either for dunking in the soup or slathering with butter (I prefer the latter). I bet other flavor combos like Parmesan and prosciutto or walnut and rosemary would be delicious too. Or go sweet by adding a tablespoon of sugar, orange zest, and dried cranberries or golden raisins. It’s one of those back pocket bakes that keeps on giving, especially for the solo cook.
This recipe makes enough for two, or one dinner tonight and one fantastic lunch tomorrow. Don’t forget to split open each quadrant of soda bread and slather with butter.
Prep Time 25minutes
Cook Time 35minutes
Total Time 1hour
Cheddar-Scallion Soda Bread
⅛tspfreshly ground black pepper
½cupfreshly grated sharp Cheddar
2scallions, finely chopped
1garlic clove, minced
1(15 oz) can diced tomatoes
1cupunsalted chicken stock, broth, or water
3tbspwhole milk Greek yogurt
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
For the soda bread, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and pepper. Add butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the mixture is pebbly and the butter is well coated. Combine buttermilk and egg yolk in a glass measuring cup. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir with a fork to combine.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disk that’s about ½-inch thick. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour and add dough. Using a sharp knife or a bench scraper, cut a cross into the dough, cutting almost through to the baking sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the soda bread is crisp and golden brown.
For the soup, heat oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and sauté 3-4 minutes or until softened. Add the salt, oregano, smoked paprika, and garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds. Add the diced tomatoes and broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and let cook, partially covered, for 5 minutes.
Place yogurt in a small bowl. Add tomato mixture to a blender. Remove the center piece from the blender lid (to allow steam to escape) and secure the lid on the blender. Cover the opening with a kitchen towel. Blend the soup, gradually increasing the speed to medium, until smooth.
Add a ladle full of the soup to the bowl with the yogurt and stir until well-combined. Add the yogurt mixture back to the soup and blend a couple more seconds. Return soup to the Dutch oven and simmer over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Season to taste. Stir in the baby spinach just until wilted, or add to your bowl and ladle the soup over it.
After over a decade with only a handful of cooking for one cookbooks, we finally got our first major work. Cooking for One by America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) isn’t a chef’s manifesto or a collections of scaled down recipes from sixty years ago. There’s no diet focus or convoluted premise. ATK actually understands the single cook. They know that we need flexibility, hate food waste, and that a great meal is the best form of self care. Cooking for One is modern, general, and accessible. It’s the well-considered, all-purpose cookbook I’ve been waiting for.
If there’s one word I’d use to describe ATK’s style, it’s rigor. A recipe is tested ten, twenty, forty times to get the best version of a dish. Every aspect of a method is pretty much talked to death, every measurable quality evaluated and evaluated again. They apply that same kind of rigor here, with so much material beyond the actual recipes. Front pages tell you exactly how to set up your pantry, how to improvise, how to use leftover ingredients. Each recipe tells you why it works with sidebars on substitutions and optional additions. No stone is left unturned here… They’ve thought of absolutely everything so you don’t have to.
Every type of dish is covered: You’ve got mains, sides, soups, salads, sandwiches, one-pan dinners, and desserts. There are also flavor enhancers like sauces and seasonings to ramp up simpler dishes. Recipes range from components (a salmon fillet or plain rice) to complete dishes so you can mix and match, riff as you like, or just pick a dish and go. Ingredients are easy enough to find and relatively inexpensive. The gems here are the techniques ATK has discovered for cooking smaller portions. The trick to a perfect single serving of white rice? Rinse the grains first, then let the cooked rice steam with a dish towel under the lid to catch extra moisture. How do you get one juicy, golden chicken breast? It’s a specific (though very easy) dance of lid off, lid on, a little liquid, and timing.
If you’re used to putting next to no effort into your meals, know that this book will ask more of you. As someone who usually wings it or takes the path of least resistance, that extra effort was usually worth the end result. ATK hacked dishes I’d never make because of the effort cleanup, and leftovers involved. I’m now making enchiladas or risotto on a weeknight without sweating a thing. I think this is one of the book’s biggest lessons: You deserve to eat well, and wanting a great meal for yourself is reason enough to do a little more in the kitchen.
A few quibbles: There were a couple times where the dish felt a little scant or incomplete considering the effort involved. It’s worth noting too that many recipes are pictured with the optional, “level up” elements that aren’t in the main recipes. Be sure to read these if you want to match what you see. Recipes aren’t very forgiving (a symptom of all that rigorous testing) so pay attention to heat levels, the thickness of veggies and proteins, etc.
Here’s a list of what I’ve made so far. I’ll continue to update this list as I cook more from the book.
Creamy Curried Cauliflower Soup: Took a bit of effort and made a lot, but couldn’t be a meal on its own. Supplemented with sautéed tofu and greens. Also thinned some yogurt with the blended soup instead of using cream.
Crispy-Skinned Salmon Fillet: The fillet was a little overcooked for my taste, so I shorted searing by a minute on each side the next time. Loved the crispy skin.
Crispy-Skinned Chicken Breast: Worked just as written. It’s really important to pound these to an even thickness or they won’t cook through.
Easy Cuban Black Beans: Great flavor. Used a red bell pepper instead of green. Got two meals out of this with all the trimmings (loved the plantain chips for scooping).
Glazed Meatloaf for One: I made both variations—the garlic-ginger with hoisin glaze and the classic with ketchup glaze. Used ground turkey instead of pork and made them a little bigger, so needed to cook for the full time. Really tasty.
Pan-Seared Boneless Chicken Breast: Worked perfectly.
Risotto Primavera: Took a long time. I felt like the method could have been hacked more somehow, like a no-stir, oven-baked method? Also missed the white wine!
Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges: These burned long before the suggested cook time, but maybe they weren’t cut thick enough? I’d cook at 400°F for 10-12 minutes per side instead.
Sweet Potato–Bacon Wrap: Felt pretty scant for the effort involved. I ate another meal after this.
Simple Ratatouille: I stirred in some thinly sliced zucchini and served over quinoa with a fried egg. Skipped the 1/8 teaspoon anchovy paste and it still tasted great.
Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas: Loved this so much I made it twice in one week, which is pretty rare for me. I added a little crumbled tofu to the filling. Worked just as written.
Folks, this soup is magical. It’s simple to the point of being questionable—just chicken broth, rice, eggs, and a lemon. But that’s the beauty of it. Rice simmers in the broth, then the hot liquid tempers beaten egg yolks. It all cooks together until the soup suddenly thickens and brightens. That’s it. I love how humble and warming it is, how the lemon kind of crashes through. I craved it on one of our first cool nights in NYC last week, and I’m sure it’ll be in my regular rotation as the days get chilly.
Most recipes you’ll find start with eight or nine cups of broth, six eggs, a cup of rice. My favorite version comes from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. After Gourmet magazine closed, she spent a year in upstate New York cooking her way to finding peace with it all. This soup was soothing for her then, and it is for me now. I hope she doesn’t mind that I scaled down her recipe to serve one.
I love poached chicken for this—it’s tender and falls apart in big, pleasing shreds. I cooked a couple breasts on Sunday using this method from the Kitchn and used them in lunches and dinners all week long.
Also, don’t toss those egg whites! Bulk up your next scramble or beat to soft peaks and fold into pancake batter for extra fluffy cakes.
A super simple, bright, comforting soup for one. This Greek classic uses just broth, rice, lemon, and eggs. I like to stir in shredded cooked chicken breast and top with parsley or scallion. You could sauté a few veggies in the pot before simmering the broth if you like. This recipe is adapted from Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year.
1½cupsunsalted chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
3tbspdry white rice
½cupshredded cooked chicken breast
salt and pepper to taste
Bring stock and water to a boil in a large pot with the lid on. Regular broth or stock would be a little too salty here… if you can’t find unsalted stock or low-sodium broth, up your ratio of water to broth. Once it reaches a boil, add rice, reduce heat slightly, and simmer with the lid on until the rice is tender, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and the juice of ½ lemon in a bowl and beat well with a whisk to combine. When the rice is cooked, take a ladle full of the stock mixture and very slowly stream it into the bowl with the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly until combined. Add this mixture in a slow stream back to the pot with the remaining stock mixture, whisking constantly. Simmer about 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. It will thicken slightly, but not as much as a custard.
Stir in shredded chicken and simmer about 1 minute more to warm through. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley leaves or a little chopped green onion.
These days, I can’t look at a recipe without thinking about how I’d scale it down. I say to myself, “I know it’s designed to use up that full can of chickpeas, but could I get away with using half? Do I have to make two dozen cookies? Do I want three quarts of soup?” On a recent night, it was this NYT ricotta and chickpea pasta. I cut the recipe in half, but it was still a bit heavy on the spaghetti, low on stir-ins, so I kept adjusting.
Scaling down a recipe is never quite as straightforward as doing the division you learned in elementary school. There will always be that one egg that needs to be divided into thirds, that grain-to-water ratio that works perfectly as a big batch but not in any smaller proportions. Scaled down recipes are more likely to fail because it’s not how they were developed, which means you’ll never know exactly why they didn’t work.
I feel this gnawing sense of not belonging as I read these recipes… This is food you make to feed your family, to impress your partner, to entertain your friends. It’s meant to be practical, using up that full package of ground beef or filling that 9×13-inch casserole dish. The solo cook just doesn’t fit into most notions of how recipes are designed and who they’re designed for. How can we, as single cooks, scan the shelves at the bookstore or scroll through our feeds or flip through a magazine and not feel like we don’t exist? Talk about funny math: Being the biggest yet most invisible audience in the food space is quite the head scratcher.
Granted, it’s changing. We’re slowly starting to see more cooking for one cookbooks and more acknowledgment (at least since the pandemic began) that the majority of home cooks are really only feeding themselves. My hope is that cooking for one doesn’t become another niche category, like gluten-free baking or vegan Indian cooking. There are as many types of solo cooks as there are, well, cooks! We don’t all want beginner recipes that are just scaled down versions of what we ate growing up (boring!). We don’t all want chef manifestos that call for lux ingredients (because hey, surely you can spend more if you’re serving less). We’re not all subscribing to a diet lifestyle or cooking just to lose weight. The category can be as wide ranging as we are.
A few tips for scaling down those recipes: – Add a splash more liquid than you think you need, especially when cooking grains. – Unless it’s easy to spit a baked good recipe in half, look for a small batch version (Dessert for Two is a genius at this). There are just too many variables that could affect the end result. – Cut down longer cook times by a few minutes or start checking for doneness a little earlier. – Not every ingredient needs to be divided by the same ratio in a recipe. You might find that a dressing needs more than exactly half the lemon juice, or you need 1/2 teaspoon of spice instead of 1/3 teaspoon. Taste and use your judgement here.
When I’m staring down a pantry ingredient at the store, the (imaginary) conversation between us goes something like this: Me: “If I bring you home, how will you earn your keep?” Ingredient: “You can make that one thing you’ve been craving!” Me: “Yeah, but like, after that.” Ingredient: “I don’t know. Wait a bit, then make it again? Let me fossilize on the top shelf until you forget I exist and buy another one?” Me: “Wrong answer. Next!”
I try to think of at least three ways to use an ingredient before bringing it home. I’m also always trying to figure out how to use what’s already in my pantry. More than being conscious of food waste or budget, this is really just what gets me excited to cook… I love finding new recipes or inventing my own in the name of using up that one thing. I’ll build dishes around the last dregs of a tahini jar, the last bundle of soba noodles. I’ll bake for no other reason than I must—must—use the entire carton of buttermilk some way, somehow.
A few weeks ago, that ingredient was cornmeal. I just had to have a batch of Dessert for Two’s corn muffins. After that, I snuck some more cornmeal into a lemon loaf cake. I tried to boil it like polenta. I made the corn muffins again. And, sigh, I still have about half a bag left.
And so the recipe for these savory cornmeal pancakes was born. It’s my cheat for a cornbread fix that doesn’t serve ten people or take an hour to make, with sharp Cheddar and scallions as optional stir-ins. The salsa here is Texas caviar–inspired, with a touch of sherry vinegar for extra oomph. A dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt brings it all together. It’s light yet super satisfying, simple yet packed with flavor. I’ll happily chip away at that bag of cornmeal just to make it again.
Think of this dish as cornbread meets Texas caviar, cooking-for-one style. You will end up with enough pancakes for two, but this by design: The leftovers keep beautifully. Warm in the microwave and top with tomato-y braised greens or slather with butter and add to a hearty salad or grain bowl.
Prep Time 20minutes
Cook Time 10minutes
Total Time 30minutes
Black Eyed Pea Salsa
¼canblack eyed peas, rinsed and drained(about ⅓ cup)
⅓cupcherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
3tbspfinely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley(leaves and stems)
3tbspfinely chopped red onion
1small garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper to taste
¼tspfreshly ground black pepper
¼cupgrated sharp Cheddar
1scallion, finely chopped
½cupbuttermilk(or 3 tbsp plain yogurt + enough milk or non-dairy milk to equal 1/2 cup)
2tbspsour cream or plain Greek yogurt
In a small bowl, combine all the black eyed pea salsa ingredients. Do this first so the flavors have time to marinate and meld, and the red onion can lose some of its sharp bite.
In another bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir in Cheddar and scallion. In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, whisk together buttermilk, egg, and oil. If you don't have buttermilk, add any milk to the yogurt and stir to combine first, then add the egg and oil.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine. (In one test, I beat a leftover egg white to soft peaks and folded it into the batter. Would be delicious with or without!)
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add butter and swirl to melt and coat pan. Use a ¼-cup measuring cup to scoop batter into pan for 6 pancakes. Cook 2-3 minutes per side. I usually work in batches: 3-4 pancakes in the first, 2-3 in the second.
Top 3 pancakes with the sour cream and black eyed pea salsa. Save remaining pancakes for another meal, a snack, or a side.
“Is there enough of an idea there?” It’s something I’ve asked of so many recipes as a food editor over the years. If a dish felt too simple, too basic, did people really need a recipe for it? If they didn’t, was it worth giving it space on the page? Any simple recipe needed something to make it compelling, to make readers want to try it even if they never actually did.
Early on, this felt a bit hypocritical. It was nothing like how I cooked at home. I loved simply cooked veggies with a pat of butter, a squeeze of lemon. I lived for a plate of random ingredients in their simplest form. If I needed to develop recipes for work, I had to fight every instinct to take out ingredients, use fewer pots and pans, and strip a cooking method down to its most essential parts. To just let a tomato be a tomato.
Eating and cooking simply is actually kind of daring. In a social media sea of three-page recipes and twelve-ingredient grain bowls, it takes guts to say, “I had sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and an egg for dinner.” For years I felt like it wasn’t really cooking, wasn’t really worth sharing, wasn’t a voice people needed to hear. There wasn’t enough of an idea there.
The thing is, as much as I’m inspired by the incredible food I see in my feed, I also need the visual reminder that it’s okay to keep it simple. And maybe other single cooks who think all cooking involves big batches, long ingredient lists, and lots of cleanup need this reminder too.
For me, cooking simply is about letting ingredients stand on their own rather than trying to transform them, of taking the quickest, un-fussiest route whenever possible. It’s often a “this plus that” assembling of components that you don’t think will make a complete meal until they meet each other on the plate. (A recent favorite: stir-fried broccoli, cold tofu, a soft-boiled egg, and rice noodles with TJ’s chili-onion crunch.) Cooking simply is skipping that fourth spice or third vegetable when you don’t have it or don’t want to bother. It’s not bland or boring, but minimal and thoughtful.
Once I owned this kind of simplicity as my personal cooking style, the ideas poured from me. I filled a notebook, created a hefty Google Drive, and started a blog. Keeping it simple isn’t just enough of an idea, it’s thewhole idea. And I’m just getting started.
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.
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 also passionate about helping single cooks of all skill levels find confidence and joy in cooking for one. Learn more.