Review of Cooking for One by America’s Test Kitchen


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.

White Rice: Worked just as written.

Avgolemono


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.

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Avgolemono

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.
Servings 1 person

Ingredients

  • cups unsalted chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • cups water
  • 3 tbsp dry white rice
  • 2 egg yolks
  • ½ lemon (regular sized)
  • ½ cup shredded cooked chicken breast
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • 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.

Funny Math


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.

Cornmeal Pancakes with Black Eyed Pea Salsa


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.

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Cornmeal Pancakes with Black Eyed Pea Salsa

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 20 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes
Servings 1 person

Ingredients

Black Eyed Pea Salsa

  • ¼ can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained (about ⅓ cup)
  • cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (leaves and stems)
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped red onion
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cornmeal Pancakes

  • ½ cup fine cornmeal
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup grated sharp Cheddar
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • ½ cup buttermilk (or 3 tbsp plain yogurt + enough milk or non-dairy milk to equal 1/2 cup)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp sour cream or plain Greek yogurt

Instructions

  • 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.

Daring to be Simple


“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 the whole idea. And I’m just getting started.

Cumin-Spiced Lamb Noodles


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.

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Cumin-Spiced Lamb Noodles

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 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Servings 1 person

Ingredients

  • 2 oz wide rice noodles
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • lb ground lamb (you could also use ground beef or turkey)
  • 1 scallion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp crushed red pepper
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 2 tsp low-sodium soy sauce, divided
  • 2 tsp unseasoned rice vinegar, divided
  • 1 generous pinch granulated sugar
  • 1 medium carrot
  • cups baby spinach, torn

Instructions

  • 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.