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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.