Shouting into the Void, Part I

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.

[Cookie recipe: Crunchy Chewy Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies]

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.


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


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


  • 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.

What do you crave?

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.