Cooking for one: the single shopper
WASHINGTON — It was the broccoli that stopped Judith Jones in her tracks at the White House farmers market, and then again at a Whole Foods Market a half-mile away. "Look! Look!" she exclaimed. "You can buy just one branch!"
Jones, the legendary cookbook editor (and, most famously, discoverer of Julia Child), cares about such things because she lives alone and therefore on many nights cooks and eats alone. And nothing burns her up more than the insensitive-to-single-people attitude of too many grocery stores.
"Once, years ago, I was in a supermarket, and they had only these giant heads of broccoli," she said while standing in the produce department of Whole Foods. "I broke off one stalk and took it to the cashier, who told me I had to pay for the whole head. I was humiliated."
No more. As she writes in her new book, "The Pleasures of Cooking for One" (Knopf), these days Jones fearlessly asks supermarket butchers to open packages of two pork tenderloins and sell her just the one. And she's always on the lookout for signs that things are getting friendlier for the increasing number of solo cooks. That's why when she came to Washington last month for signing events at Zola Wine & Kitchen and Politics and Prose, we decided to invite a few readers in need of inspiration to tag along while she shopped.
We started at one of the city's newest farmers markets, the Thursday one managed by FreshFarm Markets for a couple of busy months this fall before closing for the season at the end of October. The diminutive Jones, 85, led the way in her smart light-green woolen suit, pointing out this and that and imparting her soft-spoken wisdom to the strolling audience of four.
That huge pane pugliese at the Quail Creek Farm booth? Way too big for one person, although you can eat some fresh, freeze some and make bread salad ("it's a wonderful thing") or bread pudding with the rest. "You may still end up wasting a little bit," she allowed. "There's no such thing as 100 percent purity." But then we noticed: The farm also sells halves and quarters of that lovely loaf, and demi-baguettes, too.
For singles, one of the best things about farmers markets is that so much of the produce and other products is sold loose or individually: no need to buy a whole bag of spinach when you can just scoop up however many leaves you'd like. And many farmers are cultivating smaller varieties of butternut squash, melons, cabbages and other crops. For the readers who came along on our shopping tour, such things can make all the difference.
"I buy a whole bag of carrots at the supermarket," said Katherine Bedard, 33, who lives in D.C. "And then I use only one."
Jones knows the feeling. "Celery is the worst," she said. "Every time I buy one of those big bunches of celery, I regret it."
But carrots? If you find yourself with a bunch when you need just one, roast the remainder — this goes for all sorts of vegetables — and then use them throughout the week: in hashes, in salads, over pasta, in soups or even as a vegetarian roll-up sandwich with a little dressing.
As Jones stressed throughout the afternoon, think about the entire week of cooking, not just one recipe. That means resisting those clamshell packs of herbs and buying small pots for your windowsill instead. Then, when a recipe calls for a sprig of fresh thyme, you'll know just where to find it; the rest can live to see another day. As she pointed out at Whole Foods, it also means looking for things that keep well, such as smoked salmon, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. "I always have smoked salmon in my refrigerator," she says. "It makes such a nice and easy pasta sauce: smoked salmon, a little cream, a drop of vodka."
The best thing about cooking for herself, Jones allows, is following her cravings, and they often start at the market. "I'll think, 'Oh, look at those lamb shanks, I haven't had those in a while,' and I try to think through the week, what I can do that would lead to the next thing." In her book, for instance, she writes about Moroccan-style lamb shanks with potatoes and peas in which the leftover shank and sauce are turned into couscous with lamb, onions and raisins.
For this day's lesson, she pointed to Whole Foods' individually sold pork tenderloin, one of her favorite ways to cook through the week. As she demonstrated back at The Washington Post, she cuts thin slices for a scaloppine dish the first night, removes and sets aside a piece from the tapered end of the tenderloin for a stir-fry later in the week, then roasts the center piece with vegetables. She eats part of the roast one night, then turns the leftovers into red flannel hash with cooked beets and potatoes.
As the readers watched her and asked questions, they also traded some cooking-for-one tips of their own: buying individual-serving-size cartons of stock at Trader Joe's, taking piles of baked goods to co-workers, testing the limits of their overloaded freezers.
Along the way, Jones emphasized that nothing is set in stone, recipe-wise. Want more lemon? Add more lemon. Don't like meat? Use the scaloppine sauce on fish. Want more of the roast pork? Eat what you want and then have more or less left over for another meal, another time.
That last piece of advice was directed my way. As Jones admitted, she might be able to get four meals out of a single tenderloin. But I'm a different story, with a different — yes, much larger — appetite.
And that's the point. When you're cooking for one, to each his own.