September 6, 2006

 

Single Serving

Bucking the trend toward takeout,
some who eat solo still cook for themselves

By L. Joan Allen
Baltimore Sun

Michael Wagner freezes his leftover homemade pesto in ice-cube trays. Maria Serafini makes her signature turkey chili, then spoons leftovers over greens to make a taco salad. Janet Weber has a go-to, quick Thai red curry to serve with rice.

These local cooks have different approaches to a common problem - making food just for themselves. By cooking at all, they're swimming against the tide of long working hours and increasingly available single-portion convenience food that makes it less likely than ever for singles to make a meal from scratch.

Recent studies suggest that singles who cook on a regular basis are increasingly rare.

Singles who live alone make up nearly 27 percent of American households, up from 13 percent in 1960, says Thomas F. Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, an information service for singles. That means about 30 million Americans are living - and often eating - alone, he says.

Most are not slaving over a hot stove, says Claudia Peters, vice president of communications at the Food Marketing Institute. She reports that 67 percent of adults living alone have a home-cooked meal just once a week.

Take Shana Bender, 30, a never-married acupuncturist living in Catonsville. When she runs out of groceries and doesn't feel like shopping, Bender says, "I'll go out to eat a lot, mostly to fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, because it's cheap and easy and there are so many everywhere."

Instead of cooking for her dates, Bender prefers it the other way around.

"When I was dating a guy, he would cook all the time," she says. "We broke up in February, and now I go to my sister Merrill's. She's the one who does the cooking."

In spite of the statistics, there are singles who cook for themselves because they want to know what they are eating and have more control over the ingredients. A 2005 study by the Mintel International Group, which monitors trends in the food world, found that concerns over the nation's high rate of obesity and diabetes were nudging some older single cooks back into the kitchen.

"Armed with the skills to cook and with concerns over health and diet, baby boomers, now aged 40 to 58 ... will gravitate to foods that are better for them, such as organics," the study says.

That's why Weber, 51, a divorced account supervisor at GKV Communications in Baltimore, has been cooking for herself about three times a week. "I want to have foods that are fresh and healthier," she says.

When it's hot outside, Weber, who lives in Federal Hill, likes to go out for lighter meals such as a fresh salad. But in colder weather, the Thai red curry, which can take on shrimp to make a heartier meal, comes together quickly.

"Another reason I cook for myself is so I'll have leftovers during the day, enough extra for lunch," Weber says. "I get tired of eating the same things from the same places. ... Bringing lunch gives me a variety."

Serafini, 35, a divorced Baltimore native who lives in Carney, says preparing healthful foods is high on her list. "I know what the contents and ingredients are and I can control what I cook from a health perspective," she says. "For example, I use olive oil and butter instead of hydrogenated oils. I'm really against them."

Serafini, an employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, says another reason for fixing meals at home every day is financial. She'll pop a Lean Cuisine spa meal in the microwave, open a can of tuna or broil a ground turkey patty and pair it with a fresh steamed vegetable to avoid paying for higher-priced takeout food.

Serafini says usually she fires up the oven or range three or four times a week, preparing one-pot meals that are easy to clean up, like beans and rice, baked chicken with olive oil and Sylvia's soul-food spices or her favorite, ground turkey chili.

"That's versatile," she says. "I can throw the chili on top of a bed of crisp lettuce and turn it into a taco salad, and steam a bag of spinach as a side dish."

Carol Sorgen, a 57-year-old divorced journalist, says she actually knows how to cook well but often doesn't because she'd rather do something else with free time. "I work so much - 70 hours a week - that it's just disruptive to stop at a certain point and prepare a meal," she says. "There are other things I'd rather do, such as read a book, catch up with friends on the phone or go out."

The Pikesville resident relies heavily on carryout for her meals, but still tries to make healthful choices. "I pick up mostly grilled or poached salmon and a salad or penne pasta and roasted vegetables from various rounds of gourmet takeouts." Sorgen says she does sneak in a hamburger from a fast-food chain at least once a week.

Like Sorgen, divorced chef Michael Wagner, 45, also works hectic hours. Unlike Sorgen, he loves cooking for himself. "Cooking helps me unwind," he says, though it is also his job - Wagner is chef instructor at Anne Arundel Community College's Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute and executive partner of Aida Bistro in Columbia, where he works weekends.

"I'm not a big fan of fast food; I have high standards when it comes to what I'm eating," says Wagner, who lives in Marriottsville. "And I'm trying to eat healthier after a long day of work." On the summer nights Wagner isn't working in his restaurant, he throws seafood, fish, vegetables, ribs, burgers or steaks on the grill.

Sometimes Wagner enjoys preparing a rustic and hearty squid-ink or saffron pasta, which he eats with a salad. He tops the pasta with a simple marinara sauce or pesto sauce.

His pesto recipe makes about six servings, but he doesn't let the leftovers go to waste. He freezes individual portions in an ice-cube tray (covered with plastic wrap), so they're ready for his next quick, homemade meal.

I'm a single cook myself, and recently I picked up a yellowed copy of Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook (1969) at a flea market. I turned to a page where she tells single women, "You shouldn't cook for a man every night, or every other night or maybe even once a week until you're engaged."

I'm not sure which surprised me more: that single women once cooked every night or that there was a recipe for snagging a husband. But I do know that I deserve to make a treat for myself every now and again.

Homemade desserts can be a real rarity for singles, but my Presto Peach Soup fills the bill, either as a first course or finale. And it's great if you want to impress a date.


Tips for singles

Here are some tips for cooking for one from digsmagazine.com., which calls itself a "home + living guide for the post-college, pre-parenthood, quasi-adult generation":

If you're making the full recipe of a more involved dish, divide up the portions immediately, then freeze all but one. (Otherwise, you'll probably end up eating much more than you should.)

Recycle leftovers in burritos, sandwich roll-ups, fried rice, frittatas and omelets.

To keep produce from going bad, buy frozen veggies in plastic bags or freeze your own vegetables and fruit. Freeze unused bread or rolls as soon as you bring them home.

Use the salad bar at your local deli whenever you need a small amount of fresh vegetables for a recipe.

Keep healthful, no-prep snacks on hand, such as pita bread, cottage cheese, raw carrots, yogurt and hummus.

Celebrate

If you enjoy cooking but don't like eating alone, invite some friends over on a Sunday afternoon and prepare recipes together. Put one person in charge of groceries for each recipe. Use leftovers for the next day's lunch.

Want to meet new people? Throw a networking party with a theme, like Fall Harvest Fete. Ask single friends to bring an available "just friend" of the opposite sex and a dish containing foods with that theme, such as pumpkin pie.

[L. Joan Allen]


Fresh Pesto

Makes 1 1/2 cups or six 2-ounce servings

2 ounces toasted pine nuts (toast lightly in skillet on low heat)

2 to 4 garlic cloves

1/2 pound fresh basil leaves

1/2 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper

2 ounces good-quality extra virgin olive oil

1 ounce parmesan cheese

1 ounce Romano cheese

whole toasted pine nuts (garnish)

Put 2 ounces pine nuts through food processor till finely chopped, about 30 seconds. Add garlic and pulse 30 seconds. Process until paste forms. Add basil and pepper.

Drizzle in oil slowly while processor is running for about 2 minutes and forms a homogenous mixture. Add cheeses and process another 30 seconds. Serve at room temperature over hot pasta. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

Per serving: 202 calories, 6 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 159 milligrams sodium

Courtesy of Michael Wagner


Thai Red Curry with Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

two 14-ounce cans of coconut milk (or light coconut milk)

1 tablespoon Thai Kitchen Red Curry Paste

4 tablespoons fish sauce

1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock

1/2 cup each of 3 to 4 vegetables, such as zucchini, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, red peppers, broccoli or bamboo shoots

raw shrimp (optional)

Bring coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce and vegetable stock to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes. Add vegetables and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. If you like, add raw shrimp and cook till shrimp is cooked through. Serve over rice.

Per serving (based on 6 servings, without shrimp or rice): 276 calories, 4 grams protein, 28 grams fat, 25 grams saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 1,118 milligrams sodium

Courtesy of Janet Weber


Presto Peach Soup

Serves 2

3 tablespoons half-and-half (can substitute fat-free)

2 tablespoons maple syrup (can substitute sugar-free)

1 tablespoon powdered sugar (optional, to taste)

fresh mint for garnish

Peel peaches, remove pits and quarter. Put peaches into food processor. Add remaining ingredients (except mint) and pulse until smooth. Season to taste with powdered sugar. Pour into bowls. Add a sprig of mint for garnish.

Per serving: 219 calories, 4 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 48 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium

Courtesy of L. Joan Allen