On your own: Meeting the challenge of routinely fixing good meals for one

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a busy supermarket, a 27-year-old advertising representative wheels a shopping cart slowly along the meat counter.

In the poultry section, he picks up a 4-pound package of boneless chicken breasts and waves it back and forth to catch a butcher's eye. "This may sound like a dumb question," he says, "but can I microwave this?"

Later, in the same supermarket, a graduate student, hovers over the salad bar, piling cold pasta primavera into a carry-out carton.

Between her part-time job in a clothing store and long nights at the library, eating here "is usually the best I can do for dinner," she says. "I cook when I have time, but I'm usually in too much of a frenzy."

On occasion, the student admits she skips dinner completely. "That's probably not very smart," she adds.

These shoppers are just two of a growing number of single Americans who would like to eat better, but lack the time or the tutelage to do so.

Because more young people than ever before grew up in households where both parents worked, many of them are struggling to overcome the idea that cooking, outside the holiday season, is an inconvenience to be avoided. Some of them still haven't figured out if the light stays on when they shut the refrigerator door.

But there's hope.

Paulette Mitchell, a cooking instructor from Minneapolis, has penned a new cookbook called "The 15-Minute Single Gourmet" (Macmillan, $15).

"So many people who are single are so into fitness," Ms. Mitchell says. "They work out, then they go home and eat fast food. It defeats the whole purpose."

Single people have the worst diets of all, she says, because they tend to rely on commercial processed foods. Ms. Mitchell, who sometimes teaches cooking seminars for corporations with young workers, says she's heard stories of singles standing over the sink eating takeout food to avoid making a mess or dirtying a dish.

One of her students once admitted that his kitchen is so sparsely equipped, he uses banana peels as pot holders.

But Ms. Mitchell points out that not all singles are young people. Some adults, many of whom are experienced cooks, suddenly find themselves cooking for one. These singles face a different dilemma: "After years of cooking for a large family, suddenly cooking for one looks impossible," she says. "Dividing recipes for four people doesn't always work."

To complicate matters, Ms. Mitchell says more people are used to eating fine food in restaurants that they can't duplicate in their own kitchens. Her book aims to change that by teaching readers how to cook "simply and efficiently, but with gourmet flair."

For the most part, Ms. Mitchell's strategy works. If you're a kitchen klutz, or even if your kitchen is poorly equipped, Ms. Mitchell has not forgotten you. With her cookbook, all you need to cook Caribbean sole, Mexican taco soup, or rice-paper spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce is a skillet or saucepan and a couple of spoons.

Even those who don't know the meaning of the word "saute" can navigate through these recipes. Ms. Mitchell includes detailed tips printed next to the directions ("Long fusilli are long curly strands of pasta") that help ease the transition from gosling to gourmet. Also, in keeping with the age of aerobics, each recipe includes the total fat content.

But there is a downside: You have to plan ahead.

Although many singles complain about time constraints and the fact that items like meat and lettuce only come in family-size quantities, Ms. Mitchell insists that "shopping is the key."

She recommends making an advance menu plan and visiting the store once a week to buy the necessary foods. She advises shoppers to opt for fresh foods over frozen whenever possible. As a rule, she says, it's far better to rely on food that was plucked from a vine than something that was engineered in a laboratory.

With shopping, cooking, and eating included, she says, total time spent should average out to about 30 to 40 minutes daily.

Here are recipes from Ms. Mitchell's book:

Vegetarian Tostada

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

dash of hot-pepper sauce, or to taste

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup sliced zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4 -inch slices

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup coarsely shredded carrot

1 tablespoon chopped onion

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

1 plum tomato, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes ( 1/2 cup)

1 6- or 7-inch flour tortilla (white or whole wheat)

shredded Cheddar cheese or freshly grated Parmesan cheese

alfalfa sprouts or shredded lettuce

orange slices

Adjust the oven rack 4 to 5 inches from the broiling element; heat the broiler.

Stir together the water, tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and hot-pepper sauce in a measuring cup; set aside.

Heat 1/2 teaspoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini, mushrooms, carrot, and onion. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender, about 4 minutes. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds longer. Stir in the tomato-paste mixture and tomato cubes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, brush both sides of the tortilla with the remaining olive oil. Prick the surface of the tortilla in several places with a fork. Place directly on the oven rack; broil until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Watch closely! Place on a serving plate.

Taste the topping; adjust seasonings. Mound on the toasted tortilla. Garnish the tortilla with cheese. As a garnish on the plate, place a mound of alfalfa sprouts or shredded lettuce with orange slices arranged on top.

Variations:

* Add or substitute other vegetables such as small broccoli florets or corn

* Add about 2 tablespoons cooked beans such as black, kidney, or garbanzo beans

* Add canned chopped green chilies or minced jalapeno pepper

* In place of the tortilla, stuff the mixture into 2 taco shells; top each with lettuce and cheese; drizzle with taco sauce

* Use the Vegetarian Tostada topping as a filling for an omelet, as a pita-bread filling, or as a topping for English muffins (sprinkle with shredded cheese, and place under the broiler for a few minutes until melted).

Per serving: calories, 142; protein, 6 g; fat, 8 g; sodium, 40 mg; carbohydrates, 19 g.

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