Q&A with Joe Yonan, author of Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One

  • March 31, 2011

Joe Yonan discusses strategies to plan and create meals for individuals with today's fast-paced life styles.

Interviewed by Kelly DiNardo

Q) What inspired the idea behind Serve Yourself?

A) I had been writing the monthly “Cooking for One” column for The Washington Post food section for a couple of years and was surprised that even though the fastest-growing household size in the country is “single-person,” and has been for many years, there were only a few other books on the topic. Ultimately, though, it was a Facebook comment that really did it. Someone posted in response to something I wrote on using up leftover wine that all my problems would be solved if I just got myself a relationship because, obviously, “the pleasures of the table are best shared.” That naiveté about the lives of single people is what really motivated me. I want single folks to realize that they don’t have to resort to takeout all the time, or processed food, but that they can follow their own cravings and have fun doing so.

Q) Do you feel the book is kind of a necessity? You live alone, you want to eat healthily and well. Does anyone still learn at their grandmother’s or mother’s side?

A) Absolutely, it’s a necessity. I’m lucky to have learned some things in the kitchen from my mom and stepdad when I was a kid ― and I actually grocery-shopped for the family starting at age 8 ― but so many people don’t learn how to cook before they have to live on their own. And it’s really not that hard. It just takes some planning, a little bit of fearlessness and the willingness to work at it. It’s not enough just to be hungry ― you have to learn how to satisfy your hunger, and I try to always do it in a way that, indeed, sustains me. Cooking for yourself is the first step in eating more healthfully, but it’s not the only one; you also have to learn about portions and so many other things. Portion control is pretty tough if you’re always working off recipes that serve four or more.

Q) I’ve heard you say this cookbook isn’t just for singles. Can you explain? Who else is cooking for one?

A) Members of just about every couple I know, especially young professional ones, who have different eating schedules because one is traveling, one works late, or maybe they even live in different cities or just have different diets. Most of my recipes are easily adaptable to two with the addition of a simple side like a salad or some bread, and others are easy to double ― and I always find it easier to double than to cut a recipe down.

Q) What are some of the challenges when it comes to cooking for one?

A) They start in the supermarket. Have you tried to find a single celery stalk for sale lately? A small head of cabbage? Anything that isn’t going to sit in what I prefer to call your fridge’s “rotter,” not its crisper, because rotting is what tends to happen there. Then there are the recipes: if you and your boyfriend make a recipe that serves four, you have one night of leftovers, and you’re probably happy as a clam about that. If I make the same recipe, I have three nights of leftovers, and believe me, on that second and third night, I’m sick of that dish, whatever it was. So ultimately the goal is to find strategies that help you shop more effectively so that you have less waste, to learn how to store unused produce so that you can get the most out of it, no rotting allowed, and to use recipes that are more appropriate for one. Many of my recipes are single servings, start to finish, and others make enough for multiple meals but not exactly in the way you might think. I don’t like leftovers just as leftovers but I firmly believe in making some things in bulk that you can draw on later and turn them in different directions.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book? Which one?

Well, that’s like asking me to choose between my children — wait, I don’t have any children! OK, lately I’ve been loving the soup bases. They’re riffs on an idea I got from the fabulous Lidia Bastianich, and I just love having them in my freezer. One is sweet potato, and the other is black bean. I make them when I have a little time, like on a Sunday, and they’re packed with flavor and pretty thick. I freeze them in single-serving containers, and then when I want a quick soup, I defrost them, thin them out and add a few quick-cooking ingredients. So I quickly sauté chorizo, kale and chickpeas and combine it with some of the sweet potato soup base that’s been thinned out with a little stock or water, and it comes together in just a few minutes. That same base another time can get combined with pecans that I pan-fry with oil and smoked paprika, then stir into the soup with some sour cream or crème fraiche. The black bean soup base can become a twist on tortilla soup, with shrimp, tortillas, cherry tomatoes and corn on one night, then on another night it gets a garnish of seared scallops and a quick tomatillo-avocado salsa.

You wrote on your blog that one of the most unnerving things about writing a cookbook is that other people are going to cook your food. Why is that unnerving? Is that something you hadn’t considered before?

Well, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? Of course I want people to make and love my recipes; that’s the whole point. But it wasn’t until bloggers started writing about the book — and cooking from it, and photographing the recipes — that the full reality struck me, and I did get a little unnerved. It’s partly that everything is so theoretical up to a point, and then you release it to the world and see what happens. I know why people refer to writing a book as having a baby but it strikes me that it’s more like having an 18-year-old because you have to immediately let it go and become what it’s going to become. Also, I guess it’s just that you never really know what people are going to think about your food until they cook it.  I can work on a recipe, testing it and getting it to just where I want it but ultimately taste is such a subjective thing. My palate has been shaped by my own unique experiences, so I’ve found it gratifying that others have enjoyed the recipes, too, but you know what they say about pleasing all the people all the time.

What other surprises have you encountered in this process?

The best surprise of all has been the discovery that there are few things I can’t make appropriate for a single cook. Until I tried it, I didn’t really believe I could do risotto for one or paella for one, honestly. But with some tweaking, I sure could, and that has been a blast.

Tell us about Project Downscale. What was the most challenging recipe? Did any of the results end up in the book?

Project Downscale is something I took on for the Washington Post’s Food section blog, “All We Can Eat,” in which I ask readers to send me their favorite recipes for something that typically serves many people, and I cut it down to single-serving size. I’ve done eggplant parmesan, beef Burgundy, enchiladas — even tamales! Boeuf Bourguignon was pretty challenging because, frankly, it’s a little silly to make such an involved, long-cooking stew in a single serving. So I reinvented it and made something more appropriate for a single cook: steak with a Burgundy and mushroom sauce. All the elements are there but it’s constructed differently, with very tender pan-fried ribeye instead of the braised meat. I thought the tamales would require multiple tests but honestly they came together — just four of them — perfectly the first time!  What I ended up writing was that just because you can make just four tamales doesn’t mean you should, especially since they freeze so well.

I started the project after the book was done, so none of those results went in — but who knows? Maybe they’ll be the makings of “Serve Yourself Seconds”!

As a reader/cook, what do you look for in a good cookbook?

Well, first and foremost, I suppose I’m looking for good ideas. I like to flip through a cookbook and see combinations that hadn’t occurred to me and that sound great. I don’t always cook directly from a cookbook but just incorporate the ideas into my own dishes. Second, I like to have good reference cookbooks around, especially for different global cuisines, so I can make sure to know the traditional way of making something. I’m collecting the Time-Life Foods of the World Series from the 1960s for that reason. Third, I do enjoy good writing and photography in a cookbook, even if I don’t end up making anything from it.

What are some of your favorite cookbooks?

“The Heart of the Artichoke,” and “A Platter of Figs” by David Tanis; such beautiful writing. The Canal House Cookbooks for breezy, fantastic ideas and Christopher Hirscheimer’s incomparable photography. Books by David Lebovitz, Grace Young, Claudia Roden, Elizabeth Andoh.  Oh my, I could go on and on. Anything by Dorie Greenspan. “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers. “The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual” is one of the most delightful books I’ve seen in awhile.

What are some of your favorite food-related books that aren’t cookbooks?

Well, the one I can’t stop thinking about, the one I want to read all over again, is Gabrielle Hamilton’s new memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter,” which I reviewed recently. That’s my favorite chef memoir ever.

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