The Joy of Cooking for a Party of One

The chef Anita Lo, who ran Annisa in the West Village for 17 years, has written a joyful, practical cookbook about cooking for one.
Daniel Krieger for The New York Times

Cookbook covers can be like optical illusions. Take “Microwave Cooking for One,” which features the author, Marie T. Smith, alone with some platters of color-saturated food. Some readers may see desolation and gloom behind her smile. Some, a dusty meme. But others see a triumphant model of practicality and self-care.

The chef Anita Lo was aware of these polarities when she wrote “Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One,” a book celebrating the simple act of cooking for yourself, and only yourself, that will be published by Knopf later this month. Her recipes are tailored to feed one and, in most cases, the steps are minimal and require few pots and pans. In other words, it’s a cookbook that speaks directly to a growing proportion of single Americans, with strategic, small-portion recipes, and tips for shopping, stocking the pantry and storing food in a single-person household.

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Ms. Lo first landed on the project after a brainstorming session of funny cookbook titles with her name in it (including the rejected “Lo Cal”). “I originally told my publishers that the cover should be me and my cat,” said Ms. Lo. “But they thought it was too sad.” Instead, the cover is a cheerful illustration by Julia Rothman, whose line drawings fill the compact book’s pages.

Ms. Lo’s book is part of a far-reaching canon of cooking for one. Nigella Lawson has written about her “solitary indulgences,” as have James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher. The editor Judith Jones wrote a pioneering text in the genre called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” published in 2009.

Ms. Jones took a characteristically precise approach to cooking for herself, but other cooks describe the task as a form of daily self-care. There are plenty of other benefits, too. They note how flavors and textures can often become more delicious because they’re working with such small quantities, and how little to no food can be wasted.

Though Ms. Lo read Ms. Jones’s book and appreciated her approach, she found the recipes — from blueberry soup to blanquette de veau — somewhat dated. Ms. Lo, who grew up in Michigan and ran her West Village restaurant Annisa for 17 years before it closed last year, carefully stocks her own kitchen with kimchi, tahini and dried anchovies.

A touch of any of these ingredients can change the direction of a dish. Take Ms. Lo’s recipe for pan-roasted cauliflower, which relies on a store-bought spice mix — tangy with dried mango and black salt — to effortlessly turn the vegetable into a quick, South Asian-style chaat.

The cauliflower is broken into florets and browned in a saucepan (an impossible task when cooking a large amount), then seasoned with a sauce of cilantro, yogurt and green chiles. To make the garnish, Ms. Lo warms chopped almonds in the toaster oven, which she considers a valuable and versatile tool in any small, efficient kitchen.

In her book, Ms. Jones wrote that “the secret of making cooking for one fun and creative is not to think of a meal as self-contained, but to understand that home cooking is an ongoing process, one dish leading to another.” This is distinct from leftovers, warmed up as they are.

Ms. Lo builds on the beauty of that idea, using the raw cauliflower scraps left over from preparing her chaat to start a new dish by pickling them, always minimizing waste and maximizing creativity.

To preserve vegetables when cooking in small amounts, Ms. Lo cuts them with care. “If you’re cutting an onion, you cut it from the growth side, not the root side,” she said. “And you leave the brown paper skin on so it holds the moisture. Then you cut off what you’re going to use and only peel and chop that part.”

From shopping to prepping to eating, cooking for one requires more efficiency to avoid waste or a mountain of leftovers.

“I think a lot of learning to cook for yourself is about portions, and just making sure you’re cooking the amount you’re going to eat,” Ms. Lo added.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Tejal Rao

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