Meet & Eat: Joe Yonan, Washington Post Food Editor and Cookbook Author
We've become so accustomed to divvying recipes up to fit a solo meal, or just Tupperwaring the leftovers. How often do you see a recipe that says "serves one"? Subtext: you're eating alone?!
That's why Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan started his "Cooking for One" column for the paper awhile back. He is actually a pretty social guy. Loves going out with friends and hosting dinner parties, but also cherishes his alone time (well, with his big Doberman and little cat).
The idea to write Serve Yourself, our Cook the Book this week and not to be confused with the John Lennon song, came out of the column. "All of the previous books on the topic, and there hadn't been many, were by women, and most seemed aimed at the older end of the demographic," he says.
So often people don't "bother" cooking for just themselves. Why would I bother, when it's just for me? Joe's response: why wouldn't you?! Yes, it's a wonderful thing to share the pleasures of the table with loved ones, but he believes single folks deserve to cook and eat interesting meals with real silverware.
We talked to Joe about writing the book, the challenges of shopping for solo cooking, and if this project made his social life suffer significantly.
What were some challenges when developing single-serving recipes? You'd think I'd say portions, downscaling and such, but I'm so used to doing that kind of thing for myself that those were the least of my worries. Mostly, the obstacle had something to do with thinking back to some really great dish I created some time back. I regretted the fact that I hadn't written it down at the time. But once I got in the zone, food memories came flooding back. I had a ball turning them into recipes that work.
You must find yourself with extra herbs and other perishable/rottable ingredients when cooking single portions. I refer to the crisper as the "rotter" cause that's what happens to the stuff in there, too too often. Indeed, this is probably the toughest part about cooking for one—learning how to shop so you don't end up with too much rottable stuff. And of course learning how to stave off the rot, too.
Any tips? Store things well. The remaining stalks in a bunch of celery get wrapped in aluminum foil before getting refrigerated, for instance. I treat many herbs, such as basil, mint and parsley, the way I do cut flowers: trimming the ends, stripping off the bottom leaves and sticking the stems in water. But ultimately you need to find ways to use, not just store, things. I wrote a section in the book on using up leftover ingredients.
I take the most common things that my own recipes might leave you with—the celery, half an avocado, half a lime, etc.—and tell you every other recipe in the book that uses it. It's an extra reference point beyond the index that can help you avoid waste.
Are you a fan of eating out alone too? When I travel more than when I'm close to home. Partly that's because I feel less conspicuous in places where nobody knows me, and love eating at the bar and chatting up the bartender and nearby diners. You can also control the pace of your meal when you're at the bar, you know? No twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next course, or being forced to stick your nose in a book.
How'd you find time to run an award-winning newspaper food section while writing a cookbook? [By the way, congrats on another James Beard Foundation nomination this year!] Thankfully, I have a great deputy, Bonnie Benwick, who took up some of the slack while I was book-focused. I also took a monthlong leave for the final stretch.
Did your social life suffer? (Or maybe that fostered the solo cheffing..) It remained intact, thankfully, because I was able to draw lots of friends into the testing and tasting process. Pizza party! Or maybe you're talking about dating? Yeah, that suffered, absolutely. When the book publicity calms down, I'll be back on the market. Next book: Serve Yourselves?
What are your go-to recipes in here? Well, my love for tacos is boundless, but I also am such a fried rice obsessive. I almost always have leftover rice in my freezer just waiting for the purpose, along with kimchi, which I make every few weeks. So it's Fried Rice with Cauliflower and Kimchi, or Thai Fried Rice with Runny Egg. Or sometimes a cross between them.
What are the mainstays in your fridge/pantry? Always have eggs, pickled onions, sweet and white potatoes, onions, garlic, lots of different oils, vinegars. I'm a condiment addict. Jams and jellies. Dried pasta, dried beans. Lots of different grains, actually. My current favorite is farro, but also brown rice, barley, couscous, fregola. Oh, my—how long do you want this answer to be? I could live for six months off what's in my fridge, pantry and freezer.
Feel free to keep going! I haven't even scratched the surface, really. Corn tortillas, sometimes homemade. Almond milk, regular milk, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, various soy sauces (double dark!) and other Asian condiments: Sriracha, kimchi, oyster sauce, hooboy. Slow-roasted tomatoes. This could go on and on.
What do you like making with the fewest pantry items? An omelet, absolutely, or a sweet potato, or maybe a little of both. One of my favorite taco recipes is Tacos de Huevos: a roasted sweet potato, fried eggs, pickled onions, salsa.
TV watching while eating: yea or nay? Watch TV, absolutely. Taco in one hand, remote in the other. And of course the big goofy pooch is on the couch next to me.
The absolute best thing about cooking solo? Nobody's palate, appetite, dietary restriction to take into account but your own. You can follow your own cravings wherever they may lead you (tonight's a spicy-enough-to-set-my-mouth-on-fire kind of night!), with no need to explain or apologize. And unlike when you cook for a dinner party, there's no pressure, no performance anxiety.
Worst thing that can happen? (Well, short of death and destruction, but I think I've got that under control.) It's inedible—so guess what? You don't have to eat it! You can ring up your favorite pizza joint. Which means you can let your imagination run wild.
We'll be featuring recipes from Serve Yourself each day this week!