The art of eating solo; Cooking for yourself is worth the trouble, Janneke Vreugdenhil tells ELLA WALKER Food.
EATING alone? So often, it just seems easier to chuck something on a slice of toast for dinner when you're dining solo, than go to the effort of cooking a proper meal.
For food writer Janneke Vreugdenhil, her toast topping of choice was anchovies and avocado - if she could bring herself to eat at all.
"After my husband left me three years ago, at first, I couldn't eat," she remembers. "I'm a food writer so I'm used to cooking, food is a big part of my life.
"I get up in the morning and I think about food; I go to bed and I think about food, and suddenly, food was the last thing on my agenda.
"I was so sad, I wasn't hungry. I was losing weight and I felt miserable. Because divorce is not very good for your self-confidence and self-love, I didn't love myself enough to think I was worth the trouble of cooking.
"Then one day I thought, 'OK, I have to start taking better care of myself'."
After around six months of living alone - aside from when her two sons were with her - the Dutch cookery book author and critic finally seared a steak for herself.
"In the beginning, it felt really strange. I thought, 'It's silly, I'm all alone, why am I going to all this trouble? Why don't I just eat a bag of crisps in bed like I did in the first months?"' Ditching dinners of crisps, supermarket soup and bowls of oatmeal, led to her rediscovering her joy of food, and to recipe ideas, and finally to Solo Food, a cookbook of dishes for one.
She considers the book her "therapy" because it drove her to cook for herself daily, and enjoy it, until "it became a new normal thing to do".
Janneke's sadness and wobbly self-esteem were not the only obstacles to cooking well for one though. "Cooking for one is a different thing than cooking for two, or a crowd or a family," she explains. "Recipes are always meant for four people, and packaging in supermarkets is aimed at families."
On a practical level, solo cooking can be a logistical nightmare. "It is far easier to multiply a recipe for one, than to divide a recipe for four into one-person portions - like a cauliflower, you're never going to eat a whole cauliflower all by yourself, even the natural packaging of it makes it difficult for one person," says Janneke.
"Meals have to be quick and practical. You have to be clever."
In Solo Food, she shares a lemon cake in a mug, a bowl of stir-fried prawns to dunk in harissa mayo, ideas for using up stuff across multiple days without rice-fatigue setting in, and a favourite green slush of quinotto that Janneke admits is "not something I would make for someone else, it doesn't really look good, it's a bit messy, but it tastes really, really nice".
and "So many people live solo for some time in their lives," says Janneke. "Whether you're alone by choice or by chance, it doesn't matter, cooking for yourself is a very precious - and fun - thing to do."
Reflecting on how her dinners for one have changed how she works in the kitchen, Janneke says:"I am cooking more freestyle. I'm doing really funky stuff because there's no one to say, 'Oh, you can't have that with that!' I put all my leftovers together and sometimes it's amazingly good, and sometimes it doesn't work at all and I do have to order pizza, but it's a real opportunity to cook on instinct, and by heart.
"Restaurant meals, takeouts, ready meals - they're made for the average palate," she adds, when you're only feeding yourself, you can be specific, decadent, selfish even.
"You can really follow your own palate. You don't have to please anyone else."
| Solo Food by Janneke Vreugdenhil, photography by Floortje van Essen-Ingen Housz, is published in paperback by HQ, priced PS16.99.
a steak claimGOOD OLD STEAK SANDWICH (SERVES 1) st IS THERE anything better than a proper grilled steak sandwich? claim This one, from Janneke's new book, comes with a mustardy mayo and is topped with onions.
Whip one up for yourself as a treat...
INGREDIENTS 1 shallot, sliced into rings A small splash of red wine vinegar 1 entrecote steak (around 150g) 1/4 baguette or a crusty bread roll 1-2tsp Dijon mustard 1-2tbsp mayonnaise 1 head little gem, leaves separated Salt and freshly ground pepper, to season METHOD: 1. Preheat the oven to 200degC/400degF/Gas 6. Put the shallot rings into a small bowl, add the red wine vinegar and let it sit for 10 minutes. 2. In the meantime, place a griddle pan over a high heat until it's very hot.
3. Rub some salt into both sides of the entrecote. 4. Fry the meat for one to one and a half minutes on each side. 5. Place it on a cutting board, grind over some pepper and let it rest for a bit.
6. Warm through the French bread or rolls in the hot oven (or slice them open and toast in the steak pan).
7. Meanwhile, stir the mustard into the mayo in a little bowl, to taste. 8. Slice the warmed bread in half lengthways, then spread both halves with a generous amount of the mustardy mayo and add some lettuce leaves.
9. Slice the entrecote on the diagonal and arrange the slices in the sandwich.
10. Squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the shallot rings and sprinkle them over the meat. Top with the other half of the bread, and dinner is served.
bowled over QUINOTTO WITH FENNEL ALMONDS AND AVOCADO (SERVES 1) SOME dishes you probably wouldn't serve up for visitors - but they can still be a delight for nights in on your own.
"This was one of the first things I made for myself after I was on my own," explains Janneke.
"This rather strange combination emerged out of a few things I happened to have on hand.
"(It's) typical solo food, actually, in that it's something I probably wouldn't make for a guest.
"But I like it so much that I now eat it fairly often, and every time I do, I hope I'll find the willpower to stop myself from eating the whole bowl."
INGREDIENTS: Olive oil, for frying 1 shallot, sliced into half rings 1 small fennel bulb, cut in half and sliced 100g quinoa 250ml hot vegetable stock (from a cube) A small handful of almonds, with skin on 1 small avocado Juice of 1/2 lime A small handful of fresh coriander leaves, coarsely chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper, to season METHOD: 1. Heat the olive oil in a small heavy pan and add in the shallot, fennel and a small pinch of salt.
2. Saute for a few minutes, then add the quinoa and fry a bit longer, stirring well. 3. Pour the stock into the pan, bring to the boil, turn down the heat to low, then cover the pan and cook for 15-20 minutes until done. 4. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan.
5. Remove the peel from the avocado and cut the flesh into largish chunks - sprinkle them with a little of the lime juice to keep them from turning brown.
6. Remove the pan with the quinoa from the heat and stir in the almonds, avocado and coriander.
7. Taste and season with black pepper, lime juice and, if necessary, a little more salt. 8. Put everything into a bowl, grab a spoon and dig in.
pan one-wonder A KIND OF PISTO MANCHEGO (SERVES 1) IT MIGHT look like breakfast for dinner, but this easy dish is so much more.
Janneke calls this recipe "a kind of pisto manchego".
Whatever you call it, it's a quick, one-pan dinner that's ready in less than half an hour.
It's pretty healthy too. Here's how to do it...
INGREDIENTS: Olive oil, for frying 1 small (or 1/2 large) onion, sliced into half rings 1/2 long red pepper, deseeded and sliced into strips 4 slices of Serrano ham or chorizo, chopped 1/2 courgette or 1 baby courgette, cut in half lengthways and sliced into half moons 10 cherry tomatoes, halved 2 eggs A few fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley leaves (or a pinch of dried oregano) Salt and freshly ground pepper, to season Bread, to serve METHOD: 1. Heat a small splash of olive oil in a frying pan, add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry for two minutes over a high heat until the onion begins to brown.
2. Add the pepper and fry for two minutes more.
3. Add the ham or chorizo and fry for another minute. 4. Add the courgette and fry for two more minutes. 5. Add the tomatoes and fry for another two minutes. 6. Make two depressions in the vegetable mixture and break in the eggs, then cook for two to three minutes until the eggs are set, covering the pan for the last 30 seconds. 7. Sprinkle over a little more salt if necessary, and in any case with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper, and finish with one of the herbs. 8. Serve immediately with some kind of rustic bread, or just use whatever bread you've got on hand.
writer Janneke Vreugdenhil, above, and her new book - Solo Food - inset left