Cooking for one — and loving it

A lesson in joys of food, self-discovery

March 03, 2010|By Rob Kasper

Judith Jones, cookbook editor extraordinaire, urged a Baltimore audience on Friday to keep the kitchen fires burning, even if they are cooking solo.

It was a stirring performance as Jones, who is 85 and has edited the work of James Beard, Jacques Pepin, Edna Lewis and Julia Child, whipped up a cheese omelette, fish cakes and some oatmeal cookies as she spoke.

Addressing an audience of about 200 residents of the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, Jones teamed up with Charlestown chef Vinson Bankoski to cook dishes from her new book, "The Pleasures of Cooking for One." Along the way, she spoke of her experiences with various cookbook authors, told stories from her past and expounded on her belief that cooking is energizing, even if you are cooking for one.

Jones, whose husband, Evan, died in 1996, told the gray-haired crowd that she once thought that dining at home without her husband and family would seem "empty and sad." But on the contrary, she found that making a good meal was a way of honoring the past. Jones, who works three days a week as an editor at Knopf in Manhattan, said the evening meal was often "the highlight of my day. I always light a candle and open some wine," she said.

She also offered words of encouragement for another group of solitary diners who were not in the audience - young singles - to try their hand at kitchen work. "For young people just starting off, what better way to learn than to learn on yourselves, you eat your mistakes and do it better the next time."

A day before seeing her in Baltimore, I spoke on the telephone with Jones, who was in her New York office. She told me that she practices what she puts in print, making meals in the 10-by-7-foot kitchen of her ninth-floor Manhattan apartment, and in the summer, at a family home in Vermont. She admitted she had "the cooking gene."

"When you enter an empty house or apartment, it is such a pleasure to make it come alive by filling the kitchen with smells," she said. "Instead of just wasting and throwing things together or eating the terrible ersatz takeout, you are treating yourself well, and that is a lot of fun."

She said the challenges of cooking for one - such as buying too many groceries - can be overcome by following strategies outlined in her book. The key, she said, is not to think of a meal as self-contained, but rather to regard cooking as an ongoing process of one dish leading to another. In other words, you have one serious cooking session, say on a Sunday afternoon, and then feast during the week on the reincarnations. Her book contains recipes that start with an initial dish, and then it offers recipes for subsequent meals made with leftovers.

She offered the example of pork tenderloin. Since pork loins come two to a package, Jones tries to get the butcher to open the package and sell her just one. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, she told me. Nonetheless, she ends up using the tenderloin in four different dishes during the week: She slices thin pieces to make a scaloppine, she uses another part for stir fry, she roasts the remainder of the loin, and she uses leftovers from the roast to make a hash.

"Three or four different ways for one little tenderloin," she said.

As she cooked in Baltimore, she told several stories about working with Child. "She had such fun cooking," Jones said, adding that even so, Child could also take an editor down a notch or two. When Jones once referred to some of Child's recipes as "peasant" cooking, Child got "prickly" and contended that the dishes represented "good country cooking," Jones recalled.

But Child also taught her the secrets to making great hash, Jones told me. First, make a glaze by cooking the hash slowly at first with some stock. Second, cut the meat into small pieces. Third, use the same amount of potatoes as meat.

In our telephone conversation, Jones passed along some of the other tips she had picked up from working with well-known cookbook authors.

Pepin would toss vegetable peelings into an empty milk carton, she said, then put it in the freezer. When he wanted to make soup, he would slash the carton open and dump the contents in a pot. "That is so French," said Jones, who admitted that while she admired Pepin's frugality, she did not save her carrot stubs.

Marion Cunningham taught her that if you prick popovers with a knife as soon as they emerge from the oven, the steam escapes and the popover won't be soggy the next day.

Somewhere along the way Jones learned that you will have fewer dishes to wash if, when baking, you measure dry ingredients onto a piece of wax paper instead of a bowl or plate, and then funnel the ingredients into the mixing bowl.

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