By Michael Poppa
New book by Joe Yonan – “Serve Yourself – Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” – provides more than 100 inventive recipes that celebrate solo eating and single living.
(Editor’s Note: Be sure to see the delicious recipe for Mahi Mahi with Kiwi-Avocado Salsa and Coconut Rice at the end of this article).
Inspired. That pretty much sums up how I felt after reading “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” by Joe Yonan, James Beard Award-winning food editor of The Washington Post.
Before that, I’d been in a food slump. The thought of a cook, wash, rinse, re-heat routine filled me with a sense of dread whenever I entered my kitchen. The banks of my creative reserve were all but drying up. Yet that night, after Yonan’s motivation, instead of nuking the usual standby, I decided to be adventurous … and actually cooked dinner.
Admittedly, I have been cooking for two these days. However contrary to popular belief, it does not guarantee nightly “Lady and the Tramp”-like trysts. I cannot recall the last time Tom and I found ourselves sitting across a candlelit table and staring longingly into each other’s eyes while stealing kisses between bites. In fact, if I was to think about it (which I just did), I would have to admit my most self-rewarding dining experiences have been solo.
For Yonan, who is single, that same realization served as his impetus to enlighten other solo diners. As he tells it, he had just finished posting a link on Facebook to his latest “Cooking for One” column in The Washington Post. Moments later, he received a “helpful” reply urging him to change his life in a “positive way” as “the pleasures of the table are so satisfying when shared.” However well meaning the comment, the obvious assumption that coupled is better, fired him up.
“I think that was what finally pushed me into realizing that I had a lot to say on the topic,” Yonan recalls. “For me, it ended up being the difference between wanting to just write recipes and realizing that I wanted to proselytize about it a little bit. I really wanted to get people excited about the idea of cooking for themselves, to get past all of the talk about how hard it is and to remind people about the positive aspects.”
Yonan believes it’s more than complicated recipes and limited time that keeps most singulars out of the kitchen. Yonan says it’s a lack of self-acceptance for one’s single status and the unwillingness to set aside time for one’s self that is actually to blame. “God forbid,” he jests, “that we actually enjoy something about being single!”
In his book, Yonan includes vignettes about his own struggles coming to terms with being single in a world that believes coupled is better. He recounts his first dinner experience in Paris, where he stood “paralyzed” outside the door of a small restaurant wondering if he had made a poor decision to dine out by himself. If it wasn’t for the hunger pains, he says, he might have just returned to his hotel room. He did finally dine solo that evening, but says his stomach really forced him into it.
It was not until later, Yonan says, when it finally clicked for him. He was on a plane jetting off to a book convention. While he sat listening to the usual flight attendant safety speech, a light bulb went off when she said, “In the event of a sudden change in cabin pressure, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person…”
“It was so obvious,” he says. “You can’t take care of anybody else if you are struggling for air yourself. It is so analogous to what I am trying to say in the book — people think it’s some sort of trade-off: deciding to either cook for yourself or be the type of person who cooks for other people. But the fact is, if you want to be the type of person who’s able to take care of other people, you have to be able to do it for yourself first.”
Life is a series experiences and exploration — both singular and shared — but it can be difficult to enjoy either if you lack confidence to self-appreciate. Yonan says he found his singular confidence in the kitchen. As a self-described food journalist with an undying passion for the subject, he constantly embraces new and exciting experiences in the kitchen. Whether experimenting with new ingredients or attempting an unfamiliar cooking technique, Yonan believes the quality of the product comes from self-trust. That same confidence, which formed the basis of his approach to cooking, inevitably boiled over into his personal life.
“It’s about learning to trust your instincts and knowing what you want,” he says. “It’s a security about being single. Certainly, in the kitchen, I’ve gotten to be a better cook through experience and training. I have a good sense of what will or will not work. It’s not flawless and I certainly do get surprised — which is wonderful. But I don’t tend to invest time in recipes that are not worth the pay-off.”
Neither does he invest effort into a relationship that shows no promise, “I would certainly rather be single than be with the wrong person,” Yonan says. “Some of my memories of being the loneliest were when I was in a relationship.”
Yonan said the message in his book is to embrace ones’ singularity — whether it be for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
“When you are cooking for yourself, you don’t have to answer to anyone else’s palate,” Yonan says. “It’s your agenda. You can follow your own craving, wherever it might take you.”
Penned with experience and heart, “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” is a thoughtfully crafted culinary co-pilot for the singular home-cook. While it’s indispensible in the kitchen, it could easily rival any book currently vying for position as your next bedtime reader. With over 100 unique singular-sized recipes (including desserts) and witty reflections on his own singular journey, Yonan serves us exciting menus for one with a side of indispensible wisdom: Take the time to take care of yourself!
Copyright © Michael Poppa/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.
Mahi Mahi with Kiwi-Avocado Salsa with Coconut Rice
Photo by Ed Anderson.
1 (6-ounce) mahi mahi fillet (or substitute halibut)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup coconut water
1/3 cup jasmine or other long-grain white rice
1 kiwi, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 scallion, white and green parts, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 fresh jalapeno chile, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped (optional)
Juice of 1 lime
Leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon honey or more to taste (optional)
Pat dry the mahi mahi with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
In a small skillet or saucepan fitted with a lid, combine the coconut water, rice, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling. Place the mahi mahi fillet on top of the rice, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until all the coconut water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the rice and fish stand, covered, for another five minutes.
While the rice and fish are cooking, make the salsa. In a small bowl, stir together the kiwi, avocado, scallion, jalapeño, lime juice, and cilantro. Taste and add a touch of salt if necessary and a drizzle of honey if it’s too tart.
Transfer the rice and fish to a plate, top with the salsa, and eat.
Reprinted with permission from Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One by Joe Yonan copyright ©2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.