Tuesday, September 2, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Little Meals for One

by Jaime

Over yonder on the right is a picture of what I ate for lunch yesterday: one-egg salad on a quarter of a red pepper, and, cut up, maybe the most delicious plum I’ve ever eaten. (The plum gets a close-up further down so you can see the amazing color a little better.)

Sometimes, often spurred by Kris writing about cooking for herself and the boyfriend, I think about my possible future, living with and occasionally cooking for a man (and even farther into the mist, some children?) on a regular basis, eating meals with another person rather than, um, perched on my bed reading blogs with breakfast. (I don’t get a wireless signal at my desk any more. Alas.)

Honey, I’ll cook dinner tonight. How about... um... sautéed zucchini in cottage cheese?

I am not a breakfast-lunch-dinner sort of girl. Several small meals is much more my M.O. I come into the office armed with little tupperwares – lunch, mid-afternoon little meal (“second lunch?”), small dinner for before whatever play or reading is taking up my night – and pile them into the office fridge every morning. At home on the weekend (or the rare night I’m home before eating hours are done) I pull together whatever seems tasty and hopefully healthy, eating when I’m hungry, at odd hours like 4pm.

Sometimes it’s funny, trotting out recipes here, devising recipes for things I usually throw together, because that’s so rarely how I cook. I don’t measure (except for cottage cheese, because otherwise I’ll go through it way too fast), I don’t follow instructions. I mean, when I’m cooking a recipe a follow the instructions... mostly... but that’s rarely how I cook. And I don’t see this as some idiosyncrasy of my mid 20s – my friend A., who lives with her boyfriend and rocks some of the more elaborate recipes I encounter in real life, recently brought the following for herself when we picnicked together: a plum, a tomato, a block of feta cheese, and two crumpets.

So here’s some of what’s in all those tupperwares I’ve got cluttering up the office fridge. No measurements, no recipes, which, okay, means no $$ or nutrition calculations. When I make these, they generally fit in a 1½- or 2-cup tupperware, and as long as you’re sparing with the oil, they’re probably under 300 or 400 calories. (Don’t entirely avoid oil, though – you need some fat in your food.) For all my eggplant pizzas and chili lime tofu, this is my real cheap healthy food. The basic formula is veggies, protein, and some tasty way to bring them together. Some (okay, the cottage cheese stuff) might seem weird, but hey, just a week or two ago Kris was championing Tostitos and vanilla icing. Embrace your weird foods; they’re probably delicious.

1) Stir Fry
This is the first real thing I ever learned how to cook. (Not-real things including past and scrambled eggs.) A and I spent college stir-frying various combinations of vegetables in various Asian sauces, also indulging our love of pineapple in savory foods. These days I take whatever veggies are in season and cheap at the farmers market, some sort of protein (for me that’s tofu, tempeh, or seitan – for you in might be meat), and cook it up. With the right veggies, soy sauce is enough, but I sometimes commit what's probably a cardinal culinary sin, relying on pre-made sauces. Whole Foods has a selection that's cheap and healthy (low sugar and no nasty high fructose corn syrup). I keep their delicious teriyaki and barbeque sauces in my fridge at all times. If it means I can cook up dinner (or, really, tomorrow’s lunch) in ten minutes flat, count me in.

2) Cottage Cheese!
I love this. So much protein, so little bad stuff, and delicious. This time of year I'll mix in grilled or stir-fried zucchini and a pile of Old Bay. Trust me. When cherry tomatoes are cheap, I’ll add those, and maybe some basil or other herbs. It's also great with fruit, peanut butter, pineapple and a little unsweetened coconut - the possibilities are endless. More ideas here.

3) Eggs
Cheap, delicious, and full of protein, vitamins, and healthy fat. I like to make egg salad with lots of chopped veggies and mustard (cutting down the mayonnaisey fat), or just pack a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fruit. For my healthiest breakfast, I defrost about half a cup of frozen chopped spinach, heat that up with a touch of oil and salt in a frying pan (and nutritional yeast, if I have it), and crack an egg on top. Cook it slowly and covered, and once the white is set, you can break the yolk over the whole thing. It's delicious and dirt-cheap. Or you can do something else with your eggs. Pretty much anything else.

4) Sandwiches
Not in a tupperware, and not really that weird, but there’s a reason they’re so ubiquitous. PB&J; PB and banana; hummus and veggies; grilled veggies and goat cheese; goat cheese and herbs; egg salad; tempeh salad; seitan and veggies; ANYTHING.

5) Salad
Here I mean salad like egg salad, not like big-pile-of-greens salad. Maybe if I bury it deep in this list, Kris won’t notice that was holds these together is everyone’s favorite condiment: mayonnaise. Used sparingly (and maybe a lite version) it’s not terrible, and it’s delicious. Egg salad is just the beginning. Tempeh salad is just the same, but replace the eggs with crumbled tempeh and you up the protein and add an interesting new flavor. Earlier this summer I was obsessed with a salad of blanched string beans, wilted lambsquarter (you could use spinach or fresh arugula), and seitan, dressed in Old Bay-spiked mayo. Lots of possibilities here.

6) Greens!
Kale, collards, chard - I love them all. Cooked down with garlic, oil, and a little soy sauce, they're delicious and almost obscenely healthy. Lately I'm on a big beet greens kick. They cook just like spinach and here's a big tip for anyone who shops at a farmers market - a lot of people buying beets ask for the tops to be cut off before they take their produce home. So beet-selling stands often have a stash of beet greens. Which they will give you for free. A big pile of beet greens cooked down, topped with tempeh - delicious and in my fridge right now.

7) Spoonful of Peanut Butter
Okay, that's just a stereotypical single-girl snack. My friend and ex-roommate K refers to a "peanut butter spoon" like a discreet item, rather than a spoonfull of stuff. "I'm gonna have an apple." "I'm gonna have a peanut butter spoon." If you can keep it to a spoonful, it's healthy and delicious. If you're devouring jarfuls in a sitting, maybe... find a different snack.

That's what I eat when I'm cooking cheap and fast and for myself. What're your go-to meals-for-one?


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