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What Do You Eat When You Eat Alone?

December 3, 2011

Here’s an icebreaker question for your next holiday party: What do you eat when you eat alone?

I’ve been reading Deborah Madison’s book on the subject. It’s a collection of interviews with all sorts of people re: cooking for one, complete with recipes. I love the concept, but to be frank, I only loved half of the book. I could have done without the half that generalizes about how certain groups of people (men, women, singles, couples) approach cooking. But the other half—the half that revels in the breadth and depth of human weirdness—was great fun to read. My favorite recipe:

Potato-Sesame Bread with Tequila Mix: Toss an old loaf of potato-sesame bread on a wood-burning stove. Tear into hunks and eat with tequila mix right out of the plastic bottle. (Does anyone know what tequila mix is? Is it like margarita mix?)

I have never been big on cooking for myself. If pressed, I would rather order a pizza and then use my alone time for (a) Singing showtunes at the top of my lungs, and/or (b) Watching the Home Shopping Network.

I used to be embarrassed when someone walked in on me belting out Broadway songs to an audience of …  well, me. (Usually I have the soundtrack turned up so loud that I get no warning, no sound of the key in the door.) But it has happened so many times that now, I own it.  Yes, I was just finishing up the first act of The Phantom of the Opera. Yes, I have covered my face with a flour tortilla “mask” with a bite taken out of the middle for the nose that never grew. Yes, I have been wearing these sweatpants for a week. Dare you mock The Phantom? Don’t make me drop a chandelier on you.

The Home Shopping Network is another story. I have a bit more trouble owning it as a guilty pleasure. Jules absolutely will not abide it. He will suffer through The Real Housewives of New Orangelanta, The Bridezillas, The Extreme Couponing. But watching a be-ponytailed Tony Little sell 32-count packs of “Body By Bison” breakfast patties when I could be doing something, anything else? It makes him insane. This only makes me want more.

Yes, that is Snooki, and yes, this is A Very Snooki Holiday Gift Special.  I’m very sorry, but the Jersey Shore tree ornaments have already sold out. How can you not want to watch this?

Maybe I watch because I like having mindless chatter as background noise in an empty house. But maybe it’s something more. Have you listened to the people who call in to the Home Shopping Network to give testimonials? Some of them just really, really appreciate an excellent deal on simulated gemstones. But the others. The housebound. The grieving. The forgotten-at-Christmas. Eleanor Rigby has nothing on them.

I haven’t called into HSN (yet). But I think the real reason I watch is that deep down, I am one of these lonely people. Deep down, I want to put on my favorite Quacker Factory sweatshirt and light my vanilla-scented flameless candles and try, in some small way, to reach out.

I thought about this while I was reading DM’s book. What does it say about me that I don’t much like cooking when I’m alone? Of course, one can only psychoanalyze so much. There are plenty of obvious reasons. I hate cleaning up. I have the math skills of a third-grader, so I hate reducing recipe ratios to one serving. I hate thinking about how Jules is so much better than me at chopping onions. (By the way, if you know someone who prides him or herself on chopping vegetables with laser-like precision, here is a great gift idea.)

Also, if I am going to go through the trouble of cooking for myself, I want to make a big pot of something that I can eat all week. When I was in law school, my signature eat-alone meal was a reduced-fat stovetop macaroni and cheese made with condensed milk, roasted cherry tomatoes, and far too many toasted panko breadcrumbs. And now? I think shakshuka might be in the running.

This particular version of shakshuka fulfills all of my eating-alone criteria. It contains tomatoes and cheese. It is warm and bubbly and just spicy enough. Also, I can make a full recipe of the sauce (no math required!), and top it with as many eggs as I please. I save the rest of the sauce in the fridge and then reheat as needed.

I eat this straight out of the pan. Thanks to the eggs and chickpeas, it’s extremely filling. Which is good, because I’ll need my strength to hit the high notes in Act II of Phantom.

Baked Eggs in Spicy Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas and Feta
Adapted from Bon Appétit

This version of shakshuka works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and will serve 4-6 people at one time. If you are cooking for just you, make one full recipe of sauce (this includes the chickpeas). When you are ready to eat, transfer a portion of the sauce to a small, oven-proof skillet, sprinkle the sauce with cheese, and crack in as many eggs as you like (for me, that’s 1 or 2). You can save the rest of the sauce in the fridge. Reheat it as needed over the next few days, maybe thinned out with about a tablespoon of water so it spreads more easily in the skillet. Serve with whatever breadiness you have on hand. Warm pita is nice, but so is potato-sesame bread dunked in tequila mix.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 jalapeños, seeded, finely chopped
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices reserved (Try not to reserve them all over your shirt, like I did.)
Salt and pepper
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (I used plain goat cheese because I had no feta on hand, and it was good, but I think the brine of feta would stand up better to the spicy sauce.)
8 eggs
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley (Optional)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (Optional, I left this off)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. If you plan to cook your eggs in this skillet, it should be ovenproof. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeños. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Add chickpeas, paprika, and cumin, and cook for about 2 more minutes.

Add crushed tomatoes and their juices. Bring the sauce a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle cheese evenly over sauce. If you are cooking for one, about 1/4 cup of feta will work. Crack eggs one at a time over the sauce and cheese, trying as best you can to space the eggs apart from each other. If they run together, I will drop a chandelier on you. (Kidding!) Transfer skillet to oven and bake until the egg whites are just set and the yolks are still runny. This took about 8 minutes in my oven. Garnish with parsley and/or cilantro.

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