As Valentine’s day approaches, Clare Finney argues that cooking for one, on this or any other day, should be a pleasure to be savoured, not a depressing, functional chore
“But I like beans on toast!” I would insist to anyone who questioned why I couldn’t be bothered to cook for myself. It wasn’t a lie: I did, and still do, love the comforting mush of beans and sauce, sunk heavily into a bed of bread and covered in a blanket of cheese. I still make it on cold, wet days or mornings after the nights before, when leaving the house is just unimaginable. Back then, though, I lived on it. While I longed for an excuse to open my virginal Ottolenghi, there seemed little point to it. The joy of cooking came in cooking for others. Cooking for oneself, I would remind myself after half an hour’s drooling over recipes bursting with blistering aubergines, was an extravagant waste of time.
My epiphany was a gradual one. It started with Nigel Slater, and Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, his hefty first volume of vegetable recipes. Even the title, with its Olde England echoes of rambling allotments and men in wellington boots, spoke of a solitude more physically and mentally nourishing than anything I’d ever allowed myself. Tender were the peas, broad beans and papery courgette flowers blossoming in Nigel’s garden, but tender too was the cook who shelled, podded or stuffed them with goat’s curd, creating dishes to lighten the heart of even the most date-weary singleton, alone on Valentine’s day for the 987th year in a row.
Tender is not a ‘single person’s cookbook’—perish the thought, frankly—but the recipes are reliable, and demand little in the way of skill or ingredients. All Nigel asks is that you appreciate your produce—“the beauty of a single lettuce, its inner leaves tight and crisp, the outer ones opened up like those of a cottage garden rose” or the “rough feel of a runner bean between the fingers”—and that you engage with their transformation into creamy soups and frittatas, pert salads and scones.
Joy in creating and eating
“Bake until soft and squishy,” dictates one instruction in a recipe for baked finger aubergines, yoghurt and cucumber. After grating, “squeeze the cucumber dry in the palm of your hand”. Nigel engages all senses, in the most seductive way possible—cauliflower cheese bubbles “languidly”, cooked pumpkin is “fragrant, tender, on the verge of collapse”—and he writes with a view to eating as opposed to feeding, in a way that’s peculiarly personal. “As you eat, press the soft garlic from its skin,” is the instruction with which he concludes his roast potato salad with garlic. “Eat it hot and spluttering from the pan,” he injuncts in a recipe for prawns, leaves and limes. In his recipes, the pleasures of food start with the cooking; the instructions and the anticipated enjoyment are entwined together within every sentence. The joy is in creating and eating, he teaches—not in serving others or meeting your own needs as efficiently as you can.
While Nigel has long been loved for his multisensory descriptions, no food writer has made them as explicit as Sybil Kapoor has in her latest book, Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound: A New Way to Cook, which brings senses to the forefront. “I realised that the simple act of focusing on each element of a dish—taste, flavour, texture, temperature and sound—heightened my pleasure,” she explains. “Even if I was tired and throwing a quick supper for one together, I found that I was really enjoying eating, say, blackened salmon with a pineapple salsa, because I was aware of the play between the hot salmon and the cool but chilli-hot pineapple.”
Being a food writer, Sybil loves “every aspect of cooking: from choosing a beautiful ingredient such as the pink stems of forced rhubarb for a rhubarb rosewater jelly, to the texture of something in my mouth; for example, the different textures in a crispy duck, mint and noodle salad.” So powerfully did her book redefine my experience of food—the shopping, the cooking, the eating; hell, even the washing up—I almost felt mournful for all the times in my life I’d not cooked, or cooked unconsciously: for the hours of potential sensory enjoyment I’d had without knowing, or not had at all.
Back in my beans on toast days, whenever I was lamenting having no one with whom to enjoy cured gurnard with cucumber oil, couples suggested batch cooking. “Big one-pots, which you can freeze!” they said brightly—rarely considering that, with limited freezer space, that spelled the same lunch and dinner several days in a row. Sybil has a different take: “The key is to divide the types of dishes you cook between instant gratification suppers like honey chilli chicken, and dishes that might take longer to cook but can be dipped into throughout the week,” she tells me, citing as examples her luscious chocolate nori ice cream and rich beef stew.
It’s an approach reflected in Borough Market, amid an eclectic mix of traders who, like all of us, occasionally cook solo. Lida Papamatthaiaki of Oliveology finds she often prefers it. “Even though I thoroughly enjoy sharing meals with family and friends, I think dining solo is the best way for me to fully appreciate what’s on my plate,” she says. This Valentine’s day she’ll be having soft poached eggs on a saffron-dressed salad with endives, radicchio and small beans, using Oliveology’s saffron and olive oil. “While I’m preparing my meal, I love having spiced honeyed almonds and a glass of red wine, a robust xinomavro.” It’s a warm-up act that to the old me would have seemed absurdly luxurious—why waste good wine on yourself?—but that I now recognise forms part of a positive, nourishing ritual rather than that deeply depressing mantra, ‘just filling a hole’.
The point is to take time to enjoy what you love, regardless of other people. A newly qualified psychotherapist and a stalwart at Olivier’s Bakery, Stefan King has been “slowly discovering that the philosophy of honouring oneself is an essential element in any therapeutic endeavour—not in the form of narcissistic aggrandisement, but in terms of taking the time to honour our relationship to ‘the self’.”
Stefan’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day, “so I have the excuse of celebrating and nourishing myself even and despite being a poor singleton on Valentine’s day,” he jokes. For him, that means colourful, fresh, simple ingredients—and of course a few birthday pints in the pub with friends.
This year, for the first time in about a millennium, I will be with someone. We’ll eat good cheese and bread, drink wine and spend time together. But Stefan and Lida are right. We should look after ourselves. We should learn to dine solo, whatever our relationship status. After all, Stefan adds, “any added romance we may enjoy on Valentine’s day is ultimately born out of the effort we put into our relationship to ourselves on the other 364 days of the year.”