July 31, 2014

The joy of cooking for one

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Food writer Pasanen gives tips at library event

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Shopping for groceries at South Burlington's Price Chopper and trying to find quantities for a one-person meal, food writer Melissa Pasanen had a hard time picking out individual-sized portions. When she did find the items, they were at a premium price.

"I couldn't buy only one chicken breast," Pasanen said. "I had to get two or more. There were no offers from the butcher to get just the one."

Pasanen was preparing a cooking-for-one article at the time, and the experience highlighted the difficulties faced by home chefs preparing meals for one person.

Creativity was the key to her shopping-for-one experience, she said. She found items to replace certain ingredients in recipes: Instead of sour cream for a sweet potato dish, she used cottage cheese, an item she could use in other meals.

"You do have to think a little beyond the box sometimes," Pasanen said.

Pasanen, a food writer for the Burlington Free Press and co-author of the "Cooking with Shelburne Farms" cookbook, recently spoke at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. The event, titled "Cooking For One," gave tips and ideas to those who live and cook alone.

Challenges

For someone who lives alone, it's very tempting to order take-out dinners or cook microwave-ready meals every night, Pasanen said. The food writer believes these aren't the best or healthiest options.

"Cooking for yourself has the advantage, hopefully, of also providing your body with better nutrition than a constant diet of frozen prepared foods or take-out," she said.

Another reason some people are reluctant to cook for themselves if they live alone, said Pasanen, is because of dreaded leftovers.

"It is certainly more efficient to cook one recipe and eat it for four or five meals, or freeze it in single portions for future meals," Pasanen said, "but it can get monotonous and frozen portions often don't keep as well as one would like."

Leftovers may be unavoidable, but limiting the frequency of the same meal – like avoiding a week's worth of beef stew – can make leftovers manageable.

Jessie Price, food editor for Charlotte-based Eating Well Magazine, believes properly freezing and storing leftovers is the best way to stretch out a meal and save money. At the same time, cooking the right amount to fit the individual is "always the best idea."

"It's definitely important for yourself to not make a huge pot of something and then get sick of what you've made," Price said.

But before even thinking about leftovers, people have to overcome the biggest challenge when it comes to cooking for one: shopping for one.

Buying the groceries

Pasanen said it can be difficult shopping for one, but there are several options to make it a less painful process.

She recommended looking at the salad bar for certain ingredients, which can be a cheaper alternative.

Price agreed.

"It's convenient because the stuff is always cleaned and prepared for you," Price said.

Price and Pasanen agree it can also be cheaper to purchase smaller quantities from olive bars or bulk bins, the latter of which are turning up in mainstream supermarkets. Pasanen also recommended people take advantage of pre-prepped items, such as minced garlic, bottled ginger, salsa and instant rice.

"Rather than hurrying around to buy fresh herbs all the time, it can work," she said.

And while buying large quantities might seem excessive if someone is only feeding him or herself, Pasanen said perfecting freezing techniques to avoid freezer burn can make foods last longer and taste better. She suggested using a hand-held vacuum device – along with appropriate freezer bags.

Still, Price and Pasanen say the best method is to be a savvy shopper.

"You don't need to shop at Costco all the time if you're just eating for one," Price said.

Finding recipes

During part of Pasanen's presentation, she demonstrated two dishes that someone could easily prepare for one: sweet potatoes with black bean and tomato topping and Asian pork lettuce wraps. Both meals featured ways to diversify ingredients.

That cottage cheese Pasanen bought at Price Chopper, for instance? It was for this sweet potato recipe.

As another tip, Pasanen suggested finding recipes geared to one or two people, or paring down larger recipes.

Price, who also edits the magazine's "Serves Two" column, said many Web sites feature recipes for two or one. Some creative and healthy smaller recipes are on Eating Well's Web site, EatingWell.com.

Spreading ideas

Pasanen explained her inspiration to research creative cooking for one came from her mother, who lived alone for many years before remarrying.

"She was amazing about cooking for herself," she said. "She loved it, loved to cook."

About 15 people attended the event at Dorothy Alling Library, many of whom shared the love of cooking.

"I do have a husband at home, but he doesn't always eat what I eat," said Joy Pashby of Williston.

Another Williston resident, Rickie Emerson, said although she lives alone, she still buys groceries at the supermarket like "I'm cooking for a whole family."

"I am the type who usually cooks something and eats it for four or five days in a row," she said.

Coralie Magoon of Colchester came for ideas of how to cook differently. Magoon said she does a lot of gardening and canning. She was glad to find out about the pre-prepped items such as ginger.

"I would never think to spice up things like she did," Magoon said.

Pasanen believes finding new and interesting dishes and cooking them for oneself – without overdoing it – is a great activity, especially for seniors.

"I would think that any activity in which you are engaged, whether it's cooking or doing crossword puzzles, can be a good thing," she said.

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