The last time I ate alone I made myself a three-egg omelette and put an anchovy on top. It looked like a slug on a quilted bed cover, but tasted absolutely right: plump where it should be, and wobbly at the centre; a crepe of eggs cooked in butter. I ate it quickly and didn’t wash the plate.
Thinking about it, a three-egg omelette is the thing I make most often for myself when I am alone, which at this particular point in my life (older mother of a young child; partner also working at home) isn’t often. I know this phase will pass and morph into another, but for now my favourite solitary meals involve ignoring all leftovers related to recipe testing, and minimum cooking: the omelette (surely the most delicious thing you can make in one minute) or scrambled egg; or three slices of country bread, halved and topped with 100g sliced cheese (mozzarella, fontina, provola or scamorza), six anchovies and a zigzag of olive oil, then baked in the oven at 180C/160C fan/gas 4 for 10 minutes so the cheese melts down the sides like an oversized tablecloth. Whether you call them crostini con formaggio e alici or cheese and anchovies on toast, eat them while they are so hot they sizzle in your mouth.
Then there is my joy at not cooking at all; no pots or heat, not even a plate: just wine and cheese. Depending on the day, it might be careful slices of aged and veined cheeses with appropriate crackers, or two Babybel and the last hard inch of pecorino meant for grating.
“Revel” is a word my friend Jacky used when we talked about cooking for one and eating alone. After years of jigsawing meals around her full-time job as a social worker and the demands of four other people, years that gave her immense pleasure but also pain, she revels in every aspect of her solitary meals, from the first glance at a recipe book to the last bite. She also thrives on cooking for her family and many friends; the meals she prepares for charity and a local refuge. But the real revel is in the hours she spends pottering in her kitchen, braising a rabbit or making a pie; food that can be eaten exactly when she feels like it, along with a glass of wine and her book, maybe her phone camera – after all, Instagram can be a place of conviviality.
Photographs arrive on my phone from Jacky with a “ping”. They are pages of Deborah Madison’s book What We Eat When We Eat Alone. It is a book born of conversations with people and the question: “What do you eat when you are alone?”. The collected stories and recipes – some from those who are alone all the time, others occasionally, others rarely – form a collective portrait of human behaviour and consumption with freedom. There are dinners eaten at elegant tables, beloved meals, secret feasts, food devoured on sofas and by fridgelight, eaten in sadness and joy, in times of abundance and scarcity. What all the different chapters and stories have in common though, is the fact that people are eating exactly what they want. Norman Douglas’ “damned good rule of life” comes to mind: “always do what you please”. I also think of my grandmother, who never got used to eating alone, but also used to whisper to me as we stood by the fridge section in the supermarket, the cold air making our noses red, that individual puddings were “not as good as Grandpa, but almost”.
Madison’s chapter Saved by Sardines and Rescued by Pasta makes me think of another younger me, eating tinned sardines on toast in London; then, at 33, a few months after arriving in Rome, discovering what happens when you fry a sliced onion gently in three tablespoons of oil and a knob of butter until it looks like mush, add a few anchovy fillets so it turns into a grey sludge, then toss the whole shebang with long pasta. It is like stumbling into comfortable umami; I often still make it for two, although now I think about it, I wonder if, like omelette or pure cheese, it was more delicious when I cooked and ate it alone.
I have ordered Madison’s book, for the recipes and stories that cover all areas of cooking for one, the practical and pragmatic, fantastical and funny, but also for the dedication at the beginning. It feels like a motto for life: “This book is dedicated to all who find themselves alone at the table. May your solitary meals be delicious and the company just as good.”
Crostini with cheese and anchovies
Prep 10 min
Cook 5 min
3 slices country bread: a firm country loaf – not sourdough
100g mozzarella, fontina or scamorza,
Cut the slices of bread in half or thirds, cut the cheese into pieces more or less the size of the bread, put on top of bread and drape the anchovies over the tops.
Transfer to a baking tray, zigzag with olive oil, and bake in the oven at 180C for 10 minutes until the cheese melts.
Pasta with onion and anchovies
Prep 5 min
Cook 15 min
1 large onion, peeled, halved and sliced
1 knob butter
3 tbsp olive oil
In a large frying pan, gently fry the onion in the butter and oil until really soft – this will take a good 14 minutes – adding the anchovies in the last few minutes so they disintegrate.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of fast-boiling, well-salted water until al dente, drain, then toss with the onion and serve immediately.
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Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/17/anchovy-crostini-pasta-rachel-roddy-recipes-for-one-a-kitchen-in-rome