What I Eat When I Eat Alone

In tribute to Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin’s book, a post on what I’m likely to cook up when I’m dining by my-alone-but-not-lonesome-self.

Dining Solo

When I’m on my own for a few days, with no one but myself (and the dog) to look after, I tend to work long hours on big projects that seem impossible to accomplish when interruptions to run errands or cook for or communicate with others are likely to break my–at times enormous–stride.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of working non-stop, without eating.  Now I am older (and I like to think wiser), and I take better care of myself when I’m alone, instead of simply seeing care of myself as a sort of side-effect of caring for others–the, I cook for everyone else and then I get to eat, too, philosophy.

When I’m on my own, I generally tend to my hungers when they arise, rather than on any schedule.  Often this means I will finish some task and realize, quite suddenly, that I am completely famished.  It does not do to have no food readily available in the house at that point–I must eat within ten minutes or I feel certain I’ll pass out from the hunger pangs.

So, I prepare in advance.  It’s actually quite pleasurable to do this–to make something entirely based on what I am excited to eat without any thought to the dietary predilections of others in the household.

Of course, since I am a vegetable farmer, it always starts with what’s in season:

Looking through the fridge and in what bowls and baskets I’ve been filling with this-and-that as I bring in the harvest, I pull together a selection that includes a little of everything I’ve got coming out of the gardens at the time.

This always hearkens back to the times I spent farm-sitting for my employers at Vermont Valley.

At the end of the day, I’d simply put a basket over my arm and walk out into the fields–selecting a bulb of fragrant fennel, a few string beans, a fat onion, a sunny yellow patty pan, maybe a couple of fresh leaves of basil–and bring them all back to the kitchen for my supper.

Even with all of the other benefits that came out of that season at my first “real” farm job, I would have to say it was that experience most of all that brought me to my own farming life–the ability not just to walk into a supermarket and know where food comes from, but to walk out into the field as if it were a kind of supermarket–one where my labor was payment in advance, and the reward was the incomparably rich sensory immersion of making my selections straight off the vine as the sun melted over the valley.

Because I am not living on our farm at present, the distance from field to table is a bit longer than it was back then, but it’s still fewer miles than I can count on one hand.

The vegetable selection

Because the dish should be something that can stretch for at least three or four meals, and because the timing between discovery of hunger and actual food-in-mouth must be short, I most often make something with liquid–a soup or stew of some kind, fortified with whatever stock I might have on hand (usually chicken or vegetable) and some red wine as well.

I tend to prefer a hot meal over a cold one, and I don’t have a microwave (there’s not really room for one in my little kitchen), so anything more solid than stew would take too long to re-heat when I’m in starvation mode.

To add substance and staying power to the meal, I add some kind of “meaty” bean–cannelini or borlotto or kidney usually, though chickpeas aren’t out of the question.

The beans may come from a can in the pantry, or I might have pre-soaked some dried ones if I’m really planning ahead for my solo dining adventure.  Either way, they’re a must to give me the energy I need to make it through the long hours of focused work between meals.

And often there’s a little bit of actual meat–a couple slices of bacon, a lone leftover sausage, a few pieces of ham.  I use a cured meat of some kind because flesh isn’t the main attraction, but a little bit adds a depth of flavor that I like.  Once upon a time, I liked to add shrimps to my stews, but I don’t eat crustaceans very much anymore.

A bit of ham is nice

The various-and-sundry ingredients of my solo stews make for a dish that undergoes subtle evolutions in flavor over the course of the two or three days that it functions as my main source of sustenance.

Once the initial chopping and prepwork is done and the dishes are washed, there’s generally not much more mess to take care of until the pot is empty–other than a single bowl and spoon.  The plate for my bit of crusty bread and bite of cheese is usually functional for several servings with only a brief dust-off into the compost bin.

And, if it turns out I’ll be flying solo a little longer than expected, I can often get at least one more meal from the pot if I toss in a little more stock–or perhaps the last few sips of wine after I’m done toasting how well I’m taking care of myself!

In the pictured dish, local ingredients include: chicken stock and fat, ham, shell beans, garlic, summer squash, tomato sauce, sweet pepper, hot pepper, cabbage, green onions, and carrots.

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