Most people would have learned something from a bottomless pot of chickpea stew. That is to say that most people would have learned that cooking a recipe that serves 10 to 12 is best done when you have 10 or 12 to serve.
Call it what you will: overexuberance, the naivetĂ© of youth. I was freshly out of college and living on my own when I cooked a chickpea stew that I ate for lunch and dinner 10 days running. And even that experience wasnâ€™t enough to teach me the wisdom â€“ or pleasures â€“ of cooking for one.
No, itâ€™s taken years of labor-intensive recipes and stalwart leftover-eating to get me to even contemplate the one-night dish.
And even though I like to cook, until recently, I hadnâ€™t yet become friends with quinoa.
Quinoa (pronounced â€śkeen-wahâ€ť) just might be the single cookâ€™s secret weapon. Itâ€™s quick. Itâ€™s easy. It almost magically multiplies when simmered: One cup of dry quinoa produces four cups cooked.
Quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, which means itâ€™s packed with protein, another point in quinoaâ€™s favor.
But what really won me over is this seedâ€™s extraordinary versatility. You can eat it unadorned, like the Incas and their descendents, whoâ€™ve considered quinoa a staple for more than 5,000 years. Or if youâ€™re feeling more gourmet, add quinoa to soups, use it to thicken a stew, or chill cooked quinoa and use it as the base for a salad.
Quinoaâ€™s mild, nutty flavor goes well with almost anything and offers the perfect blank canvas for any number of savory additions. You can even bake quinoa into a casserole-type dish. But be forewarned: this could lead to leftovers.
For a really quick meal thatâ€™s perfectly suited to one, Iâ€™ve taken to cooking up a small serving of quinoa and adding it to my favorite soup. The quinoa adds body and texture â€“ not to mention an oomph that transforms something lackluster from a can into an enjoyable meal.
If Iâ€™m feeling in the mood to plan ahead â€“ and to go to a little bit more trouble â€“ I grab a protein, some vegetables, and the makings for a dressing, and use quinoa as a vehicle for whatever ethnic flavors Iâ€™m craving.
Middle Eastern? Try a bowl of quinoa with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley and mint. If youâ€™re feeling industrious, add a diced and sautĂ©ed baby eggplant to the bowl. Finish with a lemon-tahini dressing accented with garlic and salted to taste.
Greek? Try adding chopped tomatoes and feta to slightly warm quinoa. Dress with lemon juice and olive oil, plus lots of fresh oregano. Or try an Asian-inspired quinoa bowl. I like to cook the quinoa with a few spices to approximate the flavors of Vietnamese Pho â€“ then finish by topping with the fresh, crunchy bits (bean sprouts, mint) and hot sauce that traditionally make this dish both bright and lively (see recipe below).
The fact is, quinoa isnâ€™t picky. You can make it vegetarian (cook in salted water) â€“ or not (cook in chicken broth). You can trot it out as something exotic and fancy, or you can toss in those leftover roasted or grilled veggies and chicken and call it simple but satisfying.
Best of all, quinoa is suited to any size meal for any size appetite.
If you can remember these simple proportions â€“ three cups liquid to one cup quinoa â€“ you can scale down for a quick and easy dinner for one, or scale up for enough quinoa to feed a hungry crowd.
Or choose an amount thatâ€™s right in the middle and enjoy just enough leftovers for lunch the next day.
Now that sounds like the kind of recipe thatâ€™s perfect for a single cook like me.