Cooking Alone | Cacio e Pepe
This past summer, while eating dinner with family, we took turns sharing our go-to meal when eating solo. Frozen pizza, a baked potato, one virtuous pan-fried salmon and kale. And then my mom revealed her secret of canned mushroom soup with ramen and stopped the conversation in its tracks.
I grew up eating dinner at the table with the family. Dinners that were always home-cooked by mom (I was in charge of setting the table and drying the dishes thankyouverymuch). This was in part due to where we lived (rural Ontario, 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store/restaurant, a dairy farm for a neighbor), and because it was economical (ie. A stay-at-home mom and a dad who was flipping burgers). But I just thought mom really loved to cook. There was a vegetable garden out back, chickens and rabbits, and two ponds stocked with trout. Dad hunted, providing the venison that would get us through winter. My brother and I fished. When it was time to harvest the chickens, dad would chop of their heads and the rest of us would go chasing after their running, headless bodies. Health Canada would have marveled at how well mom could plate a meat/veg/grain combo.
By the time I was 11 years old I could make spaghetti sauce from scratch: oil, minced garlic (from a jar), roughly chopped onions, a tablespoon of dried basil, a pinch of sugar, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a 28oz can of tomatoes, salt + pepper. Sometimes I made grilled cheese and frozen fries, instead.
And then my parents opened a restaurant and soon they built a house that attached to the restaurant, so I spent my high school years waking up, walking into the bustling kitchen during morning service, squeezing between my mom and the other cooks, cracking my own eggs and frying my own bacon and toasting my own toast, and then slipping back into the attached house, all while never getting out of my terry cloth bathrobe. I was clipping recipes out of the newspaper before I was 13 years old. I was making my own dinners on the industrial Hobart grill.
In my twenties I was in a relationship with a man who was a chef and he introduced me to sticky toffee pudding and Scottish style breakfasts, and he taught me how to make the most decadent lasagna (the secret is bechemal sauce youareverywelcome). Most of my life has been steeped in food, especially the cooking part.
So imagine the actual shock when I learned about the canned mushroom soup with ramen from a woman who taught me how to sustain myself with home-cooked meals. And it got me thinking about all the different ways we feed ourselves (I’m speaking literally here, not figuratively).
I had intentions today of trying to “convince” you that you should embrace cooking for yourself. What a grand gift to give yourself, how jolly good of a thing it is, your life will turn bloody brill! (insert British accent for no reason here). Then I realized what a privileged and presumptuous thing that is for me to do. Oh, you didn’t think we were gonna go there, did you?
There is the argument that it’s cheaper, healthier, and can be oh-so-simple (and it can be all these things), but it’s also an investment of time. And at the end of a long day, when physical and mental energies are spent, time is a luxury and we are all doing the best we can.
Cacio e Pepe for one
My go-to solo meal is seemingly basic, but the magic happens in the tiny nuances of preparation. This meal has sustained me during rent week, busy days, heartbreak, illness, hangovers and cozy nights in. I’ve had it for all meals at all times of the day. The name of this dish literally translates to cheese and pepper.
It seems silly to try to write a recipe for it. Boil some water, add your favorite pasta, toss with lots of butter, pepper, and Parmesan. Et voila!
But, it’s the simplicity of its ingredients that require a greater attention to detail.
When making for one, you want at least a medium-sized saucepan. Bring water to a strong boil and add a scant palm-full of salt (I like kosher and more is better here). This is to give your pasta flavor. Keep water boiling and add pasta. Any pasta will do. Spaghetti, rigatoni, macaroni, gluten-free. (I can’t tell you how much to add, but I typically do about 100 grams). Stir immediately for at least 30 seconds, to ensure nothing sticks. Continue to stir occasionally till done. I don’t refer to package instructions when determining doneness. Instead I pull out some pasta and taste it. I like mine al dente, but you do you, keeping in mind that after you drain the pasta it will continue to cook so I usually take mine off the stove a minute or two early.
Before draining, scoop out some of the water and save. Drain pasta and toss back into pot. Lower heat to medium, add a generous hunk of butter (about 1-3 tablespoons, depending on how much pasta you have) and stir. Once melted, you can add a bit of the saved pasta water back to create a little slickness on the noodles. Stirring again will help emulsify everything.
Transfer to plate, crack many cracks of fresh pepper, and make it rain Parmesan. By the time you’ve carried your plate to the couch, the heat from the pasta will have melted the cheese to a gooey consistency.
Of course, you can individualize this any way you want. Red pepper flakes, some fresh herbs, a fried egg, garlicky broccoli florets are all great additions. But I find it’s perfect just the way it is.