As a teenager, I assumed I was an extrovert. I was always happy to take trays of food around at my mum’s parties, present something on school assembly, or speak on behalf of my sister and myself when we were introduced to new people. But I also escaped regularly into books, sitting happily for hours on end with only my favourite characters for company. I had, in these early days, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of an introvert, mistakenly equating it with shyness. It wasn’t until adulthood that I recognised it was possible to be able to successfully navigate social events, and still have a need for time alone to recharge.
And so, as I carved out a place for myself in London, cultivated new friendships, and explored the city, I found myself scheduling nights off into my diary, so I could head home after work, and spend some valuable time on my own.
I plan these evenings in like I would a dinner party with friends, starting with what I’m going to put on the table. I am, on some level, always thinking about food, and have turned it from a passion into a career over the past couple of years. I cook at weddings, birthday parties, supper clubs and feasts: rooms filled with families, friends, or strangers, connecting over a shared meal. And I cook, all the time, for people I love. I have prepared three-course dinners for my closest friends, agonised over what to make for someone I fancy, experimented with ways to encourage my nannying charges to embrace broccoli, and won over new flatmates with a well-timed plate of pasta.
I understand the draw of a tin of baked beans. But I also relish the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen without having to consider someone else
But, most often of all, I cook for myself. My love of food, and for the ceremony of a good meal at a table, does not diminish just because I am not sharing it. I understand, completely, the draw of a tin of baked beans after a day at work, and have eaten more variations of “eggs on toast” than I can count. But I also relish the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen without having to consider someone else’s dietary requirements, or mood. I splash out on ingredients I wouldn’t be able to justify for more than one portion – clams that clatter against one another as I tip them into a saucepan, a steak as thick as a block of Kerrygold butter, a handful of fresh green prawns, a whole, delicious, creamy burrata.
The majority of recipe books are written based on the assumption that you’re cooking for more than one person. Supermarkets operate under the same logic: most meat and vegetables (unless you’re lucky enough to have easy access to a butcher, or greengrocer) come pre-packaged with multiple servings. In weeks where I’m batch-cooking packed lunches, or am happy to box up leftovers after dinner, it works perfectly. But sometimes, on these nights in, I want a meal I’m not going to eat for lunch the next day too. Something a bit more special, even if it’s only me eating it.
Below are a few recipes that shouldn’t leave you with a fridge full of half-used ingredients, and that you can have on the table (or couch) less than 40 minutes after walking through the front door. Meals for indulgent nights in, with just a book, a boxset, and a bath for company.
HOT AND SOUR PRAWN NOODLE SOUP
- 1tsp vegetable oil
- 1 banana shallot, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 small red chilli, finely diced (deseeded if you’d like it milder)
- 1tsp grated ginger
- 1 lemongrass stalk, snapped in half
- 400ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 60g rice noodles (I like the wide ones here)
- 10 shelled green prawns (fresh or defrosted*)
- 1 spring onion
- Small handful coriander leaves
- Juice of 1 lime
- Warm the oil in a saucepan, and fry the shallot until soft. Add the garlic, chilli, ginger, and lemongrass, and cook over a medium heat for a couple of minutes, until fragrant.
- Pour the stock into the pan and bring to a simmer. Allow to continue simmering, covered, for a couple of minutes. Remove the lemongrass stalk.
- Add the noodles, following the directions on the packet, and turning the heat off when they are cooked. While the stock is still hot, drop in the prawns. As soon as they have turned pink, pour the soup into your bowl.
- Top with sliced spring onion, coriander leaves, and the juice of a lime.
*I buy little bags of frozen prawns when they’re on offer, and keep them in the freezer for this dish. Defrosting frozen prawns is very easy – they will be ready to use in minutes if you run them under some cool water.
BAKED EGGS WITH SLOW COOKED ONIONS AND TOMATOES
- 2tsp olive oil
- 1 brown onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 3 plum tomatoes, chopped (or a tin of tomatoes, if they’re not in season)
- Pinch sugar
- ¼tsp cayenne pepper
- Flaky sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 2 eggs
- To serve:
- 1tbsp wild garlic pesto (or any pesto you have easy access to)
- 1tbsp sour cream
- Preheat the oven to 160C. Warm the oil in a saucepan, and tip in the onions. Sweat them over a low heat for fifteen minutes, until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute.
- Stir in the tomatoes, and cook to break them down to a thick sauce, which will take longer if they’re fresh. Taste and season with the sugar, cayenne, salt, and pepper.
- Pour the sauce into an ovenproof dish, and create two divots for your eggs to nestle into. Crack them one at a time into a small glass (to ensure you don’t tip in eggs with a broken yolk), and pour them in. Transfer the pan to the oven for seven minutes, until the white of the egg has set, but the yolk is still runny.
- Top with pesto and sour cream, and serve immediately with some bread.
A note: I add to and subtract from this dish regularly, based on what I have in the house. The one in the photo had a little potted beef in one corner, but I’ve also previously grated in courgette, or crumbled a chunk of feta over it at the end.
STEAK WITH MUSHROOM SAUCE
For the steak:
- 200g steak (rump, sirloin or fillet), at room temperature
- 1tbsp olive oil
- Freshly ground pepper
For the sauce:
- 1tbsp butter
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 100g chestnut mushrooms, quartered or sliced
- 4 fresh sprigs of thyme
- 1tbsp Marsala or brandy (if you have a bottle somewhere)
- 2tbsp sour cream
- Flaky sea salt
- Heat a griddle plate or cast iron pan over a medium-high heat. Rub one side of the steak with olive oil, and season with pepper. Flip the steak over and lay it, seasoned side down, in a searingly hot pan.
- Season the other side with olive oil and pepper, and flip the steak every 15 second or so as it cooks. Continue until the steak is done to your taste – about a minute each side if you like it rare and a few more if you’d like it medium. Remove it from the pan, cover it loosely in foil, and set aside while you make the sauce.
- Melt the butter in a large frying pan over a low heat and, when foaming, add the garlic and fry until fragrant. Tip in the mushrooms. Give them plenty of room to move around, and cook for around ten minutes until they have softened and are starting to brown around the edges. Strip the thyme sprigs and add the leaves in. Pour in the Marsala and cook for a minute.
- Stir through the sour cream, and season. Spoon the sauce over the steak, and serve with a green salad.
And…. baked beans
I will always happily eat a tin of baked beans, warmed through on the stovetop, poured onto buttered toast. But if you do fancy adding a little something, my favourite combination is: a 200g tin of baked beans, 1tsp Worcestershire sauce, a spoonful of grainy mustard, a generous grinding of black pepper, and a good, sharp cheddar, grated into the pan just before you take it off the heat.
Recipes taken from Kate's blog, The Little Library Cafe.