‘Eat Your Vegetables’

Washington Post
Weeknight Vegetarian: Learning to ‘Eat Your Vegetables
By Joe Yonan
August 5, 2013

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An edited excerpt from Yonan’s new “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press):

One of my obsessions in the 1980s was Bette Midler’s comedy album, “Mud Will Be Flung Tonight,” and of all the tracks, my favorite is one in which she celebrates cynicism. In a singsong voice, accompanied by abstract plunking piano, she utters reason after reason to find the world disappointing — starting with the grandiose (“man’s inhumanity to man”) and descending into the picayune (“it’s so hard to keep your ears clean”) — followed by the same punch line, over and over: “Why bother?”

I mention it because “Why bother?” is the answer too many single people give when I ask what they cook for themselves for dinner. Their next remark is usually along the lines of “Why go to all that trouble if it’s just me?” Sadly, they think the only time it’s worth firing up the stove is when their cooking has an audience.

I understand the impulse, but I have to say, there’s really no such thing as just you. Who is more important? And if you live alone, as more and more people do, it’s silly to think that every time you’re hungry your only choices are takeout, a microwave pizza or an impromptu dinner party. I love cooking for others, and these days I’m often cooking for my boyfriend, Carl. But plenty of nights I don’t have any company, I’m enjoying my alone time, and I still want to eat — and eat well. I’m not going to lower my standards just because I’m the only one who is going to benefit from the care I pour into my ingredients. I happen to think I — just I — am worth the bother.

Sure, there are obstacles. Single cooks have to overcome the challenges of shopping in supermarkets selling portions designed for families or crowds. We have to come to terms with leftovers, a boon when they’re in small quantities and an annoyance in large ones.

But the advantages are formidable, too. At the top of my list: freedom. You don’t have to take into account anyone’s palate but your own, meaning you can let your cravings lead you where they may. The potential for satisfaction is huge.

In promoting my first book, “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), a couple of years ago, I started noticing a phenomenon. At signings, classes and festivals, a disproportionately high number of the single people who wanted to talk to me about my recipes were vegetarian or vegan. They wanted to know how much of the book would be suited to their way of eating. As I flipped through and pointed out all the dishes I thought they’d like (more than half of the book’s recipes are meatless), I started to realize something else: I was moving toward vegetarianism myself. It took me a little by surprise, especially because in the opening to that book’s meat chapter, I had written: “The Texas boy in me, I’m afraid, would have a tough time ever giving meat up altogether. My connection to it is just plain hard-wired.”

Well, it turns out that it wasn’t that hard-wired, after all. As I have written before, the process of my own move toward vegetarianism has been organic, based not on one grand decision but on an evolution of my philosophy and my eating habits.

Vegetables, frankly, invigorate me. From the moment I pluck them from the farmers market display, dig them from the ground or snip them from a plant, I’m imagining how I might cook them. And I love handling them. Stripping kale leaves from their stems, then swishing them around in the sink, grabbing them by the handful and stacking them on the countertop to be sliced can put me into a Zen state like no other. And the flavor! While it can take a little effort to coax it out of them, vegetables can run the gamut — bitter, tart, sweet, grassy — with all sorts of complexities layered within.

But I’m not here to tell anyone else how or what to eat.

In fact, I’m reluctant even to use the word “vegetarian,” as you might have noticed from the title and subtitle of my book. Why? Well, I’ve long thought that in a focus on vegetarianism, what tends to get short shrift are the actual vegetables, perhaps because the dishes are defined by what’s not in them rather than by what is. I want to tell you to make, say, Guaca-chi — a simple combination of avocado chunks, lime and kimchi that I like to make for company — not because it doesn’t include bacon (because what does bacon have to do with anything?). I want you to make it because it’s easy and it tastes great. It’s why I wish we could come up with another term for Meatless Mondays.

As Steven Shapin wrote in the New Yorker in 2007, “Vegetarianism has always been less about why you should eat plants than about why you shouldn’t eat animals.” I’m hoping that changes, and I want to be part of that change. So, I would rather think about this as a vegetable cookbook, not a vegetarian one. It’s about what’s on the plate rather than what’s missing.

Whatever term you use, the challenges for single cooks remain. How do you shop efficiently without buying excess food that goes bad in your refrigerator’s “rotter”? How do you satisfy what I call “hanger” (hunger meets anger) at the end of a long workday without resorting to takeout? How do you cook in a way that makes productive use of what you buy without resulting in a mountain of tedious leftovers? I hope to continue to answer those questions, in a vegetable context. But I want to do more.

I resist most zealotry, but there is one thing I’ve felt compelled to proselytize about, and that’s the importance of cooking. Particularly, it’s been my ongoing mission to get single folks — more than 31 million in the United States alone — to realize that cooking for yourself, despite the obstacles, is a worthwhile, satisfying, potentially meditative, possibly invigorating and maybe even delightful endeavor.

If you truly want to take care of yourself, if you want to know just what’s going into your body, you’ve got to learn to DIY dinner. Because vegetables can be more challenging to cook than meat — we’re less familiar with them, and they require a little more care to bring out all their best qualities — the bar is raised for single vegetarians. At the same time, even if they don’t live alone, vegetarians might be even more interested in single-serving recipes than others because they might be the only vegetarian in the house.

Ultimately, I hope readers find as much inspiration in vegetables as I have and bring that inspiration to their own table, whether it’s set for vegetarians or omnivores; for one, for two or for a crowd.

Yonan will sign copies of “Eat Your Vegetables” on Saturday, 1 to 2:30 p.m., at Salt and Sundry in Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE, www.shopsaltandsundry.com, 202-556-1866.

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