Take One Black Truffle…

My sister had one black truffle delivered to me early as my Christmas present. Before I opened the box I knew what it was. The truffle’s pungent aroma announced its presence like it was clawing at the clear plastic jar it was encased in. When I saw its size — two inches/5cm round — I knew it would last for 3 meals at least. I decided to use it boldly but simply. Niki Segnit’s always provocative Flavor Thesaurus gave me good ideas for food pairings. Among her suggestions, pasta, chicken, and cabbage appealed to me.

The first dish I made was a basic tagliatelle al tartuffo.

I made a one-serving batch of pasta. These directions for egg pasta dough produce excellent pasta dough. It’s now the only way I make egg pasta. I attribute the difference between this recipe and all others I’ve tried to the insistence on 10 mins or more kneading, followed by 30 mins of rest. I applaud, too, the direction to weigh the eggs after cracking them open rather than assume all large eggs are the same size. The dough handled as easily as leather.

Once I cut the dough into thin strips, I put salted water on to boil. I grated Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese on to a paper towel. In a small nonstick skillet, I melted butter, threw in a crush garlic clove, and diced fontina. The cheese nearly fried, so I turned the heat down to a minimum while the pasta cooked. I seasoned the cheese sauce. When the pasta was al dente, I used tongs to transfer the dripping pasta from the pot to the skillet and tossed it to coat with butter and cheese. I poured the contents of the skillet into a bowl, tipped the grated Parmesan on top of the pasta, tossed it, and, using a cheese shaver, I shaved slices of truffle on to the pasta. I mixed in a quarter cup of hot pasta water to make more of a sauce. And then I ate it. It was very good, but subtle.

My next experiment involved roasting a chicken.

A free-range chicken with truffles under the skin is not a pretty sight. The truss, red bruise on the breastbone, and the diaphanous skin with the shaved truffles showing through makes this poor bird look battered and bruised. It’s a little creature, less than four pounds, as farmer’s market tenderly-curated chickens tend to be. I certainly paid more for it than I have ever paid for a store bought organic one.

Yesterday, I sprinkled the chicken with salt to perform a dry brine and then put it uncovered in the fridge overnight. This afternoon, I removed it from the fridge about an hour before I intended to roast it. After setting the oven temperature to 400, I rubbed the chicken’s skin with butter. When the oven came to temperature, I put the chicken in the oven with the legs pointing to the back, à la Diana Henry, and left it to roast.

While the chicken roasted, I started my third truffle experiment.

I cut a small Savoy cabbage in half and then in quarters. When I cut out the core, I cut those wedges into eighths. On a sheetpan covered in foil, I spread the cabbage strips. Olive oil, salt and pepper, and then tossed the leaves with my hands and patted the cabbage back into a relatively even layer. It was ready to go as soon as the chicken was done.

The chicken took only 35 mins to roast. I whipped it out, slapped it on the stove, and put the cabbage sheet pan in the oven. I knew the cabbage would take close attention to ensure that it didn’t burn. So I let the chicken sit and watched the cabbage. It charred a little, which was what I wanted. At the point the cabbage looked as though it would burn, I removed it from the oven. Then, with my microplaner, I grated fine shaving curls of black truffle over the cabbage. To top it off, I poured chicken juice over the cabbage.

And the result was a bit anti-climatic. The flavor of the truffles was, again, subtle. Perhaps too subtle. It added nothing to the meat of the chicken. The swoon factor showed up in the conjunction of the cabbage, truffles, and buttery chicken juices. The combination produced a flavor of extraordinary depth and deliciousness. The truffle added a pronounced layer of umami but did not stand out on its own. Maybe that subtlety had to do with the four days since its arrival in my kitchen. Maybe it wasn’t that great a truffle, although the source seems reliable. The only previous experience I have to compare it with were some plates of truffled pasta in Tuscany, but who knows how the chefs there might have goosed the flavor. In any case, I’m glad I had this chance to play with a truffle. But I think I may investigate high quality truffle salt, like this one.

Only one question remains: will the broth be as good as the juices?

A Single Kitchen

My dinner plate

I am not alone. Close to 36 million Americans are like me. I’m like over 4 million Canadians. An even greater number of people in the European Union are also like me. Like 28% of households in the U.S. and Canada and 34% of households in the EU, my household consists of myself and no one else, apart from my dog. Next year, in 2020, I will celebrate thirty years of living by myself. I will not frame my life within the misleading confines of “living alone,” because I’m not alone even when I’m by myself. My twenty-year conversation with a good friend in the UK picks up afresh several times a week and has come to include her husband. My sister and I talk several times a week on the phone. I have many close and good friends where I live and friends and family members spread across the country and in Europe. I don’t lack for contact. Throughout the school year, I spend so much time with people, in meetings, classes, dinner parties in my home or in the homes of friends, restaurants, or on the road that I struggle to confine my social life to only one or two nights a week. The remaining days of the week are MINE.

Living by myself is, by now, the only way of living I’m intimately familiar with. Why I live as I do involves so many factors – demographic, economic, professional, psychological, to name a few – that it is almost pointless to dwell on the subject. My life is what it is. Not only that, I’m content with my lot. I feel lucky, privileged even. While most of my friends are in couples, quite a few of the friends and acquaintances around me are other women and men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who live alone. Some are long divorced like me; others are widowed. We live as we do because we can afford to do so, although this mode of living does not come cheaply. No one shares my expenses. I carry a mortgage and pay utilities and services on my own. Emotionally, I haven’t been burdened by my libido for a long time now (I’m 64, at the time of this writing). When I read articles in the press about “Keeping the Passion Alive,” or, “senior sex,” I shrug. Mazel tov, knock yourself out, go for it. Me? I feel free.

Some might judge me to be selfish. It’s true that I have very little intimate accountability in my life. I do what I want, travel where I want, and rarely have to wait for others or accommodate their wishes. To blunt the narcissistic edge of my existence, I have built into my life some ties that bind. I care for and lavish affection on my dog, Billie Holliday. I have a niece and a nephew in NYC, plus two young goddaughters in Britain, all of whom I adore and engage with. They may not know it yet (they’re all between the ages of 8 and 13), but my affection for them is unconditional. Having been on the receiving end of conditional love for most of my childhood, I know what I’m giving them. More locally, I devote much energy to my friends. Still, without question, I am autonomous in a way that my coupled friends are not. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m a lot less lonely than most of my women friends who are married. I am certainly more self-sufficient than many of my male friends around my age. Few of the marriages I have a window into make me envious.

Cooking for myself at home has never felt like a chore, so I almost never get take-out and never buy frozen dinners. Compared to many people I know, I keep the amount of processed foods I eat to a minimum – dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and basic food products found in a jar or a can. More often than not, I follow a recipe rather than make up a meal out of my head, although I find it easy to invent pasta dishes. I make no claims to creativity or artistry. But the more experience I gained over the years by cooking for myself, the better I cooked and the better able I was to scale up for friends who came to dinner.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who easily joins in rituals, whether religious, ceremonial, or communal. Having grown up in a 200-year old silent Quaker meeting in New Jersey, I didn’t understand the point of ritual until I was in my fifties. I realized only as an adult that sitting in silence for 60 minutes every First Day was a kind of ritual, but the insight did not diminish the conceit that ritual has played a very small role in my life. Now, after all these years of living by myself, I understand that how I prepare and eat food in private constitutes a ritual. I start preparing dinner at the same time of day – 5:30 or so – while listening to music. When I’m ready to eat, around, say, 6:30, I sit at my counter with one of the literary reviews I subscribe to propped up on the bookstand in front of me and read while I eat. If, for some unusual circumstance, several days pass without cooking dinner for myself and eating it while reading, I start to feel depressed, as if I am not in control of my life and life is, instead, pushing me around. I didn’t strive to make dinner the emotional core of my day. It has just turned out that way.

Too many food writers characterize eating communally as a sign of healthy eating and a healthy family. Without a doubt, meals at a dining table with fellow diners can serve to keep the lines of communication open among a family or a group of co-residents. But in the same way that people idealize (rationalize) their intimate relationships, so, too, do people idealize the family dinner table. Family meals at a dinner table are as likely to be sites of conflict as of comity. Bee Wilson (@KitchenBee) is one food writer who understands how treacherous a playing field the family meal can be. What and how we eat are important, whether we do it in the company of others or by ourselves. The stress most writers place on communal eating works at cross-purposes with the demographic reality that many of us do not regularly eat with other people. Being told that eating alone is anti-social doesn’t contribute to the campaign to get people to eat better and more wisely. Its effect is to make people feel like they’re losers if they do.

Preparing good food for yourself alone is a way of taking charge of your life. It is a way of imbuing it with meaning particular to your circumstances. It takes time to develop rituals, cooking skills, and a way of life that is as satisfying as it is healthy. I plan to explore here the benefits and the challenges of eating and traveling by myself. I’m unfurling this banner of a blog yet again after a long period of dormancy.

Nigel Slater’s Pearled Barley with Bacon, Peas, and Taleggio

Nigel Slater, the food editor of the Observer/Guardian, still rolls out good ideas for satisfying grub. Recently, I noticed a recipe of his that calls for boiling some barley, adding it to bacon still frying in its fat, tossing in some peas, and, at the end, mixing in cubes of Taleggio cheese. I decided to adapt the recipe — easy enough — for one. I decided to make it even more Spring-like. I made just enough for dinner with enough leftover for lunch.

For 1.5 or 2 servings

About a pound of fava beans removed from their large pods (a cup or so)

100g pearled barley

A couple of slugs of olive oil

2 strips of bacon, cut into lardons

Half a leek, sliced

Half a cup of fresh or frozen peas

2-3 oz Taleggio cheese, cubed

Put a pot of lightly salted water on to boil. Add the fava beans and blanch for a couple of minutes. If you have a spider scoop, fish them out of the water and let cool. Meanwhile, add the barley to the water you’ve just removed the favas from. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and cook 15-20 mins until the barley is still firm but soft enough to chew.

While the barley is cooking, heat olive oil in a medium skillet and add the bacon lardons. Fry until almost crispy. While the bacon is frying, remove the outer skins on the favas and reserve to the side.  Add the sliced leeks and stir to combine in the bacon fat.

Drain the barley, shake off the excess water, and add it to the bacon and leeks. Add the shelled favas and the peas. Stir so that the bacon fat coats all the ingredients. Season according to your taste. When the peas and the barley are hot and well mixed with the bacon, scatter the cheese over, stir, and let it melt. Adjust the heat so that the cheese doesn’t burn. When the cheese has melted through the barley, turn off the heat.

If you’re eating alone, scrap half the contents of the pan into a bowl and leave the rest to cool. I ate it with a salad.

Vegetarians will omit the bacon. I imagine that olive oil on its own with a drizzle of walnut oil at the end might be very nice.