In line with Mental Health Awareness week, author of Solo, Signe Johansen shares how cooking solo can be an act of self care, and shares a recipe from the book.
Much like going for a walk in nature, a delicious afternoon nap on a Sunday afternoon or a little time spent doing something creative like pottery or painting, cooking for yourself is one of life's simplest and most therapeutic pleasures. I find cooking solo immensely liberating – you don't have to impress anyone, you can cook whatever you want, and you have a delicious dish to eat at the end of it. What's not to love about that?
I'm certainly not the first to recognise the mental health benefits of cooking. Authors such as Marian Keyes have written about how baking helped alleviate her anxiety and depression in Saved by Cake, and Emily Nunn of the New Yorker wrote about how cooking helped her get over heartbreak in The Comfort Food Diaries. Spending time in the kitchen requires you to be present in the moment, you have to focus on the task at hand and that allows your brain to push any frustrations or negative thoughts to the back burner. Akin to meditation, cooking allows you to step back from the often exhausting pace of modern life and declutter your mind, to reset.
My top tips for cooking solo:
Be prepared. Keep a decently stocked larder or kitchen cupboard and fridge. Some of the best meals I've conjured up are from a fridge forage – throwing together whatever I have available. That usually means some combination of eggs, herbs, cheese, a few spices and any odds and sods that will bring a dish together. I've provided lists on this in my book to get you started, a little planning goes a long way to helping a solo cook when the shops are closed.
If you find yourself always shrugging off the idea of cooking alone and asking "why bother?" try reframing your mind: rather than viewing cooking alone as a chore, line up 2-3 simple recipes to try on a few evenings or on the weekend. They don't have to be complex dishes, even something like the halloumi salad or late-night miso ramen featured in Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One, or a couple of mezze/tapas dishes to start with can make a difference to your mental outlook.
Every cook shares this secret: knowing when to make short cuts. There's nothing wrong with mooching in front of Netflix with a takeaway pizza, but the next time you do it consider rustling up a green salad alongside, perhaps with a homemade vinaigrette to accompany it. If you've gone to the trouble to cook a meal from scratch don't fret about buying pudding for afters. Good cooks know when to inject time and energy into their dishes and when to cheat a little. Don't be so hard on yourself, the fantasy we see on modern cookery programmes is exactly that: an aspirational fantasy. You'd go mad trying to be a domestic goddess all the time. Be practical, make compromises when you need to.
Adapt your cooking schedule to your energy level and mood. I've taken on elaborate feasts when I've been run-down and they always end in tears. When I'm alone I try to be more mindful about what I want to cook. Some days I love throwing everything into one pan so I don't have to bother with a lot of washing up, other days I'm happy to linger over larger batches of something like dal or a classic tomato sauce – and freezing portions for those occasions when I want something quick and easy but don't have the right ingredients (even a well-prepared cook sometimes has lapses in her planning!)
Line up a series of podcasts you've been meaning to tune into. I find The New Yorker Radio Hour, Freakonomics, Pod Save America and the Honey & Co Food Talks to be excellent companions while I'm pottering about in the kitchen. Ditto music and audio books. Silence can feel oppressive when you're on your own in the kitchen.
Time spent cooking for yourself won't cure anxiety or depression, but it will allow you to do something constructive and provide a welcome distraction from any problems you're grappling with. Think of cooking alone as an affirmation of your self-worth, an act of kindness to yourself when times are tough. There is joy to be found both in the process of cooking, and of course in the eating.
Signe Johansen's Croque Madame for one from Solo
This Croque Madame eschews a traditional béchamel sauce topping for the simple reason that, given the choice between taking time to cook delicious, creamy spinach and a boring, bland sauce, spinach wins every time. I’ve cheated by using crème fraîche, but you can leave it out and add a little mustard and nutmeg to the cheese as a final flourish before grilling.
-Butter, for frying
-2 slices of sourdough bread, country loaf or spelt bread, one slice lightly buttered on one side
-handful of grated cheese – a mix of Gruyere, Parmesan and mozzarella (or use whatever you have/like)
-1 tsp crème fraîche
-½ tsp Dijon or English mustard
For the creamy spinach:
-100g baby spinach, washed
-1 tsp butter
-1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
-2 tsp crème fraîche nutmeg, to taste
-Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Start by making the creamy spinach. Put the spinach leaves in a small saucepan to wilt over a low heat, then place in a sieve and drain away all the excess liquid, pressing it with a spoon. Heat the butter in the same saucepan over a medium heat until foaming, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, or until it becomes translucent and turns lightly golden. Stir in the crème fraîche, then season with a grating or two of nutmeg. Fold in the drained spinach, season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Melt 2 teaspoons of butter in a frying pan or skillet over a high heat until foaming. Add the unbuttered slice of bread to the pan and smear the creamy spinach over it, then add about half of the grated cheese. Top with the buttered slice of bread (butter-side up), then, when the first slice is golden brown and crisp on the bottom, turn the whole thing over carefully and repeat the frying on the other side.
Preheat the grill to medium, place the Croque Madame on a baking sheet or in a roasting dish, top with more cheese, the crème fraîche and mustard and grill until bubbling and slightly caramelised. Fry the egg in some butter in a small skillet or frying pan, place it on the Croque Madame and eat immediately.
Variation: Add a slice of good-quality ham or smoked salmon with the spinach for extra flavour and protein.
Photo by wu yi