Table for One

A Dish I Cook for Myself When I Don't Feel Like Thinking

On solitude and kinetic cooking.

by:
August  9, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


Every morning when I begin to stir, my dog Quentin pops her head up and looks back at me from the foot of the bed. She gets up slowly, stretches and yawns, then pounces on my chest to lick my face. This is my alarm clock. Sometimes it makes me forget that I live by myself.

I've lived alone for years, even before I adopted Q from the ASPCA. The routine hasn't changed: I wake up, walk over to the kitchenette, and put on the kettle for coffee. Sometimes I read the paper or check email. If I'm in the middle of a novel I really like, then I'll sit on the stool at my kitchen island and skim through a chapter, drinking my coffee. I don't have a dining table. This cold, stainless steel kitchen island is my workspace, where I roll out pie crusts and cut onions and write.

It's also where I sit to dinner.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“After adding the rice and my favorite poultry seasoning to the boiling water I nestle in two frozen chicken breasts, bring the pot back to a boil, put on the lid and turn the heat down to the lowest simmer for 30-35 minutes. If the rice looks fluffy and done, and the chicken is the right temp, it's time to serve with big pats of butter and plenty of salt and fresh ground pepper. Usually some frozen lima beans or edamame are added on top for the last ten minutes, although this is optional. My college roommate and I came up with this dish because we were both raised on white rice with butter and loved it. The next morning we would mix the leftover rice with an egg or two and a chopped green onion or some parsley flakes, then fry up crispy rice cakes for breakfast. The chicken and rice sounds very plain, but it tastes good and is comforting when you're tired. My husband asks me to fix it when he catches a cold and says it always makes him feel better. The leftover rice cakes were a favorite breakfast for my kids, too. ”
— Jane
Comment

I love how disproportionately big my makeshift dining table is: A single plate of food, a napkin, a fork, maybe a knife, and a glass of wine occupy about one-eighths of the space. Even though it's just me most nights, I do appreciate the option to spread out should I need to.

When I'm cooking Korean food, for instance, there are about three to four banchan dotted around a bowl of white rice, maybe a reheated soup or stew, a grilled meat to go with. This may sound like an involved spread, but it's actually an ideal way to feed yourself on busy weeknights because most everything is made in advance. In this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Small dishes, all prepped and ready to go in your fridge, need only a fresh bowl of white rice to complete a feast.

I love these weeknight feasts when I don't have to talk to another soul. I can dedicate the rest of my evening to two of life's greatest pleasures: food and television. When I'm watching television with dinner, I set my laptop to my left and watch a couple episodes of BoJack Horseman or The United States of Tara. After dinner, I take my dog for her nightly walk, wash up, and head to bed.

Fridays are, however, another thing entirely. When I come home from work at the end of the week—usually after drinks with a friend or a bad date—I'm too tired to make anything super-involved, but I still want something fresh and special. Like this honey-mustard chicken breast with raw corn panzanella.

Even though this recipe has multiple components, each is simple enough on its own and, once combined with the whole, feels like a great feat of domestic comfort. I enjoy this kind of cooking because it's mostly kinetic. There are steps required of my hands and not my brain.

It's nice sometimes, isn't it, to not have to think?


How to Cook Without Thinking

Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.
  1. Put on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record. Open a bottle of chardonnay and pour yourself a glass. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

  2. Pinch the stem of a fresh thyme sprig, starting from the top, and run your fingers down to strip off the delicate leaves. Chop it up with your favorite knife and take a whiff. Wonder why you don't cook with fresh thyme more.

  3. Add the thyme to a small plate with Dijon mustard, honey, and a few more delicious items from the pantry (red wine vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes, etc.). Whisk these delicious items together with your favorite whisk, a tiny one for sauces you bought in Paris nine years ago because you thought it was cute (now it's the kitchen tool you use most).

  4. Take a boneless, skinless chicken breast out of its packaging and smear it all over with the honey mustard. Use your hands because your hands are the best kitchen tool (after the whisk). Set the chicken aside to marinate for 10 minutes. Wash your hands, feed the dog, drink more wine.

  5. After 10 minutes, sear the chicken breast in a hot, oven-safe skillet for a couple minutes, then flip and transfer to the oven. Set the timer for 15 minutes, knowing that it might need 5 or 10 minutes more (but check at 15, because there's nothing worse than an overcooked chicken breast).

  6. Pop a slice of bread into the toaster.

  7. Peel away the outer leaves of an ear of fresh corn. Get wispy strands of corn silk all over your fingers while trying to remove it. In a large bowl with an upturned ramekin in it, stand the hairless cob vertically and cut along the sides to scrape the kernels off. Pat yourself on the back for not sprinkling corn all over your kitchen.

  8. In another bowl, make a vinaigrette. Grate in a clove of garlic. Look in your fridge for that shriveled-up lemon but don't find it (weeks later, find it in the back of your crisper drawer with mold on it). Rely on your pantry again: red wine vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes. Use the pixie whisk.

  9. Add the corn to the vinaigrette and toss with your second-best kitchen tool. POP. (Remember the toast?) Tear the toast into bite-size pieces and add to the bowl with the vinaigrette.

  10. Check the chicken's internal temperature with the instant-read thermometer you keep in the back of your miscellaneous drawer. 165°F, perfect. Let it rest on your favorite cutting board for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, carve the chicken against the grain and serve it with the corn salad on your favorite plate, a sturdy white one with cobalt blue around the edge.

  11. Try to eat your supper slowly for once in your life, because someone close to you recently said that you eat too fast.

  12. Realize it's very hard to cook without thinking, but decide that at least it's better than lying in bed for hours thinking too much.
A simple chicken breast recipe for one. Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

"Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over," Donald Hall writes in his New Yorker essay on living alone. "I am grateful when solitude returns."

I love this line because I often feel this way myself, especially late at night when I’m left to my own thoughts. Especially on Friday evenings, after the dishes have been put away and Q's had her walk and I've had my bath (and one too many glasses of chardonnay), and it's 3 a.m. and I've been lying in bed for hours, unable to asleep. That's when I really start to miss you.

That's the danger of my solitude: If I'm not careful, then it can quickly turn into loneliness. With all that stillness, the feeling overcomes me again, like a chronic sickness, and stays with me through the weekend.

It reminds me of all those nights when I lay next to you, unable to sleep, stirring and waking you in the process.

One night, we went to bed after a fight and that time I couldn't sleep because I was still so angry at you. They say never go to bed angry, but I grabbed my pillow and stormed out of the bedroom to sleep on the couch in the living room. Hours later, I awoke, startled by the dark mass standing above me.

"What are you doing here?" you said, picking me up like a child and carrying me back to bed.

The next morning, we put on the coffee and decided to work from home together, sitting next to each other on the couch, computers on our laps. This is what it must feel like to be normal, I thought, the calm and quiet domesticity of another.

At 5 o'clock, you shut your laptop closed, turned to me, and said, "What should we have for dinner?"

I shrugged, and we walked over to your fridge. A couple chicken breasts in the freezer, a can of tomatoes, a Lazy Susan of spices in the cabinet. We made the Butter Chicken Lady's Instant Pot butter chicken. We couldn't believe that we were able to take the meat from frozen to stewed and curried in just 10 minutes. The Instant Pot people may be the illuminati, we thought.

Another time, years later (after we broke up, after I sat in bed alone at 3 a.m. missing you, after my favorite uncle died and I had to fly back to Georgia, where you live, for the funeral), you and I reconnected even though we had promised never to speak to each other again.

It was just another summer day, like old times. We walked over to the grocery store after a long swim in the neighborhood pool. I wanted to cook you a dark-meat chicken dish I had just learned from my mom, but couldn't find a single thigh or drumstick or leg quarter in the meat section. Instead, a wall of blindingly white chicken breasts towered over me. I thought, "Who the heck eats all this?"

Everyone, apparently.

Photo by Costco

There are very practical reasons for why we Americans are so obsessed with boneless, skinless chicken breasts: They're quick and easy to cook. I asked you, "That's why you buy chicken breasts, right?"

"I never buy chicken breasts," you said.

"What about that one time you had chicken breasts in your freezer and we made butter chicken?"

"Fine, fine, not never," you remembered. "Maybe once a year if it's on sale or something." (Trick question: Chicken breast is always on sale.)

We went home that night, of course, with a packet of chicken breasts, and I vowed to make them as tender and as delicious as the time I cooked that honey-mustard chicken for myself, the time I missed you so much I couldn't sleep.

I nearly drooled telling you about it, telling you how much you'd like it. The raw corn salad that goes with it is to die for, I told you. Why doesn't anyone tell you how much better raw corn tastes than cooked corn? I told you how satisfying it is to pop a single slice of bread into the toaster for a perfectly portioned panzanella for one. How efficient, how resourceful it makes one feel.

I told you about how I cook this simple chicken breast recipe for myself when I'm home alone, because I love being alone, it's the greatest thing in the entire world, look how happy I am alone.

I told you: Why don't more people choose to be so alone like this all the time?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he is currently working on his first cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in Spring 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at Saveur, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times and follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho. Born and raised in Georgia, Eric lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson.

77 Comments

Jenn C. May 12, 2020
I came by this after reading your Shin Ramyun pot article. Always lovely writing, and timely as I prepare to move to a studio soon and start living alone. Thank you for opening your heart and writing so poignantly about tender, raw, and real emotions. Its food for the soul.
 
Jenn C. May 12, 2020
I came by this after reading your Shin Ramyun pot article. Always lovely writing, and timely as I prepare to move to a studio soon and start living alone. Thank you for opening your heart and poignantly turning so many emotions
 
Sue K. March 29, 2020
It seems at this time, I've turned to reading Food 52 more for the articles than the recipes! In particular, your articles. They are so beautifully written. Thank you!
 
Kevin B. March 27, 2020
I would never do step #1. Hate the band, and I don’t drink wimpy wine. The rest seems ok.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 29, 2020
I’d love to know what you consider non-“wimpy” wine.
 
Serena M. March 3, 2020
I just stumbled upon your beautiful writing... this is such a poignant piece.... thank you for opening your heart and your pantry to us x
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 29, 2020
Thank you Serena x
 
Alyscott January 12, 2020
I enjoyed reading about your trip to Maine. Sounds lovely, wish I was closer. Also enjoy your Table for 1, thanks for all the folks that do eat by themselves. Even if it’s 1 to 3 times a week, it’s a pleasure to read your recipes and know others enjoy a meal by yourself.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 29, 2020
Thank you so much
 
Laura C. December 26, 2019
Eric you are a wonderful writer! Please make a book the world is waiting for you!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 29, 2020
Working on one!
 
shansy December 25, 2019
Thank you for being so open in this article. What a generous gift, having read it on Christmas Day. Keeping solitude from slipping into loneliness is a skill I am still working on and it's comforting to know that others are working on this too.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 29, 2020
I’m so late in responding, but wanted to thank you for commenting on Christmas Day! And yes, it’s a daily challenge, esp now that we’re all in quarantine. Hope you’re safe and healthy-
 
Alex S. October 27, 2019
Eric,
You are never alone, you are so lucky, you have your dog (mine passed away last year.)
Your writing always moves me, makes me laugh, or in this case, tears.
Fondly,
Alex
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
We're never alone with our dogs, are we. I'm so sorry for your loss. x
 
Barnett F. September 16, 2019
Eric, this was a beautifully written article. I was overwhelmed by it, so much so that more words fail me. Thank you for this gift.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Barnett, thank you for the thoughtful comment. So glad you liked it.
 
Lindahensens September 15, 2019
I loved your post. Thank you for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Thanks for reading!
 
DebPS August 27, 2019
...or how about that time I wasn't alone, but I felt alone, and I cried and cried and CRIED while I read your chicken recipe, until all the loneliness had washed away ... Thanks for this and for the chicken and for getting a complete stranger through a day so hard the next one just didn't feel worth it...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 28, 2019
Kindness between strangers is the greatest. Thank you.
 
Elaine W. August 31, 2019
Eric, any chance you can get a by-line so we don't miss your articles?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Hi Elaine, my columns publish most Fridays; you can look out for them here: https://food52.com/users/1482960-eric-kim/articles
 
Rsimon468 August 23, 2019
We sat here reading your beautiful recipe and essay. And it led us to wonder...did you end up together? Also, you have 2 new fans- we can't wait to try your recipes and read more of your writings!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 28, 2019
The story needs an ending!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Someday, maybe.
 
Winonaj August 23, 2019
This is so well written and moving. Never thought i could, or want to, get through a recipe article. I hope you're writing a novel and not using your writing prowess for food posts!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 28, 2019
Thank you so much.
 
Lisa J. August 22, 2019
I thought I was just going to read a recipe, well a little bit of a story too. But now I feel like I just started a novel that I want to finish reading!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 28, 2019
Thanks for reading, Lisa.
 
Elaine W. August 20, 2019
Eric, I was very moved by your writing. Though I'm rarely alone since I live with my husband, one son, two dogs and a bird, I still have patches of loneliness inside that sweep over me off and on. I am not a fan of chicken breasts, preferring thighs but there is a place in my cooking for breasts as you can pond them and saute them quickly, seasoning them anyway you want.They are a must for chicken/fruit salad. I hope to read more of your writing Eric and am surprised I missed you voice before.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 20, 2019
Elaine, thank you so much. Too true that even with other humans and dogs and a bird (my finch passed away a few months ago), one can still feel that dark cloud overhead.
 
Elaine W. August 23, 2019
Eric, If you are thinking of getting another bird, I heartily recommend a cockatiel. They are very social, like a party and dogs. We've had finch and love birds but male cockatiels are the best.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Thanks for the rec, Elaine. Noted.
 
mdelgatty May 14, 2020
The darkness that comes from inside is the heaviest..
 
Jennifer D. August 18, 2019
Your exquisite connection to food and the soul is so lovingly remarkable.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 20, 2019
Thanks, Jennifer.
 
marilu August 18, 2019
I love so much when you write. It’s like a sonnet to my introverted soul. So thankful for you and your gift.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 20, 2019
"a sonnet to my introverted soul" is now my ringtone.
 
Westcoasty August 18, 2019
Eric, you've written movingly before about the connection between food, comfort, and surviving loneliness, but this is my favourite piece of yours so far, maybe because I'm struggling with all of them while I try to recover from a broken heart. Thank you so much for letting me know that I'm not the only one who lies awake in bed when solitude transmutes into loneliness.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 20, 2019
Take care of yourself, friend. With you.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Thank you so much.
 
Laura C. August 18, 2019
Keep writing Eric, you show your heart and are very, very good
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 20, 2019
Thank you so much.