Table for One

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

Honey-mustard chicken with corn panzanella is the perfect dinner for one.

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.

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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?

Do you ever cook a single chicken breast just for yourself? Tell us how in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

29 Comments

Sherry E. August 14, 2019
you are so delightful to read your spirit is amazing.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 14, 2019
Sherry! Thank you.
 
Randy H. August 13, 2019
Nicely written. Than you for that. About to head homefor a similar solitary repast.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 14, 2019
A peaceful quiet.
 
Jane August 13, 2019
Chicken breasts at my house are always frozen because I buy large quantities, remove the skin, and freeze them in twos in freezer bags. I mostly use them for making soup or poaching for a salad, but on nights when cooking a regular meal seems too daunting I fix a big pot of white rice and chicken. 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.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 13, 2019
I first learned about white rice and butter in middle school home-ec. We of course never did that at home, but I remember it tasting so good. Different, but good.

Chicken and rice truly is the ultimate comfort food. This tastes phenomenal with rice: https://food52.com/recipes/72191-jamie-oliver-s-tender-crisp-chicken-legs-with-sweet-tomatoes-basil
 
weshook August 13, 2019
My dad actually taught me the white rice with butter (and salt and pepper) and he immigrated from China when he was 11. Of course, we rarely got to have anything on our rice. I think that I could skip right to the rice cakes!
 
Margaret August 13, 2019
Hello again Eric. Thank you so much for opening your heart and memories for us. You truly are a beautiful person. I love reading your writings, they are always moving. I have tried the food52 recipes you suggested but there are so many recipes (52 pages!) I have no idea where to turn. Any help would be much appreciated. I really love the idea of chicken and rice but am not into 'fussy' meals. Hints? Thoughts?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 14, 2019
Hi Margaret! Thank you so much for the kind note, and for reading. Means a lot to me.

Hm, unfussy meals ... let's see: https://food52.com/blog/24421-most-popular-recipes-july-2019 Those are all great (and very popular).
 
rob August 11, 2019
A beautiful piece of writing.

 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 11, 2019
Thank you, Rob.
 
minnie August 11, 2019
Oh, so beautiful and painfully moving. You really know how to express your emotions.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 11, 2019
This comment made my Sunday! Thanks, Minnie.
 
mkdepan August 11, 2019
What a beautiful (and yummy-sounding) reminder of how easy it can be to careen from solitude into loneliness. Thank you for sharing both!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 11, 2019
Thank you!
 
Jean K. August 10, 2019
I can’t eat this I’m crying too hard! (But it sounds delicious)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 10, 2019
Tears provide just the right amount of salt for the marinade!
 
Annada R. August 9, 2019
Reads like a poem, Eric! Pieces like this make me fall in love with food again, for its power to stir so many emotions.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
Well said, Annada. Thanks for stopping by.
 
Rhianna August 9, 2019
Thank you for making my Friday with such a lovely and well-written piece.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
Thank YOU for taking the time to read this.
 
tia August 9, 2019
YUM, this sounds great. In summer, I'll often microwave an artichoke (SO much easier than steaming or boiling!) and grill chicken sausages. I'll have to try this. Do you think it would be doable on a grill?

I feel like cooking for yourself can be that moment where you feel lonely because our society doesn't believe anyone cooks for one. It can feel sad. But taking the time to do it properly elevates it and makes it more of a solo affair than a lonely one.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
The microwave is an underutilized gem, in my opinion.
 
sf-dre August 9, 2019
Bookmarking... much easier than trying to make Zuni roast chicken and bread salad
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
Too true.
 
weshook August 9, 2019
I love the idea of panzanella for one! I always have homemade bread at I'm trying to use up, but making a big panzanella would just be too much. I am definitely using this.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
All you need is a vegetable you really like and a good vinaigrette.

What bread recipe do you use?
 
weshook August 13, 2019
I mainly just throw stuff together for bread, right now I have half a loaf of rye left and I made some two days ago that has sprouted wheat berries, rye, quinoa, spelt , whole wheat and a little bread flour to round it out. I actually had toasted rye on my salad last night (romaine, apple and red onion). Thanks! it was delicious!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 13, 2019
Delicious.