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.
With all the solo cooking I do in my day to day, it can be hard to buy just the right amount of ingredients for any given recipe. But there is, for me, something so curiously satisfying about procuring only what I need for a single serving, and nothing more. An eggplant, a lemon, and a sprig of mint for a salad; a perfect boneless, skin-on duck breast from the butcher; a half-pound of shrimp for nights when all I want to eat is shrimp. No leftovers.
It’s not just for the reduction of waste that this kind of small-scale grocery shopping is useful; it’s for my appetite and creativity, as well. When I can, I enjoy cooking something new each night, especially when I’m the one who has to eat it. Sometimes I’ll force myself to finish a plate of food, even when I’m full, if only because I’m excited to cook the next thing, and the thing after that. (It doesn’t help, either, that I have incredibly scrawny arms, which means carrying groceries up and down the stairs of the New York City transit is particularly difficult for me.)
Of course, this kind of thrifty behavior isn’t always possible. Leftovers are inevitable: days and days of my favorite soup, for instance, or the simple pleasures of roasting an entire chicken for myself. The truth of the matter is that cooking for one is a strategic skill one can learn, not just a question of portion size. I know this now after years of cooking for myself in my tiny New York kitchen.
This is where my freezer comes especially in handy. It’s become what I consider my second pantry—like for when I marinate more kalbi meat than I can eat, or for when I’m unable to go through all that leftover beef stroganoff I made for a dinner party last Sunday. Or for when I buy too many chicken breasts.
Because as much as a single chicken breast is—at least in my world—the perfect solo portion, it can be difficult to buy just one at the store. How many times have you seen an individually packaged breast at your local supermarket? Though this kind of product is becoming more readily available in American grocery stores these days (Perdue and Costco both sell perfectly wrapped singleton chicken breasts), even those are packaged as a group, sold as a set of five or six.
But what of us loners who only need one?
Sure, I’d love to saunter over to my favorite heritage-farm butcher at Chelsea Market on any given weeknight to pick up a single breast, but more often than not my reality is a little less deliberate. I get off work, take the train home, and realize I haven’t thought about dinner yet. There’s a giant Foodtown up where I live—and I love it for its warehouse selection—but the one thing it does not house is a butcher who can carve me just one chicken breast. What it does have is a wall of white meat (usually packets of two or three breasts), and 9 out of 10 times, I’ll buy them as my protein for the week.
I’ll haul my groceries home, take a chef’s knife to the plastic casing of the package, and slice through to release a single breast. The others I’ll slip into a bag and store in the freezer for nights two and three and—if I’m lucky—four.
For moments like these, when I have boneless, skinless chicken breasts in my freezer, I like to make a batch of shredded chicken in the Instant Pot—straight from frozen—and turn it into all manner of meals throughout the week: tacos, enchiladas, chicken salad, and (my favorite) BBQ sandwiches. This means that I still get to cook a little and eat something new each day, even though I’ve done most of the prepwork ahead of time.
- 1 pound frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts (usually about 2)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 cup chicken broth, or 1 teaspoon Better Than Bouillon chicken base plus 1 cup water
- Quick BBQ Sauce, recipe follows (optional)
- Place frozen chicken breasts in the Instant Pot. Season with salt and cumin, and pour in the broth.
- Cover with lid and pressure-cook on high for 12 minutes, then let pressure release naturally for 10 minutes. (If you’re cooking from fresh or thawed chicken breasts, then pressure-cook on high for 6 minutes.)
- Uncover, carefully remove the breasts from the Instant Pot with tongs, then place them onto a cutting board and shred into pieces with two forks. (Sometimes before shredding, I like to cut the chicken in half lengthwise, against the grain, to shorten the strands first, which makes for softer meat in the end.)
- Serve with optional BBQ sauce below or use as you wish throughout the week.
Quick BBQ Sauce
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 pinch kosher salt
Whisk together all the ingredients and transfer to a small dish to serve with the chicken. Makes about 1/2 cup.
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