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Two-plate special: How to downsize your cooking when the kids leave home

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 11:00 a.m. CDT

It was the milk that first got my attention.

At the end of the week, there was still some left, a final cup or so sloshing around the bottom of the jug.

Then I started to notice more subtle signs: The lunch meat that stayed in the meat drawer. The bread that didn’t disappear faster than I could say “inhale.” The peanut butter — oh, the luxury of peanut butter that was right there in its jar when I needed it.

It finally started to sink in: I’m an empty nester now. A family cook with no family to feed.

But I am still a cook, someone who needs — even craves — time in the kitchen. So how do I adjust to this new life? How do I become a serves-two cook in a serves-six world?

I needed advice. So I turned to Ben and Karen Barker, who downsized a lot more than their own kitchen last year. They closed their award-winning restaurant, the Magnolia Grill in Durham, so they could spend more time with their grown sons and grandchildren.

“It’s mundane on the surface, but dramatically wonderful,” Ben said.

They still cook every day, Karen insists. A winner of the James Beard Foundation’s award for the nation’s best pastry chef, she doesn’t bake much these days. But she’ll often make a batch of pizza dough so she and Ben can split a small pizza with a salad a couple of times a week.

And Ben, who once ran his restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator as “a no-waste facility,” has learned to go to the Carrboro Farmers Market and only come back with a couple of zucchini or a single bunch of kale.

“We think in two- to three-day clips,” Karen says. “It’s planned, but it leaves a little room for spontaneity.”

Learning to shop

It’s difficult to know for sure how many of us cooking for two are empty nesters who have to adjust after cooking for families. But it’s a good bet that the 76 million members of the baby boom generation, who are now between 52 and 65, are having an effect.

That age group is expected to control 52 percent of the $706 billion spent on groceries by 2015. And you can bet many in our trend-setting generation won’t settle for two-for-one specials on Lean Cuisine.

Learning to shop is the first step, says Linda Gassenheimer. A longtime columnist for The Miami Herald, Gassenheimer writes the Quick Fix for 2 column that runs each week in The News & Observer and many other newspapers.

Gassenheimer says she never hesitates to ask for prepackaged meats or vegetables to be cut down at the supermarket.

“If they won’t do it, I go to another market,” she declares.

While Gassenheimer went through downsizing when her sons left home, she actually came to small-serving cooking before they left, as an offshoot of a project she did on fast cooking. If you want to cook faster, she learned, it’s easier if you work with smaller amounts.

Still, cutting recipes in half doesn’t always mean just halving all the ingredients or even the cooking time.

One chicken breast cooks in the same amount of time as two, for example. Or if you cook a smaller roast, you’ll still need enough liquid to braise it.

“People have to think about cookware. The pan needs to be right for the size of the meat you’re putting in it.” She’s found that a 7-inch sauté pan or omelet pan, for instance, is perfect for two people.

Even if you cook in smaller amounts, you’re still likely to have leftovers, says Gassenheimer.

And you should: A small batch of soup tucked in the freezer is just as welcome as a big batch when you’re busy.

Creative leftovers

Her advice: “Don’t serve leftovers as leftovers — that’s boring. Create another dish.”

Use extra pasta in a gratin or macaroni and cheese. Or use extra linguine in a stir-fry, like lo mein. Leftover roasted meat can be ground up with a little mayonnaise and horseradish to make a pate to serve on toast with a salad.

Karen Barker corrected me when I called her an empty nester. She and Ben have stayed so busy and gotten so involved with friends and family that nothing feels all that empty. But cooking what they want, not what kids or customers dictate, is a new and delightful thing.

“To be able to cook at leisure is a dramatically different way to approach it,” says Ben Barker. “The meals have been complete and hardly complex, but really, really satisfying.”

———

LASAGNE FOR 2

From Cook’s Country magazine, June/July 2011. The editors of America’s Test Kitchen discovered a neat trick — a plain loaf pan is the perfect size for four no-boil lasagna noodles.

SAUCE:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, minced

Salt and pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

8 ounces meatloaf mix (or equal parts 85 percent lean ground beef and ground pork)

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, with ¼ cup juice reserved

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

FILLING, NOODLES AND CHEESE:

4 ounces ricotta (whole-milk or part-skim)

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, divided

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 large egg, lightly beaten

4 no-boil lasagna noodles

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded whole-milk mozzarella

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and 1/8 teaspoon salt and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add meat and cook, breaking up meat until no longer pink, about 4 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes, reserved juice and tomato sauce and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. (You should have about 3 cups sauce.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine ricotta, ½ cup Parmesan, basil, egg, 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a bowl. Cover the bottom of a 8 ½-inch loaf pan with ½ cup sauce. Top with 1 noodle and spread evenly with a third of the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle with ¼ cup mozzarella and cover with ½ cup sauce.

Repeat twice, beginning with noodle and ending with sauce. Top with remaining noodle, remaining 1 cup sauce, remaining ¼ cup mozzarella and remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

Cover pan tightly with foil sprayed with vegetable oil spray and bake until bubbling around the edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard foil and continue to bake until browned, about 10 minutes. Cool on wire rack for 20 minutes. Serve.

Yield: 2 servings.

———

SHRIMP AND SNOW PEA PAELLA

Paella is usually a big production. Scaling back makes it easier to manage.

½ cup chicken broth

1/8 teaspoon saffron

2 teaspoons olive oil

6 ounces sausage, such as kielbasa, diced

2/3 cup long-grain rice

1 (8-ounce) bottle clam juice

3 ounces fresh snow peas, trimmed and cut in 2 diagonally

½ pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

Heat broth in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add saffron. Reduce heat to low and keep it warm.

Place olive oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat and add sausage. Saute sausage until just starting to brown. Add the rice to the skillet and stir to coat with the oil. Add the broth and clam juice. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium low, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Uncover and add the snow peas and shrimp, pushing the shrimp down into the rice. Add more broth if the rice looks too dry.

Cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve.

Yield: 2 servings.

———

SHOPPING FOR 2

Keep mini bottles of wine or single-serve boxes of apple juice on hand for making marinades, sauces and dressings.

Prowl grocery store salad bars so you can buy small amounts of whole grains and vegetables.

Most supermarkets will cut down packaged meats and produce if you ask. Or, shop a farmers market where you can buy what you need.

Use plastic ice cube trays or mini muffin pans for freezing unused portions of things, like the other half of the canned beans or broth.

Buy items that are individually frozen (sometimes labeled IQF) so you can pull out a single piece of chicken or just a few shrimp.

Love your freezer. If you make something that serves four, freeze half and use it the next week.

Plan ways to use things up: Rinse beans and add them to a salad, mix the rest of a can of coconut milk with broth for cooking rice, spoon some pasta sauce on an English muffin half and top it with cheese for a quick “pizza” to round out a salad dinner.

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