Last night, too depressed to cook dinner for myself after reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, I called up C. and we headed down to the Honeyhole for cheeseburgers. This is probably not what the editor of that book had in mind when she pulled together a collection of essays about cooking and dining alone, but for every writer who reveled in the pleasures of cooking for one, or dining out alone, without fear or a book to hide behind, there seemed to be another writer who took pleasure in cooking for others, but not for themselves, or had no interest in cooking at all, for themselves or anyone else. (In a beautiful gesture, the book begins with the Laurie Colwin essay whose title gives the book its own title, and ends with an essay by Colwin's daughter, some fifteen years after the writer's untimely death, and it is an almost unbearable pleasure to see that this child whom I have always thought of as "on the cusp of seven" has grown into a writer herself).
Actually, cooking for one is really just cooking for two, with leftovers. And I am someone who gets nervous in cooking for other people. I prefer cooking for myself. I don't have to take anyone else's tastes into consideration, and I am almost never disappointed. There is no pressure, no impatience, no nervousness, which is when mistakes happen, when the knife slips and slices into your thumb, when the meat is overdone and the vegetables undercooked. And I live alone, with two thousand books and lots of stuffed animals. Most of the time there is just myself to cook for. Sometimes I plan my meals even before I leave for the grocery store, and other times dinner is an improvisation based on whatever I find in the fridge. To prevent boredom, I have to transform last night's dinner into something else, adding in new ingredients to change the dish the way you might twist a scarf around your neck or pin on a brooch to change your look.
I have a couple of onions in the fridge; this is always a good way to begin. I slice half of one thinly, slip it in some olive oil that is heating in a skillet on the stove. While the onions turn translucent and then begin to brown around the edges, I slice a small piece of steak left over from earlier in the week, thin slices made easier by the cold meat. Next, I stir the steak into the golden onions, pour in a good slosh of red wine I found in the fridge. A whoosh of steam rises from the pan. Meanwhile, the french fries left over from last night's cheeseburger are warming gently in the toaster oven. The wine reduces to a glaze; it's ready, and so are the fries, newly crisp and golden. I remember that there is still a bouquet of flat-leaf parsley in a glass on my counter. The leaves are beginning to yellow around the edges. It only takes a minute to wash a sprig or two, chop the leaves and sprinkle them over the steak and onions, grind some black pepper on top.
It is steak frites re-imagined, a streamlined Beef Stroganoff of sorts, minus the mushrooms and sour cream and dill. It is better than I could have dreamed of, better than the sad little steak I ate several nights ago (it was a rib-eye, and unfortunately cooked in a manner better suited to a thick New York steak), better than the cheeseburger with fries I had for dinner last night. (The cheeseburger was good, but this was extraordinary). I will probably never make it again. This sort of improvisation is just that, a jazz riff that remains unwritten, belonging to a moment that passes. When I have cold steak in my fridge again, it will become something else; when I have cold leftover fries, I will eat them, reheated, plain or perhaps with ketchup. Just the memory will be enough, will inspire the next improvisation.