My pantry contains a large Ziploc freezer bag of Lebanese zaatar from my favoured Abu Dhabi roastery, along with several bottles of emerald-green, outrageously luxurious Ligurian olive oil. I spoon the zaatar into a small ramekin and drizzle in a slow stream of olive oil while mixing to form a runny paste. I eat it plain with a tiny pastry spoon, savouring the dark graininess of the wild thyme and nutty sesame as though they were beads of Beluga caviar.
Zaatar on a spoon is not a snack I would serve to anyone else, but the point is, I wasn't serving anyone but myself. In true degenerate fashion, I've also been known to crunch on dried pasta, chew at Parmigiano Reggiano rinds like a teething baby, scoff pickled chillies directly from the jar and down spoonfuls of mustard while standing at the refrigerator door.
A well-stocked pantry only goes as far as the creativity of the keeper. Or, in my case, the keeper's indiscriminate sodium addiction.
Last week, after undergoing some dental work that left the right side of my face anaesthetised, I sat down to a dinner of salad dressed in a warm vinaigrette. When I stopped to wipe my face with a napkin, I realised that I had painted a big olive oil smile on my cheek that had subsequently begun to run down my face, but because of the numbness, I couldn't feel a thing.
If anaesthesia was the numbing agent for all external intents and purposes, then solitude was the security blanket that shielded me within. A little dressing on the face is no big deal, especially in the privacy of one's home. There's nobody to impress and nobody to scare away. The quintessentially casual nature of dining alone at home is conducive to the ultimate in "anything goes". It's a totally different ballgame from dining alone in restaurants.
Some people believe that food tends to taste better when it's made by someone else, whether it's at their house, your house, or in a restaurant. I've never found that to be the case. One of the beauties of biting into something you've made yourself to eat, aside from the glorious resounding hush, is the freedom to eat how and what we want.
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One andDining Alone by Jenni Ferrari-Adler is a collection of essays that I love on this topic. In What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, the writers share notes, confessions and recipes from an extended network of friends, writers and chefs. My contribution, part of which can be seen in the YouTube video accompanying the book's release, was an impassioned defence of the grilled cheese and chocolate sandwich, along with other things that can be eaten with one's hands.
Some of the finest cookbooks on the topic of cooking for one include Going Solo in the Kitchen by Jane Doerfer, Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One by Joe Yonan, and The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Jones's boeuf bourguignon is a rich, savoury stew that promises to yield three good meals to a solo diner. In a similar vein, Jones suggests a way to make a tenderloin stretch over several meals to make a small roast, a scallopine, a gratinate, a hash and a stir-fry.
But recipes like this are not for me when I'm alone. I prefer to save my energy and effort for when I have someone to impress, and it's not because I don't think I'm worth it. The truth is, I derive absolute fulfilment from the joy of eating things that range from austere to just plain weird. Throw in the added perk of not having to wash up afterwards and you have a winning formula for an occasional dreamy dinner: no date, no disruptions, no dishes. You're more likely to find me dissecting the carcass of a roasted chicken and eating all the dark meat first, or slicing away translucent slivers of preserved lemon to melt in my mouth, or crowning huge quantities of popcorn with butter and brewer's yeast, or obliterating jars of inky, wrinkled oil-cured black Moroccan Beldi olives. With unadulterated pleasure, I can double dip. I may eat with my hands. I am allowed to lick the plate.
The mysterious love affairs with certain flavours are like chronological tags; the evolutionary (and often, regressive) landmarks in my gastronomic narrative. In the UAE one year, I cultivated a one-a-day avocado habit, putting a little aged balsamic vinegar into the depression where the pit had been, sprinkling it with salt and eating it with a spoon. In college, I obsessed over a particularly trashy brand of French vanilla yogurt, which I could have guzzled by the gallon. Instead, I ate it three times a day with instant oats. Nowadays, I slice fat heirloom tomatoes cross-wise, douse them with olive oil and shower with crushed Maldon salt, then leave them to sit until they yield their juices; juices that were made not to be shared with others, but to be slurped blissfully from the bowl in a quiet kitchen in an empty house.
My tips for stocking the perfect pantry? A good selection of olive oils (one for cooking, one for finishing) is essential, and some sesame and canola oil are useful to have around. And one must have vinegars, of course. I like to keep around some good imported tuna in oil, red pepper from Turkey and Aleppo, rice, pasta, quinoa, harissa and Sriracha. There must be some all-purpose flour, sugar, potatoes, garlic and onions.
In the fridge stock butter, eggs, milk, yogurt and a hunk of hard cheese. In the freezer, I keep nuts and cornmeal.