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Cooking for two - then and now

No I don't mean 'then' in a purely historical sense. I mean in a personal historical sense. It's just that when I was looking for something to illustrate a, shall we say, 'mature' man and woman eating dinner together this was actually the best one that I found. Ancient Rome - who would have thought it. Mind you this particular lady most likely did not prepare the meal. She has a slave fanning her for heaven's sake, so she's hardly likely to have entered the kitchen. I was looking for paintings, and all the others that I found were either young couples gazing romantically into each other's eyes in some sumptuous or beautiful restaurant or an old peasant couple - and I mean old, old, old, eating bread and cheese - or in this case, fish.

There were no pictures of 'normal' older couples, eating 'normal dinners. But this is what we older people now do is it not. Indeed one doesn't have to be that old. The dilemma begins when the children leave home. In my case I would have been in my late 40s early 50s, not what I considered old at all. And yet suddenly here I was cooking for just two again.

As well as finding it difficult to find suitable illustrations I also found it even more difficult to find anyone talking on the subject with anything other than advice on how to do your shopping, how to have the right equipment and how to store things in your freezer - not to mention leftovers, although the advice was mostly about avoiding them. And then they didn't seem to want to talk about normal everyday life.

“If you follow cooking websites and magazines with any regularity, you’ll know that there is only one time of year when a spotlight is put on making meals for two: Valentine’s Day. As if the sole purpose of a small, intimate dinner is seduction, or that you and your significant other/roommate/family member spend the other 364 days of the year in a relationship with your local takeout." Miki Kawasaki

I should add to this that the implication also, if you find anything at all about cooking for two, is either that it should be a romantic thing - a date night if you will - or that the two should cook the meal together, making it even more romantic. Which, of course is most likely not the case. I know I'm not very good cooking with anyone else, let alone one's husband, so I think that's just pie in the sky. All those happy photographs of beautiful young things cooking something amazing together is just dreaming it seems to me. But if you feed into a Google images search 'cooking for two' that is what you mostly get. And did I say that invariably the food the loving couple is making is not only beautiful but supremely healthy - lots of salads and cutting up of vegetables.

Mind you when I was young and first married, and I'm sure I have said this before, I tried to cook something new and different and special for my new husband every day. I was in love, and I was learning to cook for myself. Previously I had mostly been fed either by my mother, the wonderful French mothers in whose homes I stayed, or the kitchen staff at my university. I did cook a bit with my mother but this was different. Now I was the decision maker. And I had the right books - Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier and Jane Grigson. No glossy pictures to make me feel bad when what I produced didn't look as good, and not too many books and recipes to choose from. So I worked my way through them pretty thoroughly. I did try to make it look good though. I even remember cooking up sausages and baked beans and baked potatoes and arranging them on a platter rather than just dumping them on the plate.

But I don't remember having to deal with lots of leftovers. I think that may have come later in life when I had children. I must have had them because I do remember a book that I used a fair bit, called Leftover for tomorrow. And look I found a not very good picture of it. I threw my copy out a few years ago for some unfathomable reason, considering others that I kept. The author is Marika Hanbury Tenison and I think I had at least one other of her books. But prior to that I don't think I had leftovers. Why?

Well I think one reason is that if, for example, we had a roast, the British butcher provided very small roasts of beef, lamb or pork which were suitable for two people. I remember the shock of the size of beef roasts in particular when we came to Australia. Maybe though we had a lot of chops and pieces of chicken. Not steak though as that was too expensive. Although it's unlikely I bought chicken pieces, because one couldn't buy pieces of chicken back then, one had to buy whole chickens. But then they might have been pretty small. Or I might have just cut them up and cooked two meals from them.

I think we also had rather more dinner parties than we do now. Well nowadays these are rare. We had university friends living in London too and we all used to meet at each others' houses over dinner, or occasionally go out to a trendy bistro like Bistro 42 or Odin's. it was a pretty regular thing - most likely every weekend. Interestingly my sister has a weekly or is it fortnightly meal with a couple who are her and her husband's best friends. Such a lovely thing to do. A new year's resolution perhaps, although there is a tendency in my husband to get super stressed about such things in spite of the ultimate enjoyment and so we don't do it - however casual the occasion might be.

The collection of cookbooks steadily grew, and steadily declined in use except for the rather more lavish dinner parties, some of them for business reasons, that we hosted now and then. The children grew into teenagers and became fussier and fussier so that I was down to cooking variations on the theme of about ten dishes all the time. My husband was away a lot, I was working and so takeaway also crept in. But, as in my young years, not many leftovers.

Then my sons were gone and it was back to cooking for two. The shock was so great I actually bought an Australian Women's Weekly book called Cooking for Two. I don't think I have ever cooked anything from it. Partly I think because it seemed to be succumbing to the date night kind of attitude. Everything was just a bit fancy - I just opened a page at random and there was Lobster with avocado sauce, accompanied by Goats' cheese and carambola salad. What on earth is carambola? - starfruit apparently. But even starfruit, although available is not exactly everyday. But then why shouldn't every night be date night? Not with lobster though - not in our house anyway.

The real shock of the departing sons was that, unrecognised by myself, I had slipped into the habit of cooking for four - as most recipes assume by the way - and was unable for some unfathomable reason to reduce the quantities. Indeed even after all these years I still can't quite do it.

Take last night for example - and the reason for this mini outburst I suppose. I began with a small piece of rump steak - so small that I actually boosted the meat content with some bacon - a small piece of pumpkin that was going so soft, I had to throw half of it away, a capsicum, an onion, and two potatoes. Oh and two carrots. I thought I was being so pared back, and yet the finished result (which was fairly, though not wonderfully tasty thanks to the flavour boosters), was ample for four and so now we shall be eating the other half later this week. Which is fine, in that I don't have to cook, but it's boring. Maybe I should turn it into a pie - or soup.

Yes I know, I should freeze it. But, again as I have said before, I shall forget about it and eventually have to just throw it out. So better to just eat it later in the week. Sometimes I am so bad at this that I find myself cooking just two or three new meals each week.

Most recipes in cookery books are for four people, and I do cut them in half. But it doesn't always work.

"cutting recipes down to two servings can seem like a course in arithmetic. (What do you do if you need just half an egg? Exactly how much is half a can of tomatoes?)" Cooks Illustrated

Indeed. They pose the question but they don't really answer it. Mostly it is doable and if it isn't - well I just make the full recipe and then it's the later in the week thing.

Nowadays I still try to please my husband. Of course I do. As well as myself.

"I become obnoxiously triumphant when I make something that he thinks he won’t like but ends up loving." Lauren Miyashiro - delish

However, you have to be a little bit brave though to do that. The most brave I have become is to sneak in some forbidden ingredient such as anchovies and hope he doesn't notice. And actually he rarely does notice the anchovies.

I enjoy cooking. I collect cookbooks. I write a blog that is mostly about food. It's a minor obsession I suppose. Well it's all I am capable of in a creative kind of way. But I do find it frustrating when I constantly make too much. I think I should be brave. Cook more with those more expensive chops and roasts, with the cuts of meat that I generally ignore.

How to exploit my wonderful cookbooks though? It's simply not enough to say I will use them more, or that I will cook one special meal per week. That idea has stuttered along, but sometimes I forget, sometimes David can't think of something suitable to challenge me with, and sometimes it's all just too hard.

No, I need a system. There are bloggers working their way through a particular favourite cook's book but that is really rather too specific. Perhaps what I should do is work my way through the bookshelves, book by book, and either randomly pick something, or find something to suit the particular ingredient I have bought that week. At the moment I have a surfeit of peppers.

So looking at my first Christmas cookbook gift as an example - Nigella's At my table, I have found two recipes for peppers. One is for a Red hot roasted salsa - a dip, so not appropriate and besides my husband does not like 'hot'. There is also Egg tortilla pie, which would tempt me, but David doesn't like eggs unless they are in an omelette, and he also doesn't like chilli sauce which is slathered on top. And now that I look at it, it doesn't qualify anyway, because the peppers are the chilli sauce - no peppers at all. I suppose you could substitute tomato sauce, but no the eggs are a killer. And therein lies the other ultimate problem of cooking for two - pleasing the other person. Nobody likes the same things as everybody else, and so eventually (and, it seems to me, increasingly more often), you are going to come up against this problem. You can substitute a bit and fiddle a bit, but with this particular recipe - which actually looks quite tempting to, there is no way that I could get it past the other person's personal dislikes. So no go I'm afraid.

So let's try a random pick from the same book - Indian spiced chicken and potato traybake. Yes I could try that. Tomorrow's dinner done! She even gives suggestions for leftovers. And I have some potatoes that really have to be used - they are sprouting. Or maybe I should plant them.

So another new year's resolution - I just have to decide which shelf to start at and how long I should stick at one book.


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