Dinner for One

Chipotle Chicken with Tomato-Avocado Salsa

Chipotle chicken with avocado-tomato salsa

On the rare occasion that I find myself home alone for the evening, cooking dinner for myself goes out of the window.  I know that for many people, getting into the kitchen after a hard day’s work is their way to unwind, but I am usually rather grateful for a night off.  If I’m feeling particularly energetic, I will grill myself something to put atop a salad; if I really can’t be arsed, it’ll be marmite on toast or a trip to the chip shop (Seamasters on Forest Hill Road, just in case you’re interested).

I spend a lot of time cooking for others; whether it be a supper for Ollie and I, lunch for friends, or a birthday cake; and I love it, but I’ve always felt that there is no point in cooking an entire meal just for me.  When I was a student and Ollie spent large chunks of time on tour, I would make a pot of something and live off it for three or four days.  Some people might be horrified by this, but although I love cooking, I also love the thought of spending a whole evening watching Netflix and doing minimal dishes, from time to time.   It seems I’m not the only one.  Many of my friends, especially those with children, will seldom cook a meal when it is just for them.

I was reading an old article by Jay Rayner on the idea of cooking for one.  He argued that this was the perfect opportunity to cook things exactly as you want them, without having to consider anybody else.  He cites putting more heat in a Thai curry and sea salt on chocolate ice cream as his lone dining guilty pleasures.  For me, being home alone is the time to eat the kind of crap that others would turn their nose up at if you presented it as dinner.  For example:  I have one of those toasters with an egg poacher on the side, and love to poach a perfectly circular egg and put it in a split and toasted English muffin with two slices of slappy American cheese and a load of ketchup.  Pretty filthy, but so good.

This weekend Ollie was on his stag do and I was home alone.  Ordinarily, I would have stocked up on all kinds of junk and bookmarked some trash TV on my subscription services, but the image of the wedding dress I have to squeeze into in a little over a month was hanging over me like a giant warning sign.  ‘Dinner for One’ needed a new, healthy makeover.

When rooting through the cupboard for inspiration, I found a little pot of Mexican spice mix that I made back in February.  On sticking my nose in, I realised that it hadn’t lost its potency and, although I initially thought it would be ace in a grilled cheese sandwich, I decided to use it as the basis of something healthier.  When mixed with chipotle paste, lime juice and soy sauce and a little olive oil, it became a very punchy marinade for a lone chicken breast.  To accompany this, a summery salsa of ripe avocados and even riper tomatoes, mixed up with lime juice, chilli and garlic.  A very virtuous meal if ever there was one.

Chipotle Chicken with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

  • 1 tsp chipotle paste
  • Juice of 2 limes, separated
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 medium avocado, diced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 3 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1 jalapeno, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Salad leaves

In a small bowl, combine the Mexican spice mix, chipotle paste, juice of one of the limes and the honey.  Place the chicken breast in a wide shallow bowl and pout over the chipotle mixture.  Use your hands to coat the chicken and leave to marinade in the fridge for at least an hour.

In the meantime, make the avocado-tomato salsa.  In a large bowl combine the avocado, tomatoes, spring onions, chilli and garlic.  Pour over the lime juice and gently stir until the ingredients are well mixed.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Chill in the fridge until needed.

Put a griddle pan over a high heat and, once hot, grill the chicken until cooked through.

Arrange the salad leaves in the bowl.  Slice the chicken breast diagonally and place the slices on top.  Spoon the salsa over the chicken.

Two Ways with Spring Greens

I am one of those awkwardly pretentious people who loves quotations.  I have a dictionary of quotations that my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager, and have  been drawing on it for inspiration ever since.  I have a number of them written in a little notebook I carry around, have them engraved into gifts and almost always write them in birthday cards:  something about age and wisdom for the younger ones and, for the older ones, something about how bloody old they are.

One of the most overused quotations is, incidentally, one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s been quoted in a number of terrible romantic comedies and sitcoms, but in the case of the week I’ve just had, it rings very true:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday I organised a very fun and glitzy party that was scuppered somewhat by my waking up with the cold from hell.  This cold persisted into the weekend and on Saturday, with a red nose and sore throat, I celebrated my hen night with twenty of my dearest and, thankfully, healthy friends.  Of course, after a couple of gin and tonics start to blur your brain, it is easy to forget that you are ill until it hits you tenfold the next morning.  Let me be the one to tell you that martinis and decongestant tablets do not mix.

Since then, my cold has developed into a throat infection and a chest infection, which has rendered me more or less housebound for the past few days.  As is always the way when I’m ill, I go running for the same list of things that will make me feel better:  a box set of two or more seasons (this time it is House of Cards, which I am completely obsessed with), several bottles of original Lucozade, an abundance of tissues and as much fruit and vegetables as Ollie can carry back from the supermarket.  Ordinarily I would make my ultimate cold-buster, the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings of my dreams, but south east London is a muggy old place right now, and jointing and stewing a chicken in my tiny kitchen seems far more unappealing than it does in the winter.

Stir fried lamb with spring greens

Instead, I have been upping my intake of green vegetables.  The wonderful thing about spring is the availability of more greens to break up the monotony of purple sprouting broccoli and kale we live on all winter.  I go crazy on asparagus, samphire, gorgeous peppery watercress from my home county of Hampshire and nettles, which I discovered a few years ago.  One of the best arrivals of the season, however, are spring greens, which have the benefit of being both versatile and cheap.  They are the first cabbages of the year and have a strong iron-rich flavour and robust texture that lends itself well to a variety of different dishes.  I have often used spring greens as a substitute for other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pak choi or kale when I have been unable to get my hands on these, or simply have greens in the house.

Risotto primavera

Risotto primavera

I picked up a couple of these cabbages from the Co-op in East Dulwich for about £1 and had enough to make two main meals.  The first was a take on Nigel Slater’s stir fried lamb with broccoli (you can guess which ingredient I replaced) that took from my Asian storecupboard of chillies, fish sauce and lime; and the second was from Italy, a risotto primavera, which succeeded in using up some odds and ends of green vegetables I had in the fridge and freezer:  an old courgette, almost ready for the bin, a rogue celery stick and the ends of some bags of peas and broad beans lurking at the back of the freezer drawer.

The most important thing about cooking with spring greens, at least for me, it to remove the rough stalks in the middle of the leaves.  I can hardly ever get them to cook to a point where they are tender, and always end up picking them out.

Stir Fried Lamb with Spring Greens

  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds removed (keep them in if you like it hot) and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 350g minced lamb
  • Juice of 1½ limes
  • 1½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • Handful finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the  spring onions, garlic and chillies for a couple of minutes until they are soft but not coloured.  Add the lamb mince, breaking up with a spatula, and cook until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime, fish sauce and sugar then pour this mixture into the hot pan and stir through the lamb, cooking for an extra few minutes until some of the liquid has reduced.

Remove from the heat and check the seasoning.  Stir in the spring greens and half of the coriander and cover the pan for a few minutes until the leaves have wilted in the residual heat.  Sprinkle the remaining coriander on top and serve.

Serves two.  Adapted from a recipe by Nigel Slater.

Risotto Primavera with Feta

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 300g arborio rice
  • 150ml dry white wine
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 1l vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • 1 handful broad beans, podded
  • 1 handful frozen peas
  • 25g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or chef’s pan and gently cook the onions, celery and garlic until soft but not coloured, this should take about 10 minutes on a low heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that the grains are coated in the oil.  Turn up the heat and add the white wine to the pan, letting it bubble until almost all of the liquid has been evaporated.  Stir in the diced courgette.

Keeping the pan on a medium heat, start adding the vegetable stock to the rice mixture, a ladle at a time, stirring regularly.  Add the next ladle of stock only when the previous one has evaporated.  Keep adding the stock, stirring as you go, until you have used three-quarters of it.  Taste the rice, it should be cooked but slightly al dente.  If the rice is still too hard, repeat the process of adding stock and stirring until it has reached the consistency that you like.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, seasoning, spring greens, broad beans and peas.  Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes until the butter has melted and the greens have wilted.  Stir again and serve in large bowls, topped with the crumbled feta.

Serves two for dinner and then one for lunch the following day.

*Apologies for my photography – it’s terrible.