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Cooking for One: Solo diners cozy up between magazine covers

Thursday, September 12, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

One of the best perks of being a solo diner is that you can read in peace when you eat. Nobody cares if there's no conversing. You can eat in any room in the place, spread out as much as you like and take your time finishing an article. Sweet.

When I'm on my own for a meal, I have no lack of reading material. At breakfast, the Post-Gazette gets the nod. Dinner is the best time to catch up on magazines. My subscriptions run to what are called "shelter" and food magazines, as you might expect. Here's my must-cover list.

Gourmet strikes a wonderful balance, and I give new-ish editor Ruth Reichl credit for that. The magazine used to have a bit of a snooty tone to it, and dishes often called for exotic ingredients available only by mail. But now? Realistic travel to U.S. cities and well-written food features are signatures. There's always something about good living, entertaining and weeknight or quick meals, and they all feature reliable recipes, illustrated with upclose color photography. On balance, Gourmet is a wholesome, appealing read with no lecturing or holier-than-thou admonitions. It never lets me down.

I read Fine Cooking when I want to go "fishing." The heavily photographed step-by-step recipes and cooking lessons in the magazine are excellent teaching tools for folks who want to learn to cook right, but whom Mama never taught. For example: "Three Quick Methods for Pork Tenderloin" and "How to Handle Artichokes"? Not exciting, maybe, but basic. Many of Fine Cooking's readers fall into our PG demographics. I always pick up clues for what YOU want to know about.

When I've had a trying day, I reach for Saveur -- never for recipe ideas, but to scan what goes on in the rest of the world. I read such things as "The Art of Eating in Vietnam" and "An Alaskan Fourth of July" for escape. I won't be making cedar-smoked salmon in my sauna any time soon. This is strictly stuff for noodling.

When solo for dinner, I sit in a hard-backed, uncushioned chair and forego music and condiments as I tackle Cook's Illustrated. It may be the best teaching magazine available, bar none, but it is surely the most pompous. Painstakingly researched recipes result, but the getting there is filled with detailed author-to-reader hand-wringing and brow furrowing over amounts, focus and process. I once read a first paragraph that began something like, "I basted 49 chickens to create the best technique." Um, just print the recipe, OK? (My husband, Bob Wolke, who is a consulting editor for Cook's, would like me to add his comment: "HUMPH!")

Add a couple of professional mags, and my eyeballs are spinning. The only reason I don't read Bon Appetit is that I'm afraid of giving Rich the mailman another backache.

So thinking I have the food-in-print scene covered, I was surprised when I read that the epicurian magazine with the biggest circulation is Cooking Light, with 10 million readers. Really.

Cooking Light is celebrating its 15th anniversary year. It is the sales and circulation leader in the food-and-fitness category including the mags mentioned above.

Cooking Light began as a monthly column feature in Southern Living magazine. It was so popular with readers, Southern Living editors figured a cookbook based on the columns might be a good seller. Oh, yeah. A small run sold out fast, and so did the second and third printings. Somebody woke up, smelled the coffee and said, "Hey, we have the prototype for a magazine here."

Cooking Light magazine was launched in 1987 to modest expectations. Its mantra -- Eat Smart, Be Fit, Live Well -- rang (and still rings) a loud bell with women who want to balance busy lives with fitness and good food. Who could have predicted its survival?

As healthful living became a part of mainstream culture over the past 15 years, interest in the magazine continued to swell. The magazine has succeeded because it is not sacrificial in any way. There's no big list of do's and don'ts. Instead, the editorial copy suggests strategies and tactics to keep meals on the low-fat side without sacrificing flavor. Fitness and exercise suggestions are realistic for all ages. The typical reader is a woman in her 40s, give or take. She has a job and a career and probably a family. And she takes care of her body. Bottom line, Cooking Light is a substantial read. You might take a look.

That's the good news. The bad news is that I'm subscribing.

Sorry about your back, Rich.

Barbecue Roasted Salmon

Make this foolproof, easy salmon dinner for four from Cooking Light when you have company. When it's just you and your magazine, cut the ingredients in half so you have dinner ready for both today and tomorrow. Side dishes might include couscous and asparagus.

  • 1/4 cup pineapple juice (see recipe below for use of leftover juice)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Cooking spray
  • Lemon slices or wedges (op- tional) for garnish

Combine pineapple juice, lemon juice and salmon in a zip-top plastic bag; seal and marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning occasionally.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove fish from bag; discard marinade. Combine sugar, chili powder, lemon zest, cumin, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Rub this mixture over fish. Place fillets on a baking tray spritzed with cooking spray. Bake for 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Serve with lemon slices or wedges for garnish. Makes 4 servings.

Cooking Light magazine

Pina Colada Smoothie: Instead of just drinking the leftover pineapple juice from the salmon recipe, use it as the base of a smoothie. Dump pineapple juice into the container of a blender. Add a cut-up banana, a few drops of coconut flavoring and a glug of rum. Blend until smooth, then toss in a few ice cubes and blend again. Makes 1 drink.

Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake

When you're feeling indulgent, make yourself this "cupcake" version of an old icebox chocolate cookie cake recipe. The recipe is from Gourmet magazine. For just one little cake tower, use the proportions below. To make up four little cakes when company's coming, you'll need a cup of heavy cream and a half pint of strawberries; or use the larger amount to make four cakes, and eat them one at a blissful time.

1/3 cup chilled heavy cream

  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 chocolate wafers, such as Nabisco Famous
  • 1/3 cup fresh raspberries, or other berries

    Beat cream with sugar and vanilla in a small deep bowl with an electric mixer or small whisk until it just holds stiff peaks.

    Spread 1 heaping teaspoon of cream onto each of 4 wafers. Arrange enough raspberries side by side (as close together as possible, that is) on 1 cream-topped wafer to form an even layer. Stack 2 cream-topped wafers on a plate (cream sides up) and top with the berry covered wafer, then carefully spread another teaspoon cream over berries. Top with the last cream wafer and cover cream with remaining plain wafer.

    Frost top and sides of this mini-cake with remaining cream. Cover with an inverted bowl and chill at least 4 hours. (Since plastic wrap would mess up the cream, you use the bowl to keep the cream from picking up off-flavors in the fridge.) Serve cake with any remaining berries. Make this up to a day ahead. Makes 1.

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