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Andrew Urbanetti teaches how to cook a pizza
Chef Andrew Urbanetti (center) teaches Joe Hasenbush (left) and Chris Hart (right) how to prepare a pizza during a class on cooking for one. (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

Singling out meals to cook for just one

CAMBRIDGE -- Chris Hart enjoys cooking for his girlfriend, and he will often make salmon or steak for the two of them. But on nights when she isn't home, he admits to a more laidback approach to dinner.

"The last thing I want to do when I get home is more work," says Hart, a graphic designer who lives in Watertown. On those nights, he is more likely to eat a Lean Cuisine meal or a bowl of cereal. "Cooking by yourself, you're not really impressing anybody," he says.

Take-out meals, microwave dinners, and prepared foods are readily available these days, so cooking a homemade meal for one can seem like too much trouble or can seem even more expensive to make than a prepared meal. There is the challenge of buying ingredients -- many shoppers lament the fact that fresh vegetables are not sold in smaller portions. There are fears about a lack of kitchen skills. There is the time commitment. It all adds up to the view that it can be easier, even for families, to order out. And of course, there are the dirty dishes.

"In reality, it's a lot of effort," says Andrew Urbanetti, who is the chef de cuisine at Lumiere in Newton and teaches several classes, including one called "Cooking for One" at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

But he and others believe the effort is worth it. While a homemade meal might not always cost less, it is likely to be better for you. "You know exactly what goes into your food," says Urbanetti, who also believes it is important for people to have basic kitchen skills.

"Eating is easy, it's the cooking that can make it more rewarding," he says.

Rachael Ray, the Food Network personality who now hosts her own syndicated talk show, says that a nutritious homemade meal can entitle you to eat more.

"If I know what's going in is healthful, I don't feel like an extra portion is a bad thing," says Ray, who cooked for herself for many years before getting married.

In a phone interview, Ray describes her staple meals, including chilis, pastas, stews, pizza, omelets, and roast chicken. Although recipes can be scaled for one, she says, she prefers making enough to allow for leftovers so she will have a homemade meal for lunch or for another night.

"I've never really cooked just one of anything," she says.

"It takes a little bit of the joy out of it when you're only doing it for one person," says Heather Erickson, who lives in Somerville and teaches at Emerson College. But she cooks for herself a couple of times a week, whipping up something quick from a Rachael Ray cookbook or experimenting with different cuisines. One of her favorites is a Thai dish of beef and vegetables with peanut sauce.

Lisa SanDonato, a technical writer who lives alone in Weymouth, regularly cooks for herself because she doesn't enjoy eating out all the time. She stocks her freezer with items such as puff pastry and pie dough, which she fills with eggs and spinach for a quiche. When she wants to splurge, she'll buy a lobster, and either steam it herself or have the supermarket cook it.

Like many serious home cooks, SanDonato also will make and freeze large quantities of stocks and sauces in individual portions to have on hand for soups and pastas. "I generally cook big," she says.

Steven Berbeco, a teacher who lives in Somerville and took one of Urbanetti's classes, also likes to cook stir fries in a wok he describes as big enough to sit in. Berbeco, who is about to move in with his girlfriend, has started doing more cooking for two, but he still has his favorite single-person dishes like hearts of palm with tabbouleh, hummus , and bread. It helps to be able to improvise when cooking solo since most recipes are written to serve four or more.

When he teaches bachelors, Urbanetti chips away at this fear by leading students in what he calls "MacGyver cooking" -- taking whatever vegetables and condiments they have on hand and putting them on a pizza crust.

"You can just start throwing stuff on there," he says. "I'm sure if you go looking through your cupboard you've got something really weird."

Brooke Vosika, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel, says he enjoyed cooking for himself when he was living in Manhattan and his wife was living upstate. Some of his meals, like a seared steak with Sichuan peppercorns, eventually made it onto his menus. Vosika suggests preparing small foil packets of fish, thinly sliced potatoes , and herbs, which take about 20 minutes to grill. An omelet layered with some smoked salmon or even caviar is another choice. "What's more singular than an egg?" he asks.

At times, there's fun involved in cooking for one. It can be a time to indulge. On evenings when her husband, a firefighter, is working, Rebecca D'Entremont says she puts her young children to bed and then enjoys her own evening meal.

"One of my favorite things is just to have a nice, greasy egg-and-cheese sandwich," says D'Entremont, who lives in North Andover. "It feels like a treat."

Similarly, Ellen Berkland, Boston's city archeologist, tries to make her meals and her time in the kitchen fun. She regularly cooks dishes like risotto s and curries for herself using an array of chopped vegetables, onions , and olive oils and vinegars that she keeps in her well-stocked kitchen.

"It shouldn't just be sustenance," Berkland says. " It should be enjoyed."