Washington Post, January 23, 2008

Self Serve: At the Singles’ Cooking Class, a Few Rules Can Liberate Or Intimidate by Jackie Spinner

They came to lay down their can openers, to embrace the mighty shallot (which some had never seen), to learn that in Vera Foresman’s kitchen, rules generally do not apply.

For these Washington singles enrolled in Foresman’s class about cooking for one, this was their chance to learn how to make, say, chicken breast in mustard-cream sauce rather than, say, the Megan Gooch Special. That would be a toasted English muffin with peanut butter.

Gooch, 24, came to Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington for the class with her friend Anish Dewan, 25. Both work in the defense industry and live in the District. Once they’d learned to concoct a vinaigrette from scratch — in their case combining chardonnay vinegar, canola oil, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of thyme — it was time to test the results.

“Smell it,” Gooch urged Dewan.

“I like it,” Dewan declared.

They tossed a salad with the dressing, then topped it with a chicken breast that had been sauteed in vermouth, chicken broth, shallots and mushrooms, and Gooch had even higher praise. “Considering I made it, it was spectacular,” she said.

Dashes. Pinches. A little of this. A little of that. This is the language of Foresman, who has been teaching a cooking class for singles several times a year for about four years. Though she was trained in French cooking, she never tells beginning cooks that she might be teaching them dishes with a French influence, because it sounds intimidating. Her goal with single cooks is simple: “I want to keep them from Mickey D’s and Olive Garden,” she said, turning up her nose. “I’m a real food snob.”

Nor does she want her pupils to get hung up on amounts, precise ingredients or following recipes as if they are a strategic defense manual on how to avoid nuclear war.

” ‘Vera,’ you’re going to say, ‘Well, how much mustard do I put in there?’ ” she theorized. “I like mustard, so I’m going to put a lot in. I like onions, I put in a lot of onions. You like shallots, you put in a lot. When you read someone else’s recipe, you are reading their interpretation of a dish. There are a lot of ways to do the same thing. Unless you’re really, really awful, you’re going to make something good to eat.”

In Foresman’s world, there are only a few rules, starting with an important one: Avoid fires. (One small pan fire broke out in the recent class. It quickly burned out as two students who had added too much alcohol over an open flame jumped back, startled by the leaping orange blaze. No one was injured.)

There were two more rules, both of which cooking partners Jeanie Hill, 32, an analyst from Waldorf, and Nick Lehman, 29, a business development specialist from Vienna, violated at once with a vinaigrette made of sage, canola oil, sherry, balsamic vinegar and rice wine vinegar.

The would-be chemists were quickly and politely chided by their teacher. “Start simple,” Foresman told them, sniffing and examining their original recipe. “Don’t put too many ingredients in. And remember: No booze in the vinaigrette!”

They threw out their experiment and started from scratch with a dressing made from balsamic vinegar and canola oil.

Hill and Lehman saved the sherry for their chicken recipe, which also included cream, red peppers, mushroom and shallots.

“The whole idea of cooking for one is that you can’t do what Rachael Ray does in 30 minutes without her production staff,” Foresman said. “People who cook for themselves tend to eat the same old, same old.”

Nationally, that potentially is a lot of same old, same old. In 2006, 27.3 percent of all U.S. households were made up of people living alone — about 30.5 million people, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from 24.6 percent in 1990. And in the 2000 Census, the District had the most single-person households, 44 percent, of any U.S. jurisdiction with more than 100,000 residents. Arlington and Alexandria were in the top 10.

That might explain why the $75 class for 10 was sold out, as it has been for the four years it has been offered by Professionals in the City, a networking organization for young Washingtonians. Most students are women, and they sign up first for the coveted spots, said the group’s founder and president, Michael Karlan. In fact, Karlan said he never publishes the address of the class because if he did, single men typically would just show up without signing up. (The next class is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 17; go to http://prosinthecity.com for information.)

On Jan. 12, Lehman was the only guy in the class. He wore a black New York T-shirt with the words “Take a Bite!” on the back.

“This really isn’t a singles event,” Karlan said. “This is a great event for meeting friends. These are people genuinely interested in something other than just being single.”

Not everyone in the class was unfamiliar with the kitchen. Annette McCarthy, 33, an environmental scientist from Gaithersburg, said she throws a decent dinner party. But a lot of her friends have moved recently, and she wants to make new ones. “I needed a way out of the house,” she said.

When McCarthy eats alone, she typically whips up a lot of chicken and vegetables or chilies and soups. If she has leftovers, the bane of the single cooking experience, she tries to use them up in different ways.

Lehman, who typically uses recipes from Men’s Health magazine to produce his meals, said he was satisfied with the class.

“I think it was good, on its face,” he said. “I was trying to learn a couple of new culinary techniques, and I wanted to eat. I hadn’t eaten all day.”

Foresman taught the students how to cook in small portions. After all, who wants to stuff their maw with the same thing five nights in a row? Cutting a chicken breast in half as if they were butterflying it, she said, would yield a more reasonable portion than the giant ones the grocery stores typically sell.

She advised them to brown the chicken breasts first in oil (or butter if intended for a cream sauce) and to keep them underdone before making a quick pan sauce and finishing the chicken in it.

“The biggest mistake beginning cooks make is you overcook everything,” she told them. “The FDA has you so afraid of salmonella, it’s got you dreaming about it.”

Foresman offered three sauces: one with a mustard-cream base, another with vermouth and chicken broth and a third with balsamic vinegar and chicken broth. But on her single-page handout, she told her pupils, “I’ve given you hundreds of recipes”: ones without amounts or specific directions, making them starting points, not ending points.

The approach didn’t work for everyone. Hill, the student with the rogue vinaigrette, wanted more direction. She didn’t want to come up with her own recipe, an idea she found intimidating.

“I have no cooking background,” said Hill, who typically comes home from work and fixes a grilled-cheese sandwich or prepackaged meal from the grocery store.

After the class, armed with little new information that she found useful, Hill said, she went home with a solid plan for dinner. She ordered pizza.