Table for One, Redefined: My Guide to Minimalist “Cooking”

 

Trying to cook in my first year of grief was baffling. I used to find joy in cooking/baking and creating a dinner atmosphere for two. I also clearly remember that first moment where I reached for two plates – and realized I only needed one.

I wasn’t a chef by any means before my husband passed, but I could throw together a juicy New York steak with a side of oven-roasted potatoes for dinner, and a dozen chewy chocolate chip cookies for dessert just fine.

But when the last “sorry for your loss” casseroles were consumed, I was forced to return to the stove, the cabinets, the crowded silverware drawer, and kitchen table I no longer needed.

It was hard to fight back all the emotions I didn’t even know existed that went into making a meal for two. I never realized how much the simple act of cooking and plating for two truly meant, until it had been taken from me.

For my first re-entry to the kitchen, I thought I’d start with something simple and comforting that I’d made countless times before – baking a warm batch of chewy chocolate chip cookies.

As I read the recipe I knew so well in past days, I now found myself foreign to its directions. I read and re-read and could not remember the steps for the life of me.

What on earth was going on?

After thinking I had finally followed the directions correctly, I placed the cookie dough in the oven, and watched like a hawk to ensure the batch wouldn’t burn, since I had so much trouble with the first half of the process.

My jaw dropped as I pulled it out of the oven. I burned it! Outraged doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.

I remade the batch twice more, and had no subsequent luck with achieving a chewy golden-brown chocolate chip cookie.

Years later I learned the term for this – widow brain.

Burnt cookies were to be expected working with a widow brain.

Time had eluded me and no matter how much I wanted or tried to be in the present moment, I was somehow caught in a constant time warp where the clock was jumbled up and lost.

My grief intruded on every other part of my life, and so it was with cooking. Nothing was off limits. All I wanted to do was bake, but I wasn’t granted this.

And so, a personal mission emerged – cooking and baking all my tried-and-trues from the past. Sadly…

…not a single dish prevailed.

To add insult to injury,  I had to sit down at the dinner table night after night, staring at my failed attempts alone and in silence.

I’d decided that the situation was ridiculous, so I ditched the meal-making altogether and with it the lonely action of pulling out only one plate.

I resorted to take-out meals for awhile, but the predictability and greasiness wore on me quickly.

I’d found that my grief turned my love for food into a repulsion. No matter how big my appetite, I could barely eat the take-out meals before me. I forced myself to get in a few bites here and there, and it was all I could stomach.

About six months into my grief I became noticeably thinner. This was ironic, because I supposed I would become gloriously fat, indulging in my favorite foods for comfort, like my love for twisted cheesy breadsticks enjoyed with a side of ranch.

I was eventually saved from the beginnings of grief-induced anorexia through a series of nutrition classes I was taking for my nutrition education minor, while completing my bachelor’s degree in health promotion.

During this time, I learned the bare basics of nutrition, the source of nutrients, and how to properly meal plan in a minimalistic fashion.

While completing these classes, I had recently remarried. My new husband had such a love and appetite for food that re-ignited mine. One of the many forms of cooking and dining he introduced me to was:

Charcuterie.

(pronounced shahr/kew/tree)

The concept is quite simple. You take a cutting board and place a variety of dried/cured meats, cheeses, fruits & vegetables, olives, nuts, bread, some chocolate, (anything you can think of really) on the board and pair it with a fancy drink.  

You’re free to let your creative juices flow and design an artistic representation of how you want your food to look.

Having just completed my nutrition courses, I was thoroughly intrigued by the process and how nutritious it was (as long as the dried meat consumption was kept in check). At the time though, I needed to gain some weight, so a lovely peppered dry Italian salami was fair game.

I loved having the basic food groups represented on the beautiful cutting board. I loved eating off the coffee table while seated on the floor. I loved eating with my hands and feeling that raw intimacy with food that I had long forgotten about.

Often, I found myself preparing it as a solo meal. My new husband worked in advertising, which never slept, and often I was alone for dinner.

I’ve recounted many times how beneficial this type of “cooking” would have been during my first year of grief, where I found myself burning and trashing meals and generally unable to eat.

If I had known about charcuterie, it would have been my go-to every night and kept me nutritionally sound. I believe it would have fueled an appetite for eating and dining alone.

The art, the color…it’s minimalist yet sophisticated, which is fun! And by gosh, we deserve some fun.

It was also fool-proof. There was absolutely no way for me to burn anything or to feel the stupidity of not being able to follow directions for a recipe! My widow brain could not get in the way of this simple, selective process followed by slicing, dicing and arranging on a new type of dinnerware.

Even trips to the grocery store became more exciting, as I selected various meats and cheeses from the deli, and enjoyed the hunt for a new type of chocolate or olive to pair with it all.

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I usually choose one of  three “flavors” of charcuterie: fancy, non-fancy, and nutrition-conscious. It all depends on how I’m feeling, whether I want to go the store, and what’s in my fridge and pantry.

Here’s how I charcuterie:

 

Fancy Version (weekend or special occasion):

 

Meat: Sliced dry italian salami (peppered or non peppered) and/or prosciutto

Cheese: Smoked Gouda (for a medium-hard cheese) and St. Angel Triple Cream (for a soft cheese)

(tip: let the cheese come to room temperature to really bring out the flavor!)

Cracker: Peppered water cracker (used to scoop up a soft cheese)

Fruits (fresh and dried): Red grapes, honeycrisp apple, Asian pear, dried apricots, dried dates

Vegetable: rainbow mix baby carrots

Olives: Kalamata olives (black)

Nuts: Almonds, cashews or pistachios

Bread: Anything artisan… have fun with it!

Chocolate: I like mine DARK!

Drink: Sparkling Elderflower (Elderflower syrup mixed with Pellegrino and ice)

 

Non-Fancy Version:

 

Meat: sliced deli ham or store-bought roasted chicken

Cheese: Sharp cheddar cheese

Cracker: Goldfish or soda crackers

Fruit: Apple

Vegetable: Baby carrots

Olives: Black or green olives

Nuts: Almonds or peanuts

Bread: French bread

Chocolate: M&M’s

Drink: Diet Coke

 

Nutrition-Conscious Version (what I eat most days):

 

Meat: sliced deli ham or store-bought roasted chicken

Cheese: Havarti

Cracker: peppered water cracker

Fruit: Gala apple or Asian pear, blackberries or plum

Vegetable: Raw broccoli or rainbow carrots, a handful of spinach leaves or sliced bell peppers, jicama

Olives: Kalamata olives (black)

Nuts: Sunflower seeds, almonds or pistachios

Bread: Artisan bread

Chocolate: one square dark chocolate

Nutrition boost: 2 chewy gummy vitamins or shot of chia seeds mixed with water

Drink: Pellegrino or Diet Coke

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Charcuterie is whatever you want it to be. I think you will absolutely fall in love with it! So give it a try. Tonight, redefine your table for one. And when you do, please let me know how it goes!

 

About 

My widow journey began in 2011 when I was 27. My late husband passed away from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. My re-entry into life has been difficult, but my relationship with God, being diagnosed with PTSD and my passion for music, dance and science have greatly helped me get back on my feet. I am currently preparing for graduate school and volunteer as an endometriosis educator for the Endometriosis Foundation of America.

I have so much that I look forward to sharing with you and I hope that you may find something in my writing that will bring hope to your own journey, help you through the tough days, and show you that happiness can be found in the midst of grief.

You can follow me on Instagram at @kelly.m.cann