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Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan on dinner for one in Austin and beyond

Mike Sutter

In my single days, I bought chickens whole, broke them down and made chicken soup from scratch. I made quiche and grilled steaks, and for dates, I baked lasagna.

Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan makes all that look like a preschooler's project. The University of Texas journalism graduate's new cookbook, "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One" (Ten Speed Press, $22), teaches us how to make mulled wine syrup and fresh corn tortillas and no-knead pizza dough, how to roast chicken with gremolata and sunchokes and how to throw together a paella with squid and scallions. The book, which grew from Yonan's "Cooking for One" column at the Post, breaks recipes down to personal sizes and is speckled with guilty pleasures such as Benedict rancheros, chili-cheese enchiladas and coconut French toast.

One dish, the Ex-Texas Salad, re-creates something many of our Texas moms made for us: that quasi-taco salad with iceberg, pinto beans, shredded cheese, Fritos and Catalina dressing. Yonan respects the roots but executes it with Romaine, feta and cilantro vinaigrette.

Yonan, who was at UT from 1983 to 1989, will return to Austin this week for the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention, including a culinary book fair open to the public from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Hilton Austin Hotel, 500 E. Fourth St. ($10 in advance at iacppublicevents.eventbrite.com or $15 at the door).

I talked with him about that salad, about his years in Austin and how he balances the possibility of a relationship with the end of his reign as a solo chef.

American-Statesman: Tell me the most important thing a single person can do at the grocery store, besides try to meet other singles.

Joe Yonan: I would say it's to try to think about more than just what you're going to have for dinner that night — to think about what maybe you are thinking about having for dinner tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that. If you think a little bit more long-term, then you can deal with that nightly sort of dilemma about, "What am I going to do right now? I'm already hungry." Or as I like to call it, "hangry."

When you're at the stove, do you look at things and say, "I can take this element and move it into tomorrow night"?

I'm sort of addicted to condiments and pickles and chutneys and that kind if thing. When I have a little more time, I make things like that, that I can pull into quick weeknight meals really easily. Certainly if I'm pan-frying a chicken breast, I'll often do two of them so that I can chop up the second one and put it in a salad or a stir-fry or make chicken salad or put it in soup for another day.

We never get around to using that last lime in the refrigerator. Do you have that one thing in your fridge that you always buy but never get around to using?

You mean things that I put in what I like to call "the rotter"? Not the crisper, the rotter. My big bugaboo is celery. Because there are no recipes out there that use anywhere close to the minimum amount of celery that you have to buy in the store. Onion, too, is one for me.

That's why I steer people a lot toward shallots, because they're more manageable than an onion, quantity-wise.

Food trailers have exploded on the Austin scene. How does that track with what's happening in Washington?

We call them food trucks up here, partly because we don't have a Southern sensibility, partly because most of the newer ones are actually mobile. They're able to operate under this law that was designed for ice cream trucks, where they can stop anywhere they want as long as there are people waiting, and they can stay there as long as people are in line. We don't have anywhere near the number that Austin has.

You talk about the Peasant's Bowl of beans, rice and cheese at Austin's late and lazy Les Amis. Tell us a few more Austin food memories.

I write a little bit (in the book) about chicken-fried steak, and that was certainly a favorite thing to get in Austin at Threadgill's and Hoover's. And at Good Eats, we would get the chicken-fried chicken, which I talked about in my essay — the irony of calling something chicken-fried chicken, and how possibly only a Texan would appreciate the distinction. Texas Chili Parlor was a favorite. Hole in the Wall, more for drinking. Quack's. Texadelphia was a big supplier when I was at the Daily Texan.

Have you ever cooked professionally?

I haven't, no. I worked on Sixth Street when I was in college. I worked as a waiter at Nick's Deli Bar. It was a late-night restaurant, and I served beer out of the beer window there. That was a good job. I made a ton of money.

How do you balance the possibility of a relationship with the end of your identity as an army of one?

My agent did joke with me when I was writing the book. She said, "You realize that you can't get into a relationship now."

I said, "This advance is not nearly big enough for me to forgo the possibility of a good relationship just for this book." I would have no problem transitioning to a cooking-for-two book.

You've gone from a kid doing the family's grocery shopping at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo to being a James Beard Award-winning food editor. What does your mom think?

She's thrilled. She went through a little bit of a period where she thought, "Oh my God, you must think that I'm the worst cook ever."

Of course I had to set her straight and let her know that I really credit her and her ease in the kitchen and her insistence on making dinner every night for us with creating this comfort that I have with food, which certainly led to my career.

Duck Breast Tacos With Plum Salsa

1 whole star anise

1 tsp. dried oregano (preferably Mexican)

1/2 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns

1/2 tsp. ground ancho or other chile

1/2 tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt, plus more to taste

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 boneless, skin-on duck breast halves (6 to 8 ounces each)

3 or 4 corn tortillas, preferably homemade (recipe at austin360.com/forklore)

1/2 jalapeño chile, stemmed and seeded (seeds reserved)

1 barely ripe black or red plum, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 small shallot lobe, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

3 large fresh mint leaves, chopped

2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Using a spice grinder (such as a coffee grinder reserved for spices), grind the star anise, dried oregano and Szechuan peppercorns to a fine powder. Dump into a small bowl and stir in the ground ancho, salt and cinnamon.

Pat the duck breasts dry with a paper towel. Use a sharp knife to cut through just the skin and fat, without piercing the meat, in 1-inch intervals, then repeat the cuts at a 90-degree angle to make a crosshatch pattern all across the skin. Sprinkle the spice mixture all over the duck breasts. Pack in heavy-duty resealable plastic bags, squeezing as much air out as possible, and refrigerate for several hours or as long as 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a small roasting pan lined with aluminum foil, roast the duck breasts skin-side-up for 10 minutes. Increase the heat to 550 degrees and turn the breasts skin-side-down. Roast until much of the fat has rendered and the skin is browned and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate, pour off the extra duck fat from the pan and reserve for another use. Let the duck breasts rest for at least 10 minutes. (If desired, wrap one of the duck breasts in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to 1 week for a later meal.)

Warm the tortillas and wrap them in aluminum foil to keep warm.

Meanwhile, make the salsa. Finely chop the jalapeño; in a small mixing bowl, combine the jalapeño with the plum, shallot, cilantro, mint, lime juice, oil and a generous sprinkling of salt. Taste, add more salt if necessary; if you want more heat, add some of the reserved jalapeño seeds.

Lay the tortillas out on a plate. Cut the duck breast crosswise into half-inch slices, place a couple of slices on each tortilla, top each with the plum salsa and eat.

Citrus-Pickled Onions

1 banana chile or jalapeño chile

1/4 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt, or more to taste

1 large red onion, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

2 bay leaves

Char the chile by holding it with tongs directly over the open flame of a gas burner, turning a few times, until the skin is lightly charred, 3 to 6 minutes. (If you don't have a gas stove, you can do this under the broiler.) Slash open the chile.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the citrus juices with the vinegar, black pepper, allspice and salt and mix well. Add the red onion slices, bay leaves and chile and toss to combine.

Let the mixture sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours. Transfer to a large glass jar, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 2 cups.

— From "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One" by Joe Yonan