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Anita Lo’s ‘Solo’ Is the 2018 Cookbook of the Year

The chef convinced a nation of home cooks to get back in the kitchen and cook for themselves

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Anita Lo didn’t intend to write a cookbook that would make a splash. “I sat on this idea for a bit,” she says. “Years ago I had this conversation with a friend and adviser… we were riffing on cookbook concepts using my last name. There was ‘Lo Country Cooking,’ and ‘Lo and Slow: The Braising Book’… there were like 50 ideas. Two of them were about cooking for one: ‘Alone’ and ‘Solo.’ I immediately knew I had to write it, I thought it would be fun.”

Lo closed her Michelin-starred NYC restaurant, Annisa, last year after a solid 17-year run. The neighborhood was crushed, but the chef didn’t blame the economy or rising neighborhood rents as much as she just wanted a break “to do something new.”

Solo: A Modern Cookbook Party for One (published this October by Knopf) is that something new: a fun read, bursting with stories and recipes that highlight Lo’s self-deprecating humor, soulful warmth, and conversational charm. “People will always let you down. Good food never does. Cry on this shoulder if you must,” is the headnote for a recipe for grilled lamb shoulder with fregola, yogurt, and mint. Throughout the book, tips include: “Get a basil plant. You’ll have something to take care of!”

But don’t be tempted to pigeonhole this book as the new Microwave Cooking for One. Not only is Lo in a six-year relationship, she’s also hit on a new truth of modern living: Many of us, whether we live alone or with others, eat by ourselves. Partners work late, kids go off to camp, and not everyone can or wants to eat the same things as the ones they love — “why shouldn’t [everyone] eat what they crave?” Lo asks in her foreword.

Like many chefs, Lo often cooks with whatever she has around. “I have a nice kitchen for Manhattan,” she says, “but it’s still a Manhattan kitchen… my oven is a storage space.” When she decided to write Solo, she started thinking back to the days before she cooked professionally. “My mom sent me off to college with a little plastic card index holder with a bunch of recipes in it… I had learned how to make chicken paprikash from my nanny, and I was using 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey,” she says. “When I was living in Paris my kitchen was even worse — it was like two electric plate burners and underneath was one of those half-height refrigerators. It just shows that you can do a lot with a little.”

Those experiences, coupled with Lo’s professional career, translate into a cookbook of ingredient-focused dishes with a keen eye on maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. Radishes and their greens are used in roasted and pickled radish tacos spiked with jalapeno and cinnamon. Early in the book, a New England clam bake recipe suggests saving the fish shells for stock; a few pages later, shellfish stock is called for in a recipe for shrimp with cashews and Indian spices. There’s a recipe just for broccoli stems (broccoli stem slaw, with avocado and tarragon) and one that turns leftover cauliflower into a quick mock giardiniera that will last for months in the fridge.

And, unlike many cookbooks that promise chef-driven techniques adapted for the home cook, Solo actually delivers. Unique cooking methods — mimic the texture of sous vide fish by pouring boiling water over it; make gnocchi in a microwave; use the toaster oven to make kibbe — pop up in recipes that can be replicated with ease. “It’s easier to multiply than divide,” Lo points out.

Solo is full of 30-minute meals, though there are the occasional 15-minute wonders for the nights when you don’t feel like cooking, and hour-long affairs, meant to be made in advance, with leftovers frozen for later. There are also no photographs in Solo; illustrations by Julia Rothman grace each chapter. This is by design, Lo says, because even though she has decades of professional cooking experience, cooking at home and cooking for yourself do not “demand perfection.”

“I know how to brunoise,” Lo says of the French technique of cutting food into tiny 3-millimeter cubes, “and maybe you do too, but it’s not a skill you need to know to feed yourself a comforting, balanced plate of food.” Lo doesn’t want readers to care too much about what each plate of food looks like — what matters is how it tastes.

Plus — and this is key — the recipes themselves are exactly what we want to be eating now: comforting, but not too heavy, and full of flavor. Near the end of the book is a recipe for an orange olive-oil cake for one. Lo admits she’s “not much of a dessert person,” but gets a craving for something sweet and “full of fat” from time to time. “Is it your birthday?” she asks in the headnote for the olive oil cake. “Don’t buy a cupcake. Make yourself this special confection, which takes less than 10 minutes to whip up and tastes like a warm holiday on the Mediterranean. There are people out there that get married to themselves… in public. So hell, put a candle in it and make a wish.”

There are 1,000 Instant Pot cookbooks, and cookbooks for every fad diet du jour. There are authoritative new volumes for everyday cooking, and a wave of books for those just learning how to cook. But there is no smarter cookbook out this year, filled with personality and grace, that’s better at nudging us into the kitchen, in the midst of tumultuous times, to nourish ourselves.

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