I know that, with or without a partner, cooking will always be my first love.
I was single for over five years in New York. As friends married and had babies, I cooked. When I got stood up (twice!), I cooked. When I came home drunk from a great date (or a hookup), I cooked.
Free of a partner’s absurd preference for 6:00 p.m. dinners or even more absurd hatred of chocolate, I cooked like a libertine — and dined like one too. Many a late night after a date was spent at the kitchen table in my old-fashioned Dirty Dolls knickers, their garter straps dangling idly against the seat of the chair, licking sauce off my fingers.
I believe that, like a person dating, each single ingredient has at least a dozen potential shapes and flavors that can be coaxed out by different techniques. I find it so exciting to fall in love with one ingredient that I can be as much of a serial monogamist with a pepper as I am with a person.
But when a Tinder lover ghosted me cold after a month, I fell into a deep depression. There was no accountability in the digital dating world, where you had zero real-world mutual friends to tie you together. I didn’t want to date, I didn’t want to cook, and I didn't even want to eat. Something was wretchedly wrong if I couldn't eat. One night, after reading an article on women ditching digital dating, I decided to take action.
The night I burned Tinder to cinders was a delicious trail of fire.
I had opened a bottle of red and decided to ritualistically produce one course for each unsuccessful dating app I deleted from my phone — with each course spicier, more booze-propelled, and more "creative" than the last.
I was playing with poblanos that evening. When I’m fascinated by a single ingredient and its many possible permutations, I can think I’m stroking genius into submission like a persnickety cat. I believe that, like a person dating, each single ingredient has at least a dozen potential shapes and flavors that can be coaxed out by different techniques. I find it so exciting to fall in love with one ingredient that I can be as much of a serial monogamist with a pepper as I am with a person. I want to see if I can unfold the 3-D dodecahedron and lie it flat. Unfortunately, with peppers and partners, my single-minded fascination only lasts so long.
The poblano is deceptively simple. Mild, flavorful and modest, it is a quiet but versatile pepper. But I only had three — great care was necessary. Would I roast, broil, char, fry? The logical yet intuitive way we make these decisions is not so different from swiping left or right, sleeping with someone or not, committing for a lifetime or not.
But these small choices ultimately determine the final product.
I started by hitting the "X" on How About We, which had never produced the fun cooking date I’d hoped for, and slivering half a poblano for rajas. I had never made my taco truck favorite before and overcooked the tiny portion in my cast-iron. They ended up more like mush, so I added olive oil to them and whipped them into a muhammara-like dip by adding walnuts and olive oil to them in my tiny food processor.
Next, I 86’ed Coffee Meets Bagel, chopped a poblano in half and filled it with a mixture of chopped walnuts, pomegranate seeds, diced charred poblano and fiery kimchi fried rice I’d made a couple of days before. My mother had just sent me pomegranates in the mail from her Californian garden — I was inspired to add some of the bright, tannic seeds to make it more like chiles en nogada, Mexico’s independence dish.
When people ask me what I learned from my years of New York dating, I can't say I've collected any wisdom of the ages for them. But I do know that onions caramelize, like healing from heartbreak, over time, and that congee can make you feel warm even when a Tinder match has ditched you in freezing-cold February.
As my faux-nogada was broiling, I gave preppy Bumble the boot and made a quick-pickling brine of white vinegar, minced ginger, and garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper. Just as my previous Filipino-American roommate Mark had shown me his version of Filipino carrots, I rough-chopped jalapeños, carrots and onions, and then the poblano half, throwing them all into the brine. Tipsy by now, I hesitated and then threw some pomegranate seeds and pomegranate juice in through a strainer. I added pomegranate vinegar and a tiny bit of balsamic glaze to the pickle (in my defense … yeah, I was drunk). It turned out very spicy from an aggressive jalapeño — very spicy and very delicious.
Then it was time to melt OKCupid’s wax wings. I’d always loved OKCupid, which had resulted in a five-year relationship, and I’d always loved my mother’s meat-stuffed, fried Korean peppers, which I’ve had a 35-year relationship with. But it turned out that lately, one of these things was more delicious than the other. I caramelized onions and defrosted a veal-pork-beef meatloaf mix. I threw some of the still-frosty meat chunks into a frying pan, sautéing them until brown with a chile spice mix I’d bought in Mexico City. I stuffed the remaining poblano with the meat and slices of jalapeno. Dipping it in flour and then egg, I deep-fried it in my baby fryer, watching the bit of flour bubble about.
And now for the big monster: TINDER.
I hesitated as my finger hovered over my phone. Tinder had occupied hours of my life. Days, probably. Maybe weeks when all was summed. I had half a poblano left. It looked, oddly, like half a heart, jaggedly broken where I’d crookedly chopped it off-center. I gazed for a moment at the sad poblano half-heart, then briskly chopped it up and plunged the pieces into the extra-hot jar of kimchi in my fridge, for a day when its stubborn flavors would be integrated with the fiery chile sauce.
The next day, eating my leftovers, I thought about the small miracles I had created in the kitchen. In the weeks to follow, I had more time. I was loving being in my kitchen again and in the outside world again. I went dancing after my cooking expeditions, and my writing flourished. I met people in real life, not online. I felt sexy again because I was using my five senses to cook my spicy tomato tarts, fragrant perilla salads, sumptuous chocolate raspberry cakes, and tangy yuzu jam truffles (drinking super sexy red wine while cooking, natch).
I was using my time to make myself happy, not seek happiness through someone else (or 20 simultaneous someone elses you're all half-heartedly talking to).
When people ask me what I learned from my years of New York dating, I can't say I've collected any wisdom of the ages for them. But I do know that onions caramelize, like healing from heartbreak, over time, and that congee can make you feel warm even when a Tinder match has ditched you in freezing-cold February. I know from my five years of singledom that chocolate tastes better when it’s eaten at 3 a.m., secretly, devilishly alone in bed with a trashy mystery novel. I know that there’s more room in the fridge for chocolate cake when there isn’t any of your partner’s beer in there.
And I know that, with or without a partner, cooking will always be my first love.