Eating in college, particularly if you’re holed up in a dorm, can be a tricky proposition.
Yes, the area around USC offers a surprisingly diverse menu from which to pick and choose, especially if you have a curiosity for ethnic, hole-in-the-wall joints. But eating out has a nasty habit of getting pricey. There’s nothing quite like staring down a bank statement in which you’ve, through some awful feat of gluttony, blown through your entire paycheck with a weekend’s worth of feasting.
Alternatives exist, no matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, lor living on or off campus. Even those with no access to a stove can make intriguing, tasty dishes with only a few spare dollars. Take the stereotypical college staple, ramen noodles — instead of microwaving another boring bowl, use the noodles as a blank slate for creative twists.
One take: Cook the noodles in water separately, then toss with a tangy vinaigrette or other dressing that’s been boosted with a little of the powdered ramen flavoring that comes in the package. Buy some grilled or fried chicken from the nearest supermarket and shred it, then toss into the noodles. Finally, add some frozen vegetables, quickly blitzed in the microwave till cooked through. It might sound strange, but this rough framework — swapping in different noodles, proteins and garnishes to your liking — makes for some delicious dishes on an enticingly low budget.
Options open up a bit more with access to a stove. Aim for dishes that taste great without requiring too many pans or too many steps. Pasta is a favorite exactly for its simplicity, but don’t settle for another jar of cheap, store-bought pasta sauce: Canned tomatoes (if possible, try Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes or San Marzano tomatoes from various specialty stores, including Trader Joe’s) quickly cooked with some basil and extra-virgin olive oil make for a superior option that freezes or refrigerates well.
That sauce, combined with some high-quality grated parmesan, chunks of fresh mozzarella or leftover vegetables and pasta, can make for a hearty, healthy pasta dish that rivals the stuff served in any Italian restaurant.
The most important cooking tip for college students, though, is to not be stubborn when it comes to recipes. Taking advantage of sales can lead to new flavor combinations but, more crucially, a smaller dent in your wallet: If eggplant is on sale, why not try that in a dish instead of squash? The same applies to simplifying recipes and leaving certain ingredients out: If a recipe calls for two sprigs of thyme, there’s no point in buying a $5 pack of the herb and letting most of it die in the fridge. The potatoes will taste fine without it.
These philosophies apply even when you’re looking to impress some friends or a date. Even something elaborate-sounding —let’s say “pan-seared salmon with a tomatillo-jalapeno compote and butter-roasted brussels sprouts” — can be quite cost-effective. A portion only takes a few ingredients: a slab of salmon, a jalapeno, a tomatillo or two, a handful of brussels sprouts, maybe a stray chunk of onion, some salt and pepper and a knob of butter.
Chop the tomatillo, onion and jalapeno (to taste) into a very fine mince and add to a hot pan with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and cook till the ingredients lightly brown and start to combine into a loose, jam-like texture. Scoop it out and wipe the pan out.
Then, heat the pan on high again with another splash of olive oil. Add the brussel sprouts, sliced lengthwise in half, cut-side down. Season with salt and pepper and check periodically until the sprouts begin to caramelize and char.
In the meantime, heat a second pan — preferably nonstick — with a bit of oil. Put the salmon, already seasoned with salt, skin-side down into the hot pan. When the skin crisps and browns, flip the salmon and turn off the flame. It will continue to cook as it rests.
Back to the sprouts: Add a splash of water and cover with a lid, a dish, some foil — or whatever else you may have — and steam for a minute or so. Then uncover, add the butter and roast on high heat until the edges are golden-brown and cooked through. A pinch of delivery-pizza red chili flakes can add some additional punch, if desired.
Now channel your inner Gordon Ramsay for plating: Mound the sprouts on the plate, then gently place the salmon on top. Place a delicate scoop of the tomatillo mixture on top and drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil around the plate.
Here’s a meal that would impress in a restaurant setting and run for four times the price. All you need are two pans, $5 and these five main ingredients. If that’s not the height of cooking in a college setting on a college budget, what is?