It is a typical Tuesday night. Homework is piling up and the weekend is still days away. In times like these, a quick and easy home cooked meal is just what you need to make it through the homework-ridden night. You need things like a bowl of fresh guacamole to stuff yourself with, or a quick and spicy burrito you were able to cobble together from leftovers.
The kitchen should be a place of comfort, the wafting smells of home cooking promising a fresh meal to recharge after a long day. The refrigerator filled with food just begging to be cooked. The dishes, pots, pans and silverware all cleaned and gleaming, ready to go. Even the stove top is free of crud.
But if you are like most college students, this is not your kitchen. True, your stove top might be spotless, but only because it is so seldom used. The refrigerator probably has beer, and if you are lucky, a mostly-random collection of leftovers and condiments you most likely inherited from the house’s last tenants. If you have silverware, it is probably thrown willy-nilly in the sink along with the couple of glasses stolen from the nearest dive bar that you got so you would have something to drink out of.
Do not beat yourself up. Not only are you not alone, there is indeed hope for that once-forgotten section of your studio or city-sized apartment. It takes surprisingly little work—and even less money—to turn your kitchen from that-awkward-extra-space-to-put-knick-knacks into a warm and happy room. A room that is capable of turning even the most basic ingredients to tasty, healthy and easy meals.
The first part of having a kitchen is having the tools to use it. You would not, say, try to change your car’s oil without a wrench or maybe use the bathroom without toilet paper, so do not be fooled into thinking the two-burner hotplate your apartment came with is going to be enough. It is not.
Fortunately, it does not take much to equip your kitchen. Simply looking on websites like craigslist.org for free stuff can work great, just make sure to act fast, as the more desirable freebies tend to get snatched up right away. Second-hand stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill are equally helpful. If sparkling new cookware is more to your liking, discount shops like Ross and even Wal-Mart sell most kitchen essentials at rock-bottom prices.
And basic tools really are all you need. A pot and pan are the first obvious essentials. If you are short on space or college-aged, you probably should stick to medium or small gear. Besides, how often do you really cook pasta for five people anyway? Make sure that your pots and pans come with lids. Not only do they help save energy by heating up food and water faster, but they also help keep the kitchen clean by keeping food in the pot where it belongs.
With the basics covered, make sure to have a few cooking utensils, like spatulas, tongs, big spoons, and so forth. Sets are available that include all the basics plus a nice bucket to keep them in, helping to keep clutter at bay. The last things needed are a few good knives and some silverware, plates and bowls for actually eating with. If the kitchen is tiny and has limited dishwashing space, disposable plates and cutlery are a convenient, if less earth friendly option.
Always make sure to have some dishrags lying around, because life happens, and food gets spilled. Shop rags, the little red squares of fabric used by mechanics, work surprisingly well in the kitchen, and are sold cheaply at auto parts stores. Fancy dishtowels might look nicer, but when you can get ten shop rags for the price of one, the price is hard to beat. Keep a few within reach at all times.
Even if your kitchen is only a hot plate and a toaster oven, don’t get discouraged. “Sometimes, you just need to look around at what you have,” says Amber Crago, 25, a mostly-self-taught cook-extraordinaire. When cooking dinner aboard an old houseboat, with only a toaster oven and weak, two-burner hot plate to work with, Crago pulls out a trick she first discovered while living in Hawaii, where the local love for rice means every house is equipped with a rice cooker.
“It’s not just a rice cooker,” she says. “It’s just like a hot plate, but with an auto-off switch and built-in warmer.” Rice cookers are perfect for making soups, stews, and even chilies and beans. And here’s a tip: a used rice cooker can be picked up for under ten dollars.
GETTING THE FOOD
With the kitchen brought up to speed, it is time to actually buy the food to cook. Having food in your kitchen is what really makes it the happy place it is meant to be, but choose carefully, because it’s easy to go overboard.
If you have recipes you know you want to try, read up beforehand. But more often than not, purchasing every single ingredient listed in a cookbook rapidly becomes prohibitively expensive. After all, if you have to spend twenty dollars to have everything for a burrito, why not just buy a burrito for six dollars instead?
Rather than thinking in terms of recipes, appraise in broader terms. Consider ingredients as components. For example, bread, tortillas and buns are really all the same part of a dish—something to hold everything together. Rice, pasta and noodles all serve as the base to put something else on top of.
“I buy a log of the really cheap ground beef, and add it to regular pasta sauce to make a meat sauce,” says Jonathan Scion, 24, in his extremely cluttered and mostly unfurnished kitchen in Berkeley, Calif. “I cook a lot, believe it or not,” Scion says, looking around and noticing the partially-full trash bag on the floor.
Shaun Goo, 22, also touts the benefits of the Italian staple. “All you have to do is dump it in boiling water and boil the hell out of it,” he says. “You’d have to be an idiot to not be able to do it.” Goo says he typically augments the regular jarred red sauce with fresh veggies like zucchini or whatever else he happens to have. “The good thing about pasta,” he says, “is that you can put anything in and it’ll be good.”
Rice and pasta are great to buy in bulk because they have a long shelf life and don’t take up much space. But other things, like bread and tortillas, expire quickly. So choose carefully. When shopping for one person, remember that eight burger buns will last what seems like forever. It is easy to get sick of them well before they are done, and unless you eat them for all three meals every day, they can mold before the bag is empty.
“Farmer’s markets are some of the best places to find deals on produce, especially in season,” Crago says. Even better, the fruits and veggies found there are usually fresher than what is found in grocery stores. But, like bread, be realistic about what you will eat and how much fridge space you have—it feels great to hop on Muni with two full bags bursting with fresh food, but unless you really, really eat a lot of salad, it might be a false economy. Buying in bulk is a double-edged sword. Sure, there are significant savings to be had, but remember that if not properly stored, food can go bad fast, and quickly negate any of the savings.
Meat will last for ages in the freezer, but will also take a long time to thaw, ruining the spontaneity of cooking. Meat in the fridge will last maybe a week at best.
While it’s hard to beat the taste of fresh meat—or tofu, for that matter—there are easier options for the lazy college chef. There are pre-frozen burger patties in practically every combination of meat imaginable, and of course there are veggie burger patties as well.
Inevitably, eating burgers every night gets gross real fast, but don’t look at it that way. Patties don’t have to be eaten as burgers; they can be cooked up practically any way imaginable.
Keeping it simple is key, but never forget that flavor is the most important thing, so be sure to stock on spices and a couple of hot sauces—a Mexican-style one and an Asian-style seasoning will cover most everything. Spices aren’t cheap, but a little goes a long way, so consider it an investment. Cumin is a versatile spice that goes well with just about anything, as do garlic powder and paprika. Just use your nose and buy what appeals to you.
The key to shopping is just grabbing what you think will go well together. Just remember that America’s obsession with bulk purchasing means that pretty much anything you’ll buy will last a long time when just one person is using it, so make sure there are lots of possibilities for every ingredient you buy.
Now comes the fun part. With the kitchen stocked and ready, it is time to cook. Don’t be scared, the most important thing is to just go with it and use your gut. Baking is a science that requires careful measurement, precise temperatures and exact timing. Cooking is the opposite—all it requires in an idea.
“It’s really a matter of getting over the initial fear,” says Tom Shattuck. “It’s super basic, just getting things together and whipping it up.” Shattuck, an English major at San Francisco State University, would know. When he first started working at Whole Foods, he’d never really cooked before. “I started from nothing,” he says. “That’s what’s so sick about cooking.” Now he’s a chef. While Shattuck wants nothing to do with a career in the restaurant industry, cooking is a good skill to fall back on.
Remember that it is the little things that separate a delicious meal from a gross, desperate concoction. Toasted bread is almost always better than cold bread. If you have a toaster oven, just stick the bread inside and keep an eye on it until it is just how you like it—anywhere from lightly warmed to brown and crunchy.
Use spices to your advantage, and remember that even basic things can become delicious with just a little ingenuity. Take instant ramen noodles, for example. Just throw away the gross and MSG-laden flavor pack. Cook the noodles, but add whatever you desire to make your own soup—soy sauce or hot sauce and spices for flavor, and top it off with fresh veggies or tofu. That’s a decent meal in less than ten minutes.
Be sure to think creatively. You may have gotten sick of those burger patties ages ago, but they can easily be re-imagined. Break the patties into pieces and cook them in a pan with jarred curry sauce and serve over rice for a quick Indian meal. Don’t tell, and no one will even guess you used burger patties. Salmon patties can even be cooked and added to salads, instantly making you look like a gourmet salmon chef. If bread is starting to go stale, butter it up and throw some spices on to make croutons by toasting it in the oven until it becomes crunchy.
“You know what you like,” Shattuck says. “Don’t panic. Just fucking get your feet wet.”
So follow Shattuck’s advice. The worst thing that can possible happen is you will make something that does not taste like you hope, but that is what the learning process is all about. Grab some spices, your foods of choice, and get a pan full of home cooking going.