I have a pet theory that might get me crucified by the Internet’s profoundly outspoken food community: young people hate cooking because of recipes. Sure, people hate cooking for several other reasons: “fucking” dishes, “it doesn’t taste good,” “fuck buying groceries”…I could go on forever. But I still firmly believe that at the end of a hard day of passive lectures or massive reading or tedious entry-level work, the last thing a young person wants to do is whip out The Joy of Cooking and get some chicken pot pie going (if you are that kind of person don’t bother hitting the jump). The following is a manifestolisticle of the anti-recipe school of cooking—for the school of cooking that treats meal-creation as just that: meal creation. Rachael Ray invented the 30-minute meal, Paula Deen crafted Diabetes for Dummies, and now I’m going to explain how to cook intelligently and efficiently as a college student.
1. Cook from the Pantry: The first step in freeing yourself from the tyranny of recipes is to have a pantry/fridge/freezer full of stuff that combines well into meals. Pastas and grains, canned beans, frozen vegetables and portioned proteins (think those individually sealed fish filets or chicken breasts) form the foundation which you can soup up significantly with a good spice cabinet. A couple mixed seasonings (Old Bay and McCormick are good on everything), basic spices (garlic powder, cumin, paprika, chile) and some punchy sauces (soy, hot sauce, flavored oils) tend to amp up the ingredients and keep the style varied. Some nights you can toss Goya on a chicken stir fry and it becomes “Latin” while the same stir-fry seasoned with sesame oil, soy and mirin will taste like Chinese takeout minus the communication breakdown. Best thing about this? Most of these foods stay, so you can buy and cook them at your convenience.
2. Improvisation is Not Scary: If you’ve watched a few episodes of any Food Network show (recipe-based or otherwise), then you have the basic material for kitchen improvisation. Take this as your guiding principle: “Make this meal not suck.” Do I know exactly how long to cook a tilapia filet so that it’s moist and fully cooked and flavorful? Fuck no. But if you read the back of the package and know that fish is somewhat delicate, then you can keep your heat low and your cooking liquid substantial and your fish will not suck. It’s a really useful heuristic to aspire to not make bad food—especially because you’ll find your food not sucking once you’ve really taken it to heart. Like acting improv, it’s okay to make mistakes and once you’ve lost the fear of failure you’ll start to shine. If you can’t boil water watch this.
3. Balance is Key: Oftentimes a drunk or high college student will take all the “best looking” things in the kitchen, toss them in a pan, heat them up and eat them. A few hours later there’s this rumbly in your tumbly and it’s no fun. When I use the term balance, I mean a good balance of flavors and foods. Does your dish taste heavy? Add some acid in the form of lemon or vinegar—or craft a simple, fresh vegetable to go along with it (frozen broccoli with some lemon does the trick). Does your dish need salt? Maybe consider hot sauce or soy, which add salt as well as other sophisticated flavors. [Side note: sauces are an easy way to add developed flavor to a quick dish – the reason restaurant food tastes so on point is that prep cooks spent hours working on sauces and prepared ingredients but luckily this is America and there are grocery stores].
4. Can’t Knock the Ramen: Convenience foods are awesome not only because they’re disconcertingly fast to make but they also lend themselves well to extensive pimping. I cook ramen a couple nights a week and the first thing I do is ditch the flavor packet. Deep fried instant ramen is meant to be cooked in under 3 minutes, which gives you 12 minutes to work on flavorings, add-ins and sauces and still keep your full cook time under 15 minutes. Just about anything you can imagine goes well in those spongy alkaline noodles. My personal favorite: roughly chopped chicken sausage, frozen cut green beans and browned onions with a sauce of Sriracha, sesame oil, chicken stock and soy. The cooking is minimal and the payoff is great. Keep some canned soups around, too. They never hurt except when they’re light…don’t buy light soup.
5. Don’t Cook Alone: The best motivator to actually cook is to do it with somebody. Catch up with a friend or hang out with your housemates while you cook. This recommendation seems obvious, but I promise when you share cooking duties it becomes much less of a chore. Also, if you find a friend on meal plan you’ll always have the option of getting produce via the salad bar (which is easier than planning out your produce consumption on a weekly basis).
6. Sometimes Don’t Cook At All: If you try to cook two meals every day then fatigue will likely set in. My solution? Have some salad greens, some good canned soups and sandwich fixings so that when you get home late and just need food in your stomach, you don’t just stare at your oven like its some sort of stalker-terrorist. A quick soup-salad-sandwich combo is satisfying in all the right ways and all you need to do is keep up a good stock of cold cuts and fresh greens or lettuce.
This list, while certainly not definitive, should hopefully give some tips and direction to those off-mealplanners who have yet to hit their stride as home cooks. Please share any other tips you may have in the comments and keep your eyes peeled for my musings on off-campus steak consumption soon.