There's more to the college experience than fascinating lectures, frat parties and pricey textbooks. There's all that ramen, for one thing.
Mom and Dad may have paid for a dorm meal plan, but dining hall hours don't always jibe with student schedules or tastes, for that matter. Many students find themselves on the wrong side of campus, or still in class, when the cafeteria closes. Late night study sessions require refueling. And a pizza-based diet gets old — and fattening — quickly.
So here are some fresh cooking ideas that will be equally at home at the big U or in harried non-college households, too.
Start, says Belmont chef Gigi Gaggero, by identifying what's available and developing a repertoire of easy to prepare dishes.
These days, that's easy to do. California's love affair with local, seasonal fare means farmers markets are popping up not just in urban centers, but on college campuses too, from UC Davis to the College of San Mateo's twice-weekly market, where students were encouraged to "Shake Your Pom Poms" — as in pomegranates — last week. San Jose State University and UC Berkeley students can stroll to farmers markets mere blocks off campus.
A well-stocked dorm closet allows students to turn their produce finds into Caprese salads, bruschetta and similar simple fare without so much as a microwave oven. (Tip: don't store the laundry detergent near the cooking supplies or your Caprese salad will taste like Tide.)
But basic cookware — such as the measuring spoons, mixing bowl and cutting board included in San Jose State's "Spartan Survival Kit" — make gourmet pursuits easy, even in a dorm setting. San Jose college students can purchase their kits, which also include a frying pan, sauce pot and cookie sheet for apartment dwellers, as part of the university's Healthy Campus initiative.
But the biggest challenges for would-be dorm chefs are aromas and appliance restrictions, says Gaggero, who teaches college cooking classes at her Kids Culinary Adventures school in Belmont.
Be kind to your roommates, she says. Don't cook fish, whip up homemade pickled kimchee or burn the popcorn in the microwave.
As for appliances, read the fine print on your housing contract first. Mini-fridges are allowed everywhere, but the rules on microwaves, crockpots, rice cookers and George Foreman grills vary from dorm to dorm.
"We had an open kitchen where we could cook for ourselves on weekends," says 2009 Stanford grad Molly Gerth, who lives in San Francisco now. "I learned how to make an omelet for the first time from more experienced friends when we cooked brunch for ourselves on Sundays. And some of my friends' favorite snacks were Annie's macaroni and cheese and deluxe quesadillas with all the fixings."
Those are good choices, says Gaggero, and many dorms have a communal kitchen. Or you can "borrow" a friend's apartment stove during a study session to cook a cache of baked potatoes or pasta.
"Cook a week's worth of spaghetti, penne or rigatoni," she says. "Drain it and toss it in a little bit of olive oil, then portion control it into baggies."
Reheat it in the microwave and add store-bought sauce; toss it with butter, garlic and fresh herbs; or top it with cooked, shredded chicken. That pasta can also be served cold, garnished with fresh veggies and tossed with an Asian peanut or sesame dressing.
Baked potatoes are also a reliable standby. Try splitting and stuffing them with cheese and broccoli, before reheating them in the microwave.
Of course, many vegetables can be cooked in their entirety in the microwave. Karen Rogers graduated from UC Berkeley last year, but the Berkeley resident still remembers slicing eggplant, drizzling it with olive oil, salt and a pinch of garlic powder.
"It was simple, healthy, and only required seven minutes in the microwave," she says. "Another favorite was sweet potatoes sweetened with brown sugar and dabbled with butter. All I had to do was poke the sweet potatoes with a fork and pop them in the oven for 10 minutes before they were soft."
At Marin's What's Cooking school, Michelle Stern teaches groups of off-to-college teens to make an entire Mediterranean meal of lemony, egg-laced Avgolemono soup, Greek salad, hummus and pita, using nothing more than a blender and a rice cooker.
"They love the soup," she says. "It's a combination of flavors they haven't necessarily had before. The egg adds a lot of protein and creaminess, and the orzo gives it some bulk. It feels really filling and nurturing."
Of course, there are caveats, too. Make sure your mini-fridge is cold enough to keep milk and meat safely chilled. Don't use a chicken-spattered cutting board to dice your vegetables. And avoid setting the building on fire.
One unfortunate Stanford student made headlines after his late night egg roll frying session set off his campus apartment's fire sprinklers in 2008. The resulting flood cascaded down three floors, according to the college newspaper, the Stanford Daily.
Use a microwave or rice cooker, says Stern. They're safer. And they turn themselves off.
Any final tips?
Every dorm room needs a little greenery, says Gaggero. Instead of a fern, put a pot of basil on the window sill. It's yummier.
Whether it's a tiny first kitchen, a dorm room or just restocking time, these basics make cooking easier and more flavorful: