Whether you're a university student, single career builder or parent with mouths to feed, we're all short on time. Luckily anyone, undergraduate or otherwise, can learn to cook easy, low-effort meals that are cheap, nourishing and helpful at healing last night's indulgences.
Photo by s h a r i :}.
Below we'll detail a few basic, time-friendly cooking methods using three tools common to anyone, from the dorm dweller to apartment renter to home owner. These meals and routines are not generally gourmet feasts that will impress a date — unless your date happens to find cooking efficiency sexy. They can, however, be made in nearly any residency, whether it be your dorm room or in the "common room", depending on your institution's rules.
We're assuming access to the very basics of cooking here: basic cutlery and dishes, maybe a halfway decent kitchen-style knife (though a serrated steak knife can work too), access to water and electricity, and use of one of the tools that make up our Dorm Room Trio: a rice cooker, a microwave and some kind of hot surface, like a Foreman Grill, a hot plate or even a waffle iron.
College Cooking 101: The Rice Cooker
The rice cooker sounds like one of those notorious unitaskers you should avoid when you don't have a lot of space for cooking gadgets, but these cookers can do a lot more than just cook rice. Do you know the man who's the most prominent proponent of the rice cooker's miraculous ways? It's Roger Ebert. No kidding.
The famed film critic, voluminous blogger and tweeter, and incredibly productive writer has a small book coming out on the subject, The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker, in late September. Luckily, that book stems from a transcendent blog post on rice cooker cooking, which is a great introduction to the device and why it's smarter than any stove:
We will begin with a scientific conundrum. You put Minute Rice and the correct amount of water into the Pot, and click to Cook. Minutes later, the Pot clicks over to Warm. Tomorrow night, you put whole grain organic rice and the correct amount of water into the Pot, and click to Cook. An hour later, the Pot clicks over to Warm. Both nights, the rice is perfectly cooked.
How does it know? There are no dials and settings on the Pot. As far as you can tell, there is only a heating element beneath. There doesn't look like room for anything else to hide. How does the Pot know how long to cook the rice? It is a mystery of the Orient. Don't ask questions you don't need the answers to. The point here is to save you some time and money. If you want gourmet cooking, you aren't going to learn about it here.
A fresh batch of rice goes a long way to making a quick meal — add in some vegetables, nearly any batch of last night's leftovers, some furikake/rice seasoning, if you're feeling expansive, and you're up and eating without having to tear yourself away from... your studies, of course.
But Ebert's guidance will also get you cooking oatmeals, soup and stews in your rice cooker. With a bigger model that comes with a tray, you can also steam any food that can be cooked by steaming or poaching. Ebert even suggests a sauce or two you can make in your rice cooker, which can then be used to dress up that chicken or beef you'll be microwaving down the hall.
The New York Times is likewise enthusiastic about the rice cooker for making tasty one-pot meals (with recipes for bibimbap with salmon and spinach and chicken biryani with saffron cream). Those are probably a little high-falutin' for most students' tastes, though they can be modified for cost savings and pretension. Real Simple, meanwhile, has at least two smart suggestions: rice cooker risotto and a simple dessert of fresh fruits poached in juice, wine or maple or other syrups.
Note: Normally, you'd be right to scoff at the idea of students having access to fresh fruits, let alone salmon. But the kids these days, with their on-campus organic stores and their Starbucks and mobile telephones... but we digress.
Intermediate College Cooking 250: Mastering the Microwave
Far more people know how to power up a microwave than properly load a rice cooker, it's true. What makes this course intermediate is in the proper, somewhat monitored use of a microwave to properly cook meals that don't come in cardboard and plastic. Photo by Robert S. Donovan.
So what's the best way to cook using your microwave? In a word, vegetables. They're not a common thing in the university experience, but they're cheap, filling and probably give you a leg up on your classmates living off pre-formed meat and chicken. You actually get more vitamins from vegetables when they're microwaved, and if you use it the right way, they'll actually turn out better than with a stovetop.
As Unofficial Lifehacker Food Advisor Mark Bittman explains, there's no exact recipe for cooking up vegetables in your microwave, mostly because microwave ovens vary greatly in their power and efficiency. But the process is fairly simple and requires just a bit of trial and error:
For any vegetable you would parboil or steam, the microwave works as well or better, and is faster. Put the vegetable in a bowl with a tiny bit of water (or sometimes none), cover and zap. Asparagus: two minutes; artichokes (a revelation): six; cauliflower (try my cauliflower with tomatoes and pimentón): five; potatoes or beets: four; spinach: one or two; eggplant: we'll get to that. Timing, though, is tricky, especially if you strictly follow an older recipe.
Always err on the side of under-cooking, write down your preferred prep times and you're good to go.
Beyond vegetables, you can pull off some fairly impressive cooking stunts with your microwave, some of which we've covered here before:
- Chocolate cake in a coffee mug (Note: this is more for the "Ain't that cool" effect then the, umm, amazing taste.
- DIY microwave popcorn bags, where you can vary up the butter, spices and other ingredients. (Original post)
- Make milk foam for coffee inside a microwaved mason jar.
Advanced One-Pot Cooking 399: Crock Pot, Foreman Grill or Hot Plate
If you've got a legitimate "hot plate" or electric griddle, you've got it much better than the microwave-only set. Anything you can cook on a stovetop, you can pretty much pull off on small griddle, with some conversions for amounts and heating times. The double-sided indoor grill, universally known as the Foreman Grill, offers the same flexibility, but often cooks faster, due to its covering of both sides. About.com has a pretty extensive roundup of Foreman recipes, which also work for hot plates/griddles. In general, though, you can't go wrong with grilled cheese. Photo by Liz (perspicacious.org).
Maybe you've got a small student apartment where you can actually plug in anything you want, safety willing. The crock pot, then, is your new best friend for meals you don't have to cook after a long day of hitting the books or, well, whatever. There are endless spots around the internet for slow cooker/crockpot recipes; one or two of our favourites are crockpot chicken tacos and financial blog The Simple Dollar's template for five-ingredient crock pot meals.
We've previously posted a tip from a reader about using a light socket timer to extend a crock pot's "range" — that is, having your crock pot turn on after you've left the home, if you're going to be away longer than you'd like your food cooking at even the lowest level. Many commenters, rightly, noted that you don't want to do this with foods where long exposures could be a safety issue. It's worth keeping in mind, but for recipes that don't involve raw meat, where you only need to shave an hour or two off the cook time, you should be fine.
Readers' Recipes and Ideas
Many of us hold our school survival stories close to our heart. Then again, some of us seemed to get out of university better fed than others.
Here's a few clever ideas and recipe links from readers who responded to our Twitter query about making a meal with only access to the three devices above:
- Aquila_76: Franks & Beans. 8 dog + 2 cans of baked beans. Mix in some molasses, brown sugar, & spicy mustard. Nuke for about 10 minutes.
- chiieeddy: Add 1 cup rice + 1/3 cup beans to rice cook (my fuzzy logic will allow for dried but ymmv). Add spices, cook.
- satyamnayak pointed us to a Flickr set from Kimaroo that shows the making of rice cooker cake. That's right — chocolate cake, cooked in a rice cooker. We've reached out to ask for details.
- gorideyourbike tips us to a whole pasta dinner in a rice cooker that we're eager to try some busy day.
How did you survive university with only minimal cooking gear? What's your favourite rice cooker, microwave or slow-cooker meal? Students and alumni are invited to join us in the comments.