Making the grade in dorm cooking

Fresh cooking ideas for on and off campus students.

There’s more to the college experience than fascinating lectures, frat parties and pricey textbooks. There’s all that ramen, for one thing.

By Jackie Burrell

Contra Costa Times


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, Calif., chef Gigi Gaggero, by identifying what’s available and developing a repertoire of easy to prepare dishes.

These days, that’s easy to do. People’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 week’s worth 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 zapping 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.


Makes 12

1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornmeal

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup sour cream

1 cup melted butter

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, or your favorite herb or dried spice

1. In a bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking soda and salt. Stir in sour cream. Mix just until a soft dough forms, but don’t overmix.

2. Pat dough into {-inch thickness. Cut into rounds. Place on a microwave baking sheet. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with thyme. Microwave at high power for about 1{ minutes or until done. Let rest for 3 to 4 minutes.

3. Split into halves and serve with sliced ham and cheese, sausage patties or eggs.

— Gigi Gaggero, Kids Culinary Adventures

Per serving: 150 calories, 8 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein.

— Staff analysis


Serves 1

You will need to adjust the timing to your microwave oven’s specifics. Unlike most microwaved eggs, these come out fluffy and light.

2-3 teaspoons butter

1 tablespoon milk or water

1 or 2 eggs

Salt, pepper to taste

Shredded cheese

1. Place the butter in a 12-ounce microwave-safe mug or small bowl. Microwave on high for 20 to 40 seconds, or until melted and sizzling.

2. Add the milk, eggs, salt and pepper, and whisk with a fork. If you’re using one egg, microwave it on high about 35-45 seconds, or until it just begins to set, stopping halfway through to give it a quick stir with a fork. For two eggs, it may take 1 to 2 minutes.

3. Remove eggs from microwave when they are still soft and moist in the center. Sprinkle with cheese and let sit for a minute or two to set.

— Adapted from “Dorm Room Recipes” (Quick Study Cooking)


Serves 8

8 cups chicken stock

Salt and white pepper

1/3 cup Italian pastina, orzo or other tiny pasta

2 eggs

Juice of 1 to 2 lemons

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives

1. In a rice cooker, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the pastina and simmer until tender.

2. Meanwhile, beat the eggs together. Add the lemon juice, beating constantly.

3. Add a ladleful of the soup to the egg mixture and beat well. Then pour this back into the pan slowly, still beating constantly. Switch the rice cooker to the warm setting and cook the soup gently, stirring all the time, until it thickens. Serve with a sprinkling of parsley or chives.

— Michelle Stern,

Per serving: 70 calories, 1.5 g total fat,

0.5 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 2 g sugars, 4 g protein.

— Staff analysis


Serves 4

4 cups romaine lettuce, torn

1 cup red onion, thinly sliced

1 cup cucumber, thinly sliced

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine the first five ingredients in a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, oregano and salt. Gradually add the oil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Drizzle oil mixture over salad; toss well.

— Michelle Stern,

Per serving: 100 calories, 8 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 360 mg sodium, 5 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 4 g protein.

— Staff analysis


This salad, from the new “Student Cookbook: Great Grub for the Hungry and the Broke,” is infinitely adaptable. Vary the vegetables, pasta type and dressing to suit your tastes.

Chicken breasts, cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces

Thin egg noodles, fusilli or other pasta, cooked and drained

1 bunch fresh chives, chopped

Assorted vegetables, such as red peppers, carrots and snow peas, thinly sliced

1 small bunch watercress or arugula, stemmed

Sesame seeds, lightly toasted in a dry skillet

Sesame or Bang Bang Dressing (recipes below)

Toss the chicken, cooked pasta, chives, vegetables and watercress with the dressing of your choice. Serve hot or cold, garnished with toasted sesame seeds and chives.

Sesame Dressing

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Whisk the dressing ingredients together, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.

Bang Bang Dressing

5 tablespoons crunchy peanut butter

3 tablespoons hot water

1 scallion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon rice vinegar or cider vinegar

1 teaspoon cold water

Stir the peanut butter and hot water together until the mixture becomes smooth, or as smooth as crunchy peanut butter can become. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. The mixture should be just thin enough to spoon over the chicken and pasta. If necessary, add another tablespoon of hot water.

— Adapted from “The Student Cookbook,” Linda Collister and Ross Dobson, (Ryland, Peters and Small, 2009)


Whether it’s a tiny first kitchen, a dorm room or just restocking time, these basics make cooking easier and more flavorful:

-In the cupboard: Good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sea salt and black pepper, garlic, dried pasta, couscous, marinara sauce, lemons, peanut butter, and chicken or vegetable broth. Cooking teacher Michelle Stern recommends Trader Joe’s Savory Broth, a reduced-sodium, gluten-free, liquid concentrate that comes in tiny metallic packets. Add one pouch to one cup hot water, she says, and you’ve got flavorful broth.

-In the Mini-Fridge: Milk, butter, yogurt, eggs and cheese.

-On the Window Sill: Fresh herbs, such as basil or parsley.

-Don’t Forget: A microwaveable bowl and mug, a small cutting board, utensils and a small, sharp knife.

-Don’t Bother: Leave those microwaveable popcorn packets behind. They’re expensive and they contain dicey chemicals, says Stern. Instead, buy popcorn kernels in bulk. Pour cup or so into a brown paper lunch bag, fold the top down a couple of times and microwave for about two minutes, or until the popping slows.

(c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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