In my previous post, I provided some easy recipes for meals even an inexperienced and time-strapped college kid could cook. I ran out of space (so to speak … I felt the post had gotten long enough) so today I’m sharing (most of) the rest of my go-to quick meals. Enjoy please enjoy.
I got this recipe from my roommate Tesh, who (prior to college) had been a cook somewhere. As an Electrical Engineering major he seldom had time to cook, but when he did he liked to serve this dish. Estivi is a cold, mostly raw sauce, which isn’t normally my thing, but it’s delicious. I always tended to overeat when we had this, and then I’d head to the library to study and end up falling asleep in the study carrel. It wasn’t sleep, actually … it was this weird twilight state, accompanied (due to the raw onions, I suppose) by these crazy endless burps, like where I’d get stuck mid-belch and kind of breathe through it for what seemed like minutes at a time, and I’d be just conscious enough to be aware of it. Once in a while a fellow student would come over looking either angry, concerned, or both. Man, those were the days.
Unfortunately the written recipe, in Tesh’s own hand, is so yellowed and faded, I’ll have to guess on the proportions. Use your judgment … it’s not like there’s baking soda or something that has to be precisely measured anyway.
1-½ onions, diced
Some number of tomatoes, diced (maybe 5-6 if Romas, or 3-4 if beefsteak? … just experiment with it)
A bell pepper (or maybe half of one?), halved, de-seeded, then chopped finely
1 packet Italian dressing seasoning (like you’d mix with olive oil)
1 pound spaghetti or linguine (his recipe says fettuccini but I think he was trying to be fancy, like when he put “est la Tesh” which was his attempted spelling of “à la Tesh”)
¾ tsp lime juice
Some chopped parsley, soaked in water
While the pasta is boiling, cook onion in water (not clear how much or why; frankly, I don’t remember Tesh ever cooking the onion; he might have tweaked the recipe due to my digestive issues described above, and in fact I’ve seen a recipe for this that calls for letting the onions sit for an hour to lose their bite). Mix onion with tomatoes. Make the Italian vinaigrette, combining the mix with lime juice, parsley, basil, and pepper. When pasta is done, strain it and rinse with cold water. Mix pasta with the rest of the ingredients.
Date night flashy dinner
If you’ve got a big date and want to cook, you need to serve something with panache … but not something complicated like a soufflé which could fail, causing you to be irritable and off your game all evening. Alas, I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all recipe, because for this to be impressive it has to be very up-to-date, aligned with the zeitgeist. During the current pandemic, you’d probably want personal pizzas baked at like 450 degrees so your date only has to worry about cooties, not the coronavirus. (That’s the easy part of your date… as far as busting a move while maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask, you’re on your own.)
The best effect I ever got making dinner for my date was back in fall of 1990 when the Gulf War had just started. I served her an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). We each had one so we could share. I presented the MREs without a lot of pontificating or anything, other than casually mentioning I got them from a war vet in Wyoming who brought them back from ‘Nam. The accessory packets (plastic utensils, creamer, sugar, salt, matches, a tiny spool of TP, and army-green Chiclets) were particularly romantic.
I think my date was pretty impressed. But of course no person can get full on MREs except by necessity (e.g., being a soldier) so after five or ten minutes I suggested we make pasta from scratch, which we then did. Tip: making pasta from scratch (my full instructions are here) is a great way to break the ice with a date. It gives you something to do so you don’t have to make small talk.
Tuna, like many fancy fish, is bad for you except as a treat. It lives long enough to get really huge and build up a lot of mercury in its system, which is passed along to you and eventually can cause brain damage, which many students try to avoid. But so-called “tuna fish,” in the little 7-oz. cans, is usually skipjack, a totally different fish. (The Trader Joes product actually says skipjack right on the label. If a can says “chunk light tuna” that’s also skipjack.) The good news is, skipjack, a small fish, is both cheaper and lower in mercury than actual tuna. As described here, the FDA says you can eat skipjack three times a week.
This recipe, which in my college days I called “tuna noodle shit” for some reason, is cheap, easy, very filling, and a good way to get protein and omega-3 fats. Tip: you can use canned salmon instead of “tuna.” The salmon is tasty but has sections of spinal column in it. The bone is cooked to death so you barely need to chew it, and it’s surely good for you, but doesn’t exactly enhance the mouth-feel. Bonus tip: canned salmon is always wild, even though it’s cheap … but you shouldn’t hesitate to eat farmed salmon, as I’ve explained here.
Flour (white, bleached, non-whole-grain … get your fiber somewhere else!)
Butter (4-5 tbsp, around half a stick; in college I could only afford margarine in the Country Crock but it worked fine and the plastic tubs were my poor-man’s Tupperware)
Milk (preferably 2% or fatter though my mom made this with powdered milk which worked fine)
4-5 cans skipjack tuna (depending on if they’re 5- vs. 7-ounce cans) in oil or water (doesn’t matter)
1-pound package wide egg noodles, or a sturdy pasta like fettuccine or farfalle
Onion salt, if you can find it – do use only Spice Islands brand, being careful to avoid harmful substitutes (and no, Spice Islands isn’t paying me to say this)
Put the pasta water on to boil. When it’s close, salt the water generously and then start on the goo. Don’t do this in a little steel saucepan, even though it’s a sauce. Why do saucepans exist, being made of uselessly thin metal as they are? All they’re good for is boiling water. I had a girlfriend (now my wife) whose roommate tried to make pancakes in a saucepan and couldn’t figure out why they got scorched. Unbelievable.
Damn, where was I? Oh, yeah, in a good sturdy pot like a Dutch oven, or something thick and aluminum (or ideally a copper-core sauté pan like this one, as if you could afford it), melt the butter. Gradually add flour. You’ll be making a paste that should retain its yellow taste and be slightly buttery on the tongue. If it starts to taste sweet, you’ve added too much flour and need to throw in more butter. Once your paste is right (don’t worry, this isn’t as hard as it sounds and a little practice will have you doing this in your sleep), gradually add milk, and cook over med/high heat, stirring all the while, until it’s a good, thick white sauce. While this is going on you’ll be boiling the pasta. Then add the tuna gradually to the sauce, including the liquid, never letting it cool too much. (If you have a cat, let her lick out the cans.) The sauce will be thinner now but will thicken a bit as it cools. Depending on how much of the sauce you ended up with, add more or less tuna. It should be good and tuna-y but also still a bit creamy. Add pepper and onion salt to taste, which might mean popping off the little plastic cap with the holes in it, because shaking onion salt over a steamy pan will cause it to cake up over time. Life is like that. You can ponder that while you stab the caked-up onion salt with a knife, viciously if desired.
When the pasta is done, strain it (but don’t toss it with olive oil), plate it, and pile on the goo. Shake more onion salt over the top (having first replaced the little plastic cap with the holes in it!). When you’re full, rinse the leftover pasta with cold water to de-clump it, and put it in the fridge. Store the goo separately. If you run out of pasta but still have leftover goo, serve it on wheat toast. Tip: when I was in college, to save time I’d make giant batches of tuna goo and even more giant batches of pasta to store and nuke later (to serve with whatever sauce or goo I had on hand). Of course recycled pasta wasn’t as good as fresh-boiled, but hey, I was a busy guy (despite my easy major).
It doesn’t get much more basic than this.
Flour tortilla, full- or soft-taco-size
Refried beans (Rosarita or Bush’s) or black beans (Bush’s or S&W)
Cilantro (if possible)
Sour cream (optional)
Did you get that bit above? About name brands? I mean it: don’t buy house brand beans, even if you’re practically broke.
Open the can. Spread some beans on the tortilla, slice or grate the cheese on there, dice some onion and throw it in. Don’t roll it up yet. Nuke it for about a minute (less if you have the microwave oven version of a muscle car). Then add the cilantro, which you will have washed and de-stemmed. (The cilantro is optional but honestly, if you can find it, it makes a big difference. I was barely aware of it in college and ignorant … I used to actually ask the cook at Tio Alberto’s to hold it. That’s how big an idiot I was. Tip: there’s a genetic trait some people carry that makes cilantro taste like soap. If you don’t like the taste, don’t fight it.) Fold in the edges of the tortilla, perpendicular to the filling, if you want. Roll it up. With practice you’ll be rolling burritos as skillfully as the real cooks at the taqueria (though your burrito will never be as tasty). Nuke it for another 30 seconds or so. Top with sour cream first, then avocado, then salsa. Tip: if you can afford it, use fresh salsa. (Pound for pound I think the salsa I get is more expensive than heroin, but I suspect it’s much better for you.) Obviously in college I bought the giant plastic jugs of Pace picante sauce … I was almost broke.
This is a great way to use up cooked meat, especially when you end up with vast expanses of bland chicken breast. For a vegetarian option, you can replace the meat with—nothing! The point is the caramelized onions and tomatoes and how nicely they enhance your rice. By the way, this is nothing like what you get at an actual taqueria. That’s much more complicated.
Some chicken or turkey, if you got it, or heck, even tofu, diced
Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Poultry Magic, or cumin
Cooked brown rice (or, hell, white rice … you’re still young)
1 can stewed tomatoes (a good brand like S&W, never a house brand)
Dice the onion. Glug some olive oil in a pan, throw in the onion and simmer it a while, then add some cooked, cut-up meat. (If your meat isn’t already cooked, cook it a little longer, obviously.) Frying up the meat in the oil makes it way tastier—it’s worth the fat. Shake in a bunch of the Poultry Magic or cumin and stir. Use high heat so the onions caramelize and the meat chars a bit, then throw in the stewed tomatoes. Simmer that a bit, then add the cooked rice. (How much rice? At least two cups. Experiment. Add gradually and use your judgment.) I use brown rice because it’s better for you—it has almost six times the fiber of white rice. But white rice cooks faster and I know you’re in a hurry and not that organized. Salt to taste and add Crystal sauce.
El muchachos burritos grandes pantalones
A friend called his burritos “el muchachos burritos grandes” which of course makes no sense. Some years ago I added “pantalones” which makes even less sense but is really fun to say. My roommate Tesh made these with seasoned beef and called them “grand slam burritos.”
Burrito ingredients as above
Make burritos as above but add in the Mexican(-ish) rice. I mean, duh.
This is remarkably easy and salubrious.
2 cups chicken broth
1-½ pounds broccoli, all hacked up
½ bay leaf
¼ cup butter
2 cups milk
Salt, pepper to taste
Grated cheddar (optional)
Cook broccoli in broth with bay leaf. Make white sauce: cook butter and flour together to make a nice paste (see tuna goo directions above), and add milk gradually. Remove bay leaf from broccoli. Mash cooked broccoli with potato masher (or whirl in food processor). Stir mixture into white sauce. Salt and pepper to taste; serve with grated cheese if desired.
Chili hot dog casserole , aka The Shit
My college roommate Mike used to make this casserole, for which the only name I knew was “The Shit.” (Turns out, based on the email I’ve just received from Mike, it was our other roommate Eric who named it that.) Once in a while we’d cook for one another and I always enjoyed this dish. Mike’s daughter has lately cooked this for her college roommates to great reviews.
1 pound large shells pasta
2 15-oz cans turkey chili, no beans (“I can’t emphasize enough: no beans”)
1 package (or less) turkey hot dogs, cut into slices
Cook pasta. Mix in the rest. Cook at 350 F for 25 minutes. Mike cautions: “If you had sons, I would warn you that the casserole seems pretty edible right when you mix it all together, but unbaked seems to cause gastric distress. For some reason, girls do not seem to make these mistakes.”
Tip: you could make this with beef chili or at least beef hot dogs. I had a lot of ground turkey growing up and just can’t deal with it anymore. That said, this recipe, exactly how Mike made it, was uncannily good.
When you really want to put on the dog, this is a great casserole. My mom got the recipe from Sunset magazine back in ‘69. This dish is remarkably better than the sum of its parts … one of those rare examples of actual culinary alchemy. One of the keys is the cream style corn. Don’t let your roommate’s girlfriend scare you: there’s no cream in cream style corn and it won’t make you fat (though this casserole sure could). Don’t worry about what brand of corn … house brands are totally fine here.
Look, I found the actual recipe my mom wrote out for me when I started college:
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 cup salad oil
2 cans (1 lb. each) cream style corn
2 onions, chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
1 can Campbell’s tomato soup concentrate
2 cups chopped mushrooms
1 pound mild or medium cheddar cheese, shredded
Cook spaghetti and mix with oil and corn. Sauté mushrooms, onion and green pepper. Add tomato sauce, soup. Bring to a boil and pour over spaghetti. Mix.
Sprinkle a large pan with a little cheese, pour in spaghetti mixture and top with rest of cheese. Bake in 350 degree oven till hot and bubbly, 30‑40 minutes.
Big Becky’s pesto
My mom worked with two women named Becky. To avoid confusion, one of them went by Big Becky (and she was not petite). This is a great recipe: it’s really tasty, not hard to make, and you can save a bit of money since spinach is cheaper than fresh basil. My mom was being PC when she wrote out the recipe for me … everybody always called this Big Becky’s pesto. Note: if you don’t have a food processor, just wing it. I gather those aren’t as ubiquitous as they were in the ‘80s. Tip: try to resist cheating by just buying jarred pesto. It’s never any good.
3 oz. Parmesan cheese (in a block – don’t even use pre-shredded or—worse—powdered)
2 oz. Romano cheese (ditto)
1 cup packed fresh Basil leaves (about an ounce)
3 cups packed spinach leaves
1/2 to 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-4 large cloves of garlic, chopped finely (but not pressed unless you’re really busy or lazy)
1/3 cup pine nuts
Cut cheese into 1-inch cubes and process in food processor until finely grated. Add washed basil and spinach and process to a purée. Add garlic and then, with machine running, pour in oil. Add pine nuts last. Process until smooth. Note: you can use more basil, less spinach for stronger basil flavor.
Linguine alla vongole
For the fancy technique no college student has the money, the patience, or the logistical flair to pull off, click here and search the page for “pasta erotica.” For the easy, cheaper recipe, you’ll just have to email me. I’m too tired to document it right now, and this post has gotten long enough.