These 10 dishes will see you through your uni years.
As the fun of Freshers’ Week starts to feel like a not exactly distant, but certainly fuzzy memory and the realities of lectures and shared housing set in, it’s time to think about what you can achieve during your time at university. A degree? With what you’re paying, I should hope so. A job in your chosen field? That one’s a bit less of a sure thing, to be honest… But we are sure that if you follow this helpful list, you’ll leave university seeming a wiser, better nourished individual than you were as a fresher.
While we understand that you’re at university to gain life experience, make friends, and, God forbid, find yourself, we also think it’s important that you dedicate just a tiny bit of time to improving your culinary prowess. At one point or another, you’re going to start feeling like death warmed up, and you’ll be very grateful for a home-cooked meal. Also, when you graduate and are thrown into the adult world, you quickly start to feel like a bit of a wally for serving sarnies when people pop round for dinner.
Here are the 10 things we think every undergraduate should aim to master before graduation:
Cake: Your new housemates will love you for baking them a birthday cake, and baking is a life skill that comes in very handy for your first job too – being the newbie that brings in cupcakes makes you a lot easier to like, even if becomes apparent that your ‘proficiency in all aspects of Microsoft office’ was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.
A roast dinner: There is quite literally nothing better on earth for a hangover than a mound of roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. Get all of your friends to join in, and you’ll also get a lovely memory out of it – there’s nothing quite like sitting down to your first team-effort roast dinner to firm up those friendships. Top tip: if you’re cooking meat, make sure that if you’re covering it in tin foil, the foil is shiny-side-in – as a fresher, my sister and her flatmates eagerly awaited their roast chicken, only to discover that they’d done the foil wrong and had deflected the oven’s heat for the entire cooking time.
A semi-fancy dinner party-style meal: For when you’re entertaining that special someone, or want to prove to your parents that you’re not spending your entire maintenance loan on takeaways and reduced tins of beans. Don’t go overboard: this is not the time to present a croque en bouche for dessert. Keep starters and puddings simple (think bruschetta for starters and strawberries with ice cream and dark chocolate shavings for dessert). For the main course, try stuffing chicken breasts with Brie and wrapping them in Parma ham. While that’s baking in the oven, sauté some potatoes and prepare a side of asparagus. It’s all easy-peasy, but your guests will leave well fed and hopefully a little bit impressed.
A cooked breakfast: As with the roast dinner, this is a bit of a saviour when you’re feeling worse for wear. Use less oil than might seem tempting, and cook your sausages in the oven to limit the number of things on the hob.
Eggs: Eggs are an absolute saviour when you can’t afford many ingredients. Learn to scramble, poach, fry and make omelettes, and you’re set for at least 100 meals. Wrap asparagus in Parma ham and bung it in the oven for 15 minutes, then top with perfect soft-centred poached eggs for a quick and scrumptious dinner. You can also get really creative with omelette fillings, using whatever’s left in the fridge.
Pasta: Not just plain pasta with a spoonful of pesto, but a lovely, filling dish that’s easy to throw together and breaks up the monotony. Carbonara is one of the easiest pasta dishes around – you just need bacon, egg yolks, cream and Parmesan, so it can be a cheap meal if you plan to use up unused ingredients bought for a big breakfast. This is also the time to earn how to make top-notch spaghetti bolognese. You’ll be able to use the sauce for lasagne and so many other dishes, and it’s one of those home-cooked comfort dishes that you’ll find yourself craving time and again.
A pasta bake can be a lifesaver when you’ve got to cook for a few people at once. Fry up some chorizo (perfect for adding flavour without you needing to spend a lot on meat), add onion and garlic if you have it, and a handful of veg, whether it’s chopped peppers, some sweetcorn or a few chopped sticks of celery (really just use whatever you’ve got easy access to), then turn it into a thick sauce using passata or chopped tomatoes with a spoonful of pesto mixed in. Cook your pasta on the hob then transfer it to a big oven dish and pour the sauce over it, mixing well. Grate cheese on top and pop the dish in the oven for 15 or 20 minutes – filling, carby, cheesy goodness.
Curry: Most curries start with the same basic ingredients, so once you’ve mastered the art of one simple curry, you’ll be able to add a little of this, and take a little of that to make any number of lovely Indian meals. Best shared with friends, curry is an excellent choice if you need to make masses of food for all of your mates. You can make delicious vegetarian varieties too – it’s important to have at least a couple of veggie-friendly dishes in your repertoire. Another thing to point out here is that you need to learn how to cook rice properly. It seems so basic, but I once had a housemate whose method resulted in the pan being lined with two inches of thick congealed mess every time he cooked it. We went through a lot of pans that year…
Steak: The first time you cook steak can be daunting; it’s expensive and it can go wrong, but once you’ve mastered it, you’re set for life. Though you’re unlikely to be able to afford too many steaks while you’re at university, it’s a nice celebratory meal once you start working.
Vegetarian options: If you have friends round for dinner, it’s good form to be able to offer a vegetarian alternative – don’t just serve the same meal without the meat – however delicious they are, an extra helping of veg is not an appropriate substitute. Curry, lasagne and pasta bakes can all be adapted into meat-free meals. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, cooking without meat is a lot cheaper.
A grilled cheese: It wasn’t until I’d spent some time road-tripping in the US that I realised how delicious a proper grilled cheese sandwich is. Throughout your time at uni, there will probably be times when your relationship with the toastie maker becomes a bit obsessive. I’ve been there, and I get it – they’re great. But a properly made grilled cheese will change the way you feel about these inferior substitutes forever. The key is to go slow: butter one slice of bread, and stick it in a frying/ griddle pan with a drop of butter on a low heat, then pile on the cheese (and any other fillings – when we’re being fancy, we do Brie and grape) before adding the top slice of buttered bread. When the first side of bread starts to crisp, turn the sandwich over and repeat. It might take about 20 minutes versus 2 minutes in a toastie maker, but the result is heaven. Crispy on the outside, gooey and molten on the inside – the perfect pick-me-up.