Cooking Creatively: Tips for Dorm Cooking
Mausam is a 4th year student at the University of Virginia, and serves as 1st Vice President of NABS. Known by many as the culprit who set off the smoke alarm while trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich, she’ll be the first to tell you her cooking journey has been… well… interesting to say the least. In her spare time, she enjoys baking sugary desserts on 2 feet of counter space, and experimenting with ingredients that don’t sound like they should be combined, but the result is always a fun surprise.
If you had asked me, even last year, in my third year of college, whether I enjoyed cooking, I would have probably laughed a little hysterically and tried to change the subject. It took me a long time to get over my disastrous introduction to the culinary world, and I thought that sealed my fate as a microwave dinner connoisseur. Back in 2017, I attended the Colorado Center for the Blind’s summer youth program, and, when asked to make a green bean casserole, proceeded to pile all of the ingredients into the casserole dish and send the whole thing crashing to the floor on the way to the oven. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling very confident in the kitchen for quite a few years after that.
In my first year of college, I lived 30 seconds away from the dining hall, and with an unlimited meal plan, I got by just fine without even owning my own spoon in my dorm room. Then, in my second and third years, I lived in an apartment with a gloriously souped up kitchen, which, you guessed it, I didn’t touch once. Now, in my final year, I serve as a resident advisor to first year students, so I’m back in a small dorm room, with a much smaller meal plan. You know what they say: desperate times call for desperate measures. I have had to get creative.
Cooking in a dorm room, and a communal kitchen, for that matter, is not impossible. In fact, it is very possible, and very rewarding, if you have the right tools and a willingness to think a little out of the box on occasion. I have found that having a few multi-functional appliances, and some essentials that I can use for a wide range of recipes, has allowed me to be a lot more flexible with what I can cook. To start, here are a few general tips that have helped me consolidate in a pretty small space:
1. A sturdy metal 9 by 13 baking pan is one of the most versatile things you can have. If you have access to an oven, you can use it to bake brownies, cakes, casseroles, pasta dishes, and all kinds of other dishes. If you do not have an oven, it’s a great storage container for no-bake desserts and whatever else you want to toss into it.
2. Collapsible colanders exist, and you need one. If you’re planning on draining your rice, vegetables or noodles, you’re going to want to strain all the water out and keep the drain of that communal kitchen sink clear. Even better, once you’re done with it, you can flatten it into a thin disk and shove it on a cramped shelf with the rest of your cooking supplies.
3. You can find most fruits and vegetables pre-chopped at the grocery store. If you are not comfortable with a knife, or don’t have the counter space for a cutting board, you can find just about anything you’re looking for, already diced or chopped, and usually frozen. It does cost a few extra cents, but it minimizes cleanup, and reduces the need to store unused fresh produce.
4. Condensed soup makes for an excellent sauce base. If you’re making a dish that calls for a thick sauce, like a tater tot casserole, you can use a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup to supplement fresh ingredients that you may not be able to fit in your dorm room fridge, like milk or butter. It’s quick and easy, and delicious when combined with the rest of your meal.
5. There are several alternatives you can use instead of eggs when baking. If you don’t like eggs, or don’t find the need to keep them in your minifridge, you can use unsweetened applesauce, and even plain yogurt in your recipe instead. The ratio is generally ¼ cup per 1 egg, and it won’t alter the taste of the final product.
Now, I want to share one of my favorite recipes with you.
This was the first dish I made independently, for a Thanksgiving gathering with some of my friends. Given the limited cooking space I had, and the fact that I was on a time crunch, I decided to take some shortcuts to speed up the process from start to finish, and it turned out far better than I could have imagined.
Pepper Jack Mac&cheese
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
- 1 16-oz box of elbow macaroni
- 2 10-oz cans condensed cream of cheddar soup
- 1 4-oz can diced jalapeños
- 2 8-oz bars pepper jack cheese
- Italian or panko bread crumbs
- Pinch of salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Fill a medium-sized pot about 3 quarters of the way full of warm water. Pour your macaroni into the pot, along with a pinch of salt. Boil on medium until the pasta is al dente, or just at the intersection of firm and tender.
3. Remove macaroni from the stovetop and drain. Spread evenly in 9 by 13 inch baking pan. Set aside.
4. After rinsing out your pot, combine soup, diced jalapeños and pepper jack cheese. Use a stirring spoon or spatula to break the pepper jack cheese into smaller pieces in the pot, to prevent bubbling and overcooking. Place on medium heat, stirring constantly until a thick, creamy sauce forms.
5. After removing sauce from heat, incorporate thoroughly into the macaroni, making sure to cover the noodles completely and create a layer on the bottom of the pan under the noodles. Here, I fold the sauce in with my hands to make sure it is evenly spread, but you can use a spoon to do this as well.
6. Sprinkle breadcrumbs evenly over the noodles, patting the layer to make sure it is flat all the way across.
7. Place baking pan on the bottom wrack of the oven. Let bake for 40 minutes, or until the bread crumbs form a semi-solid crust on top. To test this, I slide a fork over the top of the pan, and when I hear an audible scraping sound, I know it is ready to remove from the oven.
8. Serve top-down, making sure to hit the bottom of the pan when scooping out the macaroni, so you get the bread crumb crust with each bite. For storage, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the pan and refrigerate. It should stay fresh for at least a week.
Cooking is not for everybody, but if you want it to be for you, you can discover a whole world of possibilities. Don’t let a tiny dorm room and minimalist communal kitchen discourage you from trying your hand at some delicious homemade meals. It’s worth it, I promise.