It’s an unfortunate fact that many a university student has a diet that is basically a salty, flash-frozen echo of a Jim Gaffigan Hot Pocket joke. The dorms at Dalhousie, St. Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent all deem the presence of heating element strictly verboten, meaning the only cooking appliances allowed in dorm rooms are mini fridges and microwaves.
Stovetop cooking isn’t off limits; the Edmund Rice residence at SMU has stoves, as do the common areas of most residences at Dalhousie. But for the most part, not even George Foreman could grill on campus.
We can all agree that microwaves can’t be beat when it comes to a quick reheat or thaw. But they only make food hotter, not better; they don’t broil or brown or sear or toast. Campus food provider Aramark has all of the on-campus eats on lockdown---an homage to the prisons where the company also serves food to captive audiences?---so aside from a few coffee shops and vendors, you’re on your own.
Instead of surrendering to a world where rubbery cubes of meat, powdered cheese, high fructose corn syrup and flavour crystals make up the four food groups, think outside the box of Kraft Dinner and explore an unexpected cooking option: not cooking.
When you’re first setting up your pantry in your new digs, this is the time to make your big investments. Along with your standard utensils, look into blenders and food processors. Countertop or handheld, big or small, these two appliances will take you from solid to sliced, diced and liquefied.
Stock your pantry---be it a shelf, drawer or cupboard---with high quality oils, vinegars and sauces. Keep some olive oil, sesame oil and a neutral like grapeseed oil on hand with balsamic, red wine, rice wine and apple cider vinegars, soy sauce, fish sauce and hoisin. With these simple ingredients you’ll be able to throw together easy dressings and dips. And don’t forget the sugar and spice you’ll need to go with your everything nice.
The go-to raw food, salads are simple, but they can also be special. You can create any flavour profile you want, be it sweet, savoury, salty or even smoky or creamy.
Simple approaches like taking your favourite herbs and pairing them with one or two vegetables and some cheese is an easy meal. Adding basil to bocconcini and tomato gets you to a caprese salad in a snap. Tomato and cucumber with a bit of oregano and feta practically lands you on a beach in Santorini.
If you want to hit sweeter notes without sacrificing the salt, save your feta for a watermelon and mint salad with some crisp red onion. You can also explore other flavours by pairing mild fruits like figs, pears or cantaloupe with a sharp goat cheese or blue cheese and a nutty element. Round out any salad with some kind of greens or cured meats if you want some salt or smoke in the mix.
Keep a coarse grater on hand for root vegetables like cabbage, carrot, daikon and turnip so you can make an easy slaw.
Turn your salad into a sandwich by taking some time to scope out a bakery that makes breads that can take your meal to the next level. Whether it’s the excellent crust development on breads from Julien’s (5517 Young Street, 455-9717) or the novelty of a pretzel from the Gingerbread Haus (1138 Queen Street, 425-4333) having great bread puts less pressure on you to find a great filling.
Since you’re doubtlessly on a budget, look at getting smaller bundles of meat, and stretching your dollar by focusing on vegetables. You can find great cuts of cured and cooked meat at farmers’ markets or your local grocery store deli counter. Skip the pre-packaged stuff and get the butcher to package a few fresh slices if you know you don’t want to eat one type of meat all week. Alternately, if you’re up for a meaty commitment, pick up a whole roasted chicken from a grocery store deli.
Simpler still, skip the sandwiching and just get some cheese, deli meats, pickles or olives and put together a cheese and charcuterie plate or a ploughman’s lunch with that delicious bread.
With nothing more than a trusty knife and a blender you can whip yourself up a batch of gazpacho. If you want to stick to the brief window of seasonality for a tomato based soup, that’s understandable since imported off-season tomatoes can be mealy or bland. Experiment a little and try using combinations of fresh herbs and produce that include anything from cucumbers, corn, endive lettuce and green pepper to sweeter ingredients like watermelon and grapes.
Obviously soup is the one place where a microwave can also really shine. So if your gazpacho leaves you cold you can always try it hot. And everybody’s favourite starch, ramen, can also get a quick facelift with some kimchi, scallions or spice. Google David Chang’s ramen and thank me later.
Don’t turn your nose up at the canned food aisle. Keeping some canned beans and chickpeas---along with bottled roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts---can mean having a hummus, tapanade or pesto ready in minutes. With some pita chips, baguette or any other crusty bread, you’ve got a simple supper ready.
If you want to impress someone with dinner in your dorm room, you can explore the world of ceviche, carpaccio, crudo and tartare. That’s right; raw meat. Basically, you’ll be cooking with citric juice. Freshness is key in this type of preparation, so do your research, talk to your butcher and let them know that not a lick of heat will be touching your meat. Preparation and sanitation needs to be pretty flawless, so it might be a good idea to save these tricks for a special occasion or stick to veggie versions of raw food dishes, like zucchini carpaccio or cauliflower ceviche.• Melissa Buote is a local food writer who would probably try to sneak a hotplate into her dorm.