Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Macaroni and Cheese in Your Rice Cooker

As a child, I LOVED Stouffer's macaroni and cheese: creamy and sharp, with brown crust. What's the problem? Well, it's kind of expensive, for one thing. Two, the portion is a bit small for a mac and cheese fiend like myself.

I spent many years trying to replicate my favorite mac and cheese. I discovered that the secret is using relatively little cheese, which keeps it creamy, and very sharp cheese, so you don't need a lot, but still get a sharp taste.

What is below is not the ultimate mac and cheese, but it's still very good. Since it's not baked, you sacrifice the crusty top, but, hey, you can have it every day in your dorm kitchen. You can do it in your rice cooker!

Recommended cheese: Cabot extra-sharp cheddar or Crackerbarrel extra-sharp cheddar.

By the way, I don't think I ate boxed mac and cheese till I was in my 20s. It is not in the same league with the real thing, though I recognize that, for some of you, it may evoke a childhood comfort food.

Rice cooker macaroni and cheese

¼ cup frozen chopped onions
2 cups macaroni
1 cup broth
1 cup water
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup cheese, preferably sharp cheddar
Red pepper flakes

Everyone needs comfort food and in that respect this recipe, inspired by Wolfgang Puck, delivers in spades.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to the rice cooker, switch to “cook” mode and let the oil heat up. Add ¼ cup frozen chopped onions and sauté, stirring occasionally. Add 2 cups macaroni, 1 cup broth, and 1 cup water. You may need to add a little extra water; there should be enough to just barely cover the pasta. Put the top on the rice cooker and be sure it is on “cook” mode. If not, just flip the switch. When the machine switches to warm, test a piece of pasta to be sure it is soft enough for your liking. If not, add a little more water and switch to “cook” again. There’s no need to drain the pasta because any residual water will be loaded with starch and will help thicken the sauce. When the pasta is done, switch the rice cooker to warm and add ¾ cup milk (do NOT add the milk when the rice cooker is on “cook;” the milk will most likely curdle), 1 tablespoon butter, and ½ cup cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted and formed a creamy sauce. Taste the sauce—you may need to add salt—and add red pepper flakes if you desire.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

College Cooking With a Plan: Why You Need our little Book

By Frugal Son

Stage 5

Cooking with a plan

We can already imagine our poor readers biting their nails with fear and wondering what they were getting themselves into by trying to learn how to cook. Fear not! College cooking nirvana is actually EASIER than all of the aforementioned stages and your friends / enemies / classmates will think you are some kind of genius when they see what you can do with a few “humble” ingredients and less time than it takes to watch one episode of “Lost.” In fact, you can cook our recipes while you’re watching the episode. In addition you’ll have variety—no more Chinese take-out three nights a week—and the food will be healthy, tasty, AND cheap, a rare combination of attributes indeed. Best of all, you won’t have to think about what to cook or what to do with leftover ingredients because with a system, all the puzzles use interchangeable pieces.

Typical Scenario

It’s been a long day and you’ve just finished a test so you’re pretty much zonked out. After getting back to your room and plopping down on the bed, you start to hear the familiar grumbles of your stomach. But what to eat? At first, you think about going to get a sandwich downtown but then you remember that you’re trying to save some money for a mini-roadtrip / concert this weekend with some friends. Fast food? No way! Thanks to your simple, but well-stocked pantry, you’ve got everything you need right at your fingertips. You do the simple preparation, turn the rice cooker on, and then check your email, read a magazine, WHATEVER until you hear the rice cooker click to warm automatically after about 30 minutes. Satisfied with your meal, all that’s left to do is clean out the rice cooker and one plate. Voilà! Simple, easy, cheap, and fast! We definitely have to give bonus points to this stage because not only is this a great way to make friends (“Hey, want to come over for dinner and I’ll cook you . . .”) but the friends you already have will like you even more! The amount of time and cost vary by recipe, but we’ll say, all included, about an hour of time and on average $4 for a meal big enough for two people (or leftovers).

Truly, no kidding. See our ebook at the upper right. Or see us on Amazon for Kindle.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

College Cooking Without a Plan: Why You Need One

Another amusing entry by Frugal Son, which portrays very well the situation of the hapless College Cook. Actually, this describes well the situation of many cooks, some middle-aged and beyond. No wonder people hate cooking! Imagine doing this every day.

Cooking, but with no plan

Some daring individuals make it this far only to scurry quickly back to the safety of the dining hall after spending hours making a meal that, while good, wasn’t worth the effort. Cooking without a plan means that you have to custom buy the ingredients for each recipe and this is time-consuming, expensive, and wasteful. You will be left with tons of opened and half-used containers of stuff that will just sit and go to waste on your shelves. Also, even if your meal was a success, you have to start all over from scratch the next day by picking out a recipe, going shopping, preparing, and so on.

Typical Scenario

After four weeks of home cooking over Winter Break, you’ve decided to make your mom’s famous chili so that all your friends can try it. You painstakingly follow the recipe to a T and spend an hour hunting down all the ingredients at the local supermarket. Since you’ve never done any cooking before, you need to buy all the spices (expensive) even though you only need a tiny bit of them. With heavy bags but wallet considerably lighter, you make it back to the dorm. You go into the communal kitchen for the first time and, horror of horrors, there are only two piddly electric burners and a tiny, dented skillet. You forgot all the cooking supplies you’d need! After calling up some friends, you manage to rustle up the necessary items and you start cooking. Finally, it’s ready and your friends have all arrived (and your friends agree that it is the best chili in the world) and after eating, you all do the dishes together. You plop down in your bed ready for a good night’s sleep and vow to yourself that you’ll NEVER cook again because it’s way too hard. All told, you had to go shopping, get tools, cook, AND do the dishes, so a conservative estimate of time would be about four hours. The cost of ingredients can vary from almost nothing (red beans and rice) to incredibly expensive (filet mignon and asparagus), but we’ll just say you spent about $20 for you and three other friends.

Is this you?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

College Cooking Stage 2

More on the stages of College Cooking from Frugal Son. This time, he looks at convenience foods, somewhat cheaper than restaurant dining, but still expensive, and not very satisfying.

Stage 2

Convenience Foods

Convenient and that’s about it.

Typical Scenario

After going for your afternoon run, you come back to your dorm and you’re STARVING. You pull some microwaveable frozen lasagna out of the fridge, pop it in the microwave and voilà, dinner is served. Very little prep or clean-up time but you have to go to the store every time you run out of stuff and, unless you have a full-size fridge, that’ll be fairly frequently. The reason this food can taste good is because of the massive amounts of salt and fat that mask the taste of preservatives. Negative bonus points for environmental reasons: a lot of waste is generated when you have to throw out all the plastic and cardboard the items come in. Convenience food CAN be cheap, but the portions are small, and name-brand items (Stouffers, Kraft, Lean Cuisine etc.) are pricey. We’ll say $5 per meal.

Check out our little ebook: cheap, easy, convenient, and NO STOVE required.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Ultimate Free Food for College Students: Dinner with Poets

Ah, free food. A blessing for college students. I myself have never never recovered from college and graduate school poverty. Hence I find it hard to resist any free food opportunity, even if it is some velveeta on a ritz cracker.

Frugal Son has for the first time availed himself of the weekly offerings of various religious groups on campus. He is supposed to be writing a post on that.

Meanwhile, Miss Em recently had an amazing opportunity: to go to a dinner at a restaurant for a visiting poet. She was nervous.

I told her about the time Gary Snyder came to my English class in college. We were all so in awe of him, not to mention that he was way hipper than any of us, that we sat dumbstruck. A classmate ran into Snyder years later; Snyder said "Were you in that terrified class?" UHHHH. Yes.

To help Miss Em out, just in case she had to ask a question, I told her the best question I ever heard a student ask a visiting poet: "How do you know when a poem is done?" You are welcome to use that question in your own academic lives.

I can't remember the name of the poet visiting Miss Em's school, but I did ask about the meal.

mahi mahi, blackened
this squash stuff with cheese and breadcrumbs
mustard greens
fried green tomatos
a dessert platter
it was insaaaane

See what I mean about Gary Snyder being way hipper than, well, everyone?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

College Cook Wannabes: Stage 1 (or why you need a plan)

Frugal Son wrote some (to me, his doting mama, and I hope to you, his objective reader) spot-on and amusing scenarios for the College Cook wannabe. Stage 1: going out to eat.

Needless to say, this can get expensive! Many of you have been on-campus for a while now. The thrill of return is wearing off; the work is building up; and, no doubt, you overspent in the first few weeks.

Here is the Restaurant option for the College Cook.

While few fall wholly into this category, many college students are overly reliant on restaurants, be they fast food joints or four-star establishments, for their nourishment.

Typical Scenario

After finishing class at six, you grab some pasta from the Italian restaurant just across the street from campus. A few breadsticks, some pasta, tax and tip later, you’re satisfied but you’ve been there for an hour and a half and you’ve spent $15 . . . and the next time you’re hungry again you’re back to square one. $15 is about two hours of after-tax income from a minimum wage job so your total “time” spent on this meal is 3.5 hours.

So: you need a plan. We will be posting more recipes here, of course. For the complete plan--20 basic ingredients, plus some condiments, will yield two weeks of meals, no stove or chopping required--check out our ebook in the upper-right.

OR, if you have a Kindle, check out the Amazon version.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tortilla Soup: A Stone Soup Recipe with Corn Chips

OK, College Cooks. What to cook when the cupboards seem bare? There's a wonderful book that I have at home somewhere called What to Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House to Eat. Isn't that the greatest concept?

This is a situation that afflicts most people at one time or another. But for the College Cook the situation is particularly acute: nothing may really be (almost) nothing.

Surely, College Cooks can usually rustle up some chips and salsa, right? Well, those two ingredients are the basis, not only of the chilaquiles I wrote about yesterday, but of tortilla soup.

You can do this in your rice cooker, or, if you haven't yet gotten one, in a big microwave-safe bowl. As befits a stone soup recipe, amounts are flexible, as are ingredients. The more ingredients you have, the better this is.

plus water or stock
plus corn (frozen? canned?)
plus beans (do you have a can? refried beans would work too)
plus rice (already cooked is OK)
plus cheese (put on top when done)

If you have some sour cream for topping or, omg, guacamole, this is sublime. Oh, does one of your friends have a few scraps of cooked meat (chicken or even meatballs)? Throw it in!

Basically, you can have dinner out of the leftovers from tailgating or game night.

I hope you college students read Stone Soup in your youth. It is a favorite from my own childhood. I was thrilled that the version I read was still available for my own children. It is available even today. A classic.

Four of the suggested ingredients are among the basic 20 ingredients in our little ebook! Check it out.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chilaquiles: What to Do with Stale Corn Chips

This recipe was featured on my other blog a while back. It is so easy. It doesn't require a stove. It takes only a few ingredients.

In fact, most of the ingredients are from the COLLEGE COOKING CRASH COURSE list. You do need some corn chips. It occurs to me that stale corn chips are thrown out by the bagful in college dorms and apartments. Here is your chance to save the environment.

So here is a 15 minute meal. The one thing you have to do in advance is have some cooked beans; otherwise, use canned. No recipe necessary. At least, I've never used one. Looks ugly, tastes great.

Chilaquiles for Tex-Mex Lovers Only

Rotel tomatoes or salsa
Corn chips
Beans spiced with whatever (we use a Cajun blend with black beans or pintos)
Grated cheese (cheddar, muenster,jack, whatever)

Do this as many times as you have room for and then top with sour cream. The original recipe called for baking, but I've discovered that you can heat in the microwave.

The original of this recipe was in the Greens Cookbook. It called for a spicy tomato sauce, spiced beans, frying corn tortillas, and a bunch of other stuff. I think the sauce was thickened with nuts. I was telling a friend that I wanted to make it, but that the recipe was too time-consuming. He was shocked and said, "It's a convenience food. Use chips."

I never looked back.
Bon appetit.

Just in case: but the recipes are mostly a bit fussy, typical of restaurant-based cookbooks.

Here is my easy cookbook for Kindle-owners. See upper-right for access to the pdf version.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Augmented Soup for the College Cook: Clam Chowder

From my rice cooker hero Roger Ebert, i got the idea of ADDING things to canned soup. It's a good idea: adding less processed food minimizes the oversalted CANNED taste.

I found two ideas for canned clam chowder in some cookbooks. White clam chowder is what you want; I used the Progresso brand. I would link to it on Amazon so you could see the can, but Amazon sells it for such a ridiculously high price! This soup is often on sale for a dollar or a little more: keep your eye out at your grocery store or even at your CVS or Walgreens.

Andrew Schloss, author of Almost from Scratch, suggests the addition of canned white beans plus red pepper flakes and garlic. Almost from Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine

Pretty good! And white beans are healthy. Don't forget to drain the can. i can't remember if Schloss said to use the liquid, but I always drain canned beans. I added some additional milk too.

Then I decided to add to Schloss by way of the famous San Francisco foodie Nancy Silverton.

I didn't do exactly what Silverton said (add garlic, shallot, and 40 snipped chives--yeah, right). I did add what I had around: some spinach, some corn, and more milk. I didn't follow her measurements either.

This can be heated in the rice cooker, of course. But, lacking that, you can mix all the ingredients in a big bowl and heat in the microwave.

One last thing: Silverton wants you to add bacon. I heated up a piece in the microwave. It did add some flavor, but would not be essential.

This took no time at all, ended up including veggies, and is cheap, cheap, cheap.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Equipment for the College Cook: Besides a Rice Cooker, You Need a Knife

I'm not going to bug you about the rice cooker, at least not for a while. YOU KNOW YOU NEED ONE. At least, I know you need one.

What else? With what did we send our College Cook off to her stove-less dorm suite?

A knife. We got the Kuhn-Rikon paring knife.

Then, since we liked it so much, we also got the Kuhn-Rikon chef's knife.

Since we are frugal types, I will let you in on a secret. We got our first Kuhn-Rikon paring knife from Amazon, but the other ones (yes, we are a 3 paring knife family) were found at Marshalls or TJ Maxx. They were around half the Amazon price, which is, in itself, reasonable.

You can get your Global knife (recommended by Anthony Bourdain) when you are settled after college. In fact, we have promised one to Frugal Son after graduation.

I have a Wusthof, which I hate. I find myself using the little Kuhn-Rikon all the time.

We did have a little tiff about who got which color of the Kuhn-Rikon. We worked things out. Peace once again reigns in our frugal family.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do You Own or Would You Buy a Fasta Pasta?

Here I am, trying to figure out how the College Cook can survive without a stove. It's funny: the College Cook for whom I am doing this work has not cooked anything so far. That is because we sent her off with many, many frozen burritos, which she has been enjoying.

Today I came upon this weird device: the Fasta Pasta. This supposedly is great for cooking pasta in the microwave.

It has zillions of ecstatic reviews on Amazon. I even watched an amiable fellow test it on Youtube.

Should I buy one for "research"? Or is it just too tacky?

I've decided that I will test karma by seeing if one shows up at Goodwill over the next month or so.

Does anyone own one of these things?

Monday, September 13, 2010

What To Do With the Leftovers: Spinach and Ricotta Burritos = Stuffed Pasta

While you're making the Spinach and Ricotta Burritos we posted about yesterday, you might as well make some extra. Why? Because you can turn it into another dish.

If you can fill 4 more tortillas, go ahead. Put them in an oiled microwave-safe dish (preferably square or rectangular), top with tomato sauce and cheese, cover with some wrap or a plastic top slightly askew, and heat.

What you will get ends up tasting quite a bit like stuffed manicotti. No joke! The flour tortillas turn--as it were--to pasta.

Three meals at least from a minimal effort. Are there any other magical recipes out there?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Easiest Assembly Only Recipe for the College Cook

This is a favorite. If you haven't bought your rice cooker yet, this is for you. It is a "throw together" recipe, made with just a few ingredients. It can be Mexican or Italian, depending.

Spinach and ricotta burritos two ways

1½ cups frozen spinach
½ cup ricotta
2 or 3 tortillas
Shredded cheddar to top
Salt and pepper to taste
Rotel OR Canned tomatoes

The ratio for the ingredients in this recipe is 3:1; that is to say three units of frozen spinach for every unit of ricotta. With this ratio you can easily scale up, or down, this recipe to cater to your needs. To make two super filled—and super filling—burritos or three not-quite-bursting-at-the-seams burritos defrost 1½ cups of frozen spinach in the microwave for about 40 seconds. Mix this with ½ cup of ricotta, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper to taste, and then split the mixture evenly between your tortillas. Top the burritos with some of your shredded cheddar and microwave for about one minute, or until the cheese is melted and the filling is hot all the way through.

For a Mexican twist, top with Rotel (salsa); to go Italian, just add a little tomato sauce.

This is a taste of the recipes in our little ebook (see upper right): College Cooking Crash Course.

If you have a Kindle, you can get it on Amazon!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Extreme College Cooking: An Electric Kettle

The title, which I think is quite snazzy, is somewhat inaccurate. Frugal Son refuses--on environmental and clutter grounds--to take a dorm fridge we ALREADY have or to get a microwave. So his attitude is somewhat extreme.

His eating situation is not particularly extreme, because he has a hefty meal plan. He just gets hungry a lot. Having rejected the above-mentioned appliances, he surprised us by requesting an electric kettle. With an automatic shut off (CHECK--not all have this feature), this is a safe appliance, allowed in many dorm situations (BUT CHECK your rules).

I had amassed some microwave-free snacks: crackers, peanut butter. Now what? With the electric kettle, you can make instant coffee, hot chocolate, instant oatmeal. Not to mention the ubiquitous ramen packet, which is OK now and then, as long as you don't think salt, msg, oil, and noodles constitute a nutritious meal.

Frugal Son requested instant grits. He said Cajun seasoning mix (now widely available) is all that is required to jazz up the bland base. All of the above would seem to suffice for the late hours of hunger or caffeine deprivation.

Other ideas are couscous, which can be reconstituted with hot water, and those powdered soup mixes, some of which are not too vile. We will report back if we try them.

Frugal Son decided to buy a stainless steel electric kettle because many people complained about the "plastic" taste of water boiled in plastic. We have a plastic one at home, but have never noticed an off taste.

Any other ideas for boiled water, no refrigerator cuisine? An interesting problem to be solved.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Everything College Cookbook: Review

Warning: This is my first negative review of a cookbook or even of anything. Why am I bothering? Because I got this book at Goodwill today, so I feel that the forces of karma are telling me to discuss this book.

So, what's the problem? First, as some Amazon reviewers point out, this isn't really a cookbook for COLLEGE STUDENTS. One points out that most of the recipes require lots of "counterspace, extensive preparation, and a large number and variety of ingredients." Another notes that the title is "offbase": the reviewer can hardly imagine a student chopping up the ingredients for a stirfry or putting together a quiche. Neither can I.

My own scientific evaluation of a cookbook involves the following: open the book at random and write down all the recipes that I want to make. Don't laugh (too much). This method has led me to some wonderful cookbooks that I never would have otherwise come upon, like this one by Ronald Johnson, who turns out to be a poet. The book is so obscure that Amazon doesn't even have a picture of the cover!

Anyway, back to the College Cookbook. Here are the recipes I randomly turned to.

Chili: Why would you saute fatty beef in butter? Why would you add sugar?

Tuna Melt: This involves first making ANOTHER recipe ("Easy Egg Noodles"), 1/4 cup onion, frozen peas, cream of mushroom soup, milk, velveeta, tuna. There are at least three things here that I'm not going to mention again.

Crab Rangoon (under date night recipes): This involves putting stuff in wonton wrappers and deep-frying. This does not seem an auspicious activity for a date.

OK. Why beat a dead horse? I did not find a single recipe I would make even after several more flips.

Meanwhile, check out the little ebook I put together with my son (a genuine college student) for my daughter (also a genuine college student, living in a stove-free dorm suite).

So what would we say for the student who wants chili? Without a stove, cooking ground beef is a pain. We would suggest Louisiana red beans instead. We wrote about this a few days ago. You can do this either with a rice cooker or with a microwave, both of which are permitted in most dorms.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Idea from my Rice Cooker Hero, Roger Ebert: Augmenting Canned Soup

Oh, Roger Ebert, how I esteem you! The famous movie critic, who, because of surgery, can no longer eat or speak, is about to publish a rice cooker cookbook. I can't be the only one eagerly awaiting its September 21 publication.

When I was first struggling through my early rice cooker efforts, I was lucky enough to come upon his blog, which sings the praises of what he calls "the pot."

Here is one good idea for the College Cook. Take a can of soup. I know, canned soup is vile. I seldom eat it: too salty, not substantial enough--all around fake tasting. Ebert suggests using the canned soup as a base for a better soup.

I tried this: I had Progresso beef and potato soup. I added a can of tomatoes, a can of drained beans, a handful of macaroni, and some water (or you could use broth). Put all in rice cooker. Turned on the rice cooker and let it bubble for a bit. Checked the macaroni for doneness. Turned it to Warm. Threw in a handful of frozen chopped spinach.

Those are all among the 20 ingredient pantry list of our little etome (see the upper right for ordering info). Anyway, thanks Roger Ebert: the soup was pretty good. Also easy. Also cheap. And pretty "good for you," especially given its sodium-laden base.

Check out my hero's forthcoming book. I know I will.