The first time many of us cook, we do it with family—large servings of pasta and marinara sauce, or whole filets of fish on the grill with giant ears of corn roasting on the side. We bake whole cakes, and serve up large batches of French toast at the breakfast table. Recipes that make between four and eight servings don’t need to be adjusted when they’re feeding the “classic” American family of 4.5 people, and leftovers aren’t really a problem because most of what is cooked gets eaten during next-day lunches or speedy week-night dinners. It’s a shock, therefore, to find yourself in college with no food-disposal-esque younger siblings or crowded dining tables to fill. Figuring out how to buy and cook for one can be a difficult task for your average college student.
When living by myself in Washington, D.C. this summer, I had to figure out how to make the proper amount of food for one. Additionally, I was responsible for three of these single-serving meals a day. Yes, I could survive on pb&j sandwiches, eggs, and cereal, or I could eat frozen meals out of a box, but none of those options sounded appealing after a year spent in the Bayit surrounded by delicious, homemade food.
However, I didn’t have the time to cook a different meal every day, and lots of fresh food would have gone bad before I could use it up. I soon realized that by cooking a bit less than my family would, but more than I needed for that meal, I could be set for lunch for a week. By taking advantage of batch cooking and making foods that kept well, I managed to feed myself this summer without too much difficulty, and I got used to eating the same zucchini-broccoli fritters two nights in a row or ladling out the same soup for three days of lunch.
After a couple of weeks of trial and error, I found a fill-in-the-blank system that seemed to work: pre-cook a grain, lentil, or bean, then quickly roast or saute some vegetables each night or morning.
I’m a fan of quinoa, but any rice or pasta will do for the grain portion. Quinoa has protein, which is great for the vegetarians among us, and is super easy to make as well: one part grain to two parts water, boil, cover, and simmer. Done! Keeping the grain slightly more moist than usually recommended also helps it not dry out when it’s reheated later.
Another helpful hint: use up those lentils and beans. They are another saving grace for the vegetarians out there and a great option for you omnivores, too (meat is expensive). Green lentils go beautifully with asparagus, and beans can be made into a salad on their own or act as the base for a wrap. Both have very simple flavor profiles and can complement any number of dishes. Both are also easy to prepare and won’t go bad in the pantry; beans can be purchased in the can, ready to heat up, and all lentils need is some boiling water and a few minutes of your time.
Now that you’ve got your base, what goes on top? The two main tools that I propose are the sauté pan and the roasting pan. Both are easy to use and can produce delicious, full flavors. To roast the average veggie, simply heat up your oven to 425 degrees, add oil, salt, and pepper to your diced vegetables, pop them in on a metal tray, and watch your favorite episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Cooked vegetables don’t keep as long as grain, however, so keep that in mind before you make a big batch.
This summer, whatever vegetable looked good at the market went into my sauté pan, but I also became a fan of frozen vegetable mixes. I know, not the most “foodie friendly,” but the Soycutash mix (soybeans, corn, peppers, and onions) from Trader Joe’s was surprisingly good, long lasting, and fresh tasting. It also solved the problem of my desire to buy three or four fresh vegetables only to have them spoil before I could finish them all.
Another helpful hint: if you go the non-frozen route, limit yourself to a selection of three fresh vegetables at a time, or you’ll inevitably find yourself with mushy zucchini tucked away in some corner of the fridge. If you buy more, cook them and freeze them to extend their life.
So, to summarize: cook grains in large batches. Beans and lentils are great for the vegetarians and the omnivores, too. Utilize the frozen options for fresh vegetables, and don’t go too crazy at the farmer’s market if you’re only shopping for yourself.
Below is a recipe I made using this fill-in-the-blank strategy. What’s great about this recipe is its malleability—you can substitute your favorite ingredients, add, or subtract according to your preferences.
Quirky Quinoa Sauté
1 cup quinoa (makes four servings)
1/2 Onion, Chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 Bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 ear corn, shucked (can be substituted with canned or frozen corn)
1/2 bag spinach (or a few handfuls of the loose stuff)
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon cayenne or chili powder (optional)
2-3 tablespoons white-Wine vinegar (optional)
1. Place one cup of quinoa and two cups water (salted) on to boil. Once boiling, reduce heat, and simmer (covered) for 10-20 minutes (follow instructions on the bag).
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan on medium-high heat. Toss chopped onion and garlic in the pan. Cook until garlic is just golden.
3. Add bell pepper, corn, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Cook until veggies are soft and browned at the edges.
4. Add some of the cooked quinoa, as much or as little as you want. I usually add just enough to coat the bottom of the pan and mix in with the vegetables, but leave about half aside. Add a little white-wine vinegar and more seasonings. Cook and stir frequently until quinoa is toasted but not burned.
5. Add spinach. Cook until just wilted.
6. Enjoy! Put the remaining quinoa in the fridge, as well as any leftovers.