Two things are important to understand right away. First, I really do enjoy food. I’m one of those annoying, snobby, over-educated PhD students who likes fancy alcohol and craft chocolate and various other “hipstery” artisan goods. Second, I really don’t like spending money. I live on a stipend, primarily, and while it’s generous for its kind, it’s not exactly luxury.
I’ll admit I love spending money when I have enough of it to justify spending it. But I don’t like spending it on what I would call “fuel”. Food, most of the time, is fuel. It’s a necessary evil.
I can consistently hold that I love food and also hold that food is mainly for fuel most of the time. It is possible to really and truly enjoy the delights of good food, drink, or any other consumable aesthetic object on the occasions where the goal is for enjoyment, while at the same time not viewing every occasion where food and its ilk are consumed as having an aesthetic end.
So don’t @ me.
However, even though it’s possible to subsist entirely on ramen noodles and Soylent (not recommended), why resort to turning food into a mere means when it’s possible to make it taste good for a reasonable price, right?
Here are three recipes I’ve been using for a while to live on a grad student budget and still somewhat enjoy my life.
If you buy the ingredients in a bulk way, the meals come out to cost about $2.50 each.
You’re going to need some ingredients. You may be surprised how many ways you can recombine the same ingredients to come up with something delicious. Here are some things I recommend getting.
- canned black beans. I usually do low-sodium. Approximately $.80 each
- (optional) canned kidney beans
- Canned tomatoes. I recommend Rotel, which can be found almost everywhere and cost approximately $1.00 each
- White rice. I usually go with a 1 or 2 pound bag, because I don’t have a car and I’m too lazy to lug the 5lb bag back to my apartment. But the bigger bag you get, the cheaper this is. Usually a 2lb bag is around $2.00-$3.00.
- A jar of pesto. This is a little more expensive, around $4.00 or $5.00, but it goes a long way.
- Butter or olive oil (olive oil is preferable but generally more expensive — though it goes further)
- Heavy Cream — this is usually a few dollars, but you won’t need very much at a time, and it lasts for quite a while.
- Penne noodles. I have to have gluten free ones, which cost more, but if you don’t have celiac or anything like that, then these are usually only a dollar or two.
- Frozen vegetables. In particular, frozen peas and a pack of “mixed vegetables” which usually include corn, peas, carrots, and green beans.
- Sesame oil. Okay, this one will cost you about ten bucks. But it’s worth it, I promise. And it will last for a really long time, because you only ever use a little bit.
- Soy sauce (or tamari). Again, it’s a few dollars and lasts for a long time.
- Shredded cheese. I recommend getting a cheddar or cheddar mix and a shredded parmesan.
- Garlic. You can never have too much of this, let’s be real.
- Yellow onions. Select onions that are heavy for their size (a good rule for all fruits and vegetables).
- Salt and black pepper. The higher quality the pepper the better, but salt is basically the same.
With those ingredients, you can made a bunch of combinations of delicious meals, but I’ll focus just on three.
Beans and Rice — the student staple meal
- black beans or kidney beans
- shredded cheese
- canned tomatoes
- garlic (optional)
- salt and pepper
It’s a great idea to invest in a rice cooker. If you don’t have one, I really recommend getting one. They are about twenty bucks on Amazon, and having one will make your life so much easier.
For those who don’t know (I didn’t know this until a girlfriend showed me): before you cook your rice, put the amount you will use into a bowl (or the cooking vessel), and run warm water over it, brushing the rice around with your fingers and draining it. Do this a few times until the water is mostly clear. This gets the starch off of the rice and makes it tremendously more pleasant to consume.
All right, ready for some beans and rice? It’s not pretty, but it’s very filling and very cheap.
Start your rice in the rice cooker. I usually make about one or two servings for myself, depending on if I’ll save any.
While the rice is cooking, get a saucepan and open up that can of black beans (or kidney beans, if you want…or both, heck!). Dump ’em in. Keep the heat on medium or lower.
After the beans warm, open a can of the Rotel (or other) tomatoes and drain the juices off. Add them to the beans, and stir it all around.
At this point, if you just wanted to wait until your rice is done and combine it, it would be pretty good, although it would need salt and pepper.
But if you really want to up your game, take a separate skillet and toast some diced garlic in a little bit of butter. Don’t let it burn. Once it’s nice and toasty, add it to the beans. Alternatively, if your skillet is large enough, just add the beans and tomatoes directly to the skillet. Just make sure the heat is not turned up too high.
Once your rice is done, mix it all together.
Add a little salt and pepper to season it, and top it with cheese. I usually do a cheddar cheese.
It’s also pretty good to dip tortilla chips into the mix.
The great thing about this rice and bean meal is that it only takes about twenty minutes (rice cooker!), it’s extremely cheap, and it’s really, really filling. There is a lot of protein in those beans, and the carbohydrates from the rice will give you quick energy.
- frozen vegetables
- sesame oil
- soy sauce
This is another staple meal. I can’t believe how long it took me to learn how to make fried rice. It’s so easy, and it is *cue angels descending from a light shaft* so damn good.
The only trick with this one is that you have to make the rice the day before you want to cook the meal.
An easy way to do this is to make the beans and rice one day, but make a double batch of the rice, and save half for the day you’re going to make fried rice.
You can try to make fried rice the day of, but you’ll have to bake it in the oven a little bit to dry it out, and honestly, I’ve never done it, and I’m not going to try. Just make it the day before. That’s what Chinese restaurants do and for a reason.
All right. Get your wok, if you have one. If not, you’ll need a large skillet.
Mince a little garlic ahead of time.
First, you want to scramble some eggs. I usually do two. Add some butter to the pan and scramble however you like. I usually just add the eggs straight to the pan and toss it all around with the spatula, because I’m a troglodyte. Be better than me, if you want, but it’s all going to taste about the same. Set the eggs to the side once they are scrambled. Because you will be tossing them back into the rice later, it’s okay if they’re not perfectly done — unless you like the eggs really dry.
Add a little more butter to the pan. Toss in the garlic and let it get a little roasty over medium heat.
Now add some frozen vegetables. I like the ones that have corn, carrots, peas, and green beans. Don’t skimp on the vegetables here. They’re part of the magic. Cook it all together over medium heat until it’s pretty warm or hot — just don’t burn it (be careful with the garlic in there).
When the vegetables are pretty nice, move the vegetable and garlic mix to one side of the pan, mostly off of the heat. Get your pre-cooked rice and add it to the other side with a little bit of butter.
Use a spatula to break up the rice and flatten it out. You’ll want to turn it a few times throughout the process. Try to do this in pretty big scoops so that the rice maintains a chunky/sticky texture (this will make it much easier to eat, especially with chopsticks).
It shouldn’t take very long for it to heat up. Remember, it’s already cooked, so you’re just heating it up and hopefully cooking it just enough for it to stick together more. Be careful not to burn it. Burned rice is the devil.
Add the eggs back into the mix and stir the whole thing up. Don’t stir too aggressively or else the rice will come apart too much. But give it a good mix.
Add some soy sauce and cook it in. The amount is up to you. Be generous enough that the rice takes on a slightly darker color.
When you feel it’s good, turn the heat all the way off and/or move to an unheated burner.
Now is the time to add the sesame oil. Sesame oil is a finishing oil, so it should not be cooked at all (it will not taste good). Add a small amount. You won’t need much. This is one of those things where you have to do it a few times to get it perfect, but you can’t mess it up by adding too little. So just go lightly at first. It will give the whole meal a nice, subtle smell.
You’re ready to eat! Scoop it into a bowl and enjoy. Optionally, add a little sriracha or salt if necessary (I use a low sodium gluten free soy sauce, so I usually add salt, but if you don’t have a low sodium soy sauce, you probably won’t need much salt).
- penne noodles
- heavy cream
- canned tomatoes
- frozen peas
- salt and pepper
- shredded parmesan
This might be my favorite. This meal is so ridiculously easy, but it really feels like you’re making some fancy stuff. Here’s how to do it.
Start the noodles according to the package instructions.
While the water is heating up, dice up/mince some garlic.
Add a little butter to a wok or large skillet. When it melts, add in the garlic and toast it up. Make sure not to burn it. I recommend medium or medium-low heat for this.
Once the garlic is lightly browned, move it to one side of the pan, away from the heat.
Add a little more butter, and when it melts, add in your frozen peas. The point is not to burn them or cook them too much. Just make sure they heat up to the point that you could eat them.
When the peas are nice and soft, add around 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Make sure the heat is on low for this. You don’t want to burn the cream. You can use more or less cream depending on how many noodles you’re making. To be honest, I never measure it. I just eyeball it until it looks like it could be a sauce that’s not too runny.
You can mix the garlic back in.
Take some pesto — usually about 2 tablespoons — and add it to the sauce. Mix it all in.
At this point, while your sauce is warming, your noodles are probably fairly close to being done. The noodles should have produced a starchy water. Take a spoon (or just your spatula, depending) and scoop up a little of the starchy water and add it to the sauce. It doesn’t have to be much, usually around a tablespoon. The starch in the sauce will help it bind to the noodles later.
Now, open a can of the tomatoes (I like Rotel, because it’s usually a little spicy). Drain the tomatoes and add some to the sauce. You can just eyeball this. It depends on how many tomatoes you like. I usually use just under a quarter of a can. Save the rest of the tomatoes for later in a Tupperware.
The noodles should be soft enough now, so take them off of the heat and drain them. When they’re drained, toss them straight into the sauce and mix the whole thing up!
I usually mix the whole thing over low heat for a minute or two, to give the sauce a chance to bind with the noodles.
It’s ready to serve! Top it with shredded parmesan, and add a little salt for additional seasoning, if necessary. If you’re feeling adventurous, a little sriracha is also good here.