Food for thought

It’s not unusual to find a student who likes to cook, but it can be really tricky to fit a week’s worth of delicious square meals into your budget. How long can a student with gastronomic pretensions really survive on cheap(ish) staples such as spag bol, shepherd’s pie, stir fry and multiple baked bean and cheese variations? Branching out requires some patience and forward-thinking, but most importantly, a really good cookbook. A good student cookbook must be realistic; there’s no point being sent off to university with the latest gourmet guide that’s filled with recipes for crayfish soufflé or truffle-infused wild mushroom bisque. A student needs a book that caters to his or her needs, a book which allows for flavour diversity without requiring expensive ingredients and a fully-equipped chef’s kitchen.

A good place to start would be Sam Stern’s _Student Cookbook_. Unlike some other publications, this actually does what it says on the cover, with recipes that are not only cheap but appetising and exciting. It really is a comprehensive collection, ranging from recipes for mega-cheap rice and noodle dishes to slightly more complicated curries, pies and puddings, and each dish has a symbol above showing how much it costs. If you can get over his annoying pseudo-laddish style, you’ll find it to be a cookbook that is extremely flexible and will inspire you to adapt and improve dishes for next time. Each recipe has a list of possible additions underneath which could be made depending on time and money constraints. I was given this book in my second year and wished I’d got it earlier.

My first cookbook was _The Students’ Sausage Egg and Beans Cookbook _by Jane Bamforth. On the cover it claims that it ‘saves you loadsa dosh’ and is full of recipes based around the three eponymous ingredients. While there are a few tasty dishes in there (the pork and bean stew is worth a mention) most are boring or too simple to require a cookbook and some don’t even seem to work (I tried the falafel recipe three times and they fell apart on every occasion). It’s a nice idea – sausages really are a great money-saver (especially if you can bear to buy them frozen) and team up nicely with lots of different types of bean – but unfortunately the book limits itself with this initial premise and doesn’t show enough imagination. Students who use cookbooks aren’t just interested in eating on the cheap – that can be accomplished through the application of common sense and financial planning – they want clever recipes that utilise what they have available to them.

Curries should form a major part of a student’s culinary repertoire. While spices are expensive, you only need to buy them occasionally (maybe you could time a restock with that first parent-funded shop of the term?) and you really only need a few to get you going. For example, cumin, turmeric and paprika fried off and combined with a decent curry powder will do for an Indian curry. A good curry book is essential for achieving deep, authentic flavour. I personally love Thai cooking, and for that reason I would recommend _The Big Book of Thai Curries_ by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. Thai cooking does require certain ingredients that might seem a bit more expensive than the usual, such as ginger, fish sauce and Thai curry paste. However, things like ginger, lemongrass, chilli paste and curry paste are available pre-prepared in jars from most supermarkets, and they keep for ages in the fridge. You don’t need to fuss about with fresh root ginger or blending your own curry paste. Bhumichitr’s book works well with a student budget, getting rid of huge ingredients lists and avoiding complicated cooking methods.

After you’ve got a few dishes under your belt and are starting to make a name for yourself in your kitchen, you’ll want to broaden your gastronomic horizons, so you might start looking for a fancy gourmet cookbook to further impress your flatmates. You might settle on _Roast Chicken and Other Stories_ by Simon Hopkinson – a widely acclaimed cookbook from an extremely well-respected chef. It has, after all, been voted “The most useful cookbook of all time” by _Waitrose Food _Illustrated. And there’s no denying it, it is a great book, filled with mouth-watering recipes punctuated by Hopkinson’s gushing prose and some eye-catching illustrations. However, this is certainly not a book for students. Have you ever walked into a Rootes kitchen and seen someone tucking into deep-fried calves’ brains with sauce Gribiche, or grilled pigeon with shallots, sherry vinegar and walnut oil? I thought not. The ingredients are all far too expensive and many of the recipes require hours of careful preparation. Books like this are useful for ideas – such as the ground-breaking discovery that lamb and anchovies are made for each other – but if a family friend gives you this next Christmas with the words “So, I hear you’re becoming a bit of a storm in the kitchen!” don’t forget that their kitchen may look a bit different to your grimy student one when you come to use it.

The latest addition to my cookbook collection is Rick Stein’s _Spain_, which came out last week, but I’m sad to say is utterly useless to a money-scrimping student. I bought the book hoping to find viable recipes for mouth-watering tapas, hearty mountain stews and aromatic paellas. While these dishes all feature in the book, it is hard to imagine a skint, busy student whipping them up from Stein’s instructions. I picked the first three dishes I made – lettuce, anchovy, egg and crouton salad; white bean stew with pork and sausages; hake with clams, asparagus, peas and parsley – for their simplicity and their potential for adaptability. The hake was exquisite, but its success lies largely in the quality of the fish and a really good fresh fish stock, both of which cost an arm and a leg. The main ingredients for the bean stew – white beans, streaky bacon, black pudding and chorizo – don’t cost a lot, but the dish took close to two and a half hours to prepare, so although tasting good (much like a Spanish-style Cassoulet) it didn’t merit the time wasted – all I can say is, thank God my exams are over. The salad was crisp and fresh, but it occurred to me while eating it that it really didn’t require a highly detailed recipe – even the dressing is quite simple. This book is all about faff, and I’m all for a bit of faff, but not in the extremes that Stein seems to recommend it.

As a student cook, it’s important to remember what you’re really trying to accomplish when using a recipe book: a cheap tasty meal. It’s about using paprika instead of saffron, Oxo cubes instead of fresh stock, frozen meat instead of fresh. A good cookbook should provide you with inspiration so you can cut financial corners while making food that tastes great on a daily basis.

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