Back to school is here. For students, that means less time to cook and more time crying. We had the incredible privilege this spring/summer of having a college-aged friend (or two) stay with us which has me thinking about ways to help them get into the habit of cooking at home and eating well while not spending a lot of money or time to do so. This is the first installment in a periodic series called Vegan University Cooking. These recipes will take less than half an hour to prepare and cook and will focus on small portion sizes, all with low cost ingredients (and absolutely no ramen). Take note: this series is for college students who want to cook but don’t want to spend all their spare time in their tiny kitchens. I’ve never lived in a dorm, so I truly have no idea how to make anything on a radiator. First things first, a bright and colourful stir fry – perfect for using up any spare bell peppers hanging about the bottom of your crisper or that bag of discount peppers for $1 you found on your way home. Using a stir fry oil that has some flavour built in allows you to save a step, while still making tasty food.
Cooking is an unbelievably valuable life skill and you’ll be so much better off once you master some basic skills and have a few signature recipes with which to knock all your friends’ socks off. By the way, if you feel you need more protein with a dish like this, consider using brown rice on the side or throwing in a handful of chickpeas or some diced tofu.
Sweet Pepper and Snow Pea Stir Fry
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
1 teaspoon stir fry oil (recipe)
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced into thin strips
1 bell pepper, or equivalent, sliced into thin strips
Large handful snow peas
Half a fresh tomato, cut into strips (optional)
1 green onion, sliced thin
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Begin by heating the stir fry oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions. To clean the bell peppers, slice in half and remove the white parts and top, rinse to wash away any seeds and then slice. Add the bell peppers, snow peas, tomato and green onions and stir to combine. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, add the garlic and lemon juice. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks, before tasting and adjusting the salt and pepper. Serve hot with rice or whatever you like.
Stocking Your Pantry
Keeping some staples in your cupboard will allow you to cook on days you might not otherwise have the time or energy. Buy things on sale. Go to otherwise unknown stores, such as taking a trip to your local Chinatown. Keep your favourite ingredients at eye level, or even out on the counter, so you remember you have it! Keep snack foods higher up and covered up, so you’re more likely to cook for yourself. Fresh foods should be bought more often, so get into a rhythm that works for you (and your roommates).
Herbs and Spices
They allow you to season your food, obviously. Most importantly, they transform those vegetables you hated as a kid into something delicious and the tofu people scoff at into a tremendously tasty source of protein and fun. You probably shouldn’t keep more spices than you’d use in a year, particularly because dried herbs will lose their oils and thus a lot of their flavour. However, I’m not going to get all fussy on you; use what you have! My favourite place in Montreal for herbs and spices was Branche d’Olivier. In Toronto, we’ve been using Tutti Frutti in Kensington Market, but soon my husband’s work is moving and we’ll have to switch it up. My best recommendation for a place to buy them is to not use your usual supermarket, as they’re very expensive. Find a bulk place! Or go to a Chinese market! Or an Indian grocery! Or a health food store that packages them themselves. Just avoid the spices in jars, as they carry at least a $5 price tag here per piece, where you should be aiming for a $1 or so. My spice list is based on what I use, though most of them are also very common. You won’t see basil on my list, but that’s because my husband is allergic, so I use a lot of tarragon instead.
As bonus, for the serious cook:
Cloves, whole or ground
Smoked paprika (hot or sweet)
Dry mustard powder
Thai curry paste, any colour
Miso, any colour
Oils and Fats
You shouldn’t keep oil for too, too long, so buy as small a bottle as you can reasonably use in a couple of months. There’s nothing worse than the taste of rancid oil.
Non-dairy margarine (get sticks, if available, if you plan on baking at all)
Sunflower oil, or any neutral oil such as sunflower or corn
Extra virgin olive oil
Protein, Noodles, Pasta, Rice & Grains
Delicious carbs keep your energy levels up. A package of pasta will stay good for years, as far as I know, as long as it’s sealed, so buy when on sale or as you wish! Get what you like, you’ll eat them on the side of whatever vegetables you’re having and be so happy they were in the cupboard. Brown rice is a little bit of a time commitment, but it’s really very nice and doesn’t get the attention it should. Brown basmati rice takes less time to cook than other varieties of brown rice. If you think you’ll want to make risotto or sushi, get a small bag of short grain rice, as well. You should be looking for rice and noodles in bulk sections or at Asian grocery stores, as they’ll have the best prices. Pasta is always on sale somewhere!
Pasta, in assorted shapes
Noodles, any kind you like
Brown rice, long grain
White rice, short and long grain
Oatmeal, or other hot cereal
Flour, for coating tofu, mushrooms or baking
Silken tofu, for fried rice
Dried beans and pulses, such as lentils, split peas and pinto beans
Canned and preserved foods
Having a couple of cans of food on hand will let you throw together a meal, without having to put much effort in. You can always use dried beans when you’re thinking ahead, but for those days when you’ve got a never ending to-do list, a can of chickpeas goes a long, long way. Keeping some canned vegetables around allows you to throw together a soup faster than you ever imagined possible! Not all canned vegetables are especially palatable, so don’t get canned peas thinking they’re going to be sweet and wonderful like fresh or frozen. Taste and see what you like!
A can or two of your favourite beans, such as black beans or chick peas
A can or two of baked beans
Several cans of tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste
A can or two of corn niblets
A can or two of baby corn, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, if you like stir fries
A can or two of pineapple
And I don’t mean pizza. They are particularly great for the winter, if you live in a cold place, when produce is not bountiful. All frozen fruit is tasty and most vegetables are, too. A morning smoothie can help you get your fruit for the day, while keeping costs down. Get what you can and keep it in the freezer for a vegetable side that requires no chopping and three or four minutes cooking time. You can also roast frozen vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, for a delicious, rich side which takes no more effort than turning on the oven, tossing them on a sheet with a little oil and salt and cooking until golden. They are an excellent, easy, cost efficient way to get enough fruits and vegetables to keep you feeling great.
Condiments and Sauces
Versatile! You can make your own sauces or just have something to dip your Gardein in.
Mustard, any kind you like
Ketchup (really not my favourite thing)
Hot sauce, your favourite (mine is Cholula)
Jarred teriyaki sauce, or any other sauce you might like