I always tell people that if there was a Trader Joe’s near me when I was in college, life would have been different back then!
I recently had a chance to interview Zach Stafford, college cook extraordinaire, about cooking in small spaces. Whether a dorm room, a studio, or even temporary digs in a hotel or RV, there’s a skill to cooking efficiently in a small space. Zach is a treasure-trove of great ideas and easy recipes, taking full advantage of the glorious offerings at Trader Joe’s.
I tried two of Zach’s recipes this week: Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies with Cayenne Pepper (the cayenne adds just a touch of heat to balance out the sweetness of the chocolate, peanut butter, and sugar – they’re great and even my two young kids are now addicted to them) and Shrimp and Black Bean Chimichurri Soup (a blast of flavor from literally mixing 4 freezer and pantry items in one pot. Easy!) For the gluten-free crowd, both of these recipes happen to fit the bill.
Deana: What’s the advantage of cooking in a dorm room vs. hitting the dining hall?
Zach: The dining hall on many campuses is that great one stop shop for all your hunger needs; it’s fast, easy, no clean up necessary, however most of the time it’s not very healthy. The most popular foods I see my fellow college students and residents eat when opting out for on-campus food are items such as chicken tenders, pizza, burgers, tacos, and other high fat and sodium foods and rarely the fruits, veggies, and lean proteins that can truly help maximize a college lifestyle and body.
Cooking in your dorm room or dorm’s kitchen does two major things in my mind, which can only enrich your college experience:
- You have better control of your food and can make healthier choices.
- Making food is a great way to make new friends and build community in your new home.
Most of my residents, when first moving into the dorms, are always asking me questions around the infamous “Freshman 15” and how to avoid it. Those scary 15 lbs have a lot to do with late night snacking on high fatty foods which are found more predominately in the dining halls when you are a student and tired from studying and at your most vulnerable in regards to getting a slice of pizza or an ice cream sandwich while breaking from your studies. Focusing on eating at “home” will allow you to be more in control of what kinds of foods you have access to and will cut down the probability of snacking on those fatty foods which give your freshman year those extra 15 lbs.
When first moving into my dorm almost 4 years ago, before becoming a Resident Advisor, I remember meeting some of my closest dorm friends through cooking those first few weeks living on-campus. The first thing I made was Peanut Butter Brownie Cups, which were rich, moist, super easy for the small kitchens provided and reminded so many of the home-cooking they had grown nostalgic for. Baking is an amazing way to grab a whole floor’s attention due to the delicious smells that will most certainly permeate from the oven and down the halls, provoking interest and bringing people out of their rooms and into your kitchen. Although this dish wasn’t the “healthiest” per se (health is not only about fat or caloric intake, but more importantly moderation – there is no “bad food”) it did help break the ice with all my fellow first-year students, helping me make some new friends and even show off my cheap gourmet skills.
Deana: What are some of the tricks to cooking in a small, limited space like a dorm room or a studio apartment? (PS. We’re going to need that Peanut Butter Brownie Cups recipe) 😉
Zach: One of my biggest concerns when doing my weekly grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s is storage! For all of you that have or currently live in a dorm, or even a small studio apartment, you know how hard it is to successfully store your frozen foods due to smaller fridges and even making sure your dry foods don’t take up too much room where items such as books, clothing, or other dorm needs could be kept. Keeping your food at the appropriate temperatures and environments is just as important as the cooking – no one wants to get salmonella poisoning from chicken while cramming for finals. Buying food on a weekly basis for a weekly appetite will help cut down on wasted space in your food storage areas and push you to focus on eating at home, saving money and allowing healthier options!
Just as important with storage is planning your meals and knowing the steps you will have to take while making dishes in order to cut down on the use of multiple dishes and counter/stove space. For instance, when making something as simple as Garlic Chicken with Veggies, take out one skillet and cook chicken on one side of the pan, allowing it to cook thoroughly (8-10 mins, 4-5 mins on each side). While simultaneously at around the 6 minute marker throw in the veggies on the side the chicken has not been cooked on. This method allows for a one skillet dinner that lets the seasoning from your chicken to marry into the veggies giving them a flavor that will be in sync with the chicken and is FAST!
Deana: Is cooking equipment generally allowed in a dorm room – like a table-top burner or rice cooker or a crock pot?
Zach: Cooking equipment is allowed in some dorms while in others it is not, that is really up to the discretion of the University in which you attend. Most of the time this is dependent on the style of hall in which you live in, some Universities have in apartment style halls with their own private kitchens, others have community style halls with community kitchens, and then some have no cooking spaces provided at all. From my own work with different Universities, the main determinate for what is allowed is whether the cooking equipment has an exposed heating source (toasters, table-top burners, etc.) due to fire codes enforced by the University and City in which the school is located.
Deana: What about microwaves?
Zach: Microwaves are almost always allowed in dorm rooms, and can supply a plethora of different dorm culinary adventures. From baking cupcakes to doing your own version of Ramen Noodle Pad Thai, microwaves are a fantastic way to have a controlled and safe heating source in your dorm room that allows for lots of different kinds of foods to be made at your own convenience. The website http://www.microwaverecipe.net/ is a fantastic place to find lots of different things to cook in your microwave, and I am sure we can all give these recipes a much needed Trader Joe’s twist!
If you have no cooking equipment at all in your dorm, no fears! There are great healthy recipes that you can do and for cheap! Using Trader Joe’s Canned Chicken you can mix together a delicious chicken salad with dried fruits, cashews, edamame, low-fat yogurt, Dijon mustard, and few others items – place it on some great bread of your choice (I personally love a great 9-grain bread) add spinach and some Swiss chesse, and you have a great lunch sandwich that’s healthy and impressive.
Using similar ingredients that are listed above you can turn those same ingredients into a delicious salad by taking the spinach and topping it with edamame, dried fruits, cashews, or whatever else you can find and adding my new current obsession; the already cooked and packaged Trader Joe’s Chicken that comes in flavors such as Spicy Lime and others, topping your salad off with some nice protein.
With cooking in small spaces, I most of the time run to salads for my mid-day meals due to the healthy goodness and flexibility one gets with making a salad. My biggest secret with my salads is using Balsamic Vinegar as the dressing; it’s cheap, lasts forever, is low calorie, and gives your salad a nice spicy-bodied flavor that will surely give your lunch a much needed kick.
Deana: I love to have leftovers, but we have a lot of singles (who don’t!) asking us how they can cook efficiently for one.
I totally agree! Leftovers can sometimes be more of a hassle than a help when cooking for one, in regards to both space and appetite (I ate fried rice way too much my freshmen year of college, way too much!). When going grocery shopping I always look at the serving sizes on the back of the packages. If the item has more than 5 servings in it of whatever I am buying, this of course excludes things such as flour, sugar, rice, etc., I will not buy it unless I am cooking for a large group of people.
Starting to reduce the amount of food you buy before you cook is a major part of cutting out leftovers. If you only like eating 3 apples a week, than only buy 3 apples and not an entire bushel – you will save money, save space in your fridge, and even help make the world a little greener by reducing waste. Many of my recipes I hope to share with all of you will be tailored to the single cooker, single not as in relationship status, but more for the person that may just want to make a nice meal for themselves – no sharing necessary.
Deana: Do you encourage college students to band together and cook meals for a group, rotating cooking duty over the course of the week? What works and what doesn’t?
Zach: Yes, yes, and YES! This is one my favorite things to do as both a resident and a Resident Advisor in my dorm. By cooking as a group you save money through splitting the cost multiple ways, while simultaneously bonding with your fellow students and taking a break from your busy study schedules. Even if you are doing something as simple as a pancake breakfast between 5 people on your floor, you can get a box of instant pancake mix (there are some fantastic wheat mixes out there) pick up some cheap and fabulous produce from your local Trader Joe’s and spend only around $5 split five ways, making your breakfast only $1 a person. This saves money, builds a great community, and gives your college experience one extra memory to think about when small spaces and bunked beds aren’t your reality anymore.
Shrimp and Black Bean Chimichurri Soup
This hearty, thick, and flavorful soup is a one-pot dish made with 4 Trader Joe’s ingredients: shrimp, Roasted Red Pepper Soup, Chimichurri Rice, and canned black beans. These freezer and pantry items can be kept on hand for an easy meal anytime. Enjoy with crusty bread.
- 1 (16 oz) bag Trader Joe’s Frozen Shrimp (cooked or uncooked), thawed
- 1 (15 oz) can Trader Joe’s Black Beans, drained
- 1 (32 oz) container Trader Joe’s Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
- 1 (16 oz) bag frozen Trader Joe’s Chimichurri Rice
- Salt and pepper (optional)
- If using cooked shrimp, skip to step 3, adding shrimp to pot with other ingredients.
- If using uncooked shrimp, place medium size pot over medium heat; add a 1 tsp of cooking oil (olive or vegetable, your choice). Add shrimp and cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat or until fully cooked; add a dash of salt and pepper to season.
- Add Chimichurri rice and black beans to pot; stir and allow to cook for 3-5 mins.
- Pour in Roasted Red Pepper Soup, stirring to fully incorporate with rice.
- Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Zach: Personally, I love this soup cold – especially after it has been able to sit with all the delicious seasonings that are in the Chimichurri rice and veggies. This aspect of the soup makes it super flexible and amazing for small space cooking, you can eat it at any temperature and it stores very well!
Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies with Cayenne Pepper
Delicious and addictive peanut butter cookies with chocolate pieces and a touch of vanilla and spice. The 1 tsp of cayenne pepper may seem like a lot, but it adds just a touch of heat that’s a great balance to the sweetness of the chocolate and peanut butter.
- 1 cup Trader Joe’s Organic Peanut Butter (Smooth)
- 1 egg
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper (use 1/2 tsp or less for kids or mild palates)
- Pinch salt
- 1 (3.5 oz) bar dark chocolate or 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350° degrees F.
- Put sugar in bowl, add egg to bowl, and mix until a pale yellow color and a smooth consistency.
- Add salt and cayenne pepper to sugar mixture and stir until incorporated. Add peanut butter and mix until a smooth dough texture (dough will rapidly thicken). Do not over mix or dough will become crumbly.
- Break up chocolate into smaller pieces and fold into peanut butter dough.
- Roll dough into 1 inch balls and place on un-greased cookie sheet.
- Bake for 8-10 minutes, reaching a light brown color.
- Let cookies cool for 5 minutes before consuming, this allows the cookie to settle and become fully done.
The organic peanut butter should have already been mixed in the jar and been refrigerated to allow for it to have a thicker consistency. If your peanut butter or cookie dough seems too runny put in the fridge for up to 30 minutes to chill.