Like any other 13-year old, there was no activity more appealing to me than falling asleep on the couch to the voice of Ted Allen announcing for the twentieth time that night: “Open your baskets.” My mother is a trained chef, my little sister a “chef-in-training,” and me, a bite-first-ask-later type child, so it was no surprise Food Network’s Chopped was the show of choice in our household. Every mystery basket seemingly more complex than the last had me asking my mom how she would pair a fermented scallop with reindeer pâté, or cactus pear, or squid ink. As she is the (world’s best) chef, she’d answer with cooking techniques I had never heard of. I was convinced I could never cook something out of nothing and was content knowing as long as I lived at home that I would never have to try.
Now here we are in college, where meal swipes are worth $16 and the endless feasts of the dining halls have lost their charm. With no desire to risk it at Palladium or beg for bread bowls at Kimmel, I have turned the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls into my personal Chopped basket. Dinner is better when it comes from my kitchen; here is how it usually goes down:
Selecting the Dining Hall
Familiarity with the strengths of each dining hall is essential in making the right selection. For our freshman audience, our commuters, and those of you who have pledged your meal plans to Chick-fil-A, here is the rundown of my top two all-you-care-to-eat establishments:
There is a soft spot in my heart for Downstein. We grew close over omelets, popsicles, and the startling renovation of “healthy eating” this past summer, as it was the only dining hall open for the majority of the faux semester. Downstein boasts the best salad bar, complete with various leafy greens and a generous selection of toppings. The occasional vegetable sautés done on the hot top is similarly unrivaled. The Downstein meat selection is questionable, though grilled chicken is always available in the event you have an hour to spare to wait for it. In short, skip the meat but go to pick up raw veggies you can easily steam, roast, or toss alongside virtually anything in your fridge.
Controversially, my other recommendation is Lipton. It is a treasure. It is worth the walk. The grass truly is greener on the other side of Washington Square Park. Not only is the wait for grilled chicken a reasonable amount of time, but the general meat selection is both identifiable and surprisingly good. Unfortunately, Lipton’s salad bar is no competitor to Downstein as it lacks variety, but the dining hall does display strong variety in much else, notably in its rack of off-beat spices. There is also always an odd figure among the food — chili lime chicken, guacamole, Thai coconut curry soup — that makes it an intriguing location to think up a recipe for dinner. It is worth noting, too, unlike Downstein, you serve yourself meaning you can really load up the little white take-out box until it falls apart. For the purpose of this article, upon deliberation of NYU’s finest, I decided to swipe into Lipton.
Amassing the Goods
Take-out box in hand, your first order of business is to scope out the night’s selection. Generally, I look for a protein first. Preferably a protein that is whole (like bone-in pieces of chicken) and lightly seasoned. Unless the pre-existing seasoning of said protein sounds particularly appetizing to you, you want to be able to manipulate the flavors with your own cooking. Not only that, but you want the different ingredients you choose to taste good together, so a neutral base is the way to go. For this excursion, my options were baked cod or beef stew, neither of which sounded appealing. Instead, I opted for a reliable piece of grilled chicken.
Grain time. This is arguably one of the more consequential choices of the dish. Consider your protein: how could it be seasoned or cut? Best with pasta, noodles, rice or something in-between, like quinoa? If you aren’t sure, pasta is always safe. It’s hard to mess up. On this day, I opted for rice noodles instead. Cooked already and totally plain- the perfect ingredient. The noodles were the type used in pad Thai, a popular Thai noodle dish stir-fried in a sweet peanut sauce, so boom — there was my inspo.
Having chosen your protein and your grain, your creative thoughts should begin to flow. I shop from the salad bar last because these are the easiest ingredients to incorporate. (Pro tip: if you don’t have olive oil at home, pour a bit from the dressing station onto the veggies to help the cooking process.) For my dining hall pad Thai (creative freedom implied) — I chose peppers, onions, edamame, and tiny cubed tofu. Sometimes I load up on other vegetables too, like spinach, to keep in my fridge, but I only took what I needed for one dinner that night.
Keeping in mind what you already have at your dorm — go crazy with the extras. I grabbed two of the peanut butter packages from the bagel bar, filled a lid with sriracha so it wouldn’t spill in the box, and found brown sugar by the granola. There is always rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil in my pantry, so I skipped looking for those.
Channeling Your Inner Chopped Personality
After all your hard work foraging for ingredients, the cooking part is simple enough. The pad Thai took less than 15 minutes in essentially five steps. Realizing I did not want hunks of onion and peppers in my dish, I chopped those into smaller pieces. I also cut the chicken. Then came time to make the sauce, as you want it to be ready before you put the veggies on heat. My mother has taught me a thing or two about flavors, so I mixed together a few things I thought would taste, vaguely, like that of pad Thai. A dash of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar (to replace lime), brown sugar, and a scoop of peanut butter. I added here and there, disregarding an exact measurement of each ingredient. Afterward, I warmed some oil in a pan and tossed in my vegetables. Once the veggies were halfway cooked, I pushed them to the side and scrambled an egg in the remainder of the pan. Then came the chicken and noodles (already cooked, thank you, Lipton). And finally, the sauce.
Remember: The NYU dining experience is your basket —get creative. Try crescent rolls from Sidestein filled with apples and brown sugar from its neighbor downstairs. Or combine spinach and mushrooms from the salad bar with the lone tomato in the back of your fridge into an egg frittata. Though the basket might seem daunting at times, making stir-fry cannot be harder than some of the other things you are doing here at NYU.
In college, especially a college in a large city, it can often feel overwhelming just trying to keep yourself alive (i.e. remembering to sleep, eat, and socialize). Though, sure, my dining hall pad Thai was not the best dish I have ever eaten, being able to cook an edible meal makes me feel just a little bit more independent. More adult, too. It also reminds me of my mom (hi mom and her Facebook friends), which reminds me of my younger self. And then, I'm reminded that through a plate of peanut butter noodles, I am growing.
With that, you only have a few semesters on the clock. From myself and Ted Allen: Good luck, chefs.