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Student life . . . takeaways, alcohol, nightclubs? Never really my cup of tea - I don't mind fish and chips but I was too careful with my money for them to be more than an occasional treat. No, when I went to uni, I cooked proper meals - maybe I had too much time or maybe I was more organised than I realised - so a few weeks into my first year, I was in the nearest Waterstones looking for textbooks and somehow moved to the cookery section. And why did I buy this book when there were several other "student" recipe books? Two reasons, really - at £6.99, it was the cheapest option I could see, and it had a recipe for Yorkshire pudding. (Which I'd always wanted to master.)
It's a roughly square book, about 2cm thick, with a glossy cover - the sort of thing you'd just be able to wipe over with a damp cloth if food was spilt (provided the cloth wasn't too damp) without ruining it. In fairness, the laminate isn't the first thing about The Student Cookbook that you'd notice - the bright orange and sunflower yellow with big white dots filled with words like "comfort", "cheap", "quick", "fast", "mates" arranged in a grid on the cover might be, though. Being quite short (probably 14-15cm square) it's a handy size for keeping in a kitchen corner, in your bedroom or even a cupboard - which has its advantages for students who find themselves with a share of the kitchen that runs to two cupboards, a shelf in the fridge and perhaps a whole freezer drawer if they're lucky. I always kept mine in my room but it would easily have fitted in my cupboard if I'd been able to find space.
The first thing I liked - although I don't think I noticed it before buying - is that the introduction is written in a joking, "young" style and it takes half of this single page of writing to get past descriptions of packing clothes and finding the Students' Union before mentioning cooking. It's relatable and practical and, although I wasn't into nights of drinking and living on takeaways, I recognise that I wasn't a "typical student" and that the editors want to appeal to everybody.
I could cook a meal with reasonable accuracy when I arrived at university, but I couldn't judge cooking times well so my typical meal up to that point was overcooked fish fingers, undercooked peas and slightly lumpy mashed potato. But some students have never cooked at all - so The Student Cookbook really goes back to basics. As well as advice to shop sensibly and not get carried away with buying more food than you can store just because it's on offer, it suggests ingredients which are "perfect partners" ie. tomato and basil, chilli and garlic, and has a brief guide to kitchen essentials (differently sized knives, a mixing bowl, chopping board), kitchen hygiene (storing uncooked and cooked meat on separate shelves in the fridge and only reheating food once) and useful dry goods to keep in (pasta, spices, tinned tomatoes etc). Some paragraphs could - to students who are capable of basic cooking, or those who try to eat cheaply and healthily already - feel patronising, although I think the book tries to come across as helpful. If I'd come to university and couldn't even prepare a meal from scratch, I'd have appreciated the "general knowledge" the book contains.
A handy two-page spread concludes the introduction, sectioned into All-day breakfast, One-pot wonders, TV dinners and Brain food which lists a few ideas for each option (Basic Omelette in the first selection, Lamb Casserole with Red Wine and Herbs amongst the third) with relevant page numbers. I don't know if this is to provide inspiration or to make it easier to find popular meals but I think it's a clever idea because each list serves a different purpose, whether a quick snack or something to slow-cook while you work. It's practical, listing frozen mixed vegetables, ready-to-cook pizza bases and tinned chopped tomatoes - I liked this because (with a few exceptions, generally for big multi-portion meals that wouldn't be made on the spur of the moment) it's realistic about the time a student might spend preparing ingredients and simplifies recipes where possible.
Each chapter covers a certain style of food - there's one for cheaper options, a vegetarian collection, "meals for mates" (with more adventurous ideas such as Marinated Chicken Kebabs, Roast Lamb with Rosemary and even Spinach, Parma Ham and Egg Pizza), sweet options, cocktails and even a range of smoothie ideas (if you're a student with a blender). What I like about the book is that - with the exception of the smoothies - every meal requires only basic utensils and ingredients. Using the Parma Ham Pizza as an example, the introductory paragraph realistically offers bacon or ordinary ham as a substitute, suggesting that the cook might save Parma ham for very special occasions. Each recipe fits on one page, with about a third of the inner edge of the page shaded yellow and the middle - recipe - section just plain white. The yellow column lists the quantity of ingredients and how to prepare them (ie. 8 slices Parma ham, cut into strips) so organised cooks can prepare it in advance, and disorganised cooks (ie. me) can follow it as they go along. The key details are eye-catching - bearing in mind there are no illustrations at all. The entire content is printed in tomato sauce red "typewriter style" text, and the ingredients column is separated from the recipe details by a set of six circles As with the book cover, these are about the size of a 10 pence coin - the top three show preparation time, cooking time (in minutes) and how many the dish serves. The lower three - arrestingly - suggest the use or mood of the dish so, for Roast Lamb, you see "share", "posh" and "fab". The main recipes are clear but informal - "add a good glug of gravy" and "chuck some of the onions and peppers" being typical phrases.
I can't fault much about The Student Cookbook - it strikes me that even a novice cook in freshers' week could become a competent chef with its help - but I think a few recipes could have been skipped (handy though they are) in favour of interesting ideas for sandwich fillings or toasties, as I tended to be the kind of student who would keep working until nine at night then realise I was ravenous and it was too late to cook when I needed to eat. So a few more recipes for genuinely quick snacks would be a good addition - in fairness there are a range of relatively quick ideas such as Grilled Chicken Sandwich which involves five minutes preparation and ten minutes cooking. I suppose it could be modified as the occasion (and the available ingredients) require.
Realistically, the average student probably won't roast and stuff a 10lb turkey - I imagine some of these ideas are supplied either for flats or student houses where everybody's happy to contribute towards a collective grocery shop and where everyone likes the same food (or asks friends over for dinner), or the publishers are anticipating that students will keep this book after graduating and getting their own place - I certainly think the recipes are suited to post-student life. Additionally, anybody who likes pictures of the finished dish might prefer other options.
Overall, I'd recommend this to anyone who is new to cooking (whether a student or not) as the recipes suit different occasions and a lot are basic enough that you can add your own signature touches to personalise them.
I am going back for my 2nd year at uni next week and last year my cooking was pretty disastrous. this year i have a proper kitchen and am determined to cook proper meals. this could be really helpful, thanks
kimbahop 25.08.2009 23:54
We have this in our flat but I generally find that everything in it is waaaay to expensive for my budget!