Look what’s cooking on campuses

PHILADELPHIA – Time was when a tiny refrigerator and a coil-heated teapot were the only kitchen appliances at a college student’s disposal. Fearful of fire in older buildings with overburdened wall sockets, wary school administrators outlawed even popcorn poppers and Crock-Pots.

New dorms and the rewiring of old ones have eliminated those worries. Microwave and toaster ovens are now standard equipment for many undergraduates who cook for fun as well as necessity. Armed with recipes from Mom or from food-oriented Web sites, dorm cooks are also using rice cookers, electric grills or full-size stoves in residence-hall kitchens to hone fledgling cooking skills.

As a result, some students have dramatically scaled back their school meal plans, while others have dropped them altogether. And meal plans themselves are changing to reflect declining demand.

As recently as five years ago, “a full meal plan was 21 meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – seven days a week,” said Peg Lacey, managing director of campus dining services at the University of Pennsylvania. Today, only 6,000 of Penn’s 17,500 students buy some type of meal plan, ranging from 19 dining-hall meals per week to as few as three a week.

Convenience stores, food trucks, a new on-campus food court called Houston Market and takeout establishments fill in the gaps for those who don’t pack a lunch or make their own dinners.

“Eighteen-year-olds are very discriminating diners today,” said Lacey, who observed similar trends while working in dining services at Columbia University and Cornell University. “Our students come to campus much more knowledgeable and very, very independent. Our students have been purchasing food on their own since they were 10, 12 years old.”

“Since I still have a small meal plan – seven meals per week – I usually cook during the weekends,” said Lael Cheung, 20, a chemistry and biology major from Cooper City, Fla., who lives in a single room at Stouffer College House on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Healthful foods that cook quickly top his shopping list, supplemented by care packages of baked goods and convenience products sent by his parents.

Cheung uses a rice cooker with a steamer basket to prepare rice, vegetables, bean thread noodles and precooked meats. Other residents keep Stouffer’s seven kitchens humming from early morning until after midnight, making quesadillas, sausages and peppers, pastas, Chinese dishes, cookies and brownies.

Students give various reasons for choosing to cook. Some have class, lab, athletics or job commitments that conflict with cafeteria hours. One complained that her Penn dining hall “murders vegetables.” Another likes to prepare kosher meals for himself and his brother. Some foreign students pine for familiar foods. A few said they enjoy cooking for friends.

Even students with minimal interest in cooking own microwaves and stock their rooms with heat-and-eat soups, pastas, popcorn, Hot Pockets and ramen noodles. Others, such as Lori Sass of St. Joseph’s University, learned to cook at home or during a summer job and continue to experiment.

Sass, who has worked for a west Trenton restaurant and a catering firm, can prepare steak strips, baked chicken and pasta dishes with ease.

“A lot of times, it’s just for myself,” said Sass, 20, a food marketing major who is considering going to culinary school after graduation. She and three roommates share an on-campus apartment with a kitchen but rarely eat together on weeknights because of divergent schedules. On weekends, Sass treats them to big brunches featuring omelettes and French toast.

St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Neumann College and the University of Pennsylvania are among the schools where new dorms are made up entirely of suite-style apartments, each with its own full-size range and refrigerator.

“I cook every single day, basically because it’s cheaper,” said Alexis Montalbano, 21, a pre-med major from Little Egg Harbor, N.J., whose apartment in Klekotka Hall at Villanova has, in addition to the basics, a microwave oven, a George Foreman grill, and a panini press.

Her specialties include chili, steaks and baked potatoes, breaded chicken cutlets, a family recipe for Italian red gravy that simmers for three days, and homemade chicken soup for friends who catch a cold.

Weekend cooking often yields enough leftovers for almost a week’s worth of dinners. But forget breakfast on weekdays: “I usually don’t wake up in time,” Montalbano said.

Some students move off-campus because they want more control over their food choices. Such was the case with Shanna Ford, a 22-year-old textile-design major at Moore College of Art and Design.

Sunday is Ford’s big cooking day. One friend comes over every week for hearty breakfasts of bacon and eggs with hash browns, Denver omelettes or fruit-filled crepes. Company always comes to Sunday dinner, too — one recent weekend, the main course was sweet-and-sour chicken and vegetables over Japanese-style rice, followed by brownies a la mode with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Cooking for a crowd is a snap: At home in Draper, Utah, Ford routinely prepares family meals for six or eight people.

“I always tell people, “If you can read, you can cook,’ ” she said. “But I had a roommate my freshman year who completely proved me wrong.”

Ford shops at Fresh Fields in Center City, but finds it expensive. A friend with a car drives her to another supermarket for items that Fresh Fields doesn’t carry, such as soft drinks, “regular” cereal and brownie mix.

Kevin McMonagle, a 21-year-old Villanova biology major from Bensalem, dropped his meal plan when he moved to an off-campus house last year. He vowed to learn basic cooking skills. In his first effort, he made a meat-loaf recipe suggested by his mother and was pleased with the results.

McMonagle is now comfortable enough to walk through the Super Fresh store in Ardmore without a shopping list, picking up whatever looks most appealing. He’s proud of his chicken Parmesan, which he marinates in Italian dressing and bakes with two cheeses and tomato sauce, as well as his seafood pasta and the teriyaki-marinated flank steak that sizzles on the outdoor grill when the weather warms up.

One of McMonagle’s five roommates enjoys making chili. As for the rest …”Chinese food and wings. That’s their steady diet,” he said. “Manhattan Bagel is the place of choice in the morning. They don’t even want to make cereal for themselves.”

Angela Cheng, a 20-year-old junior studying marketing and management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, cooks three meals a day at her off-campus house for the same reasons as Alexis Montalbano: She enjoys it, and she’s trying to save money.

Breakfast is cereal or a bacon, egg and cheese bagel. Lunch might be an omelette or sandwich, dinner a simple pasta and chicken or rice with fish. To avoid waste, she divides meat and fish purchases into single-serving portions as soon as she returns from shopping and tucks them into the freezer. She also freezes reduced chicken stock in ice-cube trays for use as a flavoring ingredient.

“Once or twice a week, I have friends over for dinner,” Cheng said. “At least once a semester, I’ll do a big dinner, a four- or five-course meal.”

Although Cheng’s parents own a Chinese restaurant near Minneapolis, she never cooked until she left home for college. Living in a tiny dorm room, with a rice cooker as her only appliance, she began experimenting with soups, vegetables, noodles and even fish.

Cheng’s housemates have kept partial meal plans. Cheng, who has none, has begun collecting cookbooks and compiling recipes.

It’s no surprise that Nick Arnerich, a sophomore in Temple University’s tourism and hospitality program, cooks dinner for six to 10 friends every Sunday at his off-campus apartment on City Avenue. His mother is a pastry chef and cooking instructor, his father once owned a restaurant, and Nick himself has spent the last three summers working at Wildwood, a fine-dining restaurant in Portland, Ore. He intends to pursue a restaurant career.

At Drexel University, even students majoring in other disciplines are clamoring to take culinary courses as electives, said Francis McFadden, director of the culinary arts program.

McFadden believes that cable TV’s Food Network has something to do with this, because it has turned so many chefs into pop-culture celebrities. But Drexel’s co-op program has also educated many student palates, he said, by placing students in jobs in Center City, where they can sample a wide variety of restaurants on their lunch hour.

On-campus interest in cooking is especially strong at the University of Pennsylvania, where informal cooking classes have proved popular in the dorms.Residents of Harnwell College House have attended demonstrations of Tex-Mex dishes, simple pasta sauces, and sturdy breakfasts, and later reprinted recipes in the dorm newsletter. Spruce College House residents were treated to a Dorm 101 cooking class before the Christmas holidays that taught them how to make candy and cookies using only a microwave and a refrigerator.

Hill College House hosts an annual international food festival where students from around the world prepare and share foods of their countries. Gregory College House and Stouffer College House have hosted progressive dinners in which residents go a-grazing floor to floor.

DuBois College House celebrates Valentine’s Day each year with a meal prepared entirely by students. Men and women do the cooking in alternate years.

“Everything is kept secret until the day of the event,” said house council president Desiree Nelson, a senior who remembers making vegetable and beef lasagnas the first year she took part. “You can only guess what the menu will be by the aroma seeping from beneath the locked kitchen door.”

The recipe for this year’s main course, slow-baked marmalade chicken with hollandaise sauce, was obtained by a house resident from – who else? – her mother.

On a recent Saturday, 12 students paid $2 each to learn how to make tiramisu in a student lounge at King’s Court/English House.

Linda Nurra, a 27-year-old doctoral candidate in English who was born in Sardinia and educated in Rome, led everyone through the layer-by-layer process, stressing the importance of Italian ladyfingers, fresh cheese and strong espresso.