Cooking for college kids

Cereal for dinner again? Here's a cookbook to help you break that freshman habit.

As an 11-year-old, my first online instant messenger screen name was ChefAmy7. Nine years later, I've long since ditched my early dream of becoming a chef. As a Louisiana State University junior, my average weekday meal usually consists of whatever I can pick up and consume in less than 30 minutes.

When the Monitor asked me to test a new cookbook for college students by throwing a dinner party, I readily accepted the challenge. Amy Madden's "Look, Dude, I Can Cook!: Four Years of College Cooking Made Easy" served as the inspiration for my voyage into the kitchen.

I spoke with Ms. Madden by phone just hours before my guests (who would also serve as assistant chefs) were to arrive. We discussed the culinary ability of the average college student.

"Kids today are definitely more interested in cooking than when I was in college," Madden said. "You've got all these cooking shows on now since the Food Network [launched]. I think kids are becoming more and more interested in cooking and finding out that it's really not that difficult. You can make it as difficult or easy as you want it to be."

Madden says there's a potential cook in every student, but the challenge remains in finding time or money to hone one's skills. She says when a student arrives on campus as a freshman, he or she may fall into bad culinary habits that become difficult to break.

"Having the time is essential, and so is having the right utensils and pantry items," she says.

Madden's recipes are split into four levels: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. As you'd expect, the recipes get more difficult as you progress through the book.

I told her I was planning to test her recipes with several friends later that evening. She recommended cornflake-crusted chicken fingers, Caprese salad, mashed potatoes, and chocolate brownies. I decided to make an executive chef decision and substitute the twice-baked cheese potatoes for the garlic mashed potatoes.

With just a few hours to prepare, I headed to the supermarket with one goal: Get in and out as quickly as possible.

Madden's cookbook is generally easy to follow and uses ingredients found on most supermarket shelves. Oddly, on just about every aisle I was approached by workers asking if I needed assistance. I guess holding a "Look, Dude, I Can Cook!" book was the equivalent of a distress signal.

As I was scouring various bags of flour in the baking aisle, I asked a worker about the difference between two types of flour. He, in return, asked what I would be baking. "Brownies," I said. Without missing a beat, he pointed down the aisle and declared, "Why would you make brownies when you could just buy them in the box kits? They're all over there." My thoughts exactly. But I stuck to my recipe and threw a bag of all-purpose flour in the shopping cart.

It was 7:15 p.m. by the time everyone gathered in my kitchen, ready to cook. Four cooks in the kitchen (all sharing one cookbook!) proved to be a bit cramped. I assigned each friend a recipe at their professed skill level. The most advanced of our crew, senior Arman Sheybani, took the stuffed-potato recipe, while less-experienced junior Lauren Coe prepared the cornflake-crusted chicken. .

"I didn't really cook at all when I was a freshman because it was too inconvenient living in a dorm," says Mr. Sheybani. "After moving into an apartment, my sophomore year, I cooked about every two weeks. My junior year I cooked about once a week, but normally it was chicken and pasta."

Sheybani's favorite culinary creation: stuffed salmon with ricotta cheese, spinach, and mushrooms. Grill it, he says, for a nutritious and easy midweek meal.

His twice-baked potatoes were easily the most highly rated dish of the evening, but a few improvisations were made along the way. An overeager cook dumped the whole bag of grated cheese on top of the potatoes while declaring: "A little cheese never hurt anyone!" We all agreed it was divine.

At the end of the night, as we devoured brownies warm from the oven, we sat around the kitchen table and discussed our summer adventures, from golf course caddy mishaps to tales of summer camp adventures. The best part of the night was not cooking or even tasting (sorry, Ms. Madden!), but rather the opportunity to reconnect. Is it realistic to think we'd spend more than two hours preparing a four-dish meal multiple times a week? Probably not. But the quote of the night: "A little [insert ingredient of your choice] never hurt anyone!" will long prompt laughs as we recall our culinary mishaps and memories from our evening in the kitchen.

Twice-baked cheesy potatoes

Difficulty level: Junior year

3 medium russet potatoes, scrubbed, each pierced several times with fork

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup chopped chives

3 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, chopped

1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake all potatoes in microwave on high until tender, about 10 minutes per side, turning once after five minutes. Wrap the potatoes in foil, and let them rest for 10 minutes. Cut potatoes lengthwise. Let cool slightly. Cut an edge around the inside of each potato half.

Scoop cooked potato flesh into a medium bowl, leaving a potato shell 1/4-inch thick. Add butter, milk, sour cream, and chives to potato flesh in bowl and mash well. Stir in bacon, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, salt, and pepper. Spoon potato mixture into shells. Place potatoes on baking sheet. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheddar cheese over tops of potato halves.

Bake potatoes in preheated oven until filling is heated through and shells are crisp (about 30 to 40 minutes).

Low-fat and vegetarian variation: Eliminate bacon or substitute turkey or soy bacon; light margarine for butter; light or fat-free sour cream for regular sour cream; low-fat cheddar for regular cheddar.

Head chef: Arman Sheybani, senior

The verdict: Loaded with flavor, but preparation is a bit lengthy.

"I'm not even really into potatoes, but these were good." – Ryan Duncan, junior

Caprese salad

Difficulty level: Sophomore year

2 tomatoes, sliced

2 rounds of fresh mozzarella cheese (usually found packed in water in the deli cheese case)

1 cup chopped, fresh basil leaves

Salad dressing (recipe below)

Slice tomatoes and place on a plate. Slice mozzarella cheese and place one piece of cheese atop each tomato slice. Sprinkle chopped basil leaves over the tomatoes and cheese. Drizzle with dressing. Serves 2 to 3.

Salad dressing:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk all ingredients together until blended.

Head chef: Ryan Duncan, junior

The verdict: Dressing was good, but the cheese lacked flavor. The supermarket was out of mozzarella rounds, so we substituted water-packed mozzarella balls instead.

"I put a lot of salt on the cheese, and it tasted much better." – Meagan Stewart, junior

Cornflake-crusted chicken fingers

Difficulty level: Freshman year

3 boneless chicken breasts or a package of boneless breast tenders (about 12 ounces)

3 cups cornflakes

1 stick butter

1 teaspoon KC Masterpiece seasoning for chicken or regular seasoned salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. If using boneless whole chicken breasts, cut chicken crosswise into pieces. If using boneless breast tenders, use as is.

Place the cornflakes in a large zip-lock bag. Make sure there is no air in the bag. With the bag closed, crush the flakes using your fingers or a glass. Once crushed, place the cornflakes on a plate.

Melt butter in a medium bowl and add the KC Masterpiece seasoning.

Dip each piece of chicken into the butter and then into the cornflakes. Press the chicken into the cornflakes to make sure all sides are coated, and place them on a baking sheet. Bake the chicken for 25 minutes. Serves 3 to 4.

Head chef: Lauren Coe, junior

The verdict: Good, crunchy texture, but needs more flavor.

"My favorite part was crushing the cornflakes. That was pretty fun." – Lauren Coe.

"It turned out better than I thought it would be. I associate cornflakes with breakfast, so it kind of weirded me out. But I guess if it was frosted flakes, it would have been weird." – Arman Sheybani, senior

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