Washington Cooks: The college kitcheneer
Even with enlightened meal plans that bring sustainable, organic, ethnic and vegan choices to the dining hall, college students end up facing the same constraints as other weeknight cooks of all stripes: limited time and a tight budget.
This year, Georgetown University junior Bethany Imondi graduated from a dorm room to an apartment on campus, with three roommates and a kitchen that had no microwave.
“Can you imagine?” she asks while giving a sweep-of-the-hand tour of the unadorned common space. “You don’t realize how much you need a microwave! For college students, it’s an essential thing: for making oatmeal, melting butter, for steamer bags of frozen vegetables. We had to get one of our own.”
Imondi belongs to that subset of achievers who rise early and go full-steam all day. The 19-year-old Rhode Island native will spend seven or eight hours in class (double major: English and government) and studying, plus one or two hours on extracurricular activities. She works part-time in the MBA program office and at a yoga studio in Georgetown. And though her diminutive frame might suggest otherwise, Imondi loves to cook and loves to eat: “At a party, I take three or four servings of everything,” she says. “Everybody asks me where I put it.”
She doesn’t care much for ramen noodles, those crinkled platforms of cheap, effortless cuisine, preferring to roast a sweet potato, assemble quesadillas or boil pasta for dinner. Lunch is a turkey sandwich or yogurt with fruit. Breakfast is usually a bowl of cereal or oatmeal. In her designated cupboard on this fall afternoon: ground cinnamon, chili powder, garlic powder, dried rosemary, bouillon cubes, balsamic vinegar, peach butter, sun-dried tomatoes, oatmeal, dried pastas, Nutella, Luna power bars. Mindful of cost, she says she’s not a big meat eater.
“I may do risotto for a dinner party,” Imondi says, her enthusiasm ramping up. “I really, really like salmon. I use dried bread crumbs and dried oregano to coat it, then bake it in the oven.” Her friends rotate evening meal duties among their small group.
Following food blogs such as Serious Eats, CHOW and Smitten Kitchen led her to answer a call over the summer for collegiate contributors to BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com, whose Brooklyn-based co-founders, Phoebe Lapine and Cara Eisenpress, were looking to expand options for their 20-something demographic.
“Bethany has good ideas,” Eisenpress says, citing Imondi’s posts as some of the most-viewed among their Small Kitchen College writers. “She did a guide to reinventing childhood classics like mozzarella sticks. For her ‘Portion Control Dilemma’ piece, she reached out to interview nutritionists and put together something useful for students.”
As Imondi stirs a sauce for baked mac and cheese, roommate Kate Dylewsky, 20, surveys the stove top on her way out. “I don’t cook ‘gourmet.’ And by that I mean I don’t put onions in my mac and cheese like Bethany does,” she says. “I make Kraft!” Imondi says college kids are more into baking than cooking; she’d rather do the latter.
With her mac and cheese in the oven, the cook preps ingredients for her favorite salad, which reminds her to mention the new, six-week, 11-vendor farmers market held Wednesday afternoons in front of Healy Hall. Imondi would like its customer base to stay strong; the fall market, whose season ends today, is underwritten by student-run groups at GU and managed by students. “I love fresh produce. This makes it so much easier than getting up to the [Georgetown] Safeway,” she says.
Her lightweight plastic-handled knife, from a set her mother won, ka-chinks against a textured-glass cutting board. Cherry tomatoes, basil, baguette and mozzarella are dispatched with care. Utensils, pots and pans are few in number, the kind you wouldn’t mind leaving behind by senior year.
Imondi’s kitchen skills date to high school days, when her mom asked her two daughters to help get weeknight meals on the table. “When I started cooking, I was all about sticking to recipes. Now I’ve learned to tailor them. If I don’t have spices or something else on hand, I’ll leave them out or use what I do have.”
She learned to rub cut garlic on bread in Florence, when she lived with an Italian family during her study abroad last spring. That was about the extent of any cucina lessons, however. “It was fun watching this Italian mama. She made it look so easy. But she moved too fast and didn’t measure a thing,” Imondi says. “We ate a different second course every night: veal, turkey, chicken, rabbit.”
Soon, the room-filling scent of cut basil and roasted tomatoes signals that the salad is ready to come together, except Imondi can find no receptacle large enough to handle the job. At a moment of impasse, neighbors from across the path in Village A walk by Imondi’s open door.
She darts out: “Hey, do you have a bowl I could borrow?”
A minute or two later, her roasted caprese panzanella is ready for sampling and for its close-up.
“See,” she says. “It always really works out. So dig in.”
Do you have questions about college cooking? Imondi will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.