Beyond ramen

After the fishing boat comes in with its catch, the fish are filleted. The scraps that are left over make a delicious and extremely economical fish broth. Phone ahead to find out when scraps will be available.

Story and photos by Katherine Larson

After the first flush of excitement of moving into the college dormitory and exploring the manifold options that the college dining service offers, there inevitably arrives a time when the sheen wears off.

Enough with cafeteria food. Enough with dining services. A college student wants to cook.


It might involve cost; cooking for oneself can be cheaper. It might involve nostalgia; cooking for oneself can evoke the flavors of home. It might involve necessity; dining hall hours are limited, schedules can be intractable, hunger can arise at odd hours.

Whatever the reason, the dormitory dweller who wants to cook typically has two choices: cook in one’s room, or cook in the dorm kitchen.

Northern Michigan University is particularly well equipped with dorm kitchens. Every dormitory boasts a kitchen with a full-size refrigerator, oven, stove, sink, counter space and kitchen table. At the front desk of each dorm, students are invited to check out the key to the kitchen plus basic cooking equipment along with a box of cleaning supplies.

Sarah Naracon, a fourth-year pre-med student working in NMU’s Office of Housing and Residential life, took full advantage of her dorm kitchen. She started early: “My first semester, I was feeling homesick. My cousin surprised me with a visit, and she brought everything I’d need to make homemade cinnamon rolls. So some friends and I took it all down to the kitchen and baked them, then shared the rolls with everyone on the hall. It felt great.”

More recently, Naracon reminisced, “One finals week, it was really stressful: I was studying for my organic chemistry exam, but also had committed to bake for my youth group’s Christmas party. I ended up making three whole cheesecakes from scratch while simultaneously studying organic chemistry. My friends thought I was crazy. But it worked out well—both the cheesecakes and, happily, the exam.”

The advantage of the dorm kitchen is the comprehensive nature of the available tools. The disadvantage is that the would-be cook has to share them with about 50 fellow dorm residents.

Plus, of course, some forethought is required. If the sudden passion for good food strikes at 2 a.m., the front desk’s key will not be available.

Accordingly, many students add cooking equipment to their dorm décor, most commonly mini-fridges and microwave ovens.  Some students invest in rice cookers, crockpots, or electric tea kettles. For safety reasons, any appliance with an open hot surface (hot plates, portable grills, etc.) is, of course, forbidden.

So there is the hungry student, and there is whatever equipment might be available. Now, what to cook?

I offer three ideas here, each of them based on the conviction that no one deserves to eat that chemically-infused tasteless mush that masquerades as microwavable frozen food.

My first offering assumes that hunger pangs have overtaken the student without any particular planning, but that the student has had the forethought to lay in some basic supplies in anticipation of this possible event.

My second offering assumes that the hungry student has planned ahead enough to procure some meal-specific supplies, but still prefers to cook in the dorm room rather than in the full kitchen.

And my third offering imagines a student who wants to celebrate a friend or woo a would-be lover with a delectable non-cafeteria meal prepared in the dormitory kitchen.

For the first student, the key is to maintain some basic staples at hand. Maybe some cans of beans on the shelf—I like refried black beans for flavor, nutrition, and not too much salt; some corn tortillas and a chunk of cheese in the fridge; and a jar or two of your favorite salsa. Keep some cumin, coriander, cayenne, and dried red pepper flakes on hand too.

Then, when the midnight munchies come, you can lay a tortilla on a plate, spread some beans and spices over it, grate cheese over that, and press another tortilla over the top. One to 1-1/2 minutes in the microwave should melt the cheese, and you’re done.

If you had a small red onion to mince and add to the beans, it would be even better. Even as is, though, it’s mighty fine and filling.

For the second student, I suggest, as an essential part of your batterie de cuisine, the ever-so-useful microwave-safe bag. In such a bag one can steam all manner of delectable goodies without making a mess.

For example, a fillet of whitefish or lake trout, both fresh and local, right from Lake Superior. Slip one or two of these into the bag along with a little garlic and ginger (fresh if you can, but powder works fine too and is more dorm-room-friendly) plus a little slosh of soy sauce; close up the bag; and zap.

Before you zapped the fish, perhaps, you made some rice. No, you don’t need a separate rice cooker; a very effective microwave device uses real, not instant, rice and costs only $11.

Team the rice and fish with—let’s keep this simple—some slices of fresh cucumber, and you have a feast. Sprinkle a little minced green onion on the fish, and the feast is Lucullan.

You can treat skinless boneless breasts of chicken, or chicken tenders, or tofu, the same way. Or use a slosh of good barbecue sauce instead of the soy/ginger combination. Or sprinkle your protein of choice with a rub or spice mix that pleases your own palate.

Whatever you choose, be sure to clean up after yourself. The joy of the bag is that it can just be discarded. But your plate or bowl and your fork or chopsticks must be washed right after you eat, or you risk earning the wrath of your suite-mates.

When you cook in your dorm room, the only available sink must be confronted by the people who share your sleeping space first thing in the morning, when they are tousled and weary and vulnerable. They do not wish to encounter the detritus of your culinary endeavors.

Which brings us to the third student, the one who wants to prepare a feast in the kitchen. Here equipment is lavishly supplied; the constraint becomes time and space, fitting oneself in with others who want to use it themselves.

I propose, as winter approaches, a Marquette-specific variation on bouillabaisse, the famous fish stew from the south of France. It’s fast and easy. It looks inviting. It tastes delicious. And you will never find anything like it in the dining hall.

You start with fish broth. In an ideal world, you made your own—went down to the fish market and bought 50 cents worth of bones, then simmered them with a little onion and garlic until all the goodness leached into the broth, then strained out the solids and froze the broth until you were ready for your bouillabaisse.

In the real world, you bought a bottle or can or box of fish or clam broth. Or you decided to go with chicken broth because you couldn’t find clam. Go ahead and be realistic. But read labels with care; two cans, side by side on the shelf, can have wildly differing quantities of salt, and you don’t want to turn your stew into something that tastes like a liquefied pretzel.

Get a big pot. Slosh in a bit of olive oil, chop up an onion or two and mince some garlic, and let those vegetables wilt slightly over medium heat. As long as we’re being lavish with this meal, cut up a fennel bulb too, and wilt it with the onion and garlic.

What size pieces do you chop?  Ask yourself what size you would like to encounter on the end of your fork or spoon; that’s your answer.

While those vegetables are wilting, wash and cut up a pound or two of boiling-style potatoes (no need to peel them). Then add the potatoes and fish broth—to serve two people, you’ll need about 15 ounces of broth—to the pot. Add a can of no-salt-added chopped tomatoes in their own juice—juice, not sauce! To add color, a chopped-up green bell pepper is nice but inessential. Don’t forget a bay leaf and a little dried thyme.

A word on herbs and spices. They may seem prohibitively expensive, and if you buy lots of commercially-prepared bottles you will indeed spend a lot. But if you go to the local bulk food store and purchase just one bay leaf or just one teaspoon of dried thyme, you’ll be astounded at how much you can get for a nickel or a dime.

Let everything simmer while you prepare your fish.

What fish? Well, did you have luck when you took a rod out to the lake or stream? That fish. Too busy studying to use the rod? Some great local varieties can be found at the fish market. Can’t get to the fish market? Area grocery stores offer fish of varying levels of freshness.

You don’t need much. You do need quality. For two people, a total of three-quarters of a pound will be plenty. A variety of flavors and textures is nice; throwing in a couple of shrimp or clams adds fun; keeping things to a theme (“fish I caught just for you,” “fish of the UP,” “fish reminiscent of our beach vacation last summer”) shows thoughtfulness.

Cut the filleted fish into bite-sized pieces. Keep them in the fridge until the potatoes are almost fully cooked, then stir the fish into the stew; it will cook through in the matter of a minute or two.

Remove the bay leaf and serve it forth, with a loaf of crusty sourdough bread and a simple green salad.

And, if possible, with rouille (pronounced, roughly, “roo-ee”). Here’s the dorm-kitchen version: scoop about half a cup of mayonnaise into a small bowl. Add a clove of raw garlic, crushed through a garlic press or chopped so fine that it mashes to a paste. In your kitchen at home you might have made a homemade mayonnaise with olive oil and the yolk of a fresh egg from your pet chicken and, if so, you probably had access to a food processor with which you could easily puree up some roasted red pepper. Here, heck, this is a dormitory. Good-quality commercial mayonnaise and crushed garlic, perhaps with a drop of fresh lemon juice, will do the trick.

When you serve your stew, offer this on the side for diners to plop into their bowls by the teaspoonful. If your dinner is a seduction, be sure that either both or neither of you opt for the rouille.

These recipes are all good, but I can’t provide recipes for the very best dorm cooking. That’s because the very best dorm cooking nourishes the diner’s soul, and at college that often means nourishing the diner’s memories of home. So for a truly satisfying meal, telephone your grandmother or your father or your foster parent or your older sibling—whoever, in your place of origin, prepared the food of your dreams. Get those recipes. Prepare them. Nourish your body, and nourish your soul.


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