In some ways, going to college can be like going out on the road with a band. You find yourself sleeping with strangers (your new roommates, that is), and clean laundry and home-cooked meals are in short supply. While most universities provide facilities for washing your socks (please: use them), they neglect to address the personal touch when it comes to mealtime, leaving students with two options: the dining hall or fast food. Cafeteria food will keep you alive, sure, but spaghetti sauce stirred with a boat oar just doesn't taste the same as something made for you personally by someone you know; cheap-o restaurant food isn't much better. And should an ambitious eater desire to take matters into his or her own hands and cook, university safety rules don't make it easy. Dorm dwellers at most, if not all, schools are restricted to the one form of heat application most scorned by chefs: the lowly microwave. And even if you have an apartment with a kitchen, who has the time?
Seen by most as a mere leftover-nuker, the microwave can actually be used to create good meals. Gourmet, even. Below are recipes for a romantic dinner and a fancy brunch. (If you're breaking the rules with a George Foreman grill, a toaster oven, a blender or a rice cooker, there are so many more dishes you can make with even those simple appliances. Don't blame us when you get caught with them, though.)
Here's the thing about dinner dates: You don't want to eat so much that you're uncomfortably full — that is, if you plan on any action after dessert. So yes, this dinner is pretty light. It's also vegetarian, if you sub vegetable broth for the chicken stock, mostly because I'm not going to be sued for your attempt to poach salmon fillets in your bathroom sink (though it can be done). If you must have an animal protein, go to Whole Foods and buy some sliced grilled flank steak. You should make the panna cotta a few hours ahead of time so it will have time to chill and firm up, but risotto needs to be eaten immediately, which means you'll be making it in front of your date. Do a dry run for a friend first.
Artichoke Lemon Risotto
Risotto shouldn't be so liquid that it's soup, but it should run across the plate if you tilt your plate. A solid gummy mass means you've overcooked it (though it might still taste OK, if you're not picky).
Serves two (with leftovers)
Equipment: 9-inch square or round glass dish, chef's knife, mesh strainer, spoonula, measuring cup, measuring spoons
1 can baby artichoke hearts
1 small white onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup arborio rice (must be arborio)
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if preferred)
1 small lemon
1 teaspoon salt (or more: see recipe)
1/4 cup fresh basil (optional)
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan (real, not that dust in the green can)
First, prepare the artichoke hearts: Cut off the solid bottom from the leaves. Rinse the leaves well in the strainer, separating them with your fingers under cold running water. While they drain, slice the bottoms into smaller pieces (halves or quarters are fine). Dump the drained leaves into a dry bowl, rinse the artichoke bottoms in the strainer, and leave them to drain.