Sign up for a free Courant newsletter for a chance to win $100 P.C. Richard gift card

College-cooking hacks will upgrade ramen, Spam, Tater Tots

I never did the typical college thing — while my friends went off to live in dorms their freshman year, I hit the mean streets of not-yet-creepy Craigslist to find off-campus roommates. Dorm life was over-budget, and besides, the luxury of more space appealed to me.

From the outside looking in, my friends had it made with their meal plans and busy social lives. Meanwhile, I had to fend for myself when it came to food. The plus side was it ignited my love of cooking and playing with recipes. Though I had the luxury of cooking in my teensy kitchen, I was far from the food-obsessed gastronaut I am today. Like most busy-yet-lazy college kids, my personal cooking plan consisted of burritos, grilled cheese, plain spaghetti with butter and that staple of college life everywhere, ramen noodles.

Simple to make, inexpensive and readily available, it's no wonder that humble little packet with its too-salty seasoning is a go-to meal for college students. But it can be too easy to fall into the trap of cooking it according to package instructions — you, college student, deserve more than a bowl of salty water and limpid noodles. There's more to ramen packets than meets the eye, and a little creativity will unlock ramen's infinite potential to transform. Ramen burgers, ramen salad, cold, spicy sesame noodles, to name a few.

But why stop at ramen? There are aisles and aisles in the grocery store dedicated to quick-and-easy meals targeting unimaginative, left-to-their-own-devices college kids. Items like Spam, that gelatinous meatstuff that no one quite knows what to do with, or Tater Tots, God's gift to snacking.

Is it possible to fashion creative meals out of these quotidian ingredients? The answer, my college-bound friends, is a resounding "yes."

jbhernandez@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @joeybear85

Maple-caramelized Spam

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 5 servings

Fresh out of the can, Spam is alien and intimidating. Seriously, meat should not be so geometric. A favorite ingredient in many Asian countries throughout the Pacific, this product is surprisingly versatile — its salt content is seasoning enough. Here, the addition of maple syrup balances out the salt. Use this maple-caramelized Spam in the recipe below, on its own or in your own creations.

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1 can (12 ounces) Spam, sliced about ½-inch thick

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 In a nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add Spam slices; cook, turning once until browned, 2-3 minutes per side. (Don't crowd the pan. You may have to do this in batches.) When the Spam is browned, top each slice with a drizzle of maple syrup, flipping in the pan until each slice is coated thoroughly. Continue cooking until the syrup caramelizes, another 2 to 3 minutes.

2 Remove the Spam from the pan to rest. Wipe out the excess oil and sugar in the pan to ready it for further use. When cool, roughly chop the Spam into cubes, using half in the recipe below and reserving the rest for another meal.

Spam and kimchee fried rice

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 4-6 servings

Kimchee brings heat and crunch to the salty-sweet maple-caramelized Spam. Use leftover rice from Chinese takeout, and you have a meal that costs less than $10 to make. Jarred kimchee can be found in most grocery stores and Asian markets.

Sauce:

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon hot chili sauce, such as Sriracha

1 tablespoon sesame oil, optional

1 teaspoon gochujang (Korean red chili paste)

Fried rice:

1 tablespoon oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups kimchee, reserving 1 tablespoon liquid

Half the maple-caramelized Spam recipe (6 ounces)

2 cups cooked day-old leftover rice

1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper

1/4 cup green onions, thinly sliced

4 to 6 oil-fried eggs, optional

1 For the sauce, mix the soy sauce, hot chili sauce, sesame oil, if using, and gochujang in a small bowl. Reserve.

2 For the fried rice, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and garlic; cook until aromatic, 3-5 minutes. Add the kimchee and its liquid, stirring until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Incorporate the diced Spam to just heat through; using a slotted spoon, transfer mixture to a bowl, leaving liquids behind. Don't wipe out pan.

3 Break up the rice with either a spatula or your hands; add to the same skillet. Turn heat to high. Cook rice, stirring, until the cooking liquids are absorbed, a few minutes.

4 Make a well in the center of the rice; add the bell pepper and half the green onions to the well. Cook vegetables within the well until aromatic. Mix in the reserved sauce, the spam-kimchee mixture and the reserved tablespoon of kimchee liquid, stirring everything into the rice. Cook until all the liquid is evaporated.

5 To serve, top each serving with a fried egg and more Sriracha. Garnish with the remaining green onion.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 210 calories, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 6 g protein, 741 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Ramen salad

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 6-8 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

A recurring theme in many college diets? Not enough vegetables. Well, this ramen salad will help you with that. Broken up and toasted with almonds, ramen acts as a delicious crouton in this dish, which comes together in no time. If you can open a bag of slaw from the grocery aisle (I prefer broccoli slaw), you can make this salad. Slice up an orange, and will ya look at that, you're fighting off scurvy too.

1 packet (3 ounces) dry ramen noodles, crumbled in bite-size chunks

1/4 cup sliced almonds

1 package (14-16 ounces) slaw mix

1 cup regular or golden raisins

Dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 garlic clove, finely grated

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the ramen noodles over medium-low heat, 4 to 5 minutes. Add almonds; toast until fragrant, another 2-3 minutes. In a large bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Add the slaw mix; toss until well coated. Add the ramen, almonds and raisins. Serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 806 calories, 42 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 106 g carbohydrates, 57 g sugar, 12 g protein, 1,415 mg sodium, 11 g fiber

Pa-tot-as bravas

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 35–40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

If you spend any time on Pinterest, you're probably familiar with totchos — Tater Tot nachos. Well, think of this as a classy version. Inspired by Spanish patatas bravas, a dish of fried potatoes smothered in an earthy, spicy paprika sauce, this recipe also incorporates crumbly Mexican chorizo for added texture and kick. Rather than go through the trouble of double-frying potatoes (which can get messy), frozen tots get the job done.

Tots:

1 bag (16 ounces) frozen Tater Tots

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

8 ounces Mexican chorizo

1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika

1 tablespoon favorite hot sauce (even fast food packets, if you've got 'em)

Mayonnaise or sour cream, optional

Handful of chopped fresh parsley, optional

1 Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Arrange the frozen tots on a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer; bake until crisp, 20-25 minutes. (If you want to go crispier — who doesn't? — add 5 minutes to the cooking time). Remove pan from the oven; season with a pinch or two of salt.

2 Meanwhile, for the sauce, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook for a few minutes. Add the chorizo; cook, stirring occasionally and breaking it up, until cooked through.

3 Add the tomato sauce, paprika and hot sauce, stirring to combine. Allow the sauce to simmer for a few more minutes before removing from heat. Taste the sauce; season with salt, if desired.

4 Arrange the hot tots on a plate; messily drizzle the spicy tomato sauce mixture over them. Top with dollops of mayo or sour cream, and parsley, if using. Serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 636 calories, 44 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 52 mg cholesterol, 43 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 18 g protein, 2,002 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
35°