Drop That Onion Ring — Toss Your Own Salad

There comes a defining instant in every student’s life at which he can no longer stomach that 1,000th Subway foot-long. After only a week back at school, my moment of taste bud evolution has already arrived. Having passed my threshold for premade provisions, only one solution remained: attempt to cook.

My past culinary efforts have been no more courageous than tossing a premade Trader Joe’s burrito in the microwave or mixing marinara with pasta. Over the years I’ve been so conditioned to seek instant gratification from fast, over-the-counter eats that I couldn’t imagine myself sauteing or mincing — or any of those other things cooks do in kitchens.

I do, however, come from a family of hardcore foodies. My grandmother is the queen. In her house, food is a cure-all. Tough day at work? Lentil soup. Twisted your ankle? Beef kabob and herb rice with a glass of red wine. If there aren’t plumes of steam and exotic aromas wafting through the house, it’s either because her soap operas are on, or it’s 3 a.m.

No cooking endeavor could be properly executed without my grandma’s wisdom. So I made the call and asked her for recipes that fit the following guidelines: healthy, simple to make (under 15 minutes of preparation), composed of affordable ingredients and possessing some international flair. A little over a minute of deep consideration and she asked: “How about some grilled-chicken couscous salad and cream-of-broccoli soup?”

Next thing I knew, I was standing in the fresh produce section of Trader Joe’s, far from the comfort of the frozen-foods aisle. I couldn’t help but doubt my commitment to cooking as I picked out what I thought were ripe Roma tomatoes. Was I really about to waste all this time and effort when I could just as easily swipe my debit card at Croutons and call it a day?

On the ride home from TJ’s, I tried to reason my decision to cook. Forget the obvious economic benefits of making one $30 grocery trip for healthy, fresh food rather than what might amount to three separate $10 burrito runs on a daily basis — I was equally excited by the fact that my soon-to-be cooking skills would instantly make me more attractive. After all, what’s sexier than a home-cooked meal?

With newfound motivation, I began dicing the tomatoes, onions and bell peppers with a sense of purpose I had previously only exhibited while playing sports or debating politics. After glancing at my haphazard collection of vegetable bits, I learned my first cooking lesson: Wielding a knife like Grandma requires a sense of confidence, technique and dexterity that can only be acquired after years of practice.

Thankfully, the rest was so easy that tomato dicing was half the battle. All I had to do was pour a packet of couscous into the saucepan (note: opening packets is easy) and add two cups chicken broth, one tablespoon olive oil, one-half teaspoon salt, and one-quarter teaspoon black pepper. Then I stirred the mix for about five minutes — fitting well within the confines of my culinary capacity.

After letting the hot couscous fluff in the broth, I added some pre-grilled chicken strips, two sloppily diced Romas and two tablespoons of Italian flat-leaf parsley, then garnished with some lemon juice and green onions. To my astonished delight, I had produced a colorful salad that appeared to be a healthy and balanced entree — and it tasted at least as good as a $7 salad from the Sunshine Store.

The soup proved just as simple. Melting the butter and sauteing the onions produced a confidence-inspiring aroma of onion-y goodness. Once the onions were transparent, I added one cup of water, the chopped bell pepper, the packet of broccoli and a teaspoon of salt. Then I covered the saucepan and let the concoction sit until the veggies had tenderized. Next, I liquefied the contents of the saucepan in the blender, adding milk intermittently until it looked like my sauce was smooth. From there, I emptied the blender back into the pan, added the remainder of the milk and topped it off with a few drops of soy sauce for added flavor. A garnishing of black pepper and a bay leaf for presentation, and voila! In less than half an hour — the same time it would’ve taken to buy and unfreeze the burrito for which I’d always settled — I had a sumptuous-looking salad and steaming soup, with four days’ worth of leftovers to spare.

Perhaps the best part of the whole experience was transferring the salad and soup into their respective bowls. I felt accomplished — almost euphoric. Maybe that’s why the food tasted so good. Of course, I’m nowhere remotely close to cooking (nor wielding a knife) like Grandma, and I’d be lying if I called myself a cook, but the reward for simply trying was well worth my minimal effort.

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