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As a grad student, you can get a lot of free food if you’re willing to spend your lunches listening to people talk about their research. A department or grant reimburses students to bring in enough food for everyone to eat. Since students are supposed to be busy doing things other than catering, most of the food is Pappa John’s pizza or make-your-own sandwiches. But there are occasional moments of glory.

Over the past 3 years, I’ve provided about 10 of these lunches, serving 50-100 students and faculty at a time on a $100-150 budget. It probably won’t come as a surprise to those who know me that I rather enjoy the logistical and culinary challenges of these endeavors. Each time I do it I refine my strategy. If you want to play the game, here are the constraints:

  1. Provide enough food for at least 50 (greedy) students.
  2. Use less than $100 of groceries. (Using spices and other staples from your pantry is allowed.)
  3. Make all the food the night before: you have to be at school early in the morning. And don’t let it spoil overnight! Squeeze it into the fridge that you share with 3 other people.
  4. All the food must be served cold or at room temperature: there are no facilities for last-minute cooking or warming.
  5. You (and your significant other, if necessary) have to carry all the food on your back on your 45-minute commute to school, on the metro train and then a shuttle to campus.
  6. Bonus points if the food can be served quickly, so that the line to get lunch doesn’t get too long.

The first couple times I dallied with sandwiches and wraps. But now I’ve settled on grain, bean, and vegetable salads. They can be made ahead, taste good cold, and are easy to serve. I usually make double batches of 4-5 different kinds.

Here’s the menu for tomorrow’s lunch talk:

  • Pasta salad with pesto, cherry tomatoes, olives, and mozzarella (recipe below). This is basically filler, but people love it. You don’t need a recipe to make this, but people ask me, so I’ll provide.
  • Butternut squash salad with lentils and goat cheese. I first tried this recipe from Smitten Kitchen last week, and I LOVED it. I also knew right away that it would be perfect for lunch talks. It tastes amazing warm, but also good at room temperature. (By the way, I definitely recommend adding the arugula, which Deb left out in her version.)

  • Potato salad vinaigrette (recipe below). This tastes wonderful warm, but it’s ok cold as well. You don’t need a recipe for this one either, but what the heck.
  • Quinoa with currants, dill and zucchini. This is my first time trying this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, and I love it! I’m not sure how good it will be after a night in the fridge; I’ll find that out tomorrow. A couple notes on the recipe: 1) Grating zucchini in a food processor is not only amazingly fast, but also fun and kinda pretty. 2) I stirred in about 1/2 cup halved grapes after everything else. It just seemed to need an extra sweet note, and I had extra grapes around from the fruit salad. I think the grapes helped a lot, so I recommend it.

  • Fruit salad with apples, pears, grapes, and bananas. Here’s where I draw the line: I’m not going to give you a recipe for fruit salad. The only thing to know about making fruit salad is to add plenty of lemon juice so that it doesn’t look gross the next day.

Pasta salad for a crowd

1 pound orzo or other small pasta (this time I used “dillatini”)
1 cup pesto (under time pressure I use packaged stuff, but it’s about a million times better if you make it yourself)
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 small jar (~10 oz.) pitted Kalamata olives, halved
1 pound fresh mozzarella, cubed

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water and drain. Then mix everything together. Add extra salt, pepper, or olive oil to taste.

Potato salad vinaigrette for a crowd

5 pounds red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped (I like a ton of dill; you could scale this back a bit if you want)
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine vinegar (I used a mix of white wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar)
1 tablespoon  Dijon mustard
2-3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (optional; I left them out this time, but they’re delicious!)

Plenty of salt and pepper

Start the water boiling while you cube the potatoes and add a couple tablespoons of salt. Boil the potatoes until they’re just done: if they get too mushy, your salad won’t be as pretty in the end. Sorry I didn’t time it this time… If the water is boiling already when you add the potatoes, it will only take 15 minutes or so. You should check them fairly often.

While the potatoes cook, prepare the other ingredients. Put a handful of the scallions and all the dill into a jar with the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Shake the jar vigorously to combine. (I highly recommend the jar method, but you can do this with a whisk if you don’t have a jar handy.)

When the potatoes have cooled off a bit, gently toss them with the rest of the scallions, the dressing, and the eggs (if using). Serve warm or cold.