Darina Allen’s essential ’student’ cuisine

The return to college has produced lots of nightmare stories, as students scramble to find affordable accommodation in a scarce and challenging market.

So let’s hope you have already found a comfy spot, with a little kitchen and a table large enough to gather your pals around for some exotic and comforting little feasts.

The old cliché of students living on microwave frozen pizzas, burgers and soggy takeaways is fast becoming outdated. Cool young people are running, cycling, exercising and they are pretty determined to keep their brain cells sharp by eating healthily. Everyone has got the taste for spicy food; Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican — many of the college kids I know are keen to cook and aren’t afraid to experiment with new ingredients.

They are acutely aware of the benefits of eating well but want to know how to save money but still eat healthily. They want recipes for yummy, tasty food that doesn’t take too long to rustle up when they arrive home, ravenous with hunger in the evening.

People with little money have to be even more crafty and inventive. Lesser known cuts of meat are always cheaper, and need gentle cooking to transform them to melting tenderness. And don’t forget to pick up a slab of streaky bacon, it’s a fantastic stand-by, brilliant to add to pasta, sauces, casseroles, stews, omelettes; or just to make a few crispy lardons to sprinkle over a salad.

Clever spicing can turn even a few simple root vegetables into a feast. Both meat and vegetables can be delicious bulked up with beans and lentils — grains too; pearl barley, couscous and quinoa add irresistible nourishment and volume.

Don’t forget to soak the grains well first in lots of fresh, cold water. They’ll double in volume and be infinitely more digestible.

Buy a few packets of both spice blends and whole spices. Pestle and mortars are ‘two a penny’ nowadays — they were on sale recently for €10 in one of the discount shops. I bought a perfect little pestle and mortar made from lava rock. It only takes a few seconds to grind a few cumin, coriander or cardamom seeds. I can’t think of anything that adds so much magic to food for so little money than a few freshly ground spices. Look out for ras el hanout, a North African blend spice. Green Saffron have a variety of Indian blends and provide recipes with each packet. www.greensaffron.com

Fresh herbs can easily be grown on a window sill in a variety of recycled cans and boxes; don’t forget to water them. Get together with your mates to bulk buy staples like rice, pasta, pulses and grains. With a stock of store cupboard standbys, spices and fresh herbs, you’re sorted.

Darina recipe 1 ... Isaac’s frittata

Serves 1

15g (½oz) butter.

2 eggs, free range, organic

55ml (2fl oz) milk

45g (1½ozs) grated Gruyere cheese

1-2 diced cooked potatoes

30g (1oz) diced chorizo or cooked diced bacon or ham.

1 dessertspoon chopped chives or parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper

a little butter for frying

20.5cm (8inch) heavy bottomed frying pan

Melt a knob of butter in the frying pan.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and season. (1 pinch of salt and 2 twists of pepper per egg is a good guide line if you are a little wary of tasting raw eggs.) Now add the milk and whisk thoroughly until the whites and yolk have completely blended together, add the grated cheese, diced potato and chorizo, chopped herbs and mix in gently.

When the butter is foaming pour all the mixture into the hot pan. Using a wooden spoon, scrape the cooked mixture from the bottom, filling its space with liquid. Do this just 5 or 6 times then allow the mixture to cook on a high flame for a further minute. Take the pan off the heat and place under a hot grill, continue cooking until the mixture has fluffed up nicely and is beginning to turn golden brown on top.

Using a metal pallet knife loosen the edges and slide onto a plate. Serve on its own with a green salad or with a little drizzle of basil pesto.

Once you have the basic mixture and cooking technique right there are lots of lovely variations on the theme.

Irish breakfast frittata

Add to the basic egg mixture just before cooking: 25g (1oz) of sliced mushrooms, fried in a little butter, salt and pepper, and 2 streaky rashers cut into 1cm (½in) pieces and fried until crispy.

For a frittata ranchero, add the following to the basic egg mixture just before cooking: 25g (1oz) chopped sweated onion, 1 small tomato cut into 5mm (¼in) dice, 1 tsp chopped chilli or more to taste, 1 dessertspoon (2 American teaspoons) chopped coriander (instead of parsley or chives).


Penny’s sweet potato and rice or quinoa salad

1 big sweet potato

4 onions

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon


6-8ozs (175g-225g) cooked brown basmati rice or quinoa

2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds (toasted)

2 tablespoons sunflower seeds (toasted)

1 tablespoon sesame seeds (toasted)


juice and zest of 2 limes

same volume of extra virgin olive oil (or slightly less)

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) soy sauce

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 chilli, finely chopped (optional)

5 spring onions or lots of chives chopped finely lots of chopped basil or coriander

1 teaspoon organic sugar

Sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, a major antioxidant, which helps safeguard immune health. They aid digestion and circulation. Other sweet vegetables and roast peppers could also be used. Chickpeas or beans would also be a gorgeous addition.

Serves 6-8

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 Peel the sweet potato and onion, cut into ¾in (1.5cm) cubes. Mix the spices with the oil, toss the vegetables in the oil and spread out on a baking tray. Roast in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until golden and slightly caramelised. Next make the vinaigrette. Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl. Put the cooled cooked rice or quinoa if using, roast vegetables and toasted seeds in a bowl. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, toss well. Taste and correct the seasoning.


Stirabout bread

400g (14ozs/2½cups) wholemeal flour or a wholemeal flour of your choice

75g (3ozs/¾cup) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon (½ American teaspoon) bread soda, sieved (bicarbonate of soda/baking soda)

1 egg

1 tablespoon (1 American tbsp + 1 tsp) vegetable oil

1 tsp honey or treacle 425ml

(15fl ozs/scant 2 cups) buttermilk or sour milk approx.

This is a more modern version of Soda Bread, couldn’t be simpler, just mix and pour into a well-greased tin. This bread keeps very well for several days and is also great toasted. Makes one loaf or three small loaves

Preheat oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6. Put all the dry ingredients including the sieved bread soda into a large bowl, mix well. Whisk the egg, add the oil and honey most of the buttermilk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid, mix well and add more buttermilk if necessary. The mixture should be soft and slightly sloppy, pour into an oiled tin or tins. Sprinkle some sunflower or sesame seeds on the top. Bake for 60 minutes approx, or until the bread is nice and crusty and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

Health Bread: Add 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of sunflower seeds, 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of pumpkin seeds, 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of kibbled wheat to the dry ingredients. Keep the mix to scatter over top.


Meatballs with spicy tomato sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

900g (2lbs) freshly minced beef (80% lean) or 700g (1½lbs) beef/225g (8oz) pork

50g (2oz) soft breadcrumbs

50ml (2fl oz/¼ cup) milk

2-4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as marjoram, or a mixture of parsley, chives and thyme leaves

1 organic egg, beaten

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tomato Sauce

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

225g (8oz) onion, peeled and sliced

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed

900g (2lbs) ripe, peeled and chopped tomatoes or 2 x 400g (14ozs) tins of chopped tomatoes

a good pinch of crushed chilli flakes (optional)

salt, freshly ground black pepper and sugar

To serve

3 tablespoons (4 American tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil

150g (5ozs) mozzarella and parmesan, grated

450g (1lb) spaghetti

Rocket leaves (optional)

Garnish: parsley leaves

Great with a teaspoon of ras el hanout or a mixture of cumin and coriander. Ask a few pals around, or fry off half as burgers and tuck them into a bun with lots of salad, sliced tomatoes, and cheese.

Serves 6 ~

First make the meatballs, heat the olive oil in a heavy, stainless-steel saucepan over a gentle heat and add the chopped onions and garlic. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until soft and slightly golden. Allow to cool. Soak all the bread crumbs in milk. Put the freshly minced beef into a bowl and breadcrumbs in a bowl. add the cold sweated onion and garlic, add the herbs (and chilli flakes if using) and the beaten egg. Season the mixture to taste. Fry a tiny bit to check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Divide the mixture into about 24 round meatballs. Cover and refrigerate.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a casserole or a stainless-steel saucepan. Add the sliced onion and crushed garlic, toss until coated, cover and sweat over a gentle heat until soft. Add the peeled and chopped tomatoes and chilli flakes, mix and season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sugar (tinned tomatoes take more sweetening). Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, uncover and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes or until thick and unctuous.

Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, add 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Cook the meatballs for 8-10 minutes turning from time to time. When they are cooked, transfer to an ovenproof serving dish. Add to the hot tomato sauce, turn gently to cover. Pop into a preheated oven at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top or place under a preheated grill to let the cheese melt. Serve immediately with cooked spaghetti, crusty bread and or just a green salad. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a pan of boiling water. Drain and turn into a hot serving dish. Spoon the meatballs and tomato sauce over the top, sprinkle with grated mozzarella and parmesan. Sprinkle with flat parsley leaves.

Meatball Dogs: Split hot dog rolls lengthwise down the centre. Insert three small meatballs smothered with tomato sauce into each. Top with a bit of rocket or flat parsley.

Meatball Sliders: Split three small buns in half, chargrill, drizzle with olive oil. Top with a meatball and secure with a cocktail stick.

Hot tips

Salacious salads

Jason Carroll has quite a pedigree; he spent a stint in several of London’s most prestigious kitchens with Pierre Kaufmann, Anton Mosimann and Tom Aiken, then on to Asia. Is it any wonder that his salads are so multi ethnic and morish. You’ll find him at Wilton Farmers Market on Tuesdays and in Midleton on Saturday mornings. He’ll have an irresistible array of salads and maybe chowder as well. Don’t miss the Kokoda, a Fijian ceviche, or you might want to try the potato, chorizo,red onion and mint or the freekah salad with apricot, date, spring onion, preserved lemon and feta, or fresh pineapple, coconut, chilli and mint or........ tempted? www.gingerroom.com 

Good Food Ireland Touring Map

Good Food Ireland has just completed their up- to- the- minute edition Touring Map, in partnership with Hertz and Waterford Crystal. This year, it is larger in size with more detail for touring visitors and indeed for ourselves here at home, to navigate our way and find the very best artisan food producers, food shops, restaurants, cafes, cooking classes..... Pick up your copy at any Hertz rental car location, Good Food Ireland promotions and Tourism Ireland offices. www.goodfoodireland.ie 

Date for your diary

Slow Food West Corkpresents at The Riverside Café, Skibbereen, 4-MIDABLE FEMALE CHEFS Cailtin, Carmel, Karen & Tessa cooking a slow, wild and seasonal four-course dinner on Tuesday, October 14 at 7.30pm. Tickets in advance, €40 non-members, €35 Slow Food members from the Riverside Café 028 40090. There will be a short talk by Darina Allen on the role of Slow Food ion the community, a short film featuring the 12 mile menu concept by Sage Restaurant Midleton and a showing of a YouTube video talk by Slow Food Founder, Carlo Petrini


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