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Gastronomy 101: Weaning students off the beer-and-potato-chip diet

Students Amanda Garbutt (left) and April Engelberg have their own cooking show on McGill University’s closed-circuit TV network, and online.

An invitation to dine in the second-floor apartment of Amanda Garbutt, across the street from McGill University and upstairs from a sorority, is among the most coveted in the student ghetto.

From her tiny kitchen, Ms. Garbutt, 21, recently created a weekday lunch for six that included two types of sandwiches - chicken tikka on focaccia and bavette and caramelized onions on baguette - as well as orzo with roasted red peppers, romaine lettuce with blood oranges, and a blood orange and almond tart.

Seated at the table was April Engelberg, also 21, who after tasting Ms. Garbutt's pizza on a homemade whole-wheat crust during their first year at the Montreal campus came up with the idea of a cooking show to bring gastronomy to the student world - demonstrating meals such as butternut squash risotto and open-faced prosciutto sandwiches that can be made in a minimally equipped kitchen.

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The result, The Hot Plate, which airs on the closed-circuit TVMcGill and online at thehotplate.net, has turned the telegenic sociology major into a minor campus celebrity. In December, Saveur Magazine named Ms. Garbutt in its list of top 100 home cooks. More importantly, she has become a sort of guru to a growing number of students who aspire to cook something a little nicer than macaroni and cheese for dinner.

She is often stopped between classes and questioned about the five-minute Hot Plate episodes.

"People say, 'I've got this in my fridge - what do I do?'" says Ms. Garbutt, who has no formal culinary training but says she started experimenting in her parents' Ottawa kitchen at the age of 10.

Ms. Engelberg, an English major and an aspiring producer who has interned at CNN, says the show taps into a growing desire among university students, no matter how strapped for time or cash, to cook for themselves rather than subsist on grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

And while most students are not quite making their own chicken stock or pie crusts, and are only beginning to grasp foodie mantras such as buying local and seasonal, more and more have already figured out that making their own pasta sauce is cheaper and more satisfying than eating from a can.

"At first you are kind of scared," says Carly Minuk, 21, sitting at Ms. Garbutt's table. Ms. Minuk says she never cooked for herself before coming to university. "So you start with your own vegetables and a can of tomatoes. Then you may add cream. You've got your own sauce."

Many schools are trying to meet the needs of students by offering extracurricular cooking classes. The University of Toronto also runs a weekly farmers' market on campus with vendors on hand to answer questions about local produce, cheese, baked goods and honey. Vegetable gardens throughout the campus are available for student use. The University of British Columbia maintains an on-campus farm where students can learn about agriculture as well as eat the fruits of their labour.

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Students' growing political consciousness also has an impact on their desire to cook for themselves. Student-run vegetarian eateries, such as Concordia University's The People's Potato and the University of Toronto's Hot Yam!, offer a place to learn culinary skills as well as increase awareness about buying local, pesticide-free produce.

Sahar Ghafouri Bakhsh, a University of Toronto student, became a vegetarian after doing a project on reducing her carbon footprint. "When you put that restriction in your diet," she says, "you get more into cooking."

According to Ms. Ghafouri Bakhsh, food security - ensuring a safe food supply for all - is a big issue on campus. She recently participated in her school's World Food Week, organized by Hart House, which attracted more than 1,500 students last fall. She plans to pursue a certificate in food security at Ryerson University.

The greater interest in cooking may also reflect the evolved student palate: While still appreciative of beer and potato chips, many students have already been exposed to fiery and eclectic flavours in their families' own multicultural households, or at ethnic restaurants. In response, many dining halls have been transformed over the past decade into market-style cafeterias with stir-fries and thin-crust pizzas freshly prepared at food stations.

Adam Neil, a 21-year-old at Queen's University, grew up on his parents' "typical" Canadian creations of homemade curries and won ton soup.

Now, his typical weeknight meals include fajitas, sausages or chili he's prepared for himself. And while he will succumb to takeout during exams, he often spends more than an hour a night watching over a pot of simmering curry. He recently made a butternut squash soup from a recipe he found on allrecipes.com, a site he frequently consults.

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"I'm a mechanical engineering student, so it's pretty easy for me to follow a recipe," Mr. Neil says.

As for Ms. Garbutt, she recently bought herself a blowtorch and is working her way through Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.

Although she recently prepared 1,600 hors d'oeuvres in her tiny kitchen for a cancer fundraiser, she says she doesn't want to work as a chef professionally because of the punishing hours.

She has a job in marketing lined up in Toronto after graduation, and hopes to use her skill one day to become a food consultant marketer - unless someone offers her a cooking show first.

"Anything that lets me inspire people to get into the kitchen is my dream."

Student recipes

Chicken Tikka Sandwiches

Ingredients

4 boneless chicken thighs

Kosher salt

Pepper

1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, divided

1 tablespoon medium tandoori spice blend

6 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 loaf focaccia, cut in half

1 jar mango chutney

1 jar minced coriander

Method

Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.

Toss chicken in 1 cup of yogurt and tandoori spices. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for three hours or overnight.

Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Preheat grill to medium-high.

Remove excess marinade and grill chicken until cooked through, about seven minutes per side.

Combine remaining 1/2 cup of yogurt with freshly chopped mint.

Let chicken rest for 15 minutes before chopping into a small dice (about 1/2-inch pieces)

On one of the focaccia halves, spread a generous layer of mango chutney. On the other, spread a thin layer of minced coriander and yogurt.

Top one half with the chopped chicken and place the other on top.

Cut into individual sandwiches.

Serves 6

Bavette and Caramelized Onion Sandwich

Ingredients

1 pound bavette steak

Kosher salt

Pepper

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 rosemary sprig, torn in half

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 large Spanish onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon adobo sauce from canned chipotle peppers

4 slices Swiss cheese

1 baguette, halved

Method

Season bavette with salt and pepper. Marinate from 30 minutes to six hours in 1/4 cup balsamic, garlic, rosemary and 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.

Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over low-medium heat, then add the onion and slowly caramelize until very soft and sweet, about 40 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon brown sugar; stir until completely combined, then set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat a skillet to high with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Sear the bavette on both sides. If the skillet is metal, place it in the oven; or move meat to an ovenproof dish before placing in the oven. Roast 15 minutes for medium-rare.

Allow meat to rest at least 15 minutes before thinly slicing.

Combine mayonnaise with the adobo, then spread on both sides of the baguette.

Layer the bottom half of the baguette with cheese, onions and bavette.

Season with some extra ground black pepper.

Add top piece of bread and slice into equal portions.

Serves 6

Roasted Pepper Orzo Salad

Ingredients

4 peppers (assorted red, yellow and orange), split in half and core removed

Kosher salt

450 gram orzo

8 pieces asparagus, woody ends snapped off

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Pinch cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1/2 tablespoon ground coriander

1/4 cup slivered almonds

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon lemon zest

Method

Preheat broiler with top rack six inches away. Flatten the peppers on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Broil until the peppers are fully charred. Move peppers to a large dish and cover with plastic wrap so they steam and the skins peel off easily.

Once peppers are cool enough to handle, peel skins and cut into 1-inch pieces.

Bring two large pots of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt to each.

In one, add the orzo and boil until al dente, about six minutes. Drain and place in a large serving bowl.

In the second pot, add the asparagus and blanch for two minutes. Shock in an ice bath (large bowl of cold water with ice). Cut into 1-inch pieces.

Add peppers and asparagus to the bowl with the orzo.

Whisk together 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil and 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and add the cumin and coriander.

Mix into the orzo while still hot because it will absorb the flavors.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium. Add the almonds and toast until golden and fragrant.

Just before serving, top the salad with almonds, parsley and lemon zest.

Serve warm, cold or at room temperature.

Serves 10 as a side dish

Blood Orange and Romaine Salad

Ingredients

1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced

4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/4 cup pine nuts

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 heads red romaine lettuce, rinsed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces

2 blood oranges, peeled, halved and cut into half-circles

1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced

Kosher salt

Pepper

Method

Toss red onion with red wine vinegar and sugar 30 minutes before assembling.

Heat a skillet to medium. Add pine nuts and toast until golden and fragrant, about five to eight minutes.

Whisk the balsamic, honey and extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Toss the red romaine with 3/4 of the dressing.

Lay in a salad bowl. Top with sliced blood oranges, cucumber, drained pickled red onion and pine nuts.

Drizzle with a little more dressing and some pepper.

Serves 8

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