There was joy in receiving the letter, of course. For Elliot, it was his own letter, long awaited and much anticipated, another thing the youngest child watches everyone else do first. The letter was from the college he most wants to attend, the place he imagines himself in next year.
For days after his acceptance arrived, Elliot would announce pieces of information about the college, extra bits of information, the kind of things that you would have to go looking for.
One day, he came to the kitchen to tell me about a place close by campus, trails where everyone goes to ride their mountain bikes. Elliot loves to ride his mountain bike.
And he also came to find me to tell me about a restaurant close to the school. They serve steaks and vegan food and Sunday brunch and carrot cake. “Whoa,” I said, impressed. It sounds like our kind of place. Should one choose a college based on a restaurant that’s close by? Probably not, but it sure helps.
And perhaps the best detail of all, and he shared this news with genuine excitement: There are full kitchens available to students (even freshmen) so they can cook whatever they crave. I was happier about his reaction to this discovery than knowing these kitchens actually exist. The student kitchens allegedly stock food, real food (like fresh vegetables), for students to cook and eat. And because I always want my children to know how different things are for them, I let him know that there were no food-stocked kitchens available to us ‘80s college kids (cue the eye rolling.)
So what would Elliot cook in this kitchen? I’ve been telling him since forever that one day, he would impress his friends with knowing how to cook. It’s possible there has been a heavy sigh or two at this. But now, the time has arrived. It’s getting real, as my children like to say.
Here is a sampling of what Elliot might be able to cook and share with his friends upon his arrival at college. This menu is, perhaps, a mother’s wishful thinking. But why not dream about it? September is almost six months away and though what he might choose to make in that dorm kitchen is very different from what I can dream up, for now, I’ll dream. The important thing is having a young person who cares about food, knows how to prepare it, how to enjoy it, and how to share it with friends. So here goes, Elliot’s menu for the communal college kitchen, freshman year.
We have a deep and lasting love for spanakopita in our house, especially Elliot. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a Mediterranean dish packed with spinach, cheese and herbs. Creating the filling isn’t hard: Sautéed onions and garlic are stirred up with feta cheese, dill and lemon zest. That bright green mixture is folded into layers of phyllo dough and brushed, over and over, with melted butter. The result is sublime and one of the early foods, along with pesto, that convinced my children to put green food into their mouths. I don’t know why, but little kids are distrustful of food that’s green. Anyway, back to the spanakopita: Those buttery layers make it kind of a pain to put together. So I took all of that glorious onion and garlic and spinach and prepared it, as if it was going into the buttery dough, but instead loaded it onto a stretched pizza shell. I added shredded mozzarella, folded the dough over to make a kind of pizza-sandwich-type-thing and poof, our favorite Greek pastry became our favorite Greek pizza. This is good for weeknights, lunches, brunches and party food alike. And Elliot approves. “Awesome,” he called it. It’s easy enough to make and don’t you think it would make good eating at midnight when everyone is cramming for an exam?
Next, a salad. How cool would it be to have a guy on your dorm floor who is good at making salads? The salad here is super simple and there’s no better way to name it than simply Our Favorite Salad, because that’s what it is. I’ve made this salad hundreds of times over the years, for quick weeknight dinners, for guests, for special occasions and for anytime in between. All three of my children have stood at the kitchen counter and whisked the dressing in the salad bowl, following directions as I watched and requested a bit more of this and another splash of that. The heart and soul of this salad is the dressing, and it’s a simple, cheater-type of Caesar, made with ingredients typically found on hand. I always mix this dressing in the salad bowl, dump the greens on top, and then toss it together. It’s got extra virgin olive oil, lemon, a bit of mayonnaise for creaminess, and Parmesan, grated on a microplane to make it fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth. I doubt those college kitchens have a microplane, and if you don’t either, a box grater does the trick. What’s important is getting the balance of oil to acidity, creaminess and the salty bite of cheese. The tender, soft butter lettuce greens are a great vehicle for getting this dressing into your mouth. And homemade croutons, though an extra step, have both crunch and chew and are delicious. If you don’t want to make them, I would choose toast made from a good loaf of bread, served on the side, over store-bought croutons.
Would it be strange to pack a crepe pan among the twin sheets and towels bound for the dorm? I have never known a child or adult to not adore crepes, and knowing how to make them is a valuable skill. The batter for these simple little French pancakes is similar to our kind of pancakes, but with no leavening, and it should be thin enough to pour and swirl around the pan. In Paris, you can eat crepes on street corners, where they’re rolled up and stuffed with Nutella and fruits of all kinds. Here, I stack a few crepes together with a juicy schmear of Nutella between the layers, slice it like a cake, and serve it with fresh fruit. The secret to making crepes is knowing how to pour the batter into the hot, buttered pan, and tilting it this way and that, bending at the wrist to evenly spread it before it sets. For some crazy reason, the first crepe is never perfect (it makes a good snack for the chef while cooking up the rest.)
If all goes according to plan, Elliot will pack up and head over to SUNY Oneonta in the fall. He’ll study music industry and it’s hard to not be excited for him. This excitement and any mixed emotions about sending our youngest child off to college is a package deal over here, and his enthusiasm is overriding the other stuff. The vision of Elliot, heading off happy, with clothes, towels, mountain bike and crepe pan packed in, helps to keep any sadness at seeing him go, in check.