Advice

FoodNotes: Cheap Eats in Graduate School (and Beyond)

Patrick Feller Creative Commons

October 11, 2017

I’d like to tell you that when I got the equivalent of my first tenure-track job, I stopped worrying about money — but I didn’t.

In graduate school, like many students, I was anxious about money because I didn’t get paid through the summer, and I needed to make sure I’d saved enough to live on from June until October. Today I remain careful about money because my undergraduate student loans are out of deferment, and a third of my salary goes toward paying them.

After earning my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, I landed a job in England in 2013 as a lecturer. This summer, I started a new position as a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales. There’s a lot about life that is easier now, including a shared flat with my partner and the calm of relative job security (tenure doesn’t really exist in Britain). Yet, although I eat a lot better than I did in graduate school, I still stress about my food budget.

My goal in this column is to lay out some practical suggestions — for graduate students and early career researchers who live paycheck to paycheck, as well as for their doctoral programs and scholarly organizations — on how to enjoy cheap, delicious eating. A caveat: Everyone will have a different notion of what constitutes "cheap" eating, and the suggestions here are meant to be taken piecemeal, not in their entirety. I hope that some of these strategies will prove useful for you.

Tips for early-career academics. Start cooking. In most cases it’s far thriftier to make food yourself, rather than eating out or ordering delivery. To feed yourself, you need to know how to shop, where to find recipes, and how to prepare food. Figure out the most affordable place to buy staples so you can cook with lots of them.

When I moved to graduate school, I spent a few days comparing prices at grocery stores to determine where the canned goods were cheapest, and I learned to buy my canned tomatoes, chickpeas, beans, and rice there. You can perk up many simple dishes with inexpensive go-to ingredients like garlic and anchovies (often added at the start of cooking) and lemon juice, red wine, or cider vinegar (usually added toward the end). You can also make a lot of low-cost meals with eggs (or, for the vegans, egg substitutes). One of my favorite things to do with leftovers is to chuck them all into a frittata and have it for breakfast or lunch.

Some staples, like soup stock, just don’t taste as good when made from bouillon cubes, and liquid versions can cost a few dollars a package. You can make your own in much larger quantities, and freeze it for future use. My recipe here (see sidebar) can be gussied up with fancier ingredients, like wine, if your budget is bigger one month, and it can be adjusted to accommodate the different things you plan to do with it. I use it for soups, sauces, risotto, and pasta. Making this stock is a slow, mostly hands-off process, so it’s the perfect sort of recipe for working through a few books, or editing a chapter.

Buy pricier items strategically, leave them out, or find acceptable substitutes. As someone who likes to try cooking lots of different cuisines, I’m often challenged by the high price point of new spices. International food markets often sell spices for lower prices, and some supermarkets or health-food stores have bulk spice sections where you can buy the teaspoon or tablespoon of the spice you need for a few cents.

Sometimes an ingredient is a bit too pricey to justify purchasing it. If a recipe calls for saffron, you can often swap in turmeric. Lime zest will work in place of kaffir lime leaves. A tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar mixed with a cup of milk works fine as a substitute for buttermilk.

After you’ve started cooking regularly, it’s good to maintain a shopping list. I use the "notes" app on my phone to keep track of what I need to buy each week, because it’s very easy to add an item as soon as I’ve used up the last of it. If I decide I don’t need to buy more of it that week, I just bump it to the bottom of the note, where it stays until the next time I shop. I also like the facility of digitally deleting items off the list, rather than walking around the store with pen and paper.

I also shop for groceries online, which is much easier to do here in the U.K. If that option is available to you, consider it — especially if walking or driving to the store would eat up a large chunk of your day. Your time is worth money.

Cooking can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but there are also many more mediums for educating yourself than ever before. In addition to cookbooks, there are now clear YouTube tutorials for tasks from poaching an egg to breaking down a chicken.

I read food blogs and websites (particularly Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, Serious Eats, BuzzFeed Food, and TheKitchn) for recipe inspiration, and get one food magazine a month (Bon Appétit when I lived in the states; Delicious. Magazine in Britain).

If you’re already comfortable cooking the basics, there are several more gourmet staple items that you can make yourself. I infuse olive oil with cheese rinds or chili flakes for dunking bread or pizza crusts. I pickle red onions to put on tacos or fried-pork cutlets. I also infuse gin with ginger, pink peppercorns, or tarragon (that last one turns the gin a delightful shade of green), tequila with habanero chilies, and bourbon with vanilla beans or toasted pecans. For olive oils, it’s best to use a good-quality oil you’d be happy to drizzle over salad, but for the alcohol you can go a bit cheaper — I usually buy supermarket brand.

Once you’re comfortable shopping and cooking, become best friends with your freezer. It may take a semester or two in graduate school to figure this out, but eventually, you will learn when in the academic year you’ll be very busy, and when you’ll have some time on your hands.

During slow times (summer, and the month before the semester started, for me), I tried to cook and bake a ton so that I could freeze ingredients and meals as a present to my future, busy self. Things like soups, stews, curries, pizza, and cookie dough all freeze well.

I particularly like making and freezing vegetable and chicken stock; I have a separate bag in the freezer for scraps (carrots that have grown too old, wilted celery, tough mushroom stems, and rinds from Parmigiano cheese), and I freeze them until I have enough to make stock. Some butchers and CSAs will give away (or sell very cheaply) the bones you need to make meat stock. If you can’t find any of those products, I recommend using fresh chicken wings, which have enough gelatin to make a full-bodied stock.

Once you feel comfortable shopping and cooking, start enjoying your ability to feed yourself and others. If you have a lunch date on the campus, instead of eating out, trying bringing in home-cooked leftovers that are good cold, or that heat up well in the departmental microwave. If you have a roommate, consider trading off cooking nights. You may even find that pricier foodstuffs (or just large quantities of them) — such as all of the vegetables in a community-supported agriculture box — become more affordable when split between two people. Just be clear about who’s buying what and how you’re sharing costs.

For large groups, host a potluck, and ask everyone to bring food or alcohol. That is often a good way to acquire a refrigerator full of leftovers, and enough beer to make a batch of chili, cheddar beer soup, or battered chicken fingers. If you’re feeling extra compulsive, you can ask people what they’re bringing to make sure you don’t end up with an entire meal of desserts.

Question how you’re spending your money on food — and be honest with yourself about it. If you’re attending a conference and applying for university travel funds to get there, ask if graduate students in your department are entitled to budget for a per diem. That query may inspire laughter, but it doesn’t hurt to ask whether you can count on extra money for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You might also consider tracking your weekly or monthly food expenses, so that you have a good idea of how much you usually spend.

Finally, set aside money for treats. I have a wise friend who insists on treating herself as a reward for good work done — whether that’s an academic task like completing a book review, or a life task like calling her senator. Figure out which small purchases make you happy. Maybe it’s nice tea, fancy bread, craft beer, or ordering delivery occasionally. For me, it’s always cheese, chocolate, and bourbon. Whatever it is, treat yourself when you can.

How departments can help. It’s a standing joke that if you have free food, the graduate students will attend, and that joke exists for a reason. If your department has a weekly or monthly research seminar series, consider offering a free lunch to accompany it, regardless of the rank of those in attendance.

One of my graduate administrators was legendary for ordering delicious food boxes to accompany our seminars, and those seminars were extremely well attended — which I’m sure the presenters appreciated, too. It doesn’t have to be a full lunch if the department’s budget can’t accommodate that — a few bags of chips and a bowl of fruit will also be appreciated. If you go out for a meal as a department after seminars, make sure graduate students know ahead of time whether their dinner is comped or priced lower than the faculty pay. (I strongly encourage departments to at least do the latter.)

Make sure your graduate students know whether they’re eligible for student discounts on the food sold in campus cafeterias. Investigate whether there are dining plans available for graduate students, and whether the cost is something the department can subsidize. Many graduate students live far enough away from the campus that they can’t go home in the middle of the day for lunch, and some of them stay to work quite late in the evening.

If your department has money to send students to conferences, at least have a conversation about whether you’d like to include a per diem for students’ food in their budgets. And be clear with your students about your university’s rules for that food money (for example: Does it cover alcohol? Do receipts need to be itemized?). Eating at conferences can be expensive (more on that in another column), and students should expect that they’ll spend more on food during a conference weekend than they would staying at home. Even if the department can only cover food expenses on travel days, that at least means the cost of overpriced, bad airport food won’t come out of the wallet of students already struggling to make ends meet.

How scholarly organizations can help. One of the best ways that disciplinary societies could help budget-conscious academics is the most obvious: If there’s a dinner or a lunch at your conference, please consider offering lowered rates for graduate students, early career scholars, and adjuncts.

Less obvious: Make your conference arrangements transparent. If you are hosting a conference, try to explain up front in your Call for Papers whether you’ll be able to cover lodging or travel costs for graduate students. If you know you’ll be able to offer grants for graduate travel, say so in the Call for Papers, and note whether applications for bursaries will be due before or after the conference — being clear about this makes it easier for grad students to apply for external conference funding.

If you’re a professor who wants to invite graduate students to coffee, lunch, or dinner at the annual meetings, be extremely clear about whether you’re going someplace affordable or not. Say outright whether you’re planning to pick up the tab. That way, the graduate student won’t spend a meal panicking over whether she’ll be expected to split the bill evenly with other diners when she could only afford to order an appetizer.

I enjoyed finding time to cook in graduate school because I found it relaxing, and continue to think that everyone has the right to enjoy eating, even if you’re living on a tiny stipend or low salary. Graduate school is a long slog, and you cannot get through it by living austerely every single day of your life. Whether you’re enthusiastic about slow, involved recipes, or just want ideas for making less-expensive versions of gourmet ingredients, I am here for that.


Rachel's Chicken or Vegetable Stock  

Ingredients:

2 large yellow onions
2 large carrots
2 stalks celery
1 leek
1 bulb garlic
3 pounds (1.4 kilos) chicken wings, backs, or bones
A large handful of mushroom stems, or 1 small package dried mushrooms (I use porcini)
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
4 cloves
Handful of fresh parsley
2 bay leaves

Equipment:

2 pots -- the largest one you have, and the next largest
A mesh strainer, or a pasta colander and cheesecloth
A liquid measuring cup
A ladle
Tupperware containers, for freezing
Masking tape and a pen, or a label-maker

Optional extras:

Parsnip
Scallions
Fennel
Parmigiano rinds
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
A few cardamom pods (2 to 3 black ones, or 5 to 7 green ones)
3 to 4 star anise pods
Ginger, peeled and sliced into coins
2 stalks of lemongrass, crushed
Rosemary, thyme, or oregano sprigs
White wine

1. Prepare the vegetables. The stock will take on more flavor if you cut the veggies into smaller pieces. I cut the onions into quarters, leaving the skin on because it gives the stock a nice color. Peel and dice the carrots, and dice the celery. Cut the leek in half lengthwise, and rinse it well -- leeks tend to have a lot of grit in the center -- before cutting each half into rough chunks. Break the garlic bulb open and separate out the cloves, leaving the skins on.

2. Chuck everything in. Put the chicken pieces and the prepped vegetables into the larger pot, and cover everything with water by about two inches -- you'll probably use at least 10 cups of water. Here's your first opportunity to be flexible. If you're making vegetable stock, omit the chicken and play around with adding other vegetables you like -- parsnips, scallions, and fennel are all nice additions. When it comes to covering the ingredients with liquid, you can go cheap or more expensive. If I'm feeling fancy (and especially if I'm planning to use the stock for a simple soup), I'll mix water with dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc.

3. Heat and skim. Put the pot on the stove on the highest heat setting, and bring everything to a boil. This step usually takes a long time -- 30 or 45 minutes, if I'm making a lot of stock. Hang close to the kitchen, because you want the pot to just come to a boil before you turn it all down to a bare, very slow simmer. You want to see a few bubbles rising to the surface every 15 seconds or so. Once it comes close to boiling, and then during the first hour that the stock simmers, you'll see a grey foam rise to the surface. Take a shallow stirring spoon, and occasionally use it to remove the scum from the stock.

4. Time for a long, slow simmer. Add the peppercorns, dried mushrooms, parsley, and bay leaves. If I'm planning to use the stock for Chinese, Japanese, or Thai dishes, I'll often add ginger, lemongrass, star anise, and cardamom at this point. If I'm going to use the stock for Italian dishes I'll add the Parmigiano rinds, and sometimes some oregano, thyme, or rosemary sprigs. At this stage, you want to simmer everything until the chicken is falling off the bone. I aim for at least 4 hours -- and up to 8 hours for chicken stock. Vegetable stock can be cooked for less time; about 2 to 3 hours. Make sure that the bones and vegetables stay covered by an inch of water during cooking; you will probably need to add more water from time to time.

5. Strain. This step is my least favorite, because it always takes longer than I think it will. Set yourself up with a station. Put the hot stock to the left, and your next-largest pot in your sink (if it fits), and a trash can on the floor to your right (if you are left-handed, reverse the order here). Put the fine-mesh strainer (or the colander lined with cheesecloth) inside the smaller pot. Using a large ladle, start moving the solids out of the stock pot and into the strainer. When the strainer is nearly full, press down gently with the ladle to extract all the juices, and then throw out the solids. Repeat this process until you've scooped all of the solids out of the pot. (If you're feeling frugal, you can pick out the chicken, put it on a plate, and drizzle it with a little soy sauce to snack on, but some pieces will be pretty tasteless after such a long simmer.) Once you've removed most of the solids, carefully pour the remaining hot stock through the strainer into the second pot.

6. Cool the stock. Ideally, you'll have time to refrigerate the stock overnight, so that you can scoop off the solidified fat the next day. If you don't have time to do that, that's OK, but you do need to cool the stock before you put it in the fridge or freezer (or else you will raise the appliance's temperature too much). You shouldn't let the stock cool at room temperature, because it will take too long and increase the risk of bacteria. Instead, remove the pot holding the stock from the sink, and fill the sink with enough cold water so that it reaches the height of approximately half of your stock pot. When you put the pot back in the water (do this carefully!), the water should just about encase the pot. Allow the stock to cool for about an hour in the sink, removing the pot and swapping the water with cold water once or twice. If you don't have time to refrigerate the stock overnight, skip to step 8.

7. Refrigerate the stock.  This step is a good way of testing whether you've made the stock correctly, though it only works with meat-based stocks. Place a lid or plastic wrap over the cooled stock pot, dry the bottom, and put it into your fridge on the lowest shelf (in case of spills). Keep it in there overnight. In the morning, you should look for a thin, yellow layer of fat on the top of the stock. I usually scrape off about 80 percent of the fat and throw it out, or save it to use for cooking. Then give the pot a gentle shake. You're hoping there's enough gelatin in your stock to see it wiggle. It will look gross, but taste delicious.

8. Measure the stock. I always tell myself I'll remember how much stock fits into my Tupperware, and then I never do. Don't be like me: Measure and label the stock you've worked hard to prepare so that it's ready for cooking. Use the ladle to pour stock into the measuring cup, then pour it off into the Tupperware. Most recipes call for between 1 and 4 cups of stock, so plan accordingly. Use masking tape and marker to write out how much stock is in each container, label it with the date, and pop it in the freezer.

9. To defrost stock for use, I use one of two methods. If I remember to plan ahead, I take it out of the freezer and leave it in the fridge overnight. If I don't, I run hot water over the Tupperware bottom, then pop the solid stock into a pot, cover it, and bring it to a simmer over medium low heat. Your stock is now ready for use -- go forth, and cook!

Rachel Herrmann started this summer as a lecturer in modern American history at Cardiff University, after teaching as a permanent lecturer for four years at the University of Southampton. Her first book, No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the American Revolution, is under contract with Cornell University Press. Her website is Rachelbherrmann.com.