A Vegetarian's Cafeteria Survival Guide

It's noon on your first real day of classes, and you can't remember a time you were this hungry. You could eat a horse, if eating horse wasn't against your personal dietary code of ethics. You approach the cafeteria with a dangerous sense of hope—excited to sample one of the many vegetarian options promised in your registration pamphlet. No more brown sack lunches, you tell yourself, you're in college, where they understand the needs of a vegetarian.

Inside, you grab yourself a tray, a plate, a fork and a knife, and beam a smile at the lunch lady—her name tag says Bessie. "I'll have the vegetarian meal" you proudly exclaim. Bessie glances down at the various food bins lined up in front of her, back up at you, and back down at the bins. She adjusts her hairnet in a long moment of consternation before scooping a double helping of mash potatoes and carrots onto your plate. To your dismay, she then extends a ladle of gravy over your plate but thinks better of it and directs you onward to a row of non-vegetarian-friendly gelatin-based desserts you can't eat. You feel your heart and your stomach drop down into your shoes. What's an animal lover to do?

The truth is, every college cafeteria pretends to offer a plethora of vegetarian alternatives, but very few actually do. Let's consider your options—you could eat off the hot line and develop a vitamin deficiency, you could pick up fast food every day (if you're that brave and trustworthy) and gain the freshman 50, or you could learn the fine art of microwave cooking. All you need is a salad bar and a little determination.

If you're really lucky, your cafeteria's salad bar comes equipped with uncooked tofu and a decent variety of spices and condiments. If not, you're going to have to make a trip to the grocery store. Or you can submit a written request for tofu to your cafeteria's head chef—be sure to word it positively—stating that a small container of tofu in the salad bar is far from an unreasonable request from a school that claims to offer a vegetarian alternative everyday. Regardless, you're more than on your way to being asked "where on earth are they serving that?" by your salivating friends. Here are some simple-to-follow recipes—guaranteed to take less than 10 minutes a piece. Trust me on this one—I survived two years at boarding school.

Tofu—The Meat of the Matter
First off, you need to understand how to prepare tofu for the microwave. Strain it if it hasn't been already and then dab it with a paper napkin to absorb any excess water. You'd want to press it if you were cooking it in some other way, but mostly dry is OK for as microwaves tend to dry out the moisture in foods. Next, cut your tofu into half-inch cubes (if it hasn't been cut up already) and arrange the jiggly white blocks onto a plate making sure they're all laid flat—not piled on top of one another. Then, douse the entire plate in soy sauce—not a lot, just enough to discolor the surface of each cube. Sprinkle a little dill or pepper on top and microwave for approximately five minutes. Cafeteria appliances run the gamut from new to pre-Cambrian so watch to make sure the tofu doesn't burn. You can throw a few vegetables on top, too, if you want. When it's finished, it should be completely dehydrated and have a slightly chewy texture and slightly crisp outer layer. Also, the various cubes of tofu should be stuck together in places. Cut them apart and season to taste with more soy sauce if you're going to eat it plain or just top a salad with them (goes great with balsamic vinegar).

Pad Thai with Tofu and Peanut Sauce
While your tofu's cooking, grab yourself a disposable cafeteria cup and prepare to get your peanut sauce on. Combine peanut butter, soy sauce, pepper, a little orange juice and rice vinegar (if you've got it) and stir until the peanut butter is dispersed and the sauce takes on a murky brown liquid consistency. Once it's has finished, ladle a thin coat of peanut sauce in equal proportions over the tofu and microwave for another minute. Eat alone or toss the finished product with spaghetti, rice or lettuce.

Hot Salad—Artichokes and Mushrooms in a Balsamic Vinegar Reduction
Fill a plate with vegetables (artichokes, mushrooms and a few cut-up slices of red bell pepper are recommended, but really anything'll do) and pour a small amount of balsamic vinegar on top, just enough to coat the bottom of the plate or submerge the vegetables roughly a fifth of the way up. Add a sprinkle of pepper or dill, and microwave until you see the vinegar starting to boil away. Remove and pour over lettuce or spinach leaves—not only do you have your hot vegetables, but you've also made a salad dressing.

Dessert—Bananas Foster?
This one's actually a lot easier than it sounds. Just cut up bananas from your cafeteria's fruit bin until you've halfway filled a cereal bowl, then top with butter, honey, raisins and brown sugar. Add a splash or two of milk, stir well, and microwave until it's about to boil over.
These are just a few ideas—the secret to being a successful cafeteria gourmet is experimentation. Forget the mashed potatoes—dabble, play and never look back.


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