University cooking – the rise of the vegetable box

The meals at my friend’s student flat tend to be cobbled together very quickly, with little organisation and much reliance on what happens to be in the fridge. You present yourself for dinner and they’re still poring over their textbooks, without having glanced at the kitchen, much less considered a menu. So it always seems like a miracle when they pull out the vegetable box and declare that they have ‘just the thing’.

Veg boxes hit student life shortly after they stopped being the new thing parents were bringing home. They’re full of the vegetables that look boring or frightening in supermarkets, but the lucky dip involved in the box attack creates an undeniable sense of satisfaction when you figure out what to do with them. Veg boxes force the student to eat healthily by always being there in an abundance that denies any escape route. They taste good, and there’s an element of comfort in knowing that the parents would be proud of us eating organic food. Most importantly, they’re cheap.

Parents spend a lot of time worrying about how their children will survive once they leave the nest. One of the commonest concerns I’ve heard is over their cooking skills – a small squadron of my friends, particularly the boys, were sent to cooking schools before being allowed to even consider student life. I know they’ve benefited from it, too – they’re the ones who now don’t burn out the bottom of their frying pans. But even for those of us without the expensive cordon bleu training, the veg box can provide quick and easy answers to the question of sustenance. Here are a few recipes tried and tested in the student kitchens of Exeter University:


Picture from Florence’s friend’s kitchen

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1. Autumn: Roasted Vegetables
This was the first thing we made when the veg boxes started being delivered. They’re great in a rush and reassuring to snack on whilst feeling threatened by the first textbooks of the year. We usually have a nice loaf of granary bread with them, which is particularly yummy with the roast garlic and good to soak up the seasoning.

Pre heat the oven to 200°C. Take anything roastable from your veg box (cabbages are not so good, but to our joy tomatoes and even cucumbers work), making sure there are a few carrots, onions and heads of garlic in your selection, chop them up roughly, halving the garlic and cutting the onions into orange segment shaped chunks, and bung them onto a baking tray. Drizzle oil (preferably olive) over them, making sure all sides get covered, and season liberally with salt and pepper (rosemary, thyme, sage and coriander seeds are all good too, especially if your landlord has left a herb plant overgrowing somewhere on the property). Put the whole lot in the oven for 45 minutes, dripping a little water into the tray from time to time, particularly on the garlic to keep it soft.

2. Winter: Soup
My friend’s mother packed her off to university with a soup book. Despite our scepticism about why soup was deemed the most nutritional food group, we ended up pretty excited about how good the soups smelt, and the magical warming ability of a good cup which kept us glowing through the winter.
In terms of veg boxes, potatoes are always going to appear. It’s just the way things are. There are a lot of easy things to do with them, but we wouldn’t have thought of them as soup material if it hadn’t been pointed out to us. Leeks were rather persistent through the winter too, so here’s a leek and potato soup.

50g butter
450g potatoes, peeled and chopped up into small pieces.
450g leeks (use the white parts and keep the green tops for when you learn to make stocks)
1 onion, also chopped finely
1 litre/1.75 pints (roughly) vegetable (or chicken) stock
140ml whipping cream
125ml full-fat milk

Melt the butter in a saucepan, and then add the potatoes, onions and leeks. Season with salt and pepper, and then stir thoroughly. Put the lid on the pan and gently heat for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Then pour in the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about five minutes. Puree in the blender until really smooth, then taste and if necessary season more. Put it back in the pan and stir in three quarters of the cream and all of the milk. When you serve it you can drizzle the rest of the cream in so it looks nice too, and if you have some chives handy they can be scattered on too.

3. Spring: Pasta with Spring Vegetable Sauce
When making pasta for dinner my flatmate somehow managed to put tomato sauce and vegetables together wrong, so here’s a recipe from scratch. You can always add more vegetables if you’re feeling brave:

Sauce (you can always use ready made, but this way uses more of those lovely vegetables and you know what you’re eating):
1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste

Heat the olive oil, onions and carrot for about 6 minutes until they’re soft and the onion goes shiny and translucent. Add the tomatoes and then simmer for about twenty minutes, when it should be a bit thicker and look like sauce, especially if you break the tomatoes apart a bit.
1 or 2 artichokes (generally available in winter, so you might get some) with the outermost leaves removed, and then the rest cut down, the hair removed and the heart cut into slices can be added with the tomatoes.

Pasta and Spring Vegetables:
½ cup of peas
½ cup of beans
1 ½ cup spinach leaves, coarsely cut, or spring greens
Parmesan cheese

Once the tomato sauce has been cooking for about 10 to 15 minutes (if the artichoke has been added, then it will be tender by this point) add the other vegetables and cook for another five to ten minutes until they’re cooked through.

Boil 1 lb pasta, salting the water, and keep half a cup of the water from it once it is cooked. Once the pasta has been drained, mix in the sauce and put a little of this pasta water in to achieve a good consistency. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the parmesan on top.

4. Summer: Stuffed Aubergine
I first made stuffed pumpkin after a Halloween party at which the pumpkins had somehow survived. I first learnt the recipe for aubergine, and the filling uses summer vegetables like peppers and tomatoes, so that is how I put it here, but you can also stuff marrow, or use the same mixture as a filling for baked potatoes or on chopped parsnips and suede. You can add parsley to the mixture, and 1-2 tbsp of harissa if you’re feeling adventurous. The fun of being a student with a veg box is that you don’t even know what culinary rules you’re breaking.

2 aubergines
2 sweet peppers
80g (roughly) tomatoes, chopped
80g (roughly) mozzerella
2 tbsp breadcrumbs
1 onion
1 tbsp oil (preferably olive)
some celery and/or pine nuts, if desired

Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with kitchen foil or baking parchment. Half the aubergine and scoop out a little flesh, so that the skin is just under 1cm thick, season the two halves with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little oil. Chop the removed flesh finely and fry with onion, celery, pine nuts, peppers and seasoning in an oiled frying pan. Remove from heat after about five minutes and stir in the tomatoes. Divide the mixture equally between the four halves, and sprinkle the mozzarella and breadcrumbs on top. Put them on the baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes until the skins are soft and the tops are lightly crisp and golden.

5. Summer: Vegetarian Fajitas:
These were a hit when I whipped them up for a ‘come dine with me’ dinner party – ten out of tens all round. Now everyone makes them, and no one’s had a disaster yet. We usually add salsa, guacamole and sour cream or cheese. Some people just use the sweet peppers and onions from the veg box and follow the Old El Paso packet’s recipe using chicken, but with vegetarians in our midst we’ve improvised and used any relatively plain vegetable available:

500g mixture of Aubergine, corn off the cob, summer or winter squash, cauliflower etc, all cut into small strips or cubes,
1x Onion, chopped thinly
2x Sweet peppers, cut into strips
1 tbsp oil
1x Old El Paso Smoky BBQ fajita kit

Heat oil in a large frying pan until it moves swiftly over the surface. Put the onion with any heavier vegetables (eg. Aubergine or squash) into the pan, remembering to occasionally stir until they’re browned. Add the other vegetables with the sweet peppers and follow the instructions on the kit. Simple.

** Read’s guide to the best vegetable box schemes in the UK