Cooking student suppers on a budget

Alfie Fletcher looks at how to cook for friends without breaking the bank

The climate march made us hungry. For action yes, but also food. We had a few hours in Halls before heading back into town to dance. I quietly offered to make someone some spaghetti. An hour later, 10 people were in my tiny kitchen. The table was full, so a few people were hunched on the sofa, sharing one of my flat-mate’s bowls.

It was a weak attempt at a dinner party. But over the following weeks, more and more friends would show up. I would try more elaborate dishes. People would thrust money into my hands as they left, and beg for more food next Friday: “your food is the only proper meal I have all week.”

Now, to the annoyance of my poor flatmates, there are closer to 20 people who ring my doorbell on a Friday night. I want to share with you the wisdom that I have picked up along the way, and show you that hosting dinner parties does not need to be stressful; rather that it can be immensely rewarding.

“More people is usually more stressful, unless you have a plan. I have found my sweet spot to be around 15, as this is two large trays of food”

The first thing to consider is how many people are coming. Only then can you decide what to cook. More people is usually more stressful, unless you have a plan. I have found my sweet spot to be around 15, as this is two large trays of food and not much more can fit in my oven. With more, it becomes harder to sufficiently feed (your most important goal); with fewer, there is less of a party atmosphere that takes care of itself.

Then we can start to think about food. There are four key factors for students to consider: cost, because nobody can afford foie gras and truffles; suitability, because so many students are vegetarian or vegan, and you want something for everyone; preparation, because lovingly stirring two risottos instead of relaxing with a glass of wine is no fun; and taste, because that is, in the end, always the most important.

Ideally, you want to find a recipe which fulfils these criteria. I’ll explain why in more detail using one of my more successful offerings: vegetarian lasagne. Now I hear your immediate complaints: nobody likes lentils, and bechamel sauce is an effort to make. I ask you to reserve judgement, because your guests won’t miss the meat and I dispense with the gunky bechamel, which I don’t like anyway. The full recipe is at the bottom.

This dish is cheap, because it’s all veg. The ragu is made by frying mushrooms, courgettes, carrots, onions and garlic – a more substantial soffrito – in olive oil, adding lentils and leaving it all to simmer in stock and red wine (your only real expense, but cheap stuff will do, and you can drink the other half of the bottle) for 45 minutes. The ragu’s cost will come to less than €10, with some wine to spare. The other ingredients to make up the lasagne – pasta sheets, canned tomatoes, creme fraîche, and cheddar – won’t set you back much further either.

“If you have vegan guests, set some of the ragu to one side. You can serve it to them with pasta – a deliciously rich vegan spaghetti bolognese”

Once you have made the ragu, you need to switch your brain back to your plant-based friends. If you have vegan guests, set some of the ragu to one side. You can serve it to them with pasta – a deliciously rich vegan spaghetti bolognese. They will be ecstatic that you thought about them with a special dish, and delighted at how good it is too. And it’s almost no extra work for yourself. And because the ragu is so rich, meat eaters certainly won’t feel that they have missed out on anything.

Another joy with this dish is how it can all be made in advance; you can pop it in the oven 30 minutes before you want to eat, and forget about it until it comes steaming out of the oven. The ragu will happily sit in the fridge overnight. It’s incredibly flexible, unlike any kind of meat which the chef has to pore over, testing to see if it is ready. Instead, you can relax with your guests while the oven does the work.

Though the food is extremely important, there are also other things that can ensure your guests have a great night.

First of all booze. I think that it is not unreasonable to ask people to bring their own. Arrange enough glasses on the table, but make it clear that you won’t be buying alcohol. As the host, your effort has gone into the cooking.

A few things for guests to nibble on is a smart idea, because hoping that everyone will arrive on time is fantastical. Don’t work up too much sweat making these though. Shop-bought dips can be made to be special: decant them into a bowl of your own, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle some paprika. It looks homemade. To serve, chop up a few carrots into batons and squeeze a lemon over them, and season with salt. And buy some plain and some flavoured crisps too.

When it comes to serving the food, put the dish in the middle of the table, and let everyone serve themselves. It creates a much more communal feel than the faff of individually plating each dish. Once you sit down, relax. Let the food and wine take care of everything else.

Lentil ragu lasagne


For the ragu:

1 large or two small onions

2 medium-sized carrots

3 cloves of garlic

300g mushrooms

1 courgette

2 teaspoons of oregano or thyme (Dried will do)

2 tablespoons of tomato concentrated purée

300g green or brown lentils

3 vegetable stock cubes

Half a bottle of red wine

250g of crème fraîche

200g fresh spinach

Olive oil

For the tomato sauce:

2 cans of chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons of sugar

2 tablespoons of thyme leaves (fresh preferable, but dry works)

200g lasagne sheets

100g cheddar cheese

First, prepare the ragu. Finely chop the onions, carrots, garlic, mushrooms and courgettes (a cheap food processor bought online will save a lot of time here) and in a large pot on medium heat, fry in a glug of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the herbs and leave the soffritto to cook for 8-10 minutes. Next, add the tomato purée, and cook for another two minutes. Then add the lentils, wine, stock cubes, and a litre of water. Bring to the boil, cover the pan and leave to cook for 40 minutes. Check every so often and give it a taste and stir. If the bottom is sticking, add more water. The ragu is ready when it is thick and the lentils are soft.

At this point, you can take out the portion of ragu for vegans.

To your ragu, add the crème fraîche and spinach, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add salt to taste.

In the meantime, mix the ingredients for the tomato sauce together in a large bowl.

Now to assemble the lasagne. Get two oven proof dishes or trays. Blob a sixth of the ragu and tomato sauce randomly on the bottom of each tray. Lay pasta on top. Add more ragu, tomato, and then pasta, and add a final layer of ragu and tomato. You want to ensure that all the pasta has sauce touching it, so that it cooks properly. Grate the cheddar on top.

Put into a preheated oven at 180°C/fan 160°C/Gas 4 for 20-30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Cut into squares and serve with peas and a green salad.

Alfie Fletcher

Alfie Fletcher is the Deputy Food and Drink Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Fresh English student.