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Majoring in good eating habits

These college housemates enjoy one roommate's cooking and communal (mostly vegetarian) meals together

By Luke Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / March 30, 2011

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SOMERVILLE — When I moved into off-campus housing for the first time with five friends, there were many unfortunate relics left from other roommates who had lived there the semester before. Most resided in the fridge. Without getting too specific, they included Indian takeout, unrecognizable vegetables past their prime, almost antique bottles of condiments relegated to a back shelf, and other, less identifiable substances.

But the worst part was how everyone ate. There was no dining room table. My friends (all of us are students at Tufts University) explained that the housemates tended to do their own thing for dinner, eating separately and keeping their food separate. Without over-dramatizing this — we’re just college kids — let me just say that I wasn’t totally happy with this arrangement. The first group purchase of the semester (off Craigslist) was a table.

We have been shopping and eating communally as often as possible ever since. A wonderful routine of weekly marketing trips and frequent house dinners has taken the place of last semester’s free-for-all. Because I have a particular affinity for all kitchen-related activities and a longtime love of grocery shopping, I usually spearhead these initiatives, with other housemates helping out or coming along when they want.

Childhood memories of coming home from school, sauntering into our kitchen in Newton, pestering my mother about what she was making, grabbing some Goldfish crackers, and watching cooking shows until dinner have morphed into something new. Now I’m the one being pestered, and my housemates are the ones grabbing Goldfish. But after a semester abroad in Morocco, full of good eating but almost devoid of cooking, I came back more excited than ever to cook.

In our house, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Jason is a vegetarian who flirts with veganism and dumpster diving. Aaron is a pescetarian, who won’t eat meat but doesn’t mind picking it out of things. Nicki buys gluten-free hummus even though she’s not celiac because “it’s healthier’’ and ends most meals with a Skinny Cow ice cream bar. Quin refuses to eat anything with refined sugars, including Girl Scout cookies. Clinton is often too busy to eat with us, but loves big hunks of rare meat. I have my own morally-driven ideas about food that not every housemate can get behind completely (one is my own carton of eggs with “Luke’s yuppie eggs’’ written in a Sharpie on top). But despite all our differences, we’ve been able to create a system that works.

Because there are so many strong opinions about food at our table, the most important aspect of how I cook has to do with using ingredients in uncommon ways. The spice rack is well-stocked and there are plenty of fresh herbs in the fridge, so we are pretty much guaranteed to have more interesting, flavorful food. It’s not pretentious food (we don’t top our dishes with emulsions or foam) and it’s not unattainable food for students on a college budget (no Kobe beef), it’s just interesting food. We split the grocery bills evenly, with each of us spending between $20 and $30 a week, which we manage on www.billmonk.com; it does the calculating for us. Alas, no math majors in the group.

In addition to two main shopping locations — Russo’s in Watertown and the Somerville farmers’ market — we shop for ingredients at nearby ethnic and specialty stores, of which there are many. We like to talk to the people who work there about how to use uncommon ingredients or go online to find out. These are often not expensive, especially bought in bulk, and can sometimes be the inspiration for an entire dish.

One week, I noticed a bunch of fragrant Thai basil for about a dollar. It was much more than I needed, and later in the week I ripped it up and put it into a Thai vegetable curry. The base of the curry was coconut milk and spices. The success of a dish like this isn’t 100 percent dependent on something like Thai basil, but the herb deepens the flavor, adds an exciting grassy note, and is the missing link in making homemade Thai food taste essentially the same, if not better, than takeout.

This is a great example of the type of thing we like to make — dishes that are easy, usually vegetarian, and something that can generate leftovers. Some are even better after they’ve sat in the fridge for a day. Curries, soups, and, Moroccan tajines (stews simmered in a conical clay apparatus, also called a tajine) are favorites, as are pastas and other grains such as farro and quinoa. We always buy them in bulk, along with certain staples such as eggs, black beans, and canned tuna for nights when we are pressed for time.

But I promise we are still normal students. Every so often we order in pizza and every three weeks we indulge in spaghetti tacos — hard taco shells stuffed with spaghetti, a phenomenon spurred by the Nickelodeon show “iCarly.’’

As we surveyed the messy landscape of our festive dining table and kitchen following the most recent spaghetti taco night, one question came to mind: “Who’s gonna do the dishes?’’

We decided to sleep on it.

Luke Pyenson can be reached at luke.pyenson@tufts.edu.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the channel that airs “iCarly” was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story. The show airs on Nickelodeon.

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