Zhuzh It Up: How to Elevate Cheap Cuisine


Carl Vaughan


Take your broke college kid meals to the next level. Photo courtesy of pexels.com.

We have some things in common, you and I. We both love eating delicious — even fancy — meals, and we want to eat them without breaking the bank or spending 48 hours preparing them. I’ve spent years learning, experimenting and eating to find this balance, and it all boils down to this: “zhuzh it up.” I learned the term from my old boss, a chef at 801 Chophouse, but the concept is older and much more accessible. To get fancier cuisine without spending big money, we have to zhuzh up our budget dinners. I’ll explain, and I promise, this will be cheap, easy, and most importantly, tasty.

I grew up with homemade mac and cheese — pasta smothered in a multitude of cheeses with a bubbly, melty crust baked on top. But when I moved away from home, all I had time and money for was the blue box stuff. I soon discovered a few tricks to turn cheap boxed mac into delicious creations. 

A note before we start: salt, pepper and butter are your friends. If you want to get restaurant quality food, add salt, pepper and butter. That’s half the battle. Don’t be afraid to play with your food and add unconventional things. Make “taco mac” by adding some taco meat — or some well-seasoned vegetable protein, which tastes a lot better than the name suggests — corn, and a little salsa. Get wild and put it in a grilled cheese sandwich. Or, cut some chicken — you can even use chicken nuggets here! — into strips and mix that into your mac. 

On the subject of chicken nuggets, it’s likely that you microwave the nuggets, saving the oven for when you want to feel a bit luxurious. That’s what I did, until I discovered a fast trick. First, microwave your nuggets as directed. If possible, lay a paper towel on top of the nuggets so the extra moisture gets absorbed, which makes the next step simpler. Once they’re done, melt a little butter in a skillet and pan-sear the nuggets on both sides until they get crispy — if the moisture of the nuggets isn’t absorbed by the paper towels, it’ll take longer for the nuggets to crisp up in the skillet. Don’t forget to sprinkle on some salt and pepper as soon as you take them off of the stove top. 

A love I discovered late in life is real ramen. Brothy, rich, unctuous, and deceptively filling. But what happens when you only have the instant ramen available?  Surprisingly, you’re better off than if you ordered from a restaurant, for instant ramen is INFINITELY customizable. First, cook the ramen in a saucepan or skillet on the stove top, using only (ONLY!) about one cup of water per package of noodles. Cover and let that simmer until the noodles are soft enough to unfold. Unfurl the noodles and add in a packet of seasoning. Mix and cook until the water has boiled away almost completely and the noodles are tender. If you want, you can simply unload that into a bowl and enjoy. Bonus points if you lay the noodles over some rice, then top with Furikake seasoning, which you can find at any Asian market. You can even eat the ramen right out of the pan. 

If you really want to get lost in ramen’s multiverse of possibilities, try this: after you’ve scooped the ramen into a bowl, slice up some ham — you can use the pre-sliced deli ham — sear it, add some crushed garlic in a little butter, then add the ramen back in and mix. Top that with a pinch of salt, some pepper, and a modest amount of parmesan cheese. Just be sure not to burn the garlic. As soon as the garlic is nice and fragrant, it’s ready. Any further, and it could burn, which smells and tastes hilariously bad. 

The great thing about zhuzhing up your food is how customizable it is. Instead of ham, use tofu, sausage, broccoli — even hot dogs. Instead of chicken nuggets, try fish sticks, Pizza Rolls, or french toast sticks for a sweet, buttery breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, if you add scrambled eggs and cheese to almost any diced leftover meat you have and wrap it all in a warm tortilla, you’ve just made a breakfast burrito. 

The meals I chose here are just a few of the most recent ones I’ve made, but the principles are the same for almost any food you can think of. You are the Bob Ross of your kitchen and cheap food is your canvas. Get creative and have fun zhuzhing it up.