Chef Val cutting vegetables
February 8, 2023

Upgrading struggle meals with the Cooking Well series

Recreation’s Chef Val shares tasty recipes using basic ingredients from R’Pantry

Author: Malinn Loeung
February 8, 2023

If you don’t know what a struggle meal is, we envy your food security. 

For the rest of us, perfecting the art of upgrading inexpensive foods so that they’re tastier is a skill many low-on-funds people know too well. 

My struggle meal? Instant ramen with as many flavor-enhancing (but cheap) add-ins as possible. The current breakdown (which I customize every so often to fit my mood) is one ramen block with its seasoning packet, a spoonful of butter, lime juice, paprika, and a whole lot of chili powder. I call it “red ramen” and it smacks — hard. Super delicious and affordable but definitely not good for the gut.

Good thing UC Riverside’s Recreation provides a nutrition-focused, free-for-students Cooking Well program for hungry Highlanders and wannabe cooks. The series of cooking demos, held periodically throughout each quarter, is free to students and is conducted at the Student Recreation Center Kitchen Classroom.

In her latest cooking demo “Budget Bites,” chef Valerie Batlle, better known as Chef Val, used basic ingredients to make One Pot Vegetable Pasta, Chicken or Tuna Salad, and Banana Mug Cake. Best part? All of the 20-ish students who attended sampled each recipe and received a free bag of fresh vegetables and non-perishable food donated by the Basic Needs R’Pantry.

Third-year psychology major Sophia Nguyen said, “My favorite recipe was the Tuna Salad because it was super fresh, ceviche-like, and not mushy.”

During this 1.5-hour demo, Chef Val shared these and many other helpful tips to take your meals from mid to may I have some more:

Food Conservation

• Use veggie scraps to make a veggie broth.

• Yellow bell peppers are sweeter than green ones.

• Salt isn’t just for flavor; it breaks down food on a molecular level.

• Save prepared food in the fridge for about seven days before it spoils. Freeze prepared foods for about three months.

• Stock up on salt, flour, canned or dried beans, rice, canned or frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes, and chicken or vegetable bouillon because they will have a long shelf life and you can create so many recipes with them.

Chef Techniques

• Sweat onions by sautéing them till they release moisture and become translucent.

• Make garlic paste by grinding salt into minced garlic.

• Always assume everything is hot.

• Never mix water with hot oil.

• Watch for condensation and steam when taking the lid off a pot of cooking food.

• Place a nonslip mat or wet paper towel under cutting boards so they don't slide around.

• Use a honing steel to smooth out rough edges and revive a knife’s blade before every use.

• Add salt throughout the cooking process to build flavor — don’t just season at the end.

• Do you, be creative, and have fun!

Chef Val started her UCR career in 2012 as a temp chef at Lothian Hall and has been leading SRC’s cooking demos as Recreation's resident chef since 2014. Staff have sampled her food at various campus events cohosted by Healthy Campus, UC Walks, and Staff Assembly. Past student demos that have been a smash are Bob’s Burgers of the Day, You Dessert It, Chicken 101, and Breakfast for Dinner.

Fun facts about Chef Val? She’s never used an air fryer or instant pot, her knives are her favorite tool, she could totally do without using pepper, and she looks forward to trying the new Halal Shack at the HUB.

Ways to Start Cooking Well and Eating Better

Students can review/register for more upcoming Cooking Well demos on the SRC website.

Anyone can visit the SRC YouTube channel for a series of "how to" Cooking Well videos, All to Taste with Chef Val.

Everyone should follow @UCRSRC on Instagram for more Cooking Well updates.

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