College-friendly Pasta, Not Mac n’Cheese

by Megan LaPlante

While today’s undergraduates may face serious challenges—classes that resemble mild forms of torture, heavy homework loads that restrict social playtime, and the elusive balancing of work, friendships and relationships—cooking does not have to be a part of that list of challenges. Proof? As a college student myself, I’ve managed to keep cooking as an integral part of the undergraduate balancing act/mayhem and have found it provides quite a nice way to get a break from the frenzy. Also, making dinner at home saves students money and time and provides a creative outlet to young cooks. Consider one of my favorite ways to make college-friendly pasta that doesn’t come out of a mac ‘n cheese box: Bruschetta Tortellini.

One particularly hectic evening while staring at a looming pile of novels waiting to steal my evening away, I decided to head into the kitchen and leave them in suspense. In the fridge? Eggs, butter, milk, and a jar of rapidly dwindling peanut butter. Moving to the pantry, the food selection wasn’t much improved: a bag of flour hanging out with some three-cheese tortellini, a head of garlic, and a can of majorly expired pinto beans. On my counter, nothing edible presented itself except some tomatoes and a wilting basil plant eagerly waiting for the morning rays to perk up its fragrant leaves. Pretty standard meager rations for the everyday college pantry.

Even though a grocery trip was beckoning, I wanted to throw something together without making an excursion beyond my apartment so that pile of novels wouldn’t have to wait too terribly long. And so it was then, with these fine and few ingredients, I created a fresh and hearty meal that I dubbed Bruschetta Tortellini. A dish of creamy, cheesy pasta and bursts of sweet tomatoes mixed with freshly chopped basil plucked right off the stem and Italian spices brightening one steaming bowl of hearty goodness? Yes, please! It’s one of my more proud culinary accomplishments. Let me share just how easy and affordable this meal can be not only for college students but for all of us budget-conscious cooks.

The best part is…you don’t even need the eggs, meager peanut butter scrapings, or expired beans! All you need for this delicious pasta dish are the following ingredients with prices indexed for Trader Joe’s. If you don’t live nearby this amazing store, the this list shouldn’t be far off from other stores’ prices.

  • One bag of cheese tortellini ($1.99)
  • Either one box of grape tomatoes ($1.99) or about 4 large Roma tomatoes ($2.29), whichever you prefer—I like the grape tomatoes because they are easy to chop in half and have amazing bursts of flavor.
  • A few cloves of garlic (99¢ each bulb; garlic powder works fine too but fresh is better)
  • A nice handful of fresh basil, as much as you like (a basil plant is $2.99 at Trader Joe’s: the best part is you won’t have to buy it again because it just keeps on growing if you don’t kill it!)
  • About 2 cups of milk, you pick your percentage ($1.99 for a half gallon)
  • ½ a stick of butter—salted or unsalted (4 bars for $2.79)
  • About ¼ a cup of all purpose flour ($2.99 for a bag)
  • Salt and pepper, as well as any other Italian spices you may have or like

Grand total: less than $20, even though most of the ingredients are staples that you probably already have. Also, it can feed up to 4 or 5 people (depending on your personal pasta portions) and, if you’re flying solo, that means leftovers for a few days!

The best part about this recipe is that it can be easily doubled and made your own. Some people like more tomatoes or basil, and some like less. It’s very easy to play around with and very difficult to mess up: a great recipe for beginner cooks.

So Here’s What You Do

Get a pot of water on the stove to boil while you prep the chopped stuff. Cut the tomatoes as you like. If using grape tomatoes (about a good handful), they only need to be cut in half. If using Roma tomatoes, just dice them up as you like. Mince up the garlic cloves and chop the basil into small strips (again, as much or as little as you like).

Now, it’s time to make a roux, a basic white sauce. Basic sauces like this are great because they essentially serve as blank canvases for all kinds of flavors. In a large saucepan, melt the butter on low heat. Once it has finished melting, add the flour and whisk it together until the butter soaks up all the flour and makes a paste (yes, it should be a little weird looking). Keep this on low heat. Add the milk a little bit at a time, whisking it together with the paste until it is all mixed together and the lumps have disappeared. This is a gradual process and you can add more or less milk to the sauce depending on how thick or thin you like your white sauce. It should start off looking really unappetizing and become more and more beautiful and creamy as you whisk away.

Be sure to let your pasta boil while doing this so it can be ready by the time your sauce is done, but plan ahead because not all tortellini takes the same amount of time to cook. The ones I use take 16 minutes so I let them boil while working on the sauce. Once your white sauce is ready and smooth, remove from heat and stir in the tomatoes, basil, and garlic. It should start to look incredibly colorful and smell quite delightful and fresh in your kitchen. Let those few ingredients get along with one another in the sauce for a minute or two, then season as you like. It will definitely need some salt but other seasonings like pepper and Italian seasonings (thyme, oregano, etc.) only make it tastier. Taste test as you stir and add things as you see fit. That’s the fun part about cooking: you have the power to make your meal uniquely yours!

Once the pasta is cooked and strained, place it in a bowl with your beautiful sauce on top and enjoy. In less than 20 minutes and $20, you’ll have made your tummy happy, saved money, saved time and cleared your head to tackle yet another stack of homework.

More by Megan:

Beyond Ramen: Delicious College Cooking

Megan LaPlante is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in English: “I grew up in the small town of Littlerock, California amongst Joshua Trees and stretching desert, so moving to San Luis Obispo was quite a change of scenery. It’s been wonderful but, with graduation, I hope to venture out into the world and pursue a career in food writing or publishing. Along with cooking, I thoroughly enjoy reading of course and spending time in the sunshine.” You can reach Megan at

photos: Megan La Plante

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