Students turn to kitchen for food, friends, fun

Houston junior Gabi Bagnasco cuts into a potato in her well-loved kitchen. Photo credit: Trey Honeycutt

With all the pressure of making good grades, staying socially active and actually sleeping every night, cooking at home may often get pushed to the back burner. However, there are some students who make it a part of their daily lives.

After spending last semester in Maastricht, being back in Waco has made cooking a little more difficult for Houston junior Jackie Johnston. Groceries were cheaper in the Netherlands, and she lived right next door to the grocery store.

“I am not cooking nearly as much as I thought I would because groceries are expensive and I don’t drive, but when I do I really enjoy it,” Johnston said.

However, the new challenges haven’t stopped her from investing in one of her favorite pastimes. Johnston said she tries to cook every week, despite her busy schedule and the cost of groceries.

Johnston’s not the only student who resists the appeal of easy eating in dining halls and fast food restaurants. For several other students, the kitchen has turned into a source of good food, good friendship and good memories.

Plano senior Shantha Nithiananda said she finds that cooking is always worth investing time in, even though she, like Johnston, struggles with the cost of time and groceries.

“It’s a lot harder to cook when you have to buy your own ingredients as opposed to making you parents buy them for you,” Nithiananda said.

Despite having to buy her own groceries, Nithiananda is still an avid cook. She said she has been cooking for as long as she can remember, standing on stools and poking at whatever her mother was cooking.

“My family has always cooked,” Nithiananda said. “My grandma is the type of person who will show up with a bunch of pie ingredients in the back of her car, just in case anyone wants a pie.”

Nithiananda continued to cook often as she grew up. Now, she particularly likes when she can share her skills with the people around her.

“Being in college, there are a lot of people who don’t have the time or don’t know how to cook for themselves,” Nithiananda said. “And it’s my favorite thing to cook for people, to take care of them.”

Nithiananda prefers to bake for people rather than just herself. Her specialty is desserts, usually cupcakes with toppings like bacon or chocolate-covered strawberries. Her favorite recipe is a signature yellow cupcake that can be dressed up or down with different frostings and decorations.

Unlike Nithiananda, Johnston said she didn’t start cooking until high school. She got started because her mom often cooked the same recipes over and over. Wanting to try new things, Johnston said she offered to cook meals if her mom would do the dishes. In doing so, she learned that she loves to mix flavors and season chicken or vegetables until they are perfect.

“I like the concept of creating something,” Johnston said. “I like tinkering with the recipe and making it my own. I also like to eat, and I’m really picky about my food. If I can pick and decide what goes in and what doesn’t go in, I can make it exactly how I like.”

Johnston said her favorite recipe to make is chicken stuffed bell peppers, but a close second is breakfast tacos.

“They are just so easy and fun and delicious,” Johnston said.

Like Johnston, Houston junior Gabi Bagnasco said she wanted to start learning how to cook because of her mother. However, it was for very different reasons.

Bagnasco said her mom was such a good cook and so many people liked eating her food that it inspired her to get in the kitchen herself. Once she started cooking for people, she discovered it was something she really enjoyed as well.

“I like the feeling of cooking something and making it taste so good that nobody can resist it. I also think it is a really good tool to have when you are by yourself and you want some good food,” Bagnasco said. “That’s why I want to cook, because I want good food.”

Although she started learning how to cook several years ago, Bagnasco didn’t start cooking consistently until she was in college.

“I wanted home-cooked meals, but there was nobody else to cook them so I just started doing them myself,” Bagnasco said.

Nithiananda also cooks for herself often, and finds it relaxing and a good break from the rush of daily life.

“Other than the fact that you get delicious food out of it, it’s kind of relaxing,” Nathiananda said. “You don’t have to really think about it. It’s a good break from homework because you can feel like you’re being productive while not having to function.”

What’s even better than cooking for yourself, Bagnasco said, is the social aspect of cooking. Her friends sample her food often, and a Twitter poll they took showed that they liked her creamy chicken noodle soup the best.

“I like the fact that making big meals usually brings people together, whether it’s your friends or your family,” Bagnasco said. “You can either have people over for a big meal or have leftovers, so it’s a win-win.”

Gabi Bagnasco’s Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup

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Bagnasco loves cooking for friends and family—their favorite recipe is her creamy chicken noodle soup. Photo credit: Trey Honeycutt

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Feeds: Five to six people

  • 1 1/3 cups chopped carrots
  • 1 1/3 cups chopped celery
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 1 1/3 cups frozen peas (not canned!!)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 pound (2-3 breasts) skinless, boneless chicken
  • 2 cans chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/8 cup flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 1/2 cups milk


1. In a large pot, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add carrots, celery, mushrooms and onions and sauté until tender, three to four minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté one minute more.

2. Add chicken broth, parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

3. Add peas and chicken breasts and bring the soup to a boil on medium-high heat. Once it boils, reduce the heat to medium and cook until chicken is cooked through. for 10-15 minutes.

4. While the soup is cooking, start boiling the water for the egg noodles and cook those according to the package. Add the pasta once it is boiling, then cook for seven to nine minutes and drain. Don’t overcook egg noodles because they will get mushy very easily.

5. Once chicken has cooked in the soup, remove it and let it cool down enough to shred it into small pieces. Add shredded chicken back and keep the soup on heat.

6. In the saucepan, melt 1/4 cup of butter on medium heat. Slowly add the flour, stirring constantly, for one to two minutes. Once butter and flour are combined, slowly add the milk, and whisk vigorously to smooth out all the clumps.

7. Whisk the heavy cream in the saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

8. Once the cream mixture is smooth and boiling, add it to the soup in the large pot. When the egg noodles are cooked and drained, add those to soup as well.

Jackie Johnston’s Chicken Stuffed Bell Peppers

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Houston junior Jackie Johnston cuts up a red bell pepper in her kitchen. Photo credit: Trey Honeycutt

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: Six hours and 40 minutes

Feeds three to six people


  • 3-4 chicken breasts
  • 1/4 cup of cilantro
  • 1 can of chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup of lime juice
  • 3-4 red bell peppers


1. Put all ingredients in a crockpot and cook on low for six hours. Alternatively, all ingredients can be cooked on the stove for 1 1/2 hours.

2. Once the chicken has cooked, shred it.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

4. Take the red bell peppers and core them, scraping out all the seeds.

5. Once that’s done, stuff them with shredded chicken, cover them with foil and roast in the oven with a sliced lime for about 40 minutes.

5. Top with diced avocado and fresh cilantro.

Shantha Nithiananda’s Yellow Cupcakes

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 20-25 minutes

Feeds: 12 people

For cake base:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs

For frosting:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line the cups of a standard (12-cup) muffin tin with paper or foil liners. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a liquid-measuring cup, mix milk and vanilla; set aside.

  2. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, three to four minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer on low speed, add half of dry ingredients, followed by milk-vanilla mixture, then remaining dry ingredients. Do not overmix.

  3. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups (a 2-ounce or 1/4-cup ice-cream scoop is good for this).

  4. Place tin on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool cupcakes 5 minutes in tin, then remove and cool completely on a rack before frosting.

  5. Prepare frosting: In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer, beat butter, confectioners’ sugar, milk, and vanilla extract until smooth. Mix in up to 1/2 cup more sugar or a few more teaspoons of milk as necessary to achieve a spreadable consistency.