Runzas (a recipe)

Oh, runzas. Where do I even begin to explain this mythic food to you? Do I tell you that they’re a Russian/German stuffed sandwich now popular in America’s Plains states? Do I explain that they’re the basis of Nebraska’s most popular fast food restaurant? (I actually worked in a Runza once, for four months. This is not their recipe; I never did the cooking part of the job.)

A runza is basically a bread roll stuffed with ground meat, cabbage, and onions. Like an Old World Hot Pocket, I guess. Jon, who grew up here in southeast Michigan, compares them to pasties, and I guess that’s really not far off. My mom made them while I was growing up, and I make them, and now I’m going to show you how to make them.

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Runzas

You’re going to need:

  • 1/2 lb. ground meat (I used breakfast sausage; ground beef or pork is more traditional)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1/4-1/2 head of cabbage, sliced into strips
  • Salt, pepper, and any other seasonings that strike your fancy
  • One loaf’s worth of your favorite sandwich bread recipe–I used this.

Prepare the bread dough ahead–I actually let mine rise in the fridge overnight.

For the filling: brown the meat and onions in a large pan until you like the color (brown is flavor!). Add the cabbage and stir until the cabbage is fully cooked. Season with salt, pepper, and any herbs you like. I kept mine simple because that’s how we like it, but thyme or sage would be lovely.

Allow the filling to cool completely. (I refrigerated mine overnight with the bread dough.)

Oil a large baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal.

When your dough is finished rising, dump it onto the counter and flatten it out to about an inch, pressing all the air out. Cut it into twelve equal pieces–I did three strips, then cut each strip into four.

To roll each runza: Flatten a piece into a rounded rectangle, and put a scoop of filling into the center. The amount will depend on the size of your bread piece, but 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup should be about right. Roll it up just like a burrito: fold the sides in a bit, then fold up the bottom, then roll it up tightly, stretching the top of the rectangle. Pinch the sides to make sure the filling can’t leak out, and place the runza seam-side down on the baking sheet.

Roll all the runzas and place them on the sheet. Cover with a damp tea towel and allow to proof for 30 minutes to give the runzas volume.

Bake at 400F for 15 minutes or until golden. I didn’t bother preheating my oven–you can if you like.

Yield: 12 smallish runzas.

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Notes:

The ground meat could be substituted for well-seasoned lentils, white beans, or another meat-substitute for vegan runzas. I keep meaning to try this, but my husband loves the meaty kind and is wary of vegetarian variants of beloved foods.

I made twice amount the filling given above, not realizing it was way more than I needed. The leftover filling makes an excellent soup if added to broth. I used mine to make a matzo ball soup that may have actually been more delicious than the runzas themselves.

For the bread, I used a basic white sandwich bread recipe (linked above). My mom always made them with whole wheat dough, which would certainly be healthier. I’ve also successfully used frozen pizza dough, which I can get really cheap from the liquor store where we buy our favorite pizza. Once in college, I even made them with refrigerated croissant dough, but the results were not satisfactory.

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Adobong Kangkong ni Emma

I don’t often cook Filipino food. There are various reasons. One is that it’s, you know, pretty easy to get Filipino food if you’re living in the Philippines. Another is that the most iconic dishes don’t convert very well into a vegetarian meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we don’t cook meat at home. It’s expensive and frequently suspect.

Filipino food, unlike other cuisines in the region, isn’t highly spiced. It depends for flavor largely upon vinegar and fat, especially pork fat. It’s true, there’s nothing preventing you from making a big pan of pancit (Filipino noodles) without any meat, but I know from experience that most Filipinos would dismiss the result as “walang lasa” (without flavor) or “hindi masarap” (not delicious). And the thing is, they wouldn’t really be wrong.

So, I’ve been trying for months to nail down a good vegetarian version of adobo. Adobo is a meat or vegetable braised in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and seasoned with garlic, black pepper and bay leaf. Chicken or pork adobo is delicious, and there are quite a few vegetable adobos that are common here. And there’s certainly nothing stopping you from using tofu in place of meat. Except …

But every time I’ve tried to make meatless adobo, it’s just been lacking. The vinegar is so sour, and the soy sauce is so salty, but there’s no richness in the vegetable to balance those flavors. You’re left with something edible, but … well, hindi masarap.

In searching for adobo recipes online, I found a lot of people put coconut milk in theirs. I dismissed this at first. Adobo doesn’t have coconut milk! Where were they even getting this? For someone who rarely cooks Filipino food and has only lived in two relatively close regions of a diverse country, I pass rather a lot of judgment on FilAm (Filipino-American) food blogs that don’t reflect my experience. (Ground meat in tortang talong? What?!)

But … well, I had a little leftover coconut milk from Sunday’s dinner, and I knew I wanted to make adobong kangkong (water spinach) with quail eggs. And maybe what my vegetarian adobos were missing was saturated fat!

What I’ve learned in my meager three-or-so years of cooking vegetarian food is you have to replace that animal fat flavor with something. You can’t just throw some veggies at a pot and have it taste good. My usual strategy is to brown everything very well. Brown the onions. Brown the garlic. Let the oil absorb all those flavors. Hell, when I cook beans, I actually fry up the soaked, uncooked beans in garlic and onion until they start getting a little brown too. (Then I often fry them again after cooking! Have I mentioned I’ve lost twenty pounds in the Philippines? I have absolutely no fear of fat anymore.)

But I was browning like crazy in my adobos, and it still wasn’t enough to compete with the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce. Caramelized onions can fix most ills, not this one.

All this to say: adobong kangkong with quail eggs and coconut milk was easily the most delicious Filipino food I’ve ever made. The coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar reduced into a rich, thick gravy that I could have eaten with a spoon. That, with the meaty, substantial kangkong stems, and the little creamy burst of yolk when you bite into a boiled quail egg … I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, I cooked the whole thing in the dark during a power outage, so no pictures, except this one of the leftovers. (We ate all the quail eggs the previous night. I don’t think they’d reheat well.)

Adobong Kangkong with red rice

Adobong Kangkong ni Emma
(Emma’s Water Spinach Adobo)

You will need:
One big bunch of kangkong, cut into 2-3″ lengths
4-5 cloves garlic, partially crushed and sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 long red chile, Thai-style, with most of the seeds removed, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
~1 cup coconut milk (less if using canned)
Black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil (we tend to use palm oil)
20 quail eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (or 6 chicken eggs)

Yields 3 servings as a main dish, probably twice that many as a side.

In a wok, saute the shallots on a medium-low heat, allowing them to brown slowly. Before they get crispy, remove them from the pan. Add garlic and chile, saute until garlic is browned. (You COULD add the garlic to the shallots, but I’m not good enough at telling when the shallots are nearly done, and if they saute too long, they get bitter. Your call.)

Return shallots to wok. Add vinegar, soy sauce, coconut milk, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. Chicken adobo can simmer for hours–since the veggies cook much faster, the sauce needs a little time on its own to become delicious.

Add the kangkong to the wok. It will seem like too much. It isn’t. Let the heat wilt the greens, turning them gently with your spoon so that everything gets exposed to the sauce.

When the kangkong is soft and swimming in the sauce, turn off the heat and add the eggs. Mix gently so that the eggs sit in the sauce, and leave the dish for a while so the eggs can soak.

Serve with rice.

A Peace Corps Day

Today was a pretty typical Sunday for me. It’s not what someone would think of if they thought “typical day in the Peace Corps”, so I thought I’d share with you.

6 am: Woke up to the damn loud sparrows outside my window. Put in ear-plugs because it’s a weekend and I can sleep in if I want to, damn it.

6:30 am: Got up anyway because I realized it was my brother’s birthday and I needed to call him.
Made coffee in french press, with dark brown sugar and powdered milk.
Skype didn’t work. E-mailed brother instead. Drank more coffee.
We got a new internet service yesterday! It’s so fast! In the morning, I can watch Youtube videos without waiting for them to buffer! So I did that for a while.
Started soaking black eyed peas for dinner.

8 am: Heated water in the electric kettle, took a bucket bath. (It’s hot enough now that I don’t usually bother, but I also don’t usually shower in the morning before the sun is hot.)
Walked to the market! A man on a bicycle shouted, “Hello American!”
Bought luffah squash (for eating, not washing), sweet potatoes (Filipino style, with white flesh and red skin), bananas, and freshly grated coconut (on which more later).
Also bought one tortang talong, which is a crazy delicious kind of roasted eggplant omelet. That was breakfast.

9 am: I needed coconut milk for dinner, and I had plans for my morning, so I started on that. You pour boiling water over the shredded coconut and let it sit, then wring it out in a cloth.
Watched even more Youtube while that was going on.
Soaked and squeezed two presses from the coconut. (Second press is weak and used during cooking, first press is rich and used for finishing.)

10 am: Dungeons & Dragons on the internet!
Bet you weren’t expecting that one! But seriously, it’s the highlight of my week. So that went on (with a break to make a shallot omelet for lunch, and a million technical difficulties, mostly related to power outages) until…

2 pm: Finished D&D. Peeled and chopped a big hunk of squash (it’s something like butternut) and start roasting it in the toaster oven for dinner.
Also chopped sweet potato and put it in water for later.
Set out a tub of laundry to soak.
Started cooking black eyed peas with shallot and garlic.

3 pm: Washed laundry. This involves squatting beside the tub with a plastic wash board. It was a small load, though. Didn’t take long.
Peeled and chopped the luffah squash. (And man, that stuff has a peel like you wouldn’t believe. Rough

4 pm: Read about a hundred Wikipedia articles while the black eyed peas were cooking. Wikipedia didn’t work on our old internet service. I have a lot of lost time to make up for.

5 pm: Finished dinner. Black eyed peas with roasted squash, coconut milk, and preserved kalamansi (Filipino lime, which I preserved North African style, like Moroccan salted lemons). On the side, mashed sweet potato with coconut milk.

6:30 pm: Sat down to eat with the Roommate. Talked about cooking and how it’s different here than in the States, and about her dog, and whether she should take him back with her, and about our students and their brazenness, and so forth.

And beyond that, it’s all surfing and chatting on the internet until bedtime around ten.

Food and Me–there goes THAT identity!

I am an inveterate fretter. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell me that worrying doesn’t do any good, and there might not be any thing to worry about, and even if there is, there won’t be anything to do about it until it happens–it doesn’t matter. I’ll still worry about it. (Incidentally, I also pick at scabs.)

But blogging helps, so here are a few of the mental scabs I’ve been picking, with regards to my fast-approaching departure for the Philippines.

I’m worried about the food. I’m not exactly worried about liking it–I tend to be an adventurous eater, and I feel like a month in Vietnam with a friend who makes a game of feeding me bizarre things was probably a good warm up. I’m worried about the food because somehow, in the past few months, my shifting identity has become inextricably tied up with food.

For one thing, I’m worried about gaining weight. I put on a load of weight while I was in college (eating poorly and not moving will do that), and it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I started working a job that required physical activity and eliminated meat and processed foods from my diet that I even began to shed some of that weight. I was only just starting to feel good about my body, and it was a GREAT feeling. I don’t want to lose that.

I mean, I know that my confidence in myself shouldn’t be so reliant upon my appearance, but, c’mon guys, I’m American. Plus, I’ve been to Southeast Asia–I know firsthand what a beating self-esteem can take in the face of heat, humidity, and crowds of people half my size. (It’s hard to feel beautiful when you’re beet-red, sweating like a pig, and standing next to a perfectly made-up woman who would wear your shirt like a dress.)

And that’s actually the LESS important of my food issues–that’s just the physical side. The problem is, my eating habits arise out of a desire to eat ethically–local food, no factory-farmed meat, etc. I honestly believe it’s better for EVERYONE (me, the farmers, the planet, everyone).

I guess I should probably wait until I get there to worry about this–I have a hunch local food will be easy to come by, even if meat will be hard to avoid. But I’m still worried about giving up control over where my food comes from.

Maybe I’m feeling a little down over the whole issue because I’ve been traveling, and at times it’s been almost impossible to eat ethically. The last place I stayed, with my Vietnamese family, I just threw in the towel entirely. I ate meat AND processed crap, and I felt disgusting. I still do feel disgusting, actually. (I didn’t feel like I had a choice; I couldn’t really ask them to buy a whole new set of groceries for me. And they really didn’t make much of an effort to compromise.)

I guess what it comes down to is this: while I was in the application process, I would think, from time to time, how not having a religion would make things simpler for me abroad–you know, no worrying about finding a place to worship, or trying to find a compromise between my beliefs and my environment.

Heh. So much for that.

Basically, what I’m worried about is kind of the flip side of what was concerning me a few months ago. I finally happened upon an identity that really suits me, that makes me feel good about myself–this sort of conscientious hippie persona. And I only just got to try that persona on and discover that I like it before it was time to assume my new identity: Peace Corps Volunteer.

But I have reached one very important conclusion: I’m not going to be able to succeed at this unless I purge myself as much as possible of self-righteousness and judgment. So, it’s possible that this is exactly what a brand-new hippie and baby vegetarian needs–a healthy dose of humility.

Anyway, unless the rest of you succeed at massively overhauling the food industry while I’m gone, the food issue will still be here when I get back. Right?

Rice Cakes (Eggy Goodness)

So, if I weren’t such a lousy blogger, I would have a whole series up here. It’d be about eating on next-to-nothing. Lately, my grocery budget has been about $20 a week, so I’ve really had to perfect the art of eating poor.

This is my favorite breakfast, because it requires almost no thought to produce, it’s impossible to screw up, and it’s inexpensive. My mom made these when I was a kid, and I have no idea where she got the recipe. It’s a little similar to the eggy fritters you get in some Asian cuisines, but pared down a bit.

I don’t know of many Americans who eat something like this, though–I used to talk about rice cakes at college, and people assumed I meant the cardboard Quaker abominations. This couldn’t be further from the truth! They are eggy and divine with little crispy bits, and an excellent way to use up leftover rice.

Oh, my friends, you’re in for a treat. (But you’ll have to excuse the lousy photography; I only make this for breakfast, which means I’m NOT motivated to take good pictures.)

Rice Cakes Recipe

Ingredients:
2 eggs
~1.5 cups cooked rice
garlic salt
seasonings of choice

Scramble eggs, and add seasonings. I usually just use the garlic salt and a dash of paprika–occasionally cayenne or chipotle, but I’m rarely that adventurous in the morning. Fresh herbs are fantastic too–cilantro or parsley especially–but, again, it’s morning, and I’m usually much too dazed to do anything but dump in some ground spices.

Add rice to the scrambled eggs. You can adjust the rice-to-egg ratio to your taste. I like it on the eggy side, but if you’re feeling particularly broke, you could up it to two cups of rice for two eggs, or even one egg and one cup of rice.

Heat up some olive oil (or butter, if you’re feeling naughty) in a skillet, on a medium-high heat. Once it’s pretty hot, pour in the batter. I usually get three cakes from this recipe, but if you wanted an even number, you could make them smaller and get four. (I probably would do that if my pan was larger. More circumference means more area for a nice, crispy edge to form. Delicious!)

When the egg around the edges is pretty well cooked, you can check underneath–the cakes should be golden brown and crispy around the edges. Flip them over, and then press them down with the back of your spatula. (This smashes down the loose batter so that both sides are uniform; it took me years to figure out how to do that. Before that, I had one side with a nice, smooth surface, and one that was kind of lumpy and unexciting.)

I like to sprinkle them with a little bit of sea salt. (If you haven’t read this series over on Herbivoracious, you really should.)

You could do all sorts of things to dress them up. Put cilantro in the batter, then serve them with a dollop of salsa, some sour cream, and maybe a sprig of cilantro. (Actually, I may have to try that, next time.) You get the idea. Rice cakes have been my go-to for times when I need food but don’t want to cook for years.

Strawberry-rhubarb crumble–oh my!

So, I went to a farmer’s market yesterday. I’m planning on buying as much local produce as possible this summer. But, I hadn’t really reckoned on just how early in the season it is (what do you MEAN I can’t have every vegetable every month regardless of season?). So, the pickings were a little thin.

But the booth that sold me a very nice chuck roast (a story for another day) had rhubarb. I’ve never cooked with rhubarb before–in fact, I’ve never even eaten rhubarb before–and I was totally ready to discover it.

I brought it home and dug up this beautiful strawberry-rhubarb crumble recipe from Smitten Kitchen. Oh, mama.

First it looked like this:

And then it looked like this:

And, I’ll confess, I felt a little guilty about the strawberries, because while the rhubarb was both local and in season, the strawberries were neither. (They were very unremarkable, nearly flavorless red things from California.)

But, see, then it looked like this:

And my considerable capacity for guilt failed me. It is a beautiful thing, my friends. If you don’t believe me, ask my roommate, who tweeted about it: “@the_metaskeptic: Wow. @middlemuse’s strawberry and rhubarb crumble is beyond words. I could cry.”

And the best part? I had a lot more rhubarb than the recipe called for, so I just doubled the whole thing. I’ll be eating crumble for breakfast for a while.

Not complaining!