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.