Monday, September 29, 2008

How I love you, mon petit chou

For as long as I can remember, I have eaten cabbage. I never had an aversion to it, or a phase when I wouldn't eat it. It doesn't make me gag, like it does some of my friends. But, I've also never appreciated it either--until now. Cabbage has always been there: pale and limp when boiled with corned beef or in stringy nest of tangy sauerkraut.

Cabbage has been far too under appreciated. I suppose the stench of boiled cabbage contributes to its bad image. Cabbage's connotation of poverty has not helped its reputation very much either. However, being the unemployed waif that I am, I am suddenly enamored with the brassica. It could just be that I'm spending too much time "cabbaging about" on the couch as the British would say. Still, when I saw heaps of cabbage heads at the farmer's market, I was charmed. These were not the cellophaned, sterile looking heads of cabbage at the Kroger. No, these were magical heads of cabbage. Their dark green leaves were still attached, un-furling themselves to show the promise of the cabbage crown, the pate of tightly curled, spicy crunchy vegetable. These were romantic cabbages. Cabbages that made me understand the French endearment: "mon petit chou." Upon reflection, my fantastical preoccupation with cabbages, probably stems from the fact I turned 4 years old at the height of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze. Again, these food moments of remembrance past continue to resurface.

I bought a gigantic cabbage weighting over 5 lbs for $1.50. Part of it went into the aforementioned Runzas, and with the rest of it, I made sauerkraut. Again, four-year-old Sarah surfaced. When I was little, I used to watch grandma Krahulik making sauerkraut. I remember her pulling the head of cabbage across an antique wood and steel mandoline that looked like a medieval torture devise--that is if one had a childishly overactive imagination and fancied a human head in place of the cabbage head, and blood instead of thin shreds of cabbage leaves. Then, throwing all the cabbage together with salt and waiting for it to ferment, essentially practicing controlled food spoilage makes sauerkraut making seemed a bit--well, edgy.

It's not. In fact, making sauerkraut has seems to fall comfortably into the category of domesticity that contains folding dish towels or kneading bread dough. Simple and ordinary and comforting.

Making sauerkraut is ridiculously easy. (So far. I still have to let it ferment completely, which could take several weeks.)

Un-Edgy Sauerkraut

1, 5lb cabbage, chopped or sliced into thin shreds
3 T. salt

Special Equipment:
2 gallon, non-metallic container, impeccably clean (Preferable a ceramic crock, but glass or food-grade plastic will work too.)
Plate that will fit inside container.
Weight of some sort. (I used a 10lbs. hand weight, a large clean rock, or a gallon milk jug filled with water will work too.)
Clean kitchen towel or pillowcase.

Seasonings: (Optional)
caraway seeds
juniper berries

Mix chopped cabbage, salt, and seasonings together. Pack firmly in ceramic crock. Use your fists to punch cabbage firmly down. Place plate on top, and top with clean weight, cover with kitchen towel.

The salt will draw the water out of the cabbage, and the weight helps press the water out. Within 24 hours the briny cabbage water should total immerse the cabbage and the plate, if not add enough brine (1 cup water to 1 t. salt) to cover.

I've read that a moldy scum or "bloom" will develop on the surface brine, which, if it appears will have to be skimmed off.

Let ferment in cool spot for 1 to 4 weeks.... to be continued. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Land of the Unfamilar and the Unemployed

Holly has brought it to my attention that I have been slacking off lately, and she's right. I've let my days get sucked up by unpacking, decorating, and spending countless hours roving and Career Builder in hope that there's an employer out there that would love to hire an English lit. major who's obsessed with food. When I get weary of writing cover letters and revising my resume, I crawl to the couch. Kent and I have been watching reruns of Arrested Development (whose unemployed characters I'm beginning to relate to more and more everyday) and classic episodes of the French Chef on DVD.

Moving is stressful, but settling into a new place is even harder. For the past month it's felt like I'm still traveling, still on a trip in a strange place. I can't leave the house without a map or a map quest print out. I struggle to find the right place to go out to eat, to buy groceries, to find micro-brewed beer. All that innate wisdom that comes with knowing a place really well, of being a local, well, that acquired knowledge just hasn't had time to bubble up, grow, ferment for me here in Bowling Green.

I'm making progress though. I've discovered a lovely farmer's market in Perrysberg, a short 15 minute drive from my house. (Where I bought cabbage and local ground beef for Runzas.) I'm slowly building up my pantry and my arsenal of condiments. (My friend Kelly thinks we should all be given a condiment stipend whenever we move because buying new jars of soy sauce, fish sauce, relish, mustard, ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire, jelly, honey, tahini, anchovy paste ect, is expensive.)

Then, there's also the matter of settling into a new kitchen... It's a lot like finding a new dance partner. This new kitchen has me stumbling over my own feet. It trips me up as I choreograph dinner. Instead of fluidly keeping rhythm with me as a reach for this pot, grab that pan, find the jar of ground cumin, or rummage through the drawer for a measuring cup, this kitchen is stilted and clunky. Oh, we're getting to know each other better, this kitchen and I. I'm working on rearranging things just so, memorizing with my feet and arms and hands where everything is, but it takes a lot of practice and rehearsals.

This week my kitchen and I worked on perfecting homemade Runzas. I'm not sure if it's because I'm back in the Midwest, or because it's fall, or because when everything is new the urge to return to childhood foods becomes impossibly strong, but whatever the reason, the Runzas were perfect: satisfyingly hearty and best eaten with your hands.

Sarah's Runzas
makes 8

1 1/2 t. dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
2 t. honey
1 1/2 t. salt
approximately 3 cups all purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in warm water and let stand for for 5 minutes. Stir in honey and salt. Add flour, stirring until rough dough forms. Then, either turn out onto floured work surface and knead by hand or knead with dough hook in stand mixer about 15 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about an hour or until doubled in size.

1/2 lbs. ground beef (preferably grass-fed, organic beef)
2 small onions, chopped
2 cups cabbage, chopped
1/2 t. caraway seeds
dash of garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
melted butter

Over medium high heat, brown ground beef with onions. Drain excess fat. Add cabbage and cook over medium heat until cabbage is soft and nearly translucent. Add caraway seeds, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

To Assemble:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out dough, about 1/8 in. thick, forming a rectangle shape. Cut into eight, smaller rectangle shapes about 3 inches wide and 6 inches long. Put about a 1/4 cup of filling in center of each Runza, top with shredded cheese, then fold edges together in half. Press seams of dough together firmly. Place on buttered cookie sheet. Before baking prick holes with fork in Runzas and brush with melted butter. Bake for about 15 minutes and until Runzas are golden brown. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving, and even then eat with caution as filling will be extremely hot! Kent likes to eat his with mustard and ketchup.

And I must admit it, these are much better than their fast food counter part. For one, they don't contain nearly as much sodium, and you know exactly what's in them. Plus, if you're anything like me, you get an innate sense of satisfaction of making something with your hands, seeing a process through from raw ingredients, to delicious finished project.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Run to Runza

Hi , out there! I'm finally back in the blog grid. I've had an incredibly busy several weeks spent primarily on nesting in my new house. It takes a lot of elbow grease, flea market/Craig's list shopping, curtain making, furniture re-arranging, box unpacking, and picture hanging to make a house into a home. I'm almost there. Today's nesting culminated in the delivery (thanks, Toby!) of a vintage silver-gray couch, in pristine condition that I bought on Craig's list for the ridiculously cheap sum of $40. But before I show you around my new kitchen, which is perhaps the best feature of this house, I want to spend some time recounting the food adventures I had on the way to my new home in Ohio. Mainly, I want to tell you about the foodways I traveled with friends and family in Nebraska, my home state.

My Nebraska food adventures began with my run to Runza.

If you know what a Runza is, then you're probably a Nebraskan (although Runza chains do exist in other Midwestern places like South Dakota and Kansas). Runza the restaurant, named after its signature stuffed sandwich, is an iconic Nebraska fast food franchise started in 1949 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Read more about Runza's history here. The minute I made it to my sister's house, the first thing we did was go out to Runza. I realize that after eschewing fast food my entire road trip, this may make me something of a hypocrite. However, in my defense, Runza is the closest I've seen fast food get to the slow food movement. Although this may be just clever marketing copy from their web page, one of my sister's friends actually worked at Runza when he was in high school, and he confirms each franchise does make their own Runza's from scratch!
So apparently, the homemade difference is no lie. But, why am I getting so insanely excited about a Runza? What exactly am I getting all worked up about? A Runza is simply seasoned ground beef, onions, and cabbage enclosed in a yeast dough and baked. It's a hot pocket without the microwave, a calzone for the non-Italian, an empanada for the initiated, a piroshki that isn't Greek to me. A Runza is utterly delicious.

For $1.99, this little packet of pastry was every bit as good as I remember as a child. It's savory and simple like the best comfort food should be. The onion and cabbage are slowly cooked until they obtain a translucent, near transcendence creaminess, which contrasts nicely with the meaty heartiness of the beef. I couldn't say what the "secret seasonings" are that Runza claims they use, but I'm guessing that it can't be anything more fancy than fresh ground black pepper and a little Kosher salt.

Simplicity aside, the Runza is also adaptable in infinite combinations. (There are several different variations on the classic available--the one with Swiss cheese, which my sister ordered, is very nice.) In elementary school, the cafeteria used to serve Bunza's, a non-trademarked version of the Runza that had a Velveeta-like cheese in it in addition to the cabbage and ground beef. My mom makes a casserole version that uses refrigerated pastry dough for the crust. (Mom, if you're reading this, feel free to post the recipe for all of us Runza addicts out there.)

So, if you're ever in Nebraska, and you see a Runza restaurant, know that you can stop and get delicious food. Coming from someone who hasn't eaten at a McDonald's in 9 years, this should mean something. Or maybe it just means that sentimentality can sometimes cloud my better judgment. Either way, my Runza was delicious and comforting in a way that I'd argue a Big Mac, cannot be, but you'll have to judge for yourself.