Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Best Bachelor Runza

I've discussed runza here before. It's a dish involving (at the very least) meat, onions, and cabbage, covered by a crust of bread or pastry. It is primarily known in Nebraska, where there is a chain of fast-food restaurants named after it and prominently featuring the "enclosed in soft bread" variant on the menu. The recipe circulates among the cookbooks compiled by church women's auxiliaries. It shows up at pot-luck dinners. And it forms a small but lovely part of my memories of growing up (partly) in Nebraska.

I made myself a runza last night. Having assembled the ingredients in a recent shopping trip, I tried a different approach to the dish. The result was the best church-cookbook-variant/bachelor-slob-gourmet version of runza I have ever achieved. I feel it is incumbent on me to share how it came about.

To start with, on several past occasions I have fiddled with the "church cookbook" recipe my mother handed down to me. I couldn't decide whether the recipe should include a tomato-based sauce or some type of gravy. I had tried it both ways, with about equal success—but while these attempts went over all right at pot-luck meals at my St. Louis area church, where Nebraska specialties like runza are a strange delicacy, I thought they were "only OK."

One of my experiments suffered from the fact that, on somebody's urging, I added cheese, only to find out that at least one of the people I was expected to feed could not have cheese. Another member of the party objected on principle to cabbage in any form, which put the dish out of the question for her. And most worrying to me, the sauce combined with the other fixings made the bottom crust limp and soggy. This problem increased, and spread to the top crust, when the leftovers were refrigerated and reheated.

So, as a new experiment, I made last night's runza without any sauce whatsoever. And though the dish required me to do my fair share of cooking, I also did it with a minimum of "prep-cooking."

First step: the shopping. Knowing that I was going to make this dish, I bought a good two pounds of ground beef (not particularly low-fat; I'm all for saving money, and grease can be drained off). I bought two canisters of Pillsbury croissant dough, the kind prepared as a single seamless sheet. At the produce counter closest to the deli area of my neighborhood supermarket, I bought a small tub of chopped onion—which, as a surprise bonus (I didn't notice until I was opening the tub) also contained some chopped celery. I bought a small bag of Dole plain cole slaw (the kind with mostly green cabbage, a little red and a few shreds of carrot, but no sauce). And I relied on the fact that I already had the utensils and spices that I would need.

Second step: the sauteing. I started with the ground beef. This I had to divide into two batches, breaking the meat up and browning it over medium heat in a medium-size skillet. I ground a little garlic sea-salt over it. I sprinkled on it some black pepper, paprika, thyme, and a little cumin. After each half of the meat was done, I plated it between two wads of paper towel and patted the grease out of it. Both portions of meat being done, I sauteed the onion and celery mix for a minute, then added the cole slaw and drizzled the whole mess with olive oil. I kept stirring this until it stopped being particularly hard to keep it from overflowing the pan—just enough to begin softening the cabbage.

Third step: the baking. I sprayed Pam in a lasagna pan. I spread one of the rolls of croissant dough in the bottom of the pan, then half of the browned meat on top of that, then the vegetable mixture on top of that, then the rest of the meat on top of that, and finally the second roll of croissant dough. Into a pre-heated 350-degree oven went the lot of it. I peeked inside the oven at 20 minutes to see how the top crust was coming. I let it bake for another 3 minutes or so, and took it out just as the crust was turning a nice light brown. I let it cool for a few minutes, then used the edge of a spatula to divide it into 8 servings.

Final step: the eating. My first serving was so delicious that I couldn't resist having another. I didn't miss the sauce at all. If the meat and vegetables lacked anything desirable for flavor or texture, the crispy flaky crust supplied it. Even the bottom crust seemed to be there, at least when the dish was warm out of the oven. I didn't miss the cheese either; with apologies to the restaurant chain, which seems to consider it a requirement.

The servings that I couldn't eat when the pan was still oven-warm, I stored in plastic tubs in the refrigerator. I ate one tubful late last night, one for breakfast this morning, and one for lunch. And it's gone, just like that. And, all right, a certain clamminess did start to set in, especially in the lower crust, so I was well motivated to finish the leftovers promptly. Two minutes in the microwave with the lid of the storage tub loosened, and the refrigerated entree was piping hot. I tried a little ketchup with today's lunch portion, and it did not go amiss.

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