We followed an adventurous culinary road map drawn up by our readers for this month’s Rural Foodie feature. What started with a trip to Davenport, Neb., grew into a challenge straight from the television screen.
The landscape in rural Nebraska hasn’t changed much since the pioneers settled this territory. It is common to find yourself in a setting that offers up nothing but rolling hills of prairie grass and wild pasture. Occasionally, you will find a thinning shelter belt and the skeletal remains of an old windmill that highlights where a homestead once stood. It is on these sacred places that sod houses were first built and the rugged Nebraska soil was cut with nothing more than a plow and sheer determination. Upon surveying the desolate environment, you can’t help but wonder what pioneers thought of this land when they arrived. They had left the amenities of a more developed world and found themselves sacrificing everything for the opportunity to own land in a place where nothing seemed to grow. It was void of trees and crops and seemed to have only wind and unstable weather to offer.
Luxuries such as wood-framed houses and general stores were simply not available to most homesteaders and this is when people figured out how to persevere and generate the ingenuity to survive. Once the soil was broken, people realized it proved fertile for hearty crops. Gardens were essential and their bounty was expected to last year round. The art of canning and drying food was vital to the welfare of early pioneers. Having the ability to preserve fresh rations to last through the bitter cold winter was the only means for survival.
It was this concept of preserving locally harvested food that took the Rural Foodies to South Maple Street in Davenport, Neb. This small business was the featured entrepreneur story last month on our website and this month we had the opportunity to highlight how we utilized its fabulous ingredients. In hopes of creating a thoughtful menu, I took to the Nebraska Rural Living blog and uploaded a post that showcased the South Maple Street ingredients we were working with. We asked readers to create a menu in the fashion of the Chopped program on the Food Network. The response was great and from your wonderful ideas we had an adventurous culinary road map to follow.
The ingredients, please
To refresh your memory, while at South Maple Street we had purchased the following items:
Pickled Green Beans
Sweet Pepper Relish
Garden Pasta Sauce
Sun Dried Tomato Chips
Jisa’s Farmstead Cheese
It was an eclectic pairing of ingredients but we knew their exceptional quality and flavor profile would be worth the challenge.
We had planned a day of preparing, cooking and indulging on the South Maple Street provisions. Since bread is a staple with any Midwestern meal, the night before I made a fresh batch utilizing roasted garlic and the sun dried tomato chips. This no-knead bread is simple to make and the added ingredients took the rustic bread to a new level. The roasted garlic provided a caramelized heat while the crushed tomato chips had infused the bread early on with a kick of on-the-vine tomato goodness. I was impressed how the dehydrated tomato acted as a flavor concentrate by simply being crumbled into the dough. Once sliced, chips dotted the bread with beautiful specs of red earthiness.
On the day of our epic culinary feat, we started by laying out our ingredients and discussing our plan of attack. As we unearthed our South Maple Street bounty from several weeks prior, we marveled again at the beautiful ingredients. The jar of pickled green beans had the perfect amount of dill and garlic cloves bobbing around in the brine. Even with the jar closed, the chipotle powder’s aroma scented the kitchen with a smokiness that would inspire any wannabe home cook. And when we held the jar of sweet pepper relish up to the morning sunlight, it acted like a homemade prism. We realized the stellar ingredients were becoming distracting so we made up a quick plate of the homemade Everything Crisps with a small bowl of the sweet pepper relish as an accompaniment. The savory crisps and tangy pepper compote was enough to tame our curiosity and help us focus on the task at hand.
First course flair
For a first course we created a Mixed Green Salad with Shaved Pickled Beets, Chipotle Honey Vinaigrette and Goat’s Milk Feta. Salads have a tendency to be underwhelming in rural settings. They are more of an afterthought drenched in creamy dressing than a thoughtful platform for flavor profiles. The chipotle powder was a perfect ingredient to spark our imagination and with the addition of some red wine vinegar, locally harvested honey, fresh oregano and olive oil, we created a spicy dressing for our mixed greens. Since beets are not readily available in the spring, we were excited that we could use the pickled beets to add bright color and flavor to our salad. This step reminded us of the importance of preserving food upon the Great Plains. Having the ability to savor fresh beets in April is a result of excellent gardening and canning craftsmanship. How lucky we were to have this resource available! The tartness of the pickled beets were complimented by the creaminess of the goat’s milk feta. We both agreed that a chunk of bread was necessary to soak up the dressing and beet juice that remained after the greens had disappeared. That’s always a good sign!
On to the main course
We highlighted South Maple Street’s homemade fettuccine for the main course by creating Pasta Three Ways. Our goal was to prepare three versions of pasta that would showcase the diversity of our provisions. The first dish was simple as we tossed the fettuccine with some warmed garden pasta sauce. As the sauce was heating, the rich color and the complex aroma made it shockingly apparent that there is simply no comparison between store bought and homemade marinara. It was as if you could smell and taste every aspect of the garden that created these tomatoes. Like a fine wine, South Maple Street produce deserves its own terroir classification.
Our second pasta dish utilized the pickled green beans as we blended a rustic pesto with the help of basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts and olive oil. A few green peas brightened the color. I worried the pickled green beans would overpower the pesto but the presence of the traditional ingredients allowed the tartness of the green beans to pop without dominating the overall dish. Our palates were able to identify every culinary note, yet the green beans added an extra level of flavor that amplified the pesto.
The final pasta creation was effortless to prepare and included only two ingredients from the South Maple Street pantry. We simply tossed the homemade fettuccine with a few spoonfuls of the sweet pepper relish for a dish that would be perfect for al fresco dining or summer picnic fare. Since the winds were howling through our rural community at 40 mph, we merely spoke about the prospect of savoring this food outside. That’s what we do in Nebraska; we learn to adapt.
As an accompaniment to the pasta dishes, I created some cheese crisps so we could include the Jisa’s Farmstead Evil Beer Cheese in our menu. I simply shredded the cheese, placed it in small mounds on a cookie sheet and baked for six minutes at 350 degrees. This created delicate rounds that were not only visually appealing as garnish but also offered up an umami taste profile as a result of baking the cheese. It complimented the pasta and made for a savory snack throughout our feast.
Since our South Maple Street ingredients didn’t necessarily lend themselves to the sweetness of dessert, we decided to think outside of the box. I called upon my ice cream making days to come up with a frozen treat that would incorporate the bitterness of a dark chocolate and the spiciness of the chipotle powder. I utilized my chocolate ice cream recipe to churn a batch of Dark Chocolate and Chipotle Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate/Sea Salt/Roasted Almond Bites. The combination was subtle as I only incorporated a pinch of the chipotle powder, but it generated mild heat as an after note to a bite. The crunch of the roasted almonds and salt was a perfect complement to the complex flavor of the ice cream. I love when something cold can still deliver heat.
With our menu complete, we spent the afternoon photographing and indulging in the dishes created primarily with ingredients grown and preserved in rural Nebraska. We found there was a sense of comfort in knowing that we had access to things not readily available this time of year. I think the process of going to your pantry or cellar to fetch a jar of beautifully preserved local fare has less to do with nourishment and more to do with hope. Being able to see and savor the signs of fruitfulness has the ability to give you strength to carry on when there is nothing green in sight.
There is something truly compelling about knowing you can survive these harsh winter months upon the Great Plains and still have the ability to experience the tastes of summer. It makes it easier to tolerate the winds and unstable weather. Obviously, this is how the pioneers persevered, and I think they would be proud to see that ingenuity lives on today.