One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.
I’m a food writer without a defining childhood story. You know what I mean: So many scribes will explain that their fascination with food began at their mother’s elbow, where they learned the importance of fresh market vegetables or long-simmered sauces or dough allowed to ferment overnight in a cool, dark place.
I watched my mom, Kay, drop bags of Birds Eye frozen vegetables into a pot of boiling water. I slobbered as she made brownies from a Duncan Hines mix. She was a victim of her own post-war generation, whose members embraced convenience foods and cooking shortcuts so they could enjoy life outside the kitchen. Her cooking chores became more complicated when I started eating “adult” foods in the 1960s and 1970s in Omaha. Or, rather, when I didn’t eat adult foods.
When I was a child, my taste buds were more immature than Johnny Manziel. I hated almost everything outside my personal junk-food troika of vending-machine candy, hamburgers on the grill and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Meatloaf? Chicken and dumplings? Good Nebraska steak? You might as well have fed me scorpions on a stick. My gag reflex would have been the same.
My worried mom’s initial response was to press the issue: She’d make me sit at the dinner table until I cleaned my plate, which led to some tense, Cuban missile crisis-like standoffs. I’d hunker down for battle, my meat and potatoes growing colder as the minutes ticked by. Seven o’clock. Eight o’clock. Nine o’clock. I have no idea how I occupied my mind during those hours, other than to fixate on the same thought over and over: I will never surrender.
That dinnertime Cold War went on for years. As I got older and decided I couldn’t waste the hours, I devised strategies for freeing myself from the table: I stored food in my cheeks, like a chipmunk, and spat it out later. When no one was looking, I’d flip chicken onto my lap and stuff it into a pocket, storing it until I could flush it down the toilet.
The one dish, however, that I loved with abandon was my mom’s runza, a basic meat pocket that’s a staple of the Great Plains diet. Little more than baked dough balls stuffed with cabbage, onions and seasoned ground beef, runzas aligned perfectly with my limited palate.
In our house, we called them “gut bombs,” the one term perhaps even less appetizing than runzas. In other Midwestern communities, one might refer to them as bierocks, cabbage burgers or even krautburgers. Whatever you call them, runzas can be traced back to ethnic Germans who lived in the Volga River valley in Russia, where their cuisine was influenced by the pirog, a savory stuffed pie.
I couldn’t have cared less about any of that as a boy. Whenever I saw my mom rolling out runza dough — it was often store-bought stuff; see above on post-war convenience foods — I would quickly grow excited. My joy wasn’t just about feasting on a favorite dish. It was about feeling normal for a night. It was about feeling that I could bond with my mom over food, a connection that I so rarely shared with her.
More Mother’s Day essays:
Mention the runza to anyone outside Nebraska, and they’re likely to suggest you cover your mouth the next time you sneeze in public. But to Nebraskans, the runza is a staple of the Midwestern diet, a variation of the bierock stuffed pastry original to ethnic Germans who had settled in the Volga River valley in Russia.
The standard runza filling is basically a hash of ground beef, onions, cabbage and seasonings, although there are many variations, including ones with sauerkraut and/or shredded cheese. Midwesterners of a certain generation — mostly, home cooks who came of age in the mid-20th century — often relied on frozen, premade dough from the grocery store. This recipe calls for homemade dough, which is not as sweet or bready as the dough preferred by many Midwesterners, and it sneaks some garlic into the filling for a little non-Germanic punch.
You’ll need a thermometer for monitoring the dough’s liquid mixture and a scale for easy portioning of the dough.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The runzas can be baked and frozen. To reheat, wrap them in aluminum foil and bake in a 325-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes.
Adapted from recipes by Kay Billingsley and Instructables.com.
For the dough
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water, plus 1/2 cup room-temperature water
3/4 cup low-fat milk
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
41/2 cups flour, plus more as needed
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
Oil, for greasing the proofing bowl
For the filling
11/4 pounds ground beef (80-20)
11/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 large white onion, cut into small dice (2 cups)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5 cups chopped green cabbage (from 1/2 large head)
For the dough: Combine the yeast and the 1/2 cup of warm water in small bowl, stirring until the yeast has dissolved.
Combine the 1/2 cup of room-temperature water, the milk and shortening in a small saucepan; heat over low heat until the shortening has liquefied but the temperature of the mixture is no greater than 130 degrees.
(If during that time the yeast mixture hasn’t bubbled at all, your yeast might be dead. So dump it out and start over.)
Combine 13/4 cups of the flour, all the sugar and the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment; beat on low speed until incorporated.
Add the yeasty liquid, the warm milk mixture and the eggs to the mixer bowl; beat on medium-low speed until well incorporated. Stop to scrape down the bowl and beaters; then, on medium-low speed, gradually add 23/4 cups of flour, beating to form a wet dough.
Generously flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there; knead for 5 minutes, adding flour as needed to form a dough that’s smooth and elastic and a still a bit tacky.
Lightly grease a proofing bowl with oil, then place the dough in it. Cover with a towel and let rise in a draft-free spot for 1 to 2 hours or until the dough has about doubled in size.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Drop the ground beef by pinches into a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Season with the salt and pepper; cook until no trace of pink remains, breaking up the meat to a crumbly consistency as it cooks.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the ground beef to a bowl, then drain off and discard most of the fat and juices in the pan; leave a small amount for cooking the vegetables.
Stir in the onion; cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until translucent, then stir in the garlic. Cook for about 1 minute or until fragrant, then return the ground beef to the pan and add the cabbage. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring to incorporate, until the cabbage has softened. Remove from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Re-flour the work surface if needed.
Uncover and punch down the dough. Divide the dough into 24 equal portions (it’s good to use a kitchen scale for this). Working with a few at a time on the floured work surface, roll out each portion of dough to a 5-inch square.
Scoop about 1/3 cup of the filling onto the center of each dough square. Fold the dough over to form triangle-shaped turnovers, pressing to tightly seal the edges. Transfer them to the baking sheets, spacing the runzas at least 2 inches apart. Bake for 20 minutes (one sheet at time, middle rack) or until golden brown. Repeat to use all the dough and filling.
Nutrition | Per serving: 210 calories, 8 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Recipe tested by Tim Carman; e-mail questions to email@example.com