My ongoing project this year is to re-create meaningful meals. I’ve mainly been exploring my mother’s recipes but I’ve also been thinking about other folks who’ve invited me to share their tables. Plainly speaking, I’m hoping to cook up some of the connectedness that I’ve missed this year. Food is always the answer, right?
When my daughter was in elementary school, she struck up a friendship with a girl from a large, charmingly boisterous family. No doubt, she found it a fascinating counterpoint to the relatively subdued home life of an only child. When she went her friend’s house for playdates, I’d often stay to chat. I positively relished the time I spent in their cozy little saltbox house. It never felt small; it only felt full of love.
One evening, the girls didn’t want to part from each other, so we stayed for dinner. They served “haystacks,” a budget-friendly, build-your-own meal that the children greeted with enthusiasm. It wasn’t fancy-schmancy but it hit the spot: a tasty layered creation of rice, steamed peas, diced tomato, fresh cilantro, cheddar cheese and a sauce made from cream of mushroom soup. I thought it was pretty darn clever and took the idea home with me, along with the memory of that warm, wonderful evening.
“Haystacks” might bring to mind the no-bake cookies made with dried noodles. (In fact, I wrote about haystack cookies last year.) These haystacks are a savory meal made by stacking things on top of each other until you have a lovely mound of goodness. To be clear, this is not advanced cheffery; it is a pile of food in a bowl. Long before there was Mighty Bowl or Cafe Yumm, frugal home cooks have relied on the haystack method to use up culinary bits and pieces, transforming them into do-it-yourself dinnertime entertainment.
The basic formula is a starch, a protein, a vegetable, cheese and sauce, not necessarily in that order, although usually the starch is at the bottom. Put all the different components in the middle of the table, give everyone a bowl and let them go to town.
Here are some suggestions for the various haystack components.
Starch: Use brown rice or wild rice in place of white rice. Try quinoa, couscous or polenta. Use roasted potatoes, Tater Tots or hash browns. Use rice noodles, glass noodles, udon or any pasta. Skip the starch altogether and used riced cauliflower, zoodles or squoodles (long ribbons of zucchini or squash used in place of spaghetti).
Protein: Anything goes! Ground beef, chicken, turkey, pork or lamb, sauteed shrimp, pulled pork, any kind of sausage, broiled, baked or poached salmon or trout. Try a fried, poached or soft-boiled egg. If you’re a vegetarian, use beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans or succotash.
Vegetable(s): Any vegetable, raw, steamed, sauteed or roasted. Sometimes I use a fresh vegetable with a steamed or sauteed vegetable. Try leafy additions like cabbage, spinach, kale, cilantro or basil. Experiment with seasonal vegetables; in fall and winter, try roasted Brussels sprouts or roasted root vegetables. In the spring use peas and asparagus. In the summer you’ll need to use up those zucchini and tomatoes.
Cheese: Literally any cheese. Or all the cheeses at once. You’re the Cheeser in Chief here.
Sauce: I most often use cream of mushroom soup, made with half the milk or water so it’s thicker and slightly saltier. Use any creamy soup or bisque or make your own bechamel or hollandaise sauce. Forget the cream sauce altogether and use salsa, pico de gallo, Sriracha or Tabasco. Use the leftover teriyaki sauce from last week’s takeout. Use the Green Goddess dressing that’s been in the fridge for too long (but please don’t get food poisoning).
You can throw together your favorite flavors, but these are some tasty combinations.
Greek Haystack: White rice, seasoned ground lamb or lamb sausage, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, black or Kalamata olives, feta cheese and tzatziki (yogurt and cumber sauce).
Northwest Haystack: Wild rice, broiled salmon, sauteed asparagus and Washington State University’s Cougar Smoky Cheddar or Dill Garlic cheese with mushroom sauce. Optional sprinkles: fresh dill or chopped hazelnuts.
Spanish Haystack: Roasted potatoes, chorizo sausage, chopped cherry tomatoes, chopped tricolor bell peppers or sliced fire-roasted bell peppers (available in jars), Spanish olives, Manchego cheese and mushroom tapenade.
Vegan Haystack: Brown rice or quinoa, curried chickpeas, roasted butternut squash, kale lightly sauteed with garlic, coconut curry sauce. Optional sprinkle: cashew pieces or freeze-dried beets.
Breakfast Haystack: Hash browns, Tater Tots or homestyle potatoes, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, diced bell pepper or tomatoes, salsa and cheddar cheese. Sprinkle with chopped scallions or chives.