Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Food & Cooking: Rapid City

Turns out that finding a hotel room that takes pets in the Black Hills of South Dakota the week before the Sturgis Rally can be both a difficult and an expensive proposition. We were lucky to find a decent room at the Holiday Inn Express. We were luckier still that it had a microwave and refrigerator, even if it didn't have a separate kitchenette.

Our facilities in Rapid City were even sparser than the ones in Cedar Point; we didn't even try to use any cookware. It was tough enough to wash our hands in the tiny bathroom sink. We weren't even going to try to wash dishes in there.

Aside from the actual food ingredients, the only tools used to prepare food were paper plates, paper bowls, plasticware, our hotpot, and the microwave in the room. Even so, we were able to make healthier, tastier, and less expensive* food than we could buy at the local fast food joint. In addition, nothing took longer than 15 minutes to prepare.

I want to emphasize this because it's probably the biggest thing I've learned on this trip. If we buy easy-to-make food and put it in the pantry, we can eat better food, and be eating it before we can get fast food**.

Here's an example: we got back to the room late one night. I was tired and hungry. It seemed like too much work to cook something, so I thought I would just order a pizza. Then it occurred to me that if I made one of our nuke-quick recipes, I could be sitting down to eat in less time than it would take me to go online, find a pizza place, download their menu, and order the pizza. Never mind the almost an hour it would take them to actually deliver the food.

Then I thought maybe we should just go down the street to Burger King. But even then it would at least 10-15 minutes to put on my shoes and walk or drive over there... and I still wouldn't be eating until after I'd stood in line, ordered my food, and waited for someone to put it in a bag and give it to me.

Assuming you don't like to cook your vegetables until they lose all structural integrity, you can make any of the dishes in this recipe list and be eating in 15 minutes. I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again and again: these instructions don't deserve to be called recipes. We're just picking a few items, cooking them according to package ingredients, and combining them. It's a food assembly line!

Corn Salad on Wilted Spinach: What can I say? I really like the combination of corn, peppers and onions. When I have time to mix it up fresh and tasty with a little green onion, lime juice, cayenne, and cilantro, I do that. The rest of the time, I just buy a pre-mixed bag out of the freezer section. Most of the steamer bags are even already seasoned with garlic, cayenne, paprika and black pepper. Convenient.
  • 16-oz steamer bag Southwestern Corn mix (I've steamed vegetables in a Ziploc before, but all other things being equal, I'd rather just steam them in the bag they came in)
  • 5-oz bag baby spinach (or part of a bigger bag)
  • 1.5 oz sharp cheddar cheese (or chipotle cheddar, or jack, or pepper jack, etc.)
  • Salt & pepper
Steam the veggies according to the package directions.

While the vegetables are cooking, pile spinach onto two plates. If the cheese is not already shredded, crumble it into chunks.

When the veggies are done, shake the bag to combine the seasonings. Pour half of the veggies over the spinach on each plate.

Use a plastic fork or spoon to evenly distribute the hot veggies over the spinach. Sprinkle the cheese on top.

Wait a few minutes for the spinach to wilt from the heat of the vegetables. Serve.
Cheesy Chicken & Rice Casserole with Vegetables: There's nothing gourmet about this dish. It reminded me of nothing so much as the casseroles my mom used to bake when I was a kid. I guess that makes it comfort food.

If you're inclined, wash a few dishes, dump each ingredient into a bowl when it's ready, then mix it all up with a big spoon. Otherwise, do what I did; make your casserole in the bowls you intend to serve it in. Of course, the directions assume that you do what I did.
  • 10-oz steamer bag of prepared brown rice (or 2c leftover rice, if you already have some)
  • 16-oz steamer bag of mixed vegetables in cheese sauce (we picked broccoli, cauliflower & carrots)
  • 5-oz can chicken breast meat
Heat the rice per the package directions (or just nuke the leftover rice for about three minutes). Set aside.

Steam the veggies according to the package directions.

Open and drain the can of chicken. Put half the chicken and half the rice in each of two bowls. (Use the bigger, pasta-sized paper bowls. Or, heck, go wild. Use real pasta bowls. )

When the veggies are done, cut off the top of the bag. Stir well to distribute the cheese sauce.

Pour half of the veggies over the rice and chicken in each bowl. Stir to combine all ingredients. it'll probably be plenty salty, so just serve as is. People can add salt & pepper at the table.
Couscous Topped with Potatoes & Vegetables: This is the dish I used the hotpot for. I was afraid my paper bowl would disintegrate if I tried to boil water in it to make the couscous in the microwave. The bowl did just fine when I poured boiling water into it and left it to sit for a few minutes***.
  • Steamer bag of potatoes & vegetables (there are several kinds in the store. This time, I got the potatoes & green beans in rosemary sauce, but I've also used the mix with potatoes, red peppers & sugar snap peas. Both work just fine.)
  • 1c Couscous (approximately; I used a disposable coffee cup from the room)
  • Broth packet (I used chicken; you can use veggie, or just skip the broth and add a tsp of olive oil & some salt instead)
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp black pepper
Steam the veggies according to the package directions.

Boil about a cup of water.

Put the couscous into a bowl. Add the broth packet (or other seasoning) and the pepper.

When the water boils, stir one cup of it into the couscous. Cover the bowl with a plate and let the couscous sit.

When the veggies are done, shake the bag to combine the seasonings, then set aside while you prepare the couscous for serving.

Fluff the couscous with a fork, and put half into another bowl. Pour half the vegetables into each bowl. Serve.

* CKL and I have never spent less than $8 for a fast food meal for the both of us, and we very rarely buy drinks, since we just take the food home. Each of the meals that CKL and I ate were around $5, and included vegetables. If we actually prepared the sauces or cooked the rice ourselves, the meals would have been even less expensive. Here's a breakdown:
  • Corn Salad on Wilted Spinach= 1.72(corn) + 1.99(spinach) + .40(cheese) + .60(rolls) = $4.71
  • Cheesy Chicken & Rice= 1.72(veggies) + 1.72(rice) + .95(chicken) + .70(cookies)= $5.09
  • Couscous with Vegetables= .50(couscous) + .20(broth) + 1.72(veggies) + 2.11(fudge)= $4.53
** If you cook the food way that I did, you'll have just about the same amount of garbage to throw away as you would if you bought fast food too. To spin it in a more positive manner: no dishes to wash!

*** If you're willing to dirty a bowl, preparation can be even easier. Here's what to do:
  • Combine the couscous, broth, pepper and water to a bowl.
  • Microwave for 3-5 minutes. Set aside, preferably covered.
  • Steam the veggies according to package directions.
  • Fluff couscous in bowl. Pour vegetables over top.
  • Serve.

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