Like so many parents I know with physically active kids, I spend a lot of time at school and community athletic events. In the last 25 years of parenthood, I figure I’ve cheered my sons and daughters on at hundreds of games and practices. Not that I’m complaining: my poor parents had to go to (what probably felt like) hundreds of my 4-H and other horse shows when I was a kid.
This fall my three youngest are playing three different sports — soccer, volleyball and cross country — so many nights I go directly from the office to the playing field. That, in turn, leads to the time-honored tradition of eating dinner at the concession stand.
Much of the time the home- and away-team booster groups offer fans a pretty decent meal — say, a sandwich or local special so delicious I wished it was my recipe. At Freedom Area High School football games, for instance, the choices include gyros from Ambridge Italian Villa and hot sausage sandwiches made with homemade sausage from the Lil’ Bulldogs youth football boosters; you also can nosh on halushki, french fries, cinnamon buns and saucy pepperoni rolls.
Yet, I’ve also found myself sometimes wishing the dish simmering away in the slow cooker could be … better.
Not to make the booster moms who already are stretched to the limit feel even more guilty or inadequate — I have to take my turn cooking for the concession stand, too — but seriously. You’re OK with a meal that comes in a Fritos bag?
I’m talking, of course, about the darling of concession stand goodies, the Walking Taco.
Ever since this hand-held treat made its debut at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., it’s been a huge crowd pleaser. Servers like the dish because it’s fast and easy to throw together; fans adore it because the greasy mix of Fritos, taco meat, grated cheddar and sour cream (plus chopped jalapenos, if you’re feeling adventurous) is so tasty.
“We always sell out of them,” said Barb Pukylo, who heads the concession stand for the Avonworth Eagles youth football league in the North Hills. It sells 70 or more during a game.
Tacos-in-a-bag also are a fan favorite at South Fayette High School, said Kathleen Bryer, who with her fellow boosters served up dozens last Saturday during an all-day girls’ volleyball tournament in the high school gym. Nearly as popular are the group’s foil-wrapped baked potatoes, kept toasty in a pizza warmer and served with cups of sour cream, bacon bits and butter.
“They sell like hotcakes,” said Mrs. Bryer, whose group also offers homemade cabbage and noodles, macaroni and cheese and, in a nod to more healthful eating, cups of fruit salad.
This is good news, because I’m of the opinion that just because you’re at a school sporting event doesn’t mean you have to eat like teenager. Walking tacos might delight kids, but don’t grownups want “real” food for your dinner-on-the-go?
Concession stand cooking, understandably, has its challenges: you don’t always have a lot of equipment for cooking and/or reheating, or room to maneuver. You also need to prepare something that can be easily held or perched on the lap while sitting in the bleachers, lends itself to being served fast (most of your customers are going to be lining up at halftime) and doesn’t create a lot of waste. That’s another reason the walking taco is so popular — all you need to serve it is a spoon.
Because concession food is donated, and meant to feed a crowd, it also has to be a dish that won’t cost the cook an arm and a leg in ingredients.
Thus, we offer some dishes that not only are easy to make and keep warm in a slow cooker, but won’t break the bank, even when they’re doubled.
We know the kids will still go crazy over the walking tacos, but we say: shouldn’t mom and dad have something to shout about, too?
Ancho Chicken Tortilla Soup
PG tested — Wow, is this soup good! Dried chiles give it an earthy, smoky flavor with just a hint of heat. I sprinkled fried tortilla strips on top of the soup instead of on the bottom of the bowl so they stayed crunchy while eating. — Gretchen McKay
- 1 rotisserie chicken
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced small
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Ancho Chile Puree (recipe follows)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
- 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained
- 4 cups chicken stock
- Juice 1 lime
- 8 corn tortillas, cut into 1 1/2-inch squares and fried, or store-bought tortilla chips (I cut the tortillas into thin strips)
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 2 ripe Hass avocados, diced large (optional)
- 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Skin and bone the cooked chicken and shred meat into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
Heat a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat and add vegetable oil. Add onion and saute until it becomes soft, about 4 minutes. Add garlic to pot and cook for 2 minutes. Add chile puree, salt, black pepper, sugar, oregano and cilantro. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.
Add tomatoes and chicken stock and bring soup to a boil. Turn heat to low and slowly simmer soup for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste soup and adjust the seasoning, if needed. Add chicken and lime juice.
To serve, place a few tortillas in the bottom of each bowl. Ladle hot soup over the tortilla chips, and top with a dollop of sour dream, diced avocado, shredded cheese and a sprinkle of cilantro.
Makes 8 servings.
Ancho chile Puree
PG tested — If like me you can’t find ancho (dried poblano) chiles, substitute dried pasilla chiles. This slightly spicy sauce is delicious stirred into stew, soup or chili, or spooned on top of enchiladas, chicken, steak or even eggs. — Gretchen McKay
- 2 ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
- 1 plum tomato, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- Pinch kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 cup chicken stock
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook at a low simmer for 2 minutes, then cover the saucepan, turn off heat and allow chiles to steep for 15 minutes. Transfer the solids and liquid to a blender and puree until smooth.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
— “Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook” by Louis Lambert with June Naylor (Ten Speed, 2011, $40)
Classic Chicken Stew with Hominy and Chipotle
PG tested — Thigh meat gives this easy stew a delicious flavor, and it’s also cheaper than chicken breast. — Gretchen McKay
- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 12), trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions, minced
- 4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
- 2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced
- 1 tablespoon minced chipotle chile in abodo sauce
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried
- 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 pound carrots (about 6 medium), peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 15-ounce cans white or yellow hominy, drained and rinsed
- 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add half of the chicken and brown lightly, 6 to 8 minutes; transfer to bowl. Repeat with 1 more tablespoon oil and remaining chicken.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pot and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, jalapenos, chipotle and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Stir in wine, scraping up any brown bits.
Gradually whisk in broth, smoothing out any lumps. Stir in carrots, bay leaves and chicken with any accumulated juice and bring to a simmer. Cover, place pot into the oven, and cook until chicken is very tender, 50 to 60 minutes.
Remove pot from oven and remove bay leaves. Stir in hominy, cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.
Serves 6 to 8.
— “Soups, Stews & Chilis: A Best Recipe Classic” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated (America’s Test Kitchen, 2010, $35)
PG tested — Sorry guys, but no way I’m serving dinner inside a chip bag. But I do like the taste combination of the walking taco, so offer instead this recipe for Frito Pie, the classic dish that inspired it. — Gretchen McKay
- 2 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 pound ground chuck
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 4 to 5 cups Frito chips (most of an 11-ounce bag)
- 1/2 pound Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)
Diced fresh jalapenos and chopped onion for garnish
In a large heavy skillet, cook bacon over moderate heat until fat is rendered. Add garlic and onion and cook, stirring until onion is softened.
Add ground chuck and cook over moderately high heat, stirring and breaking up lumps, until browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour off excess fat.
Stir in salt, chili powder, cumin and tomato paste. Slowly add water and simmer, adding additional water if mixture thickens too much. Chili should be loose but not soupy. Add beans and heat through.
Divide Fritos between 4 wide shallow bowls and ladle chili on top. Sprinkle with cheese. Garnish with jalapenos and chopped onion.
Serves 4 to 6.
Emeril’s Chuck Wagon Chili For the Slow Cooker
PG tested — Semi-sweet chocolate gives this real-deal chili, cooked slowly in tomatoes and beer, a succulent mouth feel. — Gretchen McKay
- 1/4 cup chili powder
- 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons regular or Mexican oregano, crumbled
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons light or dark brown sugar
- 4 pounds boneless beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped (about 4 cups)
- 1 1/2 cups chopped celery, including leaves
- 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 jalapeno chiles, roughly chopped
- 12-ounce bottle dark Mexican beer, such as Negro Modelo
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons masa harina (corn flour, not cornstarch)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Grated cheddar cheese, chopped green onion and sour cream for garnish
Combine chili powder, cumin seeds, cayenne, cinnamon, oregano, bay leaves and brown sugar in a small bowl; set the spice mixture aside.
Add beef to a medium bowl and season with pepper and 1 tablespoon kosher salt.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 12-inch or larger skillet over high heat. Add enough beef to fill the pan and cook until nicely browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer the browned beef to the crock of a 6-quart slow cooker. Repeat with remaining beef, adding remaining vegetable oil between batches as necessary.
Add onions, celery and 1 tablespoon of remaining salt to skillet and cook, stirring, until vegetables begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, jalapeno and spice mixture and cook for 1 minute longer. Pour in beer, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and simmer for 3 minutes. Stir in chocolate, masa harina and remaining 11/2 teaspoons salt and cook for 1 minute longer. Transfer this mixture to the slow cooker.
Cover and cook chili on high, undisturbed or stirring only once during cooking, for 6 hours, or until the beef is very tender. Remove the bay leaves and stir in cilantro and parsley. Serve the chili hot in bowls, topped with grated cheese, chopped green onion and sour cream.
Makes 12 cups.
— “Sizzling Skillets and Other One-Pot Wonders” by Emeril Lagasse (William Morrow, Oct. 2011, $24.99)
Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Granola Cookies
PG tested — Homemade granola gives these grown-up cookies extra crunch. — Gretchen McKay
- 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup peanut butter
- 3/4 packed dark brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 cups granola, homemade or your favorite brand
- 2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 sturdy cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
In a mixing bowl, cream butter and peanut butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl and the beaters and add the brown sugar. Beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and mix to combine.
By hand, fold in flour and baking soda a few times. Add the granola and chocolate chips and fold until the dough is well mixed. Drop dough by heaping tablespoons about 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets.
Bake for 15 minutes, turning the pans and rotating from top to bottom halfway through the same time. The cookies should have a slightly golden edge and appear a little fluffy and soft. Baking them longer will result in crispy-crunchy cookies rather than soft, chewy ones. Let cookies set for a few minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
— “Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe” by Alisa Huntsman (Artisan, Oct. 2011, $24.95)
Mini triple treat cupcakes
These bite-sized cupcakes allow you to eat something sweet without the guilt. They’re simple enough that you can bake them right before the game, provided you get one of your kids to unwrap all the peanut butter cups — that took more time than mixing the batter.
— Gretchen McKay
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
- 6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 48 miniature chocolate peanut-butter cups, such as Reese’s
- 48 pieces candy corn, for decorating (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Line 2 24-cup mini muffin pans with paper liner.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together peanut butter, butter and brown sugar on high until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and egg yolk, scrpaing down bowl as needed. With mixer on low, beat in flour mixture, buttermilk and vanilla until combined.
With a large end of a melon baller or spoon, place 2 teaspoons batter into each muffin cup, then press a peanut-butter candy into each center until batter aligns with top edge of candy. Bake until puffed and set, about 10 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. Immediately place a piece of candy corn on top of each cupcake; let cook completely in pans on wire racks. Store in single layers, in airtight containers, up to 3 days.
Makes 48 cupcakes.