June is Music + Food Month on Tasting Table.
Matt Baum is no stranger to the perils of road food. As the drummer for Desaparecidos, Conor Oberst's recently resurrected garage-emo side project, he spent most of the early aughts touring the country and encountering his share of "vile and terrifying" frozen burritos at truck stops across this fair nation. But in the decade plus since the band's last album and tour, Baum's palate has undergone major refinement. In addition to working in restaurant kitchens during his tenure as a touring musician, he attended culinary school, worked a three-year chef's apprenticeship and is currently heading up the charcuterie program at Omaha, Nebraska's French Bulldog. Or at least, he will be until he hits the road in support of the band's new album, Payola, dropping later this month.
Baum's culinary training and high standards may be the object of good-hearted ribbing from his bandmates, but they come in handy on the road. "It's wonderful when you're in L.A. or Seattle or New York and can choose from anything, but when you're on a long stretch from Minneapolis to Denver, there's just nothing. You're in a food wasteland." So what's a persnickety eater to do?
Baum has devised a few no-fail dishes that utilize ingredients from the average roadside mini-mart. "Anyone can say, 'I can make a risotto in a microwave,' but no one is gonna do that," he says. "Going into a truck stop and looking around and saying, 'What's the best way to eat well with what's here?' That's real cooking. That's where creativity shines, and where you separate the truck stop cook from the kitchen master."
Here are three of Baum's roadside go-tos:
"Frankenstein'd" Nicoise Salad: "You can usually find romaine or prepacked lettuce. Go to the dairy section and grab some hard-boiled eggs. You can also find cocktail olives. You won't find beautiful kalamatas, but in a pinch these will work. Get a single-serving can of tuna and crack one of those open. Assemble your bed of lettuce, lay the tuna on top and cut up your egg. Sometimes you can find a little oil and vinegar at these places, too. Pour them into the bottom of a white wine bottle that you might have on the bus, shake it up and viola—vinaigrette!"
Roadside Ramen: "Go find the healthy section—where the Kraft Lunchables are. They'll probably have snack packs of baby carrots or celery with ranch dressing. Ditch the ranch. Chop up your veggies. Then cook your ramen: If it says to cook it for two minutes, cook it for a minute and a half, then pull it out and introduce your vegetables. You can really add whatever you want—an egg, or better yet, a pickled egg. Tear up some teriyaki beef jerky and use it as garnish—the steam will soften it up. Plus it adds protein."
Truck Stop Nachos: "You'll always be able to find tortilla chips. Tear up some string cheese—it's actually pretty similar to Oaxacan cheese. Add pickled jalapeños and canned green chiles. Go back to that beef jerky aisle and grab a few sticks, or sometimes there's pepperoni, which also works well. From here, you can make your nachos as crazy as you want. Once in a while, you can find a can of beans. Baked beans make it Tex-Mex!"
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