For many, summer means vacation time. Inhibitions are thrown to the wind as you wine, dine, and indulge in all of the gloriousness that is being away from home. But then vacation ends, and you return home to an empty fridge and an empty wallet. I just returned from vacation; the hubby, doggy, and I spent a little over a week cruising around the southeastern U.S. catching some sun and visiting family.
We spent the first part of our trip in interior, rural South Carolina. No, not Charleston or Myrtle Beach. Those places are different; they’re tourist friendly. We were in the real south, where there is only one place to get a non-iceberg lettuce salad, and it costs more than ten dollars. My favorite part of vacation generally is trying out the local cuisine and locally owned restaurants, and there were a handful in this little S.C. town. The rest of the dining options are fast food chains, which are never my first choice, but alas, when you’re hungry at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night and all of the ‘real’ restaurants are closed, fast food it is. (I try to eat at the places we don’t have here in central IL – Bojangles’, anyone?)
Anyway, the point of this lead in is to tell you that I’ve just come back from 10 days of overindulging on fried things and cobblers. If you didn’t catch the recent review of The Seaboat, then please allow me to tell you that southern cuisine – at least in the area of South Carolina we were visiting – consists of the following: grits, fried chicken, fried okra, collard greens, green beans, mac and cheese, chicken bog, and cobblers. I can get down on some fried chicken, fried okra, and mac and cheese. If you’re read anything I’ve written thus far, then you know, too, that I love dessert. I have to give a little shout out to McLeod Farms in McBee, South Carolina for serving up a damn good blackberry cobbler with homemade peach ice cream.
All of these southern foods are really quite good, but after eating fried chicken and mac and cheese for lunch and dinner several days in a row, I was sorely missing some fresh, raw vegetables of the quality you can get around C-U. You see, in the South, the vegetables are cooked to death. Mush. Mushy, mushy, mush. Don’t bother ordering a salad – you’ll just get some sad iceberg lettuce. Sometimes a girl just needs some leafy greens.
The other issue with vacation is that not only am I overindulging on food items, but I’m also spending quite a bit of money. Our lodging did not provide for cooking, so we kept the standard peanut butter sandwich materials on hand, and picked up a piece of fruit here and there to save a few dollars. Lunches and dinner, though, were eaten in restaurants, and those things cost money. By the time we returned to Champaign-Urbana, we were sick of fried food and spending money. All I wanted was to eat food with some structure, and do it on the cheap.
Of course, when we got home there were only a handful items in the fridge: ketchup, mustard, and a packet of duck sauce from Chinese take-out. This was hardly a meal, even with some pasta that was in the cabinet. I’m sure you’ve been there: tired from travelling, hungry for food and willing to eat almost anything, but contemplating homicide if you have to eat another damn fast food meal. Our adventures were by car, and we had just pulled in after a nine-or-so-hour drive from Atlanta - I was on the verge of belligerence, and just wanted to sit on my couch and watch some mindless television while eating some crunchy veggies. Eating at a restaurant was not an option. I needed something delicious and cheap that allowed me to sit on my own couch and disengage with the world. Hubby and I decided on Maize.
After a phone call to place our order, we made the short drive to pick up our dinner. We could have ordered the food as we waited in line to pick it up; the folks at Maize are super fast and I was told that the food would be ready about 5 to 10 minutes. That’s faster than most fast food places – faster (and tastier) than those freaky fast delivery sandwiches, too. I ordered a veggie burrito and side of guacamole. Both were delicious. The burrito offered the perfect amount of vegetable crunch in the form of the lettuce mix, a subtle sharpness in the ripe acid of tomato, with complimentary smooth coolness of avocado slices and sour cream within the wrapped tortilla. Maize has some tasty tortilla chips, and they are perfect for smearing extra guacamole or salsa onto the burrito, and scooping up the thick, heavy guac. I’m a sucker for their spicy salsa, and really I should just ask for extras. It’s the right mix of spicy and tangy, without being too spicy that you can’t taste the food, or too tangy that it just tastes weird and syrupy.
All right, so this wasn’t exactly the lowest calorie meal I could have pieced together, but detoxing from vacationing is difficult and should be done gradually. (Right?) Maize’s food is so good, that even though I was eating high calorie items like avocado and sour cream, it didn’t feel like I was going to die after eating it, which I can’t say about the high calorie food items I ate while in the South. My advice to you, reader, is that if you’re in need of something quick, delicious, moderately healthy, and affordable, go to Maize.
Hubby ordered a chicken taco and a side of rice, and our total (including the tip I left) was $15. Not bad, I say. Maize’s burritos are $5.45, placing them in the middle of the price structure. The burrito would have been more than sufficient – the guacamole was an extra indulgence. Tacos are only $2.25 each. Fajitas and carne asada are the most expensive items on the menu, coming in at $11.95 and $10.95 respectively. Overall, the food was definitely worth the short drive and the $15.
The other way to detox from your vacation eating and spending habits is to visit the farmer’s market – which I gladly did yesterday. There are at least three market shopping options available, so no matter when you return to town, you can swing by a market within a day or two. Prosperity Gardens in Champaign has a market stand that is open at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it’s timed appropriately for an after work pit stop if you’re on a staycation. On Wednesdays, you can stop by the Market at Country Fair in Champaign, open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. On Saturday there is, of course, Urbana’s Market at the Square, open 7 a.m. to noon. I stopped by the Wednesday market and picked up some lovely produce for only five dollars. The farmer’s market can be expensive for sure, but I only brought a five-dollar bill with me and managed to get a few items for the next few days. In fact, a pint of cherry tomatoes was cheaper at the market by 50 cents than they were at the grocery store, and there is no comparison in taste.
I picked up some ears of sweet corn, and some cherry tomatoes. I never really liked corn all that much before I moved to Central Illinois, but that has changed. While I still think that the Sweet Corn Festival is a little odd, Illinois sweet corn is delicious. I picked up a few ears for the week – they’re great grilled. My intention with the corn and the tomatoes is to make a salad. They’re not only locally grown and delicious, but the salad makes the perfect side or snack. You can even add black beans or some cooked quinoa to make it more substantial and well rounded.
Here’s the quick and dirty for the salad: cook up some bacon (omit if you don’t partake, or want to cut out the fat and salt). Drain your crispy strips. Grill your corn, let cool. Dice or halve your tomatoes, so that they’re an appropriate size for bite-size eating. Once your corn has cooled, cut it off the cob. Toss your corn and tomatoes together. Crumble your bacon and add that in. Add some chopped parsley or cilantro. You can also add some finely chopped red onion, scallion, or shallot. Season with salt, pepper, cayenne, and/or chili powder. If you’re feeling frisky, add a little bit of olive oil and the juice of one lime. Or, if you’re really into it, reserve your bacon fat and gently sauté some finely minced garlic and onion in it, and then combine all of the components. If you don’t feel like grilling, or are unable to, simply cut the corn off of the cob before cooking and sauté in the bacon fat or a bit of olive oil. Serve at any temperature. You really want to push the limits? Put that lovely mixture on top of some pizza dough, top off with some smoked or extra sharp cheddar, and bake at 500 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes. It’s awesome, I promise.
The next few weeks will be about nesting and cooking at home. When I come back from travelling, I want to become one again with my local life. I want to merge with my couch, eat the veggies from my garden, and try to carry over the calm of vacation into my non-vacation life. The great thing about returning to Champaign-Urbana though, is that if I am suddenly inspired to leave my couch, there are plenty of things to do, places to eat, and markets to shop.