Thereâ€™s nothing better than a rural road trip with a mystery dish. During our wanderings last weekend around Goshen, Ind., we visited the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale, where tried haystacks for the first time.
This weekend event featured an auction and sale raising several hundred thousand dollars for the groupâ€™s international peace and justice work, but on Friday night food reigned king. Mashall King, a foodie friend and managing editor at The Elkhart Truth, helped us navigate the booths of tempting homemade food run by local Mennonite churches.
The haystack food tent drew us in, as the concept was so simple yet completely new to usâ€”the perfect meal for a large-crowd fundraiser. As you walk through the buffet line, volunteers stand by prepped ingredients, piling them them on your plate in a haystack fashion.
“Iâ€™m not really sure where the haystack concept came from exactly, but weâ€™ve just always been doing them,â€ť King says.
Common in Amish and Mennonite communities with large crowds to feed, there is no one standard haystack recipe, but the general concept involves a balance between crunchy and “wet ingredients for a combination interesting to your taste buds.
The Relief Sale served up a pretty classic haystack. The lineup started with a scoop of crushed saltine crackers and then rice for a base; followed by a range of other taco-salad-like toppings: shredded lettuce, ground beef, crushed nacho chips, chopped peppers, onions, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, and olives; all topped with a warm cheese sauce. According to King, every communityâ€™s haystack offers up their own secret ingredientsâ€”in this case, sunflower seeds and pineapple.
“Never saw those before,â€ť he confessed, but the crunch of the seeds and the sweetness of the fruit did add nicely into that layered-flavor effect.
The core ingredient of haystacks, however, is community. Not only does this dish readily feed a large crowd, it requires an assembly of volunteers for all the slicing and dicing needed for preparation. Talk about a feel-good meal! As we plowed through the line, multiple smiling faces greeted us and offered tasty options.
The great thing about haystacks is they can be tailored for your dietary needs or to showcase your garden bounty. The concept would work well for a group potluck, where everyone is assigned one ingredient to prepare. Below are our ideas for assembling an autumn-time haystack. Let us know if you try it and what ingredients you decide to use!
Recipe: Harvest Haystacks
Yield: Approximately 8 servings
- 4 cups crushed saltine crackers (about 60 crackers or two standard wrapped stacks)
- 4 cups cooked grains*
- 4 cups chopped fresh greens (lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale)
- 2-4 cups cooked and seasoned protein (ground beef, shredded chicken, cubed tofu, et cetera)
- 4 cups crushed tortilla chips (or other chip with a crunch and strong flavor)
- 4 cups chopped fresh peppers
- 4 cups lightly steamed broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage (i.e., any fall crop you like)
- 4 cups chopped tomatoes
- 4 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 cups sunflower seeds, peanuts or other chopped nut
- 2 cups sour cream
- 4 cups homemade cheese sauce
Place approximately 1/2 cup crushed saltine crackers and 1/2 cup cooked grains on the plate, and spread around to form haystack base. Scoop greens, protein, chips, peppers, veggies, cheese and nuts as desired based on personal preferences, layering each ingredient over the cracker/grain base. Top with sour cream and homemade cheese sauce. Serve immediately.
* While the traditional Haystack uses white rice, feel free to experiment with a variety of other grains from brown rice to quinoa and barley.