2017-04-01 / Dishing

Magical Cooking

Meghan McCracken and her Nomad Kitchen keep on trucking.
Michele Marchetti

Meghan McCracken doesn’t do easy.

On a recent February morning when the weather actually reflects the calendar, the owner of Salt + Honey Co. Catering & Event Design walks into Naked Egg Café in a cozy, thrift-shop coat that complements the pink flower pinning back her hair. She scans the menu several times before eschewing the main menu items for her own creation, a trio of sides: sausage, granola (“I wonder if it’s homemade”) and fruit.

Two years ago, McCracken, a self-made foodie who learned the industry by working as a waitress, manager and bartender in a range of cafes and restaurants, purchased an old contractor’s truck off of Craigslist for $3,000 and started transforming it into the food truck of her dreams, right down to the compostable packaging. Along with former Elk Creek Café and current Big Spring Spirits Chef Mark Johnson, she formed an LLC and set out on a journey to brighten her community with flavorful, seasonal fare. (McCracken eventually bought Johnson out, but they still collaborate and she considers him a mentor.) Next month, she debuts her Nomad Kitchen food truck at the Boalsburg Farmers Market.

“People keep asking me, ‘When is it coming? Why is it taking so long?’” she says, in between bites of breakfast. “But I don’t want to do anything that my heart isn’t into. I want to have integrity in what I’m choosing and making. At this point in my life, I’ve worked hard to figure out what that is.”

Her tastes, and her food, were formed by an idyllic childhood and early adulthood living on farms. She was “half raised” on her grandparents’ Clearfield County subsistence farm, petting horses (and a donkey), eating eggs cooked in lard, and finding nourishment in “country white” bread. Her 5-year-old daughter was born on a magical 180-acre organic vegetable farm outside Philly, where McCracken ate fresh peaches on her 5-minute walk to her office at a food justice nonprofit accessed via a storybook lane that runs through the farm. Today, she and her daughter enjoy veggies, meat and eggs produced and grown by their Penns Valley friends and neighbors. “You can’t get more local unless I raised the chickens myself,” she says with a laugh, “and for $1.75 a dozen, I don’t think I could raise them myself.”

A rural Pennsylvania native who moved to Millheim after her mother started working at Penn State, McCracken values seasonal, homemade food yet doesn’t believe in food masochism: ordering, say, the strawberries at the Naked Egg even though they were probably shipped from California. Weekly inspiration for her food truck will come from whatever is in season at the Boalsburg Farmers Market, which will be supplemented when necessary, and the spices (unless you count pepper) that were missing from her childhood food. Expect hearty sandwiches, bright salads and some baked items. Among those who should be very happy: local vegans who find few options for flavorful, eat-out fare that doesn’t rely on processed ingredients.

The Nomad Kitchen food truck is the vehicle for sharing McCracken’s own take on her favorite food: simple, fresh ingredients with an international flair. But it’s also a canvas for the ideals that inform her life: creativity, self-sufficiency, community connectedness and financial pragmatism. The truck’s lights were purchased only after she had enough earnings from her bartending gig at Elk Creek Café. She did as much of the electrical wiring as she could (leaving the rest to the experts), sourced everything from the three-basin sink to the baking racks from local Amish and farm auctions, and is gravitating toward a marketing strategy devoid of social media. Assists come from a wide range of supporters, from her ex-husband who handled much of the carpentry to the Penns Valley neighbors who call her up with offers of an hour or two to spare.

“It takes a lot of energy to be resourceful,” she says, “but I’d rather do it that way.”

While Nomad Kitchen is her most visible project, Salt + Honey Co. is a food business that leaves room for anything McCracken chooses to fit under her wildly colorful umbrella. McCracken, who spent three years teaching cooking classes to Penn State students, cooks for an eclectic clientele, from the woman who hired her as a personal chef after she injured her wrist to The Makery instructors who recently hosted a “Ladies DJ Dance Party.” One of her favorite recipes for the former featured a salad with grapefruit, bacon, avocado and fennel. “The fattiness of the bacon and the acidic bitterness of the grapefruit are really good together,” she says.

McCracken excels in creating food experiences, no more so than when she’s “scheming” one of her pop-up dinners. This past November she collaborated with friends Erin and Josh McCracken of Bremen Town Ballroom to create “A Dining Adventure Under the Stars” inspired by the flavors of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine.

The twist: The location was a mystery. Guests received a riddle on the day of the event and were eventually led on a bourbon-cocktail-fueled scavenger hunt to a rustic barn, filled with lanterns, fabric and antique rugs. The focal point: a 20-foot table that would eventually feature her “luscious” fig mascarpone tart and where guests sat on pillows to watch the hired belly dancers and eat and drink by candlelight. While the food truck is commanding most of her attention, she’s hoping to delight her fans with another magical event in August or September.

Go ahead: Be impatient. McCracken refuses to be rushed, and her ultimate creation will be worth every bit of the wait.  •SCM

McCracken offers up a recipe not for a dish but for a fiery spice concoction called Berbere, inspired by friends Gabrielle and Brian Kinney of Organic Garden Center in Lemont. Berbere is often used in Ethiopian food. “It’s a super bangin’ punch-in-the-tongue taste bud satisfier after a long, cold winter in Pennsylvania,” says McCracken. “We all need to turn the heat up this time of year with something spicy, hot and aromatic.”

Use on meat, fish, veggies, rice, bread with olive oil…whatever. She suggests “going all the way” and using whole spices. Or use ground. “It’ll still be the best thing on earth you’ve ever tasted, I promise.”

Nomad Kitchen Berbere Spice
2 tsp. coriander seeds
2 tsp. cumin seeds
6 green cardamom pods
5 dried red chili peppers
3 whole allspice berries
3 whole cloves
2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
5 whole garlic cloves
3 Tbsp. sweet paprika
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 Tbsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. grated nutmeg
1 tsp. salt

Toast whole spices and chilis in dry skillet over medium-high heat to release oils, shaking constantly to prevent burning, 4 minutes. Transfer to bowl to cool completely, 10 minutes. De-seed red chilis (unless you want more fire, then leave ’em in!). Grind whole spices in extra grinder or DIY mortar & pestle. Add ground spices; grind together. Store in glass jar or airtight container for up to 6 months.

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