Nerds are not especially known for their good health. When thinking of the classic nerd archetypes, most of us easily picture an overweight, acne-ridden basement dweller or a gaunt, bespectacled rail in a black trench coat. And it’s no wonder—based on my research (and common convention), today’s nerd subsists primarily on a diet of highly processed convenience foods. Hot Pockets, Cup O’ Noodle, Mountain Dew − none of these are known to be nutritional power houses. How, then, can a nerd sustain the energy needed to vanquish a horde of kobolds? Introducing Nerd for Nerd: a line of healthy, homemade convenience-type foods that take all day to make, and only minutes to eat!
Okay, all joking aside, my husband and the four members of his Dungeons & Dragons game (4th Edition, for those keeping track) have been playing together for over a year and had approached the end of their game. Usually when they all come over to play a little D&D, I mock them by playing King Crimson records and laughing mercilessly at their attempts to RP at my kitchen table. But this time, I wanted to send these intrepid rogues and warlocks off in style, and decided to prepare for them a feast fit for a Level 43 Elder Xorn. I put on my robe and wizard hat, then cast Lvl. 6 Symbol of Persuasion to trick Foodbuzz into footing the bill. I rolled a twenty. Critical.
I asked around, and confirmed my hunch that the foods on which I used to love to gorge as an eleven year old nerdling (I played Legend of Zelda, and then Shadowgate during my brief goth days) are still canon. I created a celebratory feast of the utmost quality, based on the dorkfodder of yore:
Hot Pockets with homemade Italian pork sausage, buffalo mozzarella and organic, heirloom tomato sauce
Cup o’ Noodles: tonkotsu ramen with hazelnut-finished pork belly and soft-boiled egg, served in a paper cup
Homemade Doritos with extra sharp Wisconsin cheddar
Pop Tarts made from home-canned organic strawberry preserves
Cocktail: Mountain “Do” (homemade Meyer limoncello with lime-grapefruit syrup and soda)
My first run at the pizza pocket was not exactly right. The fillings were delicious, but something was a bit…off. Then it dawned on me: I had essentially made a tray of small stromboli, erroneously using a risen dough instead of pastry. The subsequent attempt was spot-on: flaky crust (using a basic pate brisee recipe) stuffed with a smear of home-canned heirloom tomatoes, a thick slice of buffalo mozzarella, and Italian sausage made from Tails & Trotters pork (this pork for which I wax poetic on a fairly regular basis is raised locally and finished on hazelnuts, and every part of it tastes amazing). In my 5lb mortar and pestle I crushed a few cloves of garlic, a couple teaspoons of fennel seed, a spoonful of peppercorn, a few fat pinches of kosher salt and a good spoonful of hot chile flake. I stirred this paste into the ground meat and whirred it together in the food processor to thoroughly combine (and to refine the texture of the ground pork). Then I browned the sausage, cast Lvl. 6 Bigby’s Forceful Rolling Pin (rolled a 12—success!) to roll out the dough and added the sausage to the pastries. I sprinkled on a little cheddar to achieve that lovely browned filagree, and they were perfect. The guys didn’t miss the processed cheese one bit. By the way, you could totally make a bunch of these and freeze them yourself to have a stash of healthier snacks for lazy times. I am thinking of making a bunch of the cheddar-broccoli ones for later.
The Cup O’ Noodles was the winner of the day. The day prior, I meditated to regain my mana before casting Lvl. 8 Broth of the Infinite (I rolled a 20—a critical hit!). I slow-simmered a pot of smoked pork neck bones from the German deli with the chine (backbone) off the whole loin I bought awhile back (I had carved the loin into Flinstonian chops, saving the extra fat for later lard and sausage-making, and the chine for stock-making). The chine was roasted until sufficient Maillard had been achieved, then tossed into the stock pot with the mirepoix and bouquet garnis. On game day, I reserved about half this stock for later use, but then slow-braised a pork belly (also T&T) in the stock, to which I added a 4″ piece of kombu, a few pinches of bonito flakes, a few big spoonfuls of red miso, a splash of sake, mirin and shoyu. I tossed in a couple of corn cobs from the freezer to add a bit of sweetness to the broth. When the pork belly was tender (about three hours later), I pulled it out (removing the cobs and kombu as well) and skimmed off as much of the fat as I could from the broth.
I filled each cup with cooked kansui noodles (the thin, yellowish noodles typically used in ramen), then filled each cup with the tonkotsu-miso broth and topped them with a 2″ cube of pork belly, a half a boiled egg (cooked medium-soft) and a strip of nori. I sprinkled a bit of togarashi on mine for extra spice. This broth was so richly savory (kombu is full of glutamic acid—a natural source of umami), unctuous and full of nutritious probiotics that I gave a sippy cup of it to Zephyr and he couldn’t have been happier. I reserved and froze all the remaining broth for future soups and sauces.
I really wanted to make homemade Cheetos, and I even made the dough and fried a few. I cast Lvl. 3 Interposing Cheesesnack (rolled a 4—failure!) but they turned out kind of terrible and not even close to the right puffy-crunchy texture. They more closely resembled stale, fried cornbread crumbs. So I made the executive decision to substitute a Dorito-esque cheese-flavored tortilla chip. It was confirmed by an expert witness (my husband) that these are more or less interchangeable foods. So I fried some corn tortillas cut into triangles (I didn’t make these from scratch—I was feeling too defeated by masa doughs at this point) and then tossed them in the cheese powder. The cheese powder was made by combining extra sharp cheddar (melted with a tiny bit of water to make a runny sauce) with tapioca powder and then dehydrating the paste in a slow oven (170° for an hour). This resultant crumble was whizzed up in a coffee grinder to an even powder, and then seasoned with achiote (ground annato seed) and sweet paprika for color, plus a little nutritional yeast and onion powder for added flavor. It tasted pretty close, and left orange goo on the fingers, just like the original, though I had a bit of trouble getting the cheese to evenly coat the chips.
The homemade Pop Tarts were claimed to be the most like the original (this was considered a compliment). I didn’t want the pastry to get soggy, so I cooked down about a cup of homemade strawberry preserves with an extra spoonful of sugar and a few drops of jasmine essence until it had thickened to the consistency of Marmite. I cut out rectangles of pie dough (the same pate brisee as used for the pizza pockets) and brushed them with a little beaten egg, then smeared one side with the jam. Then I placed the partner rectangles on top, cast Lvl. 6 Pastry’s Lucubration (rolled a 12—success, barely!) and sealed the edges with a fork. I brushed each pastry with icing made of powdered sugar with a little water and vanilla, then poked holes to vent and baked them until they were golden (350º for about 15 minutes). These, too, could be prepared in droves and frozen for later use. Just reheat them in the toaster until warmed through.
My attempt at Mountain Dew was eerily close, even without the addition of such delicious ingredients as brominated vegetable oil and ester of wood rosin. I made a simple syrup of lime and grapefruit peels. I added spinach powder while it was simmering to achieve a more intense green color, cast Lvl. 5 Transmute Plant to Softdrink (rolled a 9—failure!) but it was unfortunately mostly removed during the final filtration. I mixed this with club soda and my homemade Meyer limoncello to achieve that refreshing, nondescript citrusy taste for which Mountain Dew is known. The Dew, my friends, is Done.
The whole affair was like nerd Thanksgiving. After it was all over, I meditated to regain my mana, but rolled a zero. I spent two days toiling over all of these simple treats just to watch them devoured in minutes, and in my exhaustion and barely-reclaimed kitchen I’d have to admit that I’m not sure I’d do it all again. I will say, however, that each item alone feels like a surmountable feat. Even though I have no problem eating any of the crap in its original, preservative-laden form, I do care about what my little boy eats. And when he’s a little nerdling rolling his very own twelve-sided die, I will be that mom embarrassing him with homemade versions of all his favorite junk foods.