SALISBURY — Soccer nights have become a time for experimentation at Beth Dixon’s house.
The menu for such evenings is set by whoever the United States soccer team is up against. For example, if Mexico is the opponent, Dixon whips up a traditional Mexican meal.
“We have a lot of soccer players in the family and we all love soccer,” she said. “This gives us a chance to explore some new cuisines that we haven’t had before.”
The mother of four started the interesting tradition several years ago when the team was playing Germany.
Dixon, whose father was stationed in Germany during part of his time in the Navy, grew up there.
“I said, ‘Hey, I know how to make German food, let’s do that’ and it just sort of grew from there,” she said. “It’s become fun. We like to have friends in the neighborhood and fellow soccer-minded friends come over.
During a recent soccer night when the U.S. was in the semi-finals for the Gold Cup, Dixon prepared baleadas, a dish native to Honduras. She paired it with frijoles negros, black beans seasoned with onions, bell pepper, garlic and jalapeńo.
“I understand it’s a real traditional taco truck street food in Honduras,” she said. “We made some simmered seasoned beef and everyone is sort of building their own baleada.”
The recipe for the beef filling calls for cooking it over the stove top, but Dixon opted to simmer it in a crock pot all day while she was at work. The result is a tender, juicy meat that was very easy to shred for the baleadas.
During my visit, I helped Dixon add the shredded meat to a mixture of tomatoes, yellow onions, sweet peppers, garlic, cilantro, achiote paste, cumin and pepper that we chopped up, blended lightly in the food processor and cooked down on the stove. The fresh ingredients gave the meat the flavor one would expect from Latin American food.
Dixon cooked the black beans in advance. It took a total of about 10 hours to make them soft enough for consumption. After they were done, she simply poured them over top of regular white rice. I decided to add the mixture in with my baleada, but it also makes a great side dish.
While the shredded beef finished cooking, Dixon and I made the white rice according to the directions on the package.
Then, we chopped up the tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeńo and cilantro needed for her signature salsa called salsa casera. I immediately saw her daughter Susannah’s eyes light up when she saw us mixing together the concoction, so it’s obviously a family favorite. The salsa pairs well with chips, and I added a bit to my baleada.
We also shredded lettuce, chopped jalapeńo, sliced up avocado and poured out some sour cream for people to add to their baleadas. The shells were simple store-bought tortillas that Dixon heated up in the oven.
The meals seemed to be a big success with Dixon’s friends and family circling back to the kitchen for seconds and sometimes thirds.
Dixon said she looks forward to the soccer get-togethers because it gives her a chance to try something new.
“I don’t know how the food is supposed to taste when it’s from countries I’ve never been to, so we’re really just experimenting,” she said. “We just go on the Internet or look at books to find recipes from countries that we’re playing and give them a try.”
The family typically tries each recipe once and moves on.
“We always try to make something new,” Dixon said.
The thing I loved about the soccer nights is that they can be replicated with any sport. I’m considering starting my own tradition when football season rolls around. Instead of making international food, I can cook something from each city or region. It’s a great way to have fun in the kitchen and remove the hassle of laboring over what to make for dinner.
I also admire the fact that Dixon has combined her love of cooking with a way to bond with her children and friends. Her teenage children all seemed to be having a great time without being forced to participate in a typical family dinner.
Dixon said, like most, her mother first taught her how to cook.
“I grew up helping in the kitchen with mom, but I really started cooking when we moved here about 20 years ago,” she said.
At that time, Dixon said she was a novice, using mostly canned and frozen ingredients.
“Now, I’ve gotten to where I try to use as much fresh as I can, so I’m looking for recipes that use that,” she said. “I’ve got some basil, mint and rosemary growing in the backyard and I try to use those as much as possible.”
Dixon admits she was intimidated the first time she was asked to bring a gourmet dish to a cooking club.
“It was back when I was still really learning to cook and I didn’t even know what one of the ingredients was,” she said. “I had to look it up and track it down.”
But Dixon said that never stopped her, and she said it shouldn’t intimate novice cooks like myself either.
“Don’t be afraid to give stuff a try and don’t be afraid to follow recipes in cookbooks,” she said. “You’re going to have successes and failures, but it’s fun.”
Dixon also said she’s learned a lot from watching other people cook.
“It’s a social event. I like to pick up new tips and tricks,” she said.
Although Dixon’s meals are eaten by family and friends, she said her time in the kitchen is typically her “me time.”
“Some people get massages, some people meditate, I cook,” she said. “I think I like it because I have a product that people can enjoy.”
Dixon said cooking also balances out her career as a Rowan County district court judge.
“I go to work and I make decisions and I make a lot of people unhappy,” she said. “So, I can come home, cook something and the house smells great and people like to eat it and they’re happy.”
Dixon said she’s been known to whip up a meal for her family of six within 30 minutes during the week, so she likes to try more intricate dishes on the weekends.
“I really enjoy when I can do something a little more elaborate because it’s just what I like to do.” She said.
More than 300 cookbooks line the shelves in Dixon’s kitchen. As a collector, she often picks up a new one when she travels, and it’s not uncommon for her to receive them as gifts.
“I troll cookbooks, I really do,” she said. “I like to look through them and try something I’ve never done before.
“A lot of my cookbooks are out in the kitchen and I use them, so if you open them up the pages are splattered.”