GRILLED FLANK STEAK
Slice the meat and use in steak tacos.
1 cup honey
2 flank steaks, approximately 2 lbs. each
1 package tortillas
Marinate steak overnight, or at least 4 hours, turning steaks once if possible.
Grill steaks according to grill; approximately 8 minutes per side.
While steaks are grilling, reduce marinade in a saucepan on a burner.
When steaks are done (see note below), tent with foil and let rest for 20 minutes.
Depending on how you want the steak done, a meat thermometer inserted into the meat should read:
Rare: 130 – 140 degrees
Prep the tortillas; either wrap 2-4 in foil and warm them on the grill over indirect heat, or grill tortillas one by one over flames, requiring only a few seconds per side of tortilla.
Keep tortillas in tortilla warmer or wrap in foil.
When steak has rested and juices have redistributed, slice steak against the grain, the slices about 2 inches thick.
When marinade is reduced by at least half, it should have the consistency of a sauce.
Serve alongside steak with other toppings such as guacamole, salsa, chopped onions and cilantro.
What does summer mean to you?
Summer means steak sliced and juices revealing themselves from within. Burgers with bleu cheese crumbles inside, peppers, brats and baguette slices on a grill while kids hit baseballs.
Summer means braving the pool water still on the cooler side, whileÂ the sounds of watermelon cracking, toddlers squealing and old friends catching up fills warm air of high, clean gray clouds and oceanic blue.â€¨â€¨Summer means seeing red, white and blue everywhere and loving it more every time it flashes by your eyes, it means overhearing the star spangled banner and falsely exclaiming â€œThose arenâ€™t tears!â€ during the fireworks finale.
Summer means kids beginning a new grade, a new stage in mach speed lives, and inevitably, that those kids will need bigger (probably more expensive) back to school clothes.
Summer means coconutty sunscreen, and aloe vera on the pink spots.
Summer means the sound of ice cubes hitting the inside of pitchers filled with lemonade, teaching kids about capitalism as they ambitiously scribble on lemonade stand signs with primary colored crayons.
Summer means an occasional storm, and the musky smell that bounces off the hot pavement – a poignant reminder of youth.
Summer means eating outside, asking friends for the salad recipe that really cooled down the burn of the barbeque sauce.
Summer means this: you STOP. It’s the season of wanting time to stand still.
Take in the scents, listen to the laughter, look at ski boats on the lake or a sailboat on the horizon, taste what comes off the grill, and try to touch something that you will never, ever be able to hold, but will try again and again to grasp…Next summer.
| Excerpted from Little Grapes on the Vine…Mommy’s Musings on Food & Family
I pull into a space in the parking lot closest to the sea wall and I tell them their obedient behavior has brought us good parking karma. At this age, if it gets them in the waves and under the sun, they’ll believe anything. Still mystified why I brought a seven year old, a four year old and a seven month old to the beach sans hubby, I unload the beach chair (it goes over my shoulders like a backpack, you can get them at Costco), the cooler in one hand, the beach bag around my neck, and the infant carrier with my eighteen pound bundle and we walk towards the Pacific horizon. Phfew, we’re here. And the kids even carried the sand toys and towels without complaint!
As we toss off our flip-flops in the sand and walk towards my girlfriends and their kids (I just follow the voice of my girlfriend, Seni who shouts at her son “Dante! Don’t eat the sand!”) I notice the lifeguards are out in full force (My, what a nice new Jeep you have). And just as I glance out to the water to get the pulse of the temperamental, early-summer ocean, the voice of the Lifeguard God says over his loud speaker (I need one of those for my house), “Please stay in front of the lifeguard tower. We have a strong rip current today.” Well, we picked a great day to go to the beach! Not only do I have a baby in tow, but also two very energetic and free-spirited children who have no idea what undertows and rip currents are. I drop the loads of beach gear and decide my kids need a crash course in Undertows 101, and how to avoid getting pulled out to sea.
After giving my kids the lecture I got at camp some thirty years ago, I put the baby into the Bjorn and stay about fifty feet back from where they are playing in the waves. I take a lay of the land to check for any faces I saw on the Megan’s Law website (okay, yes, I do this wherever I go). Somewhere I hear a radio playing “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson, something about being safe and not getting hurt. I notice a lot of college kids drinking beer from those new plastic beer bottles. The water is so damn cold my kids can barely stand to go in it, but they have discovered that sitting in the shallow surf is kind of fun, and I freak. “You do that one more time and we are going home!” From what I remember, that is an easy way to get pulled out into the pounding surf; did they not listen to my lecture? Goodness no, my inner child says, they were politely pretending to listen until I stopped talking so they could return to playing. I’m just standing at the shore threatening my kids as they cavort.
I flashback to a day at the beach when I was the child, and my mother screamed at me from three hundred yards away, “STAY AWAY FROM THAT DRAIN PIPE SAMI!!” All of the other kids glared at me and I had no choice but to acknowledge my overprotective mother. I swore I would never do that to my kids, such embarrassment. So I’ve become my mother and it is evident in front of all the natives and tourists on the beach this day. Here I am, eating my words and Salsa Verde Doritos as my baby tries to pry them from my fingers.
Since the crash course in rip currents and undertows didn’t work, I decide to use the fear factor on these ambitious tikes. I look behind me at my girlfriends sitting the beach chairs and they give me a nod, a silent approval to scare our children into submission. “You know what, you guys, last night I was watching the news and I saw the news helicopter filming sharks right offshore. Big ones.” This is not a lie. They were probably just big leopard sharks, completely harmless, but whatever works, you know? Maybe I am going a little overboard on the swimmer beware thing. Just as I am starting to feel guilty about using fear as a parenting strategy, Mr. Lifeguard walks up to me and asks me if the group of kids chasing the waves belong to me “Yes, some of them,” I say. “Well, I’m a bit overprotective, so I’d prefer to have them stay a bit closer to the Lifeguard tower”. Yes! The affirmation I was looking for. If a lifeguard admits to being overprotective, it’s definitely suitable beach protocol for a mom to be. Mr. Lifeguard has a quick chat with our sandy babes, and tells them that the sea is very strong today. They listen to him much better than they listen to me (must be the bright red swim trunks and shiny whistle around his neck, he looks so official). Mr. Lifeguard departs. He wishes us a fun day at the beach. Okay, let’s recap. There are super strong rip currents, there are sharks past the shallows, and drunken college kids being pulled from the surf. A fun day at the beach? When my kids are in their car seats, body parts intact and cheeks sun-kissed, then I will agree it was fun, as we made it through unscathed.
To my amazement, the kids stay in front of the lifeguard tower. They take Mr. Lifeguard’s warnings seriously. Maybe, just maybe, I can relax now. This is the place I came to relax or find answers before I had kids; maybe I can feel that way again. I used to be one of those college kids here at the beach, living for myself, eating Hawaiian Shaved Ice, studying for finals. The scents of chlorine from the pools of the nearby resorts, of hot dogs on outdoor grills, and the sound of children giggling as they play Frisbee define the beach now, as they did then, in my twenties, my teens, as early as I can remember. Not much has changed, except me. What concerned my mother thirty years ago resounds within me now. The undertows, the predators, the dangers of life beyond the safety net of home are ever-present. Sure enough, there will always be forces of Mother Nature, and human nature that can rip my children from my arms, no matter where we are. And can I do anything about it beyond lectures and the vigilant mommy-watch? No, not a damn thing. Even this paradise called the beach comes with dangers, just like the park, the school, the store. But this is still an idyllic scene, and I absorb it all, because we’ll never be here, in early June 2006 again.
The waves crash, then they calm, and then they gather up their strength, and crash again. The kids play, oblivious to the dangers around them. “Hey Mama, you said that sharks stay way offshore where the tuna swim”. Oh, so now my son’s a marine biologist! Did I say that about sharks and tuna? Probably. Either that or he heard it during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, which is my favorite week of the year. I am just amazed by what lurks under the surface of that beautiful blue sea. Peaceful one minute, torrent the next. Similar to my children. Similar to my life!
Now in a rational state of readiness, I smile at the kids who run back up to base camp to bury each other in the sand. I give my kids a smile of reassurance to let them know that that I’m here, unobtrusive to their age-appropriate rambunctiousness, and I love them. I’ve got an overprotective gene, hang up, or whatever, and as long as I balance it with practicality while still encouraging their curious nature, it’ll be okay. My daughter is the one getting buried in the sand and she is so happy to get the attention of the older kids. I grab my tuna fish sandwich and a Coke and I sit in the chair I brought. I’ve got plenty of bottled water to wash sand out of their eyes, plenty of sunscreen to keep them from getting burned, in fact, between my girlfriends and I we probably have everything we need to handle whatever crisis arises (but we could still use Mr. Lifeguard’s loud speaker). That same song is playing again, the words eerily appropriate, “I learned not to stray too far from the sidewalk…” The sidewalk. The shore. Life in general. I do not want to raise kids afraid of their own shadow, afraid to bask in the sunlight, or so worried about the power of an awesome wave that they never try to ride one. I want my kids to be aware of the risks, but willing to take steps toward independence, even if it means going further from the shore and away from me – as long as I am within minimum safe distance should they get in too deep.
Finally, a new song starts on that radio that is playing nearby. Still in the Bjorn, the baby squeals every time she sees a seagull. She is just discovering beach life. I haven’t spotted any shark fins. The lifeguards haven’t issued any rip current warnings in a while. My kids pause sand burying and castle building for a deviled egg break. “Thanks for making my favorite beach food, Mama!” Anything I can do, baby. Anything to make your day at the beach spectacular. I’ll be here if you need me.
2 lbs. flap steak
Let steak marinade overnight, rotate the meat within the marinade a few times to make sure flavor gets integrated. Grill about five minutes per side.
carne asada, cooked and kept warm, sliced into strips
fried potatoes, either from scratch, or a good quality frozen brand, cooked according to package instructions
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
fresh salsa (recipe follows)
fresh chopped cilantro
Lay fries on a platter. Top with carne asada. Add cheeses (at this point, you may want to zap in microwave to get the cheese melting), then the sour cream, salsa, guacamole, and cilantro. Serve.
4 tomatoes, diced fine
1/2 white onion, diced fine
tomato paste (little bit)
garlic puree (you can find this in the produce section, or puree a few peeled cloves in a mini-chop processor)
serrano pepper, diced fine (remove seeds – handle and discard carefully)
jalapeno pepper, diced fine (remove seeds – handle and discard carefully)
coarse grain salt
chopped fresh cilantro
I haven’t listed many measurements here because salsa is so subjective. Start out with small amounts of ingredients (except for those indicated with a specific amount), and add the other ingredients from there to your liking. For example, if the lime is particularly juicy, you needn’t squeeze it dry. If the lime is small, squeeze until the last drop is released from the fruit, and add the zest, if you like. Trust yourself. Act like you’ve been making this all your life. Sometimes mojo begins with an illusion.
I begin with half of a serrano and half of a jalapeno. I then set aside some of the salsa and add the additional jalapeno and serrano, making a “spicy” bowl for my husband and son. I like mine mild, with extra cilantro.
If you just don’t like how it looks, maybe the veggies are not diced fine enough, or whatever, puree the salsa in a blender. The chips don’t know the difference!
Make sure you clean that blender well before getting started on the margaritas. When you get into college and beyond, you need more than a Coke to wash this food down.
“When we travel to California, we make sure we go to Roberto’s,” out-of -towners confess to me. Roberto’s, Royberto’s Aliberto’s, and Mariscos are all euphemisms for the prototypical western United States taco shop where Mexican fast food reigns among other fast food.
Since I was high school – we had off campus lunches – the taco shop to me has been a sure thing, a routine destination, and an icon of youth and southwestern culture. My college campus had taco shops, because trips and purchases there cured pre-exam jitters, post-exam hunger, hangovers and deliciously filled the need of between class re-fueling.
In the days before children, when I worked (I should say, got paid to work) and had strict one hour lunch breaks, the taco shop read my urgency and hunger, and complied every time. When I began this mommy thing, and my first child had to be driven around at night to get to sleep, the taco shop once again became a destination, as many taco shops are open 24/7. A new Mommy with a good memory, I would sit in my Jetta, baby in the back, watching singles leaving the bars or parties to reunite at the taco shop in the wee hours. It was cute. Or it wasn’t pretty. But it has never changed.
Taco shop food comes wrapped in a waxy yellow paper or styrofoam boxes. The goodies found within are representative of the many levels of our lives, now that I think and write about it. Tortillas filled with cheesy, gooey, meaty, sour cream and salsa, or the enticing crunch from a rolled taco chronologically take me from ravished teenager eating while driving to 20-something, image conscious-female trying to limit carbs and up the protein.
These days, I haul taco shop food to play dates, the park, soccer and baseball tournaments.
Or shamelessly polish off the leftovers while everyone sleeps. (“Mom, what happened to my burrito?”)
The taco shop aroma, it’s just the familiar scent of home – grilled, spiced meat intermingling with salty sea air, smoke from a brush fire, or eucalyptus trees. It makes even the worst day better.
Every city in the United States has a McDonald’s, but taco shops in the southwest, I think, must be like delis in New York or Cracker Barrels in the Midwest. Rustic regional food – it’s just comforting to know there’s culinary salvation on almost every corner.
When they closed down the last Bob’s Big Boy in San Diego, the first taco shop I ever saw went up in its place, the smoke emanating from the roof somewhere. Plastic tables sat out front, nailed to the ground. It was a newly built establishment, this eatery that uprooted Bob (another column), but the new taco shop looked antiquated, faded red and white vertical stripes giving it a street food cart meets beach cabana look. It seemed like that taco shop had been there for years. No matter what time of day, people gathered there.
So I gave it a shot. One taste, and I traded burgers for burritos.
The taco shop era of my life began. From junior high on, I fell in love with cilantro, easily afforded quesadillas, and only recently, discovered carne asada fries. Carne asada fries – strips of lean meat marinated in spices (these vary), placed atop French fries. That alone make this meat-and-potato girl curl my toes in anticipation, but the toppings make this dish; first, you’ve got the fries, then the grilled and chopped meat, then shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream, guacamole, cilantro, and salsa fresca. Potato nachos if you will, a meal that all three of my kids agree on. For pure indulgence, I get the California burrito – carne asada fries wrapped inside a tortilla with pico de gallo.
Many taco shops have up to 20 combination plates; enchiladas, tamales, rolled tacos, open tacos, with rice and beans. I usually get stuck deciding between rolled tacos – tortillas wrapped around shredded beef or chicken then fried – or chicken enchiladas. When I can’t decide on that, I’ll move over to the burrito menu and vacillate between machaca, chorizo, pollo asada, or fajita. My husband never deters from his standard carne asada burrito. Everyone has a favorite.
In my experience in the food industry, I have met some masterful Mexican chefs who immigrated from south of the border. The best taco shops are backed by guys like them.
And I believe good food should be accessible to everyone, not just through a drive-up window in southern California.
“Macario, I need to know how to make the white sauce for fish tacos!”
“Does the chef share his ceviche recipe?”
“How did your abuela make it?”
“You’re family is from Mazatlan? No kidding? Tell me about the beans!”
“Auntie, let’s talk menudo while the kids are swimming.”
When it’s a recipe I want, I know how to talk to people. With some luck and their spirit of generosity, I now treasure my archives of fifty plus original Mexican recipes from artistic, ritualistic, innovative chefs with roots in Mexico who displayed – in the kitchens where I worked – instinct, good ingredient choices, and common sense: the food must taste good. Period.
I see these philosophies demonstrated every time I drive by a taco shop, the drive-thru packed, the service lines deep. Sometimes, I just don’t want to wait in one of those lines. Sometimes – Quetzalcoatl forbid – traditional recipes are tinkered with and flavors thrown off.
So I made up my own. Chef Macario, retired chef Mr. Gutierrez, and my Aunt Rose Marie would be proud of me.
Here is my recipe for carne asada. I am reluctant to tell you that I used soy sauce which is probably not an original ingredient. However, I ran this by a friend of mine whose family routinely makes carne asada and she didn’t hit me when I told her I used it.
I grilled carne asada last night before we went to Alex’s ball game, and when we got home, I served salsa, guacamole, sour cream and corn tortillas with it. There was none left.
The meat is lean, the flavor is taco shop worthy, it’s the perfect cure for Mexican food jonesing, little bodies enduring growth spurts, and family re-grouping after each one of us goes in a different direction during the day.
|ASIAN CABBAGE SALAD
For this dish a perfect example of using ethnic pantry items withh fresh ingredients – I either dice meat from a rotisserie chicken, add cooked chicken strips found in the deli section, or the canned shredded chicken, drained. It all works fine. If you prefer, replace the cabbage with glass noodles, and add Hoisin sauce at the end.
1 green cabbage, shredded
1-2 carrots, shredded
1 lb. frozen shrimp, defrosted
1 cup cooked chicken
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
2 cloves garlic, minced
Â½ tbsp. canola oil
1 tsp. sesame oil
Â½ tsp. fish sauce
dash of coarse grain salt
Mix cabbage, carrot, chicken, shrimp and cilantro together. Set aside.
Mix dressing together.
Toss salad and dressing together.
Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
PANTRY CANNELLINI BEAN SOUP WITH VEGETABLES
I tried to make this soup in the slow cooker. But the pantry way proved tastier. Many canned and frozen vegetables are just as healthy as fresh, so no health benefits are sacrificed by using either the canned or fresh options that I list.
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided use
2 cans white cannellini beans, drained
1 14.5 oz. can of corn, drained (fresh option: 2 ears white corn)
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained (fresh option: 2 large heirloom tomatoes, diced)
3 cloves garlic, crushed and/or minced
1 4 oz. can roasted chilies (fresh option: 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped fine)
1 onion, diced very fine
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
32 oz. vegetable broth or chicken broth
1/2 cup water
coarse grain salt & pepper to taste
green onions (scallions) chopped for garnish
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
If using fresh corn, cut the corn off the cob carefully.
Place corn, diced tomatoes and garlic on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or coated with non-stick spray. If using a fresh jalapeno, add it to the tomatoes and garlic as well.
Drizzle over 2 tbsp. olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss around a bit.
Roast corn, tomatoes and garlic (optional diced jalapeno) at 425 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.
In the meantime, add diced onion to a pot and sweat in 2 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat.
When onion is soft, after about 3-5 minutes, add broth and water.
Add cumin, coriander, beans and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to simmer. Add corn, tomatoes, and pepper/can of chili peppers.
Simmer for 10-15 minutes (don’t cook too long, you just want the ingredients to get to know each other and begin to unify).
Serve with chopped green onions.
Optional garnishes – cilantro, parsley, sour cream, creme fraiche, Tabasco, shredded Cheddar cheese, crumbled goat cheese, Cotija cheese, crusty toasted baguette slices
Optional additions: roasted, torn chicken, homemade turkey meatballs, prosciutto, bacon.
|My pantry is the proverbial closet, with not just one, but several magic worlds hidden inside.
Japan. Italy. Morocco. India. Greece. Mexico. Thailand, the Phillipines, France, Spain.
Come Spring time, the pantry starts making noises from the inside (true story), waiting to produce endless meals that exist, in unassembled form, behind its wooden doors, and in between deep shelves.
My pantry, even though you may not care, is painted white, it has pewter handles, it is actually simple and minimalistic looking. Open it up, however, and in the Mason jars, vacuum seals, and recycled boxes, there is possibility and potential hoping to take the hand of belief, experience, and commitment.
My pantry came alive several years ago, right before the Y2K hysterics in our first home, a smallish single family unit. It didn’t boast a traditional pantry, but every square inch and right angle under the kitchen sink or overhead cabinets I stood on a chair to reach – soon became stocked high with canned tomatoes, packages of noodles, bottles of spring water, and canned broth.
This was my nuclear bunker. I see that now. I quickly became addicted to feeling prepared for the end of the world with foodstocks to save me. I never let my culinary inventory dwindle again after the year change from 1999 to 2000.
This foodstocking thing, when paired with spring vegetables and bright sunlight after lots of rain, equals feasts outside and happiness to spare.
So I learned that a full pantry is a metaphor for joy.
I’m not a psychologist, an Iron Chef, MBA or chicken farmer. Not that any of these things would qualify me as a sage or get me paraphrased all over the place for a thousand years. It’s just me, a home cook with a full nest, telling you from behind an apron that what we need, we have already got.
Really. I’ve done some soul searching, perhaps, and I find most answers at the helm of my own culinary providence.
As good things go, too much is never enough, happiness included. After the world didn’t end, I started buying things like sesame oil, tomato paste, every kind of flour, yeast, capers, anchovies in olive oil, canned vegetables, noodles, dried beans, bread crumbs, Hoisin sauce, peanut oil, dried mushrooms, artichoke hearts (jarred in oil, canned in water)…I sshould stop now.
Actually, I should have stopped then. We outgrew our first home, the lack of cabinet space to blame. My first child turned two and I searched, then found a home with a large enough pantry.
That Spring of 2001, my mad stocking habit somewhat contained with room to grow, I began organizing shelves by ethnic cuisine type. My silent, neglected self now was given a name by the media: “foodie” A foodie who was the mother of a mobile and curious toddler, wife, and Surprise! Expecting again.
Another reason to hoard.
Pregnant and integrating playgroups, somehow I started forgetting to defrost chicken breasts or put dinner in the slow cooker each morning.
I fretted not. I reached into my pantry. I had taught myself to cook, taught my neuroses to be quiet with caper berries imported from Italy, and in the process balanced motherhood and marriage, like holding one plate shoulder level in each hand (with food plated miles high, of course.)
Cookbooks and parenting books helped, doomsday was a motivating factor, but the real answers came as instinct, as a voice in my head, or on the days I was really lucky naturally. Like the flower that just knows it’s time to grow and break through the soil again. In the Spring.
Spring of 2009 here – practices, games, lessons, daylight savings time â€“ Iâ€™m not next to the pantry as often. But I still hear it knocking. Talking. Evolving.
When I tell my kids â€œNo, we can’t go play outside, I need to constantly stir the risotto, they don’t buy it. What can I do? I give in to their whims now, but I can feed us all this way. It’s been a few Springs.
I reach in, deep inside, and grab what I need.
A stocked pantry, a good imagination, and healthy approach to things – That kind of joy can last you a really long time.
GREEN BEANS AND POTATOES
1 white onion, diced or pureed
1 lb. fresh green beans
1 ½ tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. white or red potatoes, peeled and halved
1 large vine ripened tomato, core removed (or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained)
3 cups water
Salt & Pepper to taste
Put olive oil in pan, add onion. Sweat the onion in the olive oil over medium heat.
Add rinsed, raw green beans, incorporate into the onion and olive oil.
Add three cups water.
Add peeled potatoes and tomato, salt and pepper.
Simmer for half hour.
Excerpted from Little Grapes on the Vine
My first attempts at gardening were windowsill herbs in our first apartment. They attracted annoying little bugs, a bad smell, and rotted pretty quickly. My second attempt at gardening was to plant snapdragons in the front porch planter of our first home, and herbs in the backyard. Well, my dogs did a great job smashing the seedlings and the snapdragons died because I simply did not know how to take care of them. It seemed to me that a hobby like gardening was relaxing only to the people who liked to work, perspire, and get dirty all at the same time. I gave up. When I wanted fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables, I went to the farmers market.
In the spring of 2001, we bought our second home. An adorable home, with a monochromatic landscape in the front and backyards – Cypress trees and green bushes everywhere, not a hint of color except the temperamental camellia bushes that lined the walkway with ornamental white rocks at the base. Armed with some equity money from our old house, I hired a gardener remove the cypress bushes. Pete and I went to our favorite nursery, Summers Past Farms, and bought English lavender, French lavender, cornflower, blue salvia, and several herbs. Among the herbs we planted were sweet basil, which thrived in the heat, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, and curled parsley. Among the herbs that died were the thyme and parsley. The sweet basil withered away in the fall, but voluntarily grew back the following summer, until the gardener cut it, as he thought it was a weed. Poor little resilient basil.
The next Mother’s Day I asked my husband, not much of a gardener either (although he will tell you otherwise) to get rid of the rocks, rototill the soil, and plant me another herb garden and some hydrangeas. He obliged, and I now have three hydrangeas, foxglove, gerbera daisy, and jasmine. But my herbs bring me the most enjoyment…garlic chives, two sweet basil, Thai basil, Greek oregano, orange mint, lemon mint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, lemon thyme and even kale. To ward off evil, I planted sage between the two front bedrooms, which belong to our children.
My husband and I figured out after five years that mulch is a good thing; they sell it for a reason. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we planted drought resistant, durable plants. Some days, watering the plants is simply just another thing to do, another daunting task on the honeydo list. Better to stick with low maintenance varieties.
When I say my herbs bring me the most enjoyment, it is because every night, I use herbs from my garden in my cooking. There is nothing like it. Bright flavor, stand up color, the scent and taste of fresh adorning my culinary creations. I can’t imagine what it will be like to one day even grow and enjoy vegetables or fruit from my own garden. I’ll have to learn to enjoy perspiring.
For now, I pillage the gardens of my in-laws. They own a house with a large canyon that opens onto a main street in the neighborhood. Driving on that street, you will see a fence that extends to encompass every square inch of land that they own. On that land, they have planted fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables, as their parents did in the villages in Greece. It’s an ancient practice, growing your own food so you never go hungry, and maintaining the land for future generations. Pa O’Hara himself said, “Nothing matters but the land”. I’ll tell you what that means to me…the most important thing you can do for your family is ensure their survival. The antebellum south is hardly ancient, but we have inherited our way of living from our ancestors – every one of us. Hunt, gather, breed, nurture. The Native Americans, Iipay, as they called themselves in our corner of the world, did that very thing on the land we dwell on now. And did you know many tribes were matriarchal? That’s right.
I have watched my mother-in-law for more than fifteen years now, planting seeds, tending gardens, first feeding her children fresh vegetables and fruits from her garden, now chasing our kids around her house with persimmons or tomatoes so they get their five-a-day. This organic thing, by the way, is not so new. Think about it. There were no grocery stores or pesticides five thousands years ago. There were gardens, farms and fields, and common people working them.
I was never as smart or as humble as when I decided to cultivate my own land with an open mind, and lots of anti-perspirant. It has brought me surprise, disenchantment, aromatics and delayed gratification.
To cultivate your land, you must become knowledgeable of your environment. The best way to do this is by examining your surroundings, and listening to your elders. Your grandfather, your mother, great-uncle, whoever is willing to teach and has the experience that will enrich your knowledge base. Keep your eyes open, your ears tuned in, and your mouth shut. You may learn something in spite of your new world values.
Get a head start. It is wise to awaken early and get to work. If you do this you will almost always be ahead. This leaves you time to contemplate your next move, or decide how to spend your free time. After you’ve completed your tasks and it’s well before twilight, you can find a shady tree, peel a juicy tangerine, and enjoy doing nothing. I say again, doing nothing. You can actually enjoy complacency after you have worked the day away with noble intentions.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Droughts happen, history teaches us that floods and hurricanes will hit – and sometimes our worst fears will come true. Insure what you have, and embrace every moment of good fortune and harmony. Should disaster strike, these memories will get you through, and give you something to work towards.
Don’t get overzealous; you must be thoughtful and patient with your soil if it is to give you sustenance. Do not plant more than you can take care of. Also, it is tempting to work more than necessary, so as to benefit from having a surplus. But if you are lucky, you understand the concept of having enough. Call it a day; spend your evenings with your loved ones. Otherwise, you could be left alone with a bunch of rotting fruit.
Nothing gives my in-laws more joy than when they have the opportunity to share the food they grew, usually sautéed in olive oil and lemon. For the food that they do not grow on their own, they frequent the farmers markets in our city. In my opinion, the markets remind them of a simpler way of life, a metaphor of the way life should be, as it was when they were children in the villages of Greece. They buy produce directly from the people who grow it. An even, fair trade without the gloss of a corporate chain and devoid of the bottom-line gimmicks. My father-in-law is well versed in quarterly earnings and market share, however, which is why he buys from the little guys. I have listened to more discussions in a fast-paced diction of Greek and English about which stocks to buy and sell than I can recall (I’d so much rather chat about the drinking habits of Dionysus). But here is how I tolerate the dinner table NYSE rants; enjoying a meal with homegrown food while talking about the market is simultaneously acknowledging the world we live in, while encouraging traditional and meaningful values. Corporate America isn’t changing anytime soon, but you can save a simpler way of life, one farm at a time. At least that is what I think they said, and certainly what I believe.
In the canyon and gardens of my beloved Greeks, you will find butternut squash, zucchini squash, sunflowers, corn, amarinth, figs, tangerines, avocados, persimmons, oranges, lemons, tomatoes, red potatoes, grapes, pistachio trees, greens, basil, apple trees, and so much more, if you pay attention. Fresh, untainted, plentiful and homegrown. Cultivated just enough to carry on.
DUTCH NUTMEG COOKIES
1 cup butter
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup sugar
½ cup chopped nuts (we prefer almonds)
2 cups sifted flour
¼ cup sour cream
Cream butter with first five ingredients until fluffy. Gradually add sugar until batter is fluffy.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer cookie batter to baked cookies. Winter of any given year finds me running my fingers around the rims of mixing bowls and hiding batter-covered wooden spoons from my own kin.
To me, perfection is cookie batter before the addition of the flour when the sugar is still sandy and batter still dripping off the spoon. I know because of the raw eggs this may be dangerous, but I have been doing it for years. In high school I had an odd culinary preference: I mixed together and ate melted butter, granulated sugar (white and brown) and eggs. These days, as I make cookies with my kids, I still eat the gooey stuff when my kids aren’t watching me closely (“Honey, could you get the chocolate chips out of the pantry for Momma?”) Once we even mixed away our batter while watching The Lion King, and you could say Simba dared me. “Danger, HA! I laugh in the face of danger.” You see, inspiration is everywhere. When it’s as delicious as cookie batter, count me in. I like the batter better.
Baking cookies is such a generational bridge. My grandmother taught me how to chop a salad, braise meats, and stretch a food budget, bless her. But my Mom taught me how to bake. Sitting on top of our Formica counter as a kid in the 70s, I watched my Mom decorate the wood paneled kitchen with confectioner’s sugar, all-purpose flour, smudging the pages of her Joy of Cooking cookbook with little spots of butter from her fingers.
Chocolate chip is a tasty batter, no argument there. Oatmeal raisin cookie batter lends a pleasant crunch. But my childhood memory includes Dutch Nutmeg cookies and their creamy batter. Dutch Nutmeg cookies – I don’t know where my Mom got the recipe, but to me, there is no other holiday cookie. Every autumn and winter of my life, Dutch Nutmeg cookies appeared atop baking sheets on overcast Saturday afternoons.
The batter is ivory in color, with little specks of nutmeg throughout. My love affair with nutmeg may have begun with these cookies, at once nutty, milky and sweet, delicate, and rich. The batter is a cinch to make alone or with kids. After mixing, you roll the batter into a log. It can be frozen or refrigerated. The house is filled with good tidings and holiday spirits as soon as the spicy, sweet batter meets the heat of the oven. In my home, this doesn’t happen as often as it does at Grandma’s.
Because the batter is beguiling (and I tend to give in).
These cookies are proper enough for tea or dipping into hot chocolate, plentiful enough for gift-giving, and certainly would be appreciated by Santa, he probably gets a lot of chocolate chip cookies, you know.
We watch a lot of movies as we re-visit holidays past making these superb cookies. This year, my three-year-old daughter, Melia, is in love with Sesame Street. As I hear (rewound over and over, actually), “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me!” I wonder how it is that I find tie-ins to food in everyday life.
Inspiration really is everywhere. Better yet, it follows you from generation to generation and season to season.
Appetizers, or hors d’oeuvres (which translates to “outside the work”) rank high in my culinary favorites during holiday gatherings, and judging by what I see on food shows and in magazines, I certainly am not alone in this indulgence. I have been guilty of spending as much time on hors d’oeuvres as I have on the main course and side dishes – but these days, that isn’t necessary. In the age of artisan cheeses, organic vegetables and fine meats, making memorable and delicious hors d’oeuvres is easier than ever.Simply knowing where to shop, the tastes of the people you are aiming to please, and a little creativity in presentation, you’ll realize you have more time to enjoy your guests and to toast what brings you together (hopefully with something bubbly).When I was in Catering and holiday parties kept us busy every night of the week in December, platters and crudités were standard for every party and never disappointed. Baked Brie en Croute was always a sure-to-please. Chicken skewers with a spicy/sweet Peanut and Chili Sauce sent people to the bar for a cocktail (intentional? Maybe!). Seafood displays, by far, were the most lavish – although people felt safer with cheese displays and grilled vegetables with garlic aioli. If you must.
When I entertain I fall back on what worked when I fed people for a living. A holiday gathering at home is a more intimate setting than hundreds of guests in a ballroom, but the formula remains the same – don’t overdo it. Hors d’oeuvres, while fun and necessary, are not the heart of the meal. With fewer guests I also have more freedom and quality control, but still choose the fare wisely.
Presentation is where I take more liberties – in Catering, it would be Meyer lemons in glass vases with sprigs of rosemary. At home, I garnish with sprigs of lavender and whatever herbs are fragrant and in season. I love garnishing with lemony herbs – lemon verbena, lemon balm, and lemon thyme, and maybe some beeswax candles to illuminate the displays.
A little bit of what Hors D’oeuvres and Appetizersyou might find at a holiday event…
Artisan Cheese Display ~ Cheese shops are easy to find, however, the Internet has endless possibilities if you cannot find a good purveyor. Make sure you offer hard cheeses as well as soft varieties (roll one goat cheese log in herbs, roll another in poppy seeds, another in chopped pistachios). Whole wheat crackers and toasted baguette slices are a perfect accompaniment, and honeycombs dripping succulent honey are stylish now, not to mention flavorful.
Grilled Vegetable Display ~ Vegetables that grill well are peppers, onions, zucchini, summer squash, even tomatoes. Brushed with olive oil prior to grilling, this appetizer represents well. An indoor grill pan is ideal for this, and grilling vegetables can be done ahead of time. Pair with healthy dips – pesto, hummus, salsa, and aioli.
Baked Brie ~ Creamy, sweet and satisfying, an entire wheel of brie with Apricot Preserves is placed into a 350º oven for 10-15 minutes (keep your eye on it). I no longer do Brie en Croute, this appetizer disappears just as quickly.
Bruschetta ~ Dice good quality tomatoes and place in a colander until most of their juice is gone, approximately half an hour. Place strained tomatoes in serving dish and drizzle balsamic vinegar, olive oil, coarse grain salt and pepper (roasted garlic cloves if you desire) over them, and serve inside a French Bread prepared the following way… Hollow out a French Bread (by this I mean cut bread in half lengthwise rip out most of the “meat” of the bread), drizzle or brush the inside with olive oil and heat in a 400º oven until bread begins to brown, 5 – 10 minutes.
Prosciutto and Melon ~ Get the best quality prosciutto you can find, and wrap around melon slices or melon balls of your choice. I also wrap prosciutto around steamed/grilled asparagus.
Marinated Vegetables ~ Olives, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, tomatoes. Make sure you place this next to the cheese display.
Seafood Display ~ Steamed shrimp (or prawns poached in sugar and water), crab claws, and oysters on the half shell. Need I say more? Oh – lemon wedges. Don’t forget the little forks.
With these simple but delicious (and healthy!) options, I am able to have conversations with my guests; I can enjoy a glass of wine, and concentrate on the main event. Seeing these hors d’oeuvres prove themselves year after year, this course is one less thing for me to worry about.
I find it much easier to toast to Peace on Earth if I have peace of mind.
The conditions were right for mac and cheese. A light, late-summer breeze, air temperature 74º, hunger waves in consistent, waist-high sets. Visibility was good because nothing was burning, yet the tide was high is my kitchen.
Today after I picked up the kids from school – it was half day and we’re still blazing hot here in Southern California – I told the kids we were hitting the beach for cooler air. I had already gotten dinner started in the slow cooker, thinking Mexican food. But unbeknownst to me, inspired by an afternoon bodysurfing and need for hearty food, a new dish was about to be born.
Here is what I put in the slow cooker…
4 big, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
…and I figured I’d boil some brown rice and make a green salad after getting home from the beach. I usually don’t have much energy to cook dinner after baking in the sun and chasing my kids through sand and waves. That’s what warm weather means for parents, right? We sleep well at night because a) we’re pleased with ourselves as parents for being actively (read: physically) engaged in our children’s lives, and b) we are worn out due to the level of activity.
So today I get home and the house smelled so like a Mexican restaurant, I almost expected to hear Mariachis. Yet, all I heard was “Momma, there’s sand in my belly button.” The clean up necessitated by a day at the beach makes me want to … eat. But I didn’t want rice. I didn’t want a salad. I wanted something comforting and homey and … fattening. I dodged those Doritos all day at the beach. I earned the right to indulge, I believe. Besides, I’m at a chronological point in the month when I will mysteriously gain five pounds overnight even if I eat carrot sticks for dinner.
After de-sanding my girls, watching the Food Network, (Giada was doing something with cheese) I remembered I had some rich, deeply sharp and flavorful white cheddar in the fridge (I stole it from my Mom). I also had some cavatappi I bought on sale last week. And bubbling around those now tender, fully cooked chicken breasts in my slow cooker was a chipotle/green chili/tomato broth that could blend very nicely into a cheese sauce. The chicken would shred easily and add protein to the mac and cheese…I knew where my imagination was going with this, and my appetite fell right in line.
That’s the thing about me, I could have zero energy for laundry, paying bills or pruning, but I always, always have energy to invent a new recipe and whip up a meal. Watching food shows invigorates me, it’s the creative equivalent of about four Espresso shots.
Within ten seconds of lounging on the couch (“Momma, there’s a rumbling in my tummy”), I was running hot water into a pot to boil pasta, I was grating white cheddar for a miraculous, snowy cheese sauce. After shredding two of four chicken breasts with forks, I added five ladlefuls of broth from the slow cooker into the cheese sauce. The broth generated by all of the ingredients I put in the slow cooker eight hours prior soon dotted the white background of the cheese sauce with green chilies and red tomato pieces. My meal was festive. My meal was flavorful. My meal was anything but the same old thing. Not bad for being away from my kitchen all day.
But the best part about the slow cooker concoction was this…the remaining shredded chicken breasts combined with the strained broth from the slow cooker will make a fabulous tortilla soup for tomorrow. Into the fridge the remaining chicken and strained slow cooker broth went…waiting until tomorrow evening, when hunger strikes again. It’ll be a 1-2-3 inning as I add a little more chicken stock, some tortilla strips, and a dollop of sour cream to the soup bowls.
With all the time I’ll have tomorrow freed up by an already cooked meal, I could do so many things…fold laundry? (Probably not) … trim my drooping Gerberas? (They’ll fall back into the planter eventually) … pay bills? (They get deducted from my account anyway) …or, I know! Get sandy all over again.
SLOW COOKER CHIPOTLE CHICKEN
4 big, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
MACARONI AND CHEESE, WITH CHIPOTLE AND CHICKEN
1 package cavatappi, macaroni, fusilli, or whatever tube-type pasta you have
HOT BUTTERED NOODLES
8 oz. cooked egg noodles
When butter begins to melt, add extra virgin olive oil.
QUICK BEEF STROGANOFF
1 lb. beef stew meat
Sautee onion in olive oil for approximately one-two minutes. Add garlic and sautee until softened. Add stew meat and coat with olive oil. Be careful not to burn garlic. Whem meat is coated, add broth, bay leaf, mushrooms, parsley, thyme, and sherry, if using. Simmer over medium heat until most of the liquid is absorbed.
Remove from heat, add sour cream. Serve over hot buttered noodles.
You’ve taken a dish from someone you know, or from a recipe you’ve read, and made it your own, haven’t you? That’s okay. It’s called a signature.
I stood in the kitchen last night, straining noodles for Beef Stroganoff and giving myself an impromptu facial with the steam of the hot pasta water, and my six-year-old, Zoë, says “I just want plain noodles, Momma.” Okay, noodles I can do. But plain noodles, no way! I just can’t serve anything plain or … without my signature.
I once heard an interview with a roadie chef – that’s a chef that travels with bands and musicians so they can eat what they want while on the road – and learned that one of my favorite musicians prefers hot buttered noodles after shows. Reaffirming my belief that food puts us back together again.
So how appropriate that Zoë, my little rock star in training, asked me for noodles to eat after her show last night (dancing and singing to High School Musical, of course).
Imagining a song by Zoë topping the charts one day titled “Nobody Makes Noodles Like My Momma”, I sliced a thick pat of unsalted butter to my Grandmother’s cast iron skillet. When the butter turned a buttercup color against the patina of the pan and increased it’s circumference as if stretching it’s arms, I added some extra virgin olive oil. The butter kept the olive oil from smoking too soon. I would have added some minced garlic but the Stroganoff needed me. So I quickly tossed the cooked noodles to the butter and oil, then stirred the noodles in skillet with a wooden spoon that had seen better days. Medium flame turned off, I grated some fresh nutmeg and sprinkled some cayenne pepper into the egg noodles. With little specs of maroon and sable brown, the olive oil and butter singing the perfect duo called “fat is flavor”, I handed Zoë her hot, buttered noodles with my very own signature.
Cayenne and nutmeg for me have made some simple and outdated dishes refined in a home cooking sense. The cayenne gives my dishes a piquant something-something with regional Southern traits. The nutmeg lends what I call a milky earthiness, almost sweet against the heat of the cayenne, with elegance to balance the attitude of the cayenne. Cayenne pepper and nutmeg may be an unlikely pair, but they cooperate for me. These signature ingredients have graced roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, meat sauce, even fruit salad with a complexity that is not commonplace at our neighborhood restaurant or even Grandma’s. Exactly my intention.
Signatures aren’t unlike secrets, as in “secret ingredients” or “What’s your secret?” … well, the decision to disclose your signatures is entirely up to you. I’ve just told you mine and I hope you run to the stove right now to make some hot buttered noodles, or at least scribble down your own signature ingredients/processes on a 3×5 recipe card for your children to inherit one day.
Cooking gives us a chance to keep what we want and create what we need. It’s a chance to leave a legacy. It’s a way to leave your mark, tastefully.