Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dinnertime in shifts: Hawaiian Steak Tacos

It's the juggling and the madness that happens around dinner time during the spring season that makes me so crazy.  Baseball practice, soccer games, field hockey clinics and dance, dance, dance, everyday, at different times each day....aaargh!  I cannot keep track. Especially when there really is no schedule and the "organizers" expect you to fly by the seat of your pants!  If I am kept from setting up the day at least 24 hours in advance, it makes me want to poke out my own eye.  But that's my problem.  Which brings me to another pet peeve: creating a meal that can be eaten in shifts.  Is it really to much to ask for a delicious meal at the end of the day instead of boiling up plain pasta or throwing a hotdog in a pan?  Don't get me wrong, there are times when the schedule dictates such fare and I willingly put those items on my grocery list for such occasions. But I refuse to eat that stuff all week long while being held hostage by my children's activities schedule.  Maybe kids and most men are able to subsist on such bland choices, but I demand something a bit more tempting at the end of a long day and the start of a potentially longer evening.
Of course, there is always that old standby, the crockpot.  But I find it difficult to find the time in the morning for the preparing, chopping, searing, etc. in advance which I feel must be done to insure a tasty result.  I am able, however, to marinate a piece of meat as long as there are minimal ingredients involved.  Ziploc bags are a lifesaver in this instance.  I don't even use a measuring cup, I just dump it all in and throw in some sort of meat. And if there is an easy, uncooked fruit/vegetable option that takes minimal time and fuss, we are all better for it and it will take care of the obligatory "healthy" portion of food I push on my kids at dinner time.  Because it is a challenge to jazz up frozen corn and peas on a daily basis.

I came up with the following recipe as fresh pineapples are on sale this week along with petit sirloin.  Most of what I plan is based on the supermarket circular. I love a good bargain.  Substitute chicken or pork, if you want.  If the steak, is to large for cooking it to order, cut it up to suit your needs.  The pineapple salsa can be made in advance or while you are grilling the meat.
Some other ideas:
 *Feta cheese makes a great addition added to the salsa or just for topping the taco!
*Sprinkle large chunks of pineapple with sea salt and grill them along with the steaks.
*If you have very hungry eaters, a pot of white rice goes well with this meal.

Hawaiian Steak Tacos
 (Serves 4) 

For the steak:
2 pounds steak (petit sirloin, skirt steak, etc)
2 cups pineapple juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
5 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1" fresh ginger, grated

Place all ingredients in a Ziploc bag and place in refrigerator until ready to use.  Marinate steaks 6-24 hours.

For the salsa:
2 cups chopped fresh pineapple
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped red pepper
juice from 1/4 lime

Also needed: at least 8 small flour tortillas

Combine pineapple through lime juice in a small bowl and allow flavors to meld.  Can be made up to 12 hours in advance.  Cover and keep chilled until ready to use.

About 30 minutes before cooking, take the steak out of the refrigerator and pat dry with paper towel.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  To cook the steak, heat a cast iron pan or grill  on high.   Once heated, place the steak on the pan or grill and cook for at least 3-4 minutes per side depending on how thick the steak is.  Press down on the steak, if it still feels squishy, cover it and allow it to cook for 2 minutes more.  If it begins to feel firm, remove it to a plate and let it rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing.  Meanwhile, while the steak is resting, toast tortillas in pan or on grill.  Wrap them in a tea towel until ready to serve with pineapple salsa and grilled pineapple.

Pour yourself a tall one and enjoy! (As long as it's not your turn to drive to soccer practice!)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Grape Hyacinth and Blackberry Jam

Grape hyacinth.  That's what they are called.  Those little spiky flowers made up of numerous bell-shaped blooms.  A minuscule bunch of grapes the perfect size for a fairy.  I have to crouch down to inspect them.  Val has planted them in clumps so that when they appear it's as if there is a whole herd of purple flowers.  Tiny spikes, little elfin hats that always remind me not of big bunches of juicy grapes but instead of deep, dark blackberries.  And when I think about blackberries, or any kind of berry for that matter, I always begin to dream about jam.
Of course, most of the time, jam needs a vehicle.  (When I'm acting civilized instead of eating the jam out of the container by the spoonful with the refrigerator door wide open.)  And my favorite jam landing pad other than homemade toasted white bread baked by Val, herself, is a freshly baked biscuit, or it's free form cousin, the scone.  So, last Sunday morning, the day after mine and Ava's girls' night, I decided that we needed to eat scones for breakfast.Vanilla scented, fluffy, light and topped with crunchy sugar crystals. Hot out of the oven, crispy outer edge.  The soft inside ready to absorb the sweetened berry juice dotted with softened berries.  Celebratory blackberry jam I made to welcome the long awaited April arrival of the grape hyacinths running along the stone walkway that leads to Val's porch.

Quick Berry Jam
(makes about 1 1/2 cups jam)

12 oz (approximately 2 cups) berries 
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
juice from 1/2 lemon
2 1/2 teaspoons powdered pectin

Combine all ingredients except pectin in a medium size saucepan.  Heat on medium-high and stir occasionally until sugar melts and mixture begins to bubble. Add pectin and continue to stir until mixture thickens (about 5 minutes).  Skim off and discard any white bubbly film that forms over the top.  Lower heat and cook for an additional 5 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Cool completely.  Serve with scones, on toast or by the spoonful.  Refrigerate leftovers (if you have any) and use within one week. 

Vanilla Breakfast Scones
 (makes about 12)

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup cold buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Mix all dry ingredients.  Cut butter into dry ingredients using a pastry cutter or 2 forks until the mixture looks like coarse peas.  Make a well in the center of the mixture and mix in the buttermilk and vanilla until just incorporated.  The mixture should be sticky.  If it is not, add a little more buttermilk.  Scoop out 10-12 dollops of dough (a little smaller than a baseball) onto lined, rimmed* baking pans.  Brush tops of scones with heavy cream and sprinkle turbinado sugar on each one. Bake for 12-18 minutes until edges are golden brown.  Remove from oven and serve warm.

*Make sure your pan has a rim as the butter sometimes melts and leaks out and could end up on the floor of your oven.  This could cause a fire!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Girls' Night

I remember well those Saturday nights when none of my friends were around to have a sleepover.  And then the middle school years when I was not cool enough to fit in with the rest.  Val always soothed my sadness with homemade cupcakes while we watched an episode of the "Love Boat", and allowed me to stay up later than usual.  Things always seemed better by the time Julie McCoy and Captain Stubing waived good-bye to all their weekly guests.
Once Declan headed off with his friend and Rob went to work for the evening, Ava and I were on our own. The first movie we picked out didn't work which is a shame because I love any story that takes place in the American south and Ava has read "Because of Winn- Dixie" about a million times.  But Ava found another one that was even better.  "Cinderella" was not scheduled to begin until 5:30pm which gave us plenty of time to mix up an old fashioned yellow layer cake (and lick the bowl, of course!) as well as concoct each our own plate of nachos, mine with salsa and pickled jalapenos, Ava kept hers clean with only cheddar cheese and sour cream.  We devoured our personalized snacks instead of eating dinner with our feet up while watching Cinderella's sad fate unfold. 
The oven timer for the cake sounded just as Cinderella finished dancing with the prince.  I had to keep Ava from sneaking a piece until it was cooled enough to frost and complete our masterpiece. This gave us plenty of time to watch all the maidens in the land try to wrestle a sweaty foot into the glass slipper.  Everyone loves a happy ending: ours was found on the back of the Hershey's Cocoa can.  During the closing credits, we whipped up the fudgiest of frostings and smeared it between the two layers of dense, homemade cake.
We cleaned up after licking another bowl of sweetness and threw our pajamas on. Armed with large wedges of layer cake, we settled in to watch yet another maiden determine her own future.  This time we only made it half way through "The Princess Diaries" and Julie Andrews' royal instruction to develop her American granddaughter into a regal swan.  Ava was tired and ready for bed. It surprised me that she didn't want to push the limits by staying up to all hours of the night.  She knows what she needs and what she wants because if you are a 12 year old girl in 2016, it's not only about being a beautiful princess but also about being strong and confident in yourself.  Maybe a princess' view of life is different now, but not everything has changed since I was her age.  There are still trials at school: algebra tests, annoying boys, catty girls and long bus rides home.  And no matter what is happening in life, the world is so much easier to bear when it is softened with a big slice of cake and a snuggle on the couch.

Yellow Cake
 adapted from "Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook", 1996 edition 

2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup  unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease and lightly flour two 9x1 1/2 inch round baking pans and set aside.  Combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter on medium high speed for 30 seconds.  Add sugar and vanilla.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating 1 minute after each.  Add dry mixture and buttermilk alternately, to beaten mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined.  Pour batter into prepared pans.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a wooden pick comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and continue to completely cool on wire racks.  Frost with desired frosting.

"Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Frosting
(enough for a 2 layer cake)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 
2/3 cup Hershey's Cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk (room temperature)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt butter.  Stir in cocoa.  Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating on medium speed to spreading consistency.  Add more milk, if needed.  Stir in vanilla.  About 2 cups frosting.