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February 2014

Holy Guacamole! Kids Save Me in the Kitchen

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I’m often asked about how to involve kids in the kitchen. I have a few easy examples (such as having them wash green beans, measure dry ingredients, or, even, have fun with frozen peas at age two-and-a-half), and the other day I learned a new method: prayer.

Let me explain. Last Friday, Santa Maria had to work and I took the day off from work to be at home with the kids, who were on vacation from school. Because I was going to be around the house all afternoon, and would have time to cook, I invited a few friends over for dinner. These friends of ours usually have a Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, so we asked them to move the ceremony to our place. They obliged, and we lit candles, they blessed the bread, and we honored the day of rest.

But before all that, I needed to get the food on the table. Perhaps because we were going to have Yahweh on our side, something remarkable happened that afternoon: Nina and Pinta came to my rescue in the kitchen. I thought I had blocked out enough time, but as the hour of our friends’ arrival approached, it was clear that I was in trouble. Long ago, I taught Nina an old restaurant term for falling behind in the kitchen, and she trotted it out. “You’re in the weeds, dad,” she said. Indeed, I was.

The meal was tacos, a simple one, at least on paper, and one that I had made many times before. This time around, I was making steak tacos, a relatively new variation on my recipe, but that change is not what got me into trouble. The trouble came in scaling up the recipe for seven people. I kept saying it was a simple meal, and Nina kept correcting me. “It’s not simple,” she said. And as I looked at the mountain of ingredients on the counter in front of me, I had to agree.

Pinta grated the cheese for two trays of nachos, and Nina grated bowls of cheese for the table. Pinta mashed the avocado for the guacamole, and Nina set the table with seven settings. I diced a thousand-and-one cherry tomatoes (the only kind half ripe in the middle of winter), and washed and chopped the cilantro. We were busy for about an hour, working side by side, and it was great fun.

These tacos can be made with pork, fish, black beans, and steak. The steak I like to cook for it is grass-fed Sirloin Tip, an old favorite. The ones I buy are very thin, and cook at about a minute or two a side. The trick is to get the cast-iron pan as hot as you can, and go for a good char. Don't overcook it, and slice it as thin as you can for the tacos

We assembled all the food on the table—two trays of beef, a bowl of black beans (my friend is watching his diet; I’m watching my wallet), two bowls of grated cheddar cheese, two bowls of fresh salsa, two bowls of chimichurri sauce*, two trays of nachos, a platter of warmed corn tortillas, and a huge bowl of salad (if I was a better blogger, I’d have a whole bunch of photos to show, but as it is, I’m a better cook and eater than food photographer). It was the best Shabbat dinner I’ve ever had (and don’t discount that because it was the only Shabbat dinner I’ve ever had). Everyone hung out after dinner and we stayed up late watching Mikaela Shiffrin hang on to make history as the youngest Olympic Women’s Slalom Champion. It was a night for the record books. Here's how to have a gold-medal taco night yourself. 

Guacamole

  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 4 shakes Tabasco
  • 1 sprinkle salt
  • 1/3 tomato, diced
  • 1 tablespoon diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon diced cilantro

        Peel and mash the avocado and combine with the other ingredients. Serves 4; double as needed.

 

Fresh Salsa

  • 1 tomato, medium size, diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
  • 1/2 lime, juiced, or to taste
  • 2 shakes Tabasco
  • sea salt, to taste

        Stir ingredients together, and enjoy. Serves 4; double as needed.

Chimichurri Sauce 

  • 1 bunch (about a cup) fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • 2 Tbsps fresh oregano leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried oregano)
  • ½  cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp red or white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • A shake of red pepper flakes (about a ¼ teaspoon, or to taste)

Chop the parsley as fine as possible.

Dice the garlic.

Combine with the other ingredients, and let sit while you cook the steaks. 

Serves 8.

*Note: I've found that a delicous beef taco can be made with a bit of romaine from the salad and some Chimichurri Sauce, rolled in a warmed, soft-corn tortilla.

Serve with soft-corn or other tortilla of your choice, nachos, and a salad. Fill the tacos with either steak, as mentioned above, or pork, black beans, or fish (see below), depending on the season and/or your mood. 

Healthy Pork Tacos

  • 2 pork tenderloins, about 1lb each
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • a dash of black pepper
  • a bit of honey (maybe a ½ teaspoon)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons (more or less) olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (about) white wine
  • corn tortillas (warmed on stovetop)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

Combine all the spices and the oil.

Place the meat in a low baking dish and rub the mixture on the meat, covering all sides.

Pour the wine around the meat.

Roast in oven until internal temperature of meat is 145 degrees, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the meat from the oven and let it sit for about five minutes.

Thinly slice the meat and chop it a bit until it resembles shredded pork.

Pour any pan drippings over the meat, and before serving. 

 

 Fish Tacos 
 
  • 1 ½  lbs of porgy fillets (about a half or third of a pound per person)
  • flour for dredging
  • salt and pepper

Cut the pin bones (that row of bones down the center) out of the porgy fillet and slice the fillets cross ways, on a diagonal, to make decent-sized strips.

Lay some flour on a plate and season heavily with salt and a bit of pepper.

Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan on a medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish pieces in the seasoned flour and lay them in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan. Cook a few minutes on one side until browned just a bit, and then flip them. Cook on the other side until done, a few minutes more.

Set the pieces of fish aside on a platter and keep warm until you’ve cooked all the fish.

Simple Black Beans

 

  • 1 onion diced finely
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups dried black beans, rinsed but not soaked
  • 6 cups water
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (about half a bunch; more is better than less)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • the juice of two limes

 

           Saute the onion in a large stock pot, using a little oil, until translucent.

           Add the garlic, saute for a minute or two more.

           Add the beans and the water, and bring to a boil.

           Turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or two, or three or longer, until the beans are tender.

           Add the cilantro, salt, and lime juice.

           Note: the recipe can easily be doubled, and the beans freeze very well.


Pork Tacos at the Messy Easel

Here’s a bad joke: Why do children like to microwave food? Because they’re good at pushing buttons. I think you know what I’m saying, but I’m going to spare you the details, for three reasons:

  1. I don’t want to bore you.
  2. I promised myself recently that I’d stop feeding my negative impulses and would, instead, put that energy into more constructive pursuits.
  3. I don’t want to bore you.

I will belabor one thing, though, and only because it must be universal among parents: the feeling that if one’s children are not behaving well, the main reason is that they learned those nasty habits from you. That is the hardest part about dealing the rough patches of parenting. Children are giant walking billboards for the parents' worst habits.

Facing that has led me to change my life. Without getting all Norman Vincent Pearle on this topic (believe me, I’m in no danger of that), I have become aware recently of a body of work that says—and I’ll paraphrase here—that if you focus on the good things in your life, you’ll feel better. (For more details, see here, here, here, and here.)

So, in the hopes of increasing the collective happiness, I’m going to relate a story, and doing so, refine one my latest go-to-recipes. The other weekend we had a busy soccer schedule and I was running back and forth between my house and downtown brooklyn more often than the rush-hour F train. I actually like this, because it gives me one-on-one time with each of my girls, but the schedule can become a a problem if the games interfere with making dinner. 

Two weekends ago Pinta’s game was late in the afternoon, and I was worried. But, Santa Maria stepped up to the stove, with amazingly inventive assistance from Nina, and saved the day. I had put pork tacos on the menu, and Santa Maria and Nina did them with style. When we returned, I found the following sign on the door:

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When I entered, Nina, who was wearing an apron and a smile, said to me, “Welcome to the Messy Easel.” She had turned the apartment into a restaurant. She took my coat like a proper hostess, and handed me a menu:

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The table was perfectly set, the tacos were delicious (see note, below), and we had a fantastic dinner. I asked Nina how she came up with the name of the eatery, and she pointed to the corner of our dining room, where, in fact, we have a messy easel. It was better than eating at an actual restaurant, and when the meal was done, I was handed a check, that I was able to pay with a signature.

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Note: Here’s the recipe for the pork tacos, and after consulting with Santa Maria, I’ve refined it slightly. It can take a bit longer to cook than I had previously mentioned, and I added a step to create a more of a sauce. Here’s the updated recipe (and I’ve corrected the original post to reflect these changes).

Healthy Pork Tacos

  • 2 pork tenderloins, about 1lb each
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • a dash of black pepper
  • a bit of honey (maybe a ½ teaspoon)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons (more or less) olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (about) white wine
  • corn tortillas (warmed on stovetop)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

Combine all the spices and the oil.

Place the meat in a low baking dish and rub the mixture on the meat, covering all sides.

Pour the wine around the meat.

Roast in oven until internal temperature of meat is 145 degrees, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the meat from the oven and let it sit for about five minutes.

Thinly slice the meat and chop it a bit until it resembles shredded pork.

Pour pan drippings over the meat, and serve with fresh salsa, guacamole, and warmed corn tortillas.