Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spring Forward with Brando's Steak!

It's time to spring forward! Oh wait, we did that last weekend. Call me old school, but didn't the time change used to happen at the end of April? We now have darker morns and lighter eves starting on the 2nd Sunday in March? It’s been a bit unseasonably warm in Nor Cal this week, but is it really spring, even with daffodils blooming? Does an hour difference in the time make it spring or just a darker morning? The Vernal Equinox makes it Spring, so it will be Spring come Thursday, March 21st.

I remember the change to DST in the dead of winter when I was in high school – 1975-ish. My locker was in the covered central corridor at La Habra High School, the Argyle it was called (all the hallways had Scottish names as we were the Highlanders). It was so dark on those cold mornings that opening a locker was impossible without a flashlight. Though somewhat romantic the first day or two, it became a pain in the neck by the end of the week. Almost 40 years later, we Highlanders now know that we were part of a plan, however misguided, to conserve energy.  I hadn’t really given this little blip in time change history a thought until I started researching time change history. It’s convoluted – the history of the time change - to be sure, so if you are really curious as to why we go through this bi-annual disruption in our sleep patterns, read all about the time change here. Spring Forward, Fall Back makes it sound so simple. It’s not.

Growing up, I always associated the time change with warmer temps and school spring break and all the neighborhood kids being able to play outside much longer due to the "Be home when the street lights turn on" rule. DST was Heaven's blessing on long games of “hide and seek” or roller skating for blocks on end or hiking through the orange groves that surrounded my neighborhood. As my friends and I got older, DST meant that it wasn't dark when we waited in the high school parking lot for certain male athletes to finish their practices, hoping we could all go out for pizza together, which may lead to some other activities – innocent ones, mind you!

Longer, warmer days also meant laid back family dining.  My mother loved spring cooking because of the simplicity involved, which usually meant grilling. To Mom, cooking was a means to an end: feeding her family every evening. She had a simple, limited repertoire and she did it well enough, though our dog Chloe ate more lima beans from our plates than my siblings and I. Mom’s one concession to “fine cooking” was patronizing the local butcher shop, Town and Country Meats. Meat and poultry in the Reilly household always came wrapped in butcher paper, taped with the price sticker. Never did a plastic wrapped flank steak on a piece of Styrofoam cross our threshold! We were not supermarket meat people! 

The butcher shop flank streak would be marinated in Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, thrown on a hot grill and served with boiled potatoes and those damned frozen lima beans, or canned asparagus (though she was an avowed butcher shop disciple, it took Mom a few years to embrace fresh vegetables). On the night that the grill was hot, Mom had managed to feed her 3 children once again and, since it was Daylight Saving Time, we were now free to continue playing outdoors until the street lights came on.

As homage to my mother and as a way to celebrate the coming warmer weather, I prepared my favorite version of marinated flank steak for my family. From Menlo Park Chef Jess Ziff Cool, I’ve been serving Brando’s Steak and Grilled Vegetables for years. I’d prepared this several times for my mother, and she liked it. Secretly, I think she preferred her simpler rendition. Perhaps it brought back memories of happy children eating their dinner and then playing in the street with other happy children until the street lights turned on.

Brando's Steak and Grilled Vegetables
Jesse Ziff Cool

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup hearty red wine (Zinfandel or Cabernet)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
4 garlic cloves -- minced
2 shallots -- minced
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3-4 lbs Flank steak or Chateaubriand
2 large onions -- sliced thick
4 red or yellow peppers -- sliced thick
1 medium eggplant -- sliced thick
1 head fennel, sliced thick

In a large measuring cup or bowl, combine oil, wine, soy, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic, shallots, brown sugar, salt and pepper.

Place steak in a resalable plastic bag and pour half the marinade over the steak. Place vegetables in another plastic bag and pour remaining marinade over them. Place both bags in refrigerator and let marinade for at least 1 hour or overnight.

 Prepare the grill. Remove steak from the plastic bag and cook for 15 minutes, turning once, until an instant read thermometer reads 145 degrees. Let stand 15 minutes before slicing.

Place vegetables on a grid grilling pan and cook over the grill for at least 7 minutes, turning frequently, until browned.

The marinade makes an excellent salad dressing, too.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ugali, Grits and Polenta - It's a Small World!

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how universal many ingredients are, how the simple bean has been incorporated into cuisines around the world; the eggplant, a native to India, is as integral to Thai menus as it is to Middle Eastern tables. The Three Sisters of the New World, and now, International cookery – Squash, Beans and Corn – can be found as easily in Boston as they are in Botswana. It is corn that I wish to spotlight today, or more specifically, polenta.

Simply put, polenta is finely ground corn meal and when cooked, it becomes corn mush. Before corn was introduced to Europe in the 1700’s, polenta, the name for any grain cooked to porridge-like consistency, was made with farro, chickpeas or millet. Corn polenta became a staple in peasant Italian kitchens and until fairly recently, was considered just that, peasant fare. But corn mush has a far larger international influence and commonality.

A female cheetah enjoys her kill
While on a family safari in Tanzania, my husband, sons and I witnessed the circle of life, literally, as we watched a cheetah lick the blood from a fresh gazelle kill off her paws. 
We gazed over the vastness of the Serengeti as wildebeests and zebras in the thousands, following instincts millennium old, indulged themselves on the grasses that would sustain them for their lengthy northward migration. At night we heard hyenas cackle and lions roar and the next day, followed the vultures circling over the carcasses of the night’s prey.

Once our drives were done for the day, our group savored amazing fare - a huge variety of curries, roasted meats seasoned with piri-piri at the lodges where we stayed, and while camping on the Serengeti, a Christmas Eve dinner of clove-studded ham, prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, all prepared in braziers over charcoal pits. A better kitchen I have yet to experience.

Camp kitchen on the Serengeti
On our last days of safari, we stayed at Terengire Treetops Lodge, just outside Terengire National Park, a small park by African standards but one with a huge concentration of elephants. It was here, 10 days into our time together, that I got into a conversation about food with two fellow travelers – Frank, one of our guides and a native Tanzanian, and Sue, from North Carolina. I remarked that a thick porridge had been readily available throughout our trip. “Ugali”, Frank replied, “It’s served with every meal. It's corn meal.” “Just like grits”, Sue said, with an inflection in her voice that just rang with Southern pride. It turned out that grits and ugali are one and the same, and that’s when I mentioned creamy polenta, my closest association with corn mush. In the late 80’s when I was in culinary school, polenta was raised from a humble home staple to heights of sophistication by chefs in San Francisco and across the country. It was topped with slow braised short ribs, among other humble cuts of meat, and made corn mush an important component of what is now known as comfort food. 

Margie with the chef at Terengire Treetops Lodge
After finding eviscerated remains of a prey animal drying in the equatorial sun or spotting satiated carnivores splayed out, bellies full, along a track, talking about the food trends of North America seemed mundane, but it also brought to mind one thing we all share – we have to eat. We’d seen it dozens of times on the Serengeti; we’d experienced it ourselves when we came in from our drives – when is dinner and where is the Tusker Lager? And now, Sue, Frank and I were sharing our love of corn mush. Polenta, a simple stable, became a common denominator that brought three tired, hungry safari wayfarers together and showed us just how small the world really is.

Cheesy Fried Polenta Triangles

Top with marinara sauce for a side dish or with a meat sauce as an entrée.


4 cups water
1 cup polenta
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pepper, to taste
2-3 cups grated melting cheese, such as Parmesan, Gruyere, Fontina or cheddar, or a combination
Olive oil, for frying
Grated Parmesan, for garnish


Coat the bottom and sides of a 9x13 baking pan with non-stick spray oil.

In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Slowly add the polenta, stirring to combine. Lower heat and continue stirring until the polenta is creamy and pulls from the side of the pan, about 15-20 minutes. Add the butter and pepper and grated cheese and stir until the butter and cheese are melted. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

 Pour the polenta into the prepared baking pan and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

When the polenta is set, remove from refrigerator and cut into squares and then into triangles. In a wide sauté pan, heat about ½ cup of olive oil over high heat. Add 3-5 polenta triangles and fry until the polenta is golden and crisp. Adjust heat as necessary to avoid burning. Remove cooked triangles to a baking sheet covered with paper towels. Add more oil as needed and repeat with the remaining triangles. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan.

Serve warm as is or topped with sauce.