Before I get started, no, Julia is not as tall as Alex – she’s standing on a stool. Here’s a scary thing – if Alex were to stand on that same stool, he’d be eye level with me. He’s not allowed to stand on the stool any more.
There, now that I’ve got that cleared up for you, we can talk about food.
A week or so ago my boss was cleaning out some stuff at work and she gave me (to give to Julia) these plastic empanada presses. Those white plastic things you lay the dough on, add the filling, then fold closed and the plastic thing seals the edges for you in a pretty, kind of jagged pattern. You can use them for any sort of filled dough concoction. In fact, they’re probably not even called empanada presses at all.
Anyway, they were intended for Julia to play with, maybe, but when I said “empanada” that planted the seed in Bill’s head, so a few days ago when we were thinking up things to cook without going to the store to buy any food (in other words, eat cheap), Bill suggest we use the hunk of ham in the freezer for something.
The ham is yet another portion of Boris we’ve been waiting to utilize. Someone else had “made” the ham, and it wasn’t really made correctly (I’ve never made/cured a ham, and I don’t know all the details either) but it was edible if cooked.
Anyway, Bill took the ham out of the freezer and started it thawing one morning. It was a fairly large piece – 2-3 pounds – and it wasn’t going to thaw quickly, and we didn’t really have any clear plan, either, at that point, but eventually Bill decided to slice off about a pound of the meat, very thinly, and use that in a stir-fry sort of thing that night for dinner, and then smoke the rest of the meat the next morning for some kind of empanada filling.
So that’s what he did. He smoked the ham for a good hour, then placed it in a crock pot with some chicken stock (that he made that morning) and simmered it all day. That was Tuesday. Alex had a late playoff game, and we got home around nine-thirty. At that point, we took the meat out and poured in the black beans that had been soaking in cold water since the day before. I added some molasses, some salt and pepper and I don’t remember what else – oh, yes, some Green Tomato Jam for more sweetness and to balance out the burly flavor of the molasses. The beans cooked in that smoky, porky, sweetened liquid overnight.
In the morning I removed the beans and saved the liquid while part of my brain worked on a filling recipe. The rest of my brain worked on helping Julia clean out and rearrange her bedroom for most of the day – in the 90+ degree heat, with no air conditioning, up hill both ways in the winter. The room looks good, the A/C is now operational, and I’m just hoping she’ll stick to her new vow of “I will keep my room neat forever!”
Bill and Alex had gone fishing in the morning, so we had an assortment of fried freshwater fish for lunch (yeah, why not heat oil when the thermometer climbs into the red zone? If you can’t beat the heat, join it! Isn’t that how the saying goes?)
Here he is, posing with a crappie. Yes, that’s what it’s called. There were crappie, white perch, and a pickerel.
It was a late lunch, so we decided dinner would be around 8 pm, when Bill got home.
He left the house around 6:30, and I summoned the kids to the kitchen to cook.
Well, I did the actual cooking part, but they did pretty much everything else.
First order of business – grind up the cooked “ham.” Because it was Boris, the meat was tough. It was also tough because it was not a cut of meat meant to simmer for a long time in a pot of liquid. That cut doesn’t have all the little ribbons of fat and tendon running through, which break down and tenderize the meat with long, slow cooking. This was virtually fat-free, and it cooked into a nice little brick.
So I diced it up and we took out Bill’s mom’s meat grinder, and I put the kids to work.
Naturally there was the “I want to turn the handle!” “No, I want to do that part!” I told them they could take turns, and there was to be no fighting in the kitchen.
So one would turn the handle and the other dropped cubes of meat into the top.
And, with only a tiny bit more squabbling, the meat was ground up.
While they worked on that, I ladled some of the smoky pork and bean liquid into a pot, added a bunch of seasoning – salt, pepper, cayenne, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, cocoa powder and cinnamon – and a can of pumpkin puree. I whisked it all together and let it simmer a bit.
Then, as a group, we tasted the liquid. Alex thought it was too cinnamony (“I’m not a big fan of the cinnamon”) so I added more cumin and coriander and he nodded in approval after a second taste.
I ladled some of that mixture into the bowl of ground meat, added some of the baked beans, and let the mixture cool.
Next, the kids made the dough. Very simple – masa, salt, water. Stir, stir, stir.
At some point during all this, the kids held a brief, whispered conversation about something before resuming their work. Since they weren’t arguing, I paid no attention to the whispering. A bit later, Julia, who was probably bursting to talk, whispered in my ear:
“I’ll tell you what the secret is. Me and Alex decided to get along!” She smiled proudly.
I love my kids.
Next – time to make the empanadas.
Now, I’ve never made them before. I don’t know how correct these are, or if they should have been baked instead of fried.
I don’t care, either, because in the end, they tasted good, and my kids did the majority of the work, and they worked SO WELL together while they were doing this.
They decided who would flatten the dough, who would add the filling, who would press the edges together, who would trim the excess dough…all without fighting about it. They got their routine down and all I had to do was heat up oil and cook them.
I told the kids that this summer they’d be participating more and more with the cooking. Maybe not frying so much, but they will learn and do a lot more food prep. They’re old enough, certainly. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t learn more about cooking and baking and so forth.
I’m thinking they can also empty the dishwasher now, though Alex might have to put away the things that go on higher shelves. But hey – teamwork!
Dinner was lovely. I made wild rice to go along with the beans and the empanadas, and served them over butterhead lettuce from the garden. We had an assortment of salsas (and, yes, ketchup), and since we were out of yogurt or sour cream, I whipped cream and added chives to it as a substitute.
Of course, nothing is perfect.
Julia didn’t like the beans or the rice.
Alex didn’t like the flavor of the cooked masa dough.
But that’s okay.
To me, the best part was working with my kids in the kitchen, and listening to them discuss and plan and get excited about what they were doing. When Bill got home, they were so proud of themselves and their work.
It was a good day.