Cook races clock and teen-age stomachs

October 14, 1998|By Rob Kasper

There are two styles of cooking at our house: weekend cooking and weeknight cooking. On the weekend, meals are planned, recipes are followed, and culinary standards are high. On weeknights, time is short, ingredients are missing, and often supper just happens.

The other weeknight, for instance, I was the first adult to arrive on the home front and that made me responsible for putting a meal on the table.

It was a school night, the kids had homework, and my wife and I were in the throes of the workweek. This meant that my quest to bring cuisine to the kitchen table was going to suffer.

I opened the refrigerator looking for ideas - anything that wasn't quaking was fair game for consideration as supper. A piece of round steak on the second shelf of the fridge caught my eye. I picked it up. The steak quickly overcame two roadblocks that prevent pieces of meat from making it to our supper table. First, it was not a frozen slab. Second, it did not smell funny.

My surveillance of the refrigerator also spotted a package of tortillas, a fistful of cilantro and some limes. In addition, I spied some tomatoes on the kitchen counter. Suddenly, I had a plan - steak fajitas for supper.

Fajitas are tacos with class. When you make a taco, you stuff it with plain old hamburger, at least at our house. Someday, I may get experimental and try making tacos with fish, the way it is done in trendy, fish-friendly homes. But when that day of experimentation arrives, it probably won't fall on a weeknight. It is too chancy to try something different - something the kids might not eat - on a school night.

The other night, I had to hustle as I cooked. It was a little after 6 p.m., and by then empty stomachs, including mine, were grumbling. One kid was already home from school and would soon be pacing around the kitchen table. The other kid was en route, being chauffeured by his mother. I knew what these teen-agers were like when they had not been fed by 7 p.m., and it wasn't pleasant. Like lions at feeding time, they get very cranky very fast if the feed does not show up on schedule.

I wanted the steak to sizzle, and that meant I was going to cook it outdoors on the kettle grill. I had to get the fire going, but as I picked up the bag of charcoal briquettes, my heart sank. The bag was almost empty. I didn't have time to go to the store and buy more. So I made do. I dumped the few fresh briquettes in the bottom of the chimney-style starter, a device I use to light coals. Then I opened the barbecue kettle and pulled out used briquettes. These were coals that had been burned in previous fires. They weren't as big as they once were, but they still had some fire left in them. I put these old coals in the chimney starter too. I knew these recycled coals might not make a perfect fire, but it would be good enough for a weeknight.

Next, I began to make the marinade for the steak. According to cookbooks I had consulted, the steak was supposed to lounge in marinade for three hours. That, I decided, was a weekend bathing schedule. Since this was a weeknight, the steak was going to take a 20-minute shower, rather than a three-hour bath.

I had two cookbooks propped open, proposing two different marinades for the steak. One called for the steak to bathe in soy sauce and ginger, the other called for it to swim in lime juice. As I hustled around the kitchen, I lost track of which recipe I was using. I ended up using some ingredients from both recipes.

Somewhere down the road, when I realized my mistake, it was too close to mealtime to turn back. Besides, nobody knew about my slip-up. And when I make a mistake on a weeknight, I just shut up and keep cooking.

As soon as I put the meat on the grill, the car carrying my wife and our oldest son, pulled into the driveway. Mealtime was 15 minutes away and closing.

I chopped up some tomatoes, and my wife minced the cilantro and made fresh salsa to put on the fajitas. Soon the steak was sizzling. I pulled it off the fire, along with some charred onions.

The thick part of the steak was still bloody; it needed to cook a little longer. But the thinner parts were ready, so I sliced them off, cutting the meat against the grain.

At 7 o'clock, these thin slices of sizzling meat - stuffing for the first helpings of steak fajitas - were sent to the table. Supper was ready.

I didn't sit down to eat until about 7:15 p.m. I had to cook the remaining, thick piece of steak, making sure it did not dry out.

By the time I made it to the table, carrying more pieces of meat, the kids had polished off several fajitas and were ready for more.

Like the eldest lion protecting his piece of the kill from younger males, I made sure I got a few pieces of steak from the serving dish before passing the dish to the kids.

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