Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dear Martha.

I have always considered myself quite the optimist; but sometimes life’s challenges can be a bit overwhelming. Especially, when one of those challenges includes a Roasted Tomato Tart.

I am here to tell you that yesterday was not a good day in the kitchen. In fact, when I woke up this morning, I was still thinking about how disappointed Martha Stewart must be, as I had adapted the tart recipe from her. And although my Pâte Brisée (traditional French tart crust) turned out just as planned- and looked just as golden and buttery as the one in Martha's baking cookbook- the rest of the tart was a soggy, sad mess. So sad, dear reader, that I could not bring myself to post a photograph of the disaster on here; I didn’t want to scare you, nor did I want to give you bad dreams. 

I’m not even sure how it happened. I roasted a head of garlic, until it was fragrant and oozing out of it’s layers, and I was humming quietly to myself while the tomatoes did their dance in the oven with thyme, olive oil and salt. Hell, I had even bought the expensive Gruyere cheese, thinking, why not? Go big.  But somewhere between the roasting and the humming, my tomatoes began to take on the form of sundried instead of roasted. Oh yah. You heard me.  Shrunken and shriveled into themselves, I placed the pan of anemic tomatoes on the counter and John and I just stood there, silent, taking it all in. John, for his part, tried to reason with me, gently suggesting that we might order a pizza before it got any worse; as it is a well known fact that for me, a bad day in the kitchen is a very, very bad day indeed. Catch my drift?

I should have agreed to order a pizza. I should have stopped before it was too late. But you see, I had Martha there, waiting, and I did not want to let her down. So I forged onward, assembled the tart and threw it in the oven before I could change my mind. 

The thing is, sometimes I really am too much of an optimist. I was silly enough to think that the oven would work its magic on my poor, dried up tart and out would appear a fragrant, juicier version of itself. So you can imagine my surprise- and I’m sure you saw this coming- when sometime later, I retrieved the tart from the oven, and it had not transformed after all, and was nothing but a sad, sunken sight. 

Dear Martha, please accept my humblest apologies. I hope you can forgive me for  completely and utterly destroying your recipe. It might have tasted pretty good, but in all honesty, it was not worthy of your approval. I also hope you are not angry with me, because now I am going to rid myself of you, for just a little while, and focus on something that did go right in my kitchen: Taco Night

Phew. Now that that’s over, can we please talk about Taco Night? Taco night was something I grew up with, so much so that when I think back to weekly family dinners, taco night blurs any memory of other meals eaten (well, that and spaghetti and meat balls). I remember chopping the ingredients for the salsa, my mother peeking over my shoulder every once and awhile to check on my progress. In those days, I was afraid to have the last word on whether something was finished or seasoned well enough. I didn't know what to look for, what nuances would give away whether a dish was just right.
"It needs more cilantro, don't you think? And a little more salt", my mother would say. And she was always right.

If taco night is not already a part of your weekly schedule, I strongly suggest that you change that right away. Especially if your tacos are as good as ours, piled high with spicy, pan-fried steak, caramelized onions and a zingy, homemade Pico de Gallo salsa. Served alongside tortilla chips and lime and paprika-spiked corn-on-the-cob, each and every bite is like melt-in-your-mouth heaven. To this day I still have yet to taste a better taco. Seriously. And that’s saying a lot, because I grew up in California, where taco stands and mexican food joints were a plenty.

These tacos are inspired by my older brother, a wonderful cook in his own right. When summer is upon us and dinner ends up at his place, he has been known to fire up the grill and cook up a phenomenal tri-tip steak, which is cut into thin slices and served with caramelized onions, another side or two, and then placed atop some warm tortillas. Served with homemade margaritas, a few moans have been known to escape from my mouth (okay, or a lot of moans). 

These days, when it’s taco night at our house, and John is practically skipping through the kitchen with joy (tacos, as it happens, are one of his favorite things in the whole world), I seem to always come back to my brother’s delicious combination, and it never, ever disappoints. So go ahead, declare taco night at your place, and make an excuse to try these. I promise, you will not regret it, and who knows, you might even catch yourself moaning. 

 A few things: 

Although we happened to pan-fry our tri-tip, you can certainly grill it (like my brother does). What I love about this meal is that you can use the same pan throughout the cooking process- for frying the garlic and jalapeno, the steak, and the tortillas- and we all could use a little less time washing dishes and a little more time eating in the kitchen. And as for sour cream: we like to use non-fat plain greek yogurt. I know, it sounds crazy, but it tastes exactly like sour cream, and it's so much healthier. We stumbled upon the yogurt idea once, when we realized we had forgotten to pick up sour cream for taco night, and both of us were to lazy to go back to the store. To our surprise, the yogurt tasted wonderful on the tacos, and we've been using it in place of sour cream ever since. This recipe serves two generously, and there is usually a little extra of everything for leftovers (or snacking) the next day. Enjoy. 

Pan-fried Steak and Caramelized Onion Tacos, with fresh Pico de Gallo Salsa

Ingredients for tacos:   
  • one pound of Tri-Tip beef, cut into roughly 2-inch strips
  • 4-6 yellow corn tortillas (we use a brand called La Tortilla Factory, and we like their 'Sonoma Organic Yellow Corn Tortillas')
  • good olive oil
  • few generous pinches of salt and pepper
  • few generous pinches of cayenne, paprika, chili powder and brown sugar
  • Caramelized Onions, recipe follows
  • non-fat greek yogurt, amount depending on your preference (we usually use one single-person serving container of yogurt and it's always plenty)
  • few slices of lime
  • freshly chopped cilantro 
Ingredients for Salsa:
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • one small, or half of one medium jalapeno pepper, minced (seeds removed)
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 4 medium tomatoes, diced
  • one large white onion, diced
  • juice of one large lime
  • 1/2 cup freshly chopped cilantro
  • generous pinches of salt and pepper, to taste         

Directions for Salsa: 
  • Heat olive oil, garlic and jalapeno in a medium skillet on moderately high heat, stirring until garlic turns golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • In a large bowl, combine onion, tomato, and lime juice. Pour garlic, jalapeno and olive oil from pan over the rest of the ingredients. Add cilantro; mix all ingredients together.
  • Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, to taste. 
  • Set aside, and let ingredients sit for as long as possible; the longer they hang out in the bowl together, the more time the salsa has to enhance its flavors.     
Directions for Tacos:
  1. Place beef in a large, shallow dish and drizzle generously with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt, pepper, sugar and spices. Gently rub marinade into beef with your hands, making sure to evenly coat each piece.
  2. Cover and let chill for at least 30 minutes; the longer the meat marinates the better it will taste.
  3. Thinly slice one medium or large yellow onion.
  4. Heat a combination of a tablespoon of butter and a bit of olive oil over medium heat, and stir in onions. Season with salt.
  5. Slowly cook over medium heat, covered, and stirring often, for about 30-40 mins.
  6. During the last few minutes of cooking, add a splash of vinegar, stirring to deglaze the pan. Set aside.    
  7. Heat a medium skillet (preferably the one you used for the garlic and jalapeno frying), lightly coated with oil, over medium-high heat. Place the tri-tip strips into the skillet and cook until well browned on all sides, turning with tongs, about 10 minutes. Transfer meat to cutting board and slice each piece into thin, 1/4-inch strips. Set aside.
  8. Drizzle same skillet with olive oil, enough to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat on medium high, and lay tortilla in the pan, flipping over once with tongs. Fry for about 15 seconds on each side, or a bit longer if you like them crisper. 
  9. Add oil as needed, allowing it to heat up first in the pan, and repeat above step for desired amount of tacos.   

Taco Assembly: 
  1. Layer fried corn tortilla with desired amount of steak slices, carmelized onions and salsa. Add toppings of your preference (we like to play it simple with some guacamole, to allow the steak and onions to really be the star of the show here, but it's up to you). Top with a dollop of yogurt, a sprinkle of lime juice and cilantro. 
  2. Try to eat your taco without the juices rolling down your chin (if you can) and most importantly, don't be afraid if you moan. It's normal when something is this good


  1. The best thing to do is laugh about whatever happens, and hope nobody is there to witness the madness. If you haven't already you should check out the blog Joy the Baker. I'm pretty sure you'd love her sense of humor, and she has a couple entries on a bunch of kitchen fails.

    P.S. - I'm stealing the Greek yogurt idea.

  2. Haha thanks Billy! I will definately check out that blog- a baker with a sense of humor sounds like my kind of gal. Hope you are enjoying summer- the sunny weather is finally here!

  3. Dear Jen,

    You are amazing darling and one thing I have to tell you. Martha does not always have it right. I have tried some of her recipes and they are AMAZING and other times they are flops. You've got it all and more when it comes to food talent. :) <3

  4. Dear Brittney,

    You are too kind. Thanks for the encouragement! I'm glad to know even Martha makes mistakes, haha. <3