Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 21, 2009

Foodie With Family: Racing kids, clock

By REBECCA LINDAMOOD

The other night, I finished dinner preparations well ahead of schedule and found myself with extra time. I asked the kids what they wanted to do. They opted for one of their favored forms of entertainment: racing each other around the house with me as time keeper.

I grabbed my stopwatch and positioned myself with a tall glass of iced tea on the porch. In groups of two, the kids ran all the way around the house; two laps per race. They kept running heats until it was time for me to go put the food out on the table. As they headed in to wash their hands I grabbed my empty iced tea glass and noticed Leif was standing at my elbow (one of his favorite places to be). Leif said he wanted to race me. I reminded him that it was dinnertime and he promised that as soon as I beat him we could be done. I figured I had this one in the bag. After all, he is a 5-year-old and I am twice his height with legs twice as long. I don't purport to be the next great sprinter, but I run regularly. And although I warned him I could easily beat him, he was eager. I put on my running shoes and agreed to his terms.

We both yelled, "Ready? Set? GO!" and that little 5-year-old left me in his dust. I ran hard. He giggled the whole way. I wore running shoes. He wore floppy old crocs and lost a shoe once in the course of the race. Most damaging to my pride was the fact that he stopped to put it back on and he still smoked me.

While I panted my way across the finish line (our sidewalk) Leif patted me on the back and said, "I beat you, Mom. But that's OK; you can sit down now. I think you need to." Little beast. It's a good thing he's cute.

Thankfully, dinner was already done and my wounded pride was repaired by the heaps of praise I received for the food I served.

This is a great time of year to consider deliciously simple, satisfying and flexible dinner building blocks that save time and money. With just a little forethought, it is possible to have homemade dinners on the table whether you're eating around races with your kids, meetings, studies, work, after-school or community activities.

How is this possible? Use the cook-once-eat-twice principle. Or in the case of the Taco Joe recipe I'm sharing, cook once/eat twice, thrice or four times. Prepare this big batch of Taco Joe filling and then divide it into meal-sized portions in freezer bags. Stash those bags in your freezer for those nights when you need a meal that is done in minutes. Simply thaw a portion of the filling and use one of the five variations or make up one of your own! It's easier than dialing out for pizza and it's better for you, too.

Taco Joes

4 lbs. super lean ground beef

6 c. cold water

1 (12-oz.) can tomato paste

2 packets dry enchilada sauce seasoning mix (available in the Mexican foods aisle or near the taco fixins. Yes. I said 'fixins'.)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Optional for serving: sandwich buns or bread, avocado slices or guacamole, salsa, shredded cheese, tomato and onion slices, in short, taco toppings ...

Break up and brown the ground beef in a large soup pot over medium high heat. When just browned and no longer pink, add the water, tomato paste and dry enchilada sauce mix and stir well. Bring to a boil, stir well, and lower heat. Stirring frequently, simmer for about 30 minutes or until very thick. The goal for simmering this is to create a thick meat filling that holds together when scooped onto a bun. It should not have sauce running off it, but should still be very moist.

Variations on the Taco Joe theme

1. Serve Taco Joe filling in place of regular taco meat. You just may never switch back to regular taco meat.

2. Spread Taco Joe filling over a prepared pizza crust and top with shredded cheese. Pop in a 400 degrees oven just long enough to heat the meat and make the cheese melted and bubbly. Remove from oven, cool for five minutes, slice and serve with your favorite taco toppings. Voila -- Taco pizza!

3. Make a fast tostada by spraying corn or flour tortillas lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Bake in an oven preheated to 425 degrees for 5-7 minutes or until crispy and lightly browned. Spread Taco Joe filling over the top of the crispy tortilla to within a half an inch of the edges and top with shredded cheese and other desired toppings; avocado slices, chopped onions, shredded lettuce, sour cream, etc.

4. Combine 8 c. Taco Joe filling with a can of drained and rinsed pinto or black beans for the instant chili that beats the pants off of the canned variety.

5. Welcome autumn with Hot Taco Dip. Combine 2 c. Taco Joe filling with a can of refried beans (or 11/2 c. homemade refried beans) in a small slow cooker. Stir well, cover and cook on low until heated through, about three hours. When hot, stir in a cup of shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, pepper jack or queso asadero into the dip. Serve with corn or tortilla chips.

Do you have any ideas for delicious variations on the Taco Joe theme?

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It's unmistakably autumn now and apples are everywhere. And since we're on a Tex Mex kick, let's continue it with dessert. Mexican Caramel Apple Sundaes dress up everyday vanilla ice cream with the flavors of fresh fall apples and luscious Mexican Cajeta (caramel sauce) that has just a hint of cinnamon. If you're feeling like a nut, you can toss some chopped, toasted pecans, peanuts or walnuts over the whole thing.

Cajeta and dulce de leche are often sold in the Mexican foods aisle. Goya is a commonly available brand. If you can't find canned or bottled cajeta, dulce de leche or caramel sauce, or if you, like me, prefer to make your own, you can find a recipe for homemade dulce de leche at www.foodiewithfamily.com.

Mexican Caramel Apple Sundaes

2 large, tart cooking apples (Granny Smith is a good choice)

1 t. lemon juice

2 T. unsalted butter

1 c. dulce de leche, cajeta or caramel sundae sauce

1/2 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. pure vanilla extract

Pinch of kosher salt

Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Chopped, toasted nuts, optional

Peel, core and thinly slice the apples. Place apples in a bowl and toss with the lemon juice and the pinch of salt. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat. Pour the apples and the juice into the skillet and stir gently to evenly distribute the apples in the pan. Pour the dulce de leche, cajeta or caramel sauce over the apples.

Cook for 6-10 minutes, stirring regularly, until apples are tender but not mushy. Remove from heat and stir in the cinnamon and vanilla extract.

Spoon the topping over bowls of vanilla ice cream. If desired, sprinkle chopped nuts over the top of each sundae.

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For a heartier helping of Foodie With Family, go to www.foodiewithfamily.com. Write to Rebecca at rebecca@foodiewithfamily.com to share your adventures and favorite recipes. For more of Rebecca's Food With Family, log on to record-eagle.com/rebeccalindamood.