Steak Bites, who knew?

My sister Kim is a magnificent cook as was my mother. Her meals, on an ordinary weekday night, combine flavors and ingredients unexpectedly and look camera worthy. I, on the other hand, fear Kim’s exuberant experimentation and thus follow recipes, hoping I will have leftovers.

Kim is the sort who reads cookbooks from page 1 to the index and regularly uses her nutmeg grater and bain marie. She started talking about the Barefoot Contessa decades ago, and I mistakenly thought she was reading historical fiction in the bath. When we visit the Williams Sonoma outlet in San Marcos on our annual sisters get-away, I rejoice in the lovely textiles on clearance; she is on a quest for Staub.

But at the end of the day, she is a working mom. She knows the value of the grill, slow cooker, and air fryer. She mixes and freezes cookie dough on the weekends, so she can quickly bake chocolate chip cookies on tough school days. She menu plans, bulk buys, and freezes casseroles. Thus, it was no surprise to me, when she gave my sister, Karie, and me a brilliant idea for what she calls “steak bites.”

A few mornings ago, Karie sent us a text: “Besides stew and chili, what do ya’ll use your stew meat for? The kids eat these really well, but we are getting into a rut. Any ideas?”

I started to text back, describing how I made taco soup with stew meat, when Kim suggested something so much better: marinating the meat for a couple of hours, throwing it into a grill basket, and making a sort of deconstructed shish kabob without the effort of skewers. Whaaat? I thought to myself. What an idea. Because Dad’s stew meat is lean, trimmed well, and already in cubes, I could immediately envision the ease of putting this meal together. While the meat grills, sauté green beans. A few hours before, put sweet potatoes in the oven to bake or whip up mashed potatoes. Voilà.

My mind then turned to two things: the marinade and fresh baked bread. In a moment of lovely serendipity, I had a package of stew meat already thawing in my fridge, and Nanaw had dropped off a loaf of her bread the evening before. Although Elliott, my picky eater who does not love change, was expecting stew with gnocchi, I decided to get that meat marinating and give it a try. For whatever else may come, Elliott loves his Nanaw’s bread.

As I started pulling olive oil and ground mustard out of the pantry, I saw a bright yellow chicken with a pink comb in my mind’s eye: the circa 1980 recipe card for my mother’s shish kabob marinade. I could use the last of the lemon juice from my Meyer lemon tree and fresh garlic in place of the garlic powder. I combined the ingredients in a 9×13 Pyrex dish, submerged the stew meat (oh, so effortlessly), and put it in my fridge.

Served with mashed potatoes, green beans, and fresh bread, the grilled steak bites were fantastic! Shane had been a little skeptical as he put them on the Green Egg. But he rued the day he failed to trust his sister-in-law and one of her genius ideas. And my boys, Everett and Elliott, loved them. The meat was tender and flavorful. And Elliott said he could taste Nanaw love in her bread.

The only check to our meal that night: wishing I had thawed two packages of stew meat instead of one.


Bread and meat only, please

I have a reluctant eater, the sort who is limited to one glass of milk at dinner so that he does not attempt to swallow whole every undesirable bite on his plate.

Elliott likes fruit. Except for dragon fruit (which we all agreed looks much better than it tastes), my youngest son eats the rainbow in fruit. Strawberries, apples, raspberries, mandarin oranges, nectarines, grapes, peaches, pineapple, bananas, blueberries—he eats with gusto. Broccoli and green beans, under protest. Squash and zucchini, not without fruit to accompany each bite. Cooked carrots, never. As with rice, cooked carrots are “off the menu” for him because the gagging and retching were more than we could bear (the sight of or the anguish they caused our boy).

Elliott’s disinclination for vegetables upsets the careful ratios of “My Plate,” the most recent iteration of the USDA food pyramid, as well as his father, whom I cleverly maneuvered to sit next to Elliott at dinner. Nightly, my sweet husband musters the energy to cajole, encourage, remind, and finally require that Elliott eat the modest serving of sweet potatoes or green peas on his plate.

Regularly, we converse about trying new foods, experimenting with cuisine, and the good news that our palates tend to expand as we grow up. Elliott will tell you, in all earnestness, that he looks forward to liking Thai food and looks wistfully at sticky rice. But for now, he watches his elder brother devour ribs smoked on the Green Egg, mystified. He watches me, in disbelief, choose to have a second serving of roasted butternut squash. These are mysteries Elliott has yet to unravel.

Fortunately, when our extended family gathers together, we have a go-to meal that everyone enjoys: hamburgers, broccoli slaw, Nanaw’s baked beans, and (of course) fruit salad. Elliott really likes hamburgers and rejoices on days when his father grills steak burgers. In my River Valley beef order each fall, I choose to grind the sirloin steaks. They are packaged like my 90% lean ground beef but are clearly labeled for me.

Steak burgers are consistently a win in my house–and for Elliott when they are served solo on a lightly toasted bun. No condiments, pickles on the side, no cheese. Ketchup? Perish the thought. Lettuce, are you serious? Unfailingly, he asks, “Bread and meat only, please.” And what a victory to say, “Sure, Elliott, that sounds fine.”    

I also use ground sirloin to roll meatballs for spaghetti night. Except that Elliott already knows about the veggies I have pulsed in my food processor to put in them, I would never admit to it. But that is another story. Suffice it to say, that on spaghetti night, as on hamburger night, we have no dinner-time drama. 

And that is a lovely thing.

My first calf was Key-Lock

As a little girl, my dad Rick Escobar invited my sisters and me to name his cows. Inexplicably, I named my calf, Key-Lock. Karie named her calf, Dog-Dog, because she thought all animals were dogs at age 2, and Kim, the eldest of us three, called hers Lightning. Her name, clearly, was the best of the three. My great uncle, our beloved Uncle Ed, and Dad hauled us down to the pastures to ride our horse or pick pecans while they put out hay, checked water troughs, or moved cows. These were golden days.

Now, my sisters and I have children of our own—some nearly grown, one still in grammar school—who eagerly listen to stories of epic Gin Rummy matches with Uncle Ed and their grandfather’s memories of “liberating” watermelons from a neighbor’s garden, spending summers in Mississippi, and riding broncos in college. They ramble around Dada Rick and Nanaw’s farm, hunt for fossils in the creek, fish in the lake, and star gaze. Each spring, when calves start to be born, Dada Rick loads them in the Polaris and drives them out to see the mothers and their babies. They choose favorites and say hello to Little Bits, the cow Nanaw bottle-fed and raised.  

No matter the day, my sweet dad will wear pretty much the same thing: a snap-button, long-sleeved denim work shirt and blue jeans. He is out with the cattle daily, and the sun fades the clothes he wears as readily as it tans his face and hands. There is always fence to be mended, irrigation to adjust, or cows to be moved. Dad cultivates his pastures carefully and tends his herd with diligence and skill.

Lately, the young bulls have been lipping the chains on gates and granting themselves walk-abouts.  And yes, lipping the chains is exactly what it sounds like: they lick and work the chains with their mouths until they can push through the gates. Longer lengths of chain solved that problem, but Dad arrived late to his youngest grandson’s outdoor (socially distanced) birthday party because one of the new bulls proved reluctant to return to his own pasture. Such is the life.  

One that my father relishes and never takes for granted. He honors the cycle of life inherent in cattle production. He works tirelessly to help struggling cows give birth, watches over calves to be sure they are nursing well, and checks on each cow in his herd daily. And every day, my stepmother Becky (Nanaw to my children) accompanies him when she is not baking bread or working in her garden. We jokingly call her Dada Rick’s ranch hand, but together they are a formidable team of expertise, dedication, experience, and gusto.

Fundamentally, they desire to be good stewards of their land and what it produces. If you visit the ranch, you will see coils of fence wire, machine implements, tractors, and a row of chest freezers in the big barn. They salvage anything usable and are still storing things in coffee cans that I swear my dad used when I was a girl. To that end, Nanaw has been trying to work out how she can make coasters and trivets out of the tops of cedar posts that she gathered from a pasture that was recently fenced. In appreciation of both form and function, Nanaw seeks to create beautiful things that are also useful.

Because I know this about her (an abiding commitment to the good, beautiful, and true), it was no surprise to me when she gave my boys a gift that they really like but I value beyond measure. When one of my father’s denim work shirts wore out, Becky carefully cut out the two front pockets and gave them to my sons. They store “precious treasures” in their pockets: Everett stows his best marbles in his Dada Rick pouch; Elliott collects rocks (oh so many rocks) but keeps the best ones in his Dada Rick pocket. The white snap-buttons store their collections safely, and even overstuffed, the pockets fit readily into a jacket or backpack.

The gift was thoughtful. It was also thrifty and repurposed a worn-out thing into something new. But in the same way that the monarch’s crown signifies the king himself, these well-worn pockets speak my father to me. They remind me of his resourcefulness and hard work. They speak of his steadfastness in his life’s purpose out on the ranch. They counsel me to find contentment in what or who surrounds me and forego chasing after things. The pockets, remnants of a shirt my dad wore hundreds of times, are unpretentious and straightforward. Which is also entirely true of my father. And he, with my stepmom, is River Valley Grassfed Beef.

Welcome to River Valley Ranch. We hope to get to know you.
Kirsten, the middle daughter