summer

Cash me outside

If you follow me on instagram, you probably noticed I was spending A LOT of time out in our backyard this spring.

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As soon as the weather turned warm and things started turning green, I was out there every night. You may have even been sick of all the pictures and videos of our yard, usually with smoke pouring out of my charcoal grill and string lights hanging overhead. Sorry not sorry.

I grew up in cow and corn country in Upstate New York, so I was always outdoors in nice weather, and even though I live in Brooklyn now my love for the outdoors is just as strong. We were lucky enough to find an apartment with outdoor space years ago, but if you’ve been reading for a long while now, you’ll remember that the space out back was a little, well, rough around the edges when we first moved in.
A few years back I posted about the progress we’d made so far, which felt monumental at the time, but looking back at pictures seems pretty meager compared to how things look now. Up until that point we’d spent every Summer clearing out debris and weeds and sick unhealthy plants. It took a long time to get everything clean and tidy before we could even begin planting anything new or making the space livable and attractive.

That post was basically the beginning of when we were able to finally start planting, and since then things have changed quite a bit so I thought you might enjoy a little update.  I’ve planted plenty in the past few years, figured out what plants do well and which ones don’t, and added some fancy-pants new outdoor furniture to boot.

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I know I also mentioned this in my last gardening post too, but just to refresh your memory, we have a big evil mulberry tree out there that makes the yard a disgusting unusable mess for anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks out of every summer. The tree is too tall and the berries fall too far to make collecting them possible, so instead they just splatter into a juicy mulberry paste that attracts flies and ants and birds (and bird poo) and eventually turns moldy and stinky and awful. And guess what. We’re in the midst of berry season proper right now, so I haven’t been back there for a good three weeks. The photos in this post were taken a few weeks ago, just before it started.
Even when the tree isn’t dropping the got-damned berries, instead it’s shading most of the yard and sucking up all the moisture in the soil. As if the berries weren’t enough to deal with, that tree is the source of two little words that have made my life very difficult over the past few years.
Dry.
Shade.

It’s incredibly difficult to find plants that thrive in dry shade. Most shade plants are moisture lovers, and most drought-tolerant plants love lots of sunshine. So, after years of experimenting, I’ve basically learned that Hostas are my best friend if I want the yard to look green and lush. I know they’re kind of boring, but there are so many different colors and shapes and sizes available these days that even a yard filled with Hostas can look interesting and modern. I’d actually already figured this out before my last yard post, but at that point I’d only gotten around to planting few of them. These days they’re all over the place.

Bleeding Hearts and Coral Bells seem to do well back there too, so I’ve started mixing them in between the Hostas. There’s one little corner of the yard that gets a few hours of decent light, so I have some orange day lilies planted there, but they haven’t flowered yet and so far they just look like overgrown grass. Because I like to live dangerously, this spring I also decided to test the limits of the sunshine back there, and planted a sun-loving Forsythia against the fence. Fingers crossed!

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To mix in some color and texture, I like to fill pots with hardy annuals like wax begonias and I always do a few herbs in one of the big galvanized buckets we added a few years ago too. Sometimes they don’t get enough sun and don’t last the whole summer, but they’re nice while they last and so far they seem to be doing well this year.
Early in the spring I usually try some pansies too for some color and life while the hostas are just barely poking out of the ground, but they don’t really last once the weather turns hot and I’ll need to replace them with something else mid-summer. They looked great in the photo below, but they’re already starting to look pretty scraggly.

For the first time ever this year, I mulched a good portion of the beds to try to keep them moist and healthy during the hot dry spells we always seem to get in Brooklyn summers. Not only do I hope it’ll keep the plants happier, it also went a long way in making the yard feel so much more “finished” and attractive. We went with brown mulch so it doesn’t really “read” in photos all that well, but I promise it looks great in person, especially compared to bare dirt. Getting the heavy, wet, stinky bags of mulch out there meant carrying them all by hand through our apartment and out our bedroom window, and we needed about 30 bags for the area we mulched, but it was well worth the effort in the end and I really wish we’d done it sooner!

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When we first moved in there was an old swing in the yard, and a rotting old wooden table left by one of the previous tenants. We moved the swing into the back of the yard this spring, and the table has since fallen apart. I re-used the legs to build the red coffee table you’ll notice in some of these photos, but I don’t know how much longer that old wood will hold out. The paint is peeling pretty badly so I’m hoping new paint will protect it and help it last a few more years.
I just need to decide on a color…
Any suggestions?

Almost half of the yard space is covered in concrete and works as a patio area for us. When we first moved in I was disappointed that there wasn’t more space for planting, but now that I know how challenging it is to get plants to thrive in our dry shade conditions, I’m actually relieved that we have more space for entertaining and lounging.
That’s why we decided to make a pretty serious investment in outdoor furniture this year. Russell got me an outdoor sectional for my birthday, and it all kind of snowballed from there. Upgrading from the old two-seater swing made me suddenly realize how much more comfortable our outdoor space could be if we were willing to put the time and money into it, so I kind of went a little overboard with the online shopping. We’d gotten the dining table a few years ago but never really got around to finding chairs to go with it, so that was my next mission. Then came the throw pillows, and a deck box to store all the cushions and pillows in. Then we just stumbled on those black and grey club chairs one day and we had to have them! Luckily everything was (relatively) reasonably priced.
In case you’re interested, the sectional, dining chairs, and deck box are from Wayfair. Unfortunately the sectional and chairs don’t seem to be available right now. The outdoor throw pillows and big grey club chairs are from Target, and the dining table and lanterns are from Ikea.

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Things are looking a little more full and lush since I’ve taken these photos because we’ve had a lot of rain lately, so once the berries stop dropping I’ll get out there to clean up the mess and start barbecuing again! You’re more than welcome to live vicariously through my instagram stories, but my life really isn’t all that exciting so I’d suggest trying to find someone a little more interesting to follow!

Who knows, if things look different enough maybe I’ll give you another glimpse into our yard in another couple years.

nectarines and cream icebox cake

Why hello there friends! Remember me???

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Yes it’s me! Tux!

I’m back! (well, sort of.)

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I are still plugging away at the project I mentioned in my last post, and while we’re (hopefully) nearing the finish line, we’ve still got plenty of work to do so I’m not exactly back for good. I just happened to get a little down time recently and I couldn’t bare to stay away from you for one more second!

I’ve missed you guys SO MUCH that I jumped at the opportunity to get back in the kitchen when I finally had a moment to myself. We’ve been so completely consumed with our project in the past few months that my poor kitchen has felt almost as neglected as all of you probably have.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As it turns out though, my little bit of down time just happened to fall smack dab in the middle of our SECOND heat wave in the past couple months. For almost two weeks the daily weather forecast included “Excessive Heat Warnings”, and the city even set up “cooling stations” for the sick and elderly without air conditioning to be able to escape (and survive) the oppressive daytime temperatures.

To make matters even worse, unlike my brown-lawned family upstate, we’ve also had plenty of rain (and thunder and lightning) here in Brooklyn so along with the heat we’ve also had plenty of soupy, steamy, thick, and swampy humidity. In other words, we’ve just been sweating our butts off here in Brooklyn!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As you can imagine, that meant that turning the oven on to bake a cake has been sort of out of the question.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

With actual baking off the table, my first thought was to make some kind of ice cream or frozen something-or-other to help cool us off and keep me as far as possible from the oven. It didn’t take me long to realize though, that I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and my ice cream maker bowl requires overnight freezing before I could even get started.
I briefly considered popsicles but I couldn’t seem to get inspired. What I really wanted to do was bakeor at least make something that felt as homey and satisfying as something fresh from the oven. I’d been out of the kitchen and away from my oven for so long that my head kept going back to the idea of a fruity crisp or crumble or skillet cake.

Then it suddenly hit me!

Icebox cake!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

If you’re not familiar with an icebox cake, the concept is fairly simple. You layer thin crisp cookies with whipped cream and let the whole thing set up in the refrigerator (or icebox as it were). While the cake sets up, moisture is pulled from the whipped cream, softening the cookies and firming the cream until the whole thing is transformed into a dreamy, wonderful, lick-the-plate-clean dessert with a perfectly cake-like sliceable texture.

The original recipe has been around since the first world war and was most likely inspired by similar desserts like the Charlotte or the Trifle. The first icebox cakes were made with thin chocolate wafer cookies that are increasingly difficult to find (Smitten Kitchen has a recipe if you want to make your own), but these days you can basically make them with any thin, crisp cookies you like.
The filling options these days are just as limitless as the cookies, so I knew I’d find a way to make something bright and summery and satisfying.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I wish I had some sepia-colored story about the nostalgic icebox cakes my grandmother used to make me as a boy growing up in the countryside in 1764, but the truth is that I’d never even tasted icebox cake until I made one with gingersnaps and maple cream this past December.

Even though I didn’t grow up with them, they feel every bit as homey and comforting as the bundt cakes that I actually did grow up eating in grandma’s kitchen in the country. While they’re relatively new to me, I would bet that a few more icebox cakes will turn up on the pages of Brooklyn Homemaker in the years to come. They just have that folksy days-of-yore feeling that lets me wistfully imagine joyful, touching family moments that never actually happened.

Not to mention they’re also freakin’ delicious, and crazy simple to put together.
If you can whip cream and open a box of cookies, you can make an icebox cake. They’re actually much simpler than I myself would normally go for, and the last time I made one I went the extra mile and made my own gingersnaps as the base of the cake. (You know I’m a glutton for punishment.)

This time around though, I wanted to take it easy, keep it simple, and highlight the other ingredients I wanted to feature in this simple summery creation.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I signed up for a CSA from Local Roots earlier this summer, but of course that was before we knew how busy we were about to get. We’ve been loving every ounce of fresh, local, seasonal produce, but it can sometimes be a challenge to find uses for everything without letting anything go to waste.

We’ve been getting pounds and pounds of white nectarines in the past few weeks, so I really wanted to do something special with them. What could be better than giving them the peaches and cream treatment with vanilla wafer cookies and mascarpone thickened whipped cream?

Nectarines and peaches are so similar in flavor and texture that you could substitute peaches without affecting the flavor of the recipe much at all. The white nectarines we had from our CSA though had a crisper, slightly more acidic zing to them than a standard peach, which I thought was a nice compliment to the richness of the cream. Honestly though, you could swap them out for strawberries or cherries and this cake would still be a little summery slice of heaven.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Nectarines and Cream Icebox Cake

2 lbs nectarines (or peaches), peeled, pitted, and roughly chopped
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Cointreau (optional) *see note
2 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
8 oz mascarpone at room temperature
Two 11 oz packages of vanilla wafer cookies, such as Nilla Wafers

Combine roughly chopped nectarines with sugar, salt, and orange liqueur in a medium bowl. Stir to combine and macerate for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream on high just until it begins to thicken and form soft peaks. Add the mascarpone and beat on low speed until almost smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and fold to incorporate. Add the macerated chopped nectarines and beat on low for 30 to 60 seconds and scrape down the sides and fold again. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is thick and holds firm peaks, another 30 to 60 seconds. Do NOT over-beat or the cream can become waxy and the mascarpone can become grainy.

On an 8″ cake board, or a cake stand or serving plate, arrange a layer of vanilla wafer cookies into three tight circles. I used 19 cookies per layer, with 1 cookie in the center, then one circle of 6 cookies and another circle of 12, but that’ll depend on the size of the cookie you use. Once you’ve arranged your first layer of cookies, place about a cup of cream over them and smooth it out with an offset icing spatula. Spread the cream almost to the outer edge, leaving just a small edge of cookies showing. Arrange another layer of cookies, trying to alternate the layers so they appear staggered above one another. Repeat another layer of cream and then another layer of cookies, again and again until you have as many layers as you desire or until you run out of cookies or cream. Finish the top of the cake with a final layer of cream. My cake was 8 layers tall, but again, this may depend on the size of the cookies you use.

If you have a cookie or two left over, garnish the cake by crumbling them in the center of the top if desired.

Try to delicately tent the cake with plastic wrap or cover with a large inverted bowl or cake dome before transferring to the refrigerator to set up.
Place cake to refrigerator for an absolute minimum of 6 hours (but ideally 12 to 24 hours) before serving. This cake will continue to improve the longer you can wait. As it sets, the cream will get firmer as the cookies get softer, and the flavors will distribute more evenly. Patience is a virtue!

Once set, the cake can be sliced and served much like a regular cake. If possible, it’s best to use a sharp serrated knife with a gentle sawing motion to avoid smooshing the cake and to get the best looking slices possible. Really though, you could dish it into bowls with a spoon if you wanted, and everyone would love it just as much.
Cake can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days.

*Note:
Peach schnapps would be great too if you have it, or you could also substitute rum or bourbon for a bit of extra warmth.
If you’d prefer to keep it completely non-alcoholic, a teaspoon or two of orange blossom water or rose water would be a lovely substitution. That stuff is potent though so start with just a little and taste to see if you’d like to add more.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish

Okay friends. I’m officially, like, the worst blogger in the entire world.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

I literally was just saying how sorry I was about waiting so long between posts, and how much I’ve missed you and was so ready to get back into the swing of things and get back to posting regularly and often.

Then I disappear for another month.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

Here it is, the beginning of summer. The beginning of fresh fruit, bright greens, a beautiful bounty I’ve been dreaming about for months. Asparagus season. Strawberry season. Rhubarb. Ramps. Snap peas. Scapes. Swiss chard. Fava beans. Fennel. Fiddlehead ferns. Vidalia onions. The first summer peaches.

This is the beginning of the best possible time for a food blogger, and suddenly I fall off the face of the internet.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

So, here I am again to apologize to you. My readers. My friends.

This has been a crazy summer so far, and it’s only just begun.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

See, Russell and I just started working on a really special project together. It’s in the very early stages still so I don’t really want to get into the details just yet.

Sorry to be so mysterious and leaving you hanging. We just want to get a little further along before we really share the whole thing. Don’t you worry none, I promise that I’ll spill all the beans as soon as we’re ready.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

For now though, this special project is requiring almost all of my attention when I’m not at work, so as much as it pains me, that means we’re going to be missing each other for most of this summer.  I hope to be able to get at least a few fresh summer fruit pies or big fancy salads in before it’s too late, but I’m going to be posting a lot less frequently than I’d like to.
It’ll all be worth it in the end though. I promise!

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

All this craziness doesn’t mean that I’ve missed out completely on the bounty of the season. I’ve done my best to take advantage of the early summer. Whenever I’ve had a minute to myself I’ve tried to play with strawberries and asparagus and everything I can get my hands on.

I even got my hands on some real Vidalia onions, in season, fresh from Georgia. I haven’t had much experience with sweet onions before, and I have to tell you these puppies are unbelievable. I knew they’d be sweeter than a regular yellow onion, but I didn’t expect them to be so mild. I’ve been using them for everything I can think of, including an amazing German cucumber salad, and of course, the amazing recipe I’m sharing today.

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

You want to get the thickest prettiest pork chops you can get your hands on, and cook them over real hardwood charcoal until they’re seared and smoky on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. It’s super easy to overcook pork, so I recommend using a meat thermometer.

Back in the days of yore people were really afraid of pink pork because they’d been told it’d make them sick. I won’t get into all the weird and nerdy details, but let me just say that perceived threat isn’t really a threat any longer and the USDA has recently reduced their recommended cooking temperature for pork from 160F to 145F. If you bring your pork up to 135 and remove and tent with foil for a 10 minute rest, your pork will just hit 145 to 150 and perfect. It may have a tiny touch of pink in the center but it’ll be so moist and juicy you won’t believe it. Don’t be scared. You have nothing to be scared of. I promise. So does the USDA.

I didn’t brine my chops, but I did follow this recipe from Serious Eats.

To compliment this smoky tender heavenly pork, you can’t go wrong with a sweet and creamy relish of caramelized Vidalia onions with peaches and a touch of bourbon and ginger.
This shit is thebomb.com

grilled pork chops with vidalia onion and peach relish | Brooklyn Homemaker

Grilled Pork Chops with Vidalia Onion and Peach Relish

2 tablespoons butter
1 large Vidalia onion, sliced thin into half circles
3 ripe peaches, peeled pitted and diced
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
1 to 2 tablespoons bourbon or American whiskey
1 tablespoon sugar (optional, depending on sweetness of peaches)
2 to 4 pork chops, thick cut (1 to 1.5 inches thick), about 3/4 to 1 pound each

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once butter is bubbling add onions and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir occasionally, watching carefully that the onions don’t brown too quickly, for about 20 to 30 minutes. Caramelizing onions is all about going slow and low, be patient and turn down the heat a bit if the onions are browning unevenly or too quickly.

Once the onions are softened and take on a creamy quality, add peaches, vinegar, ginger, and red pepper flakes. Cook for about 5 minutes, add bourbon, and cook 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. If your peaches weren’t very sweet, or if you’d like the relish sweeter, stir in sugar and cook a few minutes more.
This relish can be made days in advance if you’d like, but should be served warm over the pork. This recipe makes enough relish for at least 4 pork chops.

Generously season your pork chops on both sides with salt and pepper.
Prepare your grill. If using a charcoal grill (recommended) try to organize the coals on one side so you have a hot side and a cooler side.

Sear your chops over the hot side of the grill, for about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Once both sides are seared transfer the chops to the cooler side of the grill with the bones facing the hotter side. Cover about 10 minutes and start checking with a meat thermometer. Once the chops reach 135 to 140, transfer to a plate and tent with foil to rest for about 10 minutes.

Serve with a generous dollop of warm onion relish, and with grilled asparagus if desired.

grilled mojo pork skewers

Wow you guys. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last posted!

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

What a month it’s been! I’m so sorry for just falling off the face of the planet like that. Right after my last post I started a “little” project in our guest room, tidying up in preparation for a visit from my mother.

We don’t really use the space we call our “guest room” for much more than a room to store paper towels, kitchen electrics, and my ever-growing blog prop hoard. It’s basically a giant closet with a bed in it, and usually the bed is so deeply buried under slow cookers and dessert plates that you wouldn’t even know a bed was under there if you weren’t looking for it. It’s basically an oversized “junk drawer”, a place where we throw random stuff when we’re trying to clean the house for company but don’t feel like putting things where they actually belong!

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

The guest room is the only space in our apartment that we never painted when we moved in, and for almost 5 years the space has been an embarrassing, seldom-used, neglected eyesore of a room that we do our best to keep hidden behind a constantly closed door. When overnight guests would come for a visit, we’d do our best to clean off and make the bed, but the room was always so overwhelmed by junk that there wasn’t much more we could do.

About a month ago, I thought it was finally time to do something about it.

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

For mother’s day this year I decided to use a little vacation time and go up to help my mom out with some projects around her house, and she offered to come down to the big city to pick me up rather than having me rent a car or take the bus. Thing is, every time my mom comes for a visit, every single time without fail, she asks when we’re going to paint in there and finally do something with that room. Since the room needed tidying anyway, I decided to bit the bullet and bust out my brushes and rollers.

I thought I’d still have time to try to squeeze in a blog post or two before my mother’s day trip, but my painting project quickly snowballed into almost two weeks of spring cleaning and household improvement projects. Before painting I thought I’d go through and toss a few things to make a little room in there, but what ended up happening was much more involved. We ended up going over every inch of the room and throwing away half of the old clothes and random junk we’ve collected over the years. Then we packed up stacks of boxes and old suitcases with even more junk to store upstate in mom’s attic. Then of course, moving all the furniture in there back and forth meant that the painting took much longer than I expected, and once I was finally done I decided to do a little redecorating too. By that point I was on a roll, and while the paint dried I decided to go all in and re-caulk my shower, install new (brighter) light fixtures in my living room, and do some cleaning and planting in the back yard too. My apartment has never looked better but I am POOPED!!!

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

At some point in this two week span I did find a minute to make (and photograph) these amazing mojo marinated grilled pork skewers, but by the time the dust settled and I sat down for 5 minutes, I was too exhausted to actually write the post or edit the photos.

The next thing I knew mom was here and I was whisked upstate to help her with another laundry list of projects around her house. With the best of intentions I brought my laptop along with me thinking I could edit photos at night before bed, but of course that never happened either.

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

Time rolled along and before I knew it a month had passed since the last time I’d spent any time with you guys. I literally can’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so long without posting, and it felt pretty weird. I’m glad I got so much done, but boy howdy how I’ve missed you!

We’re almost in the midst of grilling season proper now though, so I suppose this recipe is coming at the right time anyway.

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

This citrusy cuban mojo marinade is absolutely amazing with tender chunks of grilled pork. The sweet citrus and earthy cumin and oregano pair perfectly with the delicate pork and gentle smokiness of a charcoal grill. The original sauce recipe called for the garlic to be pulverized into a paste in a mortar and pestle, but since I was using it as a marinade I decided to make things easier on myself and just crush the garlic in a garlic press. If you’d like to reserve some for later dipping, you probably won’t want chunks of garlic floating in it so the extra work is probably necessary.

I served my pork with some grilled whole red potatoes, gently smashed and covered in creme fraiche and fresh parsley. This pork would be excellent though with a bright citrusy salad, maybe something with black beans, or avocado. Maybe some grilled corn? My wheels are spinning already, and my mouth is watering!!!

Happy grilling y’all! It’s good to be back!

grilled mojo pork skewers | Brooklyn Homemaker

Grilled Mojo Pork Skewers


marinade adapted from serious eats

Mojo marinade:
8 cloves garlic, very finely minced or crushed
1/3 cup of fresh orange juice and 1/3 cup of fresh lime juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 to 4 lbs pork loin or tenderloin, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (about 1/2 lb per serving)
1 to 2 limes, cut into segments, for serving

Directions: 
Whisk all marinade ingredients together in a small bowl or measuring cup until well combined.
Add cubed pork to a large bowl with a tight fitting lid (or a leak-proof resealable bag). Add marinate and stir (or shake) to coat. Marinate for 1 to 4 hours.
If using wooden skewers, soak in a tray of water for at least 30 minutes while pork is marinating.

Discard marinade and thread pork chunks onto skewers. If desired, you can alternate with cubes of tropical fruit (citrus segments, mango, etc.) or onion. (I went for all pork)

Prepare and preheat a hot grill. Clean and lightly oil grill grate. Cook pork skewers, turning once, for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Do not overcook or they will become dry and tough.
Let rest, loosely covered in foil, for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with lime segments if desired.