Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Quick and Easy Tacos

Taco on Black Acrylic

Perfect for Cinco de Mayo

Who doesn’t like a Taco? Especially the kind that has become a favorite in the US:  spicy ground beef, lettuce, and condiments fitted into a corn tortilla that’s been fried in a crispy U-shape.

You know, the classic hard-shell taco that you find at every Mexican fast-food joint and in the #3 combination plate at your local Tex-Mex restaurant.

Good as they are in restaurants, homemade tacos are far superior.  And they’re even better if you don’t use those overpriced packets of “taco seasoning” that you find in the Mexican aisle of your local supermarket.  Add your own spices for the best flavor.

They’re really simple to make.  And did I mention they’re extra tasty?

Tacos on Plate, Overhead View


Recipe:  Tacos

Although you can make vegetarian tacos, the classic filling is meat (specifically, ground beef). So that’s what we’re making today. You can substitute chicken, as I’ll discuss in the Notes.

The toppings I specify here — lettuce, cheese, jalapeño peppers, and Fresh Salsa or Picante Sauce — are standard, but you can alter the mix and quantity to suit your whim. I provide a list of ingredients and approximate quantities in the recipe, and discuss alternatives in the Notes. By the way, the ingredients and procedure are largely identical for both hard-shell and soft tacos (I’ll discuss soft tacos in the notes).

Tacos get a great deal of their flavor from the meat filling. And the secret to developing good meat flavor is to sauté it with onions and seasonings. A lot of recipes call for using “chili powder,” which is actually a combination of powdered ground chilies mixed with cumin, coriander, oregano, and other seasonings. (For a full discussion about the difference between chile powder and chili powder, see my post on Chili Basics.) We’re using chile powder here, but I’ll discuss how to substitute chili powder in the Notes.

I developed my recipe largely by eating tacos and observing what was in them! But there are many recipes out there, and mine is partially adapted from one in Cooking Texas Style by Candy Wagner and Sandra Marquez. Preparation time is 15 minutes (assuming you have Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce on hand; add additional time if you need to make both from scratch).

I figure a pound of meat is enough for 8 to 12 taco shells (it depends on how full you stuff them with toppings). You can easily scale up the recipe if you need more. In my world, this will serve 3 to 4 people (assuming you have additional side dishes). Leftover taco meat keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days.

Leftover lettuce and such? Throw it out, unless you have a use for it the same day (it's quality will diminish quickly).

Ingredients

For the Taco Meat:
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 2 - 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons ancho chile powder (may substitute another variety, or “Chili” powder; see Notes)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • additional salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
For the Toppings:
  • ~3 cups lettuce, shredded (ice berg is traditional; I like romaine or leaf lettuce)
  • 1 recipe (a cup) of Fresh Salsa (or commercial; may substitute chopped tomatoes, etc.; see Notes) 
  •  1 - 1½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese ~1 cup Picante Sauce (optional; may substitute commercial variety) 
  • 1 - 2 jalapeño peppers, sliced into rings, for garnish (optional)
For the Shells:
  • 12 taco shells (you can buy commercially prepared hard taco shells, which is what most people do; or you can make your own from corn tortillas — for more on this, see the Notes)
Procedure
  1. This recipe assumes you’ve already made Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce. If you haven’t, you need to do that first (or substitute commercial varieties). 
  2. Mince onion and garlic.  Put skillet on stovetop over medium heat.  When warm, add oil.  When it’s hot (it will shimmer), add onion and garlic and sauté until it’s translucent but not brown (about 5 minutes).
  3. Meanwhile, measure out your chile powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, cayenne pepper, and salt.  When the onion is ready, add spices to the onion, stir, and cook for about a minute.
  4. Now add the ground beef.  With a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the meat and combine with the onion and spices.  You want to break up all clumps so the meat has a fine texture.  Sauté until deep brown, stirring from time to time (about 5 - 10 minutes).
  5. Meanwhile, prepare your toppings:  Wash and shred lettuce, shred cheese, slice jalapeño peppers if using (wash your hands when you’re done — otherwise the oil may get into your eyes), and get Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce ready.
  6. When meat is done, drain grease if necessary, and make your tacos!
  7. To build a taco, I usually put some meat in first; then Picante Sauce (if using); then lettuce; then Fresh Salsa (or chopped tomatoes and onions); then cheese; then top with a couple of jalapeño slices.  But layer your ingredients in whatever order you prefer.
  8. You can either make the tacos in the kitchen and serve them, or just put all the ingredients out and let people build their own.  I usually prefer the second approach.
Tacos on Plate, with Napkin

Notes
  • If you want to substitute chicken for beef, start with about 2 cups of cooked chicken cut into fine dice.  Cook onion and garlic, add spices, then add chicken.  Since the chicken is already cooked, you don’t need to brown it.  However, you do want to cook it for at least 5 minutes so that it mixes well with the spices and onions, and absorbs their flavor.
  • To aid that mixing, I usually add an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce to the pan when I add the chicken, and cook until nice and thick.
  • Some people like to add an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce to beef when making beef tacos.  I sometimes do, too.  In Step 4, after you add the beef, let it cook for 5 minutes until it’s no longer pink.  Then add the tomato sauce and cook for another 10 minutes, until you have a thick mixture.
  • I like ancho chile powder in this recipe — it has a lot of flavor but isn’t too hot.  But substitute another variety of chile powder if you like (chipotle is particularly nice).
  • If you want to substitute chili powder (chile powder mixed with seasonings), increase the amount to 2½ tablespoons, and decrease the amount of cumin, coriander, and oregano to ½ teaspoon each.
  • If you don’t have Fresh Salsa on hand, you can substitute fresh tomatoes and onion.  Dice a large tomato and small onion.  You may want more than that if you really like to pile on the toppings.  You may also want to mince some cilantro, and add another jalapeño pepper as a garnish.
  • You can also add other vegetables as toppings.  Almost anything that you’d consider serving raw probably will work in tacos.  Guacamole is common.  Cucumbers are refreshing.  Diced zucchini will take tacos almost into health food territory!
  • If you want to make soft tacos instead of hard-shell tacos, you’ll need to use corn or flour tortillas, and soften them. I like the method Rich Bayless suggests in Mexican Everyday: sprinkle a clean dish towel with about 3 tablespoons of water, wrap 12 corn or flour tortillas in it, and place in a microwavable plastic bag or covered casserole. Nuke at 50% power for 3 - 4 minutes (you’re trying to turn the water into steam). Then let rest for a couple of minutes so the steam softens the tortillas. 
  • When making soft tacos, just layer the ingredients onto the tortilla, roll, and eat!  The only trick is not to put too much stuff on the tortilla; otherwise it will be too full to roll properly.
  • What to do if you want hard-shell tacos and have only fresh tortillas on hand?  Make your own hard taco shells!  Put about ½ inch oil into a small skillet, then heat to about 350 degrees.  Using tongs, dip half of the tortilla into the hot oil, and fry until it’s crisp.  Lift it out, and immerse the uncooked half, bending the tortilla into a U-shape, and fry until it’s cooked.  Make sure you hold the opening of the taco apart with the tongs as you’re frying — you want enough space in the U so you can fill your taco.
  • These shells will taste great!  But they’re also a lot of trouble.  Easier to buy your taco shells already formed.  Or make soft tacos.
Tacos on Plate, with Napkin

Taco History 

Soft tacos were the original tacos (sort of like a sandwich). And as with a sandwich, the fillings are limited only by one’s imagination. Some of the more common varieties include Tacos al Pastor (thin strips of pork are the main ingredient), Fish Tacos (or Tacos de Pescado, with fried or grilled fish as the filling), and Breakfast Tacos (where eggs dominate). In Mexico, tacos are commonly eaten more as an appetizer or a snack than as the entrée in a meal.

And although I suppose you can find the hard-shell style in Mexico these days, the soft style is what Mexicans most often eat. They also have a fried taco, where a toothpick is used to hold together a soft taco (keeping it shut so the filling doesn’t fall out), which is then deep fried.

The hard-shell taco is a US invention, and according to Wikipedia, it dates back to the mid-20th century, perhaps the 1940s. Glen Bell was the guy who put these on the culinary map. Bell was an American businessman who opened his first food establishment in 1948 (a hot dog stand called Bell’s Drive-In). He went on to found Taco Tia’s, which sold hard-shell tacos. In 1962, he founded Taco Bell — today’s ubiquitous “Mexican” fast food chain.

 Make Your Mouth Happy 

The hard-shell variety is what I usually make — to household acclaim.

“Wow,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she took her first bite. “Where has this flavor been all my life? It’s been ages since we’ve made these!”

“Makes your mouth happy,” I agreed between bites.

For although hard-shell tacos may not be “authentic” or even “Mexican,” they deliver awesome flavor. Perfect for Cinco de Mayo — which, as we discussed in the post on Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce, is sort of a made-up holiday anyway, at least in the United States, where it's celebrated more than in Mexico. Kind of fitting that we eat an essentially American food for what is mostly an American holiday.

“That’s all very interesting,” said Mrs K R. “But less talk, more taco. I’m having another.”

Good idea.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Salsa and Picante Sauce
Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip
Frito Pie with Chili
Chili Basics
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Vegetarian Chili

46 comments:

  1. Oh I love them:) In fact, when I travel I look for Mexican or Indian restaurant.They always have Gluten free options.

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    1. Hi Balvinder, aren't tacos great? And you make a good point about gluten free always being an option with Mexican & Indian restaurants. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  2. You were so reading my mind. This weekend I had a big TEX MEX gathering at my home with tacos, fresh salsa, fajitas and all the fixins. Great minds think alike. However my photos would have never turned out as yummy looking as your. I wish we lived closer so that you could share with me all your photo tricks.

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    1. Hi Bam's Kitchen, ;-) your Tex-Mex party sounds terrific! Such great food, isn't it? Thanks for the kind words about the photos - it's really all about paying attention to light. And thanks for your comment.

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  3. We had Taco Tuesday last night! So funny--I had to come check out the menu here--as always, photos are sooo enticing and food looks yummy!

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    1. Hi Kelly, Taco Tuesdays are great! And if you're vegan - I know you are - tacos and Mexican food are a wonderful option - so many choices. (Replace meat with beans in tacos, for example, and skip the cheese.) Thanks for commenting.

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  4. I had thought about making some fish tacos this evening but now after reading your post I may have to make regular beef tacos. Yours sound delicious. It's nice that you've posted your recipe because I think so many people are in a hurry and just toss in a taco seasoning packet. Now they can see just how simple it is to whip it up from scratch.

    As always your photos blow me away. My photos turn out nothing like yours with the same black background. Wonder why - must be the photographer!

    Thanks for sharing all this info, and salsa to go with the tacos along with a bit of taco history.

    Enjoy this beautiful day!

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    1. Hi Vicki, fish tacos are pretty tasty too. And those little packs of Taco Seasoning really irk me - you're paying a lot of money for the same spices most people already have in their kitchen cupboards. Thanks for the kind words. The photos really are about the light - and in the case of black backgrounds, making sure light doesn't hit the parts you want to keep black (there are a few Photoshop things you can do, too, but you really have it get it close to perfect in the camera). It took me a lot of practice & experimenting to figure out how to do it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Replies
    1. Hi Russell, sorry about that. ;-) But enjoy! Thanks for your comment.

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  6. Replies
    1. Hi Chels, wonderful, aren't they? And we want you to keep on living, so you should have some soon! Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. I also love love love tacos! I actually rarely make hard shell ones, but really do enjoy them. I love the bit of taco history - very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Katherine, great, aren't they? The hard shell have this delicious crunch that's fun. But it's easier to be creative with the soft tacos, IMO. I like them both! Thanks for commenting.

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  8. NPR did a segment speaking of how tacos have become as American as apple pie and hot dogs. It resonated - people called in hungry! These are just grand - beautifully spiced! It has me re-thinking dinner.

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    1. Hi Claudia, I'll bet people called in hungry! And if you don't have tacos for dinner tonight, certainly you should in the next couple of days. You owe it to yourself! Thanks for your comment.

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  9. You are absolutely right on the restaurant bought tacos. Homemade is a lot better and more flavorful. Thank you! :)

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    1. Hi Ray, homemade are delish. Not that I haven't had decent restaurant tacos - I have - but homemade usually beat them by a mile. Mainly because everything has been just prepared, rather than sitting around for awhile. Thanks for stopping by.

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  10. Really nice combination of spices you used. Ancho chile is one of my favorites. Now bring on the margaritas!

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    1. Hi This is How I Cook, yeah, that spice combo is pretty tasty. Ancho is great; but I haven't yet found a chile (dried or fresh) that I didn't think was great! Margaritas next week - patience! Thanks for your comment.

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  11. A great go-to weeknight dinner. Plus, who doesn't love tacos? I don't think such a person exists. ;)

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    1. Hi Carolyn, yup, pretty fast to make & plenty flavorful - everything I look for in a weeknight dinner. And I agree, I don't believe I've ever met anyone who doesn't like tacos! Thanks for commenting.

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  12. That first photo is fantastic! They're all mouthwatering, but you really outdid yourself with the first photo.

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    1. Hi MotherRimmy, thanks so much for your kind words, and for taking time to comment.

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  13. They look delicious. The photos are lovely, too. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi LP, they were delicious! All gone now, though. ;-( Have to make some more! ;-) Thanks for commenting.

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  14. I thought for awhile why are there so many Tex-Mex dishes on the blogosphere and reading your first line gave it away.. yeah but of course Cinco de Mayo is around the corner. My oh my i've been out of the loop lately... Coming from a long trip (i was away for 6 wks) gets you off track ... really!
    But thank you for getting me back on track. Although I may have to run to the grocery store to buy all these tex-mex spices, I would say that looking at your pictures and your detailed recipe, it will be worth the trip.
    Thanks for dropping by my site... and it is indeed lovely to meet you!
    malou

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    1. Hi Skip to Malou, good to meet you too, virtually speaking! I'd say it's worth a trip to the grocery store! Thanks for stopping by.

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  15. Great looking tacos! I usually use NM red chile powder (surprise, surprise :) ), but I'm with you on the ancho chile powder. That's also great stuff! Loving your Cinco de Mayo theme!

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    1. Hi mjskit, oh, New Mexico chilies are the best - I particularly like the Hatch chilies. For most of us, though, those are a mail order item (well worth doing, IMO). But ancho chile powder is found is most supermarkets these days. Glad you're liking the theme! And thanks for your comment.

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  16. Another great post. I never knew the difference between chili powder and chile powder, so once again you've taught me something. (And I always enjoy your conversations with Mrs. KR. Very entertaining!)

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    1. Hi Beth, further confusing the chile vs chili problem, is some people use "chilli" powder for "chile" powder - I believe this is fairly common in Great Britain and India. Glad you like the Mrs K R conversations - I like them too (obviously!), although I never know how other people view them. Thanks for stopping by.

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  17. I love tacos. That is all.

    No, really, I love tacos ... so simple, yet always so delicious. And as folks can see, you don't need to buy a sodium-laden packet of taco seasoning to make them!

    Great post!

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    1. Hi Kimberly, if I understand you correctly, you love tacos? Yes? ;-) Yeah, those little packets of El Paso (or whatever) taco seasoning are kinda nasty and cost $$$. Thanks for commenting.

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  18. I love tacos too, but usually don't eat the hard shell because I'm a messy eater. =P Boy your photo looks like TV or magazine advertisement. SO professional looking!

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    1. Hi Nami, I know what you mean about the hard shell and how messy they are! Maybe we all need taco bibs - like lobster bibs. ;-) I could certainly benefit! Thanks for the kind words, and your comment.

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  19. Tacos are a wonderful thing! I love all the toppings--especially jalapenos. Now, I'll be wanting tacos for lunch today.

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    1. Hi Lisa, tacos for lunch sound like an excellent idea! I'll never turn down a taco opportunity. Thanks for your comment.

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  20. I was just getting over the awesome salsa recipe and now this? I've never made my own taco meat before. I've always used that horrible packet of stuff. Thanks for saving us from all the salt and preservatives and giving us some flavor!! :)

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    1. Hi Maureen, Back in the days when I rarely made tacos, I used those packets too. But one day I (figuratively speaking) slapped myself up against the side of the head - what was I thinking? I knew how silly it was to buy those packets, but here I was doing it. So I figured out how to make taco meat, and never looked back. Anyway, thanks for taking time to comment.

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  21. very interesting recipe..looks yummm
    Tasty Appetite

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    1. Hi Jay, it is indeed yummmm! ;-) Thanks for stopping by.

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  22. You must have read my mind because I've been thinking about tacos a lot lately. And that first shot makes me want to have 10 of them. Nice combination of spices too. I imagine how this would taste and I'm drooling already.

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    1. Hi zenchef, 10 tacos is a good number! And I'm always happy to make my readers drool. ;-) Thanks for your comment.

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  23. Wow, those tacos look incredible! Perfect dinner!

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    1. Hi Asmita, they're great! And I agree - perfect dinner! ;-) thanks for stopping by.

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