Monday, April 30, 2012

Taco Salad


Lighter & Healthier for Cinco de Mayo 

OK, let’s just say upfront that the way many restaurants serve Taco Salad, it’s not a particularly light or healthy dish. Loaded up with meat, cheese, and sour cream — and not much lettuce — it’s a high calorie heart attack waiting to happen.

But at home you have choices. And although you might want to include some meat and other fattening goodies, if you make a great tasting Salsa or Picante Sauce the flavor focus of your salad, you’ve got a scrumptious entrée that’s healthier than a plateful of Tacos.

And making Taco Salad is even easier than building that plateful of Tacos!


Taco Salad on Black Acrylic

Recipe: Taco Salad

The mix and quantity of ingredients are pretty variable in Taco Salads. Most people want taco meat (I like to use the meat recipe from my Tacos).

Less traditional — but even tastier — is a ladelful of chili. You might like the meat chili from my Chili Basics post. Or you could go the veggie chili route — using, say, Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans or Vegetarian Chili. I really like to load Taco Salads up with Salsa and Picante Sauce. In fact, sometimes I skip the meat (or chili) entirely, and just use a ton of Fresh Salsa and/or Picante! Lots of flavor, very filling, and pretty healthy. I also typically use either sour cream or shredded Cheddar cheese. I find one or the other to be enough, though I do sometimes use both.

This recipe serves 4, but you can easily scale it up or down to suit your needs.  Preparation time is about 20 minutes.  (Add another 30 minutes or so if you need to prepare Fresh Salsa or Picante Sauce.)  I suggest preparing no more salad than you need, since leftovers don’t keep that well.

Ingredients
  • 1 pound taco meat from my Tacos recipe (may substitute 3 cups chili; see Notes) 
  • ~8 cups lettuce, shredded or not (iceberg is traditional; I like romaine or leaf lettuce; you can also buy bagged salad mix at most grocery stores that is flavorful and a time saver) 
  • 2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, sliced or chopped 
  • 2 cups Fresh Salsa (or commercial; optional) 1 cup sour cream (doesn’t matter whether it’s regular or light) 
  • 1½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese (optional) 
  • 2 cups Picante Sauce (may substitute commercial variety) 
  • ½ - 1 cup pitted black olives, sliced 
  • 1 - 2 jalapeño peppers, sliced into rings, for garnish (optional) 
  • 4 handfuls corn tortilla chips (or more; I leave them whole, but some people like to crush them)
Procedure
  1. Prepare taco meat using the recipe in my Tacos post. 
  2. While the meat is browning, wash and prepare lettuce and tomatoes; shred cheese; and slice olives and jalapeño peppers. 
  3. When the meat is ready, build your salads! You can layer the ingredients any way you like. I usually start by putting a few tortilla chips on a plate, then adding the lettuce. Then I add more chips, some Picante Sauce, the meat, the tomatoes and/or Salsa, and finish with black olives. Then I sprinkle on the cheese (if using) and garnish with the sour cream and jalapeño pepper slices (if using). I’ll often add more Picante Sauce on top — did I mention that I really like Picante Sauce? 
Taco Salad with Napkin and Fork
Notes
  • Restaurants often serve Taco Salad in a fried flour tortilla that is shaped like a bowl.  Most supermarkets carry “kits” that allow you to bake your own shells for Taco Salad.  And they actually work!  I know, because — dedicated as I am to testing things so you don’t have to — I bought one of those kits and baked some shells. 
  • The kit I used is by Azteca, and it makes 4 shells. It’s pretty simple. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, assemble some cardboard forms, and drape flour tortillas over them. As the tortillas bake, they droop down over the shells and form a bowl-shape. 
  • Flavor?  Not bad.  Not as good as the ones you typically have in a restaurant, but OK.  And because they’re baked, they’re healthier.
  • I prefer using tortilla chips rather than these shells.  I much prefer the flavor of corn tortillas to flour in both Tacos and Taco Salad.  But the kits are an option if that appeals to you.
  • No tortilla chips?  If you have corn tortillas on hand, you can cut them into wedges (8 per tortilla) and nuke them in a microwave to make chips.  I usually cut up 2 or 3 tortillas, put the wedges on a microwave-safe dish, and heat for 2 or 3 minutes.  And repeat if I need more chips.
  • Or you can bake the tortilla wedges at 350 degrees for 10 - 12 minutes until crisp.
  • I like to make plain tortilla chips, but you may want to brush them with oil and sprinkle on some salt before nuking/baking them.
  • Although taco meat is both traditional and good in this dish, chili is worth a try.  I use a bit under a cup of chili per serving, although you can adjust the quantity to suit your taste.
  • You could also use canned beans.  They're healthier, and black beans have a particularly nice flavor. 
  • Both shredded Cheddar cheese and sour cream are traditional in Taco Salad.  But for me, that’s too much dairy in one dish, so I tend to use one or the other.  I tend to prefer sour cream, in part because it looks attractive.  But also because its flavor seems to combine well with the other ingredients.
  • I often skip the tomatoes and use extra salsa.  
  • But if you’re using tomatoes without salsa, you may want to include some chopped onions in your salads.  A mediumish onion (about 1 cup) is about right for this recipe.  I think white onions are best in this dish, although scallions also work well.
  • Some people like to add avocado or guacamole to Taco Salad.  Not for me, but it may be for you.
  • Likewise sliced green or red peppers.
Taco Salad in Tortilla Bowl
Taco Salad in a Tortilla Bowl

Continuing Our Cinco de Mayo Celebration 

Although the flavor of Taco Salad is all Mexican, it’s not a traditional dish. The Food Timeline Organization says Taco Salad dates back only to the 1960s. Who knows how it actually originated. Probably some hungry genius who was craving tacos but wanted a salad too.

Of course, a lot of our best-known Mexican or Tex-Mex dishes aren’t “authentic,” as we noted last week when discussing Tacos. And many favorites — probably including Taco Salad — seem to be US inventions. At least Salsa and Picante Sauce are authentically Mexican!

Later this week we’ll conclude our Mexican/Tex-Mex series with a discussion of the quintessential Cinco de Mayo cocktail: the Classic Margarita.

So we’ll be featuring an authentic Mexican cocktail, right? Tequila is old as the hills, and it’s Mexican. So obviously the Margarita must be too?

Well, surprise! But you’ll have to wait to learn the details.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Quick and Easy Tacos
Salsa and Picante Sauce
Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip
Chili Basics
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Vegetarian Chili
Frito Pie with Chili
Chef's Salad
Salade Niçoise

30 comments:

  1. To tell you the truth you got me into Tex-Mex cooking over the weekend. After reading your previous post, I ran to the grocery store to complete my ingredients and boy did my hubs loved it!
    Now who couldn't resist a bowl of these beautiful taco salad. I may go back again to the grocery store or even better, go knock at your door haha. You live in STL you said? Well don't be surprised if I will be at your door anytime soon ... hhaha JK oh please I hope I didn't scare you. Have a great Monday!
    Malou

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    1. Hi Malou, I often have hungry people showing up on my doorstep! ;-) Glad you've been enjoying the Tex-Mex recipes - one of my favorite cuisines. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  2. I've had taco salads once or twice out but have never thought to make it at home - why not? This looks like it would make a wonderful lunch or dinner. Can't wait for the margarita post!

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    1. Hi Katherine, I know what you mean - there are dishes that I eat only in restaurants but never make at home. But if you make tacos at home, you'll like making this salad - it's easier! Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. I love homemade taco salads more than what you find in the restaurant. This looks fabulous - love Tex-Mex!

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    1. Hi Laura, I agree - some things are better in restaurants, but I'll stack my Taco Salad up against any that I've ever eaten in a restaurant. And I love Tex-Mex too! Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  4. TEX MEX is so easy and versatile. Last weekend I had a TEX MEX gathering with some friends and their kids. Always a hit and fun because they get to assemble their own toppings. I can't wait to read about your margarita recipe. Take care, BAM

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    1. Hi Bam's Kitchen, it is pretty easy, isn't it? Glad your Tex-Mex party went well. And I'm just finishing writing the Margarita post now! I hope you'll enjoy it. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. I much prefer making this at home, too. As you rightly pointed out, that way you can control the calories and still enjoy a wonderful zesty salad with full-on Mexican flair.

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    1. Hi Carolyn, totally agree - you've said it all! Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  6. I absolutely love taco salads! Sometimes I lighten mine up by skipping the meat and going with some black beans or kidney beans. This looks great!

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    1. Hi CulinarilyCourtney, both black beans or kidney beans are super choices in a Taco Salad - I sometimes do this, too. (And they're also good in regular old tacos.) I mix a little extra Picante Sauce in with the beans to zip up the flavor! Thanks for commenting.

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  7. I am loving all your recipes we can enjoy for Cinco de Mayo! Taco salad is one of my favorite salads, so delicious:-) Take care, Terra

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    1. Hi Terra, glad you're enjoying them! I'm having a lot of fun with them. Thanks for stopping by.

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  8. You have presented this TAco Salad really beautifully! I love the mix of colors...A truly great way to celebrate ethnic pride and festivities!

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    1. Hi MyFudo, isn't this a pretty salad? Really fun to assemble and photograph. And eating? That's the best part! Thanks for your comment.

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  9. So much color and flavor in this salad! I've never seen the make-your-own taco bowl kits, but now I'm curious to try one. What a festive dish!

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    1. Hi Jeanne, those taco bowl kits are kinda cool. Only complaint I have is I'd prefer they be a bit larger (for more lettuce capacity), but you can certainly stack lettuce + other ingredients high if you like. Thanks for commenting.

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  10. This taco salad idea is pure genius - can you say beautifully gorgeous :D
    I love the colours and flavours which blend so well!

    Cheers
    Choc Chip Uru

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    1. Hi Choc Chip Uru, great salad, isn't it? And I, too, think the colors on this are quite nice! Thanks for your comment.

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  11. This is a staple in this house - everyone loves it. We make vegetable-centric, skip the sour cream (although confess we do like a lot of cheese). Yours looks so nourishing and comforting. All those colors dancing on a plate.

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    1. Hi Claudia, if you like a veggie-centric Taco Salad, you might want to try it with a Veggie Chili sometime - really nice flavor. We sometimes skip the sour cream and load on the cheese! Always nice to have choices. Thanks for commenting.

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  12. You are making me hungry. I think I may have to go to Chipotle tonight for dinner.

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    1. Hi This is How I Cook, always happy to make you hungry! Chipotle delivers some pretty good food - good choice! Thanks for stopping by.

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  13. It's only been a week but I've already missed a few Mexican recipes! You are such a prolific blogger! I'd love to try this taco salad dish. I love tacos and get them for lunch from one of those Mexican taco street vendor ( street food is a common scene in NYC). Like someone already said your taco salad looks too pretty to be consumed but I can imagine how delicious it is with all the fresh ingredients and the homemade salsa you featured earlier. Thanks again for sharing this!

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    1. Hi Yi, Margarita post coming tomorrow! ;-) I used to work in Manhattan, and loved the street vendors! Some really good food - and some really notgood food sometimes! Thanks for your comment.

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  14. I just realized that I had never had taco salad at home! I order taco salad sometimes, between fajitas and tacos, but never tried to make it at home! I really love how you prepare your taco salad!

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    1. Hi Nami, I used to never make them at home, either - until I started to. Now? I never have one at a restaurant - mine are much better. And you can tailor the salad to your taste when you make it, which is always a plus. Thanks for your comment.

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  15. I found you through Maureen and am so glad I did. I stopped in my tracks when I saw this recipe. The photos are stunning. Your notes are incredible.

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    1. Hi Kim, welcome! I hope you enjoy it here! Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.

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