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!
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.
- 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)
- Prepare taco meat using the recipe in my Tacos post.
- While the meat is browning, wash and prepare lettuce and tomatoes; shred cheese; and slice olives and jalapeño peppers.
- 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?
- 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 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.
Quick and Easy Tacos
Salsa and Picante Sauce
Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Frito Pie with Chili