John Lei for The New York Times
Start with protein, like chicken. Then add a little
crunch — lettuce is a favorite. Then sprinkle
crumbled cheese. Finally, add salsa for another
layer of flavor.
The Taco Joint in Your Kitchen
By MARK BITTMAN
Published: July 26, 2006
YOU may never have had a really terrific taco, especially if you live on the East Coast. There are a lot of tacos around, certainly, and many of them can be satisfying enough. But the genuine article is often hard to come by — except in Mexico, on the West Coast and in the Southwest, where taco passion runs deep. And when the Westerners travel east, they frequently fall into despair.
Skirt steak tacos in corn tortillas are a far cry from supermarket taco-in-a-box kits.
They sit around over coffee or tequila, complaining, sharing tips on where they heard there might be a good taco hiding.
Just about anything can be called a taco, which essentially means “sandwich.” You take a tortilla and you put some stuff in it and you eat it; that’s a taco. (If you roll the tortilla, it’s a burrito, which appears to have been created in the American Southwest; if you layer food on top of it, it’s an enchilada; if you crisp it up and use it as a kind of plate, it’s a tostada; if you cut it into pieces and bake or fry it, it’s a chip; and so on.) But taco aficionados have a particular taste, a particular feel in mind. It’s about the ingredients, as high quality and as fresh as possible.
The good news is that without too much effort you can, believe it or not, create an admirable taco at home. What that means is not crisp-fried tortillas loaded with some weird ground beef mixture, lettuce and rice, but corn tortillas with some spicy slivered pork, grilled beef or maybe fish or chicken.
Turkey would probably be most traditional; the native Americans of what is now Mexico not only hybridized corn as we know it but also raised turkeys.
The best tacos start with corn tortillas; flour is a recent adaptation and, while it is not always inappropriate or scorned, there is nothing like a corn tortilla. These are made from the same base as tamales, a slurry of kernels that have been treated with lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) and then cooked and ground into a dough. At that point they are pressed into tortillas of many sizes, at one time by hand and now usually by machine. (Quite popular in both Mexico and Southern California are those that are just three inches across; you can eat 10 of these at a sitting.)
More commonly, a good taco is loaded with several components: something crunchy (lettuce or cabbage usually, but chopped onion or salted radish are also good); the protein; some moisture — crema, sour cream or guacamole will do nicely; and maybe cheese. Many people add salsa for brightness as well.
To make tacos for a crowd, you can’t do better than to begin with slow-roasted pork, called carnitas. If you start with a piece of shoulder (especially from a well-raised pig), you won’t go wrong; the high fat content makes it self-basting, and almost any combination of spices and heat will produce something delicious. Slow, indirect grilling is ideal, but you don’t lose much by cooking the pork in the oven, using moderate heat.
Chicken thighs — again, from a good chicken rather than a super-mass-produced one — are another good option, and can be quickly simmered in a flavorful braising liquid that will turn them super-tender and leave them quite moist. Here again, the seasonings can be varied as you like. I see the spice mixtures here as suggestions rather than ironclad recipes to follow.
Then there is carne asada, which means “grilled meat,” which in turn means pretty much anything. But skirt steak is what you most often see made into carne asada (and in many Los Angeles supermarkets, skirt steak is actually called carne asada). Because of its high fat content, it’s perfect here. Rub it with a few spices, grill it for a few minutes and pile it into tortillas with a couple of other ingredients to make a legitimate and near-perfect taco.
We can now get real tacos in New York. I live up the block from a place which makes kick ass tacos. Right off the spit and covered in chilies. Real tacos are the shit.
posted by Steve @ 1:14:00 AM