Tacos

- A Manual for Mexican Street Cooking -

Version 2.5

by Allen Strange
(Restored version)

Saludo!

Many friends have asked for this cookbook so I have decided the best way to distribute it is via the web. This was originally hard copy and I just HTMLed it- print it out if you prefer. This is an updated edition of the original 1988 version with some corrections and a couple of new goodies. If you don't already know about it you may also want to visit The Chili-Heads Web Page. Enjoy!


Table of Contents


La Prima

This collection is based on the fact that taqueria food is the basis of all intelligent life in the universe. The recipes are few, none of which recommend the use of ground beef. I hail the virtues of lard, prefer flour tortillas for my quesadillas, insist on Mexican chocolate for the adobo sauce, and drink beer with my meals. This book also contains what I believe is the first documentation of a serious disorder known to tacologists as Chili Lips.

The subject at hand here is folk food and the art of taco stand cuisine. The recipes and techniques are in the tradition of Mexican home cooking and have been developed over the years, guided by what I have learned from many Mexican cooks, the ingredients available to me, and, most important, the insatiable need to consume as much Mexican food as possible. These are not the kinds of recipes you are apt to find in most cookbooks, and certainly probably will not produce the results one is used to at most Mexican restaurants north of the border. But these are the sort of recipes that will produce excellent results and delicious food in the traditions of the immortal temple of the taco -- the taqueria.

I have written this guide to satisfy three personal needs; 1) for my friends, with hope of encouragement to further explore the wonders of Mexican cooking and so they will invite me to dinner more often, 2) to codify some of my own cooking habits [as I am not a very organized meal planner], and, 3) as a personal rebellion against ground beef tacos, processed cheese quesadillas and overpriced Mexican dishes prepared by French chefs with a phobia against lard.

Being born in an American-Mexican border town and living one quarter of a century in Southern California, my move to the south San Francisco Bay area was certainly not motivated by a pilgrimage for great Mexican cooking. Even though, I was initially very disappointed in what I thought to be a surprising lack of satisfying Mexican food in an area of large Hispanic population. Over the years of course I realized this was only due to my own unfamiliarity with some of the many hidden jewels and palaces of piquant hidden far away from the shopping malls and restaurant guides in the South Bay. There will be more to say about several of the temples of the tortilla and other sources of the rosy red morning after a bit later. Out of self defense of possible shredded beef withdrawal, I began attempts at recreating the flavors and textures of Mexican cooking I remembered from the streets and sidewalks of Calexico and Tiajuana. At that time I was only mildly versed in the cooking methods and the ingredients required to activate the salsa of Pavlov's Pedro. Consequently, many of the methods and ingredients put forth here are occasionally not quite authentic and may be questioned and criticized by other advocates of commercial Mexican cuisine. The results, however, are quite authentic in appearance and flavor, and will hold their own against any other mesa de Mexico.

I have spent many hours sifting through every Mexican cookbook I could find-- a few supplying some very useful information on both ingredients and techniques. I have cited these resources at the appropriate spots and strongly recommend that you add them to your library. My own esthetic is perhaps best described as peasant food, and this approach has also generated some interesting techniques. I have adapted and developed these recipes to work with what can be found in most grocery stores. Some of the recipes will call for what appear to be very traditional ingredients, while others will require some tampering with commercial preparations. Trust me-- these things work if treated and doctored in the right way.


The Evolution of Taco Stand Cuisine
. . . (according to me)

One of the great things about Mexican food is that just about anything goes with anything. A well prepared Mexican dish will have its own unique flavor, but cooking with a limited number of spices insures compatibility of the selections. My basic Mexican dishes consist of tortillas, meats, beans, condiments of cheeses and salsas, and , last but not least, beer. There are a limited number of actual recipes given here, but the possibilities are endless. From these six areas one combines recipes and ingredients to create any number of variations on tacos, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, tamales, tortas and beer.

Like all great cuisines on this planet, taqueria cooking did not just sprout out of the ground. There are many cookbooks documenting the evolution of Mexican food, beginning with the "crude" methods of the South American Indians, a middle-era about the Spaniards teaching them that turkey tastes better than dog, and ending with the development of various regional recipes and techniques. My own theory is a bit more abbreviated and probably just as accurate. In the beginning, God made machaca (shredded beef.) The Baja Indians made the tortillas, but in those days only God could make shredded beef. Then one day an Indian named Taco put some machaca in a warm tortilla. The next day his larger brother, Burrito, rolled the beef in a flour tortilla and his mother, Enchilada, put some red chili sauce on it. And on it went until all the Indians moved to America and opened taquerias, named, of course, after the first Indian to put shredded beef in a tortilla. Quite truthfully, the only real difference between tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. is the packaging. Take the stuffings from a taco and roll it in a flour tortilla and it becomes a burrito. Take the innerds of a burrito, roll it in a corn tortilla, top it with cheese and salsa, drink some beer, and it is magically transformed into an enchilada.

I then distinguish between a "recipe" and a "technique". A recipe for adobo can be many different things, it all depends on the particular technique you choose to apply. In fact, you can even choose to think of the words taco, burrito, enchilada, etc., as adjectives. Make some meat and "taco" it one day, "burrito" it the next, and "tamale" it the next. Also consider combining parts of different recipes and invent your own hybrid dishes-- anyone for burrencharamacos? Some combinations will be suggested and the rest is open for tacological experimentation.


The Basic Stash

As any tacologist knows, the craving for Mexican food can build up over a period of several days or suddenly hit you with no warning whatsoever! The only defense for a Mex-attack is a stash of ingredients which will allow the design and implementation of a meal on moments notice [almost]. The items required for the basic explorations of taqueria cuisines are common to many other world recipes, and the basic spices and canned goods can be stored almost indefinitely. A couple of miscellaneous perishable goodies are also required to ward off the various strains of the Mex-attack. Note that only a few of these recipes call for salt. This is not necessarily to advocate a salt-free diet, but I simply find that with the spices, salt is usually not needed. If your preference is different, you know what to do.

Spices:

The following list will accommodate every recipe in this guide.


Canned and Packaged Goods 

The following ingredients are the things of which you usually run out, so keep a good supply on hand.


Miscellaneous But Essential

THE RECIPES

Las Carnes: The Meats

The following eight recipes represent the basic methods I have found successful in generating the taco stand esthetic missing from most "tablecloth" Mexican eateries. Any of the preparations, with perhaps the exception of the veal, can be incorporated in tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc., or will stand alone as a solo meat dish. They work well as left overs with other dishes for any meal. Consider, for example, using morning after shredded beef mixed in with scrambled eggs with fresh made corn tortilla chips and whamo-- machaca! [Although real machaca is made from a type of Mexican Beef Jerky called cecina ]. What was chili verde, the next day becomes a filler for quesadillas, and so on. All of the preparations freeze well and can be used whenever a Mex-attack hits you. With some meats, alternate recipes are offered. In these cases, consider them to be different dishes, each with their own unique flavors. Also don't be hesitant about combining meat dishes in a larger meal. At a taco stand you would not hesitate ordering a beef taco and a verde burrito so don't deprive yourself at home.

Pollo: Chicken

There are many wonderful Mexican chicken recipes, although I don't know how one distinguishes a Mexican chicken from the rest of them. I should also mention that in Mexico, turkey is a very popular substitute for chicken, and the following recipes work equally well with both birds. Your basic taqueria chicken recipe is extremely simple-- boil a chicken and shred it up! While this makes perfectly suitable chicken meat for tacos and enchiladas, I would like to suggest a couple of extra, simple steps which takes this from the realm of "bird" to something worth clucking about.

Remember kindly little Senora Maciel back of adobo fame? Well, here is where you get the translation of her recipe for gentle approach to this piquant mole and also reminded to try adobo with chicken. I had this served on large tortilla chips so the same presentation is suggested here. This can be used as part of the main meal or as a great appetizer.

As stated above, take a bird and boil in until done. When cooked remove the meat from the bone and shred it up into bite sized pieces. While the bird is boiling prepare the adobo and chips.

The Adobo

3 pasilla chilies
4 oz sesame seeds
1 tomato
1/2 tablet Mexican chocolate
or 1/2 Tbsp. Hershey's dry chocolate
1 finely chopped garlic clove
a pinch* of cinnamon, oregano, marjoram
black pepper and salt
1/2 Tbsp. wine or apple vinegar
another pinch of salt and sugar

Soak the chilies in warm water for about 20 minutes, until they are pliable. Carefully slice them open and remove and reserve the seeds. Grind the chili seeds with the sesame seeds in a spice grinder or metate.* In a dry skillet gently toast the ground sesame and chili seeds, just until they start to brown. Put the peppers, roasted seeds, and spices in a blender, with only enough water to blend, and make a thick puree. Season with the vinegar, salt and sugar. Cook the puree in a skillet over a medium flame until it is fairly thick.

* a metate is a flat grinding stone used for corn and peppers. They are usually available in Mexican markets and make great table decorations and a place to leave your car keys.

The Chips

I don't want to be insulting because I think everyone knows how to fry up some chips. And, in fact, most people just buy them, ready-made, at the grocery. However, the chips needed to properly serve the chicken are larger than most commercial brands. In addition, after you have had fresh made chips, you will never go back to the bagged ones.

1 bag of corn tortillas
safflower oil
[some salsa]

Pile the tortillas on a cutting board and cut them into quarters-- no smaller. Heat the oil in a large, shallow pan. Fry five or six chips at a time, just until they begin to brown. Remove them from the oil and set them on a paper towel to drain. They will continue to cook as they dry, so don't over-brown them in the oil. If you plan to use salt, add the salt while the chips are still wet. The reason for doing just a few at a time is so the salt will stick to the chip, and also to make sure you have an initial batch to munch on while doing the rest. This, of course, is the reason for the salsa.

Finally. . .

Stir the shredded chicken into the adobo and heat it through for a few minutes. Serve by arranging a few chips on a plate and topping each one with a spoonful of sauce and a couple of pieces of chicken.

  • Shredded Chicken (for Tacos and Enchiladas)
  • This recipe is especially for taco, enchilada and tamale applications.

    3 or 4 skinned chicken breasts
    or other accessible parts
    1/2 finely chopped onion
    3-4 cloves crushed garlic
    1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
    4 Tbsp. lard
    1 cup of an enchilada sauce
    or 1 cup salsa verde [pg. 50]
    2-3 whole canned green chilies
    cut in strips [optional]
    aluminum foil

    Heat the lard and fry the onions until they start to clear. Add the chicken and cilantro, and lightly sautŽ' just until the outside turns white. With a slotted spoon move the chicken and as much of the onion/cilantro/garlic mixture [hereby known as gunk] as possible. Place the chicken and the gunk on a paper towel to drain. When dry, place the chicken and gunk in a bowl and cover with the sauce or salsa of your choice. Let the chicken marinade while you go have a couple of beers.

    Preheat your oven to 350°. Wrap the marinated chicken, along with some of the marinade [with the chili strips if you wish], tightly in aluminum foil and make sure there are no leaks. If you are using chili verde sauce, squeeze about 1/4 of a lemon on the meat before wrapping. If you are a fresh coriander freak, a few extra pinches of this wonderful weed will enhance the flavors. Bake the wrapped chicken for about 35-40 minutes or to your satisfaction. When done, unwrap the chicken, remove the bone, and gently shred the chicken and the chilies with two forks. Don't pulverize the meat-- it should be in bite-sized pieces rather than completely shredded like beef or machaca. Re-wrap the chicken and place it back in the warm oven until you are ready to use it for tacos, enchiladas, burritos or in tortas.

    THE FIXIN'S

    The Fixin's is that strange class of foods that can serve as either Mexican condiments, side dishes or in some cases, even main dishes-- although a main dish of salsa cruda may be a bit dull! Beans can be put in anything: You can dip anything handy in beans. Beans can be eaten alone, beans can be eaten with beer, beans can be mixed with rice and eaten with beer, beans can even be mixed with beer as in frijoles borrachos, Depending on the scope of your appetite or the number of people you plan to cook for, it is a good idea to have at least one or two fixin's on the table.

    The Techniques

    Now we get down to business. All of the possibilities are in place and it is time to assemble everything into any number of glorious packages to be consumed with masses of beer and fresh limes. Remember that the basis of the Mexican home cooking is that anything goes with anything and the following suggestions are just that-- basic suggestions for putting together taco stand food. There are more techniques than there are recipes. The ones I use are presented [sort of] in order of their complexity-- except for the Tortas, and they were added as an afterthought. Experiment with everything. Don't be concerned with serving pork with beef or having tacos with burritos, everything works. Just cook as you would order down on South First Street! Even consider the possibility of creating hybrid dishes. This is done all the time in white tablecloth Mexican restaurants. The chef will deep fry a burrito and call it a chimichanga then charge you double for it!

    Now if you spend some time watching a typical taqueria ritual you will find that these guys move like lightning. A first rate Ninjo grill chef has nothing on a good taqueria assembly line. If one person is doing the assembly, every move comes from years of experience reaching for a handful of this and that and then reaching for a beer. If there are several persons involved, each has his own particular task which must performed with speed, assurance and all kinds of weird stuff on their hands. Part of the art of Mexican peasant food comes from the fact that a bit of the green salsa gets mixed in with the sour cream and some of the white cheese ends up in the chili verde. My point here is that you are to have fun with this stuff. As long as your hands are clean, why not be sloppy? You just might discover a new recipe!


    Fiesta y Adios

    By now, you are probably either full, suffering eye strain or drunk! But, we have explored the bowels of taco stand cuisine, learned to have, at least, a love-hate relationship with lard, and discovered a few things about chilies and large, small jack-asses. I think everything presented here will get you started on the road to turning your kitchen into a first-class taco bar. I suggest, at this point, you put yourself to the test and have a feast. Invite two or three couples over for a good old fashion Mexican dinner and try things out. Now, this can be a massive operation and very confusing it not organized with a little forethought. Let me suggest a couple of possible menus and procedures that will probably insure a good time for all.

    The ploy is to get your guests to do most of the assembly and lead them to believe that they are having fun. Remember that the basic premise is that anything goes in a taco and the only significant difference between tacos, enchiladas, burritos, etc., is how and what you put around the meats, beans and fixin's'. The other important point it to prepare things in advance so you don't have to spend the last three hours before your guests arrive making food. The cooking process, due to constant taste testing, may dull your appetite. It is important for the cook to be as relaxed, hungry, and sober as the guests.

    Hit Counter