Right, so Lior anticipated my opening joke about Taco Ockerse, which means that (a) we’ll move on without it, and (b) I gotta get a new schtick.
As I promised, today’s post is about tacos. I am going to use the plural to avoid confusion with the musician, the sitcom character, the truck, and the asteroid. I’ll also skip any comments about “tako“, beyond noting that it can be a tasty multi-ethnic taco filling*.
* If you think the dish in the picture looks tasty, check out the whole page it came from: Time for Tako Poke
One other note before we jump in: while I specifically reference meats (including fish) as taco fillings, there’s no reason why you can’t do a vegetarian taco. My advice would be to avoid emulating meat* in appearance or texture, but instead focus on the vegetables as flavors in their own right. How about lightly-grilled carrots (keep ’em crunchy!) paired with pickled asparagus for a sweet and sour flavor?
* Actually, that would be more of a commandment than a piece of advice. Faux meat is, with very few exceptions, an abomination in the taste buds of the gods.
Let’s start with the soft versus hard debate I promised. If you’re looking for a learned discourse on the history of the taco shell and a citation of one variety over the other as “traditional”, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ll just note that the font of all knowledge lists eight “traditional” tacos, some of which use hard shells and some soft. Enough said.
From an American historical perspective, the hard-shelled taco filled with ground beef is, depending on your point of view, either the lowest common denominator or the holy progenitor of a culinary lineage. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. The biggest problem with hard shells is the transient nature of their “just right” state. Eat them too quickly and they tend to shatter explosively, but wait a little to long and they get soggy. Either way, keep a napkin handy.
My own preference is that the shell should contrast with the filling. A ground or shredded meat will do well with a crisp shell, where a sliced meat will harmonize better–and be easier to eat–with a soft shell.
Maggie requested me to address “flour versus corn”. For the uninitiated, that’s whether the shell should be made with wheat or corn. This is another debate for which there is no right or wrong answer. Both have been around long enough to be considered “traditionally correct”. Pick whichever you prefer, or will best enhance the flavor of the fillings. The only caveat I’d offer is that soft corn tortillas tend to have less structural stability than wheat. If the fillings contribute a significant amount of liquid, a corn shell will fragment. I recommend embracing the power of “and”: double-up the shell with corn on the outside for flavor and wheat inside for strength.
Having settled on a shell, you’re now ready to fill it. You want a main flavor and a couple of flavor enhancers. Ground beef is, as I mentioned, the traditional American/Tex-Mex filling, enhanced with shredded cheese, lettuce, and usually tomato (or a tomato-based salsa). Sour cream is often used as a binder–avoid it if you can: sour cream is only slightly less abhorrent than mayonnaise.
Variations are endless, but the core notion is a single, strong flavor supported by several lighter flavors that contrast with each other and the core flavor. The fish taco I mentioned Tuesday uses fried or grilled fish (often marinated in citrus juice) and replaces some or all of the lettuce with shredded cabbage.
Rumor has it that there’s an active community developing “Indian tacos” which substitute naan for the tortilla. Seems like a worthwhile experiment; I hope it goes beyond simply filling the shell with traditional Indian meats and sauces: carnitas and barbacoa paired with a variety of chutneys would my my taste buds sit up and take notice.
There’s a growing interest in “breakfast tacos” with scrambled eggs or sausages as the core filling. Again, a nice idea (though the less said about Taco Bell’s variation using a waffle as the shell, the better*). Is it really necessary that they all include syrup as a binder? I think not!
* Indeed, the less said about Taco Bell in general, the better!
Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be much general interest in dessert tacos. They’re out there in the cultural backwaters, but they don’t seem to have hit the mainstream. The popularity of Italian cannoli suggests that there’s an appetite for a dessert that combines a crisp shell with a soft filling. Why a Tex-Mex variation hasn’t caught on is clearly a subject that requires more research. (Note to anyone who wants to experiment in this space: chocolate paired with salt and/or chiles is popular right now. Consider the possibilities for a dessert taco loosely based on a molé negro sauce…)