Thursday, January 5, 2012

Taco Night!

As countless NYC food carts have proved, there are an infinite ways to make tacos—with a matrix of practically every meat/fish/veggie/legume you can think of, tons of topping combos, and of course, soft vs. hard/corn vs. flour tortilla. I grew up with Taco Night starring the classic American incarnation of ground beef/hard corn shell, but I have no use for the hard shells, which invariably shatter as soon as you take a bite if they haven’t already shattered in the box (plus they’re overpriced and a huge waste of packaging). So, this is my alternate take on the ground beef taco using soft tortillas.

  • When I made this recently, I heated some bacon fat—but you could use a couple tablespoons of olive oil—to brown 1.5 pounds ground beef over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan (you could use a cast iron skillet or a non-nonstick frying pan; nonstick doesn’t brown the meat properly).

    Sprinkle kosher salt, ground cumin, chili powder, and paprika over the meat before using a wooden spoon to break it up so it crumbles as it cooks.

  • Stir in a diced medium white onion and as much minced garlic as you like. Keep occasionally stirring so the beef doesn’t stick to the pan.

  • While the meat is cooking, heat a foil-wrapped stack of soft corn or flour tortillas in the oven or toaster oven on, like, 250° or 300°. I like to heat them for five minutes, then separate the stack in the middle and flip it back together so that the ones that were in the center are on the outside and vice versa. That way, they all heat evenly, without the outer ones getting crunchy and unfoldable.

  • Once the meat is more brown than pink, carefully tilt the pan over the sink to drain the grease without spilling the meat. You don’t want to get all of the liquid out; leave in enough so it’s still moist and flavorful, just not dripping with grease.

  • Return the meat to the pan. Stir in 1 or 2 minced canned chipotles in adobo (more if you like it HAWT; omit them altogether if someone in the household doesn’t do spicy) and an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced to create a chili-like consistency.

  • Now all you have to do is plunk the meat on a trivet accompanied by the tortillas and the accouterments of your choice. While the meat is cooking, you can do all the prep work like chopping veggies, grating cheese, and decanting sour cream into a bowl (no plastic tubs on the table, please). Go-to topping options include:

    • salsas such as cruda, roja, verde, black bean, and miscellaneous
    • avocado slices, sprinkled with coarse salt and lime juice
    • shredded lettuce or red cabbage
    • diced tomatoes
    • sliced jalapenos, raw, pickled, or roasted
    • matchstick-sliced radishes
    • chopped cilantro and red onion
    • pickled red onion
    • thin-sliced scallion
    • cheddar, jalapeno Jack, or cotija cheese
    • sour cream/crema
    • myriad varietals of hot sauce

    This is a quick weeknight meal and, from what I understand of families, family-friendly. You can make it even quicker by making the meat filling a night or two in advance and reheating it on low in a covered pot while you prep the toppings and heat the tortillas.

    And for a party, a cheap and low-maintenance way to entertain is to do a make-your-own taco buffet. Multiply the meat recipe (or repeat it with ground chicken and ground pork), buy a few packages of each type of tortilla, and then set out a lot of topping choices on a buffet in cute bowls and platters. For some reason, people seem to enjoy being made to prepare their own food at parties—go figure.

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