published Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Taco night: Top chefs offer up fresh takes on the popular Mexican staple

Pulled pork tacos, left, and lentil tacos are served on a plate in Concord, N.H.
Pulled pork tacos, left, and lentil tacos are served on a plate in Concord, N.H.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When salsa overtook ketchup as America's favorite condiment in the 1990s you had to know that "taco night" wasn't far behind.

Simple, satisfying and inexpensive, hard or soft tacos filled with meat, cheese and a what-have-you of veggies have become a staple for busy families. Sales of taco shells, seasonings and other products have grown steadily over the last decade, says Juv Marchisio, senior marketing manager for B&G Foods, which owns the Ortega brand, and research suggests that roughly half of all Americans indulge in tacos at home.

And why not? Tacos offer communal family dining at its best: There's no arguing or whining when can make it however they like it.

But the way many Americans approach tacos at home — ground beef, pre-shredded "Mexican" cheese, and that ubiquitous kit with shells and a flavor packet — could use a revamp. Sure, you can change it up with whole-wheat tacos. You can sneak black beans into the ground beef. You could even go the way of the spaghetti taco popularized by the tween TV show, "iCarly."

But for advice on really taking your tacos to the next level, we turned to some innovative chefs and cookbook authors. Here are some of their most delicious and creative suggestions, no recipes needed.

FISH TACOS

The fish tacos at Petunia's in Warehouse Row are one of its more popular items.

"I think one of the things that makes them stand out is that they are not fried," said owner Mimi Bryant, "and then, of course, we put our own black bean and corn relish on it. That is our own secret recipe."

While declining to spell out particulars in the relish recipe, she says it includes black beans, corn, red pepper, onion, balsamic vinaigrette, cumin, lime, Old Bay seasoning, chili powder and sugar. All of that gets served on a yellow corn tortilla with homemade slaw.

Ovalle's Mexican Cafe on Broad Street also features fish tacos and, like Silver Petunia, they're a popular menu item, says owner Erwin Ovalle.

The secret is in how you marinate the fish," he says.

His restaurant fries the fish in its tacos and usually uses tilapia, but Erwin says any fish will work.

Fish Tacos

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

1 teaspoon chicken base

1 cup beer or sparkling water

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup milk

1 cup all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil

1 pound of skinless fish filets

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

Warm corn tortillas

Slices of avocado

Cabbage pieces

Salsa of choice

Mix first eight ingredients well and marinate fish in the mixture for two to four hours.

Cut fish in small pieces, roll in flour to coat, then fry in vegetable oil. Placefish in corn tortilla and top with cabbage, mayonnaise, sour cream and salsa of choice.

— Erwin Ovalle, Ovalle's Mexican Cafe

CACTUS TACOS

Among the dozens of different tacos you can get at Taco Roc on Lee Highway is one that may make some people say "Huh?"

Cactus.

For Latinos, edible cactus is not that unusually and is often available at Hispanic food stores. There are dozens of types of cactus whose leaves or fruits can be eaten. Perhaps best known is nopales, or prickly pear.

At Taco Roc, cactus tacos are served with pico de gallo.

Other unusual taco fillings at Taco Roc include fried pepper with salt on top, pineapple, taco al pastor (pork with mild chipotle sauce and pineapple), taco Mexican (with chorizo, spicy Mexican sausage) and taco campechanos (steak and chorizo mixed).

Taco Roc server Michelle Cortez says for a "different" flavor in the taco, change up the pico de gallo by adding cactus, avocado or other items.

Here is a cactus taco recipe, although not the one from Taco Roc.

Cactus Tacos

2 cups rinsed and drained strips of cactus (nopalitos)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 large white onion, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

6 corn tortillas (5- to 6-inch size)

Crumbled queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese)

Fresh salsa, purchased or homemade

Dice the cactus strips into 1/4-inch pieces and set aside. In a medium skillet, heat the oil and cook the onion, stirring until it starts to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the reserved diced cactus and heat through completely. Set aside. Heat a small nonstick skillet and warm the tortillas, one at a time, until soft and pliable. To assemble, put a portion of the cactus filling on half of each warm tortilla. Top with queso fresco and salsa. Fold in half and serve at once.

CDKitchen.com

PERSIAN-INSPIRED TACOS

Toss shredded chicken in a sauce of pomegranate molasses, lime juice and honey. Stuff the meat into a taco shell (or wrap it in a flour tortilla or even Middle Eastern flatbread) and top with yogurt, fresh basil, mint, scallions, tomato, cucumber and plenty of sumac.

"This is a classic combination of Persian ingredients," Louisa Shafia, author of "The New Persian Kitchen," wrote in an email. "Crushed purple sumac berries are tart and salty and a must have for conjuring the authentic flavor of Middle Eastern cuisine." To go vegetarian, Shafia suggests substituting roasted eggplant for the chicken.

STEAK HOUSE TACOS

Season a flat-iron steak with salt and pepper, then sear it on the grill, suggests Washington, D.C. chef Spike Mendelsohn, who plans to open a steak frites restaurant called Bearnaise this summer. Wrap thin slices of the steak and pickled red onions inside a soft corn taco and serve with warm bearnaise sauce for dipping.

"I love the idea of eating a steak without sharpening my knives," Mendelsohn said via email.

INDIAN-INSPIRED TACOS, TWO WAYS

Spices like cumin, coriander and chilies are natural allies in both Mexican and Indian cuisine, says Ali Loukzada, chef at New York's Cafe Serai. So what could be more obvious than a chicken tikka taco drizzled with mint chutney? A palm's worth of shredded cabbage or radish adds crunch.

"When you're adapting Indian flavors to a Mexican dish, the original ingredients and tastes are still present," Loukzada said via email. "It's more of an Indian tweak."

To go completely native, ditch the taco shell for the crisp lentil-and-rice crepe called dosa. "I Indianize our taco fillings at home all the time," Rohini Dey, owner of Vermillion restaurant in New York and Chicago, writes in an email.

At her restaurants, Dey offers a dosa-taco bar, where Latin fillings such as anchovies, avocado, chorizo and Michoacan beef are offered alongside the spiced potato stuffing traditionally used in dosa.

Chutneys of mint, coconut and tamarind — typical Mexican as well as Indian flavors — line the toppings bar.

"By confining the chili to the chutneys instead of the filling, it's easy for the family to tailor to each person's spice tolerance," Dey writes.

Indian Taco

1 pound ground chuck or sirloin

Taco seasoning

1 cup refried beans

3 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon powdered milk

1 tablespoon lard or margarine

1 1/2 cups warm water

Vegetable oil

Brown the beef in sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add taco seasoning, to taste. Add refried beans. Mix well and set aside.

For the frybread — a.k.a., the shell — mix flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and powdered milk. Add lard or margarine and mix. Add water to make dough soft. Refrigerate until use. Dough will keep several days.

In a heavy skillet, heat 3/4-inch of oil to 375 degrees.

Pat or roll out dough into about 6 (1/4- to 3/8-inch thick) rounds. Slide into hot oil. Puncture once or twice. Fry until golden brown. Flip the dough over and fry other side to golden brown. Take out and drain on paper towels.

Spoon some meat onto hot bread and top such items as cheese, tomatoes, onions, green chiles, olives, salsa or sour cream.

— Food Network

PIG-IN-A-TACO

Stick a pork tenderloin in the slow cooker until it practically melts, suggests Marie Simmons, author of the new cookbook, "Taste of Honey." Shred the meat, then toss it with a sweet-spicy barbecue sauce made by simmering honey, chipotle peppers packed in adobo sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, cumin, chili powder, garlic and a swig of cider vinegar for about 10 minutes, or until thick.

"I just love the deep, spicy taste of sticky glazed pork," Simmons writes in an email. Top the taco with avocado, thinly sliced radishes and a shredded jicama-and-carrot slaw dressed with chopped cilantro and lime juice.

CALIFORNIA VEGETARIAN TACOS

No taco lineup is complete without a recipe from California, the entry point of so much of the country's Mexican culture.

Santa Barbara-based food and garden blogger Valerie Rice (Eat Drink Garden) uses lentils as the base for her taco, simmering them with tomato, garlic, red pepper, and a dash each of cumin and smoked paprika. The lentils get packaged in a soft corn tortilla and topped with items such as roasted tomatillo salsa and guacamole.

"My first go-round with these I wasn't sure how it would go over with my meat-loving husband and sometimes picky daughters," Rice wrote in an email. "But they were a total hit and now are part of our dinnertime rotation."

Staff writers Clint Cooper, Barry Courter and Susan Pierce contributed to this story. The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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