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Wednesday, July 26, 2006


The Taco Joint in Your Kitchen

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.

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.)

Machine or no, a good taco starts with a good tortilla.

Your best bet is not the supermarket but a Mexican grocery store, or if you’re lucky, a bakery. In any case, it should be fresh and have that particular flinty aroma that all corn-lime products have.

One common approach, starting with ground meat and “taco seasoning mix,” is a bad idea. Just think about a taco as having a number of components, and take it from there. My favorite, easy to find at taco trucks in Los Angeles or small shops in Mexico, is difficult to make at home. This is the taco al pastor, closer to what we think of as a gyro, with shaved spit-roasted pork or goat. (This was probably introduced by the Spaniards or, even more likely, the Lebanese, who emigrated to Mexico in significant enough numbers beginning in the late 19th century so that there are Lebanese neighborhoods in most major cities.) It doesn’t really contain anything more than that meat and perhaps a little salsa, and often, a bit of grilled pineapple on top.

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.

Taco Technique, Bottom to Top

TACO building is a free-form exercise; what follows isn’t meant to be some unvarying procedure but simply my own preference.

Briefly warm the tortilla on both sides in a dry pan. It will take on just a little color.

Then, be sure not to overload. If you put too much in there, the stuff will fall right out. Start with the protein, not only because it’s the foundation but because as the heaviest component it belongs at the bottom; no more than one-third cup or so for an average four- or five-inch taco. I like to put the crunchy stuff, like lettuce, on next, for contrast; a small handful, as much as you can grab with your fingers, not your fist. Then the spoonable ingredients, or the sprinkles: salsa or crema, guacamole or crumbled cheese — whatever you like, but we’re only talking a tablespoon or two here.

At this point you have less than a cup of stuff in your tortilla, which is about all it can handle.

Like pizza, pasta or dumplings, the filling is the flavor and the starch the real substance. You’re supposed to eat a few of these, and if they fall apart in the process, don’t worry about it. Use the tortilla to pick up whatever fell out.

Recipe: Slow-Roasted Pork for Tacos

Time: at least 2½ hours, longer if you have time

10 cloves garlic, peeled
2 pounds pork shoulder, preferably boneless and in one piece
½ teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (or use dried Mexican oregano)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.

1. Sliver 4 cloves of the garlic and use a thin-bladed knife to poke holes all over the pork; insert garlic slivers in holes.

2. Combine the peppercorns, oregano, cumin, cinnamon and coriander in a small skillet and turn the heat to medium. Toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Combine the toasted spices, salt and remaining garlic in the container of a small food processor or blender. Turn on the machine and gradually add the orange and lemon juice until you have a smooth purée. Rub all over the pork; let the pork sit at room temperature for up to 2 hours or in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

4. At least 2 hours before you plan to eat, turn the oven to 300 degrees or prepare a charcoal or gas grill to cook over low indirect heat. Put the pork in a roasting pan in the oven or directly on the grill rack; if you’re grilling, cover the grill. Cook, checking occasionally and basting with the pan juices if you’re roasting (add water to bottom of pan if mixture dries out), until pork is brown and very, very tender, at least 2 hours. Shred or slice pork and use hot or at room temperature (pork can be refrigerated for up to 2 days).

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe: Grilled Carne Asada for Tacos

Time: about 45 minutes

1 clove garlic
2 pounds skirt steak
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground oregano
½teaspoon cayenne
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1. Start a charcoal or gas grill. Crush garlic and rub steak with it. Combine remaining ingredients and rub into steak. Let steak sit until you’re ready to grill.

2. Grill steak 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Cut into slices and use as soon as possible (hot is best, but warm or room temperature is fine).

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe: Shredded Chicken for Tacos

Time: about 1 hour

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
1 large white onion, peeled and quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 ancho or other mild dried chili, optional
Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and add water to cover. Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, and skim any foam that comes to the surface. Partially cover and adjust heat so mixture simmers steadily. Cook until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from liquid and cool.

2. Shred meat with fingers. Taste and adjust seasonings; use within a couple of days.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe: Salsa Fresca

Time: 10 minutes

2 large fresh ripe tomatoes, chopped
½ large white onion, peeled and minced
¼ teaspoon minced raw garlic, or to taste
1 habanero or jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced, or to taste
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or 1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper.

1. Combine all ingredients, taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

2. Let the flavors marry for 15 minutes or so before serving, but serve within a couple of hours.

Yield: about 2 cups.


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