When it's taco night, the cook can relax. It's easy enough to sauté chicken strips, ground beef, pork or fish — or buy all the ingredients already cooked at the supermarket — and add a handful of shredded lettuce and cheese, and a tablespoon or two of salsa for a quick and easy dinner.
Or, you can jazz up that humble Mexican street food with a variety of more interesting ingredients, and you can have taco night several times a week. A new taco cookbook can help.
"While eating tacos and other Mexican foods has become part of our everyday life, cooking Mexican food has not yet," said Shelley Wiseman, above, author of Just Tacos (Taunton, $19.95). Her book concentrates on classic Mexican tacos, some with strong regional identities and many from the cosmopolitan melting pot of Mexico City, where she lived for many years.
Wiseman is a former Gourmet food editor and co-author of The Mexican Gourmet.
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"Essentially anything can be enclosed in a tortilla," Wiseman said.
Just Tacos has many fillings that sound exotic but are easy to make. Wiseman elevates ground beef and chicken with bold mole and poblano sauces, or adobo marinades. Beef chuck is slow-cooked in spices and a touch of Mexican chocolate for chili con carne tacos, which, Wiseman says, are served far more often in Mexico than ground-beef tacos.
No matter what type of filling you choose, you begin with a tortilla. Tortillas are available in ready-to-serve packages, but the taste doesn't compare to that of freshly made corn or flour tortillas, Wiseman said, and she gives detailed instructions in her book on how to make them.
Energetic cooks can make their own, but let's leave tortilla making to the professionals and spend our time creating interesting fillings.
Here are three recipes from Wiseman's book that will help make taco night more adventurous.
Tacos with pork in green sauce
11/2 pounds tomatillos (15 to 18) husked and rinsed
2 serrano or jalapeño peppers, stemmed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
3 allspice berries
1 whole clove
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
11/2 teaspoons salt, divided
3 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a 3-quart saucepan, cover tomatillos and peppers with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer vegetables uncovered, turning occasionally, until tomatillos are tender and khaki-green all over but still intact, about 15 minutes. Reserve the cooking liquid.
Heat cumin, allspice berries and clove in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring the spices until they are fragrant and cumin seeds are a few shades darker, about 1 minute.
Put spices in a blender with 1 cup of the tomatillo cooking water, and blend until spices are ground. Using a slotted spoon, gently lift tomatillos and chilies out of the remaining cooking water and put them in blender along with garlic, cilantro and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth.
Pat pork dry, and season with remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Heat oil in a wide, heavy 4- to 5-quart pot over medium-high heat, and brown pork in batches without crowding, turning occasionally, about 8 minutes a batch.
Return all the meat to the pan and add tomatillo sauce. Bring to a simmer, stirring to coat meat, then reduce heat. Simmer pork, covered, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and sauce is thickened, 11/2 to 2 hours. If necessary, continue to cook uncovered to thicken sauce. Shred meat with two forks.
Make tacos with the accompaniments: warm corn tortillas, Mexican crema or sour cream, chopped white onion, chopped cilantro.
Chorizo and potato tacos
1 pound boiling potatoes
1 pound Mexican or Spanish chorizo
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Warm corn tortillas
Fresh tomato salsa
Peel potatoes and cut into ½ inch dice. Cook in a saucepan of boiling salted water until potatoes are just cooked through and still hold their shape, about 5 minutes. Drain. Remove casings from chorizo and crumble (the Mexican) or finely chop (the Spanish). Cook meat in a large skillet (adding a teaspoon of oil if using Spanish chorizo) over medium heat, stirring for 5 minutes. Add potato and oregano, and cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Make tacos with potatoes and chorizo topped with a favorite guacamole and tomato salsa.
Makes 4 cups filling, enough for 12 to 15 tacos.
Asian tuna tacos
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon prepared wasabi or 2 tablespoons powdered wasabi mixed with 1 teaspoon water
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons lime juice
½ teaspoon sugar
1 pound tuna steaks, about 1-inch thick
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unhulled sesame seeds
3 tablespoons mild olive oil
Radish sprouts or chopped cilantro
For the mayonnaise: Stir together mayo, wasabi, soy sauce, lime juice and sugar. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
For the tuna: Pat the fish dry with paper towels, and season with salt. Put sesame seeds on a plate and press both flat sides of tuna steaks onto the seeds to coat.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add oil and swirl the pan to distribute, then add tuna steaks, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan, and sear for about 2 minutes on each side, until just the outside ¼ inch is cooked but the center is translucent.
Transfer steaks to cutting board and slice. Make tacos with the tuna, mayonnaise, tortillas, scallions, radish sprouts or cilantro, and sliced avocado.
If you absolutely don't have time to cook, Kraft has a new item, Fresh Take, that's a blend of cheeses and seasoned bread crumbs, and its test kitchen staff created this fish taco recipe that's ready in about 20 minutes.
1 package (6 ounces) Fresh Take chili lime and panko recipes cheese bread crumb mix
6 fresh tilapia fillets (11/2 pounds)
2 cups shredded purple cabbage
½ cup pineapple salsa (see note)
12 corn tortillas (6 inch), warmed
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray baking sheet with cooking spray. Combine Fresh Take ingredients according to package directions. Moisten fish with water; place in cheese mixture bag, 1 piece at a time. Lightly press cheese mixture onto both sides of fish. (Fish will not be completely coated.) Place on prepared baking sheet; top with remaining cheese mixture.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with fork. Meanwhile, combine cabbage and salsa. Cut fish fillets in half; place on tortillas. Top with cabbage mixture.
Makes 6 servings.
Note: Any fruit salsa may be used.