If forced to name a single perfect food, I would probably choose the taco... but not just any taco.
When it comes to tacos, I'm somewhere between a traditionalist and a purist. I prefer classic tacos, the kind you find at taco trucks and taco carts in both the U.S. and in Mexico. The best consist of soft-as-velvet corn tortillas filled with a bit of succulent meat or fish and topped with minced onion, cilantro and a splash of hot sauce or salsa, with a lime wedge alongside. This is the traditional part.
The purist part comes in my own kitchen, when I sometimes deviate from tradition but still keep things simple, with an emphasis on pure flavors. Exactly what this means varies with the season, of course, but currently I'm enjoying zucchini tacos, with chopped grilled zucchini spiked with garlic, cumin, lemon and cilantro. Soon, I'll be filling white corn tortillas with diced nopales, fresh corn and grilled poblanos.
Sometimes I add avocado, but that's about it. Anything else — grilled scallions, beans, rice, Mexican-style cole slaw — go alongside, not inside.
For taco recipes and other recipes with tortillas from the Seasonal Pantry and Pairing archives, visit Eat This Now at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
These tacos traditionally consist of grilled meat topped with onion, cilantro and either hot sauce or a bit of salsa. In taquerias, a wedge of lime and a couple of radishes are typically served alongside, the lime to squeeze on the taco, the radish to refresh your palate. To use meats other than skirt steak, including my favorite, lengua (tongue), consult the variations that follow the main recipe.
Tacos al Carbon
Makes 8 tacos
1 pound beef skirt steak, cut in 4 pieces
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
8 hand-made or handmade-style corn tortillas
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
— Radishes, cleaned trimmed
— Bottled Mexican hot, such as Tapitio or Cholula brand
3 tablespoons minced white onion
3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped
Make a fire in an outdoor grill or heat a stovetop grill.
Season the meat on both sides with salt and pepper. When the fire is sufficiently hot, grill the meat on one side for 2 minutes, turn and grill 2 minutes more. If the skirt steak is particularly thick, grill a minute or two longer on both sides. The meat should remain rare. Transfer to a work surface.
Heat the tortillas until hot, tender and not at all crisp (see sidebar). Keep hot between the folds of a tea towel.
Working quickly, use a sharp chef's knife and cut the meat into thin strips.
Cut four of the lime wedges in half and put into a small bowl; put the radishes alongside.
Set the hot tortillas on individual plates, allowing 2 per person, set side by side. Divide the meat among the tortillas and squeeze each portion with a bit of lime and a generous splash of hot sauce. Scatter onions and cilantro on top and serve immediately, with the lime wedges and radishes alongside.
lengua (tongue) makes one of the best tacos you'll ever taste. These days, it is available at farmers markets and the very best is lamb's tongue, though goat and beef tongue are quite good, too. To prepare it, simmer the tongue gently in stock or water seasoned with plenty of salt and black pepper until it is very tender, about 45 to 60 minutes for small tongue and up to 3 hours for large beef tongue. Let the cooked tongue cool in the cooking liquid until it is easy to handle but still warm. Transfer the tongue, one at a time, to a clean work surface and peel. Typically, the thick skin will come off easily but sometimes it's troublesome and you'll have to use a sharp knife. Once the tongue has been peeled, cut it into medium chunks. If necessary, heat through before folding into tortillas as described in the main recipe.