Creating the perfect food: Tacos

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

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.

Carnitas, slow-roasted pork shoulder and Hawaiian kalua pig all make excellent fillings for tacos. Simply shred or chop the meat and continue as directed in the main recipe.

Take 3 or 4 Mexican-style chorizos out of their casings and fry until fully cooked. Poor off excess fat and add 1 large or 2 small baked potatoes grated on the large blade of a box grater. Stir 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro into the chorizo and potato, taste, correct for salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Continue as directed in the main recipe.

Most of us don't typically associate mushrooms - hongos, in Spanish - with Mexican food but mushrooms are as common in Mexico as they are in the United States; farmers markets in certain regions often have dozens of species.

Tacos Hongos

Makes 8 tacos

2 tablespoons mild olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 shallot, minced, or 2 tablespoons minced white onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 chile serrano, seeded and minced

- Kosher salt

1 pound mushrooms of choice (see Note below), cleaned and thinly sliced or broken into small pieces

? cup dry white wine

- Juice of 1 lemon

- Black pepper in a mill

2 tablespoons fresh epazote leaves or cilantro leaves, chopped

8 hand-made or handmade-style corn tortillas

3 tablespoons chopped epazote leaves, cilantro leaves or Italian parsley leaves

4 ounces Cotija or feta cheese, crumbled

Put the olive oil and butter into a medium saute pan set over medium-low heat and when the butter is melted, add the shallot or onion and saute until soft and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and serrano and saute 2 minutes more.

Season with salt, add the mushrooms and toss or stir well. Increase the heat to medium, add the wine and lemon juice, cover the pan and cook until the mushrooms are limp and tender; time will vary based on the type of mushroom.

Uncover and continue to cook until nearly all the pan juices have evaporated. Season with salt and several very generous turns of black pepper. Cover and remove from the heat.

Heat the tortillas until hot, tender and not at all not crisp. (See sidebar.)

Working quickly, set the tortillas on individual plates and spoon mushrooms on top. Add the Mexican spice epazote, cilantro or parsley, top with some of the cheese and serve immediately.

Note: I prefer maitake and oyster mushrooms in these tacos but you can use whatever mushroom you prefer. If you use commercial white, crimini or portobello mushrooms, cut them about 1/4-inch thick and be sure to cook them long enough for them to release their water, which will concentrate their flavors.

Variation: Omit the Cotija cheese and instead cover the surface of each hot tortilla with grated Monterey Jack or a similar cheese before adding the mushrooms.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at

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