Food & Drink

How to build a better taco

To build that taco, start with filling, then salsa, then toppings, such as the cilantro and slivered almonds in our zucchini, chorizo and almond tacos.
To build that taco, start with filling, then salsa, then toppings, such as the cilantro and slivered almonds in our zucchini, chorizo and almond tacos. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Around age 25, I realized I loved tacos more than any other food. I’d like to believe that the innate glory of the taco revealed itself to me, like some kind of divine tortilla-wrapped vision, and that a couple of trips to Mexico broadened my horizons. But who really knows?

Eight years and a literal thousand nights of tacos later, I’ve come up with some helpful tricks to improve your taco game at home. Because all most people want is to eat better tacos more often, right?

First, a few of my rules:

▪ Tacos equals tortilla + filling + salsa. Any so-called taco missing one of these components is a fraud.

▪ Tacos are temporal. Don’t sit around and idly chat while hot tacos sit in front of you ready to be devoured. Eat them immediately.

▪ Tacos taste better when you eat them standing up. I don’t know why.

▪ Don’t let inflexible ideas of authenticity get in the way of deliciousness.

OK, let’s break this down:

Tortillas

Tortillas are the soul of the taco. You can’t have a great taco with a terrible tortilla.

In a battle of sturdiness, flour tortillas beat corn tortillas every time. Use flour tortillas for larger, messier tacos.

The slight structural deficiency of corn tortillas, however, pales in comparison to their superior flavor and fragrance. I use corn tortillas 99 percent of the time.

Corn tortillas are simple to make at home, but frustratingly hard to master. Feel no shame in purchasing top-quality corn tortillas for most of your taco needs. Buy them the same day you plan to use them, preferably from a tortilleria where they are made fresh.

Warm corn tortillas until they’re soft, supple and fragrant: Place your tortillas in a heavy skillet set over medium-high until you notice steam wafting off. Flip and wait until you spot steam again. At this point, the tortilla should be very soft. If not, continue heating a few more seconds. Wrap warmed tortillas in a towel when done, and let them hang out for a few minutes to further steam.

Heating tortillas on top of the grate over an open flame of a gas stove is also a great idea.

One tortilla is usually enough. Some saucier taco fillings will soak through one, thus requiring two, but there is nothing automatically better about doubling up. If anything, two tortillas make it harder to appreciate the filling.

Fillings

Free your mind of what constitutes a taco filling.

Veggie tacos are a thing, and they are exceptional. If I can advance one, ahem, opinion here, it is that vegetables make incredible taco fillings.

Great vegetables for tacos: zucchini, mushrooms, kale, squash blossoms, potatoes, Swiss chard, huitlacoche (a prized corn fungus), refried black beans, poblanos, butternut squash and pumpkin.

I love griddled steak tacos, too, but you can braise beef shoulder for barbacoa, or braise chicken in tomatillo salsa.

Chorizo is the bacon of the taco world; it makes everything taste better, but it needs a partner. A taco with only chorizo is like a cake made entirely of frosting.

Grilled fish tacos are almost always mushy. Fried fish tacos are great but messy to make on a weeknight. Don’t forget about shrimp tacos.

Adding rice to tacos is almost always a terrible idea. Save that for burritos.

Salsa

Salsa isn’t optional. Salsa separates tacos from wraps and other tepid creations.

Salsa requires chiles. Chiles bring excitement and vibrancy to our dull, drab lives.

I’ve got nothing against fresh pico de gallo (made with plump summer tomatoes, of course), but roasted tomatillo salsa is what I usually make, because it’s acidic and flavorful, and tomatillos are available year-round (see recipe).

The broiler and blender are your best salsa friends. If you want to go hardcore authentic, toast all the ingredients on a comal and then grind them by hand using a stone molcajete. Or replicate this process in a 10th of the time by broiling the vegetables and then processing them in a blender.

You can combine salsa and the filling into one dish. If you braise chicken and tomatillos together (which you should), there’s no need to waste time making a completely different salsa.

Guacamole counts as a salsa.

Most canned salsas are disappointing. The exception: Rick Bayless’ Frontera brand.

Hot sauce is different from salsa. Its main purpose is to add a final flash of intense heat, which is convenient if you’re serving tacos to a group of people with varying levels of spice tolerance.

Quick and biased hot-sauce preferences: Valencia, Cholula, El Yucateco, Tapatio, Tabasco.

Taco construction

Small tacos are usually better than large tacos. It’s tempting to stuff each tortilla with as much as possible, but always consider proportion. You want to get a bite with all the components, which is hard if you can barely fold the tortilla over the mass of fillings and toppings. Better to make a slim and satisfying taco, and eat more of them.

Additional toppings are completely optional but can separate a good taco from an exceptional one.

Great toppings: pickled red onions, pickled jalapenos, shredded cabbage, radishes, queso fresco.

Boring toppings: lettuce, chopped tomatoes, pre-shredded “Mexican” cheese, canned black olives.

Chopped white onions and cilantro are great but unnecessary if you’ve included both in your salsa.

Other taco thoughts

The problem with the pre-fried U-shaped shells – the kind made famous by Taco Bell and Old El Paso – is that when you bite in, the filling slides out the side too easily. Plus, they are usually structurally unsound, crumbling apart after one bite.

But fried tacos can be amazing. You just need to fry the tortilla with the filling already inside. Try fried potato tacos (see recipe).

Break any of these rules if you want. The goal is not to adhere strictly to these tips but simply to eat more tacos. Experiment. Cook. Repeat.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

8 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed

1 to 2 serrano chiles

2 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped

1/2 white onion, chopped

Place tomatillos, serranos and garlic cloves on a foil-lined baking sheet. Cover garlic with an additional layer of foil. Place under a hot broiler and cook until tomatillos are blackened on top, about 6 minutes. Flip tomatillos and serranos; blacken on the other side, about 5 minutes. Remove baking sheet from oven; allow everything to cool.

Stem serranos and peel garlic. Transfer tomatillos, serranos, garlic and salt to a blender. Process until almost smooth. Taste, and add with more salt if necessary. Transfer to a bowl; stir in cilantro and onion.

Per serving: 9 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 0 g protein, 73 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Yield: About 1 cup.

Fried Potato Tacos

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cubed into 1/2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

12 corn tortillas

1 cup vegetable oil

Roasted tomatillo salsa (see recipe)

1/2 head red cabbage, thinly sliced

1/2 cup queso fresco

3 limes, quartered

Heat a medium saucepan of water over high heat until boiling. Add cubed potatoes; reduce heat to a strong simmer. Cook until tender, 8-10 minutes. Drain potatoes in a colander. Transfer to a bowl, add salt and use a fork to mash until smooth.

Heat a large skillet over medium. Warm the tortillas for a few seconds on each side until pliable. Spoon 2 tablespoons of mashed potato into each tortilla. Fold each tortilla over, pressing firmly to close.

Heat the oil in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many tortillas as will fit in one layer, usually three. Cook until lightly browned on the bottom, 1-2 minutes; flip and brown on the other side, 1-2 minutes. Transfer tacos to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Serve tacos topped with salsa, a handful of sliced cabbage, queso fresco and a wedge of lime.

Per taco: 141 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 3 g protein, 251 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Yield: 12 tacos.

Zucchini, Chorizo and Almond Tacos

8 ounces fresh Mexican chorizo

1 large white onion, sliced

1 pound zucchini, ends trimmed, thinly sliced crosswise

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup slivered almonds

12 corn tortillas

1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

3 limes, quartered

Roasted tomatillo salsa (see recipe)

Add chorizo and onion to a large skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent and chorizo is starting to brown, 8-10 minutes. Add zucchini, garlic, cinnamon and cumin; stir well. Cook, stirring often, until zucchini softens, about 5 minutes. Taste, and season with salt if necessary – usually about 1/2 teaspoon – and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, toast almonds in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, 3-5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add a tortilla; warm until you notice steam rising, 5-10 seconds. Flip and warm until very soft, another 10 seconds. Wrap in a towel and repeat with remaining tortillas.

Spoon some of the filling into the tortilla; top with a sprinkle of almonds, cilantro, a squeeze of lime and roasted tomatillo salsa.

Per serving: 180 calories, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 7 g protein, 440 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Yield: 12 tacos.

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