When I was a kid, my parents tortured my brothers and me with Taco Casserole, a conveniently prepackaged concoction you purchased for about $2.13, brought home, and mixed its five separate packages with ground beef to make what passed in my house for dinner.
You wonder I learned to cook.
When we did have the real deal, my dad, handicapped by the dancing vision of easy, boxed food slapped the contents of a seasoning pack onto some hamburger, loaded the greasy stuff into crunchy taco shells, added plenty of orange looking cheddar and rang the dinner bell. Occasionally we had chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes—what amounted to white guy’s tacos.
When I got older, and imagined that every little thing I did was so much better, I rebelled by making “fancy” tacos using taco seasoning-seasoned (I cannot lie!) chicken and mango salsa made with chopped tomatoes, scallions and lime in fried blue corn tortillas, and thought I’d delivered myself from another Americanized ethnic food (like spaghetti and meatballs). What did I know?
Lately, thanks to a lot of hot weather (the perfect climate for tacos) and a boyfriend who has, among other things, turned me onto some good Mexican food and is the perfect dining companion, I’ve been eating a more authentic form of taco at some local eateries like El Tejado in Denver and Centro in Boulder. On all accounts, I’m in love.
So much so, I’ve been inspired to play Make It if You Can, a game where I try to approximate my favorite restaurant recipes at home using only my palate and my wits in the kitchen.
|The tacos at Centro
I started with Centro(for the record, one of the best Happy Hours in foodie/food-inflated Boulder). For $3 you can get a shrimp, veg, pork barbacoa or chicken pibil taco, served atop two small white corn tortillas. Order three tacos, suck down two beers for another 6 bucks, and you’ve got dinner. I decided to make my favorite shrimp tacos with “garlic mojo” and “jalapeno aioli” for Greg one Friday night. Even though he’d eaten and loved the same tacos, he was skeptical: “Shrimp?” he said, looking at me a bit like I was the slave girl to his Spanish Conquistador and I’d announce I’d made quiche for the celebration dinner after the big battle. Honestly, I think he was just jonesing for something meatier. I plied him with beer, the second best thing, and got to work.
The shrimp at Centro are kind of buttery, so I sautéed a pound of peeled medium shrimp (tails removed) in about 2 tbsp butter with 3 cloves of minced garlic and plenty of kosher sea salt. I set these aside and wiped out the pan out. Into it went a bit of oil for the white corn tortillas, and then the tortillas, themselves, one by one. I let the oil sort of kiss each side and then drained the tortillas on paper towels.
I did the next step last, but you could do it first and you’d be eating by now. Newly in love with the “healthy alternative” of Greek Yogurt, I mixed about half a cup of the plain stuff (I use low or no fat to make myself feel even more like the poster child for good eating) with 1 tbsp chopped cilantro and the juice of one lime. In place of the jalapeno, I added tabasco and probably took the edge off the lime with a drop or two of agave. Add more garlic if you like—oh and a pinch of salt.
Last, I chopped half a head of small green cabbage into fine ribbons and grated some Cojita Greg had picked out at the store.
I assembled the tacos in this order on the tortilla: shrimp, cabbage, squeeze of lime, yogurt mixture and (optional) cheese. Fresh corn would also be a lovely addition here, and fresh cilantro.
To get the full Centro experience, Greg and I ate the tacos on the deck, under an umbrella, while we sipped Corona and lime. Perfect!
Make It if You Can Score (on a scale of 1-10): Solid 9.
|Try this place on South B!roadway
More recently, Greg and I had a date night at El Tejado in Denver. The temperature in Denver was well into the 90s, a good time to stay on the mountain, but I’m in love and I was craving Tacos de Carne de Adovada, three pork tacos served with a slice of avocado and the best tomatillo salsa I’ve ever had.
Dreaming of these tacos the other day, I picked up a pack of cubed pork (from the loin) and in the kitchen, sautéed it in olive oil with 2-3 cloves minced garlic. Once it began to brown, I opened the cupboard of the house where I was staying (yes, dear reader, I was unprepared) and sprinkled in a mystical combination of Mexican chile (lots), ground cumin (a bit), chopped cilantro (medium amount), red flaked pepper (to your heat level), some kind of gourmet seasoned salt that said it was good for rubs, and salt and pepper. I let the meat brown and a kind of seasoning paste form over it, careful not to let it burn, and then I deglazed with the juice of one lime. To this I added a can of chopped “fire roasted” stewed toms and let the whole thing simmer, covered, for an hour. Once the meat was tender, I took the lid to let the mixture reduce to a paste-like consistency.
Meanwhile, I chopped half a head of cabbage (same as above) and made the same yogurt “sour cream,” only I added garlic.
Once the meat was done, I assembled the tacos in this order: pork, a bit of fresh lime, cabbage, crema, and sliced avocado. I didn’t use cheese, but feel free to grate some Cojita.
Make It if You Can Score: 8 (While the tacos were very good (maybe 8.5), I did not even attempt the salsa (6)—a bit lame of me—but I did make everything on the fly and with stuff from someone else’s cupboard!)
The moral of this tale is this: Be brave in the kitchen. Don’t worry about a recipe. Just taste the food on your plate. And then have a lot of fun figuring out how to make it!