Build a bet­ter taco

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By NICK KINDELSPERGER

Up your taco game with these tips – be­cause all we want is to eat bet­ter tacos more often, right?

AROUND age 25, I re­alised I loved tacos more than any other food. I’d like to be­lieve that the in­nate glory of the taco re­vealed it­self to me, and 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 strict def­i­ni­tion: A taco is a tor­tilla with fill­ing and 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. Eat them im­me­di­ately. Tacos taste bet­ter stand­ing up. I don’t know why.

Don’t let in­flex­i­ble ideas of authen­tic­ity get in the way of de­li­cious­ness. So let’s break this down:


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 pales in com­par­i­son to the su­pe­rior flavour and fra­grance they lend to each bite. I use corn tor­tillas 99% 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. If fresh corn tor­tillas are in your area, buy them the same day you plan to use them.

One of the main rea­sons I live in Chicago is the con­cen­tra­tion of qual­ity tor­tilla fac­to­ries. ( I am only partly jok­ing.)

Warm fresh corn tor­tillas un­til soft, sup­ple and fra­grant. Place 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 for 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.


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 use braised beef shoul­der. Heck, you can eat tongue, in­testines, brains and all kinds of other fun parts of the cow. And that’s just one kind of an­i­mal!

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 out 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 is al­most al­ways a ter­ri­ble idea.


Salsa isn’t op­tional. Salsa sep­a­rates tacos from wraps and other tepid creations. Salsa re­quires chillies. Chillies bring ex­cite­ment and vi­brancy to our dull, drab lives.

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

The broiler and blender are your best salsa friends. If you want to go hard­core au­then­tic, you could toast all the in­gre­di­ents on a co­mal and then grind them by hand us­ing a stone mol­ca­jete. Or you could repli- cate 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. Hot sauce is dif­fer­ent from salsa. Its main pur­pose is to add a fi­nal flash of in­tense heat, which is quite con­ve­nient if you’re serv­ing tacos to a group of peo­ple with vary­ing lev­els of spice tol­er­ance.

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 cheese.

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

Chopped white onions and co­rian­der are great top­pings 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. – Chicago Tri­bune/ Tri­bune News Ser­vice


450g Yukon Gold or lo­cal pota­toes, peeled and cut into cubes 1 tsp salt 12 corn tor­tillas, store- bought 1 cup veg­etable oil roasted tomatillo salsa, see recipe 1/ 2 head red cab­bage, thinly sliced 1/ 2 cup queso fresco or pa­neer or feta 3 limes, quar­tered Bring a saucepan of water to boil. 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.


225g tomatil­los ( or green toma­toes), husked, rinsed 1 to 2 ser­rano ( or green) chillies 2 cloves gar­lic, un­peeled 1/ 2 tsp salt 1 hand­ful fresh co­rian­der, chopped 1/ 2 white onion, chopped Place tomatil­los, ser­ra­nos and gar­lic cloves on a foil- lined bak­ing sheet. Cover gar­lic with another layer of foil. Place un­der a hot grill or the top deck of the oven set to the hottest set­ting 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 sea­son with more salt if nec­es­sary.

Trans­fer to a bowl; stir in co­rian­der and onion.


225g fresh chorizo 1 large white onion, sliced 450g zuc­chini, ends trimmed, thinly sliced cross­wise 2 cloves gar­lic, minced 1/ 2 tsp ground cin­na­mon 1/ 2 tsp ground cumin salt and pep­per to taste 1/ 2 cup sliv­ered al­monds 12 corn tor­tillas, store- bought 1 cup fresh co­rian­der, 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 off, 5- 10 sec­onds. Flip and warm un­til very soft, another 10 sec­onds. Wrap in a towel and re­peat with re­main­ing tor­tillas.

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

To build that taco, start with fill­ing, then salsa, then finishing top­pings, such as the co­rian­der and sliv­ered al­monds in this zuc­chini, chorizo and al­mond taco. — Photos: Chicago Tri­bune/ Tri­bune News Ser­vice

You can’t have a great taco with a ter­ri­ble tor­tilla. Although flour tor­tillas are more sturdy than corn, the su­pe­rior flavour and fra­grance of corn tor­tillas means you should choose them most of the time.

Fried potato- filled tacos topped with fresh cab­bage, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa.

Roasted tomatillo salsa has a re­fresh­ing acid­ity and is flavour­ful.

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