[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
This recipe came about because my brother-in-law has a wandering eye. He developed an interest in cooking and started watching shows and flipping through cookbooks. He gets a channel called Tastemade that I don’t get. Cable, Satellite, and fitty-leven different internet tv services have made every house like a hotel room where you have to figure out what channel number channel thirteen is on and “Hey. They got Jeopardy at four-thirty here.” Pati Jinich’s Pati’s Mexican Table airs on Tastemade and I think he likes her. “Likes” likes. He gave me her cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table, for Christmas and though I haven’t seen the show yet I will agree that she looks cute in the picture on the cover.
I can’t credit Jinich with this recipe because I haven’t had time to do a dive into the book yet. I’ve read the introduction and flipped through looking at pictures and saying things like “Ooh. Pollo a la naranja y chile verde,” (translates as “Kuku wa machungwa na chili ya kijani) out loud to my wife but I can see that I need a trip to the Mexican market before trying any of the dishes. We’re decently stocked for Latin cooking but it looks like Pati’s asking more of my larder than it’s prepared to give right now. I have all the basics for Italian, French, and some regional Mexican cuisines, but she wants me to have a variety of dried chilis that aren’t from Calabria among other things. The book sparked an immediate craving for authentic looking tacos.
I’m no expert on Mexican Cuisine so this is just what I’ve gleaned from observation, but authentic tacos differ from growing up tacos in the following ways: a) They rarely have cheese on them and when they do it’s stuff that looks like feta but isn’t, b) the tortillas are generally corn and have alluring char spots on them, c) they don’t look anything like that emoji, d) offal isn’t, e) they don’t swim in orange grease, f) often when dairy is used it’s got herbs in it, and g) at least one vegetable should be raw. We figured we could make something meeting those criteria with what was at hand except the bit about offal, which wasn’t.
I’ve never been south of our border but I have had tacos in Austin, LA, Albuquerque, and a few other towns that have a degree of local pride locked up in their Mexican fare. I loved what I had at those places but when I think about the best tacos I’ve ever had they’re all local.
There’s a taco truck in name only. It looks like a truck and probably has all the requisite truck parts to qualify but it’s been in the same Texaco parking lot on the west side of Birmingham for at least fifteen years. I doubt it still runs. They have an al pastor with raw onion and cilantro that I go for nearly every time. Though there are a row of sauces in varying shades of red, orange, and green. I always pick up the hottest one just to hear the cashier warn “Amigo. Usually just for Mexicans. Muy caliente.” I’m a sucker for a well delivered spiel. It was cool to be a customer in the early days before word spread. We had secret knowledge.
In the late 90s I was friends with this guy named Francisco whose English was as awful as my Spanish. Who knows what we were saying to each other but we both liked soccer and beer so we got along really well. He was a big Cruz Azul fan and they were in the title game so he invited me to watch with him. He led me to this walk up taqueria and through the Employees Only door, through the kitchen and into a 2nd grade classroom sized room complete with blue-green grade school wall to wall carpeting. We sat on the floor with thirty or so others and watched the game while a waitress made rounds handing out heavily spiced chopped beef tacos with sauteed onion and raw jalapeno and Mexican Coca-Cola that made my teeth hurt.
One of my son’s classmates had his tenth or eleventh birthday party in his family’s back yard. His parents built a fire and set a huge concave pan, at least three feet in diameter, above it. In the middle they sizzled pork, pineapples, chilis, onions, and garlic with all manner of herbs and spices and warmed tortillas around the edges. There were help-yourself tongs laid out by the plates and napkins.
A couple showed up every week at the Catholic youth league soccer games with a pop-up pavilion, a grill, and a bunch of coolers and made tacos they sold for two dollars each. They had a fold out table with a toppings bar: onions, cilantro, radishes, citrus, peppers, and sauces. The players weren’t into it all that much, but the parents were ecstatic when our kids’ team was scheduled for the taco “stand’s” usual field. It was like we won the lottery except we paid and didn’t get any money back.
My favorite tacos come tied to memories of place. According to The Secret Language of Birthdays, people born on September 25th like me, Luke Skywalker, William Faulkner, and Superman are privately harsh judges of our communities but ardent defenders against outside criticism. I like Birmingham. That may prejudice any discernment I’d be capable of otherwise. Or maybe it just happens that the best tacos are in discrete parts of my town. Not likely. Not impossible though.
Hopefully, Treasures of the Mexican Table will reveal its secrets and soon my own table will reek of authentic Mexican goodness. But we had a craving that, as I mentioned, was immediate. We combined what we knew from previous forays into no-Ortega taco making and surveyed the contents of our fridge and pantry. We used soy sauce so we could call it a fusion dish without blushing. That relieved most of the burden of cultural adherence. This wasn’t exactly throwing darts with a blindfold on. We cook all the time and are comfortable with flavor combinations but had no idea if this would come together. What we got was pretty damn fantastic. Also, and this is key, it looked authentic.
Inauthentic Steak Tacos
quantities tbd by the taste of the taco maker
- flank steak
- soy sauce
- sliced red onion
- sliced radishes
- let’s just say sliced cabbage for now and I’ll explain in a sec
- light taco sauce for dressing
- minced garlic
- chopped cilantro
- plain yogurt
- corn tortillas
- a selection of favorite chili sauces
Marinate the flank in the soy, submerged just over halfway, for 15 minutes and them flip and marinate for 15 minutes more. I always poke my steak with a fork a bunch before marinating because my mom did. She thought it helped infuse the meat with the flavors of the marinade. I don’t think it works but I do it because… well, Mom did. Suit yourself.
Broil the meat for 4 – 5 minutes a side and let rest for 5 more minutes. After resting cut into the middle to be sure it’s a proper medium rare or whatever temperature you were aiming for. The key to great flank steak, and I may upset some beef lovers when I say that when done properly it outshines most glamour cuts, is to slice very thinly against the grain. Any toughness associated with the cut are banished and you are left with tender, flavorful meat.
Pour a little olive oil to a sauté pan and add the sliced onion with a small pinch of salt. You don’t have to caramelize them. Just stir a bit until they turn translucent and get soft. Remove and put in a bowl for serving. Slice the radishes and put them in a bowl too.
We like to put sliced raw cabbage tossed in a small amount of cheap taco sauce (Taco Bell Hot Sauce is great for this) to add a little flavor but mostly for the crunch. When making these we had a bag of sliced cabbage in the fridge but we didn’t look at it very closely. Turns out it had been in the fridge longer than we thought and some ickiness was afoot. My wife sliced some Brussels sprouts to use in its stead. It worked. Never in my life did I think I’d be advising people to put raw (or cooked for that matter) Brussels into a taco, but we did and in the future we will, so slice some of those, toss with taco sauce, and put in a serving bowl.
I’ve started using yogurt in place of sour cream or crème fraîche (which I rarely use in recipes I plan on writing up because the accent marks that don’t auto-populate are a pain) when I’m making an herbed or otherwise flavored dairy condiment. I don’t do it for health reasons or anything like that. I think yogurt’s less assertive and lets garlic or herbs or whatever you add take center stage. We stirred garlic and cilantro into ours and set it aside in a bowl, which looked great in a ready for company spread, but dairy sticks to the spoon and as you try to put some on it plays havoc with presentation of assembled dishes like tacos. Where you want a delicate line or dollop you get a big white smear that dragged all the onion toward one end.
It’s easy to put the yogurt, sour cream, or annoyingly accented stuff in a zip loc and cut off the tip of one corner of the bag. It looks terrible on the for company spread, but so much better on your taco.
Warm the tortillas quickly in a no stick skillet over medium to high heat and you are ready to plate.
Don’t forget to set out a few chili sauces on the table. Santa left me these in my stocking and I need to write him to find out where he got them. Really good stuff.
I hope you enjoy the inauthentic authentic looking steak tacos as much as we did. Maybe I’ll put up an authentic authentic looking steak tacos post after I’ve had some time with the brother in-law siren chef’s book.