A Short Technical Treatise on The Taco
A Part of My Forthcoming 10,000 page tome
An Encyclopedia of TacosI hate to cook all the time. I love Mexican food. I hate to eat out. I love tacos. I’m lazy. And the only taco stand in all of Los Angeles worth mentioning is Clarita’s Tacos D.F.. She makes great Mexican food, but she hardly serves tacos or burritos. More like pambazos and huaraches. You can’t get those in the rest of the US. If I make a bizillion dollars, I’m going to franchise Clarita’s all over the US.
Chicken or beef tacos? Well that’s a no-brainer. If I wanted beef tacos, I would buy some top sirloin, chop it up and make tacos.
Dear Reader, I’ll tell you my secret recipe for chicken tacos, and then you’ll probably tell a pal. This is a way of making food that makes both taco meat and some chicken stock. That way, you get double your money’s worth. Now, if you are like me, you wait for chicken to come down in price at the market, then freeze it until you are good and ready to make stock. I can sometimes find chicken QUARTERS at the market in 10 pound bags for 39¢ (2008 prices)a pound, frozen. A quarter is a leg and a thigh. Once I’m in the mood I’ll separate the legs and thighs, saving the thighs for palliards of thigh, or a supreme of chicken.
Let’s get a leg up. Take the thighs and pull off the skin. I save the skin and render the chicken fat for cooking potatoes, but you can waste your money and throw it out. If you want to freeze the skins and render the fat later on, sprinkle a little salt on the skins, throw them in a plastic bag and shove them in the freezer.
Put the thighs in a stock pot. An four quart stock pot would be ideal. Cover the meat with water by about 2 inches. Hey! Did you remember to run the tap water for 10 seconds before filling the pot? If you didn’t do so next time. Next add one tablespoon of salt to the water. Put a lid on the pot and turn the flame up to high. Remove the lid in 15 minutes, lower the flame to medium and when the liquid just starts to bubble, change the heat to low. Once the legs start to simmer, set a kitchen timer to 30 minutes. Or look at your wristwatch, noting the time. Or watch a Seinfeld episode. Allow the meat to simmer slowly, then turn off the flame and let the pot cool to room temperature, or overnight. If you are going to finish the work the next day, let the pot cool two hours, and put it in the fridge. Once the pot is cool, remove the legs, with a tongs to a plate. Use the broth for making your next batch of stock. As you make more stock, add a little more water to keep the level of the liquid about 2 inches over the meat, at the beginning of each batch. Freeze the liquid in the meanwhile. Don’t freeze it in glass containers. Or, if you want to use the stock for soup, keep it cold in the fridge, but faithfully bring it to a boil every three days, or it will go bad.
Using your hands, twist the leg bone and remove it. Find another bone with a sharp point (not it’s not sharp enough to cut you) in the meat. Pull it out. If there is any gristle or bone left at the fat end, remove it. What is left is meat. Two legs worth of meat per person will make enough for four tacos. Usually enough for a meal when served with frijoles refritos and some rice or a salad or both. Freeze what you won’t use immediately. I usually cook for two, so I freeze four legs in one plastic bag. When you are ready to make your chicken tacos, chop the meat, throw it in a bowl and add minced garlic, chopped onion, salt and pepper, oregano and enough olive oil to make the meat glisten. Allow the bowl of chicken to marinate like this for 30 minutes before you start cooking. You must use the olive oil to re-moisten the chicken meat. Especially if it has been previously frozen. If you like, marinate the chicken, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use. Sauté the meat in a hot skillet. Better still, if you have the time, chop an onion (yep, a whole onion) and brown it in olive oil, over low heat., before adding the chicken meat. This onion-browning step should take about 20 minutes. Otherwise your heat’s too high. When the onions are brown, add the meat, raise the heat, and using tongs or the back of a wooden spoon, put the meat down to fill the skillet. After five minutes, turn some of the meat over, it should have browned. If it hasn’t let it go another minute or two. Turn the meat several times like this, until the browned bits show all over. Serve with beans and salad.
TREATISE TACOS FOR TWO
Chicken legs – two per person cooked
1 x 15 ounce can frijoles refritos I actually find that Taco Bell has an excellent flavored bean (I hate to say this as they will probably get a swelled head at corporate and beseech me to forever mention them again here in this column, which won’t happen, but don’t tell them that I told you that.)
A head of lettuce
1 bunch of cilantro
1 white onion
1 or 2 jalapeño chiles
1 small lemon or lime
a pinch of salt
corn tortillas (or if you are a gringo, flour tortillas)
When you get home, if the cilantro is wet, dry it in paper towels. Or better still, stick the stems in a jar of water, and put in the in ‘fridge overnight to dry. If you make salsa with wet cilantro, it’s makes a mess, is extra work, and the like.
Now, here I differ from most folks, I pull the cilantro leaves off the stems and when I have a cup of them, I chop them up for the salsa. Salsa, like salad dressings must be made ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld. Chop the cilantro, put it in your salsa bowl. Peel and dice the onion and toss the onion and cilantro together before adding the more moist ingredients. Cut the tomatoes in quarters, over a sieve. Using your tomato shark, or the tip of a paring knife, remove the seeds and the yellowish-green goo into the sieve. Toss the tomato pieces the cutting board. Using a wooden spoon, lightly rub the goo, in the sieve over the salsa bowl. Cut the lemon or lime in half. Save half to serve cut in wedges with the tacos, if you like. Use the other part of the lemon to “rinse” the goo from the sieve. Chop the tomatoes into dice. Add them to the salsa bowl. Mince the jalapeños, discarding the seeds. I like use pickled jalapeños, but to each his own. Sprinkle a little salt and lemon juice over the salsa, and set it aside for at least 30 minutes before serving it. Yes, you can taste it a little while you prepare the rest of the meal, but don’t write to me about this column saying I gave you license to eat it all before dinner.
The chicken tacos will take anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes to cook, so start heating the beans about 5 minutes after you start cooing the tacos meat. During the last 7 minutes, heat a large skillet (also known: as a non-stick frying pan) and if you have some bacon drippings at a piece of fat the size of a small chicken egg. Pre-heat the oven to the lowest possible setting. The tortillas will rest here while the rare ones are being warmed up. Once the bacon dripping is melted, heat one tortilla at a time, spinning it around in the pan so that the fat coats it thoroughly. Usually no kitchen stove and skillet (or non-stick frying pan), are completely level. The bacon dripping will gather at one side of the pan. Put the tortilla into about ¾” of the fat, pull it away and turn it around in the skillet to heat through. When it is hot and moist all the way through, repeat the steps on the other side. Then put the tortilla on a plate in the pre-warmed oven. I do all the foregoing with my hands, except for the moving the tortilla into the oven, where I must use tongs, because the tortillas are too hot to touch. Try not to scratch your non-stick pan.
Check your chicken. Stir the beans, they should be bubbling. Finish the tortillas. I plate this dish up by serving the tortillas stacked up, usually four high. Then the meat goes on top of the stack. The beans and salad are served on the side, along with a lemon wedge and Cholula Hot Sauce. Cholula is a small village in the State of Jalisco, Mexico. There are 365 churches in Cholula. Some day I’m going to make a pilgrimage there and see if I can find the mother of this sauce. It’s about the best flavored hot sauce commercially available. Far more flavor than Tabasco. Yea, it’s not as hot, but that’s not what I want in a picante sauce.
A brief dilation of the subject of the tortilla. A real tortilla is not made with flour or for those who are already shuddering at reading this: wheat flour. The Mexicans had no wheat, only corn. It is true that during the first two years I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico that you could not purchase good tasting corn tortillas. They had fine tasting flour tortillas. It took a friend, Leo Nunez, to fly them in from Los Angeles everyday to introduce New Mexicans to good tasting tortillas. A while after that and some enterprising soul in El Paso started bring them up the 375 miles to Albuquerque, every day. In Mexico you can see tortillas that are a golden-yellow color. I had some of those at a roadside diner outside of Ensenada, Baja California. That place was still there the last time I drove down from LA a few years back. It’s on the Old Highway out of Tijuana, on the right as you drive towards Ensenada, about 40 kilometers outside of town. A caveat about tortillas in Mexico: in the southern states, they don’t grow corn, only wheat. Or more precisely, they grow less corn than wheat. The supermercados will have excellent flour tortillas, but not so good corn tortillas. You are warned!
A Dinner at El Zaghuan
When I tell my friends that I had been to a great “upscale” restaurant in TJ (Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico) they all snicker! They have all been to the tourist district, near 3rd Aveneida and Revolucion. They have eaten at Iguanas y Ranas (Iguanas and Frogs), maybe even ventured a Caesar Salad at the Hotel Caesar along Revolucion. Some cookbook authors say the Caesar Salad was invented here in TJ. I have seen conflicting reports . . . more of this in another column. A strolling Mariachi band does go into the Caesar Hotel and they have the lovely rustic character I find so beautiful in all of Mexico. At El Zaghuan, I had lunch one day. It was a salad of Mexican queso ranchero, basil leaves in a chipotle vinaigrette dressing. Chipotle chiles are jalapeños that are smoked over oak wood until they turn brown and shrivel up. Because they are dried they hot stuff is much concentrated. They smell heavenly! I once met a produce guy at his shop, just as he had unloaded about a fifty pound box of chipotles off his stake-bed truck. Man! The fragrance was extraordinary. I bought ½ a pound and sent a few to some friends. They called me when they got them and asked for a pounds worth. That’s a lot of smoked chiles, because once they are dried they only weigh 1/3 of an ounce, each. My friend put 2 or 3 of them in a bottle of vodka she uses to make bloody Marys. You can do the same. The Mexicans also smoke a Chile Serrano, which, is called a Morita, “a little Moor”. They are even hotter than the Chipotles, and their flavor is just as good.