American Classics VIII: Tacos Transcript

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Earl of Sandwich

    Welcome, American cooks. As you no doubt deduce from the Star Spangled Banner behind me, you have stumbled upon another episode of a series within a series that we call, American Classics. The drum behind me has been filled to bursting with the names not only of edible Americana we have let slide, but also the names of dishes from other cultures we have mangled or misadjusted in that viro-mechanical ??? way that only America can.
    Now today's long suffering victual is ... My, what a fascinating fate the drum has foretold: the taco. A dish, which for better or worse, has been fully assimilated in to the collective American meal menagerie. An odd choice? Heck, no. I mean, I for one have always wanted a Taco truck. You know, so I could cruise around the neighborhood selling tacos. I mean, I'm not a Mexican chef. I don't even know that much about Mexican food. I'm the American mutt. That means I've got sandwiches in my blood. Well heck yeah, the taco's a sandwich.

EARL OF SANDWICH: [enters eating a sandwich]

    I mean, consider the classic sandwich paradigm, you know, as was supposedly invented by the Earl of Sandwich, right? In England of all places. I mean, it's just two massive slabs of bread shoved full of meat. It's structurally unsound as it is nutritionally unbalanced.

EoS: [slaps AB at the insult] Hmm! [exits]

    Anyway, I say it's only right that we examine the taco through the red, white and blue lens of ...

[Good Eats theme]

The Kitchen

    Most folks that make their home north of the Rio Grande are not aware of the fact that there are many classic taco forms; all of which fall into two categories, alright? There's the breakfast or dinner tacos. There's no such thing as a lunch taco. Alright. South of the border you find many variations tacos al pastor, or shepherd's style taco. Which oddly enough has it's origins in the shawarma [a sandwich-like wrap] of Lebanon. Odd. Thin pork-steaks typically are wrapped around a spit and fire roasted. Vegetables in that as well, like potatoes.
    With got some beef, barbacoa, here, tacos. We've got slow-roasted beef there. Carnitas, same thing, except with pork. Lengua. This is interesting. Lengua as a language as in ... [points to tongue]. Very tasty. And one of my personal favorite, chiccarone, or crispy pork skin. Mmm. These are all lovely.
    But today, we are going to concentrate on two classics that have endured great suffering at the hands of gringos like me: tacos de piscados, fish tacos, and a version of tacos dorados, or fried golden tacos which came out of New Mexico in the late 40's and whose fate was sadly sealed by Juvenico Maldonado. The New York restaurateur who on June 21, 1947 filed for patent protection for his new invention. Nah, I don't mean this [taco shell]. The hand-fried tortilla taco shell had been around for decades. But rather this [holds up a schematic of] a fried taco-shelled mold. Although I feel certain Mr. Maldonado meant no harm, patent number 2,506,305 and its decedents would, in mere decades, doom the American hard taco to the lowly fate of the drive through burger. Luckily we can, and will, take matters into our own hands.

[PDF of the drawing AB held up and the rest of the patent]

    [at the fridge] Begin with 12 top quality corn tortillas in the 6 to 7 inch range. Now if you want to make your own from either store bought corn dough, or masa, or a dry masa mix, then my compliments to the chef. But you might want to take a look around your general vicinity and see if there's a small tortilla factory. You'd be surprised how many there are out there. And they're usually more than happy to sell tortillas right out the front door. And of course, that's supporting local industry; and that's always good eats. 12 (6) Inch Corn Tortillas

    Now I may not be Juvenico Maldonado, but I still need a shell mold here. So I take some heavy duty aluminum foil and just start rolling it out and folding it over in 10 inch increments until you have four thicknesses of foil. There. Then just tear off the foil. I like to use a metal ruler for it. Makes it a little cleaner. Fold the bottom towards the top like you're making an aluminum foil book, turn 90° and crimp the top and bottom edges by about an inch of fold-over there. And then also the sides. But you don't have to crimp those over hard. You can leave them stick out a bit. The just use either the foil roll or a narrow rolling pin to mold this into a tube shape. But make sure that it can stand up [on end] like that. There

    Now, heat three quarters of a cup of peanut oil in a 12 inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. It's going to take about 5 minutes. I like to use this infrared thermometer to keep an eye on things. ¾ Cup Peanut Oil

    The rest of the hardware: you're going to need two sets of spring loaded tongs and a cooling rack on a pan over some newspaper to catch the oil. Kosher salt standing by. Good.
    When the oil is at the appropriate temperature, ... [tests] and let's see. Well that's certainly close enough. I'm going to turn the heat just a little.
    Now take your first tortilla, mold it around your form and then hold it in place with your tongs lightly. You don't want to crush the tube. Hold that straight down into the oil for 20 seconds. Then, turn over onto one side and cook for 30 seconds. Flip and cook for another 30 seconds. I know that's a lot of counting but it's easy when you get in the rhythm of it. There. Then drain off as much oil as possible and invert onto your cooling rack like this [still on the aluminum form]. That needs to cool down for, guess what, 30 seconds. At that point, you can slide the tortilla right off. There.

    I like to sprinkle my shells with a little kosher salt while each one is still hot. Alright, if you wait until all 12 are done, most of them will be cool and the salt will just bounce right off. Kosher Salt to Taste

    So, now we repeat 11 more times. Of course, if you made yourself two molds, this would go twice as fast.

    Now, when you're done, drain off all the fat and return two tablespoons, that's 1 ounce, to skillet and place that over medium heat. 2 Tbs. Peanut Oil
    As soon as it shimmers, you can bring on 1 medium chopped onion and cook that for 3 to 4 minutes or until it's just brown around the edges. 1 Medium Onion, Chopped

In early Spanish dictionaries the term taco was defined as
either a ramrod, a billiard cue, or a gulp of wine.

The Kitchen

    Alright, our onions are done. So two cloves of garlic finely chopped join the party along with a tsp. of kosher salt and the meat. And I have here, 1 pound of good, old fashioned, ground sirloin. There. 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1 Pound Ground Sirloin



    Please note, I did not say hamburger. Which can come from any beef primal or trimmings and may have fat to it, up to 30% of it's total weight. Nor, did I say ground meat. Which, depending on how it's labeled, may only differ from hamburger in the fact that fat can not be added to get it up to 30%. Which isn't to say it wasn't already at 30% fat. HAMBURGER
    I did not say ground chuck which contains an awful lot of connective tissue. Nor did I say ground round which is typically dry and mealy when cooked. GROUND CHUCK
    What I said was ground sirloin. Perfect mixture of beef goodness and moisture which comes from ... [whistles and a model cow rolls in] ... right here: in between the rather dry round and juicy, but expensive, short loin.

AB: Good girl. [pats cow on rump]
COW: Mooo. [exits]


    Now, if your Megamart does not have ground sirloin already in the case, then simply choose an appropriately sized steak or roast and ask your butcher to grind it for you. That's why they're here.

AB: Could you?
BUTCHER: I could.
AB: Would you?
BUTCHER: I would.
AB: Will you?
BUTCHER: You got it.


The Kitchen

    [at the stove] So, cook the sirloin for 3 to 4 minutes until deeply browned, stirring occasionally. Tasty. But it's not taco meat until it gets the potion.

    [at the cabinet] By potion I mean the concocted mixture of thickeners and spices that will convert regular ground meat into a flavor fiesta. It took me a few tries, but I think I finally hit pay dirt with Taco Potion number 19.


    Combine in a stylish glass jar 2 tablespoons of chili powder—that's chili with an "I"—one tablespoon of ground cumin, 2 tsp. each cornstarch and kosher salt, one and a half teaspoons of hot, smoked paprika, 1 tsp. ground coriander, and half a teaspoon of cayenne. Bam!
    Jar up. Lid up. Shake up. And taco up.
2 Tbs. Chili Powder
1 Tbs. Ground Cumin
2 tsp. Each Cornstarch +
    Kosher Salt

1½ tsp. Hot Smoked Paprika
1 tsp. Ground Coriander
½ tsp. Cayenne Pepper
    One entire does of the potion goes into our meat mixture. And stir that in to thoroughly combine and distribute the corn starch. Then, two thirds of a cup of good beef broth joins the party. 1 Batch AB's Taco Seasoning
2/3 Cup Beef Broth

    Alright, bring this to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes so that the corn starch has time to gelatinize and thicken slightly. That's going to help hold things together when the taco is loaded. There. That's about as thick as I want it to get. And it'll thicken a little more as it cools down.
    If you want to hold the meat for service—say, on your sweet taco truck—a slow cooker set to low will certainly do the trick.
    Now when it comes to building, lettuce and tomatoes are certainly the traditionally accepted toppings. But you know what, I roll simple. So I'm just going to add a little meat to my shell, a few pickled jalapenos for spice and a little cheese. [record scratches, the music stops] What's this? Cheddar! We don't need no stinkin' cheddar! Cheddar's English. That means that sandwich guy's around here someplace.

EoS: [hops around in the background]
AB: [not seeing EoS, in no particular direction] Curse you, Earl of Sandwich! Oooo!

    The way I look at it, if you're going to assimilate a culture, you should at least eat their cheese.
    [at the fridge] Mexican quesos can be filed into one of four categories: fresh, melting cheeses, aged and creams. Now most folks here in the US are familiar with the fresh quesos: queso fresca and queso blanco. But, my preferred crumbling cheese for tacos is panela, alright? And it's easily identified by its outer relief. A shout out—or a shout back—to its origins as a Greek basket cheese. Now this is a cow's milk cheese. And the reason I like it on tacos is that unless you hit it with a flame thrower, it absolutely, positively will not melt.
    [back at the taco truck, placing panela on the taco] There. That's more like it. Now, one taco can not make up for decades of fast food mediocrity. But it's a start. And now, for something completely different.

    Ensenada, Mexico has been the culinary epicenter of the fish taco world since the turn of the century. But in the early 80's, it headed north and annexed San Diego, California where it currently serves as that city's unofficially official dish. Now, as Mexican restaurants around the county have fought to make tacos de pescado their own, terrible mutations have been designed. Listen to this one. {reads from a menu] "Deep fried salmon, jalapeno slaw, sour cream on soft corn tortilla with caper salsa." Well if you ask me, 'one' word of that description sounds right: soft. But, we can repair the damage. But first, we're going to have to make some tortillas.

    Take 9 ounces of all purpose flour by weight—it's about 2 cups—for a spin along with a teaspoon of kosher salt. And then pulse in a third of a cup of lard. [the music rises] What? ["we" try to escape out the back door, AB enters it magically stopping us.] 9 Ounces All-Purpose Flour
1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/3 Cup Lard

    Where you going? Look, I realize that in modern American vernacular the word "lard" is often followed by "bottom" or worse. But the truth is, lard is almost certainly better for you than you think. I mean consider this, alright? Butter, 60% saturated fat. Lard, 40%. Butter, only 23% monounsaturated fat—that's the good stuff. Lard, 45%. And as for the dreaded transfat, yes, some commercial lards are slightly hydrogenated. That is, they have hydrogen added to them for shelf stability. But the good stuff like this [lard] which I rendered myself from the lushes lovely fat of a Tamworth pig, is completely free of transfats. Another reason for using lard in any form and tortillas is that it is absolutely authentic. And that is good enough for me.

The first visual record of the taco was a photo from the 1920's showing a woman selling tacos de canasta or "tacos from a basket".

The Kitchen

    Alright, break you lard into chunks and the pulse 10 to 15 times until you've got something that looks like course crumbs, just like a pie dough. Then, go ahead and let the machine run while you drizzle in half a cup of cool water. Now just spin that until a kind of a big sticky mass comes together ... just like that. Good. ½ Cup Cool Water
    Then, dust your work counter with a quarter cup of all purpose, dump on the dough, and knead it for about a minute, allowing the dough to take in all of the flour that it wants. Don't try to force it all, or the dough may get hard and that won't be good. This looks just right. ¼ Cup All-Purpose Flour

    Cover with plastic wrap and park at room temp for at least an hour.


BLACK SEA BASS     $ 9.75 lb
BLUEFISH LARGE     $ 2.99 lb
CATFISH            $ 3.99 lb
COD FILLET         $10.99 lb
FLOUNDER MEDIUM    $ 6.99 lb
HALIBUT ALASKAN    $18.75 lb
RED SNAPPER        $ 5.99 lb
SWORDFISH          $12.99 lb
RAINBOW TROUT      $ 4.99 lb
TILAPIA            $ 4.99 lb
CALAMARI FROZEN    $ 3.99 lb
CLAMS              $ 4.99 lb
KING CRAB FROZEN   $16.99 lb
LOBSTER TAIL       $35.99 lb
MUSSEL CULTURED    $ 3.55 lb
OCTOPUS FROZEN     $ 3.99 lb
OYSTERS            $ 4.99 lb
SEA SCALLOPS       $ 5.99 lb
SHRIMP LARGE       $ 8.99 lb
SHRIMP JUMBO       $10.99 lb

    An authentic Baja Fish Taco is composed of bits and pieces of whatever fish are being pulled from the coastal waters off Baja at any given day. But really, any light fleshed thin critter will do, such as members of the snapper family: cod, bass, wahoo, mackerel even, or my personal favorite, tilapia. Which is actually a fresh water fish of African extraction. Which means it's about as inauthentic to tacos as you can get. But I like tilapia because it is cheap, easy to work with, a nice size and it's considered sustainable due to its ability to thrive in the aquacultural environment on vegetarian feed. Now, it's mild flavor does garner sneers from some fish snobs who say it tastes like chicken. I'm not sure being dubbed chicken of the sea is all together a bad thing since we're to heavily marinate it anyway. So, I'm going to take a pound of fillets ...

BUTCHER: [walks in behind him] Mr. Brown, we've been through this before. The [fish] counter is not self-service okay?

    Busted, like Benjamin Bunny. [exits]

BUTCHER: Coat! [thrown back in his face]

The Kitchen

    Tilapia is a fine fish, but a little on the mild side for me. So now let us concoct some flavor augmentation. Break out either a mini-food processor. Or if your large food processor came with a smaller inset work bowl, go with that.

    Now load in three cloves of garlic, about a cup of packed cilantro leaves, the zest of two lemons, two teaspoons of cumin, let's say a teaspoon and a half of kosher salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper. And I'm going to give that about 20 pulses because we want it chucky, not completely smooth. 3 Cloves Garlic
1 Cup Packed Cilantro
Zest From 2 Limes
2 tsp. Ground Cumin
1½ tsp. Kosher Salt
1 tsp. Freshly Ground Black
    Then, pulse in 2 ouncesthat's a quarter of a cup—of tequila. I keep a reposado version in the bar at all times and that's what I suggest you use here as well. ¼ Cup Tequila
    Now when it comes to marinating, you could do this in a baking dish but I like a big zip-top bag. Just place the fish inside, dunk in the tasty green goo, seal the bag and kind of, you know, mix things up just to make sure you've got good coverage. There. I'm just going to roll that up and let that sit for 15 to 20 minutes. There. 1 Pound Tilapia Fillets

    Now as for the tortillas, we need to break this [dough ball] down into 8 pieces, roughly. And I think it's a lot easier if you kind of roll it into a log. It's kind of fun. There. Just split that in half, line it up, split in half and repeat until you've got 8 balls. And they don't have to be perfect. There.
    Now to roll each one, kind of form it into a ball and then mash it out flat into a disk, just by hand. Then you're going to have to use some kind of rolling device: a rolling pin or 1 inch dowel from the hardwood store will be fine. I think this one [he's using] started as a broom handle, actually. And I'm looking to bring that to about 7 inches in diameter. A little more, a little less will be okay. Then stack them up in a tea towel as you go. That'll keep them separated. We don't want them to stick together. There.
    Now once you've got everything rolled out, time to cook. I like just an electric grill for this, somewhere between 350 and 375 [degrees]. It doesn't really matter, anywhere in that range. And you do not need to add any fat to that, okay, especially if it's a non-stick griddle. Because there's plenty of fat already in the tortillas. I'll let them cook about 4 minutes per side. They are going to blister some. That's fine. Don't worry about it. That'll collapse when we flip them. When you've got a little brown, roll them over and cook for another few minutes or until they look like they are equally done.
    Now I like to keep an electric heating pad on medium covered with just a barely damp tea towel for storage as I go. That'll keep them nice and moist. Because they will get crunchy if you let them sit around at room temp too long. There. That looks perfect. Now keep those covered.

    Flour tortillas freeze well, too. Just grill them, cool them, and place a piece of parchment between each, and seal in a freezer bag. An air tight seal is critical because lard is mostly unsaturated fat and is therefore like Velcro for stinkyness and flavors that might be floating around [in the freezer] down there.

According to Mayan legend, tortillas were invented
by a peasant for his hungry king in ancient times.

The Kitchen

    Now the griddle is still at 375 which is perfect for the fish. So I'm just going to lube that up with a tablespoon of olive oil—that'll enhance the browning—and just lay on the fish. They're going to cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until the surface looks, well, just like that: golden brown and delicious. Flip the pieces and cook another 3 to 4 minutes. 1 Tbs. Olive Oil
    And in the mean time, let's contemplate my secret sauce. The gooey contents of this humble squeezer may appear to be sour cream, but it's not. It's crema, a slightly fermented version of cream: a kin to crème fraiche, only with a punch. Where do you buy it? You don't. You make it.


    Just place a cup of heavy cream in a glass jar and microwave it until it hits under a 100 degrees. Anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on your microwave. When you are certain of your thermal destination, as I am, add one tablespoon of buttermilk, okay? Then apply the lid and give it a good shake before parking it in a warm spot for 1 to 2 days. After that time, don't be shocked to see this. It'll be curdled almost like yogurt. That's good. 1 Cup Heavy Cream
1 Tbs. Buttermilk
    Now add one chipotle chile, the kind that are packed in adobo sauce, a quarter teaspoon of kosher salt, and then hit it with your stick blender. Process until the consistency of heavy cream and chill. As a finishing touch, irreplaceable. 1 Chipotle Chile in Adobo
¼ tsp. Kosher Salt

    [back at the griddle] Now when you remove the tilapia, don't be shocked if it falls apart a little. That's just the way that tilapia is. Looks good.

    [at the counter] And now we assemble taco number 2, alright? Flour tortilla. A little squirt of crema; that is glue to hold the fish on. Which you can see I have cut into strips. After that, we'll put on a little bit of cabbage, which is nice. And some lime juice for acidity. And, of course, a little more crema. That's going to be it. I'm a simple man with simple tastes. And I don't like my tacos piled up like somebody, you know, dropped a salad bar out of the sky. Flour Tortilla
Red Cabbage
Lime Juice

    Well, I hope that we've inspired you to take tacos into your own hands. Not only are they versatile, fun, nutritious and delicious, they can beat the bread off of any sandwich I know.

AB: [to EoS] Here you go, fancy pants. Why don't you try a real sandwich. Ha, ha, ha.
EoS: [exits, but slaps AB with his glove on the way out]

    Like so many other dishes that we hold near and dear, from chicken and dumplings to hot dogs to apple pie, the taco may have been born into a very different culture, but don't think for a moment that they don't qualify as good eats.
    Until next time, adios amigos.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 05/01/2011