Phoenix kitchen from Varenna
In Mexico, taco culture is a way of life. A unifying factor and daily staple for people of all social and economic levels. Mexicans eat them so much and so often that the expression echarse un taco (to grab a taco) is synonymous with the very act of eating. Case in point: the average Mexican consumes 135 pounds of tortillas a year. If and when you find yourself in Mexico (and many regions of the USA), you’ll find taco stands of all description gracing practically every street corner, town square and roadside rabble. These are gathering places: young and old, rich or poor, day or night—it doesn’t matter. Because tacos, chico.
At its most basic level, a taco is some kind of cooked filling lovingly ensconced by a tortilla made of nixtamal (masa dough—another subject for another time). The variety of fillings is dizzying: tacos al pastor (marinated and roasted pork with chunks of charred pineapple), barbacoa (lamb, slow-roasted in a pit or oven), carnitas (pork leg and ribs, braised and later seared), tacos de pescado (beer battered and deep fried white fish) and carne asada (grilled beef) barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. And that doesn’t even begin to include the scope of taco’s cousins enchiladas, gorditas, huaraches, sopes, tostadas, chilaquiles, tamales, et al. Not to mention the innumerable regional varieties, specialties, tweaks and twists. What is an aspiring taco aficionado to do? You could truly spend a lifetime exploring this one simple dish. And what a lifetime it would be.
For those of us who don’t quite have the time or means to perform an exhaustive survey of the Mexican culinary landscape, the good news is you can explore the world of tacos right in your own kitchen. Yes, I realize it is slightly intimidating for us gringos. But seriously, you can do it! A big part of replicating authentic flavors is taking the time and energy to source and purchase the right ingredients. For the recipes below, I look for high quality corn tortillas (muy importante), plump vivid green jalapeno or serrano chiles, fresh leafy cilantro, proper cotija cheese, quality sour cream and packaged goods with legit-sounding names like La Costeña, Herdez or El Pato.
Below are a few introductory recipes which are a great primer for producing authentic Mexican flavours at home with readily available ingredients. They work exceedingly well for a gathering of friends, and embrace the warmer weather and longer days with open arms. The first recipe focuses on simple but exceedingly delicious tender pulled chicken layered with green chiles, excellent on charred tortillas. I’ve included my go-to garnishes to add spice, depth of flavour and textural contrast, but feel free to edit as you wish. Second is a simple riff on guacamole, studded with garlic, cilantro, chiles and a zip of fresh lime juice. Have it out when your guests arrive so they can begin noshing while you prepare the main event. Lastly, a spin on a traditional margarita, substituting mezcal for a smokier, more complex flavour than your standard tequila. Gather your friends and fam, let’s do this.
Green Chile Chicken Tacos (Tacos Chile Verde de Pollo)
Bone-in chicken thighs (x6)
Chicken stock (~1 cup)
Canned diced green chiles (4oz)
Sour cream (or plain greek yogurt)
Fresh limes (both sliced and juiced)
Hot sauce (I really like Chipotle Tabasco)
Salt and pepper
Unwrap your chicken thighs and liberally season with salt and pepper on both sides. Let them hang out for a bit while you crack a Negra Modelo. Take a heavy bottom skillet (cast iron is ideal) and put it over high heat. Add a glug of vegetable oil and let it get hot (you’ll know when you see the oil start to shimmer). Sear the chicken thighs, skin side down, until they get golden and crispy. If you smell them starting to smoke, turn down the heat a bit! Flip them over and hit them on the bone side. Should be about 5-6 minutes per side—make sure they are good and crispy.
2. Deglaze and braise
Remove the thighs onto a plate. Let the pan cool a bit and then pour in some chicken stock (about ¾ cup). Use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits. This is called ‘deglazing the pan’, for those keeping score at home. It will start to look rather delicious as the oil, drippings, crispy skin bits and chicken stock comes together. At this point, add your chicken thighs back to the pan, re-up the chicken stock (if necessary—it should come about ¼ way up the thighs) and cover. Drop your heat down to medium-low. You’ll want it to bubble away softly. You’re gonna let the thighs ride like this for about 90 minutes.
Juicy Salif by Philippe Starck for Alessi
3. Topping prep
Now that your chicken is busy becoming a better version of itself, you’ll want to turn your attention to your other ingredients. I like to get a bunch of small bowls and a squeeze bottle or two and turn my counter-top into a little taco production factory. Your prep list:
Wash and thoroughly dry your cilantro, discard the stems and roughly chop
Crumble the cotija cheese into pleasingly small chunks
Cut a lime or two into small sections
Juice half a lime and stir into your sour cream (adds some zip). You want a more runny consistency. Add some salt to taste
Get some small bowls or ramekins and add your crumbled cheese, chopped cilantro and pickled jalapenos to them
Put your sour cream into one of those super chef-y squeeze bottles. Flank with hot sauce
4. Pulling and shredding
After about 90 minutes (or more), your chicken will be ready to enter the next stage of nirvana. Remove your chicken and place in a bowl. Open your canned, diced green chiles and add them to your remaining chicken stock. Turn the heat back up to medium until it starts to simmer. Stir it a few times and let it reduce while you work your chicken. Take two forks and begin to pull/shred the chicken, removing the bones and cartilage as you go. Once you’re happy with it, add the whole mess of pulled chicken back into the green chile sauce and incorporate. Continue cooking it down for a minute or two until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and add salt if necessary. It should be pretty amazing at this point.
5. Char and assemble
Working in groups, char your tortillas over an open flame on low heat, turning frequently with a pair of good tongs until they puff up and get a bit charred. If you don’t have gas, you can do them on the stove-top in a pan. A little bit of oil or lard wouldn’t offend me. As the tortillas are ready, add (in layers) your chicken, cotija cheese, pickled jalapenos, chopped cilantro, sour cream mixture and hot sauce to complete the taco. Serve one at a time to your hungry guests as you all drink margaritas. If you’re feeling fancy, you can garnish your plates with a swipe of refried black beans. Give the whole thing a shower of chopped cilantro (presentation, maaan). Eat!
Hand Hacked Guacamole
When I make tacos, I’ve learned that it’s always a good move to have some chips and guac hanging around to satiate your guests while you cook and serve up the tacos. It works best in an interactive format, serving your guests a taco at a time while everyone hovers around the kitchen. There are a ton of variations of guacamole, and some people would scoff at adding garlic, but I love this version.
Ripe avocados (6 or more)
Garlic (2-5 cloves, to taste)
Jalapeno or serrano chiles (1-2)
Cilantro (1 bunch)
Salt and pepper
Wash and thoroughly dry your cilantro. Wash your avocados while you’re at it. You never know. Discard the cilantro stems and roughly chop. Take some garlic (I like a lot, maybe 5 or 6 cloves), trim the ends and smash them with the side of your knife. Remove the outer skin and finely dice. Wash, trim, remove the seeds and dice your chile peppers.
Take your paring knife and cut through the skin of each avocado until you hit the pit, then run your knife all the way around. Separate the two halves, grasp the half containing the pit in the palm of your hand and firmly hit the pit with your blade. Think about when you’re chopping kindling and you give it that first knock to get your axe bit situated into the wood. And then be twice as careful as that. If you do it right, you should be able to twist your blade and free the pit without disturbing the pristine flesh of your avocado. Now, carefully use that same paring knife to slice through the flesh (without cutting through the skin) of each half in a cross-hatch pattern. Take a spoon and scoop out the chunks of flesh into a big bowl. Probably the bowl you want to serve it in. Repeat for all your avocados.
3. Season and mash
Add your diced garlic, cilantro and chiles into the bowl with the chunks of avocado. Squeeze in the juice of half a lime. With two forks, begin to mash and incorporate the guacamole mixture until is smooth but still chunky. It’s really personal preference, just make sure everything is evenly incorporated. Gradually add salt, stir and taste as you go, until it is savory but not too salty.
4. Just chill
You’re going to want to let the guac chill out in the fridge for a while while the flavors even out. It really does work. You can help keep it that vibrant green colour by nesting a couple of the leftover pits in it and covering tightly with plastic wrap. When you’re ready to serve, remove the pits and plastic and place alongside a large bowl of the best tortilla chips you can find.
A smokier variation on what is a very traditional margarita recipe. Try and find some fancy salt (ie: pink himalayan) for a nice flourish on the rim of the glass. Serve them in a nice heavy glass that says ‘Arizona: It’s A Dry Heat’ on it.
2oz Mezcal (blanco is good, reposado is great)
1oz Cointreau (or Triple Sec)
2oz Fresh squeezed lime juice
1. Prep your glassware
Take a nice heavy-bottom DOF (Double Old Fashioned) and rub the rim with a lime wedge. Spread your salt on a small plate and press the glass in the salt to lightly coat the rim. Fill the glass with ice and set aside.
Hex Champagne bucket by Tom Dixon
Juice several limes and reserve. Take a large cocktail shaker, fill with ice and measure out the booze required for the number of cocktails you wish to serve. Top with the requisite amount of lime juice and shake vigorously. Distribute into your prepared glassware. Add a wedge of lime to each glass and serve. Get somebody else to clean up, your work is done.