Taco Taco


My job has perks from time to time.  They’re hardly conventional: The occasional mandatory wine tasting when we get a new one in stock.  Having no one look askance when I randomly break into song (in fact, some co-workers join in.  Customers, not so much…yet.)  And every once in a while, chain meat.  Yep, chain meat.

We did a class where we prepared filet mignon, but we trimmed the chain meat because it’s too fat marbled to have on a steak.  Mmmm fat marbled.  The chef I was working with was nice enough to let me have the whole thing.  Chain meat is rumored to be the genesis of cheesesteak.  Some people cut it into strips for beef stroganoff.  Adding it to stocks bumps up the flavor. But for me, chain meat means tacos.

Sadly, I don’t own a meat grinder. So… what’s a taco loving girl to do?  Repurpose an existing tool.  My food processor.  One of the chefs at work suggested that I grind the meat after cutting it into chunks and freezing it.  So I cut this bad boy into said chunks and chucked them into the freezer on a sheet pan.

When I put a few of these into my food processor and attempted to pulse, it made the sort of noise that makes nails on a chalkboard sound like wind chimes rustled by the flapping wings of a butterfly.  I physically winced.  I tried one more time.  The choked grinding motor noise it made was the stuff of sputtery nightmares, and I promptly decided that my processor was worth more than some taco meat.

So, what’s a taco loving girl to do?  Wait until the chunks thaw and see if that helps.  It did.  A lot.

Ah.  Sweet, sweet taco meat.  The lesson here is that chefs are not infallible, and naturally, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

Any fatty beef scraps/pork scraps from trimming cuts of meat, I store in the freezer, and when there’s enough, I make my own ground meat.  I know, it is cheap at the store, but if you were just going to throw out your scraps, this is free.

One of the unfortunate parts of my job is that if a class has low enrollment, my shift will often get cancelled.  I’m ambivalent about this.  Yay sanity, boo pocketbook is the long and short of that.  But the Thursday after I had ground my meat (and frozen the ground stuff), my shift got cancelled.  I never have a Thursday night off, so I had completely forgotten that Thursday is Farmer’s Market day in Lincoln Square.  I had just happened to wander that way with my newly found spare time and found also –

Beautiful round ripe summer tomatoes, fiercely green jalapeno peppers, fragrant cilantro, white eggplant (albino eggplant? Intriguing…), and orange summer squash.  Taco night had arrived.

First salsa roja

2-3 roma tomatoes or 1 large tomato, roasted
2-3 tablespoons of cilantro
3 garlic cloves, roasted
1 small onion, roasted
1/2 jalapeno pepper, roasted
Juice of 1/2 a lime
1/2 – 1 tsp salt

This time my tomato was big enough to blacken right on the burner –

The rest of the ingredients (with the exception of the salsa and cilantro) I did on my grill pan jacked up to high in preparation for my veggie salad.

Blend, taste, adjust, done.

Next I made a grilled veggie salad much like my last one, but this time with the orange squash and white eggplant.  The squash and eggplant didn’t taste any different but with finely sliced jalapeno and some cilantro, it sure was good-lookin’.

Grilled Mexican Vegetable Salad

1 white eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
1 large orange squash, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
1/2 jalapeno pepper, grilled then very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons cilantro
Vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and lime juice to taste.

Preheat grill pan on medium. The grill would be even better. A garden variety pan would suffice.

Fill baking pan with veggie oil.  Coat eggplant in oil on each side.  Salt and pepper each side. Jack that grill up to high. Grill. When they are marked, flip them and continue to cook them until tender. Season and grill the zucchini. Once the veggies are cooled, medium dice on everything and mix vegetables, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate for 20 minutes.

After I found the veggies at the farmer’s market, I went to Gene’s to get some other random ingredients, and looked at their tortillas.  $2.49 a package?  Whole wheat tortillas? Really, whole wheat tortillas? Dear Gene’s Sausage Shop, this is crazy talk.   You know I love you, but I’m making my own tortillas.  Here’s how –

Corn Tortillas

1 cup Maseca (corn flour.  Corn meal/starch/polenta can NOT be substituted.)
2/3 cup warm water
1/4 tsp salt
1 tablespoon animal fat (lard if you have it, butter is just fine.)

Whisk the salt in with the corn flour and stir the fat in with the warm water to melt.

Mix for a minute or two. Form into a ball.

I don’t know how to describe the texture.  Moist, but not tacky.  If you’re forming them, and they keep falling apart, add a tablespoon of water and try again.  As with anything, if you make these often enough, you will get to know exactly what you’re looking for texture-wise.

Divide ball into 8 equal-ish balls.  It’s important to roll them into balls instead of lil’ blobs of dough because it helps them keep their shape when you press them.

Line tortilla press with plastic.  This is very important unless you want your tortillas to tear and be full of little silver varnish flakes.  Maybe this is only a problem with the super cheap tortilla presses, but that’s what I have, and it works like a dream.  You could hand-form them if you didn’t have a tortilla press, though hand-formed tend to be pretty thick.  You could also theoretically use a rolling pin. (Philosophical implications of using a theoretical rolling pin not well documented) Seriously, I love my tortilla press, and it gets my tortillas as thin as possible.  I have not found a way to replicate the crazy thinness produced by industrial machines, but I like these better for that.  It feels more authentic.

I use plastic wrap in a pinch.  My chef instructor in Mexican class in school said garbage bags work best.  Ziplocs sliced open at the seams is my compromise to that when I have them around.  I know they’re clean, but… garbage bags?  Um, no.

Cover the rest of the tortilla balls with a towel to prevent them drying out and load one ball on to the press.

Give it a press.

Rotate it by a quarter turn.  Give it another press.

Peel them from plastic.

Toast the tortillas in a dry pan on medium high.  30 – 60 seconds on each side.

That’s it.  They should be soft enough to load up with fillings. I keep mine in one of those plastic tortilla warmers you see in restaurants.

I usually try to avoid gadgets, but I make Mexican food so often, I have an entire section of my pantry labelled Mexico where I keep my press and tortilla warmer and Maseca and bags of dried chiles and platters fashioned to look like ponchos…

When I’m making tortillas, I usually form one, toast it, form the next one while the first one is toasting, move toasted tortilla to the warmer and start toasting/forming the next ones, repeat until done.

The last component was the beauteous chain meat.  I just cooked that in a pan on medium heat with salt, pepper, cumin, and chili powder until cooked through.

Ground Taco Meat

1 lb ground beef
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin or to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Heat pan on medium.  Add meat and seasonings.  Cook until no longer pink in the center, breaking up clumps as it cooks.

That’s it.

I topped mine with the veggie salad and crema and salsa.

Deeeelicious.

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