Food & Drink | May 2020

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Choose Your Own Taco Adventure

Pictured: Photo by Sophie Tankersley

Is there any ingredient that can’t be put on a taco?

Not really, according to Jose R. Ralat, and he should know. He’s the taco editor of Texas Monthly magazine, and the author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide,” released last month by the University of Texas Press.

About the only thing Ralat wouldn’t eat on a taco would be Brussels sprouts, but that’s just because he’s not a fan, and even then he won’t say definitively that they should be avoided.

“It really just depends on what’s available in the market and what the people want and whether that ingredient makes sense within the areas or regions or food traditions, because that’s what the taco is,” he said in a recent Zoom interview from his Dallas home. “So I don’t like Brussels sprouts, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be in a taco, but I don’t like them in a taco.”

Ralat spent years researching, and that’s reflected in the 17 pages of notes and suggested further reading in the back of his 280-page book. And he
devoted almost as much time to getting what he called his dream job at Texas Monthly.

“I fought for a long time, four years as matter of fact, from the time that I pitched it until I got it,” he said. “I had a lot to prove. And as far as I’m concerned, I still have a lot to prove, because there’s a lot out there. There are a lot of stories that have yet to be told. And I feel as though I can’t tell them fast enough, because I don’t want this knowledge lost. There is a lot of knowledge and there’s a lot of stories of these people who make the food that deserve to be chronicled, not only to humanize people who are often scapegoated, but because these are tremendous stories. And as a journalist, I live for that.”

Each of the eight chapters of the book is devoted to a different variety of taco. The first chapter, for example, is all about the breakfast taco. Other
chapters delve into golden, crunchy tacos — which are the oldest example of tacos north of the Rio Grande, he argues — tacos with a Korean influence, kosher tacos, modern “chef-driven” tacos and others. “American Tacos” is not a cookbook; there are no recipes. Each chapter ends with a list of restaurants, food trucks and taquerias across the country where that particular style of taco can be found.

While eating tacos is just a small part of his job — the research and writing take up most of his time — Ralat will eat tacos when he’s off the clock. But when he’s not on the road, when he’s at home in Dallas with his wife, Jessica, and their son, Diego, he’ll also eat at home quite a bit.

“I eat whatever my wife makes,” he said. “If she is kind enough to cook, which she does almost every night of the week, I should respect that and eat it.”

For this month’s recipes, we riff on one of our favorites, the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, and turn it into a taco. And we also have a recipe for a crunchy taco, as well as a couple of dessert recipes that were inspired by some we found in Fany Gerson’s cookbooks “Mexican Ice Cream” and “My Sweet Mexico.”

The Recipes

Banh Mi Taco

1 pound pork tenderloin

For the marinade:

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced lemongrass
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch black pepper

For the sauce:

  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce or Sriracha
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 1/2 cucumber, sliced
  • Pickled carrots (recipe follows)
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced (optional)
  • Cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Tortillas

Thinly slice the pork tenderloin.

In a large resealable plastic bag, add the soy sauce, brown sugar, fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and pepper. Shake gently to mix. Add the sliced pork and seal the bag, making sure each slice is coated with the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, and up to overnight.

To make the sauce, mix together the sour cream, chili sauce and soy sauce in a small bowl. Set aside.

To cook the pork, place a skillet over high heat and allow it to become very, very hot. Add about 2 teaspoons of oil to the pan. Working in batches, add in some of the pork in an even layer, and allow it sear and caramelize for about 1 minute. Turn the slices over and caramelize on the other side as well, for about another minute. Remove from the pan and continue with the rest of the pork.

Heat the tortillas in the microwave or over an open flame on the stovetop. To make the taco, place a few slices of meat in the center of the tortilla. Add avocado, cucumber, pickled carrots and jalapeno. Drizzle with the sour cream sauce and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve while still hot.

Makes 6-8 servings.
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Easy Pickled Carrots

  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Pack carrots into a heatproof 1-pint jar. In a small saucepan, bring vinegar, sugar, salt and 3/4 cup water to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Pour brine over carrots, seal jar and chill until cold.

Makes about 3 cups.­­

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Crunchy Tacos

  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 12 ounces lean ground beef
  • 7 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus more for serving
  • 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Chopped tomato
  • Sour cream
  • Jalapeno slices (fresh jalapeno slices, or pickled or sweet jalapenos, which can be found in most grocery stores)

Place oven rack in the middle position and heat oven to 400 F. In a large bowl, combine water and baking soda. Add beef and mix until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4-6 minutes. Add chili powder, paprika, cumin, garlic powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Stir in tomato paste and cook for about 2 minutes.

Add beef mixture and use a wooden spoon to break the meat pieces until they’re no bigger than 1/4 inch. Cook until the beef is no longer pink, 5-7 minutes. Place the beef mixture in a bowl and add the cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese melts. Wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel.

Brush both sides of the tortillas with 2 tablespoons oil. Arrange tortillas, overlapping, on a rimmed baking sheet in 2 rows of 6 tortillas each. Bake until tortillas are warm and pliable, about 5 minutes. Remove tortillas from oven and lower oven temperature to 200 F.

Place 2 tablespoons beef filling on 1 half of 1 tortilla. Fold and press to close the tortilla. The edge of the tortilla should remain open. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.

Place a wire rack in another rimmed baking sheet and line with a double layer of paper towels. Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in the skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.

Arrange 6 tacos in the skillet with open sides facing away from you. Cook until tacos are crispy and deeply browned on 1 side, 2-3 minutes. Using tongs and a thin spatula, carefully flip the tacos. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until deeply browned on the second side.

Place the tacos on the wire rack. Blot the tops of tacos with paper towels. Place the pan in the oven to keep warm. Cook the remaining tacos. Serve tacos immediately, with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and jalapenos as desired.

Makes about 4 servings.
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Strawberry-Pineapple-Orange Sorbet

  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 1 cup pineapple, diced
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oven to 400 F. Place the quartered strawberries and diced pineapple on a sheet pan and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast for about 10 minutes or until the fruits begin to release their juices and you can begin to smell the fruit cooking.

Transfer the strawberries, pineapple and juice from the pan to a food processor. Add the orange juice, sugar, lime juice and salt, and process until smooth.

Pour the mixture into a glass pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to make the sorbet, freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Scrape into a metal loaf pan and place in the freezer for a few hours, or until it’s firm.

Makes about 1 quart.
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Cinnamon Ears

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon or freshly ground canela
  • 1 package frozen puff pastry

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle about 1/4 cup of the mixture on your work surface. Roll out the puff pastry in a rectangle about 10 inches by 12 inches and sprinkle another 1/4 cup of the mixture on top.

Using a sharp knife, very lightly mark the center of the rectangle.

Roll one of the long sides of the pastry toward the center, as tightly as possible. Repeat with the other side until the rolled sides touch in the middle. Press lightly so they stick together. Refrigerate or freeze for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Dip each slice into the remaining sugar mixture and place on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between slices.

Bake until golden brown, then turn over the pastries and bake for a few more minutes so that both sides are nicely caramelized, 12-14 minutes total. Cool on a wire rack and serve with the sorbet.

Makes 3 dozen to 4 dozen cookies.
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