It took the state-side visit of a British expat living in Brazil to reintroduce us to the magic of taco night. And for those of you who may not have followed all that, let me do a little ‘splaining.
Taco night, as I mentioned in a previous chiles rellenos post, was a big hit in my house growing up. I loved the “do it yourself” approach to the meal, choosing toppings from the center of the overloaded table to pile on to corn tortillas that were stacked, steaming, between paper napkins. It was almost a game, seeing who would get the last tortilla. I always hoped there was just one more, hiding in the folds of the toweling…and sometimes, miraculously, there was.
Once I was introduced to more authentic Mexican — which differs from the Mexican-American dishes I knew growing up — taco night took a backseat to more elaborate regional dishes (those chiles relleno being one). And since I was never a fan of fast food Mexican, that was hardly a temptation. But it’s hard to deny the taco.
It was a welcome walk down memory lane, then, when a British friend and his family arrived in the Philly suburbs last summer — from their home-country of Brazil, by way of a vacation in Maine — inviting us to a memorable pool-side dinner at his in-laws. Tacos were on the menu, served just the way I remembered, accompanied by big bowls of seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, grated cheddar cheese and sour cream. A couple of glasses of wine, the kids running around in their bathing suits, fireflies (or were they mosquitos?) buzzing around the patio, a cake and an impromptu round of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate a family milestone…it was an evening touched by more than a little magic. Magic and tacos, and they quickly became one of our girls’ favorite dishes.
I’ve since learned that tacos are a reasonably recent addition to the culinary timeline which have, in a short couple of centuries, evolved quite a bit. Historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher, interviewed by Katy June Friesen in Where Did the Taco Come From? on Smithsonian.com, believes that Mexican silver miners invented the taco in the 18th century, naming them after the “tacos” of paper wrapped around gunpowder used in the mines. An early street food, tacos migrated into the US in the early 20th century, adapting to incorporate more commercially-produced and available ingredients like ground beef, iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese. At the same time in Mexico, immigrants from other countries were influencing the evolution of the Mexican taco by stuffing them with different meats and dressing them with things like pineapple relish.
This cross-culturalism continues, which makes it somehow fitting that, having loved the Mexican-American taco of the mid-20th century when I was younger, it would take a Brazilian Brit vacationing in the Northeast to reintroduce me to an old favorite and remind my family how much fun it is to riff off the tortilla and the many ingredients that can be rolled into it.
Taco night is something that many of you have likely introduced to your dinner table, either in the familiar Mexican-American form, or with improvisations of your own. In addition to being crowd pleasers, tacos are quick and easy and need little more than some long-grain rice or a tropical fruit salad to make a full meal. If there is any sort of a trick to making a good taco, it is to work in several complementary textures (like creamy, crisp, firm, and chewy) while layering flavors that range from mild to tangy to bold.
The version we most recently made is more of a modern take on the taco, piling on sweet shrimp, grated cheese, an avocado-and-tomato guacamole, some shredded bibb lettuce and a tangy, crisp cucumber-cilantro relish punctuated with lime juice. If you’re looking for someplace to start when breaking away from the familiar ground beef version, try these. The kids lined up in the kitchen to help make them. There are lots of little steps with which they can help, from mashing avocados for the guacamole to chopping the cucumbers (something for the older Sprouts to do) to pouring toppings into bowls.
Finished in a couple of quick bites, you’ll be licking your fingers and building another before you know it, hoping beyond hope that there is just one more tortilla, draining in the folds of the napkins, waiting to be discovered.
Shrimp Tacos with Guacamole and Cucumber-Cilantro Relish
1 30-count package soft corn tortillas
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese (or plain cheddar cheese)
1 1/2 pounds medium (41/50) shrimp, steamed, peeled and chilled (you can cheat by buying pre-cooked shrimp at the seafood counter, or you can steam, peel and chill your own)
2 cups shredded bibb or iceberg lettuce
1 cup fresh guacamole
1 small seedless cucumber, diced into 1/4-inch dice
3 tablespoons finely-diced fresh cilantro leaves
Juice from 1 lime
A pinch of Kosher salt
Lime wedges for serving
Hot sauce, passed separately for serving (we’re really liking Frank’s Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce these days)
Begin by filling a medium dutch oven or deep-sided sauté pan with enough vegetable oil to reach a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
Meanwhile, prepare bowls with the taco toppings: shredded cheese in one bowl, shrimp in another bowl, shredded lettuce in a third bowl, guacamole in a fourth bowl.
Make the cucumber-cilantro relish in a fifth bowl by combining the diced cucumber, cilantro leaves, and lime juice with a pinch of Kosher salt. Stir well and allow flavors to marry while you fry the corn tortillas.
When the oil is hot, add the tortillas one at a time and fry briefly for 5 – 10 seconds per side. The tortillas may puff up slightly as they fry. Remove the tortillas to a plate lined with napkins or paper towels. Repeat with remaining tortillas, stacking them between layers of clean napkins or paper towels to drain. It probably goes without saying, but cook only as many tortillas as you think you need — our family of four gets several meals out of a 30-count tortilla package. If you need to hold the hot tortillas for serving (up to 30 minutes), place them, still in napkins, in an oven pre-heated to the lowest temperature you can: 150 degrees F to 200 degrees F.
When ready to assemble — you can do this for your diners, or have them do it themselves at the table for the true “do-it-yourself” experience — take one warm taco, sprinkle with some shredded cheese, line two to three shrimp down the center, and top with a tablespoon of guacamole, some shredded lettuce, and a generous spoonful of the cucumber-cilantro relish. Pass lime wedges and hot sauce on the side.
Good served with hot long-grain rice or fresh-cut fruit (pineapples, mangos, etc.)
Serves: 8 – 10
Kid rating: five stars, though those stars are completely dependent on what goes in each taco. Daughter 1 forgoes the shrimp in favor of cheese (lots and lots of cheese), guacamole, and lettuce. Daughter 2 likes cheese, shrimp, guacamole, and a little cucumber-cilantro relish. Just a little, and PLEASE don’t tell her about the cilantro, either, or she may shy away from that too! Made to their liking, our girls will eat several of these in a sitting.
Parent rating: four stars. These are super easy and come together very quickly. The most time-consuming part of the process is frying the tortillas, and getting to the table while there are still some hot tortillas to be had. Most adults I know will want a little extra spice: you can do that with some hot sauce, or by adding about 1/2 teaspoon of diced jalapeño into the cucumber-lime relish. Or, open up a jar of pickled jalapeños and have at it!