tacos tacos tacos
December 1, 2017 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I want to make really good tacos at home. Looking for recipes/cookbooks/suggestions, please!

I live in rural New England and we cannot get decent tacos here. I am pregnant and I need tacos. Therefore, I want to be able to make them at home. I know how to make a decent taco but not an awesome one. Can you point me to good recipes, blogs, cookbooks, or just general advice? What are the little things that push a decent taco into awesome? Like, black beans, salsa, cheese, and some veggies makes an okay taco, but it's not in the same league as it could be, and I don't know how to make it better.

More details: We are omnivores, but don't eat much pork. We like beef and chicken and beans, I'm looking for both vegetarian and meat versions. I like fish tacos but am not likely to deep fry fish at home. We have access to great meat, great veggies (but very limited selection, this is New England in the winter), decent corn tortillas made by a local business. I know how to make tortillas at home, but they are never as thin as the professional ones and realistically, we're more likely to use the store-bought ones. We always use home-cooked beans, though. We have a little kid so don't want to do anything too spicy/or spicy needs to be added individually. We don't have a slow cooker and aren't likely to buy one, but are happy to spend a weekend afternoon braising or roasting something.

Thank you!
posted by john_snow to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of the things that I think takes a homemade taco over the top is pickled onions.

PS - congrats!
posted by saladin at 10:08 AM on December 1, 2017 [15 favorites]

How old is the little kid? Can you get away with calling this by its Spanish name and concealing what it is 'til the child's already addicted? Because I don't know if this will yield the lengua that they use at my local tacqueria, but if it's anything even close, these are the best tacos possible. In any case, if there is anything better I don't want to know about it because I'd eat it 'til I went into a coma. Can you get cilantro and Hass avocados?

posted by Don Pepino at 10:13 AM on December 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I cannot vouch for authenticity, but if you want a quick fix for a craving, Rick Bayless's Frontera taco skillet sauces are really delicious, and can be bought online. We used to do the onions first, add beef to brown, set aside a bit of the more well-cooked meat for the kid, then add the sauce and simmer to finish. Now the kid can handle the (mild) spice, and its rich sauce-y weekday/workday tacos for all.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

These Taco Tenders are a small, cheap thing, but they make my own home preparation of tacos so much easier that now I make tacos much more often. Also useful for serving the taco as well.

Also, I can't resist, with a user name like that-- you knew this was coming: You know nothing about tacos, john_snow.
posted by seasparrow at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: Oh, you don't need to deep fry to get good fish tacos.

I combine parts of this recipe and this recipe for delicious, easy fish tacos. For me, the key is the slaw.

Season your fish and bake it or broil it. Crumble it up and add some lime juice. Ok, they're not quite restaurant-style, but they're really easy and fulfill that craving.
posted by hydra77 at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2017

Put some cabbage slaw on top of your fish or chicken tacos.

I upped my home taco game 200% by buying metal taco racks to serve them on.
posted by OrangeVelour at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pati Jinich is a delight to watch, and her Bricklayer-Style Beef Tacos are delicious. She's a Mexican-Jewish chef that specializes in making Mexican homestyle cuisine, and I love her website and nearly all of the taco recipes she's posted (the fish tacos are pretty good, too.)
posted by PearlRose at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: - Homemade taco seasoning! Easy, cheap, and adjustable to your tastes / heat tolerance. You might find the answers to this previous AskMe useful, including my personal recipe.

- If you have a gas stove, use the open burner flame to give corn tortillas a nice char.
posted by fifthpocket at 11:06 AM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: You can do a lot worst than skimming the taco tag at Serious Eats. I made the Chicken Tinga earlier this week and they are delicious.
posted by mmascolino at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Every ingredient must be awesome -- and possibly overseasoned/overwhelming by itself. It's way better to have a few quality ingredients than a bunch of mediocre ones, and part of the joy of tacos is the collision of very different, but very strong sensations: sweet, savory meat; fruity, spicy salsa; cold, fresh queso; etc. It doesn't need to be complicated, but I think quality components is the real key.

Tortillas must be hot and fresh. If you're using store-bought flour tortillas, you can throw them over a flame or dry pan for a bit of char.

Any cheese/herbs/sauce should be fresh, sharp, and/or pungent. Lime juice must be freshly squeezed! To me, it really makes a difference.

For red meat tacos, a good amount of lard/tallow kept in the mix can really make a taco melt your knees. Everything about making the meat should maximize savoriness/flavor somehow. Aside from the usual taco-stand roast meat options, you can try things like chicken tinga or mojo beef, both of which involve a lot of acidic enhancement.

I'm not well-versed in fish tacos, but grilled shrimp is fast, easy to deck out, and great with so many taco-friendly ingredients.

Good luck!
posted by miniraptor at 11:12 AM on December 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Fish cooks great in microwave wrapped in parchment flavor.

Quick tasty shredded chicken for tacos:

Cut up some boneless chicken, put it in a pot with some water and your favorite salsa and maybe some chicken broth. Other seasonings as desired. Let it cook slowly until the chicken shreds easily with two forks.
posted by mareli at 11:19 AM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: Forgot to add -- I've also had great vegetarian tacos with lovingly-grilled peppers and well-browned onions/mushrooms, or fried avocado. Again, maximize the savory.

You might want to check out breakfast taco options for a different set of flavors involving sweet, herby meats and eggs. But I'm from Austin, so make of that what you will.
posted by miniraptor at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: I came back from Mexico obsessed with tacos, and we make them every week now. I know you said you have good tortillas, but Wal-Marts (and Costco), in California at least, have been carrying Guerrero-brand white-corn tortillas. These are the closest I've come to finding the sauce-catching, slightly fluffy tortillas that were sold by the kilo out of still-warm insulated boxes. They freeze well, too. If you can, get the tiny ones and double up, good tacos have a lot of masa flavor. Get a recipiente de tortillas or use a covered dish, then put the tortillas inside surrounded by a damp paper towel so they stay hot even after you've taken them out of the microwave.

I really like the texture added by refried beans with added fat. Interestingly, the latino brands tend to be a bit more expensive than Bush's, but they do taste better. These can be black, pinto, or red beans, just a bit smeared on the taco, followed by shredded cheese (standard "taco cheese" or cotija if you can get it), followed by the "meat" makes the cheese melt perfectly. I've used tofu, turkey, ground beef, grilled chicken, and broiled fish, they all turn out well. If you want that fried fish texture with minimal effort, you can use fish nuggets cut in half.

For spices, I always mix my own, and like you I don't use anything spicy. I highly recommend a mild chile powder like Rancho Gordo's, which has ten times the amount of flavor to spice as cayenne. Or just use paprika. I grind the cumin and coriander every month or two, there is nothing like freshly ground coriander to flavor the "meat" of your choice. Then I might toss in a different milder chile powder, like ancho which you can get by the bag at a Mexican market or from Penzey's. These spices all get toasted in oil over medium heat until fragrant. When I use garlic powder, I wait until the cooking is done to add it because it would burn.

I do use jarred salsa, the homemade versions are good, especially salsa verde, but not worth the trouble. I always add some hot sauce, Cholula chipotle, El Yucateco habanero, Tabasco, whatever you prefer.
posted by wnissen at 11:22 AM on December 1, 2017

Key will be access to good tortillas. That may be hard if you're not close to a metro area (i.e., that has attracted a sufficient population of folks who want such things). Local is better, but Guerrero is fine. Mission tortillas are closer to paper towels than actual food.

Depending on your desire, one thing that works really well and pleases my pals is Alton Brown's Good Eats fajita recipe. And I live in Texas.

Also: Pickled onions? WTF?
posted by uberchet at 11:30 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree on pickled onions. Quite the game-changer if you like onions and a little sweet-savory combo.

Honestly, I think copycat Chipotle recipes on the black beans or the fajita veggies will work well for you. For me, I also need avocado or good guacamole, and Chipotle's guacamole recipe is basically perfect.

I also think it enhances tortillas to put them on a pan over medium heat until they brown a little, flip and do the other side. Makes them warm and brings out the flavor more.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:30 AM on December 1, 2017

Yes, cotija cheese! Flavorful, salty, crumbly cotija cheese. It's one of the best things you can add to any taco. Well, maybe crema would be better on fish tacos, but otherwise cotija.
posted by ClingClang at 11:31 AM on December 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yes to cabbage slaw, pickled onions, avocado, cotija, and cilantro, all mentioned above.

Also caramelized onions (though not necessarily in combination with all or even most of the above - more appropriate when going for a more beany-meaty-hearty vibe rather than southern California-ish)

And crema if you can find in your store.
posted by sheldman at 11:32 AM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: I was going to say crema too, but you don't need to buy it in the store, which especially in New ENgland might be difficult. Just whisk together sour cream and lime juice, and some salt and pepper. Plop or drizzle it onto your tacos and you've upped the deliciousness significantly. Don't forget to sprinkle with chopped cilantro assuming you're not a cilantro soap-taster.
posted by velveeta underground at 11:38 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Veggie taco filling ideas - panfried panela or cotija will brown nicely, mushrooms sauteed in chile oil, roasted green chiles and onions with crema, eggs/nopalitos with a chipotle tomato sauce, mushrooms in salsa verde with potatoes, butternut squash with mole. Good salsa, guacamole, cilantro, cabbage, pickled onions/carrots/jalapenos. I used to make a mix of chopped cilantro and garlic plus scallions mixed with salt and pepper and lime juice - mashed into an avocado makes an easy guacamole, and the other half can be mixed with tomatoes or tomatillos for quick salsa. Good roasted salsa. I love avocado blended with tomatillo salsa. You can mix a Tbs. of buttermilk into a cup or two of non-ultrapasteurized heavy cream, let it sit out overnight or up to 24 hours for a good crema substitute (just don't let it get so thick you end up with creme fraiche). Thin with lime and add a pinch of salt. I live in a rural area and it's a haul to go to the store; I keep this lemon and lime juice on hand and it's very close to freshly squeezed (not like the horrible concentrates). That price is outrageous, though - it's available in the health food section of well stocked groceries.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2017

Couple of easy suggestions if you want something different but don't want to put much effort in:

First, you can make very spicy shredded chicken in bulk by putting 3-4 chicken breasts in a crockpot and dumping a can of ancho chilis in adobo sauce on top. Frozen chicken works too. Just shred them (chicken and peppers both) in the pot with a fork in each hand. I like the flavor of thighs more, but they don't really "shred" right.

Second, you can make a half-assed pickled cabbage by tossing some shredded cabbage in a ziplock bag with some garlic cloves, sliced fresh jalapenos, and enough vinegar/water (1:1) to soak in. How long a soak is up to you; after an hour the cabbage will be a litter vinegary and very crisp, after six hours it will be more vinegary and slightly soft, and so on.
posted by FakeFreyja at 12:37 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Man, this question got me thinking about how much I want tacos. Also want to add that if you have a slow cooker, you could make shredded beef by cooking it low and slow until it's tender and easily shredding with a fork. I think shredded pork (carnitas) would be better, but you say you don't eat that, so I'd make barbacoa out of beef. Nom nom nom. Again, hate to seem basic, but a Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe would probably work well.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:43 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A Mexican picadillo with ground beef, raisins and spices needs little else besides shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. If you have lots of time try making tortillas with masa flour or maseca. To me they have more of the corn flavor than store bought. A tortilladora speeds it up and keeps them consistent.
posted by Botanizer at 1:00 PM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: definitely pickled onions. and if you put cumin into the sour cream or crema, it's a game-changer.
posted by knownassociate at 1:15 PM on December 1, 2017

If you're buying soft corn tortillas, there's a way to fry taco shells on the stovetop, which I learned from Cooks Illustrated. I think they're behind a paywall, but this youtube video seems to show the same method. Freshly fried taco shells are amazing.

My favorite veggie taco filling is shredded jackfruit, which tastes astonishingly like meat. Just season as you would a meat filling.
posted by FencingGal at 1:31 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love adding the coleslaw in this recipe to my tacos.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:10 PM on December 1, 2017

Best answer: This tacos cookbook is great
posted by rux at 3:30 PM on December 1, 2017

Our meal kit company has a taco meal that you could easily replicate on a weeknight without access to fancy ingredients or complicated techniques - Black Bean Tostadas with Quick Pickles And Soft Boiled Eggs.

Personally I think a good ‘leftovers’ taco needs spicy/funky condiments, like a curtido, escabeche (I prefer these two in the homemade fermented version) or a vinegar pickle that you could just buy or make up front. When available, I rely on avocado and lime.

Agreed that the tortilla is crucial. If I can only get sad tortillas, I’ll use rice instead and make a taco bowl.

Beans vary a LOT. I’ve been extremely happy with making them in the Instant Pot pressure cooker - saves so much time and the flavor is amazing. I make a huge batch and freeze flat in small ziplock baggies.
posted by The Toad at 4:57 PM on December 1, 2017

Hoping this is an allowable derail: The Toad, would you be willing to share your instant pot bean recipe?
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:07 PM on December 1, 2017

Sure. I make this recipe and if available, use up chicken stock (again, made in the instant pot from a roast chicken carcass and leftover veggies).
posted by The Toad at 12:49 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some veg. recipes I'm very fond of:

Mashed potato tacos (better made tostada style as eating them in a folded shell is TRICKY - the potatoes want to squish out the other side when you bite down).

Honey-Lime Sweet Potato, Black Bean and Corn Tacos

Roasted Sweet Potato & Black Bean Tacos served with Green Chile & Cilantro Sour Cream Sauce

We can get good corn tortillas, but sometimes I make then from scratch which takes things up a notch (even though my skill level for this is pretty low - we aren't picky about looks).
posted by hilaryjade at 1:08 PM on December 2, 2017

Make sure to find corn tortillas.
Flour tortillas are a soft bland abomination.

Lime juice squeezed overtop.

Lots of sauciness and salt in the meat.

Homemade pico de gallo is shockingly superior to jarred salsa.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:35 PM on December 2, 2017

Response by poster: yay, tacos! Thank you everyone. Although, my spouse is getting concerned, I need to stop talking about them for a few days.

I checked yesterday and neither crema or cotija are available at our grocery. We usually use feta on tacos which gets at the salty-crumbly aspect...I know it is not authentic but this is rural New England (also, I feel like cotija may be on the pregnancy no list?). For crema, please do not yell at me, but I wonder if you can make it with greek yogurt + lime juice? We always have greek yogurt around but never sour cream and often do a lemon-yogurt sauce for other stuff, and greek yogurt is generally a good sub for sour cream.

I have the recommended cookbook on reserve at the library. Also, I love that there is a Mexican-Jewish chef blogger and will be adding her to my reader.

I am a cilantro-hater but we can definitely make slaw (you can ALWAYS get cabbage in New England....), we can get avocados if we plan a week ahead (they come rock-hard), and pickled onions and limes are both easy. Will have to try refried beans, grilled fish, and Chipotle-style knockoffs.

Agree flour tortillas are gross, and will try toasting our corn tortillas longer and/or charring them.
posted by john_snow at 1:26 PM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can substitute parsley or chives (or even mint) for cilantro. Not saying that’s authentic, but it works.

The Cotija I buy at the store is pasteurized, so OK for pregnancy, but Feta should work fine if you can’t get any. Greek yogurt & lime definitely works!
posted by The Toad at 9:11 PM on December 4, 2017

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