Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a taco feast

May 5, 2023

When we started thinking about what to feature in this week’s column, the calendar won, since today is Cinco de Mayo. The name of the celebration translates from the Spanish as “fifth of May” and marks the anniversary of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, notable for the small band of ill-equipped Mexican fighters who defeated a large group of well-armed French forces from Napoleon’s army.

For our commemoration, we’ll turn to a beloved Mexican favorite — tacos. Before we talk about what goes inside the taco shell, we should look at the various options for the all-important tortilla that holds the ingredients. The word tortilla originated from the Spanish word “tort” which means “cake,” giving tortilla the translation of “little cake.” Food historians believe small flat cakes made from corn (also called maize) were a dietary staple thousands of years ago for Aztec, Incan and Mayan peoples.

Fast forward to the Spanish colonization of the Americas, followed by Mexican immigrants sharing their food traditions in this country. Today, we see variations on the corn tortilla, mostly differentiated by the color of the corn used to make them — blue, white, and yellow. While tacos can be made with soft corn tortillas, they’re more often assembled with a tortilla that has been folded in half to create a pocket, then fried or baked to a crisp texture.

Flour or wheat tortillas are made from finely ground wheat flour and are always used in their soft state. At many Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, main dishes such as fajitas are served with warm flour tortillas as an accompaniment. They are typically used as the ingredient-holder in enchiladas (filled, rolled, covered in sauce and baked), chimichangas (filled, rolled and deep-fried), quesadillas (left flat, filled, topped with another tortilla and grilled), and burritos (filled and wrapped into a cylindrical shape).

For the photo, we decided to try three different kinds of commercial taco shells. The one at left is a style called “stand and stuff,” where the round corn tortilla has been shaped to create a stable, flat bottom that will sit upright on the plate. Unlike the simply folded type (second from right), this shape is roomier and capable of holding more mouth-watering taco flavors and toppings.

Both of these crisp shells share a quality that makes them challenging to eat: They shatter when you bite into them, spilling their contents in every direction. One solution to prevent this is to let the filled taco sit for a minute or two, giving the liquid in the sauce time enough to soak into the shell, making it a little soggy and less likely to break into pieces. Since I’m usually too impatient to wait for that first bite, I use the broken pieces like chips to scoop up the meat and cheese from my plate.

The two lighter-colored taco shells in the photo are called soft tortilla bowls, although they’re more oval than round. We heated them according to the package directions (just as we did the crisp shells) but these were just not as delicious as the other two. There was very little flavor in the flour shells, and their texture was doughy. The corn shells offered a good contrast in texture and bright flavor interest.

When comparing ingredient lists, the corn shells have only corn, oil and salt, while the flour tortilla bowls have flour along with a number of additives, preservatives and bioengineered food ingredients. For my next taco dinner, I’ll definitely choose crispy corn taco shells. If you’re considering Cinco de Mayo tacos, here are recipes for taco seasoning and how to make tacos with chicken, ground turkey or beef. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Taco Seasoning

1 1/2 T chili powder
2 1/2 t cumin
2 t paprika
1 1/2 t oregano
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 t garlic powder
1 t onion powder
1/4 t red pepper flakes

Measure ingredients into a wide-mouth lidded jar. Cover tightly and shake vigorously to combine completely. Use about 3 tablespoons for each pound of meat.

Beef or Turkey Tacos

1 lb ground meat
3 T taco seasoning
1/4 C water
1 T tomato paste

Sauté the meat over medium heat, breaking up chunks into small crumbles. Once cooked, drain off the fat. Return to the stove over low and sprinkle with taco seasoning. Stir in water and tomato paste. Simmer for about 8 minutes and serve with taco shells and desired toppings (diced tomato, shredded lettuce, sour cream, cheddar cheese).

Chicken Tacos

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 T olive oil
1 T lime juice
3 T taco seasoning
1 T peanut oil

Dice chicken and combine with remaining ingredients in a zip-top bag; refrigerate for about 20 minutes. Remove bag from refrigerator and heat peanut oil in a large skillet over medium. Pour contents of the bag into the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until chicken is no longer pink. Serve with taco shells and desired toppings (diced tomato, shredded lettuce, sour cream, cheddar cheese).

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