Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finally, a Taco

I love hypothetical food questions (“What packaged food do you secretly love but refuse to admit to in foodie company?” For me, it would be Pillsbury crescent rolls. Mmmm.) Yes, I realize that makes me a major league geek.

One my favorite hypothetical food questions is having to choose one national cuisine to eat or cook for the rest of my life. First off, I’d be really bummed to have to choose in reality because one of my favorite parts of eating is variety. Even after traveling in Italy for just a week, enjoying some of the most delicious food on the planet, I come home jonesing for Thai or sushi, something with a savory spice. But, say I did have to choose. That I was stranded on a desert island with only one restaurant on it. A restaurant that was programmed by aliens to only be able to produce food from one country. Or something like that.

The obvious choices are French and Italian, two of the most celebrated cuisines in the world. Both have a tremendous amount of regional variation, which would make my lifelong habit less of a chore. Choosing between those two would be difficult. Italian desserts are pretty sorry, but many French dishes lack the vibrancy of their Italian counterparts. On my island, in the end, Italian would have the edge. I’d just have to smuggle in some pastries.

But there is a dark-horse candidate in this hypothetical food question race – Mexican. Like French and Italian, Mexican food features vastly different cuisines in its regions. And, its culinary influences are legion, from the indigenous ingredients to Spanish flavors, French technique, and Dutch cheese. I know I’ve tasted only the tip of the Mexican culinary iceberg, but it is glorious – the intricate moles from Oaxaca, the fish tacos from Baja, chicken pibil from the Yucatan. I love the deep spice blends and fresh-tasting ingredients. I love how it can be complex or simple. Give me a creamy avocado, tangy lime, and herbaceous cilantro with a pinch of salt and I am in heaven.

For the last year I’ve been looking for a taco recipe that I could make my own, that would satisfy my deep taco urges, with flavors that I could tell didn’t come from an Old El Paso taco spice envelope. I have Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday, and I’ve made a few of its taco recipes. But none of them have ever hit the proverbial spot.

When I saw Mark Bittman’s column in the Times on Wednesday about eating tacos in the Yucatan I hoped, I prayed. Could this finally be the taco I’d been looking for? His article included recipes for tacos with poblano strips and potatoes, tacos with mushrooms, and tacos with cactus leaves. Since I prefer mushrooms in moderation and cactus leaves lack the rich flavor I’m looking for I gravitated immediately to the Taco Filling with Poblano Strips and Potatoes. Bittman helpfully suggests adding a half-pound of Mexican chorizo for a non-vegetarian option. Since I live with two serious carnivores I opted to add the meat.

This dish was not difficult or time-consuming. But it also was not easy or fast. It took me about an hour, and I was glad that I had roasted, steamed and peeled peppers in culinary school. Ultimately, it is a nicely challenging weekend meal that is completely worth the effort. The potato, chorizo, pepper filling was balanced and flavorful. Per Bittman, I toasted the tortillas in a skillet until they were blistered and crisp, but still pliant. A little salsa verde (store-bought) on top added the perfect acidic finish.

I will still try new taco recipes, but I can rest easy knowing that there is at least one winner in my repertoire. (You know, these things can keep me up at night.) As for what one food to eat on the desert island, I’m still thinking about that.

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