Originally I thought I would write a timely piece about tacos to cleverly coincide with National Taco Day, which is October 4. I am a week early, which should give you plenty of time to experiment and try every variation and permutation before the big day actually arrives. It is funny how the calendar keeps playing tricks on me this year. 2020 has been a weird one, to say the least.
Spring was lovely – it didn’t feel like a burden to stay safely at home and watch the daffodils emerge from corners of the garden. The tulips bloomed late and then disappeared in a week. The daffodils hung on for weeks. There were buckets of warm spring rain, which suited the hydrangeas. And the burgeoning mosquitoes. Summer was long and hot. The minute fall arrived (this past Tuesday at 9:30 AM, EDT) it cooled down and I reached for a sweater, which I have since tossed onto the back of a kitchen chair because it has gotten summer-warm again. Just because the calendar says it’s fall doesn’t guarantee that the weather will cooperate.
I used to love running out to the grocery store whenever the whim or the obscure recipes demanded it. Those were the days. Carefree. Mask-free. The wind blowing through my artfully coiffed locks. That was back when I could get haircuts. (I was taller and blonder and thinner in that Katmandu state of mind, too.) Covid-19 has required that we plan ahead, shop less frequently, stay home more, mask up and be mindful of others.
I like to think that I am a frugal New Englander; that I remember to “Use it up, wear it out, made it do, do without.” Somehow I always picture that phrase as coming to me from repeatedly reading Little Women. Surely Beth embroidered it as a lovely cross-stitched sampler that hung over her piano. Or Laura Ingalls Wilder muttered under her breath as she grimly churned butter in a sod-house in Minnesota. But no, it turns out that it was a phrase used in World War II, encouraging us to cheerfully make do with rationing. I guess I need to re-read Little Women.
We have been watching lots of videos, as have you. We fell into Netflix’s Chef’s Table recently. After watching an hour of grim pandemic news it is a relief to see images of people with passions and skills, living happy, pre-pandemic lives, puttering around their well-appointed kitchens making wonderfully bizarre foods. https://philly.eater.com/2019/4/15/18282518/south-philly-barbacoa-cristina-martinez-mexican-restaurant-philadelphia
I used to think narrowly about tacos. I have been amazed to find that tacos are not just browned ground beef, flavored by Old El Paso seasoning mix, served in fried, hard corn tortilla shells, topped with orange cheese. Now I know that tacos will save us during the pandemic, because they make ordinary leftovers exotic. Tacos are magic. I give to you some taco legerdemain:Nights when I have trouble sleeping, instead of worrying about the state of the world, over which I have no control, I try to think about what grooviness I can serve for dinner without going to the grocery store. What is lurking in the fridge or is tucked away in the pantry that can stretch the time until I need to mask up and tear through the grocery store.
Leftovers are our friends, and leftovers as tacos are friends with beer and chips. Tacos are better than casseroles. Consequently I have learned to keep a stash of corn tortillas in the fridge, which are the basis for tacos. (Sometimes I have flour tortillas, too. In a pinch we can make quesadillas, which make an easy, cheesy side dish.)
Most all of the time we have these items, too. Although I have to ask the Family Nose to test the sour cream container for viability:
Meat – leftover roast beef, steak, chicken, salmon, pork, lamb
Refried beans – try to get the vegetarian kind to avoid lard
Rice – we always make too much, so there is always a stash in the freezer
Corn or flour shell tortillas
Shredded lettuce or cabbage
Chopped Vidalia onion, green onion, red onion
Radishes (some may lurk in the way back)
Cilantro (it is amazing how much fresh cilantro will add to a store-bought salsa)
Guacamole (I never have avocados, but you might)
Sour cream (from a couple of weeks ago, usually)
Shredded cheese – we mix mozzarella with cheddar
Jalapeños – we always have a jar of pickled jalapeños, but fresh pack a better kick, and will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks
Lime juice for a refreshing citrus jolt – bottled will do in a pinch
I used to fry the tortillas to death, thinking that the packaged hard shells we found in the grocery store were authentic. Such foolishness! Now I either lightly fry the shells in a skillet or griddle and warm both sides of each tortilla until they are warm and soft. Or, to keep the stove top from getting splattered, I drape the shells over the wire oven racks in a 350°F oven for about 5-7 minutes. Some recipes say spray with oil, but really, spray? Aren’t we trying to save the planet? I say leave the shells in the oven until you have found the degree of crispiness you enjoy the most. Low cal, and ozone friendly
Good luck with your National Taco Day celebration. You can never rehearse too much, or too often. Just remember to keep some tortillas (and beer) in the fridge, and some extra chips in the pantry. Make yourself happy puttering in the kitchen.
“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”
Salt Fat Acid Heat guru Samin Nosrat’s brilliant take: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/29/slow-roasted-pork-taco-recipe-salted-caramel-cookies-samin-nosrat
Here is a vegetarian take on tacos, too: https://shaneandsimple.com/crunchy-baked-taco-shells/