For several months I've devoted many meals to learning how to make an incredible and absurdly simple taco. This has no conclusion, I'm still learning. And in no way do I mean to appropriate or take lightly the culture or peoples who first cultivated this food. To the first Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec peoples to assemble these along with their decedents, do I owe all of my respect and any credit for my knowledge of and appetite for the taco. I roll each tortilla and assemble each taco with gratitude and awareness.
Tacos, for me, used to mean buying corn tortillas from the store, a can of beans, and piling it with scoops of guacamole. Now it has come to mean growing the corn, learning to make masa harina, sourcing local peppers, sprouts, cheeses and meats. Tacos have become a beautiful and very temporary expression, portrait even, of my "here and now," as it considers land and history. You can take this with any meal, yet I've been particularly interested in the taco.
Fundamentally, a taco is a tortilla--corn or flour, a fat, spice, and acid. With that though, is thousands of years of history. This regards corn cultivation, pre-colonial diets, and the post-colonization imprints on native food culture. There's so much to explore, so for now I want to touch only on some of the basics in hopes that you might do some of your own research.
Corn, or maize, is a sacred food to many cultures throughout Central and South America. It was first bred by Mesoamericans around 3000 B.C. from a wild grass called, teosinte. It took generations of natural selection to cultivate the corn we're familiar with today. There are now over 300 varieties, though a majority are no longer grown due to corn's exploitation. Today it is one of the largest and most environmentally destructive mono-crops. It's used to feed livestock in factory farms, and to produce ethanol, corn syrup, and corn starch. The over-cultivation of corn devastates soil and biodiversity, both very important fundaments for our ecosystems that are intrinsic to us.
First eaten with tacos were small fish, wild turkey, and beans. Beef, chicken, and pork are not native. All arrived to the "Americas" with European invaders. These are all things I like to research, wonder about, and consider. It's good to know where your food came from both physically and historically.
Corn is processed into masa harina by using a technique called, "nixtamalization." This utilizes an alkaline solution such as wood ash or lime water. I'm still learning this technique so I wont be sharing it with you today. My first batch ended up just being used in a pozole verde I made. For now I use Bob's Red Mill's masa harina, as this is the best quality I can find at my grocery store. I've started growing my own corn, Hopi Blue Flint. My hope is to make masa harina out of that once it's time to harvest.
With in mind that the building blocks for a good taco are fat, spice, and acid, use this very loose recipe as a guide. I hope you'll roll out or press your own tortillas and will source each ingredient with attention and care. If you're going to use meat, I highly suggest using locally raised and cruelty-free meats. No factory farms. I suggest the same regarding cheese, if you choose to use it. I use local goat cheese.
The quality in taste of your taco with be highly attuned to where you've sourced your ingredients. There is often a huge difference in taste when eating a tomato from the store rather than from the farmer's market, and vice versa. Use only local and only organic, if at all possible. Try to grow your own produce, get to know the folks who raise and cultivate the rest. This makes all the difference.
Ingredients for one tortilla:
1/4 cup masa harina
Pink himalayan salt
You can go anywhere with these. I'll post here what is on the pictured taco but go for what you're into.
Your choice of fat--beans, meat, etc. I used locally and very happily raised pork sausage.
Salsa--I made mine with tomato, habanero, serrano, jalapeno, garlic, cumin, pink himalayan salt, and apple cider vinegar (just roast the veggies and put it all in a blender or mash it together with a pestle and mortar). You can also use pico do gallo which is just diced tomato, onion, garlic, juice of one lime (you can use apple cider vinegar too), salt. Cilantro is optional.
Prepare the tortilla:
-Heat a skillet or commal on high. No oil.
-Mix the masa harina and a sprinkle of pink himalayan salt. Add a small bit of water and mix. Do this until you have a firm dough that sticks together. This shouldn't be too wet.
-Roll dough into a ball and press into a patty
-Use a large sheet of parchment paper. Fold it in half. Put the masa patty between the two sheets and roll it until it's thin. I suggest not being to heavy with the rolls. Roll in various directions. This will help you create a circular shape. Don't get too attached to a perfect circle.
-Carefully peel the raw tortilla from the parchment paper and gently place it onto the skillet. If it falls apart, quickly rescue it from the hot pan, roll it back into a ball and try again. You'll get the hang of it.
-These cook quickly so watch carefully. Once the edges begin to raise, flip the tortilla either with your fingers or a metal spatula. Cook the other side and place to the side on a plate.
-If you want your tortilla crispy, simply fry it in coconut oil or animal fat after its first initial cooking.
Prepare the stuffing (if using beans):
If you're working with beans and want to go the re-fried bean route, I suggest getting dry beans. Soak them overnight or just boil them right away. Boil them with salt and some onions, garlic, and peppers (dry peppers will do too). This will give you flavor. If you're not vegan or vegetarian, add a little animal fat as well. This also helps with flavor. If you want additional spice, try coriander, cumin, paprika, etc.
The beans will boil for about an hour or two. Keep adding water.
Once the beans are soft, cook the water down until it's level with the beans and mash it using a potato masher.
If you're not into cooking dry beans or just don't have time, get an organic canned bean with no additives (read the label). Drain. Cook with a little water, onion, garlic, peppers and whatever spice you like. Mash with a potato masher.