Discover more from Anne Byrn: Between the Layers
Taco (Salad) Tuesday! - No. 247
How taco night helped me survive parenthood and empty nesting, plus a taco-filled cookbook and a Joanna Gaines-inspired recipe
TACOS WITH LOTS OF GREEN STUFF piled on top is really salad in a bright fall coat.
It’s salad so substantial that meat eaters don’t complain, and salad freaks like myself see it as a meal with leftovers for lunch tomorrow. It makes people happy, but mostly it lets them make their own choices.
Thinking back, my little people couldn’t decide what time dinner got on the table, but they could choose what they piled on their tacos.
It contrasted to the way I was raised with a dinner plate served for me each night by my mother.
Once my children got old enough to serve themselves, creating a ‘’bar’’ of tacos or pasta or baked potatoes made everyone happier. All of the sudden being squeamish about peppers, hateful of tomatoes, or in lust of onions or crazy about cilantro was okay. Like Burger King said, have it your way.
Today, tacos lend themselves to even more choices
There’s fresh sweet corn to scrape off the cob, braised turnip greens with hot pepper flakes, taco turkey or beef or even Florida shrimp I toss with cumin, cayenne, and lime juice and pan-fry in avocado oil, and on top, there’s cilantro, jalapeno, sour cream, plus Buttermilk Ranch Dressing or Green Goddess Dressing to drizzle over. Feeling extremely decadent, and with a little advance planning, make the house favorite, Andy’s Stolen Salsa (see below) and guild the big fat taco lily.
Way down on the bottom or sprinkled on top, there are choices when it comes to the tortillas—flour or corn, soft or crispy, from the bag or fry your own. In the recipe I share today, adapted from Joanna Gaines’ third Magnolia Table cookbook, I pan fry little corn tortillas until crunchy and they’re the base for the whole salad monstrosity on top.
Proving that even if my little taco eaters are grown and gone, it’s still taco night around here. I jump up and down thinking about taco night and building a beautiful taco salad.
And, no surprise, he builds a taco mountain.
A brouhaha around Taco Tuesday
Taco salad recipes go way back, but if they were on your dinner table, it depended on where you called home. They are, no doubt, from the Southwest. See below in the Miami News in 1954 where a newcomer from Arizona introduces readers to a new salad in the recipe swap column. No tortilla chips like back home? No problem! Substitute potato chips.
And if you look at cookbooks from the Southwest, taco salads run throughout. The Dallas Junior League Cookbook of 1976 instructs you to brown ground beef with onions, celery, and green pepper, adding cumin, chili powder, and garlic salt and then pour this on top of chopped lettuce and tomatoes in a salad bowl. Then you ladle over warmed Velveeta cheese and Rotel tomatoes (half a can to one pound of cheese) and garnish with corn chips.
The phrase ‘’Taco Tuesday’’ is more recent, however. According to NPR, even though it was a trademark of the 400-location, Wyoming-based restaurant chain Taco John’s since 1989, they relinquished the trademark on the phrase earlier this year.
Taco Bell, with 7,200 U.S. locations and 1,000 more aboard, filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in May to have it reversed, arguing that no one should have the rights to a common phrase or ‘’for pursuing happiness on a Tuesday," the company said in the filing.
And Taco John's conceded, saying they are taco "lovers, not fighters."
"We've always prided ourselves on being the home of Taco Tuesday, but paying millions of dollars to lawyers to defend our mark just doesn't feel like the right thing to do," Taco John's CEO Jim Creel said.
I’m sleeping easier now talking about Taco Tuesday. How about you?
Yet while taco salad was building its base, wooing everyone bored with dinner, it was already a popular flavor profile. Look in any community cookbook and you’ll find taco something—dips, soups, and casseroles.
A new cookbook, full of taco goodness, is Linda Skeens Blue Ribbon Kitchen. She is the unassuming Appalachian grandmother who won the most county fair baking contests in her region and became an internet sensation after a TikToker posted a video about her and went in search of her.
And there in the coal-mining region of Virginia was Linda who had swept all the awards at the Virginia-Kentucky District fair—the best cake, best pie, best brownies, best jelly, best jam, best applesauce, apple butter, pumpkin butter, sauerkraut and spaghetti sauce.
Clearly, the girl knows how to cook.
And she’s a little surprised at all the attention and her new-found stardom, but she has assembled all her favorite recipes in this book, published by Hoffman Media (Taste of the South, Bake from Scratch) in Birmingham.
On page 97 is her Taco Soup, which she makes for church gatherings and card nights. It begins with cooking 2 pounds of ground beef with onion and garlic salt until browned. She drains off the fat and adds 2 cups water and a can each of pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, corn, diced tomatoes, white corn, and diced tomatoes with chilies (Rotel), plus 2 one-ounce packages each of Ranch seasoning mix and taco seasoning mix. Cook 45 minutes, serve with chips and the toppings, and this makes 4 quarts, or about 16 big servings.
The takeaway here is taco anything
It wins blue ribbons and the affection of the people you cook for. It’s middle of the road, which I don’t mean in a political sense, but now that you mention it, tacos cross party lines. They make people hungry and happy. I’ve never seen anyone anywhere angry about eating tacos or taco salad, casserole, or soup.
But as much as I thought taco salad was about equal rights, it’s really about cleaning out the refrigerator and getting rid of the last of the salsa, repurposing those tortilla chips, and making use of the only ripe avocado.
Because any bits and bobs with the right color profile and flavor combination become a groaning board of goodies to wrap into a soft flour tortilla, pile on top of a crispy fried corn tortilla, or build into a mountainous taco salad to lift anyone, no matter your age, to the moon and back and right into fall.
Do you build a taco salad or tacos? What are your favorite toppings, sauces, flourishes? Queso, anyone?
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Crispy Taco Salads a la Joanna Gaines
She calls them Mexican Tostadas in her book, Magnolia Table, volume 3. And I guess that’s true. But they are all taco salad to me. The secret is the little corn tortillas you fry up in oil and then pile with all the trimmings. You can refry the beans or just jazz up canned pinto beans - I buy low-sodium. And then you have the meat saute going with some onion and garlic, and use turkey or beef, and really the toppings are up to you. I serve turnip greens or kale cooked down slowly in chicken broth or water to the side. We love Trader Joe’s creamy buttermilk and cilantro dressing, as well as canned green salsa verde. Top with crumbled cotija, the Mexican crumbly cheese. Have it your way!
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon avocado oil, olive oil, or lard
1/2 cup chopped onion
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 cans (15 to 16 ounces each) low-sodium pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chicken stock or water
Juice of half a lime
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons avocado oil or olive oil
1 pound ground beef or turkey
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste:
Vegetable oil for frying the tostadas, about 2 cups
8 to 12 corn tortillas
Kosher salt to taste
4 cup shredded iceberg or leaf lettuce
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 cups shredded mild Cheddar cheese
2 avocados, sliced
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
Salad dressing such as Buttermilk Cilantro (from Trader Joe’s), Italian, Green Goddess, or Ranch
For the beans, heat the oil or lard in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, chili powder and drained beans. Add the chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, to low and simmer, stirring until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. If you want to puree the beans for refried beans, puree with an immersion blender. Add lime juice, salt, and pepper to taste, and turn into a medium bowl and keep warm.
Meanwhile, for the meat or turkey, wipe out the skillet. Add the oil, and break the meat into pieces into the skillet. Add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until the meat is no longer pink, about 6 to 8 minutes. Mash with a potato masher to smooth out any clumps. Stir in the water, chili powder, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, stirring until the water evaporates, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.
For the tostadas, pour the oil into a heavy Dutch oven and heat to 325ºF. Slide one tortilla at a time into the hot oil, and let it fry about 90 seconds on one side and turn with tongs to cook 90 seconds on the other, until deeply golden brown. Remove to a rack to drain. Sprinkle with kosher salt, and continue frying the rest of the tortillas.
To serve, place the tortillas on plates or a platter and spoon the beans on top, and then the meat, followed by shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, and sour cream. Garnish with the cilantro, lime wedges, and salsa verde or Andy’s Stolen Salsa (recipe below). Serve the salad dressings to the side for drizzling over the salad greens.
Andy’s Stolen Salsa (from my book, What Can I Bring?)
The story behind this recipe is that Andy stole the recipe from his brother who stole the recipe from a Houston steak house, and they had stolen it from another restaurant group. Yes, it’s that good!
Using a food processor or blender, drop in 3 medium or 2 large cloves peeled garlic until minced. Add 2 chopped jalapeno peppers, with or without seeds (depending on how much heat you want) and 1/3 packed cup of cilantro leaves. Process in pulses until minced. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and pulse 10 seconds. Add 1 big undrained can of tomatoes (28 ounces) and pulse until the consistency you like, leaving it slightly chunky. Serve with tortilla chips.