The taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. There is anthropological evidence that the indigenous people living in the lake region around what is now Mexico City, ate tacos filled with small fish. Writing at the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo documented the first taco feast enjoyed by Europeans, a meal which Hernán Cortés arranged for his captains. The Spanish used their word, “taco”, to describe this indigenous food, but no one seems to know why
Tacos preparation goes back 10,000 years, to the neolithic revolution when people started farming. With a surplus of food, they had a lot of leftovers and developed clever ways to use them up. Cooking. I love this deep sense of continuity. There is anthropological evidence that people in Mexico ate tacos filled with small fish by at least 9,500 years ago and they have been doing so ever since.
I have revisited the humble Taco and gone back to basics.
Here’s a complete meal you can prepare in your off-hours, if you have any, and eat for a week. It’s a dish that allows for endless variations and is a great way to use up leftovers. It can accommodate itself to your local farmer’s market, featuring what looks seasonably best. You can love it as a Vegetarian, a Pisquitarian, or a Carnivore.
Ingredients you’ll need (for the basics)
Preparation of Refried pinto bean: I used to cook pinto beans with sauteed onions and garlic and a touch of cumin, in addition to salt and pepper, but today I keep all the various flavors for tacos separate, combining them only in the final taco, where each person can make his or her own combination.
1 ½ cups pinto beans soaked overnight in water. Next day, discard the soaking water, add new water, bring to a boil and simmer over a very low heat for several hours. Keep the water level up. As the beans begin to soften, break them up with a pastry blender, potato masher or just a spatula. I’ve seen beans cook for 8 to 10 hours. They just get better, but two or three hours will do fine. Keep adding water and salt to taste. You can turn them off at any time and come back and cook some more.
Preparation of Rich pepper sauce. You want a pungent base for your taco, particularly if you’re not using meat. I like the rich flavors of locally grown, small organic peppers. Many of these varieties look like hot peppers, but they’re not hot. Combine these sweet peppers with locally gown hot peppers. You’ll have to experiment to get the right combination, because peppers vary in intensity. (So do the people eating them).
Wash the peppers, cut them lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Cut the peppers in 1/4 inch slices and set aside. You want to end up with about two cups of sliced peppers. Dice 1/2 of a medium sized red onion. Dice 1 complete head of garlic. Saute the vegetables in a generous amount of olive oil over a very low heat. You can do this at the same time you cook the beans. They don’t require a lot of fussing. But you may have to add liquid as they cook over a low burner in a covered saucepan.
Add 1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (optional). Add 1 tablespoon Mirin (optional). Add water or chicken, vegetable or beef stock as needed to prevent burning. The vegetables will break down and you can stir them together with a spoon with the texture of marmalade. They’re ready.
Preparation of Cilantro/Garlic Sauce. This is an exceptional sauce for fish tacos. In Ensenada Mexico, the self-proclaimed home of the fish taco, they deep fry the fish in a batter. It’s tasty, but I lightly coat talapia with flour, salt, pepper and garlic powder and saute in olive oil.
In a small electric blender, chop four cloves of garlic, add two or three jalapeno peppers (without their seeds) and one head of cilantro (minus stems), blend with 1/2 cup walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, the juice of one lime and enough water to make a spreadable paste. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Spread one side of a tortillas with 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of either sauce. Spread the other side with 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of refried beans. Add 3 tablespoons of coarsely grated cheese or a small slice. Put the assembled tortilla in a saucepan (cast iron is best) over a medium heat. In time the cheese will melt and the tortilla is ready.
At that point you can add guacamole, lettuce, chopped onions, hot sauce, tomatoes and other additions you don’t want to cook.