How come you’ve never cooked steak tacos for me? – Zascha once shot at me out of the blue as I entered the living room. “I.. Err. Help?” I replied, and tip-toed uneasily until I realized she had been hunched over my copy of Eat Like A Man, looking at recipes and building up an appetite. “I was planning to,” I ventured, “I just haven’t found the time!”
This was three months ago. Last weekend, after months of playful and well-deserved teasing and stabbing at me, I finally found the time to make a steak taco for Zascha!
It was a chance for me to do a little something for her, as well as to test out another recipe from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. I’m not really one to follow recipes, at least not as anything more than a general source of inspiration, but the steak taco recipe, which you can – and should – read in its entirety here, seemed rather authentic and to the point. So I decided to give this cooking according to recipe thing a shot for a change. Because if there’s one thing I love in this world, it’s authentic Mexican food. And if there’s one thing this world has too little of, it’s authentic Mexican food.
Call me spoiled, but having lived in Southern California and having hung out with Hispanic people who took me to back alley eateries in the historic part of Los Angeles where the after meal tequila was always on the house and the Mariachi band was known to get sloshed with you at the table… Well, you’ll have to excuse me for thinking that the simplified Tex-Mex approaches of many recipes and the watered down, industrial and unappealing ready-to-eat salsas, condiments and spice mixes that Scandinavian supermarkets have to offer aren’t much to get excited about.
I want my Mexican food to be homemade and I want it to be authentic. I’m by no means an expert, but I do consider myself an authority. And like I said, this recipe checked out in my book. So for once, I threw caution to the wind and decided to play along with the recipe in a rather verbatim manner, adding a few touches and extras of my own.
Steak Tacos – phase one: Setting the mood
Speaking of extra touches. As far as I’m concerned, any Mexican dinner starts with three things: Ice cold Coronas, salsa and guacamole. Oh and some sort of delivery vessel, of course, tortilla chips will do here. So that’s four things, right, okay, four things!
Now, following the outburst above, it goes to reason that I always make my own salsa and my own guacamole. As should you, by the way, dear reader. It’s easy, it’s fun and it will impress your guests! Mainly because it actually tastes fresh and natural! As it should!
If, unlike me, you have not spent time in Southern California and had the honor of having age-old family recipes for salsa and guacamole handed down to you on a drunken Thanksgiving afternoon by your Hispanic host’s sister who used to be your host’s brother (true story, transgendered cooking, it happens!), you can very well use the recipes provided here as they’ll produce very good and authentic results.
For the record, I used to kick off my feasts with nachos, but that tended to defeat people even before the main course was served, so I dumped that tradition. Now I tend to stick with chips and dips, and it makes everybody happy. It offers something to snack on, something to gather around and, in our case, something to talk about. My dips are my benchmarks; essentially. They’ll be examined, tasted, weighed, and commented upon. My friends, and Zascha notably so, has total recall when it comes to these things. “You changed something,” she’ll say, thoughtfully. Then she’ll tell me exactly what I tried to get away with, whether the change was for better or worse and if it should be repeated, perfected or dropped entirely.
Zascha, one of my culinary muses and a great source of feedback and inspiration!
This time she caught me not sufficiently boosting the tomato flavor of the salsa and called me on it. She was right, too, and I love her for it. She’s by no means mean about calling me out, but rather constructive in her criticism and friends shouldn’t let friends get away with sub par cooking! And I shouldn’t have been making salsa at 11 PM on the night before anyway.
Steak Tacos – Phase two: Where’s the beef?
Moving on from the sound but somewhat shaky start, it was time to finally make a steak taco for Zascha. A steak taco is a simple thing, really. For a traditional steak taco, a warm flour tortilla is stuffed with slices of beef and lettuce (or cabbage), then dressed with salsa, guacamole and a Mexican sour cream-like product known as crema.
You can get wild and adventurous and add things like cheese, beans or other things. In fact, I’ve been known to encourage such behavior. Or you can keep it simple and traditional which is what I aimed for on this particular evening.
Obviously, the important ingredient in a steak taco is your beef. The original recipe suggests using a rub to season the beef before frying. I’ll have to confess to deviating here as I traditionally use Carne Asada marinated beef in my tacos and this night was no exception. I just think it makes for a juicier, tastier taco. Regardless of the approach used, the cut of beef should be a flavorful cut (flank or skirt steak, possibly strip or rib eye), well seasoned and well salted. And it should be cooked somewhere between rare and medium, depending on personal preferences of the diners involved.
Carne what? Carne Asada is beef, usually flank or skirt steak marinated in lime juice and Mexican spices. It’s an essential ingredient in many authentic taco or burrito recipes. Home-made Carne Asada is an unbeliveably tasty and juicy treat. A great Carne Asada recipe is available here!
The meat should be grilled or fried over high heat and be allowed to rest a minimum of five minutes before being cut into strips and piled high into a warm flour tortilla that is then slathered with homemade salsa and guacamole to taste before being topped off with lettuce or Napa cabbage… Simple!
Steak Tacos – Phase three: A steak taco for Zascha
Friday rhymes perfectly with simple. Having had a busy day at work and having spent the late afternoon at a wine tasting, I’m glad I picked tacos for dinner. Tacos by definition are street food, a simple dish that’s thrown together in a hurry and is not supposed to look fancy.
That being said, my steak tacos for Zascha were probably thrown together in a bit too much of a hurry. And while they were certainly tasty, they may have been a little overstuffed and I kind of wish they would have been a little more presentable. Put it this way, there was a lot of hard work involved on both diner’s behalf when it came to snapping a money shot of the finished dish, and while we eventually came close, well, I’m happy to report they tasted better than they looked! But still, they could have been even tastier, had I not rushed the preparation a little too much.
But hey, you live, you learn. And I’ll not be the kind food blogger who throws away a post because the end result isn’t picture perfect. Keep it real, I say. And practice makes perfect, I say! In the end, the purpose of the meal was to get together, have fun and enjoy some good food together. We succeeded in all of the above, and we even had a pretty good time brainstorming about things that could be improved the next time around. A few noteworthy tips deducted from this brainstorming are included here as I think they may help others produce the perfect steak taco.
Steak Tacos – Phase five: Tips for a perfect taco!
For the guacamole: Make sure you use top quality ripe avocados! I couldn’t get really ripe ones, so I had to use ones that were a bit on the non-ripe side. I thought I could get by, but the taste really isn’t the same. If you can’t get ripe avocados at your local store, buy them a few days in advance and keep them in the windowsill where they’ll ripen over time. Don’t chuck avocados in the fridge – it halts the ripening process.
On the other hand: If you find yourself with perfectly ripe avocados but your taco party is still a day or two away, chuck them in the fridge. Like I said, it halts the ripening process.
For the salsa: When making salsa, the first and most important step is to properly drain your tomatoes of excess liquid (i.e. water)! Put them in a colander, add salt and let stand till ALL the watery liquid has run off. This takes time, and you can’t rush it. Don’t throw your salsa together as a last minute kind of thing. If you’re worried you won’t have enough time, make it the day or night before. A day in the fridge won’t hurt your salsa, au contraire!
A note on tomatoes: Don’t naturally assume fresh is better. Unless you’re at the end of summer in a sufficiently warm and sunny part of the world, you’re probably better off using quality canned tomatoes in your cooking. Sad but true. They’re grown in a perfect environment and picked right at their peak. As far as tomato flavor goes, that’s what you want. However, for the one or two weeks a year when you can get perfectly ripe, fresh and local tomatoes from a trusted source, use them!
For your steaks: Never under season the meat! If using a marinade or rub, be sure to add a good pinch of salt as it helps the flavor draw into the meat. Remember also, to salt before cooking and that a lot of salt falls off the meat during cooking, so be prepared to possibly re-season after the meat has rested. Use a good quality large flaked sea salt or similar for this. You don’t need a lot but it makes a world of difference. I forgot this step and I think it really made for a less flavorful, less meaty steak taco.
An important note on lettuce: There is such a thing as too much lettuce. They don’t call this a steak taco for nothing. Lettuce or cabbage adds a nice contrast or crunch, but it’s really all about the steak. Use lettuce sparingly. I can’t believe I just said that. I’m sorry, health freaks!
Remembering these simple few rules and pointers will help you make a much better steak taco.
Steak Tacos – Phase four: Rinse, lather, repeat… Tacos take two!
So, I may not have produced a picture perfect taco and the result may not have been all that I’d hoped for, but that’s not to say I’ll let a dish defeat me. And so, with plenty of leftovers in the fridge, the next day I set off to attempt to right my wrongs.
I reheated the beef, re-seasoning it along the way and I rebuilt my tacos from scratch, changing the proportions of the ingredients according to my mental notes from the night before. The result was a much more attractive and more well-proportioned steak taco!
See, practice makes perfect!
Do give this recipe a try if you’re into authentic Mexican cuisine. Heck, come to think of it, give it a try even if you’re into Tex-Mex or synthetic Mexican cuisine and you’ll find out just what you’ve been missing out on and you’ll end up thanking me.