Cinco de Mayo is a fun day to celebrate our love of all things Mexican. I think of it as the North American version of St. Patrick’s Day. And like on that specifically Irish holiday, drinking is a huge focus. In fact, for many of you degenerates, it’s the only focus. That’s a pity, because the true focus should be on THE TACO! Lucky for us, Cinco de Mayo is on a Thursday this year, so we get Taco Tuesday twice in one week.
You’d never guess I love tacos! They’re a Mexican version of a sandwich and, like a sandwich, the ingredients and flavor combinations are infinite. To get the best results, follow a few common sense rules or techniques.
First, let’s look at a taco’s basic components. Versions vary, but the essence of every taco includes a tortilla, a main ingredient (usually a protein), an internal garnish and, finally, sauce. Just like the basic components of a sandwich!
My least-favorite taco ever? The bland variation from my childhood. You know the one I mean. The classic ’70s mashup of a crispy yellow corn tortilla (usually stale) with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, chopped out-of-season-tomato, flavorless shredded cheddar, and chunky salsa from a jar. This was an “edgy” ethnic item that became so popular, companies began to sell them in kits. This led to fairly pedestrian results, because unskilled, uninspired cooks were cranking the tasteless structures out just to “get ’er done.” Quite pitiful — if you give even this version of taco a little love, it can be awesome.
What if you made a nice seasoning blend with more than salt and MSG? That sounds good. How about browning the ground beef properly? It shouldn’t result in gray meat swimming in red-tinged fat. Use high-quality cheese, maybe even Mexican cheese, and make your own damn salsa! Stay away from that goopy ketchupy stuff in jars. There — you got a great start to a really good taco.
I really love to raise the humble taco to new heights. Imagine combining a classic carne asada with different salsas. Each region of Mexico has different, distinct flavors. As contemporary chefs, we’re free to take any or all, interpret them and produce nontraditional, outstanding flavors based on traditional ingredients. The result? Bright, spicy, deep, rich flavors. That’s what we do!
The modern taco has taken off; today, there are several great taco places in Northeast Florida where we can find delicious varieties, some really creative and some authentic. Taco love!
If you’re ready for a little project, try my Green Mole Chicken recipe. It’s an outstanding way to fill a tortilla.
Chef Bill’s Green Mole Chicken
- 3 poblanos, roasted
- 10 tomatillos, husked
- 1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted
- 1/2 cup almond slices, toasted
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 cinnamon sticks, toasted
- 4 whole allspice, toasted
- 1 clove, toasted
- 1/2 teaspoon anise, toasted
- 1/4 cup sultanas
- 1.5 onions, diced
- 20 oz. chicken stock
- 3 pounds chicken thighs
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1/4 bunch parsley
- 1 sprig oregano
- Mexican Chix Spice
- Sugar, salt & pepper to taste
- Season the chicken thighs with Mexi seasoning. Lightly sear over medium heat. Do not blacken!
- Remove from pan, set aside.
- Char tomatillos and poblanos in the broiler, skin and seed the pepper, rough chop pepper and tomatillos.
- Grind all the toasted spices except the cinnamon sticks.
- Gently sweat the onions and the garlic. Add chicken stock, toasted spices, cinnamon sticks, poblanos, tomatillos, oregano, and chicken.
- Bring to a simmer, cover and over braise for 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender.
- Cool slightly, remove chicken and shred. Buzz the sauce with cilantro and parsley, adjust seasoningand consistency.
- Return the chicken, add to tortillas with condiments of your choice.
- No bottled salsa!
Chef Bill Thompson, who owns Amelia Island Culinary Academy in Historic Fernandina Beach, is ready to take your recipe suggestions or questions.