Most American cities, and Mount Airy is no exception, do not yet have a taco truck on every corner but that does not mean that tacos, and the interesting dishes that have evolved from them, are not all around us.
Ranging from the corporate cultural appropriation of Taco Bell’s Americanized version to locally owned, more authentic taquerias, there is a wide range of tacos to be had around town, and around the country.
So where did tacos come from in the first place? Smithsonian Magazine reports that Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, has spent 20 years tracking down the answer to that question.
Pilcher feels that tacos were invented by silver miners in Mexico in the 18th century. “Taco” was the word the miner’s used to describe the charges they used to blast through rocks in the mines, little pieces of paper wrapped around a bit of gunpowder. Which is a fairly apt description of a taco, a little tortilla wrapped around some fiery filling. By the end of the 19th century, dictionaries included the phrase “tacos de minero” or miner’s tacos. Shortly thereafter, Mexican immigrants popularized tacos in the American Southwest and the last piece of the puzzle fell into place when Glen Bell appropriated them, adapted them to Anglo tastes and applied a franchise business model, thereby creating Taco Bell and making tacos accessible and available to Americans all over the country.
And now home cooks have gotten in on the action and adopted tacos in all kinds of ways.
Dawn Greening has gotten rid of the tortilla entirely and uses packaged crescent rolls to assemble her taco masterpiece into a dinner centerpiece that has more in common with a crown roast or a beef Wellington than a taco. That is, of course, until one tastes it.The taste of seasoned ground beef and onion is unmistakable.
Tacos lend themselves easily to adaptation. Form the tortillas into a bowl shape and you’ve got a taco bowl. Crumble the tortilla into bite-size pieces and serve on a plate for a taco salad. Add some liquid for taco soup. Then things get really exciting when tacos meet lasagna. Turns out that combining those two favorites can lead in some interesting directions as the following recipes show.
Really good, fast, fun dinner. Serves 16… or 8 really hungry people. To half recipe, just cut ground beef to 1/2 pound and 1 package crescent rolls.
1 lb. ground beef
1 medium onion
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Chop 1/2 onion and cook with your ground beef. Season to taste with:
2 packages crescent rolls (16)
Lay your crescent rolls with bottoms overlapping to look like a sun. Drain ground beef, add cheddar cheese and mix well. Spoon the beef/cheese mixture around the bottom of the circle. Fold your points over the mixture, tucking at the bottom. Bake your taco ring at 350°F. for 30 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes.
You can add garnishes, we used chopped onion, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, black olives and sour cream.
Taco Salad for a Large Crowd
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
2 envelopes taco seasoning, divided
1 medium head iceberg lettuce
1 package (12-1/2 ounces) nacho tortilla chips, coarsely crushed
2 pints grape tomatoes, halved
2 cans (16 ounces each) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
3 cans (2-1/4 ounces each) sliced ripe olives, drained
1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese
1 large sweet onion, chopped
2 cans (4 ounces each) chopped green chilies
1-1/2 cups Thousand Island salad dressing
1-1/3 cups salsa
1/3 cup sugar
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, cook beef with 1 envelope plus 2 tablespoons taco seasoning until no longer pink; drain.
In a very large serving bowl, combine the lettuce, chips, tomatoes, beans, olives, cheese, onion, chilies and beef mixture.
In a small bowl, combine the salad dressing, salsa, sugar and remaining taco seasoning; pour over salad and toss to coat. Yield: 26 servings (1-1/3 cups each).
Make your own taco bowls using the underside of a muffin tin and corn tortillas.
8 6-inch corn tortillas
Canola oil cooking spray
Preheat oven to 375 °F. Heat tortillas until warm (see below). Coat each side of 4 tortillas with cooking spray. (Keep the remaining 4 tortillas covered.) Turn a 12-cup muffin tin upside down. Nestle a tortilla in the space between 4 cups to form a “bowl.” Repeat with 3 more tortillas, making 4 bowls total. Bake until firm and beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the remaining 4 tortillas.
Warming tortillas prevents them from cracking and breaking. Here are three ways to warm your tortillas:
1 — In the oven: Wrap stacks of 8 tortillas in foil; place in a 375°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
2 — On the stove: Turn a gas or electric burner on high. Using tongs, slide one tortilla at a time over the burner for a few seconds, alternating sides, until it’s softened and beginning to char. Cover tortillas to keep warm.
3 — In the microwave: Wrap a stack of 8 tortillas in a barely damp, clean kitchen towel (or paper towel); microwave on High for 30 to 45 seconds.
Chicken Taco Bowls (for two)
4 taco bowls, see recipe above
6 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Chicken breast boneless, skinless, 1 lb.
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. canola oil
1/2 cup prepared green salsa
1/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1/2 cup thinly sliced lettuce
1 small tomato, chopped
1 tbsp. sliced ripe black olives
Prepare taco bowls, according to previous recipe. Meanwhile, toss chicken with garlic powder and salt in a bowl. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, stirring, until it is no longer pink on the outside, about 3 minutes. Add salsa and cook, stirring frequently, until the salsa is bubbling and the chicken is no longer pink in the middle, about 3 minutes more. Remove from the heat; cover to keep warm. Fill each tortilla bowl with about 1/4 cup of the chicken mixture. Top with 1 tablespoon each cheese and sour cream, 2 tablespoons each lettuce and tomato and a few olives.
Taco Lettuce Wraps
8 small iceberg or romaine lettuce leaves or 4 large, cut in half crosswise
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons prepared salsa
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 cup diced avocado
1 cup julienned jícama(see below)
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
Wash and dry lettuce leaves well and cut out any tough ribs. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add ground beef, season with salt and cook, stirring often, until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk salsa, vinegar and cumin in a small bowl. Remove the pan from the heat, add the salsa mixture and stir to combine. Serve in the lettuce leaves, topped with avocado, jicama and onion.
Jícama is a round root vegetable with thin brown skin and white crunchy flesh. It has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. To peel it, use a small, sharp knife or vegetable peeler, making sure to remove both the papery brown skin and the layer of fibrous flesh just underneath.
Slow Cooker Taco Soup
2 lb. ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
2 packets Ranch dressing mix
2 packets taco seasoning
1 32 oz. box chicken broth
14.5 oz. can tomato sauce
2 – 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes with chiles
14.5 oz can black beans
1 can corn
Sauté onions for 2 minutes. Add ground beef and brown the meat. Drain browned ground beef to remove excess fat. Add ground beef mixture and all other ingredients (do not drain corn or black beans) to slow cooker. Cook on high for 4 hours or low for 6 hours. Garnish with sour cream and cheddar cheese.
Cheesy Taco Lasagna
1 lb. ground beef
1 tbsp. taco seasoning
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles or cooked lasagna noodles
3 cups salsa
2 15-oz. containers ricotta
1/4 cups sour cream
1 large egg
3 cups shredded Mexican cheese
Sliced scallions, for garnish
Thinly sliced red jalapeño, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large skillet over medium heat, add ground beef. Season with taco seasoning and cook, crumbling up with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. In a 9 x 13” baking dish, spoon a layer of salsa over bottom to cover. Layer lasagna noodles. In a medium bowl, mix ricotta, sour cream, and egg and season with salt. Spread ricotta mixture over noodles and top with a layer of ground beef and cheese. Repeat layers until baking dish is full, ending with cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until bubbly, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then garnish with scallions and jalapeño and slice.
Taco Lasagna Rollups
It’s really more like enchiladas than tacos but delicious nonetheless.
10 uncooked lasagna noodles
1 (16 ounce) jar salsa
1 pound ground beef
1 (1 ounce) packet taco seasoning mix
1 (16 ounce) package cottage cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 (15.5 ounce) jar prepared salsa con queso sauce
1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend
Fill a large pot with lightly salted water and bring to a rolling boil. Once the water is boiling, stir in the lasagna noodles, about 3 or 4 at a time, and return to a boil. Cook the noodles uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the pasta has cooked through but is still firm to the bite, about 10 minutes per batch. Drain well in a colander set in the sink, and lay the cooked noodles flat on waxed paper or aluminum foil while you finish cooking the rest of the noodles. Preheat oven to 375° F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish, and spread the salsa evenly over the bottom of the dish. Place the ground beef in a skillet over medium heat, sprinkle with taco seasoning, and cook and stir the meat, breaking it up as it cooks, until the meat is browned and crumbly, about 10 minutes. Drain the fat, and place the meat in a large bowl. Mix cottage cheese and Parmesan cheese into the meat. Place a cooked lasagna noodle out flat, and spread about 1/3 cup of the cheese and meat mixture along the length of the noodle. Roll up the noodle, and place the filled rolls, seam sides down, into the prepared baking dish. Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the queso sauce over each roll. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.
Bake in the preheated oven until the sauce is hot and bubbling, about 40 minutes. Uncover the dish, and spread the Mexican cheese blend over the rolls. Return to the oven, and bake until the cheese is melted, 8 to 10 more minutes.
Taco Stuffed Peppers
2 medium green bell peppers, cut in half lengthwise, seeded
1/2 lb ground beef
2 tbsp. chopped onion
2 tbsp. taco seasoning mix
1 can (15.5 oz) kidney beans, drained, rinsed
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup chopped tomato (1/2 small)
Heat oven to 350°F. In 2-quart saucepan, heat 6 cups water to boiling. Add bell pepper halves; boil 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Drain; set aside. Meanwhile, in 8-inch nonstick skillet, cook ground beef and onion over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in taco seasoning mix, kidney beans and tomato sauce. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. In ungreased 8-inch square (2-quart) glass baking dish, arrange pepper halves. Spoon meat mixture evenly into each. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until peppers are tender. Top individual servings with sour cream, cheese and tomato.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.