IT’S OK TO TRUST A WHITE GUY MAKING TACOS

I used to be a food authenticity snob.

I would only eat Italian food from Italians, Chinese food from the Chinese, Mexican food from Mexicans and so on; I thought that was the way it had to be. I love traditional foods and am very much rooted in traditional cooking, recipes and techniques (I generally stay away from dishes that take longer to say then they do to eat). Some of this I probably learned from my mother, an amazingly talented cook with strong opinions about how things should be in the kitchen.

So, when I started cooking, I thought that everything I needed to know about Italian cooking could be learned from my family and relatives back in Italy. Over the years, I came to realize that my own prejudices with Italian food might be getting in the way of my learning new techniques or ideas, especially after I discovered the works of a very talented (and now very famous) chef named Rick Bayless.

The braised beef taco recipe below might be from an Italian guy, but it’s got an authentic Mexican flavor.

Rick is a great chef, specializing in Mexican cuisine (he now owns and operates several really great restaurants in Chicago). I learned that he did not grow up with a Mexican grandmother or mother. He did not start out with preconceived notion of what made for great Mexican food and how it had to be prepared.

Bayless’ food had all the magic and soul of the food made by mothers and grandmothers all over Mexico. He utilized the techniques and styles from all the country’s regions – a lesson that I took to heart. So I stopped believing that the only way to make gnocchi was to roll them on the back tines of a fork and that there were only two ways to make “authentic” tomato sauce. That in turn got me to begin looking beyond national boundaries. I started thinking about how much I enjoyed the food of other cultures; and if I enjoyed it, why not cook it?

That question opened my eyes to so many possibilities. I started a list of all of the styles and foods I wanted to explore. I wanted to open a bakery where Jewish rye and challah bread would be next to French and Italian specialties: that led to South Union Bakery. Also on my list: a pizza place and an Italian restaurant. I combined these two ideas to make Centro. Additionally, I wanted a French restaurant, which led to Django. A European-style grocery (Gateway Market) and “burger joint” (Zombie Burger) were added to the list a little further down the road. Last on my original list is a Mexican place… still working on that one!

The point is that you can make Jewish rye if you’re not Jewish, pizza if you’re not Italian and boeuf bourguignon if you’re not French. A good example is my friend Sam Auen of Tacopocalypse, whose outstanding tacos are worth waiting in line for at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market .

Sam’s excellent tacos inspired me to try my own. So here goes… enjoy these tacos with the works, brought to you by an Italian guy!

BRAISED BEEF TACOS

  • 1 Angus beef chuck roast (3 to 4 pounds), trimmed of fat and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 cups flour (for dredging the beef)
  • 1/4 cup oil (more if needed)
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 2 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and julienned
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon leaf thyme
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 can fire roasted tomato

Advance work:

The night before you’re serving the tacos, salt the beef with 2 to 3 tablespoons of salt, seal it in a large plastic baggie and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day:

Heat a large Dutch oven and add the oil. Dredge the meat chunks in the flour and shake off excess flour. Add the meat to the Dutch oven and cook them until they’re nicely browned (the pieces will not be cooked thoroughly) – do this in two batches.

Mix all of the remaining ingredients and place them into the Dutch oven. Add the browned pieces of meat and stir. Turn the mixture to high just long enough to heat the contents of the pot and then bring the heat back down to low. Stir occasionally and cook until the meat is tender and falling apart, which should take about 2.5 to 3 hours. It’s nice to chop meat and add it back to the sauce!

Serve with flour or corn tortillas, chopped white onion, guacamole, chopped cilantro and a fresh lime wedge.

Roasted tomato salsa works splendidly with these tacos.

ROASTED TOMATO SALSA
  • 6 Roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and cut in half
  • 1/2 of a yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 Pablano pepper, cored, seeded and sliced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, stem removed
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespooons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt (if using table salt, use less)
  • 2 teaspoons chipotle powder
  • 2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Heat a large pan on the stove and add olive oil. Throw in the tomato, onion, poblano, jalapeño and garlic. Cook on high heat without stirring until the vegetables start to brown. Add salt, oregano, chipotle powder and ancho powder and remove from heat.

Next, add your cilantro and vinegar. Transfer the mixture to a blender or use a stick blender and blend smooth. Adjust the seasoning to your taste and chill the salsa in the fridge.

This salsa is great on tacos, meats (such as roasted chicken, lamb or steak) or with tortilla chips.

Mexican style pinto beans will deliver a flavorful kick. My mashed bean recipe is below.

BEST RECIPE FOR BEANS

  • 2 cans pinto beans (use Goya brand from Gateway); do not drain
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (you could also use lard or bacon fat)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Heat a heavy pot or pan on medium heat; when the pan is sufficiently heated, add the oil.
Add onions and do not stir. Let the onions cook until visibly browning on edges; once that happens, you’re good to stir. Continue cooking until onions are browned, then add pepper and garlic and cook for 1 minute.
Add beans with liquid and smash the mixture with a potato masher. Turn the heat to low, and cook until the beans are heated through.
Garnish the beans with melty Mexican style cheese (Chihuahua), and serve on the side of the meat. Note: You can add cooked chorizo, chicharron or bacon on top of these beans for extra flavor.

This recipe works well in a slow-cooker or Crock Pot (just simmer on low for a few hours).

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