Simple yet full of flavor, with plenty of room for culinary creativity, tacos not surprisingly have risen to the top of many people’s favorite food lists. This Hispanic dish is great for serving a crowd and always invites a celebration of traditional recipes and fresh ingredients. With springtime in full swing and summer just around the corner, South Carolina is bursting at the seams with fresh ingredients, perfect for tacos. This moment comes just in time for one of America’s favorite holidays, Cinco de Mayo.
Though Americans often equate Cinco de Mayo with July Fourth celebrations, friends south of the border would remind us that their Independence Day actually takes place on Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. The city of Puebla in Mexico still celebrates the holiday with its traditional dark mole sauce. Mole, pronounced mo-lay, refers to a rich sauce, often served over poultry. This complex mixture includes a wide range of ingredients that all work together to strike a perfect balance. The ingredient list stretches to more than 40 items, including everything from dried peppers to tortillas and pineapple. Throughout Mexico, different regions create their mole with different combinations of ingredients. In the city of Puebla, where the Cinco de Mayo battle was won, the mole is dark and rich. This variety, known as mole poblano, contains unsweetened chocolate that provides depth and complexity to the toasted peppers that flavor the sauce. Other regions of Mexico serve a green mole, or mole verde.
Several Hispanic grocers across the Midlands offer supplies needed to host an authentic taco feast. Mercado Acapulco in West Columbia has refrigerators stocked with fresh corn tortillas and cojita cheese. On Beltline Boulevard, Super Acapulco sells fresh fruits and vegetables, including cactus fruit. Explore these specialty store aisles for other treats that may not be found at a regular grocery store.
There are plenty of ways to go overboard when filling tacos, but the simplicity of the dish allows the pure, fresh flavor of the ingredients to excel. Typically, when eating tacos, some heat balanced with cool and refreshing flavors is expected. Layer tastes that complement and enhance one another. Flavors can be overwhelming if not balanced.
Because tacos are eaten by hand, fill them with ingredients that are easy to bite. Few taco travesties are worse than chomping down on what looks like the perfect bite only to be stuck awkwardly chewing through a tough piece of meat. Tender, pulled pork works better than slices of a firm, boneless pork chop, and shredded vegetables make a better filling than large chunks. Consider fresh, crispy vegetables to pair with rich meats.
Though tacos invite creative fillings, the only main qualifier of a taco is the tortilla. Simply put, the base needs to be darn good. Hard or soft, corn or flour, the choice of shell ultimately depends on personal preference; however, if authenticity is a priority, corn tortillas are the way to go. Many turn away from this option because the lack of gluten creates a mealy texture that tends to fall apart easily. While a store-bought corn tortilla may never live up to a freshly made one, a bit of heat can solve the texture issue. Warming the tortilla just before eating draws the sweet nuttiness of the corn to the forefront while bonding the ingredients to create a sturdy soft-shell tortilla. For extra support, use two corn tortillas instead of one.
Tostados are a crunchy alternative to soft corn shells. Instead of the folded shape, these are a flat hard shell. Find this option in a local Mexican grocery store. Pile ingredients atop instead of inside, and enjoy.
While not necessary, warming improves all varieties of tortilla shells. To heat soft tortillas evenly, warm a non-stick skillet to medium high. Once the skillet is warm, lay the tortilla flat in the skillet for 30 seconds on each side. Oil is not needed. If they are cooked any longer than 30 seconds per side, the tortillas will begin to crisp and will not fold properly for a taco. If they do start to crisp, no worries. Overcooked corn tortillas can be used as homemade tostados. To prepare tacos for a crowd, wrap six in foil and warm in a 400 F oven for 10 minutes before serving.
Assemble tacos as soon as the tortillas are warm. To assemble, mix and match these toppings with various meat preparations. Each taco recipe has serving suggestions, but don’t be afraid to get creative! Shredded cheese, classic salsa, chopped onions, and beans are staples when it comes to tacos. Keep in mind that contrasting flavors like the rich mole sauce and the taco slaw pair well for a dynamic taco.
Simple Creamy Guacamole
While the avocado itself does not pack a flavorful punch, added lime and cilantro do. Citrus is an integral flavor in Hispanic cuisine. It brightens rich dishes and works as an acid to tenderize meat. Combining the avocado with chopped cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime, and a sprinkle of salt makes guacamole a rich flavor vehicle. Because guacamole is a spreadable ingredient, coating a tortilla in “guac” means that cilantro and lime can permeate every bite.
2 cloves of garlic, diced
1/4 sweet onion, diced
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 lime, juiced
Remove skin and pit from avocado and discard. Mash avocados and then stir in other ingredients. Test and adjust seasonings to match personal preference.
In this mango salsa, the spicy chili powder and sharp onions are cut by the sweet, juicy mango. Though the recipe calls for mango, other tropical fruits like pineapple, dragon fruit, or cactus can be used.
1 mango, diced
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 cup pimentos
1/4 cup sweet onions, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
Combine all ingredients. Adjust salt and chili powder based on personal preference.
This shredded slaw recipe has less dressing than classic cole slaw so that it does not drip and make the tortilla soggy.
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
4 cups shredded cabbage, red or green
1 cup shredded carrots
5 radishes, sliced thinly
To prepare dressing, mix mayonnaise, lime juice, salt, sugar, garlic powder, and cilantro in a small bowl until well combined. In a large bowl, toss cabbage, carrots, and radishes. Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables and toss until the slaw is coated. Taste and adjust flavor as desired.
Zesty Surf and Turf
1 pound of steak
1 pound of raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 limes, zested and juiced
1 3-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup oil
1 teaspoon cumin
Mix all ingredients of the marinade. Pour 2/3 of the marinade over the steak and 1/3 over the shrimp. Marinate at least 1 hour. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add steak to the skillet and sear both sides. Cook to preferred doneness. Remove steak and add shrimp to the same skillet. Cook until pink, roughly 5 minutes. Slice steak thinly.
Spread guacamole on a warmed corn tortilla and top with a slice of steak, three shrimp, radish slices, and a sprinkle of cheese.
Blackened Chipotle Tilapia Taco
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 tablespoon parsley
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
1 pound of tilapia fillets at room temperature
2 tablespoons of butter
Mango Salsa (see earlier recipe)
Combine all spices. Rub spices into the fish. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add fish to the skillet. Cook until browned and flaky. Exact cook time will vary based on the size of fillets.
Fill a taco shell with mango slaw and the fish. Top with an optional garnish of a drizzle of crema and freshly chopped cilantro.
Grilled Chicken and Pineapple Tostados
4 chicken breasts
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
6 fresh pineapple rings, sliced 1/2 inch thick
Preheat a grill to medium high. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel. Rub the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Grill chicken for 8 minutes on each side until no longer pink. Once the chicken has cooked, place the pineapple onto the outer edges of the grill. Cook for 3 minutes on each side until lightly caramelized. Shred the chicken and toss with chopped cilantro and paprika. Place the pineapple on a tostado and top with the shredded chicken. Squeeze a lime wedge over the dish and enjoy. Makes 6 tostados.