Making the Perfect Taco
While Tex-Mex chain restaurants may have you believing otherwise, the best Mexican food is healthy and fresh (and not dripping with melted cheese). Case in point: the taco, which can be filled with any number of delicious ingredients, for either a genuine south of the border experience or something more unexpected. We've included a few simple techniques—like making your own guacamole, which will always be better than store-bought—along with basic recipes sure to make your family's Taco Night the best meal of the week.
Push The Envelope: Any construction work benefits from a strong foundation; in other words, a better tortilla will mean a better taco. Choose a 6-inch soft whole wheat or corn tortilla over one made from white flour. And check the ingredients on the package: The best tortillas will be made of either corn or whole wheat, lime, water, and little else. Avoid partially hydrogenated oils and other added fats. Skip the hard-shell tortillas, which are high in fat and don't taste nearly as good as the soft kind. Another option: making your own (below). It's not as hard as you might think!
Before you begin filling your taco, you'll want to gently brown the tortilla. You can heat it in a very lightly oiled, heated skillet or on a griddle, about 2 minutes per side. Or, skip the pan: Toast the tortilla over an open flame on a gas stove, using tongs to turn it to brown both sides.
|[Technique] Making Tortillas|
|[ 1 ] Mix masa harina (corn flour) as directed on package.||[ 2 ] Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.||[ 3 ] Divide dough into balls.||[ 4 ] Roll each ball out into a 5- to 6-inch round on a sheet of plastic wrap. (You can also use a tortilla press.) In a cast-iron skillet, heat each tortilla for45 seconds per side.|
2. Meats & Veggies
Fill It Up: If you've only ever had ground beef in your tacos, you're in for a treat. There are a number of meats (fish, too) that work well in this dish. In addition to lean ground beef, you can try ground chicken or turkey. Shredded or chopped meat (chicken, turkey, pork, or beef) is also a traditional choice. Sauté the meat in a lightly oiled skillet with a bit of onion and garlic—you can throw in some strips of bell pepper at the same time if you like—then add your taco seasoning and some water, and cook until the liquid is absorbed.
Fish and shellfish turn out to be stellar taco stuffers, too. You can use shrimp or crab, or chunks of rockfish, salmon, tilapia, or swordfish. Marinate seafood in citrus juices (lime is typical) and then add taco seasoning. Sauté in a bit of oil with any veggies you want to add until the fish is cooked through.
Oh, and by the way, while our taco seasoning recipe works with pretty much any combo you can think of, you can make your own versions, too. We recommend starting with chili powder and cumin before adding other favorite herbs and spices.
|[At a Glance] Chili Peppers
Hit the High Notes: Toppings can add crunch (think strips of lettuce or thin slices of radish) or juiciness (chopped tomato, say, or mango salsa). Feel like you can't do without the cheese? Keep it sparse and lower in fat, and for a kick, look to sharp cheddar or jalapeño jack. A healthier fat can be found in a slice of avocado or a spoonful of guacamole (see step-by-step instructions below).
Salsa is an obvious go-with. A simple choice is pico de gallo, a fresh tomato-and-onion sauce that can pack a serious kick. Need something cooling to complement all those yummy spices? Instead of high-fat sour cream, try subbing a dollop of nonfat Greek-style yogurt, which is just as creamy.
|[Technique] Making Guacamole|
|[ 1 ] Cut open the avocados and scoop out all the flesh, discarding the pit and skin. (Hass avocados, the kind with the pebbly skin, are best for guacamole.)||[ 2 ] Combine the avocado flesh and lime juice in a bowl or mortar.||[ 3 ] Mash the avocado and juice together.||[ 4 ] Add in red or white onion, tomato, cilantro, and garlic, and gently combine.|
Don't Forget the Sides: Refried beans are a traditional side dish. Making your own is really simple, and it can be a whole lot healthier than the stuff you scrape out of a can. It's really just a matter of mashing beans with spices and some onion, and then cooking them over high heat until thick and slightly dry. Pinto and red kidney beans are the usual choices, but feel free to try black beans as well. Don't have time to make refried beans? You can heat up some plain beans and serve them as is.
|[At a Glance] Mexican Ingredients
|[ 1 ] Cooked tomatillos can be cut up and used in salsa.||[ 2] Toasted pepitas (raw pumpkin seeds) are a topper for salads and soups.||[ 3 ] Sliced jicama gives crunch to tacos and salads.||[ 4 ] Epazote and [ 5 ] cilantro are two commonly used herbs.|