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Chefs Recipe Challenge: Make Your Tacos the Talk 'O' The Town

The Food Dude shows how to make taco night the talk ‘o' the town in a special Chefs Recipe Challenge.
BY DAVE CATHEY Food Editor dcathey@opubco.com Published: February 29, 2012

The holiday season begins much earlier and ends much later for folks in the hospitality business than it does for the rest of the world.

Our Chefs Recipe Challenge series has gone into “special programming” for December, January and February as we prepare to pick up where we left off.

For February, I took a look at the list to see if there were any dishes that I could attempt to impart some chef-like recommendations, and tacos were the only choice. I've been making tacos since I was in sixth grade, starting with the hard-shell simulacrum created by Glen Bell in support of his Riverside, Calif., taco stand turned fast food giant. With a little research and a lot of eating, I learned a few tricks along the way and feel confident in being able to help you turn your family taco night into the talk ‘o' the town.

The first thing you must understand is the shells that come in a box wrapped in plastic with the word “taco” attached to them are not invited to this party. That's not to say the Cathey household doesn't hold its share of taco feasts with these old favorites as the centerpiece. Far from it. No, it's to say, that if we're going to ascend into taco nirvana, we must embrace the uncooked corn tortilla.

On Saturdays, if you venture to Feria Latina, 4909 NW 23 St., and make your way to the meat market, you'll find a large cooler sitting at the foot of the counter. Open it and you'll be greeted with a warm rush of corn aroma that I'm pretty sure causes temporary levitation. These locally made beauties are still warm, steaming up their plastic-wrap domiciles. Buy them. You can go to the trouble of making your own corn tortillas, but you'll likely be too exhausted by you've finished to muster enough strength to fold a tortilla around anything.

In a pinch, wrap them in wet paper and microwave them for a minute or two, depending on how many are in the stack. For perfect results, fry a tortilla for a few seconds, flip it and add two heaping spoonfuls of filling, carefully fold taco on fry each side until crispy and golden brown. You can also heat each tortilla on a hot, dry griddle to warm up and store in a tortilla warmer and serve at the table. Flour tortillas are acceptable, but they are significantly more filling and will act as more of a shield to the flavors of the fillings.

For the fillings, I like to make at least three, but only if they make sense as a unit or on their own. For my demonstration at Culinary Kitchen, 7302 N Western Ave., I made fillings in beef, bacon and mushroom-pecan.

Each preparation is extremely simple to make up for the number of homemade salsas required to make your taco party sing.

After you've acquired good tortillas, you'll want to make your salsa. The types of salsa you make will do things: 1. Determine the kind of fillings you want and 2. Assist in their preparation. For this challenge, I made three: green, red and gold.

The green is founded on fresh tomatillo, ripe avocado and local arugula. The arugula from Peach Crest Farms imparts an incredible, nuttiness that gives this basic salsa some depth. The bright, spicy flavor pairs perfectly with rich, salty fillings.

The red is a friend to all, but blends more with other flavors. The real treat from the red is the residual liquid, which I like to use as a cooking liquid for the fillings.

The gold is a sweet and spicy knock-off of the Coral Snake Salsa from the Iguana Mexican Grill. This King Snake Salsa isn't as good, but it'll do if you don't live close enough to swing by 9th Street to purchase a quart.

What makes the experience memorable is being able to mix and match fillings with salsas and condiments. Fresh radish slices, shredded greens, diced red onion, cilantro, chopped Serrano chile and fine-grated cotija cheese are ideal.

Next month we'll return to our normal format. Chef Jonathon Stranger challenged chef Marc Dunham, of the Francis Tuttle Culinary School, to prepare chicken-fried steak in a previous segment. That challenge will at long last be met. If you're interested in attending, call 475-3155 or email me at dcathey@opubco.com.

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