Monday, February 23, 2015

American Tacos and Homemade Taco Seasoning

If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, the word "taco" probably conjures up a mental image of a crispy yellow shell filled with spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, and lettuce. The more culinarily adventurous will also envision layers of chopped tomato and perhaps avocado. These pleasing ideas may, or may not, be accompanied by thoughts of a corporate logo which include a stylized bell against a background of red or brown. It all depends on where you ate your tacos.

When I was a kid, we rarely ate out; if we wanted tacos, we made them at home. The process started with the purchase of tortillas, a pound of ground beef, and a small red packet labelled "taco seasoning". While Mom browned the meat and stirred in the contents of the packet, my sister grated cheddar cheese and chopped up the (shudder) iceberg lettuce. Then the tortillas were warmed, and we sat down to enjoy what we fondly thought of as Mexican food.

Nowadays I know better. I've read enough food magazines and eaten at enough awesome hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants to have an entirely different (and presumably more authentic) concept of a taco. But sometimes I still hanker after the old seasoned-ground-beef-in-a-tortilla of my childhood. I think of it as the American taco. (Apparently this is a common name; I just googled the phrase "American taco" and all kinds of recipes came up.)

Though they have no culinary snob value, American tacos are tasty and filling, and, if you add enough leafy greens, make for a more or less nutritionally-balanced main dish. And since I mix my own taco seasoning, my tacos are MSG-free - or, to be scientifically accurate, they contain no processed free glutamic acid. The same cannot be said with certainty for tacos seasoned with the little red packet, or purchased from a building with a bell on the sign.

I don't usually measure the seasoning ingredients when I'm making taco filling - I just get out the containers and sling the stuff in - so the measurements given here are approximate, and adjusting to taste is encouraged. I like to include a bit of cinnamon for velvety warmth, and finish with lime juice for brightness. (If you make the vegetarian filling below, the lime juice is key to counteracting the stodginess of the beans.)

Any of the filling versions below will also make a great topping for leafy green salads: arrange greens on plate, then top with warm taco filling and shredded cheese. Or make an enchilada variation: soften tortillas in hot oil, then roll with filling and shredded cheese and place in an oven-proof dish. Pour on a little salsa, and top with more shredded cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until heated through.

Seasoning recipe makes enough for one pound of ground beef.

Stir together in a bowl:
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon medium-heat chili powder (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (or 1 clove chopped fresh garlic, added with meat)
1/4 teaspoon onion powder (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
2-4 hearty dashes of cinnamon
4 teaspoons cornmeal (ground oatmeal may be substituted in a pinch)

Very Basic Meat Filling: Brown 1 lb. ground beef, stirring occasionally to break up meat; drain fat if desired; stir in seasoning and 1/2 - 3/4 cup water (water will be absorbed as mixture simmers); cover and simmer on low for 5-10 minutes. Remove pan from heat; squeeze in juice of 1/2 lime and stir. Serve with tortillas and fillings of choice.

Mrs. M's Enhanced Filling: Chop 1 onion, 1 small red bell pepper, 1 small jalapeño (seeds and ribs removed), and a small handful of cilantro stems (reserve leaves for later); saute in 1-2 Tablespoons oil until just beginning to soften. Add uncooked beef (and fresh garlic if using). Cook for a few minutes, stirring gently to break up meat as it browns. Add taco seasoning, 1/2 cup chunky salsa, and 1/2 cup water (water will be absorbed as mixture simmers). Cover and simmer on low for 5-10 minutes, adding more water if desired or if mixture seems dry. While meat simmers, chop reserved cilantro leaves. Remove pan from heat; squeeze in juice of 1/2 lime, stir, and top with cilantro leaves. Serve with tortillas and fillings of choice.

Vegetarian Version: Make as Enhanced Version above, but replace ground beef with 1 can rinsed prepared black beans OR 1½ cups cooked black beans, and about 3/4 cup cooked rice. Be sure to use the lime juice at the end - it makes all the difference to the flavour.

The Whole Shebang: Combine the Enhanced Version and the Vegetarian version by using beef AND black beans and rice in the amounts listed above. Double the seasoning recipe, and use extra salsa and both halves of the lime. Increase water if desired.

~ ~ ~

We like to build our American tacos from corn tortillas heated in olive oil until soft, then salted on one side; meat or bean-and-rice (or combined) filling; grated CoJack cheese; and torn fresh leafy lettuce. If we're out of lettuce we use baby spinach leaves. (I did say "American", right?) Mr. M adds guacamole when I remember to buy an avocado.

Other fillings you might enjoy: cooked corn; sour cream; refried beans; chopped tomatoes; chopped fresh onions.

Do you eat tacos? What kind do you like?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


  1. Tacos are not part of my everyday culinary efforts but you made me want to try :-)

  2. I like Tacos, ours were always home made, but it's enchaladas that I love.
    Thanks for your comments on the Brandons, what a fun book. It was Lavinia, silly yes, but I liked her. I read that the author Angela Thirkell, after 2 marriages, gave up on marriage and said that no husband was the best husband of all. So I think Lavinia is probably a bit of Ms Thirkell.
    She had me laughing out loud and there aren't many authors who can do that.

  3. Oh yummy! :) Sounds like a very tasty dinner. ((hugs))

  4. I use the same seasoning recipe but mine does not include cinnamon. That would be really good though so I will try to remember it next time I make some. I love tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, burritos...good thing I live in the southwest! I only remember having tacos a few times when I was growing up because my dad didn't like them. I think he found them too spicy but he always liked very mild, bland food. I've learned to like things much spicier as I've gotten older. Thank you for sharing your taco night with us, it was really fun and interesting.

  5. Homemade refried beans all the way! Yum!! Now I'm hungry for lunch... ;-)

  6. I can't tell the difference between tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, burritos, they play no part in my culinary repertoire but I really should find out how they differ.

  7. I like *American* tacos ---- YUM! The photo with the cilantro makes me hungry! Now I think I need tacos for supper. LOL

  8. Mexican and Tex Mex food lover here! Although smothered burritos and enchiladas are my favorites. Oh, and stuffed sopapillas!!! Love homemade verde salsa, homemade refried black beans, homemade tortillas and homegrown peppers, corn, tomatoes and spices!

  9. Dang Mrs. M, that looks incredibly delicious! I like tacos too, as many as I can get. In addition to the jalapeño, I'd throw in a serrano pepper. In the immortal words of the Taco Bell Chihuahua, here lizard, lizard, lizard...

  10. Sue,
    Guess what?! When we are in England, we like to buy the boxes of Old El know, with the taco shells, seasoning and little salsa packet? Well, here's the thing...the taco shells are SO doggone good, you would not believe it! They plump up and they taste like you are in some expensive Mexican restaurant, I am not kidding!
    Just giving you another reason to visit England! P. S. We buy the same thing here, the shells are not the same, I don't get it.


I love comments! Speak on....