Celebrating a taco party with recipes from Chef Heidi Fink. Don Denton food photography

Taco Party with Chef Heidi Fink

Bringing back the taste of summer with homemade tortillas and fillings

  • Oct. 17, 2018 12:15 p.m.

– Story and recipes by Chef Heidi Fink

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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As the season changes to fall, we often want to hold on to the tastes of summer: dinners on the patio, casual meals on a warm evening, an abundance of market-fresh produce. Enter the homegrown taco party — the easiest way to bring back the taste and feel of a summer meal.

Festive, flavourful and fun, tacos are the kind of food made to bring people together. What could be more enticing at any time of year than a shared meal of sun-drenched foods: spicy salsas, juicy grilled meats and vegetables, warm, seasoned beans and sweet corn tortillas?

Tacos are at once homey and festive: easy to eat, casual and still special enough for a party. Every person at the table can tailor his or her own tacos to suit individual tastes, mixing and matching fillings with salsas and condiments to create a personal version of taco heaven.

To make a basic taco meal, choose at least one filling, two salsas and several condiments. To make a full-on fiesta in your own kitchen, invite friends who love to cook, and have every person bring something different to the meal. A selection of at least three taco fillings, two or three salsas and all of the condiments will feel like a feast of summertime abundance.

Below are some of my favourite recipes for fillings and salsas. Try any or all of these, with or without your regular taco time favourites.

But for spectacular results no matter what, try your hand at homemade corn tortillas. I love them so much and find them so easy to make, I pull out my tortilla press even during a busy weeknight. Homemade corn tortillas are the definitive sign that a taco meal has turned into a full on taco party, no matter how small the meal.

Making tortillas for a taco party dinner. Don Denton photography

HOMEMADE CORN TORTILLAS

Makes about 12 soft tortillas

Homemade tortillas are easy to make and have an incomparable flavour and texture. They are made with a special corn flour called masa harina, which can be purchased at various grocery stores in town.

2 cups masa harina

1½ cups tepid water

Equipment: tortilla press, cast iron or stainless steel skillet

Combine masa and water in a medium-sized bowl and mix with a fork or your hands until evenly blended. Let dough rest for 5 minutes. Form dough into golf-ball-sized pieces. Roll each into a ball and flatten slightly. Preheat a cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat.

Place a flattened dough ball in the centre of a plastic-lined tortilla press (I use a large freezer lock bag, cut open), close and press firmly. Open and gently remove tortilla. Immediately place in the preheated skillet to cook while you press the next tortilla. Cook in the skillet for about one minute; flip and cook for about 40 seconds on the second side. Remove to a plate and cover with a clean dish towel. Repeat with remaining dough.

Serve tortillas immediately, or let cool and wrap in plastic wrap. Store in the fridge. Reheat by wrapping the stack in foil and placing in a warm oven for 10 minutes.

Tortillas for a taco party dinner. Don Denton photography

SALSA FRESCA

Makes 2 cups

The proportions of this salsa are not set in stone. You’re looking for a happy blending of flavours, which depends on the sweetness of the tomatoes, the sharpness of the onion, the acidity of the lime and the heat of the chili. Taste as you go, and feel free to make adjustments.

½ small white onion, cut in quarters

2 jalapeños or serranos (seed them if you want the salsa to be less spicy)

1 clove garlic, pressed

¼ to ⅓ cup fresh cilantro

½ tsp salt, more to taste

2 to 3 tsp fresh lime juice

4 large ripe tomatoes, cut in large pieces

Combine the onion pieces, jalapeños, garlic, cilantro and lime juice in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the tomatoes and the salt and pulse until tomatoes are chopped and everything is well mixed. Pour into a bowl and taste to adjust for seasonings.

TOMATILLO SALSA

Makes about 2 cups

Tomatillo salsa is a fresh-tasting, green table salsa found everywhere in Mexico. Naturally a bit sour and very refreshing, this salsa goes especially well with rich meat fillings and veggies flavoured with smoke from the grill. Although in the same family as tomatoes, tomatillos are more closely related to the ground cherry and cape gooseberry.

8 fresh tomatillos*

½ white or yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic

¼ cup minced cilantro

½ tsp salt

1 or 2 jalapeños, chopped (use more if you like it spicy)

*To choose tomatillos, look for firm fruits with a dry husk. Generally, if the husks are tighter against the fruit, the tomatillo will be fresher, but this is not always the case. Tomatillos should not be soft and mushy. The colour of a tomatillo can range from bright apple green to pale yellow. Any colour within that range is fine, although the greener ones are less ripe and therefore less prone to spoiling. Some tomatillos will have a dark purple bloom on them. That is also normal.

Remove and discard the papery husk from each tomatillo. Wash the tomatillos well and place in a small pot with enough fresh water to just cover them. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the tomatillos are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the tomatillos, reserving the cooking liquid, and set them and their liquid aside to cool.

Place the remaining ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor or blender. Add one-half cup of the cooled tomatillo cooking liquid. Blend until very finely chopped. Add the cooked tomatillos and pulse to make a coarse purée. Pour into a bowl and taste for salt. Use a little more of the cooking liquid to thin the salsa to a pourable consistency.

FRIJOLES NEGROS

Makes 2 to 3 cups frijoles

Homemade black beans are far superior to the canned ones!

1 cup dried black beans

½ tsp salt

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic, crushed

½ tsp dried epazote (optional)

¼ tsp ground cumin

¼ tsp ancho chili powder

¼ tsp dried Mexican oregano

2 to 3 Tbsp olive oil, bacon fat or lard

½ onion, minced

1 additional clove garlic, minced

Coarsely chopped cilantro leaves (optional)

Crumbled goat feta (optional)

Pick over beans to remove any that are broken, discoloured or moldy. Rinse well and drain. Place in a large pot with 8 cups of fresh water. Add the salt and bring to a boil. While boiling the beans for 1 minute, skim any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the bay leaf, crushed garlic, epazote, cumin, ancho and oregano. Simmer the beans gently for 2 to 3 hours, until very tender, adding water to keep the level just above the surface of the beans. Remove from heat, and let the beans cool in their own broth.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Remove bay leaf. Place all but one half a cup of beans in the work bowl of a food processor. Add one half to three quarters cup of the reserved cooking liquid and process until beans are puréed.

Heat a cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil or fat and heat until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until onion is cooked through and browning. Add garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Now add the puréed beans to the pan and stir everything together. Add some reserved bean-cooking liquid, if necessary, to keep the beans from splattering too much. Heat thoroughly and add the remaining half-cup whole beans. Cook for 10 minutes until all the flavours are melded together, adding more bean cooking liquid as the beans get thicker. You will probably use up all the liquid. Taste the beans for salt, scrape into a bowl, sprinkle with cilantro and cheese, if desired, and serve immediately.

SPICED FLANK STEAK FILLING FOR TACOS

Makes 12 tacos, serving 4 to 6.

Spice Paste

3 medium garlic cloves, roughly chopped

2 medium scallions, roughly chopped (about ¼ cup)

1 jalapeños or serrano chili, seeded

1 chipotle chili, canned in adobo sauce

1 tsp smoked sweet paprika

1 tsp ancho chile powder

1 tsp toasted ground cumin

1½ tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar

2 Tbsp vegetable oil, or a bit more, if necessary

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Steak

1 flank steak (approx. 1 pound)

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp white sugar

FOR THE SPICE PASTE: Pulse garlic, scallions, chili and spices in food processor or mini-chopper until finely chopped. Add oil and process until mixture is smooth and resembles pesto, about 15 seconds. Use more oil if needed to help the paste purée better. Transfer 1 Tbsp of the spice paste to medium-sized bowl, whisk in lime juice and set aside.

FOR THE STEAK: Trim the steak of excess fat. Cut it crosswise in half; cut each half lengthwise (with the grain) into 2 equal pieces, making 4 pieces of steak in total. Use a dinner fork or skewer to poke each piece of steak 10 to 12 times on each side. Place in a large baking dish; rub all sides of steak pieces evenly with the spice paste that does not have lime juice in it. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 12 hours.

TO COOK AND FINISH THE FILLING: Heat a gas or charcoal grill to a medium-high heat. Scrape paste off steak and sprinkle all sides of steak pieces evenly with salt and sugar. Scrape grill and heat until very hot. Place steaks on grill and sear, about 3 minutes. Flip steaks and grill for about 3 minutes. Reduce grill heat and cook until steaks are rare, registering 125 to 130 degrees F (52 degrees C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 3 minutes more. Transfer steak to a platter and let rest 5 minutes.

Transfer the steak to a clean cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife or carving knife, slice steak pieces across the grain into thin slices (1/8 inch thick or less). Transfer sliced steak to bowl with spice paste-lime juice mixture and toss to coat.

Serve filling immediately, sprinkling each flank steak taco with chopped onion, avocado, salted cabbage, chopped tomato, salsa or crumbled cheese.

Finished tacos ready for a taco party dinner. Don Denton photography

POACHED CHICKEN AND SALTED CABBAGE FILLING

Makes enough filling for about 12 tacos

A traditional Mexican filling of plain meat paired with spicy, salty and crunchy condiments, this is a not-to-be-missed taco combination.

Chicken:

3 large or 4 smaller full chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)

1 onion, cut into eights

2 bay leaves, broken in half

3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into quarters

¾ tsp salt

2 Tbsp chopped cilantro stems

Cabbage:

¼ head of green cabbage

½ tsp salt

Salsa Fresca (recipe above)

To make chicken: Rinse the chicken legs well and pat dry. Cut along the joint of each leg to separate the thighs from the drumsticks. Place all the thighs and drumsticks in a medium pot with the salt. Add water until chicken is covered by a generous inch of water. Place pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Boil for one minute, skimming off any scum or foam that floats to the surface.

Immediately add the onion, bay leaves, garlic and cilantro stems. Add more water, if necessary, to make sure everything is covered by one inch. Bring to a boil again, reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover and simmer gently until chicken is tender — 25 to 30 minutes. Remove pot from heat and let chicken cool in its broth until cool enough to handle.

While chicken is cooking, make cabbage: remove the core from the cabbage. Use a sharp knife to finely shred the cabbage. Place cabbage in a medium bowl and add the salt. Toss cabbage and salt together to coat cabbage evenly with the salt. Let salted cabbage sit, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the salt is starting to draw out the juice.

Dump salted cabbage into a strainer and suspend over a bowl or sink. Place a small plate inside the strainer, covering the cabbage. Place a heavy weight, such as a can of beans, on top of the plate so that the cabbage is being pressed. This will force as much liquid from the cabbage as possible. Press and drain the cabbage for about 30 minutes.

Remove the can and plate. Rinse the cabbage well under a stream of cool water. Shake strainer to get rid of as much excess water as possible. Squeeze cabbage by the handful, transferring it to a clean bowl, repeating until all the cabbage is done.

Remove cool chicken from the broth, remove skins and pull meat from the bones, discarding any fat and sinew, shredding the meat into small pieces with your fingers. Set meat aside.

To assemble and serve tacos: chicken can be warm or room temperature. To warm the chicken, place the shredded meat in a pan with a few tablespoons of its cooking broth. Heat over medium heat, stirring gently from time to time, until chicken is heated through. Cabbage and salsa are both served at room temperature. Fold prepared corn masa tortilla into a U-shape. Place two tablespoons of chicken in the fold, top with one tablespoon of salted cabbage and one or two tablespoons of Salsa Fresca.

Have napkins ready! Enjoy!

Check out more of Chef Heidi Fink’s recipes, sign up for a cooking class or follow her blog here.

Making tortillas for a taco party dinner. Don Denton photography

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