Tuesday, August 1, 2006

chicken tacos + salsa fresca

chicken taco with salsa fresca

I had my first taco when I was about seven, at the home of a down-the-street neighbor who used to watch me after school until my parents got home from work. As she began to arrange fixings for a greatly-anticipated feast they called Taco Night, I baffled the lot by telling them I didn’t know what one was. (I could have baffled them further by explaining the proper way to boil and then eat a whole artichoke thus proving that no I was NOT raised under an epicurean rock but I refrained. I’ve since lost such restraint.).

She assembled one for me with some mess of ground beef and taco seasonings, a pile of shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato in an El Paso shell and then zapping it in the microwave for a minute. I took one bite and it crumbled, dripping orange-ish grease down my shirt and oh, I did not like it AT ALL. Who invented these shells and how come they get to sit on a pile of money while I’m scrubbing taco out from under my fingernails? You cannot bite into a bent shell filled with messy things without it breaking into several pieces, and yet this is supposed to be something you eat while holding it? Not that you have a choice, really, since they won’t stand up on their own. They’re fundamentally flawed and I haven’t had one since, or at least not until a fit of nostalgia and Mark Bittman’s feature in the New York Times Dining Section called The Taco Joint in Your Kitchen, got the better of me Sunday night.

salsa fresca

It was a cinch of a dinner. We used our favorite strait-from-the can beans, Goya’s Black Bean soup, some shredded iceberg lettuce (see above: nostalgia), grated extra-sharp white cheddar and purchased Whole Foods guacamole (their avocados were hard like apples, leaving us no option to make our own). Bittman’s Salsa Fresca recipe was spot-on, and his shredded chicken thighs even better.

I stupidly ignored his suggestion to make your own tacos from fresh corn tortillas (which he recommends you buy at a place one block from our apartment, like, duh) bringing home instead totally stale shells from a box advertising a bear riding a horse, as if that weren’t evidence of ill-advised things to come. We bit in, the shells crumbled and although the taste was spectacular, my shirt was reunited with my old pal, taco ick and the ensuing displeasure. But, unlike when I was seven, I washed it down with a beer and pretty much don’t remember having any complaints after that.

taco night!

Shredded Chicken for Tacos
Adapted from The New York Times

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
1 large white onion, peeled and quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 ancho or other mild dried chili, optional
Salt and pepper to taste.

  1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and add water to cover. Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, and skim any foam that comes to the surface. Partially cover and adjust heat so mixture simmers steadily. Cook until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from liquid and cool.
  2. Shred meat with fingers. Taste and adjust seasonings; use within a couple of days.

Salsa Fresca
From the New York Times

Makes about 2 cups.

2 large fresh ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 large white onion, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon minced raw garlic, or to taste
1 habanero or jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced, or to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or 1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper.

  1. Combine all ingredients, taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  2. Let the flavors marry for 15 minutes or so before serving, but serve within a couple of hours.


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