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Taco Mania

Thu Nov 15, 2007

tostadas

Black Bean, Chicken & Goat Cheese Tostadas

Wedding rehearsal dinners can be a drag. The food, most often, seems like an afterthought. But at a recent wedding in San Diego I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bride and groom had hired a taco truck to cater their post-rehearsal picnic at the Cove in La Jolla. They served delicious, authentic tacos on handmade fresh tortillas. I watched studiously as the cook ran little balls of dough through a hand-crank machine that flattened and punched out perfect five-inch circles. He threw the tortillas on a hot griddle and then ladled carne asada or chicken in them, then topped each with a little chopped cabbage and crema.

The tacos were amazing! And better still, you could smell the tortillas warming on the griddle from halfway down the beach. Sea air wrapped around aromas of sweet corn, enticing like fresh bread baking in an outdoor oven.

Since then, I’ve been on a bit of a taco kick, leading my boyfriend and I to the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada—a welcoming, turquoise-colored converted auto body shop in Los Feliz (on Hillhurst). The eatery is owned and run by Joseph, a tall and affable Hollywood local with German/Spanish roots. Joseph’s mother, Helena, sits quietly knitting behind the register, but is more than willing to share in a little conversation if provoked. There are only two things on the menu at the Best Fish Taco: fish tacos ($1.50 each) and shrimp tacos ($2.00). Both are battered with Joseph’s secret mixture (lots of black pepper, I think) and fried in a glistening vat of oil, tucked into warm tortillas and topped with shredded cabbage. I recommend starting with one of each—you can always go back for more, but these tacos are best warm—and let Joseph guide you through his cove of homemade, spicy salsas. His method for the perfect taco: spicy mango salsa, a dollop of avocado salsa, a hint of radish salsa, a squirt of crema, is akin to taco heaven. Spicy, sweet fish, tangy, spicy and salty salsas and soft corn tortillas melt together in your mouth, making the nearby bowl of oranges to put out the fire in your mouth, a necessity.

Sometimes, though, I prefer a traditional tostada, with its crunchy corn tortilla piled high with refried beans, meat, lettuce or cabbage, cilantro, guacamole, crema and cotija cheese, then drizzled with mouth-igniting salsa. Unfortunately, lately, I haven’t been able to find a good tostada (I’m on the hunt, if you know of a place). The tostadas at Lotéria, in the Fairfax Farmer’s Market, are too small and too expensive to qualify (one tostada is an exorbitant $7). Tere’s on Melrose makes huge flour tortilla shells and fills them with so much lettuce that they’re more like eating a carne asada Caesar salad. And the list goes on. So I decided to make my own. Starting with homemade tortillas.

I would definitely recommend buying a good, sturdy and heavy tortilla press, like the one available from Sur La Table ($19.95). The weight helps make perfectly thin and consistent tortillas.

I followed the directions on a bag of Maseca masa (corn flour) for eight tortillas:

1 cup Maseca masa
2/3 cups water
1/8 tsp salt

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl and slowly add water, kneading by hand, until you have a ball of dough with the consistency of cookie dough. If it’s too dry, add water just 1/8 tsp at a time. Separate into eight small balls and cover with a wet paper towel and plastic wrap. Place a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper on the bottom half of the tortilla press, put a ball of dough in the center then cover with another sheet of plastic wrap or parchment. Close the lid on the press, flattening the tortilla. Remove from the press and place on a hot, ungreased griddle, cooking until the edges pull away from the surface, about 30 seconds. Flip and cook about 30 seconds on the other side. Place in a tortilla warmer or under a damp cloth to keep moist.

For tostadas, let the tortillas cool and then fry in hot oil or lard. Make sure your fat is hot enough by sprinkling a little water from your fingers over the top. If it dances, then the temp is good. If your fat isn’t hot enough, your tortillas will take longer and absorb more oil. Submerge tortillas in oil, one at a time until golden. Remove with tongs and drain on a paper towel until ready.

There are lots of ways to top your tostada–traditional and non–I’ve season ground turkey with cinnamon, cumin, coriander and chile powder and recently tried this recipe, found on both Epicurious.com and in the new Bon Apétit cookbook, for Chicken, Black Bean and Goat Cheese Tostadas.

Beans:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
2 large jalapeños, seeded but not deveined, minced
1 tsp chili powder
½ tsp ground cumin
2 15- to 16-oz. cans of black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tbsp fresh lime juice

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan. Add onions and jalapeños and cook until onions are translucent, stirring often. Add chili powder and cumin; stir 30 seconds. Add beans and lime juice, cooking until heated through, mashing beans slightly with a spoon (about four minutes).

Chicken:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ¾-inch pieces
1 ½ tsp chili powder
¾ tsp ground cumin

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until almost cooked through, about three minutes. Add chili powder and cumin; finish cooking chicken. Remove from heat.

Salad:
4 cups sliced romaine lettuce
1 medium head radicchio, sliced
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
¼ olive oil
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp water

Mix first three ingredients together in a large bowl. Before service, dress with oil, lime juice and water.

Avocado Salsa:
2 large tomatoes, seeded, diced
1 large avocado, diced, rinsed and drained
½ red onion, chopped
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup olive oil
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 or 2 large jalapeños, stemmed, seeded (but not deveined), minced

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Season to taste with salt. This can be prepared up to two hours ahead. Store in the refrigerator.

Assembly:

8 oz. soft fresh Goat Cheese

Place fried tortilla on a plate. Top with beans, then sprinkle with cheese. Add salad, then chicken and finish with avocado salsa. Have plenty of napkins on hand.

Overall, this dish was quite tasty and satisfying, particularly the fresh, crunchy tortillas (I ate it again for lunch today), but there definitely things I would do different next time. First of all, I discovered that I was all out of cumin just as I was about to season the beans—substituted ground coriander, but it didn’t provide the right depth of flavor. On the other hand, I used chipotle chili powder, which was smoky and delicious. I would use dried black beans, soaked overnight, instead of canned ones and make them into refried beans. The slightly mashed up beans didn’t release enough flavor. I might also add some lime juice to the beans–they needed some acid (and maybe some fat!) I would cut the chicken into smaller pieces, shred it, or use a combination of light and dark meat for more complex flavor. Lastly, I might use Poblano or Serrano chilies for the Avocado Salsa, to give it a bit more heat.

If you give this one a try and make any changes, let me know! In the meantime, if you know where to find a good tostada in Los Angeles, I’m still craving them.

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One Response to “Taco Mania”

 
  1. Nicole Says:

    Leah, this post just made me crave Mexican food sooooo bad! Thank god I’m in San Diego now! Reading that in Sicily would have been torture 🙂

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