When salsa overtook ketchup as America's favorite condiment in the 1990s you had to know that "taco night" wasn't far behind.
Simple, satisfying and inexpensive, hard or soft tacos filled with meat, cheese and a what-have-you of veggies have become a staple for busy families. Sales of taco shells, seasonings and other products have grown steadily over the last decade, says Juv Marchisio, senior marketing manager for B&G Foods, which owns the Ortega brand, and research suggests that roughly half of all Americans indulge in tacos at home.
And why not? Tacos offer communal family dining at its best: there's no arguing or whining when can make it however they like it.
But the way many Americans approach tacos at home — ground beef, pre-shredded "Mexican" cheese, and that ubiquitous kit with shells and a flavor packet — could use a revamp. Sure, you can change it up with whole-wheat tacos. You can sneak black beans into the ground beef. You could even go the way of the spaghetti taco popularized by the tween TV show, "iCarly."
But for advice on really taking your tacos to the next level, we turned to some innovative chefs and cookbook authors. Here are some of their most delicious and creative suggestions, no recipes needed.
Toss shredded chicken in a sauce of pomegranate molasses, lime juice and honey. Stuff the meat into a taco shell (or wrap it in a flour tortilla or even Middle Eastern flatbread) and top with yogurt, fresh basil, mint, scallions, tomato, cucumber and plenty of sumac.
"This is a classic combination of Persian ingredients," Louisa Shafia, author of "The New Persian Kitchen," wrote in an email. "Crushed purple sumac berries are tart and salty and a must have for conjuring the authentic flavor of Middle Eastern cuisine." To go vegetarian, Shafia suggests substituting roasted eggplant for the chicken.
STEAK HOUSE TACOS
Season a flat-iron steak with salt and pepper, then sear it on the grill, suggests Washington, D.C. chef Spike Mendelsohn, who plans to open a steak frites restaurant called Bearnaise this summer. Wrap thin slices of the steak and pickled red onions inside a soft corn taco and serve with warm bearnaise sauce for dipping. "I love the idea of eating a steak without sharpening my knives," Mendelsohn said via email.
INDIAN-INSPIRED TACOS, TWO WAYS
Spices like cumin, coriander and chilies are natural allies in both Mexican and Indian cuisine, says Ali Loukzada, chef at New York's Cafe Serai. So what could be more obvious than a chicken tikka taco drizzled with mint chutney? A palm's worth of shredded cabbage or radish adds crunch.
"When you're adapting Indian flavors to a Mexican dish, the original ingredients and tastes are still present," Loukzada said via email. "It's more of an Indian tweak."
To go completely native, ditch the taco shell for the crisp lentil-and-rice crepe called dosa. "I Indianize our taco fillings at home all the time," Rohini Dey, owner of Vermillion restaurant in New York and Chicago, writes in an email. At her restaurants, Dey offers a dosa-taco bar, where Latin fillings such as anchovies, avocado, chorizo and Michoacan beef are offered alongside the spiced potato stuffing traditionally used in dosa.
Chutneys of mint, coconut and tamarind — typical Mexican as well as Indian flavors — line the toppings bar. "By confining the chili to the chutneys instead of the filling, it's easy for the family to tailor to each person's spice tolerance," Dey writes.
Stick a pork tenderloin in the slow cooker until it practically melts, suggests Marie Simmons, author of the new cookbook, "Taste of Honey." Shred the meat, then toss it with a sweet-spicy barbecue sauce made by simmering honey, chipotle peppers packed in adobo sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, cumin, chili powder, garlic and a swig of cider vinegar for about 10 minutes, or until thick.
"I just love the deep, spicy taste of sticky glazed pork," Simmons writes in an email. Top the taco with avocado, thinly sliced radishes and a shredded jicama-and-carrot slaw dressed with chopped cilantro and lime juice.
CALIFORNIA VEGETARIAN TACOS
Well, duh! No taco line up is complete without a recipe from California, the entry point of so much of the country's Mexican culture.
Santa Barbara-based food and garden blogger Valerie Rice (Eat Drink Garden) uses lentils as the base for her taco, simmering them with tomato, garlic, red pepper, and a dash each of cumin and smoked paprika. The lentils get packaged in a soft corn tortilla and topped with items such as roasted tomatillo salsa and guacamole.
"My first go-round with these I wasn't sure how it would go over with my meat-loving husband and sometimes picky daughters," Rice wrote in an email. "But they were a total hit and now are part of our dinnertime rotation."
Michele Kayal is an editor at http://www.americanfoodroots.com . Follow her on Twitter (at)hyphenatedchef