The greatest chefs in the world will all proclaim, “Never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink,” and I will advise the same. In this case particularly, as you won’t be cooking with it at all, so I would pass on the discount bin bottle of rotgut cooking Sherry, if I were you. Now, with a moderately conservative glass of very drinkable wine in hand, let’s get a little ethnic. Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner, and there’s nothing more well-suited to celebrate a day not actually recognized as Independence Day in Mexico than a fabulous taco bar, a food synonymous with – but not actually originating in – Mexico.
Let us assume you are hosting una fiesta grande for Cinco de Mayo. Your friends are wonderful and gracious, albeit unflinchingly dedicated to completely separate dietary paths. Aside from serving only tequila with salt and lime, the clearest option is a diverse taco bar. Sounds terribly complex, but it absolutely is not. The fact of the matter is, part of it is best store bought, and more than half of it can be made ahead of time and reheated in time for guests.
I would heartily recommend picking up a few foil pans and carriers so you can look like you paid for a caterer while you’re really just keeping the goods warm. If you have chafing dishes, that’s OK, too. However, those will have to be washed, not just tossed out with your May 6th hangover.
I would suggest small tortillas in flour, corn and whole wheat, so everybody has a choice, even those avoiding gluten.
A bottle of green or smoked chipotle Tabasco adds kick without fire, and picante sauce makes for salsa that suits a chip or a taco.
Shredded, if you please. Some gourmets may whip up a mind-blowing venison taco with sun-dried tomatoes and feta crumbles, but I think it best to stick to a more accessible pick like Colby Jack or Cheddar, or both. I’d also advise staying away from the seasoned pre-bagged four cheese Mexican blend, as it can be overpowering to the star of the show.
It’s a must for some, and it’s good for cutting the hot sauce burn.
Not the kind you’d use for pasta, and not tomato paste. One of the little 4 oz cans of tomato sauce. You’ll split it between two dishes, so if you’ll have a lot of guests, get two. They usually go on sale 3/$1.00, the extra one won’t hurt to have around.
Iceberg shreds easy, romaine has great flavor. Shred a little of both and hand-toss in 1/2 tsp. lime juice and a tiny pinch of kosher salt about 20 minutes before serving, and let it rest in the fridge to blow some minds.
A good selection of simple vine tomatoes will make tomato lovers happy enough, or you can grab some grape and cherry tomatoes and quarter them for something a little different.
Some people love them, others hate them, but having some rough chopped yellow and red onion available will be worth your while. Yellow (Vidalia moreso than Spanish) will be sweeter and red will add some zing, but leave the white onions out of this. You’ll need some for toppings and some to cook with, so at least one large red and yellow each is a good idea.
You’ll need at least one large clove for each grouping of chicken, or more depending on your tastes. You can use the pre-minced kind also, you’ll just use a bit more.
This is one not to take lightly when cooking TexMex. This is where the authenticity starts… Well, with number 2, really.
A packet of taco seasoning.
I prefer Old El Paso low sodium, myself. The flavor is right, and for the amount of time you’d spend trying to get close, a pouch is just much easier for a great result.
Dark Chili Powder
Cilantro (fresh is better, but dried will do)
Oregano (dried is better in this case)
Goya SazÃ³n (either mix will do, if you can’t find this, Goya Adobo will be a decent substitute, but don’t add both, you’ll turn into a salt lick.
Dried ancho chilies
80/20 ground beef
Boneless chicken, breasts and thighs (see below)
Fish fillets. A sturdy white fish like sole, cod or tilapia should do.
Quantities will depend on your number of guests.
Finely shredded cabbage, sliced green salad olives, sliced black olives, lime wedges, jalapeÃ±o slices and olive oil.
All of your optionals are small quantity eye catchers that will be a standout to taco purists and give your buffet space a tapas bar vibe. And no, Michael Chiarello doesn’t own that trick. You can use it free of charge, same as those festive cactus margarita glasses.
Ok, so you actually wanted to cook, and not just look smart at the grocery store. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget.
The rest of the taco bar will fill out that vacant spot quickly. The cool kids call them “proteins” now, but most of us still know them as meats or fillings. And this is where we start making everybody happy, and vegetarians are already eating. Vegans, too, if you can find tortillas that are Vegan-approved, or if they’d rather a salad with hot sauce.
Your best friend is an ovo-vegetarian, and her boyfriend is a devout carnivore. With a great taco beef, a simple, authentic shredded chicken and no-fry fish taco, everybody can fight over whose taco was best instead of asking if there’s anything else to eat. And no, it’s not insane to make all of it, thanks to the gifts of modern refrigeration.
If your friends are steady eaters, figure on 1/8 lb of each meat (sorry… Protein) per person and nobody should go hungry.
First, let’s start the Chicken.
The magic formula is one boneless thigh for every two boneless breasts. The fat from the thigh will help keep the white meat from getting dry and pasty, so don’t go overboard trimming those thighs to be healthy, unless you want chicken patÃ© tacos… (you don’t).
Get a pot large enough to hold all the chicken you’ll need, and just enough water to cover to the top of the meat. Make sure it has a lid, since the chicken will simmer until it breaks apart.
Start by sauteing diced onions in 1-2 tbsp of olive oil, when they get soft and start browning slightly, add the garlic. Take care not to over-cook the garlic, and once its getting a touch golden brown around the edges, add the chicken and just enough water to almost cover the top. Stir a bit and let the water come to heat.
Bring to boil and then taper off to a simmer. Settle the chicken in, add a tsp of cregano, a rough 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro (not packed down), a 1/2 to 1 tsp of cumin, 2 tbsp of dark chili powder and 1/2 a packet of SazÃ³n per thigh/breast bunch, and drop a dried ancho on top where it will be easy to remove later. Put the lid on and simmer on low heat for at least an hour before checking.
While the chicken simmers, let’s get the beef going! And don’t forget that wine…
Crumble the beef in a pan, the smaller the better. Some people like to crumble in the pan, others prefer to scoop and chop on a cutting board and returning to the pan, either way works fine. Don’t season anything yet, because you’ll be draining off the beef fat that’s cooked out. Once you drain the meat and return it to the pan, add half of the taco seasoning packet for every 1.5 lbs, 1/2 can of tomato sauce for every 1.5-2 lbs, and then adding 2 tbsp of water per half pound, mix through and let it cook down for a few minutes, mixing occasionally. Add a packet of SazÃ³n for every 1.5-2 lbs of beef, a good pinch of oregano and a bit of finely chopped cilantro, fold in and reduce heat.
Now you can take the beef off the heat, and move it to one of the foil catering pans. Tin foil the top once it’s cooled a bit, and the beef is done. It can be reheated before guests arrive with little to no fuss.
When it’s time to check on the chicken, all you’ll need is a plain old metal fork. Press onto the chicken firmly with the back of the tines, and if the chicken does not begin to break apart, it’s not done yet. Re-cover and let it keep simmering. When it easily breaks apart just by pressing with the back of a fork, the chicken is done.
Remove the ancho chili and discard, then shred ALL the chicken, mix well and transfer to a foil pan, add the remaining tomato sauce, mix it in and top with a little more chopped cilantro. Once the chicken cools, it can be foiled and moved to the fridge with the beef. If you want to get even more flavor, you can use the liquid left in the pot and reduce it down to use as a sauce.
About 90 minutes before you set up your buffet put the foil pans in a warm oven, no warmer than 200 degrees. A quick stir before moving onto the water pans will keep them warm and ready to serve.
By now you have three fillings down, chicken, beef and vegetarian that can be used for either tacos or taco salads. The last filling will be the fish, and we’ll want to do those as close to serving time as we can.
As you are putting your beef and chicken into the oven to warm back up, grab your breadcrumbs, corn starch, cumin, dark chili powder and finely chopped cilantro and mix them up. About a cup of breadcrumbs, a teaspoon of corn starch and then 1/2 tsp of each seasoning and 1/4 of a pouch of SazÃ³n per pound of fish should cover everything. For easy breading you can put all of this into a gallon freezer bag and shake to mix. When you move the chicken and beef to the warming table, we’ll bring our oven up to 400 degrees
Cut the fish fillets down the center and then into strips about 3/4 of an inch wide and dropping them into the gallon bag with the breading. When you’re ready, seal up the bag and toss the fish around gently until they’re coated. This will not be a thick breading like battered breadings, but more of a dusting. Lay them out on a cookie sheet and pop them in the oven, preheated to 400, for about 15-20 minutes, or until a test strip flakes well with a fork.
When the fish is ready, move it to a matching foil pan with the beef and chicken, set out the tortillas, veggies and all, then step back and raise a well-salted shot of Tequila to a job well done! And be ready to gracefully accept the praise of the carnivores, the “no-red-meat-for-me”s, vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians alike!