I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: I LOVE MEXICAN FOOD. I guess I should specify it as “Mexican-inspired”, since I’ve never been to Mexico and can’t say with authority that any food identified as South of the Border I’ve ever eaten has been particularly authentic — but my homage still remains. I just can’t get enough of the warm/cool, meaty/vegetable, cheesy/healthy, crunchy/chewy, soul-satisfying stuff that I think of as Mexican – like tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa… the list goes on. Now I am completely aware of the fact that hard tacos like the ones pictured above are in no way authentic, but one shouldn’t trample on Speedy Gonzales just because he’s a caricature, right? Or let me put it this way: remember the “You think this has nothing to do with you” monologue Meryl so scathingly purrs in The Devil Wears Prada? Where she points out to the still frumpy Anne Hathaway that the ‘blue’ sweater she wears is actually a distant low-rent cousin of a cerulean gown Oscar De La Renta debuted years earlier, that had been re-imagined and re-designed and re-marketed so often that it barely resembled its lofty parentage? So – what has this to do with my tacos? They’re the Casual Corner clearance bin progeny of the haute cuisine belonging to the same country that produced Freida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, and Diego Rivera. But some of my favorite clothes come from the clearance bin, and I betcha a shiny nickel Freida, Carlos, and Diego would dig these fried popcorn shrimp hard tacos with fresh pico, marinated avocado slices, and homemade queso blanco sauce. And so would Meryl – just ‘cuz she’s classy that way…
Homemade Hard Tacos with Popcorn Shrimp and Poblano Queso Cream
1 medium poblano pepper
1 ripe avocado
2 ripe roma tomatoes
1 small red onion
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch scallions
3/4 lb small Maine shrimp (about 50 count)
Panko breadcrumbs (about 2 cups)
1/2 lb white american cheese
1 tbs butter
1 cup milk (divided)
1 can black beans
1/2 cup cooked, smoked meat (bacon will work, or some BBQ leftovers like I used)
12 small corn tortillas
oil for frying (about 1 quart )
sea salt, cracked black pepper, onion and garlic powder, paprika, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, ground chili, EVOO
I didn’t take a set up shot for this meal because, well, I sort of threw it together at random, so I didn’t know exactly what was going into it until I started making it. But I did buy this poblano pepper — the least spicy variety of hot pepper usually available on the market — with the vague thought of roasting it for some reason. To do so, I rolled it in some EVOO, dusted it with some some salt and pepper, and threw it into a 400 degree oven (turning it every so often) until all the skin is blackened, more or less. If I had a gas stove, I’d just burn it directly with the flames, but alas – I ain’t got nothin’ fancy like that.
See? It took about 12-15 minutes total. Now I throw it into a paper bag for a few minutes, which will loosen the tough, papery outer skin, and make it easier to remove.
Like so. Sometimes I have to scrape off the skin with the dull edge of my chef’s knife, but today my fingers did the trick. I pull the seeds out, chop up this baby, and set it aside to use it later. (At this point, I had not yet decided where….)
Oh, and I decide to save the oil it cooked in, too — since it’s so redolent of spicy roasted pepper. I figure I could use it later — like bacon drippings.
Next up – my avocado. I have several friends who don’t like this blissful, buttery, bastion of vegetal delight. You know who you are, people — yes, I’m looking at you. It’s my mission to change their minds, as I did El Claytonioushusbandman, who initially thought of it only in terms of guacamole, which to him looked like baby sh!t. Since he didn’t like baby sh!t, he didn’t like avocados. That sort of free-association has always irked me, so I quashed it like the bug up my a$$ it was by adding avocado so regularly, and so prominently, to so many dinners that he finally had to try it. Now, he LOVES it. I aim to convert my other friends, too, so BE. WARE. Anyway, instead of making a guac today, I merely sliced this perfect specimen of gradated greenness and marinated it in some very fine EVOO, sea salt, black pepper, mined red onion, and leaves of cilantro. My thought was that I’d add a slice, instead of a dollop, of avo to each taco.
By the way, I got those minced onions and cilantro leaves from the batch of veggies I prepped: they, along with my diced scallion, diced salted and peppered tomatos, and a rolled-till-softer-and-juicier lime would be the rest of the fresh on my plate.
Black beans are my favorite, even though it took a while for me to get back into the bean swing of things. My grandmother, rest her soul, lived with us while I was growing up, and she made pinto beans ALL THE TIME. Like, daily. I kid you not. After eating them dutifully as a child and tween and teenager, I began to fear that that if you peeled back my skin, you’d see mashed brown, sofrito flavored beanstuff instead of human tissue, so I patently rejected them for years and years after I started cooking for myself, in an effort to purge them from my being. Clayton loved beans, so – as it should be in a good marriage – he did for me and beans what I did for him and avocados: he made me try them again. Of course, I had to cook them myself, but his incessant request for a nice rice and bean dish guilted me into making them for us one night, which I did with black beans and absolutely no sofrito whatsoever. Since then, I’ve found I do like beans if I prepare them with the flavors I like, which, in this case, means MEAT. This sexy nub of smoked pork belly hails from Chef Tiffany Faison’s new Boston joint Sweet Cheeks Q, a rocking new BBQ dive in the Fenway area. I went several weeks ago with some fantastic friends (you know who you are, you crazy kids!), and after stuffing as much deliciousness into my gullet as possible, I froze the leftover meat for just this reason. I fished out the bag when I knew I was making beans, defrosted this tidbit in warm water in my sick (it was fully cooked, and I was going to cook it again, so I wasn’t worried about this usually unsafe shortcut), and brought it into play.
And here comes that leftover poblano roasting oil — it served as a flavored EVOO which, along with chunks of the pork belly and some of my chopped onions and scallions, formed the base of this dish. Once the onions are softened and the fat fragrant…
… in went the beans and about a half bottle of my beer. I set this on medium, and let it simmer and reduce for about 10-15 minutes.
The special ingredient for this meal are these super-sweet, perfectly pink, quiveringly fresh tender Maine shrimp. I fear the season for these baby beauties is already over (and it’s so short — only about a month!), but I’m happy to say I’ve enjoyed them a’plenty this year. I’ve made garlic scampi, shrimp waldorf salad, shrimp chowder, seafood alfredo… well, several things with ma petite crevette since they appeared at Whole Foods’ fish counter, and I am happy. But I’ve never fried them before, so this would be something new. I had to peel them first, which was easy peasy – their little heads fall right off, and you can coax their naked bodies out of their shells with barely a come-hither.
In a medium bowl, I whisked together my eggs, half my milk, garlic powder, onion powder, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and paprika.
Using the same dry spices as the egg batter, I made some seasoned Panko breadcrumbs, too.
At this point, 1/2 of the liquid in my beans has evaporated, so I add about 1/2 cup short grain rice to the pot, stir once well, then cover so the rice can plump in the beery beany juice.
Right before I fry up my shrimp, I make my taco shells. I’ve found that the coarser, thicker, and subsequently cheaper small corn tortillas work better than some of the more expensive varieties, and that – unlike previous posts – a deep fry pan isn’t really needed. Instead, I added an inch or so of oil to my deep wok, and heated it until superhot. Using tongs and a large flat metal fork, I dipped half each tortilla into the oil, holding it submerged with the fork, then folded the other half into the sizzle quickly catching the already fried half in the clutch the the tongs to finish the shell off. Each only took about a minute or so.
… yielding me 6 taco shells, which I held on a paper plate and sprinkled liberally with salt. I cut the other six tortillas into 8ths, and fried them into chips.
My tiny tiny shrimp are marinated for a few minutes in the egg wash, and then tossed with the breadcrumbs before I shake off all the excess breading through a colander onto a paper plate.
After all my shells are fried. I cook my shrimp in batches (about 1/3 at a time, so the oil doesn’t bubble over) — it takes about 5 minutes per batch.
And what, pray tell, ever happened to that roasted poblano pepper? Well, it became the star ingredient in my queso blanco sauce – my absolute favorite guilty pleasure. Down in Georgia, there was no shortage of Mexican(ish) restaurants that all featured this white cheese dip I could drain out of a straight gallon with a straw. And I can’t find it ANYWHERE here. The closest thing is Bukowski’s White Trash Cheese Dip
, but even that’s not quite right. I finally broke down and recreated it for myself, finally succeeding in making it once I realized that simpler was better. It doesn’t need Monterey Jack cheese, or cheddar, or anything fancy pants – it just needs, at its most basic, white american cheese and milk. Before I figured this out, you would never have found american cheese in my fridge, mostly because it’s not really cheese but rather a processed amalgamation of ingredients a cook like I usually eschew, but one can’t be a snob all the time. Besides, I’ve already thrown authenticity out the window, so why not add a little processed deliciousness if it works on the plate? Here’s how it’s done: melt butter in pan, add some milk, whisk until incorporated and milk starts to boil, add shredded cheese, whisk until blended and smooth, and either add more milk if too thick, or more cheese if too thin. When the texture is just right, I add my diced green chiles, and try not to break out my suck-up-all-that-cheese straw…
A slice of buttery marinated avocado. A handful of hot, crispy, tender, sweet fried popcorn shrimp. A smattering of snappy tomatoes and fresh herbs. A healthy drizzle of fragrant and milky cheese sauce. All layered into a crispy taco shell and served alongside a nest of meaty black beans and rice. It might not be really Mexican, but that doesn’t stop me from facing southwesterly and making a little bow – because these are delicious! There is very little heat (you can add some jalapenos to make that happen), but the flavors come together as a perfect synthesis of crunchy and tender and chilled and warm, with the cheese acting as the glue holding the whole mouthful together. The tacos are light and refreshing, and the beans and rice add substance and just the right amount of stick-to-your-ribness. ¡Gracias, amigos! This meal was muy delicioso!