Taco Night

Mexican Fiesta. To me, it sounds like the theme for a suburban street party. When I go visit my brother Matt and his wife Ariela in California though, he makes what my friend Candice calls Mexican Fiesta for dinner. Hands down this is the most versatile menu there is. Mexican Fiesta can be anything from a simple cheese quesadilla to the works: grilled skirt steak and chicken, pico de gallo, guacamole, black beans and more. What I love to do is sit in the sun at my brother’s house, lazily scooping up fresh guacamole with a pepper jack cheese quesadilla and a cold beer, watching our kids play. And I love it even more when he goes all out with grilled steak, chicken or fish and the beans and condiments and I can build as many different combinations on corn tortillas as I can imagine.

Not only is this kind of  food very fresh and gorgeous to look at, it also has the advantage of scalability. The meal can easily be made for 1 or 2 people or 40 without any real headaches. You can make all of the components from scratch and make everyone you invited feel like they want to move in with you or you can buy most of the parts pre-made at Trader Joe’s and you’ll still have a very satisfying very quick meal. Vegetarians, vegans, meat eaters, dieters and even picky children are all easily accommodated and no matter what, dinner still tastes good. You can’t really go wrong.

Here is the ultimate menu, the one I like to make for celebrating something. If I had the time or if the avocados were always as ripe and delicious as they were yesterday – I would always make it this way.  For a meal that tastes this lavish and feels this festive – it’s hardly any work at all.

Menu

  • Grilled Skirt Steak with one of the rubs my brother and his wife make for us for Christmas – medium rare
  • Cumin and Coriander Black Beans
  • My brother Matt’s recipe for guacamole
  • Quick Pickled Onions
  • Grated Pepper Jack
  • Grated Monterey Jack
  • Medium and Hot Salsa – like pico de gallo (I would buy this.  Since I’ve had kids I don’t make salsa)
  • Marie Sharps Habanero Sauce (another tip from Matt)
  • Fresh Cilantro Leaves
  • Limes
  • Warm Corn Tortillas – search out the kind that are made of corn, lime and water – nothing else

I made this menu last night for some very good friends who are taking off this weekend on a sail across the Pacific ocean.  They’ll be at sea almost a month before they see land and fresh food, so I wanted to send them off with the memory of something really fresh, made from scratch.

Making this dinner is such a pleasure. The work really pays off.  I love that when I’m done preparing the food I have all these bowls filled with bright colors. The red flecked green guacamole, the confetti of the pico de gallo, bright pink ribbons of pickled onion with a deep red chile nestled just there, the steaming coriander scented black beans in a bright blue bowl, the wedges of translucent limes in a glass bowl, a plate of ruffled cilantro, slivers of creamy cheese in yellow bowls and (and this is probably not for everyone but I LOVE this part) the ragged slices of red skirt steak,with their deeply browned and smoky exterior on a butcher block cutting board. Finally the toasted warm scent of corn tortillas. The smell of all those things together – sharp and smoky and spicy and citrusy. Yum.

If you are in a hurry though, the guacamole can be gotten from Trader Joe’s refrigerator case (the plain one is better – trust me), you could heat up black beans straight from the can (please rinse them first!), skip the pickled onions, one of the cheeses, the Marie Sharp’s and the cilantro and call it a day.  It would still be a really great meal.  Also if your guests don’t eat meat or if you want to have variety, grilled chicken, fish or shrimp would be wonderful instead of or in addition to the skirt steak. Or just have a big bowl of black beans. The endless possibilities!

Dry Rubbed Skirt Steak

Serves 4

  • 1 1/2 lbs skirt steak
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp dry garlic
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • Canola oil spray
  1. Mix all dry ingredients together in a small bowl and rub all over skirt steak.
  2. Let sit at room temperature for 1/2 an hour.
  3. Spray all over the skirt steak lightly with canola oil. Grill over high heat for a TOTAL of 5 minutes – turning half way through.
  4. Allow meat to rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes before slicing thinly across the grain.  If you like your meat quite bloody you could grill it for 3 minutes total. I no longer like mine that rare.

“Matt’s Awesome Guacamole” (with Matt’s excellent and illuminating directions)

Serves 4

Guacamole is three things: Avos, lime and salt. Lime and salt are pretty consistent but a good avo, either Haas or Fuerte , is hard to find, and is truly at the core of good guac. You can have a great recipe and bad avos and the guac’s bad. Or you can have a lousy recipe, and great avos and the guac’s great. So first and foremost, get some good avos.  Buen provecho!

  • 2 avocados
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • shake of cayenne
  • 1/2 medium sized tomato, diced
  • 1/2 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • splash of hot sauce (preferably Marie Sharp’s)
  • One small handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped

You will benefit from a knife, a spoon and a fork in the making of guacamole. Knife to slice and chop. Spoon to remove the avo from the peel. (Don’t pre-dice, take out whole halves from the skin if possible) Fork to mix ingredients.  Throw all the ingredients into a bowl, and mix. Leave it smooth, but with some nice buttery slabs of avo too. Serve with a bowl of tortilla chips, a quesadilla or as a topping on a taco.

Cumin and Coriander Black Beans

Serves 4

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, finely diced
  • pinch of red chile flakes
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cans of black beans drained and rinsed
  1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat.
  2. Add the diced onion and cook until softened, 3-5 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, chile flakes, cumin and coriander and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Add the black beans and stir until warmed thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Quick Pickled Onions

These onions are new. In fact, I found the recipe yesterday and I can’t believe I have lived my whole taco eating life without making them. I didn’t take pictures of the food last night because I wanted to focus on my friends, but believe me when I tell you, these onions are gorgeous and tangy and spicy and ravishing and delicious. And so quick and straight forward to make you have no excuse not to try.

  • 3/4 c. white vinegar (the pickling kind – not fancy white wine vinegar)
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 5 allspice berries
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 dried red chile
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced; not insanely thin, as in sliced with a mandolin so you could read the newspaper through them but as thin as possible with a knife (hopefully a sharp 8″ chef’s knife)
  1. In a medium sized non-reactive saucepan mix the vinegar, sugar, allspice, cloves, bay leaf and red chile.
  2. Set the heat to medium high and simmer for 3 minutes.
  3. Add the sliced onion and toss until combined. Then simmer for 30 seconds.
  4. Place in serving dish and chill.

My next project is to learn how to make my own corn tortillas. Obviously these would be for the ultimate version of this menu although from what I have heard they are not too über-chef for a regular old home cook like me!  I’ll let you know.

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