I picked up Tacos and began my journey into what I thought would be a familiar world. Instead, it took me to places I never imagined. Like author Alex Stupak, I grew up with Old El Paso. I thought I had educated my palate with the readily available taco trucks and large Hispanic community in my area, but I was unprepared for the flavors and combinations that this book offers.
To start, Alex shares his three defining moments as a cook, one of which is the first time he tasted a freshly made tortilla. He shares his story of how he researched and experimented with Mexican food, and what eventually led to opening his restaurants in New York City. He takes you on a brief tour of Mexican food in America, and then through the Mexican pantry where he offers up authentic ingredients (making sure to include substitutions that are more readily available). He guides you through the variety of chiles that he uses in the book.
Each chapter starts with a history and description of that subject, plus the equipment you may need to execute the recipes. To wit: I knew there were corn and flour tortillas, but I did not know what was involved in making them and their variations. I didn't go out and purchase a tortilla press to make my mine—I’m fortunate to have a fresh tortilla factory in my small town—but I do plan on making some of his neo-traditional tortillas soon.
The salsas I tested were easy to execute, full of flavor, and most of the ingredients were available in the grocery store to boot. His roasted salsa verde, the nut-based salsa macha, and the salsa arriera, a fresh, uncooked chile salsa, were all sublime, with easy-to-follow instructions.
Next up were the tacos themselves. The chicken wing tacos took some work, but were well worth the effort. The pastrami tacos, too, weren't a quick meal—but they will be my St. Patrick’s Day meal this year for sure! I also put together Stupak's potato and chorizo tacos and his fish tempura tacos, the latter of which my roasted salsa verde was exquisite with. After eating those, I don’t think I could ever go back to Baja! And I've dog-eared many more. Here's what I’m looking forward to: smoked salmon, lamb tartare, duck carnitas, crab cake, and scallop tacos. I'll also keep cooking through his inviting recipes for vegetable tacos, breakfast tacos, and dessert tacos. (Though I can vouch for the chocolate tacos—super simple and delicious.)
In the middle of the taco chapter, Alex goes on a rant about people’s expectations of Mexican food being cheap. He makes an excellent argument—one that I, too, will try to pass on. After spending the time I did on the recipes I tested, I realized this is a cuisine that is just as laborious and luxurious as any other.
The final chapter focuses on essential preparations, featuring recipes for adobo, achiote, chorizos, and the like. (Who knew about burnt jalapeño powder?!) And he includes a resource list for some of the hard-to-find ingredients in the book, which is helpful. I live in an area with many Hispanic groceries, but I would imagine that for those without those options, it would be next to impossible to source many of the ingredients.
Most of the recipes in Tacos involve some advance preparation—some significantly more than others. But on the whole, they are so worth the effort. Maybe it's not a book for someone looking to throw together a quick taco dinner, but it will be stained from use in my home.
I’ve always had reservations about one-dish and one-ingredient cookbooks. Both my wallet and my space are limiting factors—so why would I invest in a cookbook with narrow uses? Tacos: Recipes and Provocations has begun to change my mind on the worthiness of one-dish cookbooks. This book describes a formula for a dish involving tortillas, salsa, and fillings that can be interpreted infinite ways. And it provides the tools to execute that formula in constantly interesting iterations.
This is not a book for the novice cook... Cooking from this book is an adventure not just within a culinary experience, but in that some recipes will test your endurance. Mine was truly tested while making Pipián, a pumpkin seed salsa, to drizzle on grilled shrimp. The hot sauce erupted all over me, the stove and the walls, while I had to continuously stir the sauce for 15 minutes... I would prefer not being singed by hot sauce, but the Pipián was delicious: a pumpkin/sesame seed sauce that was nutty and creamy with a smoky kick.
Tacos might not be a cookbook for everyone, but it starts a great conversation about ethnic food... Alex Stupak pushes the home cook to envision the taco beyond the “Old El Paso” taco of our youth— and makes us realize that everything tastes better on a homemade tortilla. Open the book: Good stuff is waiting for you on the other side.
Have you cooked from Tacos yet? Let us know in the comments!