A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count salt or cooking fat (say, olive oil to sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're updating old-school, crunchy-shell, ground-beef tacos—with rice-ified cauliflower.
Ask the classic crunchy taco the meaning of life and it has it alllll figured out. The shell is crispy and corny (in a good way). The beef is spicy and meaty. The cheese is creamy. The hot sauce is vinegary. The lettuce is perky! If you've ever tried being all these things at once, you know how hard this is. But the crunchy taco makes it seem so easy-breezy, so Oh—this old thing?
Things weren't always so easy for the hard-shell taco. As Mexican-American journalist Gustavo Arellano put it in Netflix’s Ugly Delicious: “I think the hard-shell taco is one of the most unfairly maligned foods in the United States, but specifically in Mexican cuisine.” In 2015, he even published “an ode to delicious inauthenticity” in the Los Angeles Times, a love letter to the hard shell: “It was you...who blazed the trail for Mexican food in America through your disciples, Taco Bell, Del Taco, and Old El Paso.”
Taco Bell is why I'm Team Hard Shell. You know, in addition to being Team Soft Shell because you can—and should—be both. Anyway, when I was little, my mom would take my brother and me to Taco Bell and we would argue over which was better: Beef or chicken? We probably both liked both, but as if we would ever admit that. Either way, the meat was tucked into a crunchy shell, topped with shredded iceberg and neon cheese, plus a squiggle of hot sauce if you were old enough.
It could, of course, be topped with a million other things. Say, black beans or pico de gallo, nacho cheese or "Mexican pizza sauce" (wait, what?). Sam Sifton at the New York Times recommends topping his Middle School Tacos with: "grated cheese, sliced jalapeños, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, etc." But none of this is necessary. Because deep, deep down, the hard-shell taco is minimalist.
Such is the Big Little Recipe way, like one of those all-white rooms with a teeny-tiny succulent in the corner. Could you add a bunch of paintings and shelves and tchotchkes? Totally. But you don’t need to. More flavors doesn’t mean more flavorful. You just have to choose the right ingredients.
Making these tacos is simple. You chop a head into florets, dump them in a food processor, and pulse until you practically have rice, with a few chunks here and there. Then you dump that onto a sheet pan and toss with olive oil, chili powder, and salt. Actually, scratch that, dump it onto two sheet pans. While this mixture fits just fine on one, the results are cozy, even crowded, leading to steaming instead of browning. Spreading out the mixture means lots of caramelization—or flavor or, dare I say, meaty flavor.
And about those shells: When I set out to recreate a do-it-yourself, cauliflower-fied crunchy taco, of course I wanted to make my own hard shells. I mean, how could I not? How hard could it be? Just turn a muffin pan upside-down and wedge the tacos between the cups, brush with oil and bake! (Leathery and chewy.) Or fold and deep-fry! (Messy and fussy.) There had to be a better way. And there was: store-bought, toasted in the already-warm oven, just before assembly. Sometimes easy does it.
- 1 head cauliflower
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 8 hard-shell tacos
- 1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
- 1 cup grated pepper jack cheese
- 8 dashes hot sauce
Know a few-ingredient, many-oohs and aahs recipe? Tell us all about it in the comments!