Big Little Recipes

5-Ingredient Cauliflower Tacos for Tuesdays & Every Day

February 11, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, wow 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.


Beef, is that you? Photo by James Ransom

Ask the classic crunchy taco the meaning of life and it has it alllll figured out. The shell is crispy and corny. The beef is spicy and meaty. The cheese is creamy. 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.

Things weren't always so simple 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.) 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.

Half the recipe's ingredients are in this shot! Photo by James Ransom

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Welllll- I think that some American restaurants make "chalupas" out of fried tortillas; I almost never eat at restaurants and have never tried them. Mexican chalupas are a different sort of creation; formed raw masa is deep fried. A fried taco shell I suppose would be more like a tostada, but to me it's like a taco shell. You need tongs (the D tip style work much better than the popular dinosaur jaw type), a metal spatula and some extremely hot oil. The trick is to keep the fold rounded- the tortillas become very soft as soon as they hit the oil, and will make a sharp crease (which will probably crack) if allowed to relax. ”
— Smaug
Comment

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.

Like cauliflower. We now live in a world where cauliflower can grow up to become anything it wants, from rice to pizza. So why not ground beef?

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 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, ahem, 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.


More Vegetarian Big Little Recipes

Spaghetti With Charred Scallion Sauce

Just like the classic Italian sauce, aglio e olio (garlic and oil)—but instead of garlic, there are scallions. Lots of scallions. The trick here is to chop them into different sizes, which yields different textures. If you aren't one for spicy things, you can reel in the red pepper flakes, or skip them altogether.

Busy Weeknight Bean Chili

A foolproof bean chili that requires little more than opening a couple cans. I love kidney beans for their lipstick-crimson hue, but this dish wants to be messed with: Try pinto beans, or black beans, or chickpeas, or even a mix. Just don't skip the butter at the end—it gives the tomato-tangy broth a silky, meaty richness (you know, without any meat).

Broccoli, Egg & Cheese Sandwich

Inspired by Gertie in Brooklyn, this breakfast sandwich skips the breakfast meat. (No offense to bacon, sausage, ham, and friends!) Instead, we're calling in crispy, salty, happy roasted broccoli. If you want, you can add in a shake of fruity hot sauce or some pickled jalapeños.

Cheesy Fritters & Simple Salad

Bread crumbs get a lot of credit for crisp, shattering crusts, but do you know what does the job even better? Quinoa. This fluffy seed (not grain!) was born to be pan-fried. Here, it gets mixed with melty goat cheese, patted into patties, and tossed in an oily, hot skillet. Add in a just-greens salad (really, any lettuce works) and dinner is done.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

What if cream of mushroom soup was just...cream and mushrooms? Ta-da! It can be. You just have to use two types of mushrooms—fresh and dried—to reap all their umami rewards. Fresh baby bellas (aka, creminis) get sautéed, then deglazed with cream, while dried shiitakes turn into an A+ broth.

This article was originally published in May 2018. We updated it with even more Big Little Recipes (and because we're still craving cauliflower tacos at least once a week). Do you know a few-ingredient, many-oohs and aahs recipe? Tell us all about it in the comments!

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Comment
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

4 Comments

Smaug February 11, 2020
Frying a taco shell takes a certain amount of art, but it's well worth it. The store bought versions are completely inedible. It also takes time- you pretty much have to do them one at a time- which is why they are seldom done by taquerias and street stands. As to what goes on in Mexican homes I couldn't say, but I doubt that hard tacos are as "unauthentic" as they are often painted. For one thing, there are only so many uses for less-than-fresh tortillas. For another thing, Mexican cooks, like any others, tend to make what they like from what they have.
 
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Do they turn out like Chalupa shells or more tostada-like?
 
Smaug February 11, 2020
Welllll- I think that some American restaurants make "chalupas" out of fried tortillas; I almost never eat at restaurants and have never tried them. Mexican chalupas are a different sort of creation; formed raw masa is deep fried. A fried taco shell I suppose would be more like a tostada, but to me it's like a taco shell. You need tongs (the D tip style work much better than the popular dinosaur jaw type), a metal spatula and some extremely hot oil. The trick is to keep the fold rounded- the tortillas become very soft as soon as they hit the oil, and will make a sharp crease (which will probably crack) if allowed to relax.
 
FS May 17, 2018
Cauliflower tacos - sounds good! I love cauliflower in just about any guise, too bad there's none on hand RN. So I'll bookmark this and try it on the weekend.