We own certain culinary dishes.
Learned from a recipe or experience, we repeat the cooking process and evolve it into something we enjoy. Such dishes become our signature home cuisine.
Grandmother had a signature dish: lemon chicken. I watched her make it several times in her apartment and saw how she added the lemon. She wrote the recipe on the back of an envelope for me and later I discovered the lemon went missing. It goes to show the importance of memory and experience in home cooking.
I love a delicious taco. In our household tacos vary from meal to meal. My favorite fillings are either similar to what Mother made, or greens and black beans in chili sauce. Tacos are easy to make yet the origins of the dish are complex. Taco ingredients adjust well to seasonal variation in a kitchen garden.
In 2018 I found a video by Rick Bayless in his Taco Tuesday series. I viewed the video multiple times then repeated every element of the process until learning it. Once learned, improvisations based upon on-hand ingredients and the imagination became possible. This is what cooking a personal cuisine is about. Black beans, kale, chili sauce, a cooking liquid, and toppings on a tortilla are foundational elements to making a delicious taco.
Almost everyone gets help with tortillas. By that I mean we don’t grow our own corn and grind it into masa. I make my own corn tortillas from masa and get uncooked flour tortillas from the wholesale club. There is nothing like a freshly made tortilla.
At some point I hope to grow enough black beans to use my own. In the meanwhile, I buy eight-packs of 15 ounce cans of USDA organic black beans from the wholesale club.
A person could use any type of greens in a taco: chard, collards, spinach, mustard greens, lambs quarters, arugula, broccoli leaves, beet leaves, kohlrabi leaves or turnip greens. I grow an abundance of kale, preferring Winterbor and Redbor, seeds which I get from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. Kale really makes the dish so that’s my go-to ingredient. Fresh is great yet frozen leaves serve equally well. Tacos provide another outlet for the bushels of kale I produce each year.
I’m new to making my own chili sauce. I’ve been using Guajillo and New Mexican dried chilies and have been happy with both. I’ve been growing my own Guajillo chilies yet haven’t mastered the agriculture to produce a dried chili with the consistency of what can be purchased. I hope to master the skill although I’m only in my second year. I made a batch of Guajillo chili sauce on Wednesday with the last of the chilies purchased from Mexico, fresh garlic from the garden, Mexican oregano, black pepper, salt and a pinch of sugar. This sauce holds the dish together.
Our kitchen produces a number of culinary liquids as a byproduct of making something else. I don’t just dump it down the drain. Every time I open a jar of canned tomatoes I strain them to give a head start in preparing tomato sauce. When I make salsa, I also strain excess liquid to prevent it from being too watery. These liquids get mixed into a one liter bottle in the ice box. During preparation, chili sauce is diluted with enough liquid to cook the kale. In the cooking process most of the moisture evaporates leaving another layer of flavor by using my culinary liquids instead of water.
I use Mexican-style cheese from the wholesale club to finish making a taco. Tacos get topped with freshly made salsa, green onions, fresh onions, fresh tomatoes, pickled jalapeno peppers, prepared chilies, pickled garlic, finely sliced lettuce, shredded radishes or Hakurei turnips. The tomatillo harvest is coming in so salsa using them is in season. Fresh cilantro is also a go-to ingredient.
Beans and greens taco filling is easy to make. Heat a cup of chili sauce in a large frying pan (Recipe for mine is here). Add a cup of water or other cooking liquid that goes with Mexican cuisine and incorporate. Add a bunch of kale that has been de-stemmed and torn into small bits. When the kale wilts, add a drained 15 ounce can of black beans. (Optional: Use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to break up some of the beans and give the taco filling a smooth consistency and texture). Once the kale is thoroughly cooked and incorporated it’s time to assemble tacos!
I’ll make these suggestions: begin with a hot tortilla on a heated serving plate. Put some salsa or hot sauce down first. Add the filling, generous but not too much. We want to be able to hold and eat the taco without everything spilling out. Cheese goes next so it will melt. Add toppings according to what’s in season or available and serve.
Cooking is an experience more than an explanation. We relish choices we make producing each plate of food yet it is not about consumption and the process that created ingredients on hand. Cooking, as much as anything we do, is about living in those moments. When the pandemic is over and we return to our new lives it is important to know who we are. Part of me is making these signature tacos.