Taco in One Hand, Remote in the Other

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Some solo cooks, bless their hearts, set the table and light a candle whenever they make dinner for themselves. More power to 'em, but I just don't have it in me. I may pull out the showy recipes and the matching linens when I'm entertaining friends, but most nights my dining chair is the couch, the linens are a paper towel, and the only flickering light is the neon blue of "American Idol."

It's the little touches, don't you know, that make every night special.

My weeknight drill is about throwing together something quickly after a long workday. Sound familiar? By the time I get home, I'm already hungry, and if there's not an obvious option at hand it's too easy to dial up the nearest Chinese carryout. But I would rather make something for myself that is as tasty as anything I might order in a restaurant or cook for friends. Of course, it should be simpler, and less caloric is always good. And given the couch-potato setting of choice, bonus points go to anything I can eat with my hands.

That's why I usually make tacos. Now, these aren't the crisp-shelled kind filled with ground beef, shredded cheddar, sour cream and Old El Paso. That might have been what I ate as a kid in West Texas, but my tastes, thankfully, have matured. I like to wrap soft, warm corn tortillas around spicy grilled, braised or barbecued meat or seafood, add a roasted vegetable and top it with a smoky salsa I've mail-ordered from some little boutique company in the Southwest. That's one way I use up leftovers -- along with stir-frying them with cooked brown rice, tossing them with pasta or piling them onto salad greens or atop crusty grilled bread.

More and more, though, I don't have (or want) leftovers, and that's why I've started paying closer attention to my tacos. The goal: something that tastes freshly made, even if it uses some pre-prepped ingredients.

My first success was born of necessity on a night when I was faced with a larder that seemed as empty as my stomach -- until I looked a little more closely. I had fresh eggs and fingerling-size sweet potatoes from the farmers market in Dupont Circle. There was an onion. And amid the mostly-empty jars in the fridge was one with brine left over from my sister Rebekah's fabulous pickled beets. As usual, I had corn tortillas aplenty.

I remembered the breakfast tacos of my college days in Austin, and the solution was obvious. A longtime fan of breakfast for dinner, I knew what I had to do. Slices of the onion went into the beet brine, a small sweet potato went in the microwave and the eggs went into the skillet. I fried them instead of scrambling, because wouldn't that gloriously runny yolk enliven a taco? Indeed it would, and did.

I used jarred salsa that first time (probably ordered from Austin Spice Company), but since then I have been making my own salsa and my own pickled onions, both crucial to my taco strategy. Such condiments also help extend the life of fresh produce -- a challenge that can vex the single cook -- by turning it into something value-added.

The best salsa I ever had was from La Fogata restaurant in San Antonio. In the early 1990s, the only way you could take some away from the place was to provide your own receptacle, which they would fill for a few dollars a pint. My fellow Texas-transplant friend Karin and I would take our containers whenever we visited home from Boston and would return with so much of the smoky, black-flecked nectar that we had to host a dinner party so the stuff could be consumed before it went bad.

These days, La Fogata sells its salsa on the Internet. While I was waiting recently for my first shipment to arrive, I figured I'd try to concoct it at home. Good old Google turned up a blog (SpiceLines.com) by another ex-Texan food writer, along with a recent post featuring her attempt at re-creating the recipe. One look and I knew it wasn't quite right, since hers was red rather than brown.

But I used it as a jumping-off point, cutting the proportions down to single-serving size and using smaller vegetables for more blackening. Cherry tomatoes, large shallots, garlic and jalapeño pepper went under the broiler; then I pureed them with a little vinegar and water. I pretty much nailed it, and it tastes tailor-made for my Tacos de Huevos.

Another recent eureka moment came on a trip to Mexico City, where my sister and I ate our weight in tacos. Our favorite joint: El Califa in the Condesa neighborhood. Like so many taquerias, it specializes in tacos al pastor, which use pork that cooks on a spit, shawarma style, as a pineapple sits on top to help baste the meat. You order a few tacos; the cook slices off the pork with a flourish, letting it fall right into a tortilla in his hand. Then he swipes higher and slices off some pineapple, which falls in, too. At the table, you sprinkle on chopped onions and cilantro and spoon on your favorite salsa. Fold, eat, repeat.

At home, naturally, a spit is out of the question, which is why I always used to cook my own interpretation of tacos al pastor by stir-frying chunks of pork and spices and then throwing in some pineapple and salsa. Nice enough. Then another style of taco in Mexico City inspired an improvement. In addition to the al pastor, El Califa and other places make tacos that could hardly be simpler: a beef or pork cutlet pan-fried and set, whole, atop the tortilla. The meat is so tender you can fold it right inside the tortilla, no knife required.

It sent me right back into the kitchen once I got home. Now I pound out a pork cutlet or boneless chop so thin that it takes on the flavors of a marinade in just a few minutes and cooks in a flash. While the cutlet soaks in a mixture of vinegar, pineapple juice and spices, I throw together a salsa of fresh pineapple chunks, jalapeño pepper, shallot (more manageable for a leftover-averse cook than onion) and cilantro. While I warm the tortillas, the cutlet sizzles in the pan, and it all comes together just in time for whatever's on the tube.

Actually, it's the TV that can wait a few minutes, while I tear off a paper towel and head for the couch. As addicted as I am to "Idol," after all, TiVo's got me covered, and the tacos are my priority.

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