So, you run into a salad story written by a Mexican — me — and expect to see a taco salad? Not likely to happen.
There are no taco salads in Mexican kitchens. At least I have never, ever seen or heard of a taco salad either in Mexico or served in a Mexican’s home, wherever that may be in the world. I could attest to the same thing for the entire universe if it weren’t for the fact that I haven’t left this Earth.
To be blunt, I do hope for a world without taco salads — and the cold and soggy taco shells of their aftermath.
Would you care for a burger-and-french fries salad with ketchup and mustard squeezed on top of dressed greens? Not I, although I would devour a bacon cheeseburger with fries any day, hot off the pan, with or without a plate.
There are fabulous tacos of all different sorts for every mood and every occasion, and there are salads, just as extraordinary and with just as many options. Mexican kitchens are a brimming source for both. Sadly, not many people are aware of the latter.
Maybe that’s because in Mexico, “ensaladas” are likely to be served more often at home than in restaurants. Typically, they’re not even referred to as salads; their names or titles tend to be based on a main ingredient — often with endearment (a sign of how much we love them), followed by the way it is cooked. A chayote squash salad with a vinaigrette might be called “chayotitos en vinagre,” while a green bean salad with tarragon dressing could be “ejotitos al estragón.”
Come to think of it, the term ensalada has been used in Mexico for any salad with some kind of lettuce, although that has started to change in the past decade or so. Nonetheless, the main point here is that tacos are tacos; salads, whatever we call them in Spanish, are salads.
The taco salad must have been a fun and welcome addition to American menus when it made its first appearance in the 1960s. According to “Taco USA” author Gustavo Arellano’s authoritative research, it was the man behind Doritos, Elmer Doolin, who had the idea of making a Doritos bowl with what, in that era, was considered the contents of a taco: ground meat, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Some undressed pieces of tomato and shredded lettuce might have shown up soon after. As a very early Tex-Mex creation, it has its place in history. But luckily, we have come so much further than that hard-shell version of a taco and a salad mixed together.
Here’s what I can say about Mexican salads: They are often unique, with an exotic element in them, with playful textures and multiple layers of flavor in the vinaigrettes or dressings. Those vinaigrettes or dressings tend to be so full of sazón — which can be loosely defined as having the knack for matching and mixing ingredients and flavors — they could be eaten on their own.
Mexican salads are also surprising. You are likely to see Mexican ingredients you might expect, paired with ingredients you wouldn’t necessarily think of as belonging to Mexican cuisine.
In the accompanying recipes, you’ll find crisp chayote squash paired with tart Granny Smith apple and wet jicama sticks enveloped in a rich, velvety avocado dressing with a pepita (pumpkin seed) base and laced with dill. You’ll find cucumber, radish and jumbo lump crabmeat in a creamy dressing packed with mint, basil and jalapeño. You’ll see chunks of mushrooms and artichoke hearts bathed in an irresistibly tart lime vinaigrette touched by capers and thickened with dry and salty queso.
Mexican salads are so eye-opening that they really help take “Mexicanness” out of the box that seems to equate Mexican food only with tacos. They also prove the point that tacos are exquisite and can shine on their own — just like our ensaladas.
Jinich, a chef and cookbook author most recently of “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), hosts “Pati’s Mexican Table” seen nationally on public television. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.