EASY ENTERTAINING: Summertime is taco time

A taco menu is easy on the cook — just fire up the barbecue and grill your preferred protein, buy some fresh tortillas and toppings, and use my recipes for some homemade salsas — then let your guests design their own dinner.


Cinda Chavich photos

By CINDA CHAVICH


There’s something about tacos that always evokes memories of sunny summer days and dining by the beach.

Maybe its that first crispy fish taco you tried under a shady palapa in a Mexican seaside town. Or our own island-inspired versions, birthed near the wild beaches of Tofino or served from a funky shipping container on a Victoria pier.

Tacos are part of our coastal culinary landscape and a taco feast is easy to enjoy at home, too.


DIY TACO TIPS

A bit of grilled food, spicy salsa and crunchy vegetables, wrapped up in a corn or flour tortilla makes a fun, portable and endlessly adaptable meal. It’s something to enjoy with a beer on the patio, whether you’re starting with seared steak and grilled peppers for a fajita feast, or simply folding a corn tortilla around some leftover grilled chicken or pulled pork.

A taco menu is easy on the cook, too — just fire up the barbecue and cook your preferred protein, then provide tortillas, salsas and other toppings so diners can design their own dinner.

For home-style fish tacos, dredge some lingcod or halibut strips in milk and seasoned flour, then fry until crisp, and roll up with some spicy salsa and shredded cabbage slaw from the supermarket.

Or rub a pork shoulder with chilies, then smoke it slowly to tender perfection (with some tomatoes and onions) for an Al Pastor taco feast.

Grilled steak, chicken and vegetables are other options, or you can cook up a pot of beans to top your vegetarian tacos.

Just provide your guests with a stack of warm corn or flour tortillas and a variety of extras — think spicy salsas and creamy guacamole, crunchy cabbage slaw, shredded cheese and sour cream — and let the wrapping and rolling begin. It’s a hands-on, DIY style of dining that appeals to all ages, a meal that’s as flexible as your imagination.


TALKING TORTILLAS

Tex-Mex style tacos and flour tortillas are ubiquitous in North American restaurants and fast food joints, but flour is not commonly used to make tortillas in Mexico.

Flour tortillas trace their roots to Mexican border towns and communities with large Latin populations in the American south. And though it’s not traditional, a good flour tortilla makes a convenient wrap for your favourite fillings, whether you’re serving a small, hand-held taco or a larger sandwich-sized wrap.

Flour tortillas are also great for grilled quesadillas. For a high-fibre, whole grain wrap, try the Low Carb Whole Wheat Tortillas from La Tortilla Factory, made in California and available at The Root Cellar.

Corn tortillas are more delicate, better for small tacos and tostadas, and add real Mexican flavour to your taco feast. Adriana’s makes fresh corn tortillas in Saanichton and you’ll find them at several grocers in the city. Or look for Abuela’s corn tortillas, made in the Comox Valley, in the freezer section.

Many city supermarkets also sell imported corn and wheat flour tortillas, or you can buy a bag of masa harina (corn flour) and try making your own corn tortillas from scratch. But there’s a difference between the corn tortillas made with corn flour and the traditional Nixtamal tortilla, a more complex process that starts with whole heirloom corn.



NIXTAMAL TACOS

Chef Israel Alvarez Molina has made it his mission to introduce Canadian diners to the true, traditional Mexican tortilla, created by cooking, soaking, and grinding a masa (dough) from whole kernel dried corn, then forming and grilling each toothsome tortilla to order.

A recent transplant from Mexico City, Alvarez started his Canadian cooking journey in Edmonton, then brought his hand-made Nixtamal tortillas to Victoria diners, where they became legendary among locals at Victoria’s Breakwater Grill and Tasting Room.

Post pandemic, Alvarez continued his authentic Mexican taco explorations with direct sales of his Nixtamal tortillas, and a series of pop-up dinners this summer and fall at local restaurants ranging from Nowhere, Saveur, Wild Mountain and Harvest Road, to Pluvio in Ucluelet. Now he has opened Maiiz Nixtamal, with his own production space, storefront and takeout operation, in Chinatown.

Though most diners, even in Mexico, now eat corn tortillas made with masa harina flour, Alvarez says this type of tortilla is a result of industrial farming and food processing, and bears little resemblance to a traditional tortilla made with non-GMO, landrace varieties of whole corn.

Like the artisan breads from bakers who mill whole grains for their loaves, grinding whole, heirloom corn is the healthy way to make Mexico’s traditional daily bread, he says. The nixtamalization process — cooking and soaking the whole corn in an alkaline (lime) solution before grinding it — also improves the flavour and nutritional value, a slow process developed by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations.



The flavour and texture of Alvarez’s Nixtamal tortilla is remarkable, a rustic flat disk that puffs on the hot griddle. It’s toothsome yet pliable enough to hold the kind of robust fillings featuring local ingredients that he likes to offer alongside — from bison short rib, braised with pasilla, ancho and morito chilies to tender duck confit carnitas flavoured with chilies and orange, or wild, foraged mushrooms and island feta cheese. His own salsas add another dimension, whether it’s a creamy salsa verde or a smoky, charred tomato salsa, created from scratch. Look for the latest taco kit combinations from his online store, for pickup or dine in.


THE SECRET SAUCE

Beyond the tortillas and the fillings, include a variety of sauces and salsas for your taco feast.

A good, fresh salsa will elevate your tacos — the traditional Pico de Gallo of finely chopped tomato, white onion and jalapenos is a good place to start. Or make a green tomatillo or chimichurri sauce with plenty of garlic, cilantro and Italian parsley to brighten a fajita or wrap.



The Root Cellar’s creamy Green Sauce or the Peruvian Green Sauce made in-house at Pepper’s grocery, both loaded with cilantro and green chilies, made great additions to your tacos, too.

Then gather your friends, fire up the barbecue and invite everyone to create their own favourite taco combinations.

Dining outdoors, with tacos on the backyard grill, is all about casual, easy living — just don’t forget to shake up the margaritas and soak up that summer sunshine!



RECIPES:


GRILLED QUESADILLAS


This is one of my favourite appetizers to make on the grill. The trick here is making sure you’re judicious with fillings – less is really more in this recipe.

Use any kind of flour tortilla and get creative with what’s inside. Just make sure you have the basics—salsa, cilantro, and grated cheese—and don’t overfill the tortillas (or they’ll be sloppy, not crisp). Also, remember to watch the tortillas on the grill as they can burn quickly.

Learn this simple technique, and you’ll always have easy appetizers on a summer day.


Avocado-cream dipping sauce

1 ripe Haas avocado, peeled, pitted, and mashed

1⁄4 cup (60 mL) mayonnaise

1⁄4 cup (60 mL) sour cream

2 tsp (10 mL) freshly squeezed lime juice

2 Tbsp (30 mL) chopped cilantro 1 green onion, chopped 1⁄4 tsp (1 mL) Asian chili paste

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Quesadillas

10 flour tortillas (plain, tomato, spinach, etc.)

1 cup (250 mL) spicy salsa 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) olive oil 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and slivered (alternatively try thinly sliced fresh peach or pineapple)

1⁄2 cup (125 mL) cooked black beans, rinsed and drained well if canned (optional)

6 thin slices smoked chicken or turkey, slivered

2 cups (500 mL) shredded Jalapeno Jack cheese, mozzarella or Oaxaca cheese 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) chopped cilantro


For the dipping sauce, combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and whirl until smooth. Chill.

Pour the oil into a small bowl for brushing tortillas.

To make perfect quesadillas, learn this technique: using a pastry brush, very lightly coat one side of a tortilla with oil. Lay the tortilla, oiled-side down, on a plate. Spread a thin layer of salsa over the tortilla, spreading to the edges, top with a few slivers of avocado, a sprinkling of black beans, some bits of smoked turkey, and a smattering of chopped cilantro. Sprinkle with cheese. Top with a second tortilla, brush the tortilla lightly with oil, and press down with a spatula to seal the layers. Continue to make quesadillas in this manner (you can just stack them up on the plate as you go).

Remember to fill the quesadillas sparingly—too much filling is counter productive, your quesadillas will be soggy and difficult to eat. They should be a little gooey, but crisp.



Heat the barbecue to medium-high heat and, using a wide spatula, carefully transfer each quesadilla to the grill. Cook on one side for 2 to 3 minutes, until it starts to brown and melt together, then quickly (and carefully) flip to cook the second side. You’ll likely need to do the quesadillas two at a time, depending on the size of your grill surface.

Repeat until all the quesadillas are crispy on the outside and cooked through. Watch carefully so they don’t burn.

Set the grilled quesadillas aside on a cutting board for a few minutes to cool slightly and firm up before cutting them into wedges. Serve immediately with avocado dipping sauce. Makes about 24 wedges.


SWITCH IT UP: Beyond the salsa and shredded cheese, quesadillas are endlessly adaptable. Use some kind of protein (beans, crabmeat, slivered ham, or chicken), a vegetable or fruit (slivers of avocado, ripe peaches, pineapple, or roasted red peppers) and fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, green onions, or Italian parsley). Tex-Mex combinations can morph into Asian (try Chinese barbecue pork or duck with hoisin sauce, cheese and cilantro) or French (pears or fresh figs with a bit of blue cheese, chicken and minced rosemary), and even Italian (ham and pineapple, or salami and peppers, with tomato sauce and fresh basil or oregano leaves).



STEAK FAJITAS

Here’s a classic Tex-Mex way to enjoy steak on the grill. With a salsa bar on the side, it’s a festive way to dine — interactive, self–serve food that’s easy to make and fun to eat. Add some bowls of chopped black olives, sour cream and shredded jalapeno Jack cheese for diners to add to their wraps at will.

You can substitute chicken breasts or fish fillets in this recipe, or marinate and grill portabello mushrooms for a vegetarian feast!


Marinade:

3 tablespoons (45 ml) canola oil

juice of 2 limes (about 1/4 cup or 50 ml)

1 small hot pepper, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 green onion, minced

2 tablespoons (25 ml) tequila

1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground cumin

1/4 cup (50 ml) chopped cilantro


Fajitas:

1.5 pound (750 g) skirt, flank or sirloin steak

2 red peppers, seeded and sliced into strips

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced into strips

1 yellow pepper, seeded and sliced into strips

1 large white onion, peeled and cut into slivers

12 warm flour tortillas or corn tortillas


Garnishes:

1/2 cup (125 ml) chopped black olives

chopped fresh tomatoes and avocados

shredded jalapeno Jack or Cheddar cheese

fresh salsas


Combine the marinade ingredients in a food processor and whirl until smooth. Place half of the marinade in a bowl with the peppers and onion, and toss to coat. Put the remaining marinade in a resealable plastic bag with the steak. Set both aside at room temperature to marinate for 30 minutes.


Heat the barbecue grill to medium high. Using a grill wok, (a perforated barbecue grill pan), stir-fry the peppers and onions in batches on the grill until they begin to char. This will take 10-15 minutes. Grill the steak for 6-8 minutes per side, then set aside for 10 minutes to allow the juices to settle.


Carve the steak into thin strips across the grain. Pile it in the center of a serving platter and surround with the grilled vegetables.


Serve with olives, tomatoes, avocado and shredded cheese on the side. Set out the salsas and warm tortillas. Let diners make their own fajitas, piling the tortillas with steak and vegetables, adding garnishes and salsas of choice, and rolling them up.

Makes 12 fajitas and serves 4-6. Multiply at will.


FRESH TOMATO SALSA

This is a simple salsa but it adds a burst of fresh flavor and spice to the fajita wraps and tacos. It’s easy to make any time to scoop with tortilla chips for an instant appetizer.


1 cup (250 ml) fresh, ripe, Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely diced

1/3 cup (75 ml) minced white onion

1 jalapeno or serrano chili, stemmed and minced (remove the seeds for milder salsa)

3 tablespoons (45 ml) minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon (15 ml) fresh lime or lemon juice

salt to taste


Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and set aside in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Makes 1 1/4 cups (300 ml).



ROASTED SPICY SALSA

If you’re a fan of the Nixtamal Tacos at the Breakwater Tasting Room, you’ll love this smoky tomato salsa recipe, one of the three salsas that chef Israel Alvarez makes and serves with every order. The secret is in the traditional technique — roasting the vegetables to add a charred, smoky note before chopping or pureeing to create the sauce. He shares his recipe here.


A

3 medium ripe whole tomatoes (350 grams)

¼ pound green tomatillos whole, no husk, washed (100 grams)

4 jalapeños peppers, stemmed

1 (or 2) habanero pepper, stemmed

1 large white or yellow onion (150 grams)

5 cloves garlic, peeled.


B

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 fresh lime, juiced

1⁄4 cup finely chopped cilantro


If you have a bbq or grill at home, you definitely want to use it to char-roast your veggies – simply cook the whole tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions and garlic until lightly charred on all sides, before processing or blending.


Otherwise, use your oven. Preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the first group of ingredients on the pan. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes.


Check the garlic and peppers. Blistered and charred spots are what you are looking for, remove them and set aside.

Tomatoes and tomatillos should take longer so keep roasting them until they become soft.


In a food processor (for chunky texture) or in the blender (for smooth texture) add the roasted ingredients and blitz until the desired texture is achieved.


Transfer the salsa to a bowl and add kosher salt, lime juice and chopped cilantro. Mix well and add to your tacos, quesadillas or tamales.


Note: You can keep the prepared salsa in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.


SALSA VERDE

This smoky green salsa is great to serve with barbecued meats, spoon over scrambled eggs or to scoop up with corn chips. Tomatillos look like green tomatoes with a papery husk. They are actually a type of ground cherry with a tart, fresh flavor. You can make this as a raw salsa, too, but I think it benefits greatly if the vegetables get a good char on the grill first.


8 medium tomatillos, husks removed, halved (or substitute green tomatoes)

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1 small white onion, peeled and halved or quartered

1 large jalapeno chili

1/4 cup (50 ml) minced cilantro

1/4 cup (50 ml) minced Italian parsley

½ teaspoon (3 ml) sea salt

1/4 cup (50 ml) extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons (25 ml) lime juice

1 tablespoon (15 ml) cold water


On a barbecue vegetable grill or hot griddle pan, sear the tomatillos, garlic, onion and jalapeno until they begin to blister and char. Combine with the remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth.

Makes 2 cups (500 ml).


CORN, AVOCADO AND BLACK BEAN SALSA

Make this chunky salsa when sweet, fresh corn is in season, to scoop up with tortilla chips as a hearty taco party appetizer, or as a vegetarian taco filling. It also makes a portable summer salad to serve alongside any grilled meats.


3 ears fresh sweet corn, kernels removed (about 11/2 cups/375 ml), or used thawed frozen or canned corn

1 large ripe avocado, peeled and cubed

2 tablespoons (30 ml) fresh lime juice

2 or 3 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 19-ounce (540-ml) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

2 green onions, chopped

4 tablespoons (60 ml) chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil

1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) cumin

salt


Make sure to start with very fresh sweet corn – picked today if possible. To remove the kernels from the corn, first remove the husks and silk and discard. Rinse the cobs well and cut the end flat. Stand the cob on a cutting board, or in a large bowl, and using a sharp knife, start at the top and cut down to the base, removing a strip of kernels. Continue around the cob.


In a bowl, combine the corn, avocado cubes, lime juice, chopped tomatoes, beans, jalapeno pepper, green onion, cilantro, olive oil, cumin and salt and mix gently to combine.


Cover the salsa and chill for several hours to meld the flavors. Makes about 4 cups (1 L).



Copyright Cinda Chavich