I had invited some friends to dinner and I knew it was going to be a swelteringly hot and sticky day. I was absolutely sure that by evening time I would not want anything to do with hot ovens, and sizzling saute pans, so, I made up my mind to get everything ready before the cool weather was seized by the hot, relentless sun!
I wanted the food to be casual and buffet-like, which would leave me free to hang out and spend time with my company. However, I also wanted lots of flavor, color and variety. Sometimes, the only way to achieve this is by putting in time and effort. Making a dinner like this is difficult if you only have an hour or two before guests are expected (which is generally the case). But, it was a Sunday, and besides the usual hum-drum tasks of the day, I was free to spend time doing what I pleased. I choose to spend my time steadily cooking fillings for tacos, as well as making the tacos themselves!
I cooked all the meat before 10am and prepped the shrimp, and, as I started into the simple, but laborious task of making the soft corn tacos my daughter said she would love to help. When cooking involves any sort of dough it has endless appeal to children for the obvious reason that it feels like playing, not working! I decided to put her on pan duty. I would form the taco, and she would cook them for about 45 to 50 seconds per side. We turned into quite a little factory, me pressing out 5″ rounds of corn dough and her cooking one side, (timing herself for accuracy, and because I didn’t have time to look and tell her when to turn each and every one) flipping, and then the other, before stacking between paper towels to keep them from going hard while cooling. She said she could have done this all day long, and I could completely relate. If you have time on your hands, activities such as these have a way of emptying and relaxing your mind. My daughter had begun to discover the appeal of the kitchen, the lovely quite feeling one gets when working on little tasks. Our reward was a tall stack of beautiful soft corn tacos.
Toppings such as onion relish, smoky chipotle sour cream, salsa, chopped greens, and, cucumber and tomatoes steeped in a little orange juice, were made in between trying to clean up the house and make the place look semi-presentable, (somehow my house never manages to appear pristine no matter how much dusting and scrubbing takes place!).
When my guests arrived it would then be a mere matter of putting all the little dishes on the table, warming up the meat and frying the shrimp. This would leave me with plenty of time to make us all delicious drinks and sit and enjoy the company.
The evening was so much better than I could have hoped for, and the food offered something special for every palate. I was so surprised that the hottest sauce in my cupboard was generously poured on the food of our youngest guest (only 9!) and, he begged for more!! Wow, I was completely impressed, and am wondering if I should give him the Habanero test when he next visits?
Soft Shell Tacos (makes 50 approx.)
You will need; 5 cups corn masa flour (I used MASECA but Masa Harina is great also – this can be found with the other flours or in the ethnic section of your supermarket), 3 cups cold water, 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt.
Equipment: Handy if you have a tortilla press and 2 plastic freezer bags
1 – In big bowl swirl together the salt and Masa flour (I use a whisk). Make a well in center of flour and pour in 3 cups of cold water. Mix until it forms 1 dough ball. If it is too dry add more water a little at a time until you have a solid ball. It needs to be more on the sticky than dry side.
2 – Take some plastic freezer bags and cut right below closure. Slip one bag over the top of your tortilla press (like a glove) and lay the other one on the bottom. Pinch off some dough about the size of a gold ball and roll into a ball between your palms.
3 – Lay ball on center of press and flatten a little with your palm. Press tortilla. When you open the press the tortilla will be stuck to one or both of the pieces of plastic. Peel plastic away carefully and repress if you have to. It needs to measure between 5 and 6″s.
4 – You can press all the tortilla and lay between sheets of wax paper Or, if you have a helper, one can be cooking them while one presses.
5 – Put heavy skillet or pan on medium heat and when it has warmed up put a tortilla in the center of the pan and time for 45 seconds, before turning and cooking on the other side for the same amount of time. As they are cooking press little divots in the dough to get air circulating.
6 – Store cooked tortilla between paper towels to keep from going hard. To reheat, wrap in tea towel and then wrap in tin foil and place in a 225* oven.
Making Beef, Chicken and Shrimp for Tacos
For Beef: Put a beef brisket, seasoned with salt and pepper (about 2 lbs) in a heavy casserole with 3 bay leaves, 1 onion, quartered, 10 peppercorns, 2 cloves of garlic. Bring liquid to a simmer, cover and simmer gently for 2 hours or until meat is very tender.
Shred meat by raking a fork through the meat. Put meat in a bowl or dish and add a some cooking broth to keep moist, and cover.
For Chicken: Put 5 or 6 chicken thigh cutlets into a heavy casserole with chopped garlic cloves, 2 cups of water, juice form 1 lime and lime rind, and 1 jalapeno cut into thick slices. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer very gently for 30 minutes or until meat is very tender.
Pull meat apart into pieces and pour a little of the broth over chicken to keep moist, cover and set aside.
Note: The broth from both the chicken and beef can be strained, cooled and put in the freezer to be used at a later date.
For shrimp: Shell and devein 1 lb of shrimp. season with a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime juice, and fry on high in 2 tbs of vegetable oil for 4 minutes. Transfer to plate until ready to use.
Peel 1 cucumber and slice into large dice. Slice two tomatoes in half, remove the flesh and seeds, and dice. Place in a bowl with 3 tbs of orange juice and 1 tbs of lime juice. Add 1/4 tsp coarse salt and mix. Taste to correct seasoning.
Slice 6 plum tomatoes in half and remove the flesh and dice. Put into a bowl with 2 tbs finely chopped red onion, 1 diced jalapeno, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves and 1 tbs of lime juice. Taste and add salt if you feel it needs it.
Dice a small red onion very finely and put it in a little bowl along with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and 1/4 tsp salt.
Mix 1 cup of sour cream with 2 tbs of chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, (chipotle peppers are smoked jalapeno and can be found in a can in adobo sauce).