Yesterday I posted my recipe for Authentic Fry Bread. Today, I’ve posted my recipe for Sonoran-Style Shredded Beef (or Buffalo) and now this one. This all goes back to my Native American ancestors, and my time spent among the people of my Nation – the Cherokee. Then, on top of that, yesterday my good friend Peter Bonta (check out his Caribbean charters here) pleaded for Indian Tacos. And since I’d already planned to do it, it was no big deal to accommodate his request. In fact, unless he reads this, he’s going to think I did it just for him. I won’t lie and tell him that’s what I did, but if wants to think it, I’ll let him. So don’t give me away, OK?
So what’s a taco anyway? Well, it’s a folded over sandwich. Beyond that, nowadays it seems you can use any bread and put anything in it and still call it a taco. I don’t really get that. Folding a piece of pita around some squid legs doesn’t feel like a taco to me. And yet, there’s a restaurant serving just that and calling it Neuvo Cuisine. Yeah, whatever. (Visualize Eye Roll here.)
BUT! You see, the Navajo Nation covers territory that was originally in Mexico, then part of it became part of the US. Obviously, we all know that tacos originated in Mexico. I should come as no surprise, then, that when the US provided all the ingredients for fry bread, and the Navajo created what is now a staple in almost all of the Nations, that they would also say, “hey! We can fold this around some meat and stuff!” And, lo, my Manly and Womanly Friends, the “Indian Taco” was born.
Just so you know, they’re called Indian Tacos in the Nations, too. Go to any Pow Wow and you’ll see vendors selling Indian Tacos. Don’t get mad at me. Besides I call mine Manly American Tacos – and by that I mean it’s a robust version of a Native American dish.
You know, I haven’t researched it, because I just thought about it, but I wonder if flour tortillas didn’t get their start from the interaction between the Navajo and Mexicans. I mean, the idea of a taco came through the other way – from Mexico to the Navajo. Is it possible that a Mexican sampled fry bread and thought they might do something similar? I don’t know. I’m just wondering aloud here. I’ll shut up now so we can have some fun with a great recipe!
Heartier lettuce (Boston, romaine, etc.)
As always, get all your ingredients together. This time around, that includes fry bread, and some beef of some kind. For this recipe, I use my Sonoran-Style Shredded Beef (or buffalo), but you can use another filling, as long as it’s close to a normal beef taco filling. I guess you could use chicken or some such, too, but I’ve never seen an Indian Taco using anything but beef or buffalo, and – once – elk. But if could be ground or shredded Mexican-style beef, or a chili of some sort. If you’ve never done it this way, however, I strongly advise you to try it. It’s not entirely traditional, I’ll grant you that. But you will NOT be disappointed!
You’ll also need to make some fry bread. And you should do it as close to serving time as possible. Then you’ll need to get all of your toppings together. Once you have everything ready to go, it’s a simple matter of building tacos, so let’s talk about that. I mean, you already know to chop this and that, and slice those over there, right? Well, even if you didn’t, now you do.
Here’s how I get this done:
I get my beef going in the slow cooker very early in the day. If I’m planning on serving any time before 5 pm, I’ll set it up the night before. There’s nothing wrong with letting it go on LOW all night long, then turning it to WARM, which is more than to keep it… well, … hot. At some point during the day, I’ll get most of my toppings together. The only thing I don’t do until the very end is shred the lettuce or cabbage, because I don’t want it to start turning brown. Often I’ll hold off on cutting lime wedges and chopping the cilantro. But I’ll do the rest, make sure I have plenty of tea and ice, get out all the plates and serving dishes and utensils, and everything else I need to do to get ready for the party.
If I’m serving a crowd, I’m going to need a lot of fry bread. During the day, I’ll measure out all the dry ingredients for several batches. The first go-round, I’ll do a double or triple batch, depending on number of guests. From there it will be single batches moving forward, if I need more.
I’ll put a frying pan on every burner; for me that means having four going at once. If I do them on my grill, I can get six in there, but three at least will have to be cast iron, because their handles will be over, or very near, the heat. On the stove that isn’t a problem. I can use my smaller pans, too, because I make my fry bread no more than 8 inches in diameter. If I want more than that, I’ll eat two. But for most occasions a 6-7 inch disc works for me. Sometimes I’ll do them smaller, but that’s just me.
About the time my first batch is resting under a towel, I’ll remove the meat from the slow cooker and let it drain of excess juices. I do this by setting a metal strainer in the top of a pot that’s just big enough to hold it. Then I’ll put the pot lid over the meat. I don’t need to do it, but if your strainer sticks up from the pot, allowing air to get in, you could cover the top with aluminum foil. Just a thought.
Then I’ll make sure all the toppings are ready to go. Once I know everything is GO MISSION, I’ll start frying bread. I’ll get one disc started, wait one minute, start another, wait another minute, and so on, until I’ve got four of them going. As soon as the first piece of bread is done, I start another and keep going until I’ve got one for each guest (or two, if they’re small).
Once I have three or four pieces done, I can start serving guests. I’m usually the one to load the meat (with the person acting as guide), then hand them the plate and send them to the toppings. Because it takes each guest a moment to load their taco, I can pretty much keep up from there. The cool thing about this method is that the fry bread is still good and warm by the time they sit down to eat. As the last pieces are frying, I’ll do a quick single batch to the point that it’s resting under the towel. That last piece is for me, and I have a taco. As people finish, I find out who wants more, and I can jump right back into frying bread in minutes.
Now that you know my process, let’s talk toppings. Today, the basic toppings include what you’d normally find on an American version of a taco: shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and onions, and perhaps some salsa. Black olives are popular, but not omnipresent. I’ve seen beans on Indian tacos made at lots of pow wows and fairs, too. Call it one out of every three or four. As for sour cream and salsa, it’s about 50/50 whether or not it comes on top automatically or you put it on yourself. You’ll see jalapenos occasionally, mostly farther south, but even there you’ll only see them half the time, if that. And usually, they’re a self-serve item.
Everything else is not really authentic. Sort of. Remember what I said about the Navajo and the Mexicans trading information back in the day? Then, factor in that iceburg lettuce wasn’t around back then. But cabbage was, and so was cilantro. If I ever see cheese on an authentic Mexican taco, it’s almost always queso fresco lightly crumble over the top.
Let’s also remember that you can always substitute a more robust, greener, better tasting lettuce. Field greens add a touch of elegance and taste wonderful! Add a few cilantro leaves on top for some snap. Spinach is just a bit too far for my own taste, but you might love it!
Before we get to my actual taco build, let’s talk about how to build them. There are two basic ways, flat on a plate and piled edge to edge, or fold-able like a Mexican street taco, but a bit heftier due to the thickness of fry bread compared to a tortilla or two. I prefer the fold-able version. I lay a piece of aluminum foil on a work surface or plate, then put the bread on that. The first two ingredients (sour cream and meat) are applied there, but then I lift the foil and the bread and fold it in my hand. I tip the ends up to prevent anything from sliding out there, and the bread holds – and helps me gauge – my toppings. Once I’m done, all I need is a napkin and easy access to my cool, tasty beverage of choice for the day, usually Ice Tea.
As for my personal toppings, my build consists of (in order) fry bread, a thin layer of sour cream down the middle third of the bread, then shredded meat to cover the sour cream. Here’s where I pick up the foil and taco, then add a some salsa, a light sprinkle of queso fresco, a fair portion of onions, a little tomato, a few field greens, some cilantro and a little more queso fresco.
At that point, I’m vibrating with anticipation, and the first bite is likely to make my eyes roll back at least a lot. Your tastes may vary and I invite you to find your own heavenly combination. That’s a good part of the fun, isn’t it? And if that isn’t playing with your food, I don’t know what is! I’m telling you, when you get it just right – the meat perfectly seasoned and as juicy as a winter night is long, the perfect combination of fresh ingredients… that first bite makes all the time and effort well worthwhile. Your friends will talk about it for days. Then weeks or even months later, they’ll bring it up again, often as a subtle hint that they think it’s high time you had another dinner party!
One last thing before I close: If you’re going to make a big deal out of it – and I strongly recommend you do so – why not check out some salsa and dip recipes for the pre-meal munchies, and some of my favorite beverages to go along with them? Margaritas… hinthinthint. And, above all…
Play with your food!
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