If you couldn’t tell by the lack of Corona and limes at your local grocery store, today is Cinco de Mayo. Every year on May 5, Americans—looking to share in the culture of our neighbors to the south—cut up limes, break out the tortillas, and celebrate the holiday, which commemorates Mexico’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla.
Sadly, for many revelers, the holiday fare begins and ends with chips and guac, as eager cooks fumble when it comes to the deceptively simple taco. But fear not, amateur chef: let The Taco Revolution be your Cinco de Mayo food bible. Author Brandon Schultz breaks down taco construction into easy steps while exploring the food’s versatility. You’ll never have to endure a bland Old El Paso seasoned monstrosity again.
Out: What was the inspiration behind this book? Your author bio says you're a lover of cooking, but why focus on tacos?
Brandon Schultz: Tacos have been one of my favorite foods since I was a child. I used to have contests with my dad and brother to see who could eat the most on taco night. Tacos, and especially taco trucks in major cities, have been a huge trend for the past couple of years. Growing up, I only ever had the classic American-style taco (ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, etc.), and when I realized that you could put anything on a tortilla, The Taco Revolution was born.
When many Americans think of tacos, odds are they think of tacos with hard shells. Yet, this book only has one hard-shell recipe, aptly called the "Classic American Taco." Are soft shells simply more versatile?
I think you mean only one taco "stuffing" recipe is recommended with a baked tortilla (hard shell), and yes, that was the Classic American Taco, for exactly the reason you said—this is the taco that springs to mind first. But there are recipes in the book for making the Baked Tortilla, the Taco Salad Bowl (which is also baked and hard), and the Navajo Taco Shell, which is actually fried into a hard, puffy shell. The soft tortilla is the traditional shell for an authentic taco, though, and I stuck with it almost exclusively. “Tortilla” doesn't refer to those giant burrito-size shells that most people might think of first; a true tortilla is rather small and generally only going to fold up like a hard shell. Also, tacos are a naturally gluten-free dish because tortillas are traditionally made from corn, not wheat. Like many people today, my partner is gluten-free, You can turn almost any sandwich—or any meal—into a taco for an instant gluten-free version of something a person with Celiac might be missing out on. And they are so fun anyway.
You offer recipes for homemade shells too (in addition to recipes for seasonings, sauces, and sides). How do the homemade shells measure up to shells you can purchase at stores?
There really is no comparison! Homemade shells are quick and easy to make and taste much better than anything prepackaged that you can buy in a store. Tortillas are delicate and have a super short shelf life (like, hours). There is just about no way to mass produce them properly, so you know that a homemade one is going to taste much better and be a lot better for you.
How long did it take you to conceive and create these recipes, and what was the strangest, or maybe funniest, part of the process? Give us a behind-the-scenes anecdote.
Summer 2013 was the summer of tacos in our apartment! We had tacos just about every day, in some form. Thinking of the recipes started several months before the cooking started, though, and continued almost all the way up until the book went into production. From start to finish on the creative end, it was probably about 8 or 9 months of thinking, writing, cooking, and testing before I had a solid grasp on which recipes were going in the book. And there were a lot of trips to food stores and produce markets. As for something funny, I think everything my pets do is hilarious, and I remember when we were testing the Philly Cheesesteak Tacos, we made a lot of thin-sliced beef on a griddle one night. I had plates of finished beef sitting on the counter, and our cat, Lucy, seemed to think we set out a beef buffet for her. She was secretly helping herself. My partner thought it was cute that she gave some to our dog, Chase, but I know she just dropped that one accidentally. The pets get along great, but there's no way she willingly shared that beef.
You have a lot of unconventional taco recipes in this book, including dessert tacos, the St. Patrick's Day Taco, even the California Roll Taco. Do you have a favorite offbeat recipe from the book? Is there any advice you'd give to people dreaming up their own fillings?
The first thing that comes to mind is the Zucchini Pesto Taco, made by using a julienne peeler to string zucchini into spaghetti shapes. It is delicious, but I admit I may just be obsessed with it because I had never used a julienne peeler before, and it changed my culinary life. It also made a new form of "pasta" available to my gluten-free partner. I got the idea from a great gluten-free and healthy living advocate named Caroline Shannon-Karasik, who released The Gluten Free Revolution earlier this year. I was actually the editor of that book and I highly recommend it to anyone, gluten-free or not. Another favorite is the Thanksgiving Taco. This is a crown jewel in my taco kingdom. Turkey strips and stuffing on a tortilla lined with cranberry sauce...just talking about this makes me want to eat five of them now. At the end of the book I talk about inventing your own tacos and just how easy it is. Your options are almost limitless as long as you remember a few key rules: keep your ingredients small (especially crunchy ones) and keep liquids and creamier ingredients to a minimum or your tortilla will fall apart. If you are using the true corn tortilla and you really want something great, but wet, on your taco (like cranberry sauce!), it also never hurts to double up on the tortillas.
Which tacos from the book would you most recommend to someone who's dieting and trying to eat light?
First, I would definitely recommend using true corn tortillas instead of store-bought flour knockoffs. Instant benefits. Then, avoid the cheesier tacos and go for something like the Lamb Meatball Taco with yogurt sauce! There are lots of vegetable options like the Steamed Broccoli Taco and the Vegetable Stir Fry Taco that are a little healthier and less gluttonous. Obviously stay away from the Chicken & Waffle Taco, or anything with breaded and fried ingredients!
So the Chicken & Waffle Taco would be a great one for indulging. What are some others?
Yes! Definitely try it. If you are really looking to indulge, then you have to try the Navajo Taco, which is just a Classic American Taco served on fry bread—a fried tortilla that packs over 500 calories on its own. The Mac & Cheese Taco is pretty indulgent, too...but so worth it!
Someone wants to use your book to plan a fun taco date with his/her partner. What do you suggest? Plan the menu, based on recipes from The Taco Revolution.
A total Taco Revolution date? Okay! Start with any of the Tortilla Crisp recipes and the Guacamole. If this is more of a fun, young date—make a buffet of all three pizza tacos, and then finish off with the Sweet Corn Ice Cream recipe. If you want something more substantial for the main course, the Pork Carnitas are a guaranteed winner and not hard to make at all. I find that restaurants usually have dry or rubbery carnitas, but this recipe is guaranteed to give you flavorful, moist results. Oh, and the Taco Dip Cups are a really cute, personal-size dish that would probably be pretty impressive for small effort on a date, too! Sneak those in somewhere.
Cinco de Mayo is upon us, and one of the items in your book gives readers pointers on throwing a taco party. Which dishes from The Taco Revolution do you think would be best suited to a Cinco de Mayo bash?
If you are throwing a party for a good number of people, you want to keep to more standard fare that the greatest number of people will enjoy, so this is an ideal time to bust out the old Classic American Taco. It is so easy to present tons of toppings in festive dishware (with bundles of cilantro all over the table to decorate), and everyone is going to recognize and like them. Make quality tortillas with good seasonings in them, like the Chili Lime Tortilla. Just because the taco itself is "common" doesn't mean your spread or your party will be. Pay attention to details like innovative tortillas. If you do you want to branch out to something a little more unexpected, then go for tacos that you can easily make in bulk, like the Barbecue Chicken Taco or the Chipotle Chicken Taco. You can make a massive batch of these "stuffings" ahead of time, and they are easy to reheat and replenish all night.
What's your next book project?
My cat and I are writing a cookbook for release in September of 2015. It will be a cute little gift book for cat lovers, and it will include great recipes for humans, and then explain how to adapt them to be healthy and tasty for their cats! A little tongue-in-cheek, but carefully researched and definitely delicious. Lucy is super excited.
Pork Carnitas Taco:
[Makes 10 tacos]
¼ cup bacon grease or vegetable oil
2 pounds pork shoulder, chopped into 7-8 large chunks
2 Tablespoons fine ground sea salt
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano
1 ½ teaspoons cumin
Juice of 1 lime
2 small cans chicken broth (14.5oz each)
2 cups shredded lettuce
3 tomatoes, diced
Fresh cilantro for garnish
½ lime per plate
1. Heat bacon grease or vegetable oil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Bacon grease adds depth to the final flavor, but vegetable oil works well, too. Season pork with salt, then add to the Dutch oven and brown on all sides, 10-12 minutes. Add remaining dry ingredients, followed by lime juice and chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until pork is extremely tender, 2 ½ hours.
2. Place pork in a deep baking dish, drizzle with a ladle of juice from the Dutch oven, and bake at 400°F for 30 minutes, stopping twice to shred pork with two forks and add more juice.
3. Top a tortilla with shredded lettuce, pork, tomato, and cilantro. Serve with half a lime and extra cilantro for added flavor.
The Taco Revolution is avalibale on Amazon.com
Above photos: Pork Carnitas Taco, Author Brandon Schultz, Chicken and Waffle Taco.