Category: Mexican Cuisine

Taco Casserole: Reworking Americanized Mexican Recipes


A completed serving of Taco Casserole, without any of the optional toppings.

Two summers ago when I was Kitchen Manager at the Skyroom at Indiana Beach I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with a man we called Chuey. Jesus Valdes Dominguez lived outside Mexico City, but during that summer and the twenty preceding summers he traveled to the Skyroom to work in the kitchen for the entire season.


Chuey doing the prep to roast a couple 50 lb hogs in July of 2015. He cut them into halves so they’d fit into the tall but narrow roasting ovens.

I was hired on that summer solely as Kitchen Manager. I’ve become quite good at organizing professional kitchens, getting the ordering systems right, building spreadsheets for monthly inventories, making sure things at least make a little bit of sense. … All the technical reasons I was called out-of-the-blue by a former supervisor and brought on-board in the spring of 2015. But there were longtime cooks there who always called me “Chef”, and Chuey was one of those cooks. Of course, he’s one of the many excellent cooks I’ve known throught my life whom I’ve learned a lot from. But in his case, it’s his sense of humor that stands out as one of his best traits.

July 25, 2015, 4:00 a.m.: More than 2,000 to cater for today. Dragged my ass out of bed an hour ago, tried to focus my eyeballs to continue an online discussion on coneys, downed two cups of coffee before slowly lumbering to the restaurant 200 feet from my cottage … The sound of rapidly running feet behind me, I glanced back to see a figure flying toward me, I’m scared witless … 43-year-old Chuey goes flying by and races up the eighteen steps to the door … before he’s had his first cup of strong Mexican coffee. Laughing maniacally at the door he bellows “Chef, Chuey mucho loco!!!” Yup, he done be cray-cray …

Later in the summer, as my health started to take another tumble (I finally received a much-needed pacemaker on November 15, 2016) Chuey took it upon himself to make sure I was taken care of in regards to meals. Regardless of how busy he was, regardless of what I had going on, he would throw another serving of his own meals of authentic Mexican cuisine together, wrap the second serving in film, place it on my desk, and demand I take the time to eat.

Chuey: “Chef, you go eat!”
Me: “We’re behind, I gotta get this done!”
Chuey: “No Chef, you get sick later …” [points at me] “I tell your wife!!!”
Dammit …

I’m experienced enough in running professional kitchens to know when to let cooks thrive. If they’re under my supervision, and they want to do something unique, and it’s possible to let them go off-menu, I’m more than happy to let them go. Our first experiment with pork belly was to rub it with a mix of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, and a lot of herbs, let it sit for 24 hours, sear it on the flattop, then cook it for 3-1/2 hours in a 50/50 brine of chicken stock and Budweiser at 225F. It was like butter when it was done and had amazing flavor. That we cut it up for a high-end Pork & Beans for the Father’s Day buffet just made it more fun. Jenelle Solomon from Jamaica, a Chef in her own right without accepting the title, later took more of the pork belly, mixed together her own jerk seasoning rub for it, let it sit overnight again, then cut and grilled individual slabs for sandwiches for another buffet. Letting excellent cooks be creative helps everyone learn, and as none of us had attempted pork belly prior to this and that we all felt good about the results is what counts in recipe and menu item development.


Jenelle Solomon, grilling off slabs of Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly, July 5, 2015.

I learned more about what real Mexican food is about from Chuey than he probably realizes. There are specific packaged ingredients available here in the U.S. that Mexican families use on a regular basis. You just have to find them. Believe me, that’s not difficult to do. Many larger grocery stores carry the right products in a special “ethnic” section, but there are enough real Mexican groceries around that it’s even simpler to go to one and find what Mexican families are using in their own kitchens. You’ll likely pay less there for the same items, too. In Monticello, Indiana, that Mexican grocery is actually inside Esmeralda’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant Chuey himself ate at. That’s where he would pick up the ingredients for his own meals in the Skyroom, and would later share with me. (In nearby Monon, Indiana, the grocery was also attached to a Mexican restaurant next door, and had its own butcher shop and fishmonger as well.) So I learned rapidly what worked for him, and what he would turn his nose up at.


The Bronner’s staff cookbook and its Taco Lasagna, along with the write-up for the resulting Taco Casserole.

I’ve been an avid collector of cookbooks for quite some time now, and have more than 400. The past few years I’ve gotten rather picky about which cookbooks I’ll add to the collection. One category of cookbooks to be particularly picky about is that of the “fundraiser” cookbooks, generally published by local organizations by the ubiquitous Morris Press Cookbooks for the past umpteen yea … er, since 1933. The majority of these cookbooks have, unfortunately, become rehashes of one another. But at the same time, businesses use Morris Press to publish their own “staff” cookbooks. These collections are rather well curated, especially when the business wants to stay within a target audience or occasion. The two staff cookbooks from Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, “Bronner’s Flavorful Favorites“, one from 2005 and the other from 2008, are excellent examples of this. I added these two cookbooks to my collection about a month ago, and have really enjoyed browsing the holiday-specific recipes.

Quite a few of the recipes in the Bronner’s cookbooks are intended for family gatherings through the holidays. One in particular caught my eye, the Taco Lasagna in Book 2 as submitted by Bronner’s staffer Rebecca Fowler. Our family as a whole loves Mexican food, to the point where I keep the large foodservice container of taco seasoning in the pantry. The kids and grandkids come to visit us almost every weekend, and large recipes are necessary on a regular basis anymore. So the Taco Lasagna became something to seriously consider.

But as I looked at Ms. Fowler’s recipe my mind took the leap: How would my good man Chuey make this? What changes would I need to make to make it palatable for him if he were here? To raise the level of authenticity?

Hoping not to offend Ms. Fowler in what I’m certain is a seriously nice dish, I immediately knew calling it a “lasagna” wasn’t something Chuey would have agreed with. He made his own lasagna for the restaurant in a very specific manner, and had for years. He begged me to get him the right lasagna, an uncooked pasta sheet that had never been dried, which took me a good month to find. He then proceeded to make his own sauce and meat mixture from scratch, used all the right Italian cheeses, and par-baked the batches while finishing servings individually. His lasagna would put most others to shame. Pasta-maker Barilla, founded in 1877, agrees with him. In their now-out-of-print book “I Love Pasta: An Itallian Love Story in 100 Recipes” from their Academia Barilla, the Barilla family members wrote about how the pasta was mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman descriptions of cooking. The end the paragraph with “There is also an industrial version with curled edges”, referring specifically to what most westerners are used to seeing and cooking.

Chuey would have made this baked dish for a buffet, meaning we would call it a “casserole” on the menu.

Chuey never used ground beef spiced with taco seasoning in the dishes he made for him and I. He always used pork chorizo, generally the mild variety. The real thing is made with salivary glands, lymph nodes and cheek fat, and other cuts of pork. This follows the centuries-old Central American cultures always being nose-to-tail, and is authentic, whether or not squeamish Americans want to admit it. The seasoning is correct for what Americans call “taco seasoning”, so no additional spices are necessary.


The meat mixture after simmering.

The basics of Ms. Fowler’s recipe are good, but I think Chuey would have made at least a few changes. Knowing I’m making a double batch means I can replace one of the cans of black beans with a can of Chuey’s beloved whole kernel corn. “Mexican” tomatoes are merely tomatoes with green chillies added. By splitting out the chillies I can adjust the amount of heat, the hotter the better. And no Mexican dish is right without a good bunch of chopped fresh cilantro.

About those canned vegetables: The Mexican versions of these canned goods are indeed authentic. They’re less processed than their American counterparts, have considerably fewer ingredient, and in many instances are imported from Mexico or other regions of Central America. They also taste better than what’s made in the U.S. and are used in Mexican family kitchens every day.

Finally, we’ll tweak out the process just a bit, heating the refried beans until they’re smooth so they’re easier to spread, draining the tomatoes and chillies so the resulting casserole holds together and the tortillas don’t get soggy, adding the possibility of greasing the casserole dishes with lard, and adding optional toppings.

The end result had people going back for seconds and thirds. Really, it’s that good. And all kinds of variations are possible. Give this a shot. Your family will be glad you did.

Taco Casserole

Ingredients
2 lb El Mexicano raw Pork Chorizo, mild
1 cup Onion, chopped
1 can Herdez or La Preferida Black Beans, drained & rinsed
1 can Corn, whole kernel, drained
2 cans La Victoria Diced Green Chillies, drained
2 cans Petite Diced Tomatoes, drained
2 cans Herdez or La Preferida Refried Beans
2 cups Cilantro, fresh, chopped
6 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded
12 8″ La Banderita Flour Tortillas
Sour Cream for topping (optional)
2 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded, for topping (optional)
Herdez or La Preferida Salsa, for topping (optional)

In a high-wall skillet over medium heat, cook the chorizo and onion for about 15 minutes, until the meat has crumbled completely. (With good chorizo, it will not change color.) Place a stack of paper towel or a lint-free cloth on a plate. Transfer the cooked meat to the plate and allow the oil to drain. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the meat back to the skillet. Add the black beans, corn, shillies and tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. (The corn should still have a nice crunch.) Remove from the heat.

Dump the two cans of refried beans into a sauce pan, stirring occasionally, and heat just until smooth. Remove from the heat. (This allows for the refried beans to be used more easily in the next step.)

Use lard or vegetable shortening (lard is preferable) to grease two 13″ x 9″ x 2″ glass casserole dishes. Lay two tortillas in each one. On the tortillas in each dish, spread one-quarter of the refried beans, followed by one-quarter of the meat mixture, one-quarter of the cilantro, and one cup of the shredded cheese. Top each with two more tortillas, and then build a second layer identical to the first. Top with the remaining tortillas and one more cup of cheese each. Cover each dish with aluminum foil, being sure to “tent” the foil upward in the midle so it isn’t contacting the top layer of cheese.

Bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Let set for 5 minutes before serving. Top each serving with sour cream, more shredded cheese, salsa, or other optional toppings.

Notes:

  • Play around with the ingredients. Increase or decrease the seasonings to taste, use hot chorizo if you’d like, or even top each serving with a fried egg. The possibilities are endless.
  • Replacing the chorizo with cubes of slow-cooked beef tongue seasoned with taco seasoning would make for another authentic version, as would using pulled pork or chunks of slow-cooked pork belly seasoned in the same manner.
  • This makes a lot of Taco Casserole. You can also do the assembly in the same size foil casserole pans, cover with foil, then freeze immediately to cook at a later date.

Recipe: Authentic Molcajete/Mortar Guacamole

One of the favorite flavors of my life for the past 30 years or so has been that green paste they call guacamole. Back in 1984 Frisch’s Big Boy out of Cincinnati started shipping #10 cans of guacamole to the restaurants in Ohio so the topping/dip could be used in a few new dishes they were rolling out. We received a couple of the large cans at the restaurant I worked at on West Broad St. just outside the I-270 loop. A lot of us had never had the stuff before, so manager Gus Pappas opened one of the cans so we could try what we were supposed to use. It was, as I wrote in the first line above, a “paste”, thoroughly puréed, and a singular pea-soup color throughout. Tasting the quacamole with the same kind of metal spoons we always placed at the tables (using plastic spoons for that kind of thing wasn’t in vogue yet), we found some of the stomachs in the room weren’t quite up to the task. I didn’t mind it, but it was, in fact, slightly odd while still being a little on the intriguing side.

Since that time I’ve had what I always assumed was actual guacamole on numerous dishes, from Taco Bell’s 7-layer Burrito (an unfortunate staple of mine in the late 1990s) to various Tex-Mex salads at joints purporting to be “authentic Mexican” (which in fact were more like New York City-made salsa) to lots of different sandwiches (yes, wraps too) that actually worked rather well with the paste included as one of the spreads.

As embarassing as this is to write, I found just past April 13th that the stuff I’ve been enjoying as guacamole for almost three decades isn’t anywhere near the wonderful goodness and amazing simplicity of the real, authentic dish. On that date, I picked up Mary after work and we headed to one popular BBQ pork restaurant in Toledo for a meal … only to find they were a converted Hot-n-Now and that they’re drive-thru only. Wanting a sit-down meal we headed another mile down the road to The Docks and decided to try El Vaquero, which we’d heard was as authentic Mexican as it gets in Toledo. On our way in we noticed a sign for Tableside Guacamole for $5.99. It sounded intriguing, so once we were seated we asked the server for it as an appetizer.

That’s when things got interesting. The server came back with a busser’s cart with the Tableside Guacamole sign on it. On the top of the cart was a number of metal bins, and the oddest mortar/pestle I’d seen. The thing was carved out of roughstone, and had a face painted on it like a pig. The server added chopped tomato and red onion to the mortar, along with chopped jalapeno. He then cut and pitted two Hass avocados, scooped the fruit out of the flesh and added the fruit to the mortar, along with some chopped cilantro. Finally, he squeezed a lime into the mix and sprinkled salt and pepper over it all. Using two spoons, he then proceeded to mash the bejeezus out of the mixture, then set the whole thing, mortar and all, on our table, just as you see it in the photo on the left. Ok, I’m the one that stood the menu behind it …

That guacamole was nothing at all like any other guac I’ve had in my life. It was thick and chunky, bursting with the individual flavors which contrasted well together while creating an overall flavor like nothing I’d had before. It was seriously addicting, so much so that Mary and I used the still-warm 4″ tortilla chips to polish of the entire mortar full of guacamole.

We had to have more. Mary’s simple question of “You can make this, right?” sent me on a quest these past few weeks. Fortunately, I found everything I needed, almost in one place.

If you’re driving through the city of Adrian in southeast Michigan just north of the Ohio line, you wouldn’t have much of a clue that there’s a fairly large Mexican community there. In the small downtown area is a single authentic restaurant, The Grasshopper, El Chapulin, that even serves a rather decent bowl of Menudo, the beef tripe and hominy stew that turns the stomach of so many sqeamish Americans. But southeast of the downtown area there’s a square mile or so straddling East Beecher Street between South Winter and Parr Highway that’s home to almost the entire Mexican community of the area. There are small buildings along Beecher offering handmade tacos and chalupas, a place called The Tamale Factory run by three generations of women that’s basically a hole-in-the-wall in the corner of an old auto shop, a small Mexican family sit-down restaurant called Mario’s Mexican Restaurant on the north side of Beecher between Oak and Treat that you can’t even get into at lunchtime because it’s so packed, a great family restaurant at Maumee and Dorothy called the Sunny Side Café that serves the most amazing Mexican breakfast dishes …

… and right there at the corner of Beecher and Gulf is one of my own favorite places to shop, Veronica’s Market.

Even though the market has been on my radar for a while, I’d never bought anything in the way of cooking tools from them. I’d vaguely recalled seeing some mortars at the bottom of the tool rack but it had seemed to me they were marble or some other kind of stone. Last week, though, when I headed in to actually look at the mortars and pestles, which are actually called a molcajetes and tejolotes, I found them to be of the exact same pig design as the ones used at El Vaquero. At that point I knew I was in business, and at $17.99 for the thing I just had to get one and get going with it.

Looking around the web for guidance wasn’t as revealing as I’d hoped it would be. One of the main issues I found was that a large number of recipes call for a bowl, not a molcajete. While some may consider such a point to be mere quibbling, it would seem to me that if you are attempting to make any kind of an authentic dish from any type of cuisine, you’d better darn well be specifying and using the correct authentic tools for the job as well. You know, it’s just like this: If you’re making Chinese food you need to use a wok over a high-temp gas burner, not a skillet on an electric stove. When we had the Tableside Guacamole at El Vaquero, there was also a cultural experience involved which added a certain value to the dish. If the server had made it in a bowl I doubt it would have had the same impact. His use of the molcajete brought forward our own respect for the Mexican culture, which was part of what I wanted in the dish when I finally made it myself.

On the web it turned out that, a little more than four years ago, Journalism Professor Holly A. Heyser had posted almost exactly what I was looking for on the hunting blog she was writing at the time. She doesn’t write that particular blog anymore, focusing elsewhere on her freelance writing and photography. In case her older work disappears at some point, I’ll repost a couple of her points about the molcajete which were most important to me:

Q: So how do you clean it?

A: Easy: I put it in the sink, run hot water in it and add a little dish soap, then use a scrub brush to get into all the pits and pores. You won’t be able to get out all the green bits – they really stick in there. But it’s OK. No one has died from eating guac out of my molcajete. After scrubbing, rinse thoroughly to get out all the soap, then turn it upside down to drain. It takes a while to dry out completely, because it’s a big stone sponge.

Alternate method: Rinse it out and stick it in the dishwasher.

Q: You mentioned something about curing the molcajete. What’s up with that?

A: The molcajete is made of stone, and if you just start using it straight off the shelf, you’re going to get bits of stone in your food. Not so good for your teeth!

To cure it, you dump in a handful of uncooked rice, grind it down, rinse it out, and repeat 3-5 times until the rice no longer looks gray at the end of the grinding. I won’t lie – this process is a total pain in the butt. But it’s worth it when you make your guac and all the people who eat it tell you it’s the best guac they’ve ever had. Your big fat head will make you forget all about the torture you endured.

While Ms. Heyser’s version of the guacamole was actually quite close to what I was looking for, there were some variations to it that were a bit different from what they did at El Vaquero. Most importantly, the technique and process were a little more involved than the simplicity we had seen at the restaurant. Her version uses the tejolotes to grind the ingredients to “pulpy bits”. While this certainly does sound good, I didn’t recall seeing the tejolotes at El Vaquero. This seemed important somehow.

Digging through my collection of more than 200 cookbooks I was somewhat shocked (I guess more like irritated) to find I’d never once picked up any kind of Mexican cookbook, authentic or otherwise. Michigan-based Borders Bookstores have all closed recently, so I headed to my second choice, a Barnes & Noble in north Toledo … only to find their cookbook section has been pared down to a whole three sets of shelves. And of course, the one “authentic” Mexican cookbook had the guacamole being made in a bowl …

Frustrated, I made the 12-mile-or-so drive to the large Books-A-Million store in Perrysburg, which is south of Toledo. There I found the cookbook section to still be an entire aisle, eight sets of shelves, with a decent selection of Mexican cookbooks.

Looking through all of the cookbooks spread across more than one shelf I discovered only one mentioned using a molcajete to make the guacamole. The book is Dos Caminos Mexican Street Food by Ivy Stark, Executive Chef at Dos Caminos and other restaurants in New York City and elsewhere. And lo-and-behold, the small chapter on equipment also included a photo of the same molcajete used at El Vaquero, the same one I had bought at Veronica’s Market.

Dos Caminos Mexican Street Food might soon become one of my most-used cookbooks. Street food can be an amazing thing, and when ethnic street food is done right it can be downright addicting. The guacamole recipe on page 71 sounded suspiciously familiar. And interestingly enough, the introduction to the recipe read in-part;

We prepare it tableside in a lava stone molcajete according to each guest’s specifications.

With this particular book added to my collection, I only needed to do one more thing.

For Cinco de Mayo of 2012 last week we took two of our kids and our granddaughter to El Vaquero for an appropriate and authentic Mexican dinner. Of course we asked our server for the Tableside Guacamole. A woman brought the cart to our table and began to make the guac. I started asking questions, only to find out she spoke very little English. I paid particularly close attention to what she was doing so I could possibly recreate it later, making mental notes on all the ingredients and processes. The guac was just as good as it had been the first time, if not even better. I asked our server about the “Guac Girl” and found out she is actually the owner’s wife! She hasn’t been in the U.S. for very long, but obviously she makes some of the best guac around. I mentioned what I was doing and where I’d bought the same molcajete. Our server was dumbfounded … He explained they had bought thirty of them for the large restaurant and had paid at least thirty dollars for each. More reason to like Veronica’s Market I guess …

With a plan in mind, gathering the ingredients turned out to be a bit on the interesting side. I headed to one of the “normal” American groceery store, and was sorely disappointed. $4.49 for three avocados that didn’t look so great anyway?? No thank you … I headed back to Veronica’s Market where I’d picked up the molcajete. The owner there had been kind enough to give me bits and pieces of advice, but now went full bore into it. For example, the Wikipedia entry for avacodo states, “A ripe avocado yields to gentle pressure when held in the palm of the hand and squeezed.” The owner doesn’t like people squeezing his avocados like this to test them as the fruit inside the flesh becomes bruised. So he keeps the avocados inside the walk-in cooler. He headed in there and came out with four beautiful, ripe Hass avocados. Looking at the sticker I discovered these weren’t from California as most recipes I found specified. They were actually from Mexico. I’m not sure if this makes any difference but it sounds good anyway … I also grabbed a few jalapeños, some key limes, Roma tomatoes and a nice bunch of cilantro out of the wall cooler. The red onions, which is what El Vaquero uses in their Tableside Guacamole instead of white onions, weren’t in the vegetable bins at Veronica’s Market, so I headed to another market in Adrian to grab some.

In making this recipe successfully the very first time I did it, I learned a few things. First of all, getting the pits out of ripe avocados and scooping the fruit out of the flesh is considerably less stressful than I’d imagined. In fact, it was probably the easiest part of the entire process. Also, the membrane needs to stay in the jalapeño when you seed it so more heat remains, else you may as well not even add it. And finally, don’t have anyone who might really like it test it for you. You may not get the guacamole back, let alone have any left for the rest of the family when they get home.

Before the recipe, some “food porn” … a shot of the bin of fresh-made pork rinds that sits next to the register at Veronica’s Market. I can’t stand commercial pork rinds myself, but these things? I could probably eat this whole bin given the chance …

Recipe: Authentic Molcajete/Mortar Guacamole

This recipe looks rather involved, but really it’s not. I’ve included a lot of descriptive steps for beginners who may not know how to accomplish some of the processes. This is actually quite simple. We hope you like it as well as we do.

Ingredients
2 ripe Hass avocados
1 large Roma tomato
1 red onion
1 jalapeño or serrano pepper
1 key/Mexican lime
fresh cilantro
sea salt
ground black pepper

Cut two slices of the red onion and give it a rough chop until there’s a couple tablespoons. Chop half the tomato the same size and amount as the onion, and add both to the molcajete. Cut the jalapeño or serrano pepper in half, remove the stem and the seeds (leaving the membrane), chop it half the size as the onion and add it too to the molcajete.

Using a sharp knife cut the avocados in half around the pit. Twist the halves in opposite directions to pull them apart … the pit will stay in one half. Hold that half in your palm and, with the knife in the other hand, plant the edge of the blade near the handle firmly in the pit. Twist the pit firmly with the knife and the pit will pop out of the avocado fruit. Using a large metal spoon, separate the fruit from the flesh on one side and gently scoop the fruit into the molcajete. If the avocado is exactly ripe, it will all come right out. Repeat with the other halves of avocado.

Roll the lime back-and-forth on a hard surface a few times to get the juice flowing. Cut in half along its equator and squeeze the juice from each half into the molcajete, throwing the juiced lime away. Give a couple teaspoons of the cilantro a fine chop and add it as well.

Using a couple large metal spoons fold everything together. Then simultaneously fold and chop the entire mixture together, continuing until it’s well-blended. Add a little of the salt and ground pepper and mix it in. Taste the guacamole, and add more salt and/or pepper as needed.

Serve directly out of the molcajete, allowing people to dip corn chips directly into it to eat.

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