Not all of the great cookbooks released last year can make it into Food52’s Piglet competition, so along with each day of the competition they post a Community Pick. They solicit five volunteers per cookbook to test and review it, then post the best. I submitted a review of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak, which was not chosen, but the editor here at Vegetal Matters is still willing to post it.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations
I’ve always had reservations about one dish and one ingredient cookbooks. Both my wallet and my space are limiting factors – so why would I invest in a cookbook with narrow uses? But I was overlooking the fact that my cooking repertoire were more like “cooking X without a recipe.” In fact a favorite dinner-on-the-fly game at my house is “Will it taco?”, including whatever is in the house in a tortilla topped with a sauce (so far, everything has taco-ed). Tacos: Recipes and Provocations has begun to change my mind on the worthiness of one dish cookbooks. This is more a formula for a dish that involves tortillas, salsa, and filling that can be interpreted infinite ways. Tacos provides the tools to execute that formula in constantly interesting iterations.
Stupak is non-negotiable on the subject of tortilla making: you make them at home or you don’t bother. He laments that truly great corn tortillas must be made with freshly ground masa, but it is impossible to do at home (and the more readily available masa harina must substitute). Corn tortillas also require a tortilla press, which I was not quite ready to invest in. Flour tortillas seemed a much easier path to success with readily procured main ingredients (white flour and lard – look near the butter in the grocery store) and involved equipment I already own (a rolling pin). Even without a stand mixer the dough comes together easily and after a short rest is ready to roll out. Making circular tortillas is another story, for a greater perfectionist than I.
It is made clear that Stupak’s background is that of a high end pastry chef, but his influences range widely from his wife’s Mexican background and his own New England upbringing, along with experiences around the world. The recipes have an incredibly wide variety of ingredients, from basic chicken and shrimp, to pastrami, tongue, sea urchin, and suckling pig (and there are vegetarian options, but they are the minority). Just about every dish includes 3 or more recipes: the tortilla, salsa, and filling.
Some can be prepared in advance, but it’s safe to say these are mostly weekend cooking projects and not after work dinners. There are obscure ingredients and long processes that could classify this more as a “chef” cookbook, but it is balanced with enough basic recipes and familiar ingredients to make this book a kitchen workhorse and not a coffee table book (though the photos are gorgeous in their own right).
I went with dishes that contain ingredients most common in my kitchen: potato and chorizo tacos with salsa de árbol and chicken and kale tacos. The chorizo tacos involved toasting all of the spices, chilis, and nuts for both the chorizo and the salsa (not ideal if you have spice sensitive housemates). Stupak describes the salsa de árbol as his end-all-be-all of hot sauces, and I’m wholly on board. The sauce had the real kick I want, acidic tang from the vinegar and an earthy sweetness. I’ve used it on much more than tacos, and I’ll have to make a plan for more when I finish the last tablespoon on my eggs tomorrow. Perhaps I am not the best judge for chorizo as I would eat it on a piece of bark, but this recipe was robust and worth all of the effort of toasting and grinding that went into it.
The chicken was roasted with lard and then stirred into a fresh tomatillo salsa along with kale, and topped with queso fresco and crema once in tortillas. The combination was surprisingly rich (or maybe not, see: lard) and well foiled by sturdy kale. Both chorizo and chicken took the better part of a Sunday afternoon, but were undeniably the best tacos that have come out of my kitchen. Since it is best to use up the tortillas that night, they make an excellent excuse to entertain (and enlist your gusts in tortilla rolling).
Though Stupak warns leftover tortillas are not worth eating, it has obviously been far too long since he had a premade tortilla. Yes, the texture was compromised, but the flavor was still far superior to their pale, grocery store brethren.
A cookbook with the subtitle Recipes and Provocations seems to be making a big promise for some lofty thoughts. The insightful essays did their full share of provoking. They included the untraditional American placement of beef in tacos, the true meaning of “traditional” dishes, and the ascribed worth of different cuisines. Each problem is something any cook making any cuisine in any part of the country has encountered.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations was all I could hope for in a cookbook (specific to one dish or otherwise): excellent background on processes and traditional ingredients, scientific precision in recipe testing, varied ingredients and thorough directions. All of these benefits were delivered in an amusing conversational but knowledgeable tone, along with some truly reflective essays. I still have a cup of lard in the fridge so there is only one thing to do: make more tacos.