Friday, April 19, 2013

Make Your Own Taco Seasoning or Mexican Red Sauce the Easy Way

A couple of things I know for sure and that is that Mexican home cooks do not keep little containers around their kitchen labeled "Taco Seasoning" or "Chili Powder." Same for Indian home cooks and "Curry Powder." They just don't. Both of those are gringo (or gora) interpretations and simplifications (if not perversions) of Mexican and Indian flavors. But if you are one of those people--like me--who doesn't use garlic powder when there is perfectly good fresh garlic just sitting there waiting to be crushed, then read on.

I started learning how to make the Mexican flavor after I noticed, years ago, that the ingredients in any jar of chili powder are basically, dried ground chilies, salt, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Those are items I have in the pantry, so why pay for some dinky and even expensive packet that serves one or two meals and contains a ton of salt? It makes no sense. Also, I have a treasured copy of a 1970s Sunset cookbook called, Mexican Cooking to give me guidance. And it contains non-gringo-fied authentic recipes that contain actual lard (YUM!) and other mainstays of made-from-scratch Mexican cookery. The Sunset recipe for taco meat is that you first make red sauce. Surprise! If you learn to make red sauce you will not only be able to make the sauce that goes on enchiladas (and that tortillas are dipped in for enchiladas), but you will also be able to whip up tacos-any-flavor, using your preferred meat or fish (or vegetarian equivalent--tempeh tacos, anyone?)

The old-fashioned and correct version is to start with those lovely dried chilies you see in the Mexican section of grocery stores. They could be anchos, pasilla, or California chiles. You toast the dried chiles in the oven, remove, cool, rip out the seeds, soak in water, and then blend. But I am lazy and if it requires going through that dried-to-pureed chili cha-cha, I just won't make tacos or red sauce very often. Here's my lazy cheater's version that still tastes authentico and you probably have the ingredients lying around anyway.

  • Olive oil
  • Fresh garlic, crushed
  • Paprika, smoked paprika, any kind of dried ground chili powder you have on hand (you can buy a variety in the Mexican section of most grocery stores for around $1 per packet--a common one is "Chile California Molido" in El Guapo brand)--any combination of mild ground chiles
  • Oregano--fresh if you have it, dried if not
  • Ground cumin
  • Tomato paste if you have it, if not, ketchup. Yes, ketchup--don't get all snooty on me.
  • Chicken stock (if you get a jar of Better Than Bouillon Chicken Stock on hand, it will last months in the refrigerator
  • Salt to taste
  • Corn starch with water to blend it

Start with olive oil in a frying pan. Add crushed garlic and saute quickly--do not allow to brown. Add any combination of mild ground chiles, as listed above. If paprika is all you have, use that. Be generous--you want it to be red colored. Add chicken stock, tomato paste, cumin, oregano, and stir to mix. Add a slurry of cornstarch and water (1 tablespoon cornstarch per cup of liquid). Stir quickly as it will thicken into a gravy. A Mexican gravy. Taste and adjust seasonings. How much you add of each is up to you. You should have a reddish, savory, just-salty-enough red sauce, also known as salsa de chile rojo.

Ready to convert this into taco seasoning? Add your raw beef, chicken, fish, tempeh, etc., and cook while stirring. That's it. Serve with Mexican trimmings and garnish with lime and cilantro.