Category Archives: Beef

Tacos

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The humble taco.  A big staple in my house growing up in the 70s and 80s.  Ortega’s “dinner in a box”.  Add some cheese and meat and dinner was served on crisp and crunchy shells.  As a kid, taco night was the equivalent of going out to eat.   It was fun to assemble your own food and you were eating something exotic, something Mexican.

Like many portable sandwich type items, tacos are thought to be invented by poor workers. In this case, silver miners in Mexico.  Excerpted from Smithsonian.com:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, has traveled around the world eating tacos.   According to Dr. Pilcher, the origins of the taco are really unknown, but he thinks that it dates from the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word “taco” referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face. For instance, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite. The first references [to the taco] in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century. And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos. So the taco is not necessarily this age-old cultural expression; it’s not a food that goes back to time immemorial.  Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Where-Did-the-Taco-Come-From.html#ixzz2QfSTk512 

It wasn’t long before Glenn Bell co-opted the taco and franchised it all over the United States.  The key to the success of the taco franchise concept lay in the shell.  Soft corn tortillas aren’t good for the long haul.  They are very time sensitive.  This works against the general franchise principles of longevity and shelf life.  But when you fry the shell, the shelf life is extended.  Thus, the taco with the crunchy u-shaped shell is born.  Lasts longer, tastes better.  As an aside, I haven’t eaten at Taco Bell in a very long time.  I like beef to be “beef” and not 88% beef.  However, I must say the dorito flavored taco shells are inspired.  I loved doritos as a kid.  While they are verboten now, it sounds awesome!

Back to taco night!  My kids love taco night, just as much as I did.  My picky daughter can make her taco with meat, taco shell and cheese.  My son can load his up with all the fixings.  My husband and I can keep low carb with a taco salad.

So, I wanted to have a simple dinner and picked up a packet of taco seasoning.  Ortega, my childhood favorite (from http://www.ortega.com/products/products_detail.php?id=13126):

Ingredients
Yellow Corn Flour, Salt, Maltodextrin, Paprika, Spices, Modified Corn Starch, Sugar, Garlic Powder, Citric Acid, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Natural Flavor, Caramel Color (sulfites).

I know what corn flour, salt, paprika, sugar, and garlic powder (isn’t that a spice?) are.  If you can write “spices”, can’t you say what they are?  Autolyzed yeast extract has MSG in it.  Otherwise, I’m at a loss.  For taco seasoning, shouldn’t seasonings be, I don’t know, greater than 4th on the list of ingredients?

Let’s try Old El Paso, another classic standby:

Maltodextrin, Salt, Pepper(s) Chili, Onion(s) Powder, Spice(s), Monosodium Glutamate, Corn Starch Modified, Corn Flour Yellow, Soybean(s) Oil With BHT Partially Hydrogenated To Protect Flavor, Silicon Dioxide Added To Prevent Caking, Flavor(s) Natural

Well, at least a spice was in the third position.

For the organics, Simply Organic (http://www.simplyorganic.com/products.php?cn=Southwest+Taco&ct=sosouth):

Organic Chili Pepper, Organic Maltodextrin, Organic Paprika, Sea Salt, Organic Garlic, Organic Onion, Organic Potato Starch, Organic Coriander, Organic Cumin, Silicon Dioxide, Citric Acid, Organic Cayenne.

The spice has moved up to number one, but maltodextrin (a sweetener), is a tad high for me, and it’s $1.50 for a little over 1 ounce.    Ugh.

So, I made my own “taco” seasoning.  I hesitated to write this entry because I don’t use corn starch as a thickener.  I use tomato sauce, or tomato paste and water in a pinch.   Whenever I have people over, they remark how really good the taco meat is and I don’t tell them my “secret” ingredient.    The meat doesn’t particularly taste “tomato-y”.  It honestly, just tastes like taco meat.

As with any recipe, feel free to adjust the seasonings to your particular taste.  Try the meat when it’s done and adjust as necessary.  Spices are fickle.  My 12 month old club size container of cayenne may not be as spicy as your fresh from Penzey’s bag of cayenne.  For such a spice heavy dish, all things are relative. Also, and I hate to get political, but I use organic corn shells. Genetically modified (GMO) corn scares me. It doesn’t die when you spray round up on it. GMO corn has caused a blight of round up resistant weeds and an increase in the amount of chemicals sprayed on the corn crops. Organic corn is supposed to be GMO free. The reality is with cross pollination, one can never be sure, but it’s better than definitely GMO.

Also, I used the following fixings, so I don’t really have a recipe for “sides” for this dish. I would love to say that I made the salsa and the guac, but my local Whole Foods did. It’s a weeknight and I work. I spent my time making the seasoned meat!!

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Taco Meat

olive oil
2 pounds ground beef (turkey or chicken are ok too)
2 1/2 tablespoons of a mild red pepper powder (Ancho, Paprika, etc.)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano (crushed)
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
8 ounces tomato sauce
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a saute pan (I used a 3 quart), heat olive oil over medium heat. Add ground beef and brown. Drain the beef, if there is a lot of liquid. To the browned beef, add each of the spices and heat until fragrant. Add the tomato sauce and stir well. Taste, adjust seasonings as necessary.

You can either place the meat in an oven warmed taco shell (see package directions):

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Or on a bed of leafy greens:

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Beef Stew

The first encounter I recall with beef stew is eating a bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.  It was a cherished childhood memory.   Why make Beef Stew when it was just so handy to open a can? Well, my husband and I tried of night a childhood favorites.  Let’s just say, Chef Boyardee Ravioli and Dinty Moore Beef Stew don’t taste as good as I remember.   There’s a reason I moved away from processed foods.

There are many recipes for beef stew in older cookbooks, although most refer to stewing a large piece of meat, usually studded or slitted with seasoning.  Around the mid to late 1800, “stew” seems to begin to resemble something of its modern day incarnation in various recipe books.

In reviewing many of the recipes, the one that stuck out most to me was Fannie Farmer’s from her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.    While it lacked any sort of spice ingredients, it had an interesting twist.  Modern stews call for the addition of stock or wine as the deglazing and liquid source for the stew.  In other words, it can be a two step process of making a stock, then making a stew.  Fannie’s method is more economical as she throws the bones in during cooking and removes them prior to thickening the sauce.  In other words, she makes the stock, while cooking the stew.  To me, this was genius!  I always have too much or too little stock.  Then there’s the problem of stock storage.  Sure, I freeze stock that I make, but that takes up space and has to be thawed.   Fannie’s method is economical and much less work and clean up!  So, I took bits of her recipe and bits of the recipe from The Lady’s Receipt Book by Eliza Leslie in 1847 with the modern addition of mushrooms to create a very simple beef stew.  With a small amount of up front time, the stew mostly sat in the oven for cooking, leaving me plenty of time to do other things on a lazy Sunday.

Beef Stew

2 pounds stew meat, cubed

Flour sufficient for dredging meat

Salt

Pepper

1/4 leftover bacon grease or any high heat tolerant oil/fat (lard, canola, etc.)

1 cup carrots, sliced thin

1/2 onion, small dice

2 celery stalks, sliced thin

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon thyme

8 ounces sliced mushrooms

Water

Beef bones ( I used 4 bones of about 3 inch diameter)

4 cups potatoes, diced.

I know these ingredients don’t really look like much, but this is a really simple recipe and you don’t need to measure much.  Pat the beef dry.  Sprinkle beef with flour, salt and pepper.    You want the beef to be covered with flour.  For the salt and pepper, there really shouldn’t be more than a teaspoon of each needed.  The salt and pepper are included at this point to really to flavor the liquid of the stew and can be adjusted later.

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Floured and seasoned beef added to the hot fat

Heat fat or oil in dutch oven (I used a 5 quart one) over medium high heat.  Saute beef until browned and leaving bits of browned flour on the pan.

Remove from pan and add carrots, onion and celery.

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Cook until partially softened.  Add mushrooms, nutmeg and thyme.  Cook until pan is deglazed.  You may need to add a bit of salt to help the process along if the vegetables are not releasing their liquid.  Once the pan is deglazed, return meat to the pan and add water sufficient to cover.  Stir to distribute the flour that is on the meat throughout the liquid. The liquid should start to turn brown and slightly thicken.  Add bones and additional water if needed to mostly cover the ingredients.  Seal tightly with lid and cook at 350 degrees until the meat is tender.  The amount of time varies depending on what the butcher thought was “beef stew” meat and whether the meat was pastured or not.  2-3 hours would be a good guess.

Allow enough time prior to the finishing of the stew to parboil the potatoes (about  5 minutes).  After removing the bones, add the partially cooked potatoes to the stew for 15 minutes of cooking with the stew.

Now, I didn’t feel the need to thicken the stew at the end of cooking, but if you want to, you can add 1/4 cup flour (slurried with some water to prevent lumps) and cook until thickened.

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I didn’t think I would like the nutmeg, but honestly, it kind of worked.  Mace was the other ingredient suggested for stew in the older cookbooks. I couldn’t find any, but now I’m curious to see if I can and try it!