Saturday, December 3, 2016

On Street Food, Mexico, and the Joys of Tacos

I loved to travel as a kid, I still do.  One of the things that impacted my view on the world, my perception of the world beyond me, and how I approach life in many ways was our trips to Mexico while I was growing up.

My grandparents had a place in San Carlos, just north of Guaymus.  Both are in the state of Sonora, both are right on the Sea of Cortez, which many in the US call the Gulf of California.  It was a place of the sea, Pacific, but not quite, the Sea had its own feel, it’s own character, not quite the same as the ocean it connects to.  Guamyus is a port city, San Carlos is a bit more touristy.  The whole area, the Guaymus valley, has traditionally been a ranching and fishing area.  My grandparents spent every winter there, for many years.

Our first trip down, we took the bus to my other grandparents’ house in Apple Valley, in Southern California and spent Christmas with them, then flew from Los Angeles into Tijuana, where we had an interesting experience of no signs, no directions, no one to tell us anything, and armed military patrolling, then on to Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora.  My grandparents picked us up there and took us home.  I was quite young then, seven or eight, I believe, and it was a great adventure to me and my sister, we loved it.

Later on, we drove down over Christmas for several years, and we have many stories about those trips. By then I was a teenager, and in high school.  I enjoyed every trip.

While many things stick out, going fishing on my grandpa’s boat, the street markets and shops, the beach and the oasis up in the hills, food was a major part of everything for me.

The markets, in addition to many other things, fresh fruits and vegetables that were a delight, and hanging meat in the meat market, which I wasn’t quite as enthused about in the heat.  Winter there, though cool for the rich and middle-class Mexicans from further south who vacationed there to get out of the greater heat where they lived, was much hotter than summers were, where I lived growing up, in Northern Idaho, Western Oregon, and Western Wyoming.  I also remember going to a fish market and my grandpa bartering for a cheaper price on some of the best fish I’ve ever eaten.

Of course, also, the fish we caught out on the boat then ate that evening, the grapefruit off the tree by grandparents had growing there, the fresh bottled pop made the way it used to be here in the US and still is there, the meals my grandma cooked from the local produce and meat.

And the restaurants.  Both the more fancy ones and the street type venders.

The fancy restaurants weren’t so different from the fancier Mexican restaurants here in Colorado, with slightly different flavours, as Mexican food is regional, just like American food, Canadian food, Italian food, Chinese food, food all over the world.  One thing that stuck with me as a kid was a difference in approach, that said a lot about the local culture and views of things.  In Mexico, at least in the local run restaurants in Sonora I’ve eaten in, they don’t bring the check until you ask for it.  It is felt that to bring it before then is to ask you to leave, and that is seen as very rude.  You can stay as long as you like, and if you decide you’re still hungry, or hungry again, by all means, order more.  When you’re ready leave, ask for the check, everything will be on it, and we hate to see you go, but are glad you enjoyed.  I really like that perspective on serving and feeding your customer.

The street type venders were a completely thing all together.  This wasn’t a restaurant where you came and sat and were served, this was a cart or stand where you came, got your food, and enjoyed it.  Maybe there were seats nearby, maybe there weren’t.  Maybe it was a cart by the curb or in the market, or being pushed up the road to sell to the people driving, maybe it was a stand in a mall.  Regardless, you said what you want, got it quickly, paid, and were on your way, next customer.

Street food the world over is a different beast from other types of restaurants, even “fast food”.  It is quick, efficient, simple, and a thing of beauty in many ways.  You want to serve something easy to eat on the go, easy to make what’s needed in large quantities in advance to not keep the customers waiting, and yet still unique and favourable enough to have your customers keep coming back.  Whether it’s sushi in Japan, noodles in Thailand, hot dogs in the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, or a taco stand in Mexico or Longmont, you don’t come back if you can’t remember enjoying it.  You come back because you were pleased.  And because it was fast enough you could get on with whatever you were doing when you stopped for a bite.

One of out trips down, we stopped at a taco stand in the mall in Gauymas.  I have no idea if it is still there, or still the same, but it changes the way I looked at tacos, what I wanted them to taste like and be like.  We had seen many taco carts that the smell of made your mouth water, but were a bit wary of them, being unused to the local germs (people get sick coming from other parts of the world to the US or from the US to many parts of the world, the reputation of Mexican water and what not in the US is a result primarily in different strains that Americans haven’t built immunity to, which applies either direction, than any other reason people might claim).  But the one in the mall was in air conditioning with good power and what not, it seemed a good place to try the street food without as much worry, and my grandpa, if I recall, had eaten there previously and vouched for it.

The tacos were simple.  Just corn tortillas cooked quickly on a griddle, shredded meat put inside, a choice of a few toppings.  And it was amazing.  We had them simple, just tortilla, meat, and fresh cilantro.  It was the first time we’d knowingly had cilantro, and the first time we had ever had it fresh.  From then on, it was always on the table when my mom made tacos, the first change to who we, and later I, approached tacos.

A number of years later, when I was in college, those tacos still called to me.  I began trying to make something similar.  I went to the grocery store and tried to by shredded beef.  I recall the tacos being shredded beef, though they might have been pork, that’s how my dad remembers them.  Regardless, they didn’t have shredded beef or shredded pork, and at that time, i was uncertain who to go about making either myself.  I got as close as I could, I had them shave roast beef as thin as they could, then I tore it up before cooking it.  It was close, and definitely closer than hamburger, which is what I had been used to having and using.

I fried the roast beef in olive oil, juice from a jar of jalapeños, and lime juice, then as it cooked, added fresh cilantro and onions, and a bunch of spices.  It was very good, and closer to what I was looking for, though not really there.  I would fry the tortillas in a frying pan in olive oil, put meat in it, add fresh onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and cilantro, and put some salsa and jalapeños on top.  They were very good, kind of a blending of the tacos I had in Mexico and the tacos I grew up on.  I didn’t have much money at that time, and they were simple and a small amount went a long way.  I at them for two meals most days for probably eight months, eating very little else.  And never got tired of them.  I have made them for years since, only using hamburger when I want something quick or want a more Americanized version of tacos.

Living in Longmont, Colorado now, an area that has a lot more hispanics, primarily of Mexican descent or up from Mexico working, I have at least seven Mexican food places within a couple blocks’ walk, if you don’t count American Mexican fast food.  Also, there is a grocery store right near me, in walking distance, that sells primary groceries and produce and meat local and from Mexico, catering to the Hispanic population in the neighbourhood, and carniceria, a Mexican-style meat market, just around the corner from it.  If you love Mexican food as much as I do, it’s a great place to live.

One of the Mexican places is a business made up of a hot dog food cart, a taco food cart, and a slushy food cart.  I have not tried the hot dogs of slushies, but I love their tacos.  They are so much like the tacos I remembered from Mexico, over twenty years ago, that when I first had them this last summer, I fell in love with them.  They are amazing.  And you know it’s authentic when probably 85% of the customers greet and are greeted by the people running the carts in Spanish.  And, having had tacos in Mexico, they are the most like Mexican tacos, at least from the area I was in, that I’ve ever found.

Being inspired, I realized my knowledge of cooking, as well as the information I could find close at hand, had expanded a lot since the late 90s when I perfected my last version of my tacos.  I have a much more equipped kitchen than I did back then.  I decided to see how close I could come to the amazing tacos I had had in Mexico and the amazing ones I have close by.

I obtained a beef chuck roast to make the shredded beef from.  I’m unsure if it was beef or pork in Mexico, but what I get from the stand near me is shredded beef, so I decided to start with that, and try pork the next time.  I also acquired a bottle to use to apply oil on the tortillas.  The stand near me used this, and tongs to flip the tortillas, and it works very well, so I went with that.

I then set about making tacos, using what I had learned and perfected with my previous tacos combined with the memory of the ones in Mexico and what I see with the ones near me, and a bit of research into various recipes for shredded or pulled beef.  What follows is the end result, my version of the tacos I love.  And they turned out exactly how I hoped them would.  I still go to my taco stand, but I also can enjoy the experience and smells and tastes of cooking them right here in my home.


Shredded Beef or Pork Tacos

As prepared by Bethany most recently on November, 24, 2016.  Recipe written December 2, 2016

These tacos are my version of those I had in Mexico at a taco stand in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico in the 1990s, combined with twenty years of experimentation, reworked based on tacos from a taco stand in Longmont, Colorado, and adaptation of various recipes for shredded beef.

Note:  Read the recipe at least three times before starting.  Modification, adaptation, substitution, etc, is encouraged, not understanding what comes next is not.

Prep Time: 4-8 Hours
Amount: Make enough for at least 18 tacos
Total Ingredients:

1 Boneless Beef Chuck Roast or Boneless Pork Shoulder or Loin Roast, approximately 1 pound
3 Yellow Onions or 2 Yellow Onions and 1 Red Onion
2 Cloves Garlic (optional, I didn’t use them)
1 Bunch Fresh Cilantro
1 Stack Fresh Corn Tortillas (they should be about 4 inches across, to use all the meat, at least 18)
1 Jar Jalapeños
Gold Tequila
Lime Juice
1 Can Beef Broth
1 Can Whole Peeled Tomatoes in Tomato Sauce
1 Can Chopped Jalapeños
1 Can Chopped Green Chilis (optional, I didn’t use them)
Lard, Butter, or Oil (canola would be best if using an oil, because of milder flavour than most other high smoke point oils)
Vegetable Oil (I use canola) or liquid lard or liquid meat grease to fry the torillas
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Powdered Oregano
Chili Powder
Cayenne Pepper
Ground Cumin
Black Pepper
Ground Coriander Seed (optional)

Total Equipment:

Frying Pan
Griddle or Similar
Slow Cooker
Cutting Board
Kitchen Sheers
Rubber Spatula
Can Opener
Sealable Container or Bowl and Plastic Wrap
Bottle for the Oil

The Meat:

Makes enough for approximately 18 tacos.

Start approximately 4 hours 15 minutes before serving on high or 8 hours 15 minutes on low.


1 Boneless Beef Chuck Roast or Boneless Pork Shoulder Roast, approximately 1 pound
1 Yellow Onion (chopped coarse)
1 Can Beef Broth
1 Jar Jalapeños (only a splash of the juice is needed)
1 Splash of Gold Tequila
1 Splash of Lime Juice
Lard, Butter, or Oil  to sear the meat (canola would be best if using an oil, because of milder flavour than most other high smoke point oils)
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Powdered Oregano
Chili Powder
Cayenne Pepper
Ground Cumin
Black Pepper
Ground Coriander Seed (optional)

Frying Pan (I prefer cast iron)
Slow Cooker
Cutting Board
Can Opener


1. Season the outside of the roast with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Bring an oiled pan (I used a small spoonful of lard) to medium-high heat.  Sear the seasoned roast, waiting for the sides to fully sear before using tongs to flip it.  Place the roast in the slow cooker.

2. Chop an onion coarsely and add it to the slow cooker.

3. Mix the sauce.  Mix beef broth, tequila, lime juice, and juice from the jalapeño jar in a large bowl.  Add garlic powder, onion powder, powdered oregano, ground coriander seed, chili pounder, paprika, cayenne pepper, ground cumin, black pepper, and salt, and mix in well with a wire whisk until as much of the powder as possible goes into solution (I forget the cooking term for this).  Pour the sauce over the roast and onions.

4. Cover the slow cooker and cook it for approximately 4 hours on high or approximately 8 hours on low.  This can also be done in a pot of the stove at medium-low to medium heat if you watch it.

5. When the meat turns dark brown and is soft when you run a fork over it, use two forks to pull it apart until no chunks remain.

The Salsa:

Makes enough for approximately 24 tacos if no options are used and salsa is only used for tacos.

Prepare after finishing putting everything for the meat in the crock pot, to allow time to chill.


1 Can Whole Peeled Tomatoes in Tomato Sauce
1 Can Chopped Jalapeños
1 Can Chopped Green Chilis (optional, I didn’t use them)
1 Yellow Onion (chopped fairly fine)
2 Cloves Garlic (optional, I didn’t use them)
1 Bunch Fresh Cilantro (only need a small handful)

Rubber Spatula
Cutting Board
Kitchen Sheers
Can Opener
Sealable Container or Bowl and Plastic Wrap


1. Open and drain the can of tomatoes and with a table knife, chop the tomatoes as much as possible to ease blending.  Add to blender.

2. Open and drain the can of jalapeños and, optionally, the can of green chilis, and add them.

3. Chop the onion fairly fine to ease blending and add it.  If you are adding garlic, smash the cloves and chop them fairly fine to ease blending and add them.

4. Chop a small handful of fresh cilantro with kitchen sheers, or, if one isn’t available, a knife, and add it.

5. Blend until sauce-like but not smooth, using the spatula to work chunks downward, avoiding the blades with the spatula.

6. Transer to a bowl or container and close, then chill until the meat is ready.


Fresh tomatoes instead of canned can be used.  I prefer Roma tomatoes because they have more flesh and less juice.  Fresh peppers can be used, make sure to deseed them first, and remember that that heat varies.  I would stick to, presuming fresh tomatoes, at most two jalapeños and one serrano per four regular tomatoes or eight Roma tomatoes, scale down the jalapeños if you use less tomatoes and don’t use anything hotter than jalapeños (i.e. serranos are much hotter) if you use less tomatoes than that.  Poblano peppers and Anaheim peppers are also good options and milder.  Peppers can also be roasted on a grill or in the oven on broil, then peeled.

Alternatively, a green salsa can be made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes, or with green chilis.  If using canned chilis and jalapeños, I’d recommend at least two if not three cans of green chilis for every can of jalapeños if you aren’t using tomatoes or tomatillos.  With fresh peppers, if you aren’t using tomatoes or tomatillos, at least double the volume of mild peppers compared to hot, triple would be recommended.

Salt can be added if the salsa comes out too hot.

Miscellaneous Prep:

Sometime between when the salsa is put aside and chilled and the meat is ready, preferably toward the end of cooking the meat, do any miscellaneous prep.

1. Chop one yellow or red onion very fine.

2. If you don’t have kitchen sheers, or would prefer to have the cilantro ready, chop the cilantro with a knife into a bowl or on a plate.

The Tortillas:

Each tortilla takes approximately thirty seconds if the griddle is already hot enough.
Prepare just before serving, after the meat is ready.

Ingredients and Equipment:

1 Stack Fresh Corn Tortillas (they should be about 4 inches across, to use all the meat, at least 18)
Vegetable Oil (I use canola oil)
Bottle for the Oil
Griddle or Similar


1. Heat a griddle to medium-high heat.  I use a round cast iron griddle with a small lip.  The bottom of a cast iron frying pan will work well if it’s big enough around, or one of the griddles that lays across multiple burners.  A regular frying pan works but won’t fry the tortillas as evenly or thoroughly, so will take a lot more care to get the tortillas to come out how they should.

2. When the griddle is hot when you put you palm near the surface (not on it!), spray a very small amount of oil across the surface.  I use the following with canola oil in it, grease from beef or pork, or lard, will work as well, if you keep it from solidifying.

3. Place one tortilla on the griddle and spray some oil across it, then immediately flip the tortilla with the tongs.  Spray more oil on it, and flip it back.  Wait approximately 15 seconds and flip the tortilla with the tongs, it should show signs of bubbling and browning.  Wait approximately 15 more seconds and flip it back.  Fry either side that doesn’t look done a bit longer, then put on plate.

4. If it’s too crisp to bend, it’s over down and not usable for the tacos.  If it takes more than 15 seconds on a side, the griddle is probably not hot enough.  If it looks dry or blackens quickly, it is not usable for the tacos, use more oil on the next one.

5. Repeat for however many tacos you need.  I do four per plate, but appetites vary.  More than four doesn’t fit will, though a fifth can be set in the centre on top of the others.


1. Use tongs to spread shredded meat evenly down the centre of each taco.

2. Add a small amount of onion across the meat.

3. Drizzle a line of salsa (more if you like if hotter, but not too much, it will hide the flavour) across the top.

4. Chop a small amount of cilantro across the top with the kitchen sheers, or sprinkle cilantro if you already chopped it.  For people not used to cilantro, take it easy on how much you add.

5. Place two slices of jalapeños from the jar on top of each taco.  If they are too hot, leave them off.

6. Serve with a Mexican beer, a margarita, or ice tee.

7. Consume with abandon.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pierogi, Real Pierogi: A Look at Food, Parallels, Influences, and Immigration

Food is universal.

One of the things that make food so interesting is that they are so universal.  Food is a shared human experience, everyone has experienced it in one form or another.  Because it is necessary.  Because it is essential to life.  When you get down to basics, when you have nothing else, only a few things remain important for survival.  Food is one of the more important of these.

Because food is so essential, it tends to be central in many ways.  In particular it tends to become the centre of cultural and social traditions.

Because eating is, when possible, a daily occurrence or multiple daily occurrences, it has a tendency to become a central point of social interactions.  A couple goes for a meal for a date.  A family gets together for a family meal.  A church has a potluck.  Certain snacks are enjoyed when people get together to watch sports.  Certain foods become mainstays at sporting events.  Students gather for food at lunchtime.  Neighbours are invited over for meals.  Food is served at wedding receptions or after funeral and memorial services.  Food is served at baby shows or bridal showers.  Food is integral to many, likely most, social and cultural gatherings.

With the continuous centrality of food, cultural traditions grow.  This is why we have ethnic foods.  Only certain foods are available, or were before the global economy reached its height, in a given area.  The presence or absence of types of animals or plants or herbs set certain parameters on food.  Within these, people shared, and still do.  If I make a meal and you come over and like it, you might ask me how I made it, or go home and experiment to figure it out.  You might invite another friend or neighbour over, and they might do the same.  Recipes, techniques, ideas, and types of food grow, become more common, if enough people like them.

And this is where it would stop, if communities were isolated.  But tea was brought back from Asia to Europe.  Potatoes were brought back from Central America to Europe.  And so on.  When goods are exchanged between villages, cities, regions, continents, ideas go with them.  And these are all spread by people.  Where there are people, there is food.  So we find Chinese food restaurants next to Irish pubs next to Indian restaurants next to Mexican restaurants, all over the world.

Immigrants, of course, are part of this.  When people move, they bring their traditions with them.  The techniques and types of food are transplanted with the people.  But some things aren't available, so food changes.  People adapt them to where they are.  Or they incorporate things from those around them into the foods the know.  Foods change, both with time and with distance, as people interact, and setting changes.

Because of this, foods that were once characteristic of one place are found in other contexts.

Also very interesting are food parallels between cultures.  Some ideas in cooking are so universal that they develop independently in parallel circumstances.  Some of these are more obvious than others.

Take for example stir fry in South East Asia.  Compare this to fajitas, originating on the Chapparosa Ranch near Del Rio, Texas.  Originally thinly sliced skirt steak marinated and grilled, often more recently grilled with vegetables in a way that is not that different from stir fry if you only look at the basics of each, even though there is no evidence of any influence from the older stir fry to the newer fajitas.

Or the flat breads of Eastern Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Middle East, Turkey, and Europe, which developed over many centuries, possibly in independence for other parts of these regions.  The corn tortilla, coming not from European flat breads but from pre-European native corn flat breads.  Or the similar but somewhat different flat breads of some northern North American native peoples, like the fly bread of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, or the forms of bannock found among First Nation tribes in Canada.  While European influence on these is debated, the form is somewhat different from its Scottish counterpart from which the name comes.  Flat breads of all types are basically doughs made fro flour with water or oil or animal fat, with no yeast or other leavening agent added.  Non-rising bread.

Or the gyoza of Japan and similar dumplings throughout South East Asia.  These are dough forming a pocket around some sort of filling.  A filled pasta, basically.  Similar in concept are the filled pastas of Italy, including ravioli and tortelloni.  But one Italian one more similar in form is the agnolotti of the Piedmont region, which, like the Asian dumplings, is made from circular dough pinched along the curve around a meat or vegetable filling to make semicircular filled pasta.  These aren't the only pasta, or dumplings, with this form.

Homemade Pierogi
Throughout Eastern Europe a similar food is found, called pierogi in Poland and varenyky in Ukraine, with the Western Ukraine regions often using the spelling pyrohy for the Polish name instead of or in addition to varenyky.  These also are a round dough pinched around a filling.  As the peoples of these regions spread, they brought their food with them.  In particular, Ukrainian immigrants brought these to Canada, where they have grown into a much wider use than just the immigrants, especially in the Western Providences.  Canadian Ukrainians favour the name pierogi, and this is the most common name used in Canada.

On Christmas Day, I had the pleasure of being taught to make these by my amazing fiancée, and made them with her.  I then made them by myself on New Years Eve.  They are my new favourite food to make and to eat.

Essentially, they are cheese mashed potatoes wrapped in a circular pasta like I described above, boiled, then fried with onions in butter, the way she taught me.  They are then dipped in sour cream flavoured with some salt and pepper.  I love how simple them are, and how the flavours come together.  Truly an amazing food.


The first taste,
Simple beyond words,
Onions and butter,
Potatoes and cheese,
The pasta amazing,
Bringing together,
Onions and butter outside,
Potatoes and butter inside,
Coming together,
The hot steamy filling,
So perfect,
The potato balancing the cheese,
The cheese balancing the potato,
The secret,
Hidden within,
Hidden in the pasta,
Like a treasure,
Like a secret,
Like a universe of taste,
Almost too hot,
Just right,
Steaming as you bite it open,
The pasta,
Crisp on the outside,
Soft on the inside,
Perfection in taste,
Perfection in textures,
The imperfections in shape,
The perfect imperfections,
The outside,
Rich with butter,
Rich with onions,
Fried to crispy goodness,
So amazing,
So good,
The sour cream,
The perfect accent,
Seasoned with just the right amount of salt,
Seasoned with just the right amount of pepper,
The colours,
The white of sour cream,
Speckled in black pepper,
The white and brown,
Of onions fried to perfection,
The pasta white and golden,
Matching the risng smells,
So delightful,
So perfect,
Like no other smell,
Bringing to mind,
So many things,
Large families and laughter,
People talking and laughing,
Homes and hearths,
Kitchens and gatherings,
All things perfect,
In a house filled,
The smells and tastes,
The delight in such a simple food,
So complex,
So rich,
Real pierogi.

~Pierogi, Real Pierogi by Bethany Davis, January 2, 2016