I submitted this cookbook review for the Food52 2016 Piglet, which is a tournament for cookbooks. Although my review was not selected, I sill enjoyed the process and The Piglet. I love cookbooks and have to restrain myself from buying everyone I read. Thank goodness for the public library system.
Tacos, Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman
Immediately, Tacos, Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman caught my attention. Alex’s opening declaration of love for the “Old El Paso” taco of his youth is not a typical opening line. It is a statement that I, and probably most readers, could relate to. However, what becomes clear about this familiarity is how quickly it ends. Alex Stupak has taken the road less traveled using tacos and Mexican cuisine as his road map. Tacos carries the reader along Alex Stupak’s culinary journey and how he uses the taco as an instrument to create new and noteworthy food, while respecting its Mexican traditions.
Even though Tacos is co-authored, it reads as one compelling and authoritative voice. To read Tacos for its own sake, is a good read; to cook from it is a novel experience. Sometimes, it is OK to rant and Alex delivers a few provocations scattered throughout the book. These declarations help personalize his story and defend his attitude, passion, and motivation to change his career path and open his Empellón restaurants. It is very evident Mexican food and tacos grabbed his curiosity. Ultimately, learning about it pushed Stupak into action.
Alex Stupak states in his introduction, “In Spanish Empellón means to push”. Within the pages of his book he reveals the results of his pushing to get to the “…good stuff on the other side”.
“Talking about tacos give us a chance to talk about cultural exchange, about idea appropriations and about the way we value – or undervalue – ethnic cuisines. That’s really what’s happening in these pages: We’re using the taco as a Trojan Horse. And it is time to open the gates.”
A primary purpose of Tacos is to get people inspired and make fresh tortillas. Alex firmly believes tortillas are an essential ingredient of a taco and should be respected as such. Ultimately, a taco is only as good as the tortilla it is made with. He hopes the detailed directions in his book will motivate the reader to cast aside any reluctance and make fresh tortillas. Because, serving any taco with grocery store tortillas would be like eating savory taco filling wrapped in a paper napkin – a tasteless and pasty, disintegrating mess.
The tortilla instructions are precise with photographs illustrating each step . The recipe does not shy away from false hopes and mentions that mastering homemade tortillas will take practice. I have made the corn tortillas on three occasions and flour tortillas once. The corn tortilla flavor is slightly sweet with a warm and distinctive corn taste that wakes you up. The challenging part of making tortillas is to get the thickness just right so it cooks through and is not too heavy. Once you have mastered the traditional corn tortilla there are recipes for tortillas with additives like, saffron, beets, and chorizo. If the chorizo tortilla is anything like the green chorizo gravy, they will be addictive. Alex Stupak has succeeded in converting me to serve my tacos with a fresh homemade tortilla.
The chapters are organized by food category: tortilla, salsa, taco fillings, and the essential preparations. Included in the recipe selections are traditional tacos such as, Taco Al Pastor and Carnitas along side noteworthy recipes such as, Sea Urchin and Guacamole Taco, Pastrami Taco with Mustard Seed Salsa, (yes you will be curing your own pastrami), and Scallop Taco JVG, a taco composed of seared sea scallops and cauliflower with a purée of capers, golden raisins, sherry vinegar and butter. Alex Stupak does the work for you by pairing the salsa with taco fillings. Trust and follow his pairings as each taco is a well composed dish. The whole taco is greater than the sum of its parts, creating distinctive and novel ideas using familiar Mexican flavors and cooking techniques.
For the purpose of this review, I prepared four different taco recipes: Skirt Steak Taco with Mojo de Ajo and Salsa Arriera, Chicken Taco with Kale and Salsa Verde, Grilled Shrimp with Pipián salsa, and Duck Egg Taco with Green Chorizo Gravy. Each meal received ecstatic praise and I concluded that I would make them again. The green chorizo gravy was so delicious, I had to show considerable restraint from keeping the gravy all to myself and serve my guests plain tacos with eggs and jarred salsa.
Be prepared to set aside a lot of time as each taco has multiple preparations. However, with precise, step by step instructions I never felt the recipes were unapproachable. For each recipe, began with an established mantra: “… heat a 12 inch cast iron skillet for 5 minutes and toast the ___ for 15 seconds, then add the spices to a spice grinder and grind into a fine power.” Repeat. The tortillas, salsas, taco fillings, and condiments are all made from scratch. Yet, within all the structure and cooking, I found the process created a consistent and graceful rhythm, like dancing in a melodic slow dance and ending with a jaw dropping finale.
I believe Tacos has a limited audience and is not a book for the novice cook. To cook from this book is an adventure, not only as a culinary experience but some recipes will test your endurance. One salsa recipe in particular comes to mind. While cooking and stirring Pipián for 15 minutes over the stove, the bubbling sauce continuously erupted all over me, the stove, and the walls. I feared the time would never end and almost walked away. In fairness the instructions did warn that the sauce would splatter everywhere, but the reality went beyond my expectation. Ultimately, I would prefer not being singed by hot sauce, but the Pipián was delicious. A pumpkin-sesame seed sauce that was nutty, creamy and a smoky kick. I am a sucker for nut and seed sauces and this one did not disappoint. (see note)
Tacos might not be a cookbook for the everyone, but it starts a great conversation about ethnic food. Alex Stupak pushes the home cook to envision the taco beyond the “Old El Paso” taco of our youth and realize that everything tastes better on a homemade tortilla. Open the book: good stuff is waiting for you on the other side.
Note: I made the Pipián salsa a second time, (after I wrote and submitted my review) and used my large stock pot to cook the salsa. It was a lot easier, safer and cleaner than the first time I made it. I am not sure why I did not use my stock pot originally because Alex Stupak does state to use a 5 quart pot in the directions. I have learned my lesson and will follow all of Alex Stupak’s advice.
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