Cinco de Mayo: Mexican steak tacos

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Mexican tacos.

We Are Never Full
Not just for Cinco de Mayo, Mexican steak tacos with rajas, a traditional Mexican topping made from strips of roasted chiles.

Since we’re always on the search for the traditional and authentic, we really wanted to do the steak taco justice. In Mexico street food is rampant, fresh and delicious. You won’t see Old El Paso pre-made, fried taco shells, pre-packaged “taco seasoning” or over-salted ground beef plopped in the middle of the tortilla. The meat, veggies or fish and toppings are fresh and the food is cheap. Carne asada (grilled steak) is one of the most popular dishes of many parts of Northern Mexico. It’s synonymous with barbecue – the verb, not the noun version as is often used in America to describe the sweet sauce brushed on various bits of meat and poultry. Even more interesting is that “a carne asada” or “una carne asada” in Mexico also refers to the party/social gathering/event surrounding the making of the actual meal.

You may also be interested to know that tacos have been around for a long time – a really long time. A Spanish soldier named Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about the taco in the 1500s but he’s not the inventor of the delicious, utensil-less, portable meal. Anthropologists discovered evidence that those who lived in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico made tacos filled with fish. In other parts of Mexico, tacos were filled with live insects, locusts, and/or snails. Fillings were determined by what was local and available, same as many other culture’s meals, except America, of course. Today, this still holds true. Although you may not find many taco stands selling insect or locust tacos, fillings will be different depending on the geographical region you are eating them in.

The first taco recipe found in America comes from a California cookbook published in 1914 called “California-Mexican Spanish Cook Book.“ The recipe went as follows:

The tacos are made by putting chopped cooked beef and chili sauce in tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it.

Very different from what the Mexicans and Americans look at as tacos today. The above quote seems more like a tortilla empanada or chimichanga? A real, traditional carne asada taco will always be pretty bland and never spicy. The meat, usually finely cut flank or skirt steak, should be seasoned only with some salt because the delicious flavor of the beef is what is to be tasted. No cumin, no chili powder – nothing but salt. The spiciness and other flavor comes from the various toppings you can put on your carne asada. Salsas, chopped white onion, and cilantro are just a few traditional toppings. This dish is also traditionally made with corn tortillas.

For our toppings we decided to make another popular Mexican condiment, rajas. As the great Rick Bayless puts it, rajas is “a true-blooded Mexican classic.” The word rajas is Spanish for strips, and in Mexico that means strips of chile. In parts of central and northen Mexico poblanos grow everywhere, so rajas will feature the poblano chile. Again, just like with the fillings of tacos being determined by the geographic location, so is the rajas topping. Poblano peppers are dark green in color and don’t have much of a spiciness to them. In parts of California these peppers are called “passillas” and in Mexico, “chile verde.” You may have heard of ancho chiles, which are dried poblanos. The rajas are basically made of onion, roasted poblano, some garlic and herbs.

Steak Tacos with Rajas and Salsa Verde (Tomatillo Salsa)
Serves 3 to 4

Ingredients for Steak

3 pounds steak (preferably skirt or flank
Corn or flour tortillas (corn preferable)
Optional toppings: avocado slices, lime juice, crema/sour cream, thinly sliced cabbage, diced onion, jalapenos, scallions, etc.

Ingredients for Rajas:

2 poblano peppers, roasted, skin removed and thinly sliced
Optional and not traditional: yellow or orange pepper, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of oregano ,thyme (optional)

Ingredients for Salsa Verde (Tomatillo Salsa)

3 to 4 tomatillos, husk removed, washed and roasted in oven
1 clove garlic, minced
1 scallion, sliced
Handful of fresh cilantro
Lime juice
Pinch of salt
Optional: Roasted spicy pepper like habenero or Serrano, minced

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

When oven comes up to temperature, roast the tomatillos whole for 10-15 minutes until soft and slightly browned.

Salt your steak on both sides. Roast the poblano pepper by placing pepper directly on the open flame of your gas stove turning frequently (or set it under the broiler in your oven). You will do this until the skin is blistered and blackened all over the chile. Remove and place a towel over it until it cools.

Remove tomatillos from oven and make salsa verde by placing all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning by adding salt and extra lime juice if necessary.

To make the rajas, heat up a skillet till red hot. Add oil and sautée the onions and yellow pepper (if using). Allow to sautée for 4 to 5 minutes and then add the garlic. Allow to sautée for another minute or two. Finally, add the roasted poblano pepper and sautée for 30 seconds. Remove all to a plate.

In the same skillet, not adding any extra oil, add your steak. This process should be QUICK. We like our steak really pink inside – medium rare. For a thin piece of steak, this will mean cooking each side for about 3 to 4 minutes per side. If worse comes to worse, UNDERCOOK it and then make a little slice in it. You can always cook it a bit more, but never take back the cooking time on an overcooked piece of steak.

Remove steak and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat up your tortillas. If using flour, heat in dry skillet for a few moments on each side and wrap in a towel. Or, microwave for 20 seconds wrapped in a towel. If using corn tortillas, you should fry them a bit in some oil in the skillet. You don’t want them crispy, just pliable and cooked.

Cut your steak on the bias against the lines of the steak so you get a clean cut. Assemble your tacos by putting all the various toppings you’d like on each!

Jonny and Amy Seponara-Sills blog at We Are Never Full.

Related post: Pork tacos

Related post: Cheesy chicken enchiladas

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