Sunday, March 16, 2014

Breakfast Tacos Are Life

One of my greatest disappointments in living in Atlanta is the lack of breakfast tacos. Most folks from around here have never even heard of one; they know the breakfast burrito, and if they are lucky they've at least had some sort of tostada shell or pile of tortillas served near eggs and a meat, but the breakfast taco is still an unknown quantity.

Being from Texas, breakfast tacos are life itself. Rather than continue to complain about the lack of them, I learned to make them, refining my favorite combinations over time. The ingredients change slightly to reflect what might be in the fridge on any given Sunday, but the gist is the same:

1. Corn tortillas (homemade corn tortillas. This is not negotiable)
2. Chorizo
3. Eggs cooked in saturated fat
4. Jalapenos

 Notice there is no cheese or salsa here. Both can be quite fine on a breakfast taco, but I find neither necessary. Cheese can sometimes distract from the flavor of the chorizo (which really is the key to the whole taco), and salsa of less-than-perfect consistency can make a watery mess. I go with pickled jalapeno slices, which bring a little heat and a little crunch, without interfering with taste or texture.

The greatest vindication of my taco-style has been the reaction of my boyfriend, who is from Atlanta and had never had a breakfast taco before we met three years ago. He questioned the idea at first, but took to it like a duck to water. He eats them with great gusto (at our home and in restaurants from here to Austin) and doesn't miss cheese, potatoes or salsa, all standards of the restaurant version.

Step one: Learn to make a tortilla

I no longer purchase store-tortillas, unless on vacation and staying in a place with a kitchen (which is all vacation). I sucked it up and learned a few years ago to make my own and it's an incredible difference. The taste is better, the texture is good, and homemade corn tortillas do not fall apart like their packaged cousins, so you don't have to double up to enjoy a decent taco.

It did take time to learn to get them right. I started practicing with instant masa, then moved up to the organic hippie shit that requires an hour of rise time. Both are good, but tricky in their own way.

My favorite instant brand is the most common: Maseca. I can but this at Publix with no trouble. Finding the "good stuff" is harder and sometimes requires a trip to a health food store or a Hispanic farmer's market. Maseca is easy to use and makes fine tortillas. I find I get a better thickness with instant. However, the traditional (we prefer Bob's Red Mill) delivers an entirely different taste: sweeter, lighter with more actual corn flavor.

Biggest challenge: getting the ratio of masa to water right. One cup of masa should take 2/3 cup water. I start by adding 1/3 cup, stirring, then adding half of the remaining third, stirring more, then slowly adding the rest. The most important thing is to watch for the correct consistency. You want medium size balls (not small ones close to the size of dry masa). Expect to stir for a few minutes and watch for this:

Good balls, y'all!

This is damp, but not sticky dough. It will form easily, but not stay on your hands. This is one of the big advantages of instant masa over the old-school: not as sticky.

It's easy street from here on out. Form the dough into balls (about 1.5 inches in diameter) and press flat. The package will tell you to press them all and cover with a wet paper towel, but this method has never worked for me. I shape the balls and press one at a time, moving it directly to a hot pan.

This is where equipment does come in. I have a tortilla press, but don't use a cast iron pan; just a regular non-stick skillet. I have never had luck with cast iron and tortillas. For some time I had a cast iron tortilla pan, and if shit wasn't sticking to it, shit was burning on it. And I don't care why, when non-stick works fine and makes delicious tortillas. I shift between using plastic wrap and wax paper to cover my press: plastic works best with instant masa, and wax works best with non. Go figure.

Press, con plastic wrap.
Get that pan hot first! I turn it up to med-high to get things going, and as soon as I smell a wiff of hot pan in the room, I dial it back to medium and start cooking. I've found it's way better to start hot and ask for forgiveness then to start too cold.

50 seconds on each side. Move to a magical tortilla house, generally made of terra cotta, which when placed on a cold burner next to a hot burner, will keep your tortillas toasty and happy.
Tortilla, next to its rightful home.

I rarely cook in saturated fat, but breakfast tacos are an exception. When cooking a truly fine meat, like chorizo, why not? On your average weekend, I'll use grocery store level chorizo; it comes in a package of 6 and is in a synthetic tube. Ole is a decent brand, but not wonderful. Your Dekalb International Farmer's Market also has decent store brand chorizo, available in chicken for the health conscious. When I'm really balling though, we'll purchase fresh from Spotted Trotter, an excellent butcher in Atlanta. The smell and taste of this chorizo is worth it's incredibly high cost (occasionally). Rule of thumb: if it's bright red, pass.

Split and toss the casings. Throw it in a cold pan, turn it to medium, and chop it in pan with a spatula.

 Like all sausage, there is some labor involved to break it up. Just keep stir/chopping until it gets there.
Once it's broken up and sizzling, break four eggs (or 2 for each person) into a bowl and scramble them. I'm not against the "1 for the pan method," so make it 5 if that works for you.

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