Updated: Sep 21, 2021
You know that saying "why fix what's not broken?" That's how I feel about the crispy taco. This classic Tex-Mex staple isn't fancy or innovative, but even without any frills it's so darn good. Híjole, y'all! I'm getting hungry again. This may not sound appetizing to many of you, but these tacos always remind me of my favorite elementary school lunch- cafeteria beef tacos. They were so simple but so good! We could smell them cooking in our classrooms on Wednesday mornings (Mexican food day). My classmates and I would line up with our trays, drooling onto them as the lunch ladies would fill our little taco shells with portions of seasoned beef. We'd then make our way to the salad bar and heap scoops of cheddar and shredded iceberg on top- leaving a trail of crumbs on the way to our tables. As a teacher later in life, I felt similar excitement brewing when I could smell tacos cooking downstairs (I taught at the same school I attended as a girl, St. Luke's Episcopal). Mmmmm- sweet nostalgia!
My version of this tried-and-true taco is pretty standard, but I sneak in one small (and totally optional) tweak: I make my taco filling (aka picadillo) with bison instead of ground beef. I love cooking with bison- from burgers to bolognese, this alternative to ground beef is truly tasty. Also, did you know that bison meat is much more likely to be grass-fed and organic than beef? It gets an A+ as a source if lean protein and omega-3's. Plus, I think it has a really nice, rich flavor that I don't find gamey or funky at all. That all being said, if you want to use lean ground beef here (or even turkey), go for it! Instead of simply sautéing the meat with spices and calling it a day, I like to take these tacos up a notch by making a picadillo as my taco filling. Picadillo Mexicano is a ground beef and potato dish featuring a base of tomatoes and chilis. It's DELICIOUS in a crispy taco- and in or on just about anything. I love it atop a taco salad- it's also a great party dip with some sturdy tortilla chips.
If you have the time to make your own taco shells, I highly recommend that you do. Of course you can find some at the store, but they won't measure up to hot, crispy, straight out of the pan taco shells freshly fried at home. It's very easy to make your own- just make sure to use the right oil (it needs to be neutral in flavor and tolerant of high heat) and use caution! Get geared up for "Taco Tuesday"- this classic recipe is sure to be a hit with the whole family!
prep time: 20 min. cook time: 45 min. serves: makes 8 tacos
avocado or vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 lb ground bison (or lean beef, or turkey)
1 cup very small diced potatoes (I used two small yukon golds, russets are also fine- even a sweet potato works)
1-10 oz can diced tomatoes and green chilis (such as Rotel)
1 bay leaf
1-1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock or water
8 corn tortillas *or store bought taco shells
thinly shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded jack or cheddar cheese, sliced pickled or fresh jalapeños, salsa and/or guacamole
Preheat 1 tbsp of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and peppers and cook 3 minutes, until they are beginning to soften. Add the garlic, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon and oregano and sauté another minute, until fragrant. Push the vegetables aside and add the bison, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and seasoning with 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Let the meat brown in the pan until it is no longer pink. Next, add in the potatoes, bay leaf, canned tomatoes and chilis, 1-1/2 cups of stock, and 1/2 tsp more of salt. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce the heat and allow the picadillo to simmer 40-50 minutes, until the potatoes are fork tender and the sauce is a thick gravy like consistency. As it simmers, you may need to add more stock to keep the picadillo from drying out. Check for seasoning at the end of cooking and discard bay leaf.
*To make this in the InstantPot, follow same steps using the sauté function on the IP. Once you have added the potatoes, bay leaf, tomatoes and stock (use 1 cup, not 1-1/2), switch the IP off, then turn it back on to cook manually at high pressure for 15 minutes. Pop the lid on in sealing position. When the time is up, allow the picadillo to natural release at least 20 minutes. Remove the lid (release any extra steam that may have built up) and “sauté” the mixture another 5-10 minutes to thicken. Check for seasoning.
Meanwhile, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or heavy frying pan by 1/4". Test the oil by tossing a scrap piece of tortilla in- if it sizzles and floats to the top, the oil is ready. Carefully lower a tortilla into the hot oil. Allow the tortilla to fry flat for 30 seconds or so, and then use your tongs to fold the tortilla in half- holding it in place on one side for another approximate 30 seconds, then the other side, and then fry the bottom of the shell as well. Remove the taco shell to a paper towel lined plate when it's golden and crisp all over, sprinkle it with coarse salt and continue with the rest of the tortillas (I was able to do 2 at a time in my pan).
To serve the tacos: spoon the picadillo into the slightly cooled taco shells, sprinkle with romaine, diced tomato, shredded cheese, and jalapeño (if desired). Serve guacamole and salsa alongside the tacos. Enjoy!!