Sunday 27 April 2008

Toothpicks, Tacos, and Oaxaca

It was E’s birthday early last week and the book I ordered is still en route, the ideal birthday card was sold out, and one of the shops I went to buy presents had closed down. So it came as no surprise that the dinner I made him this year felt a bit like a dress rehearsal - tacos without salsa and a pudding that needs a bit of work! But I did learn about toothpicks, tacos and Oaxaca.

He asked for a Mexican meal so we agreed on Oaxaca tacos from the Café Flora Cookbook. They looked a little different to the chilli non carnes that I usually make for tacos and apparently are popular at Café Flora. This meal requires quite a bit of preparation and felt fitting for a special celebration.

My first challenge was toothpicks. It was helpfully listed with the ingredients and I was sure I had them. But as I began preparing dinner I searched the kitchen with no luck. Finally I found a packet of little Australian flags on toothpicks that I had bought years ago for a party and never used. It felt a little unpatriotic tearing the flags off but I realised that the toothpicks were crucial to the dish. Whenever I have had tacos previously, I have bought a box of crisp taco shells. These were tortillas dipped in hot oil and held together by toothpicks. They crisp in the oven so that when the toothpicks are removed after baking the tortillas hold their shape. Next time I will be more careful in checking I have toothpicks!

The tacos were heavenly with the soft cheesy potato encased in the crisp tortilla – worth every drop of oil they were fried in! The bean stew was incredibly tasty. E loves fresh coriander (cilantro) and has chided me before for leaving it out. So, for his birthday, I reluctantly bought a bunch and was pleasantly surprised at how it the flavours of the stew. The silverbeet (swiss chard) was fantastic with the lemon garlic vinaigrette.

But as we sat down to dinner, I said to E how strange to have a Mexican meal with no tomato. It was only later that night when I glanced at the recipe again that I realised my oversight. I had merely followed the featured recipes and neglected to read the full list of components. Hence I had missed the tomato salsa and a lime yoghurt sauce which were detailed elsewhere in the book. Fortunately we had enough for two nights and so on the second night I made these sauces. They did improve the meal, but my new-found appreciation for fresh coriander waned again as I tasted it raw in the salsa.

I was curious about why they were called Oaxaca tacos. I had thought it was a variety of squash which was obviously wrong as there was not a squash to be seen in the meal. Wikipedia put me right. Oaxaca is a city and a state in the south of Mexico. It is notable for containing more speakers of Indigenous languages than anywhere else in the country. An abundance of fruit and vegetables grow in the central valley, and Oaxaca is knows for its black beans, corn and chocolate are common foods.

So my tacos were a little less than authentic with the change from black bean stew to kidney beans. My salsa was a little less than fiery. The name of the salsa, Pico de Gallo, translates as the beak of the rooster, and is so called because originally it was eaten by using the thumb and forefinger. I was a bit lacksadaisical with the measurements and tried to reproduce which I did below because it tasted fantastic. If they eat like this in Oaxaca, then I think it is a place I would love to visit.

Dhivya at A Culinary Bazaar has started a new event called A Worldly Epicurean's Delight (AWED). The theme for the first month is Mexican Food, so I am sending this her way.

Oaxaca Tacos with Kidney Bean Stew and Tangy Silverbeet
(Adapted from the Café Flora Cookbook)
Serves 4

1½ lb russet potatoes, peeled and quartered (I used chat potatoes)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
½ tsp salt
½ cup (2oz) grated mozzeralla
½ cup (2oz) grated smoked cheddar cheese
Big pinch red chilli flakes
Vegetable oil for preparing tortillas
8 thin corn tortillas
1 small green or red capsicum, finely chopped
Black bean stew – recipe below
Tangy silverbeet (swiss chard) – recipe below
Pico de Gallo Salsa – recipe below
½ cup yoghurt
Zest and juice of 1 limes

Prior to starting tacos, it is best to have made bean stew, lemon garlic vinaigrette and salsa. The stew and vinaigrette can be done the previous day (as can the mashed potatoes).

Preheat oven to 200 C. Cook potatoes for 20-40 minutes til tender. Mash with butter and salt. Combine cheeses and chilli flakes.

Heat about ½ cm of oil in a frypan. Place first tortilla in hot oil for 8-10 seconds. Turn and leave for another 8-10 second. The tortilla should be coated in oil but not crisp. Repeat with other tortillas and keep warm (Recipe said to cover with foil - I just piled them on a piece of kitchen towel and they kept warm enough).

Place a tortilla on a flat surface. Place a third of a cup of mashed potato along the middle strip. Sprinkle mashed potato with 1 tbsp of capsicum and 2 tbsp of cheese mixture. Bring edges of tortilla up to overlap across the filling. Use 1 or 2 toothpicks to secure (like you would use a pin in dressmaking). Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Place filled tortillas in a roasting dish and bake for 15-20 minutes til cheese is melting and tortilla is crisping up.

While tortillas are baking, mix yoghurt, lime juice and lime zest together. Heat bean stew. Cook silverbeet and toss in vinaigrette.

Divide bean stew and tangy silverbeet among 4 dinner plates. Remove the toothpicks from the tacos and arrange two tacos on each plate. Top with salsa and lime yoghurt mixture.

Kidney Bean Stew
(Adapted from the Café Flora Cookbook)

400g tin of kidney beans (or cook 1 cup of dried kidney beans)
1 cup water
Kernels of 2 ears of corn (or 1 cup frozen corn)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup fresh coriander, finely chopped
½ tsp chilli paste
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tsp salt
½ tbsp brown sugar (optional)

Place all ingredients in a smallish saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. The recipe suggests adding more water or vegetable stock for a soupier consistency but I like mine quite thick.

Tangy Silverbeet
(Adapted from the Café Flora Cookbook)

1 big bunch silverbeet (swiss chard)
5 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch salt
Good grinding of black pepper
2-4 tbsp olive oil

To make the lemon garlic vinaigrette, mix ingredients except the silverbeet - either in blender or whisk together. (I just used a whisk). Set aside.

Wash silverbeet and dry as much as possible by shaking water off or patting with kitchen towel. Remove and discard stems of silverbeet and roughly chop. Either steam silverbeet til just tender (about 5 minutes) or gently fry silverbeet in a lightly oiled frypan (I used the frypan I had been oiling the tortillas in). When silverbeet is wilted, add vinaigrette and toss to coat. Serve hot.

Pico de Gallo Salsa
(Adapted from the Café Flora Cookbook)

4 tomatoes, cored and chopped
¼ red onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeno chili, deseeded and finely chopped
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
Juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.

On the stereo:
Scotch Mist: Various Artists


  1. Wow--the meal looks fantastic, and I admire the amount of work you put into it (lucky for E--happy birthday!). I'm not a huge fan of tacos, but I think I'd prefer soft ones like these. The sauces are more up my alley, and the silverbeet--got some in the fridge to try tonight!

  2. Well, your photo totally stopped me in my tracks. I'd be happy to have both your ways for dinner Johanna!

  3. That is a first class meal Johanna! Interestingly, I also made a Mexican meal this weekend for my Dad who came to visit. Took me nearly four hours, but it was worth it.

  4. Don't you hate it when you misread recipes and miss out major components? Was the recipe elsewhere in the book - I find that annoys the hell out of me...

    Lovely. Happy belated B'day to E!

  5. this looks amazing - I'm so inspired to make this oaxacan feast. all my adventures into mexican food have been similarly time-consuming, but this recipe looks worth it. I'll save this for a weekend cook-up - thanks for sharing it!

  6. thanks Ricki - a little work made up for forgetting to buy him the ideal birthday card when I got waylaid by a very nice skirt :-) The soft tacos were great. I did wonder if I could just warm them and spray them with oil but it did make them crisp up nicely. And hope you try the silverbeet as the sauce does wonderful things to some boring green leave!

    thanks Half Cups - it tasted great both ways

    thanks Lisa - it is so lovely to be able to put in the time and produce a stunning meal! Am sure your dad appreciated it.

    thanks Lucy - yep - I just looked at the recipes under the heading rather than noticing the compiling instructions referred to recipes elsewhere - but I just misread recipes far too often!

    thanks Frances - it is indeed a meal to inspire and amaze! I never thought of Mexican food as time consuming before but am beginning to revise this belief!

  7. That sounds like a delicious mexican meal. I tend to make chilli and not try anything new, but this really appeals to me! I have been so disappointed when eating mexican food, out, that I should really make my own. Thanks for the recipes :)

  8. Lovely meal! You certainly invested a lot of time in E's birthday dinner, he must have greatly appreciated it. Preparing the tacos using fresh tortillas is a wonderful idea! My husband prefers Mexican food over any other and would be thrilled with this meal.

  9. Woa! This looks finger licking good Johanna! Shall bookmark it and hope to come to it eventually. ;)

  10. thanks Holler - I am not usually terribly adventurous with mexican food so was very pleased with this meal

    Thanks LisaRene - I really liked the fresh tortillas in this dish - never thought of tacos this way before but am sold! Wonder how it would work with your home made tortillas?

    thanks Pixie - hope you get to make it some time as it is great - and in fact any part alone is delicious!

  11. OMG!OMG! I have no words to comment on this spread! This is the perfect. The Bday Boy must be out of bounds with joy..I am so envious of him! and all bcos U forgot to get him a card..I dont think he will even grudge you that skirt! I know I wont!Thanks a bunch for all these beautiful pics and dishes and sending them to me

  12. I am so going to try this. It looks delicious!

  13. thanks Dhivya - E was most pleased with this - glad you liked it too (and he did like my skirt!)

  14. thanks Ann - this is definitely one I'd recommend for the wish list

  15. That looks so yummy! Lovely photos on your blog..


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