By Christine Szalay-Kudra
Tacos were first introduced to most of the world by fast food restaurants. They were invariably made with fried corn tortillas and filled with limp shredded lettuce, a few pieces of onion and cheese, some fried, seasoned mystery meat and a squirt of the ubiquitous “taco sauce”, which was mostly vinegar, tomato and chili. These bore very little resemblance to the dish served in Mexico, but was really the Anglo version, originating in Texas.
In Mexico City, a taco is a simple, elegant dish. Oh, you can find the Tex-Mex version there, just like you can find chicken sold in a cardboard bucket by a man in a white suit.
A Taco del Ciudad, or City Taco, named for Mexico City, is a warm, soft corn tortilla, filled with cooked lightly seasoned meat, nothing else. Bowls of salsa are on the table. It is a skill to lift the taco in one hand, turn up the end, and roll the sides to keep the filling inside. A spoon or fork is held in the free hand, to apply sauce as you eat. The overfilled, dripping American version pales in comparison to the original.
Another favorite in Mexico is the pepino, or cucumber. Sure, they appear in salads and such. More are sold on the streets every day by enterprising kids than are sold to restaurants.
All over town in the summer, there are young entrepreneurs standing with carts filled with huge cucumbers and sometimes pineapples. For a couple of pesos, they pick a fruit from the pile, and, deftly wielding a machete almost as large as they are, remove the peel, then slice it quickly into quarters lengthwise, leaving about two inches at the bottom intact, held with a paper towel. They squeeze a whole lime over it, and then sprinkle it lightly with salt, then liberally with red pepper.
It sounds disgusting, right? Au contraire! On a hot summer day, it is as refreshing as a mug of ice water.
If you do not want to serve your guests whole cucumbers, try cutting them into long wedges (the cucumbers, not the guests) and arranging on a plate, then giving them a good squeeze of fresh lime, a touch of sea salt and a dose of cayenne.
For those times when you are stuck with fruits that have less than optimum flavor, try mixing
- 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- pinch of sea salt
Mix well, and allow to sit for a bit, so the sugar dissolves. Mix again before serving. This may be used to toss fruit, or can be served at table in a pitcher. The white balsamic is sweet and fruity. The brown sugar is just enough to bring out the flavor in the fruit.
This makes an excellent dressing for a salad of cantaloupe and strawberries. Toss in just a little of the dressing, then top with a dollop of sour cream.