taco party

Taco night

22 June 2012

In my house, we don’t entertain, we just have people over. And I treat it like a huge family meal, which it always is – real family and our family of close friends. I cook the same as I would for our family of six (just two or three or four times of it), set it all out on the kitchen island and let everyone help themselves. I find that when feeding a crowd, you really don’t need to impress people with the kind of food you’re making – everyone is just impressed that you can make so much of it.

So even though we were a little crazed with end the of school year and packing up for our transition back to California, we had the family over for an impromptu gathering before we took off. Taco night was easy and relaxed. All I cooked was the meat, and the rest was assembly – big salad, grated cheddar, and tortillas, guacamole and salsa from the store.

There’s always a nostalgia value to foods of our youth, and tacos are one of mine. My nostalgia foods are a funny mix of my mom’s Chinese home cooking and American dishes from the 1970s that my mom would dutifully prepare for my brother and me using popular convenience mixes and ground beef.

These days I prefer the lighter taste of ground turkey instead of beef, and I like to recreate old favorites – sloppy joes, spaghetti with meatballs – without additive-laden seasoning packets. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG – hiding out as “natural flavoring” or “hydrolyzed soy protein” – is only part of the issue.

Seasoning packets, like other processed foods, contain at least twice the sodium you would use at home and a hefty dose of sugar as well. In processed foods, it’s alarming how much salt is in sweets and how much sugar is in salty products: each serves to hide the excess of the other. The problem with this overdose of additives is that while foods taste good while you are eating them, they make you feel bad afterward – heavy, tired and probably really, really thirsty.

It’s much easier, cheaper and healthier to make ground meat tacos with a few spices you probably already have in your pantry. I use chili powder, cumin and oregano.

Spice purists may turn up their noses at chili pepper – a blend of dried chiles combined with other spices, often oregano, cumin, garlic powder – as quality varies greatly. More options are now widely available for better customization – you can buy different single-chile powders, such as ancho or chipotle, and combine them with other spices yourself. Paprika, also made from dried peppers, also works, and smoked paprika would be great too.

But for the time-pressed, a good-quality chili pepper blend makes an easy start. And if you have it, a little extra cumin and oregano are nice. You could even add a bit of cinnamon or unsweetened cocoa powder.

But my spice combo is pretty much what I like to use in turkey chili, which makes me either very consistent or very boring. In probably-misguided frugality, I only keep a pared-down collection of favorite spices so that everything stays fresher.

I only discovered in recent years that you really don’t need oil in the pan first when browning ground meat.

Cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon, until it’s no longer pink.

Add salt, pepper and spices. Cook for a few minutes to heat the spices.

I decided to throw in a can of beans into this batch of taco meat. These are pinto, which are soft, subtle and tend to be less noticed by kids. But I also like small black beans.

Taco time!

Salad and fruit complete the spread.

A great hot-weather meal: little cooking but lots of color and fun.

Taco Seasoning
Much easier, cheaper and healthier to use pantry spices than additive-laden seasoning mixes. A jarful of homemade taco seasoning also makes a great gift.

Ingredients for one pound ground turkey or beef
Garlic and onion powder are optional (they’re often in your chili powder as well). You can also substitute 1 clove garlic, minced and/or 1 small onion, diced.

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Ingredients for jar of seasoning
Mix well; store in airtight jar. Use 3 1/2 tablespoons per pound of ground meat. Makes close to 1 cup (enough for four pounds).

  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 3 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground pepper

Cooking directions

  1. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook ground turkey or beef until it is no longer pink (you can add some oil to skillet, but you don’t have to). Pour out any excess cooking juices. Add a can of rinsed beans if you like.
  2. Add salt, pepper and spices to ground meat (add a can of beans, rinsed, if you like). Stir well and cook for a few minutes to heat spices.
  3. Add 1 cup of water per pound of meat. Turn heat to low. Simmer for a few minutes until excess water is cooked off and taco meat is nicely moist. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed (use a little cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper for extra heat).
  4. Serve with tortillas or taco shells and toppings of your choice (shredded cheese, salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, avocado, etc).

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek Isetti 22 June 2012 at 9:19 am

Can’t wait to try this healthier method of seasoning since soft tacos are a favorite of mine. I meant to tell you that I spotted a cast iron skillet at the Salvation Army the other day and I bought it because I remembered your post about how cast iron was the “original” non-stick cookware. Can’t wait to test it out! πŸ™‚


cg 25 June 2012 at 4:48 pm

hi derek – hope you like the cast iron! it’s also handy if you have any intruders. heavy duty stuff. πŸ˜‰


mm 23 June 2012 at 12:53 pm

This looks delicious. I like your style – “assembling” is such a clever way to go!


cg 25 June 2012 at 4:45 pm

hi mm – let me know if you try it! super simple. =)


Karyn 24 June 2012 at 6:57 am

Made this last night with friends…a huge hit and so easy!!


cg 25 June 2012 at 4:44 pm

hi karyn – wonderful! thanks so much for sharing back, i love hearing from you.


Venus 30 June 2012 at 10:45 am

Doing this spread for a fencing BBQ tomorrow! Just as I started to wonder what to make for this sizable group your post appeared like divine inspiration.


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