The other night, Ed walked in from work as I was chopping an onion. “Taco salad?!” He smiled at me, all shiny-eyed and dimply.
He was right, but how did he know that just from the onion?
“I didn’t know, but I always hope you’re making taco salad.”
It’s true. My husband is obsessed with taco salad. No matter how recently in the dinner rotation we’ve had it, he will suggest it. No matter how much meat we cook, he eats almost all of it. Our version of taco salad is basic: the fillings for a taco piled into a bowl and tossed. Ed loves to be freed of the constraints of the shell so that he can go wild with the amount of fixings.
How wild? The only vessel large enough for his “salads” is a stainless steel mixing bowl.
From the cook’s perspective, few things are easier to make. At my laziest, I put out pre-shredded cheese, pre-shredded iceburg lettuce, chopped tomato and onion, sour cream, taco sauce, and tortilla chips. When I have an ounce more energy, I swap the pre-shredded cheese for freshly grated sharp cheddar and turn the tomato and onions into pico de gallo. On banner days, I make guacamole, put out snazzier lettuce, and make the Mexican Green Goddess dressing from It’s All Good.
But those toppings are far more important to me than they are to Ed. To him, it’s the meat that matters. We started down this road using taco seasoning from the grocery store. We ripped through plenty of Old El Paso packets, and while I love the taste of that mix, I don’t love the number of additives it includes. For a couple of batches, we used a fancy Penzey’s mix, which was delicious, but not financially sustainable when you eat tacos like we do. We’ve dabbled in other grocery store taco seasonings and found some to be decent, but none to be awesome.
After a while, it seemed like it was time to raise the game and season the meat from scratch. Our search started and ended with Alton Brown’s Taco Potion #19. The recipe includes a mess of spices, some onion, garlic, and two-thirds cup of beef broth. We made it a few times without the broth because I didn’t want to buy a whole can just for a little bit (right?). Ed and I agreed that it was better than any spice packets, but it wasn’t perfect. With so many dried spices, it tasted like…dried spices. I finally made it with the broth and it changed everything. The broth turns the meat a little bit saucy (but not soupy) and it cranks up the meatiness and mellows the spice-taste. The result is bold and hot and has spoiled us for all other ground beef tacos.
Another reason this recipe has become a go-to: Ed loves to make it. Right after I told him we were having taco salad, he said, “Can I cook the meat?”
“Of course!” I always hope he’ll help me cook.
ground beef taco filling
adapted slightly from Alton Brown
This tastes best with fatty ground beef. I’ve tried it with 90/10 and it tastes like it’s missing something. The 85/15 gives more flavor without too much fat to drain.
I’ve listed a measurement for salt below, but the meat can easily become too salty, so if you’re worried about it, you could start with half the salt and add more at the end.
If you’re like me and hate to buy a whole can of broth for just a little bit, try freezing the rest in 2/3-cup portions in plastic bags. I store the broth flat in the freezer so it freezes in a thin layer. I add the frozen broth directly to the meat and it melts very quickly.
2 tablespoons chile powder
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons corn starch
2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note above)
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (or more if you like it hot)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 lb ground beef
1 garlic clove, minced
2/3 cup reduced sodium beef broth
Combine dried spices, cornstarch, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add onion and cook until softened and starting to brown.
Add ground beef and cook until browned, stirring occasionally to break up the meat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Drain all but a tablespoon or two of fat from the meat. Stir in spice mix. Add broth and allow to simmer until thickened, approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Taste for salt.
Serve in taco shells or in a mixing bowl with all of your favorite fixin’s.