taco night recipes and tips

taco night

Until I moved to California from England five years ago, my experience of tacos was very limited and I’d never heard of taco night. Like most Brits, I had memories of those dusty boxes of crunchy Old El Paso tacos, stuffed with minced beef and topped with loads of cheddar cheese. Not good.

My first taste of a proper taco in California was a revelation. I spent my time living there trying all the different combinations on offer – from fish tacos at stoner-staffed surf shacks, to organic Korean tacos at hipster street food trucks, to old school taco stands at the side of the road – where my eating companions were the local Mexican farmers and farm workers. I picked up ideas from all of them and started making tacos at home regularly.

Kale and pumpkin seed encrusted chicken tacos at Zona Rosa

In the UK, places like Wahaca have given more of us a taste of what a taco should be. But we are still far behind the Californians in our confidence with making them at home. That’s why I want to share all I’ve picked up from my time there so that you can see the light like I have and make taco night or #tacotuesday a regular, easy way of eating well.

In this post you’ll find all my tips on where to buy your tortillas, my favourite taco fillings and the recipes to make your own tacos.

The brilliance of a weekly taco night

Taco night in our house usually involves me rummaging through the fridge for goodies (aka leftovers), making a few things fresh then putting them in little bowls and letting everyone make their own tacos. This has been a great way for getting my boys to experiment with new foods as there is something about them making their own taco that makes them braver.

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Use taco night as a way of clearing out your fridge and minimizing food waste. It will save you money and force you to be inventive too. Some of the combinations I share below are the result of those random leftovers that I’ve put together. I usually menu plan so that I plan to cook double of something early in the week that will make delicious tacos later in the week.

Scroll down to get my recipes for lime-dressed cabbage, pink pickled onions, guacamole and salsa – the things that I usually make fresh to add to my tacos.

taco night

Fill your tacos with balanced fillings – Mexican or otherwise

Free yourself up from the idea that taco fillings always need to be Mexican. My love of a fridge forage means my tacos are rarely authentically Mexican. One of my favourite taco fillings came about when I wanted to use up leftover roasted sausages and butternut squash and added avocado, toasted squash seeds, crumbled feta and an apple and rocket salsa. About as un-Mexican as you can get but the flavours and textures work beautifully.

The most important thing when choosing your fillings is to balance flavours, textures and temperatures. That way they’ll taste amazing – even if they are made up of more European ingredients. Read on for examples of the combinations I love.

My favourite fillings for taco night

You want your taco to be balanced. To illustrate what I mean, here is one of my favourite combinations:

Pulled pork with roasted carrots, crumbled feta, shredded lime and chili-dressed white cabbage and avocado.

This combination works so well because it has a balance of:

Temperatures – the warm pork and carrots are balanced by the other cold parts.

Textures – the pork and carrots and avocado are soft. The cabbage is crunchy.

Flavours – the feta is salty, the roast carrots are sweet, the pork is deeply savoury, the lime is acidic, the avocado is mellow. The chili adds spice.

Nutrition – protein from the pork and cheese; three types of vegetables, one of them raw; good fat from the avocado and complex carbs from the corn tortilla.

So, once you get that idea you can play around different ingredients and remember what to add to balance things out.

In addition to the pulled pork and the sausage and squash tacos I’ve already mentioned, here are some ideas to start you off. I top all these with a final squeeze of lime, some chili sauce and a sprinkle of chopped coriander. I usually have some of my pink pickled onions to throw on top too (the recipe is below).

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Salmon (dusted in ground cumin and dried oregano, pan fried or baked then flaked – or cheat and buy hot smoked salmon) with warmed corn, homemade salsa, shredded cabbage and plain yoghurt.

Canned black beans (drained and quickly fried with garlic and chipotle chili sauce then mashed and finished with salt and a squeeze of lime) with corn, chopped tomatoes, sliced spring onion, feta and avocado.

Steak (pan-fried until rare then rested for a few minutes before slicing finely) with shredded lime and salt-dressed white cabbage, roasted or bbq corn, avocado and salsa.

Leftover braised beef, pork or roast chicken (reheated and shredded) with roasted carrots, raw finely sliced fennel dressed in lime juice; and rocket.

Chicken thigh (dusted in smoked paprika and sea salt then pan fried, rested and thinly sliced) with avocado, roast butternut squash or carrot, toasted pumpkin seeds and plain yoghurt.

Chorizo or sausage (thinly sliced and fried with red peppers) with rocket, halved baby tomatoes and avocado.

Pan fried garlic prawns with shredded raw fennel and white cabbage, squashed baby tomatoes, avocado and homemade salsa.

Tortilla tips

In California, tacos are pretty much always served soft and are usually made with corn rather than wheat. In the US you can pick up fresh corn tortillas at any good grocery store (just be sure to buy non GMO). In England we can’t get them easily yet (but lets start asking our supermarkets to stock them please!). You will see old el paso corn tortillas at the supermarket but they are frankly nasty and full of weird ingredients. They taste nothing like the real thing so avoid them.

In the UK, you have the choice to either buy corn tortillas online and freeze whatever you don’t need straight away. Or make your own corn tortillas (the recipe is below).

Or do what I do most of the time which is make my own quick wholemeal flour tortillas (the recipe is below). Or buy flour tortillas or wholegrain wraps.

Whichever tortillas you buy, they will need to be heated for your tacos. I usually heat mine one by one in a dry frying pan for a minute on each side and then wrap them in a clean tea towel or foil to keep them warm and soft until we’re ready to eat them.

Taco night recipes

Guacamole

taco night guacamole

Yes you can buy guacamole but my homemade version is so easy and tastes so much better.

Tomato salsa two ways

If I’m feeling particularly lazy I’ll just half some baby tomatoes and dress them with lime juice, salt and chili flakes. If I have a bit more about myself that day I’ll make this more authentically complex, but still very easy, smooth salsa.

The recipe below makes about 2 cups of salsa – plenty for 6-8 people. It is smoother than the chunky salsa you may be used to having but I think it is perfect to drizzle on tacos. Any leftover salsa can be stored in a jar in the fridge for 3-4 days and can be used as a sauce for fish, chicken, steak or even with eggs and avocado on toast for breakfast. Of course you can use it to dip tortilla chips into as well.

You can leave the chili out if you are making this for the heat-averse. My 4 year old eats this with a spoon so maybe try it first with the chili and see what you think.

Ingredients

2 large ripe tomatoes

1 mild green chili, seeds removed (add this gradually and taste until you’re happy with the heat level)

3 whole spring onions (green onions in the US)

28g (about an oz) of fresh coriander (cilantro) – stalks and leaves

half a teaspoon cumin seeds

half a teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon honey

3 tablespoons mild olive or rapeseed oil (canola in the US)

juice and zest of 2 limes

about a teaspoon of sea salt – add this gradually to taste

To make:

Put all the ingredients in a food processor, nutribullet or blender and blitz until you have a smooth sauce. You’ll need to pause and scrape the sides a couple of times to ensure everything is incorporated. You may need to add a little more oil to loosen it. Taste and adjust the lime, salt and chili until you’re happy with it.

Shredded lime and salt-dressed cabbage

I like to use white or red cabbage. For around an eighth of a cabbage you’ll need the juice and zest of two limes and a half teaspoon of salt.

The acidity of the lime dumbs down the raw cabbage flavour and brings brightness to whatever you serve this with.

To make:

Finely shred white or red cabbage (see my how-to video) and toss the shredded pieces with lime juice and zest and sea salt. Leave for an hour before stirring again and serving. Leftovers can be kept in the fridge for a day.

Pink pickled onions

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Living in a house full of boys there isn’t much pink in my life. This easy pickle adds the most beautiful pink, acidic crunch to my tacos and I always have a jar in the fridge to top sandwiches and salads.

The acidity of the lime or vinegar takes the strength of the onion away, brings out the vibrancy of the pinkness and softens them.

My grandma used to make sliced white onions in malt vinegar to go with our Sunday roast beef so I always think of her when I make this – she would be baffled by Mexican food but she subconsciously knew the importance of acidity in her cooking.

Ingredients

1 small red onion

Juice of 2 limes or enough white wine vinegar to cover the sliced onions

Half a teaspoon of salt

To make:

  1. Peel, half and slice the onion into half moons as thinly as you can manage (see my video here).
  2. Put the slices into a small jam jar or glass bowl.
  3. Top with the vinegar or lime juice and salt. Stir so that the onion is submerged then leave for a few hours before serving.
  4. Use a fork to pull the onion out of the liquid.

Homemade corn tortillas

This is the most useful step by step recipe I’ve found. Masa Harina is a special type of flour made from cooked corn kernels that are soaked in limewater (which changes the corn’s nutritional structure and texture) before they are ground into flour. Don’t be tempted to substitute polenta or cornmeal as you won’t get the right consistency and your tortillas will crumble. You’ll need to buy masa harina online in the UK. It is available from Mexican food stores and Whole Foods in the US.

Homemade wholemeal tortillas

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(makes 8 small tortillas – enough for 3-4 people)

These are a great thing to make with children and can be used in so many ways – not just as tacos. We often make them then use them as a healthy pizza base and we love them for breakfast with scrambled egg, avocado and bacon. They are ideal to make when you’ve run out of bread but can’t face a trip to the shops.

I often double this recipe and make extra then freeze the cooked tortillas for later.

Ingredients

200g plain wholemeal or spelt flour

120ml water

half a teaspoon sea salt

Optional – add a tablespoon of sesame seeds, cumin seeds, onion seeds or chia seeds along with the flour.

To make:

  1. Mix the flour, sea salt and water together in a bowl until it forms a silky but stiff dough. I use a spatula to start stirring then switch to my hands when the water is almost incorporated. If you have a food mixer with a dough hook you could use that instead.
  2. Divide the dough into 8 small pieces then flour a rolling pin and roll each ball as thinly as possible into a circle. They should end up being about 2mm thick and about 8-10cm across.
  3. Heat a non stick pan on a high heat and cook the tortillas (I usually fit 2-3 at a time in my pan) for two minutes on each side – turn them when you see bubbles forming and continue to cook them until they are soft and cooked through. Don’t worry that they are quite stiff at this stage. We’ll tackle that next. The thinner they are and the hotter your pan the faster they will cook.
  4. Keep the tortillas stacked and tightly wrapped with a clean tea towel until all the tortillas are cooked. This stage is essential as the steam created helps make them more pliable. If you want to cook them ahead of time you can reheat them in a warm oven, wrapped in a towel so they they stay soft.

Roasted butternut squash with sausages

cookalong butternut, sausage, sage bake with apple lemon salsa

Find this easy one-pan recipe here. I’ve also made a cookalong video you can follow to see how to chop your squash safely and quickly. I usually make this without tortillas for dinner early in the week and make extra so that we can use the leftovers for a fuss free taco filling later in the week.

Pulled fennel crusted pork

This recipe is an easy throw it in the oven and leave it way or cook pork. It is great for tacos but I also love it with soft polenta or mashed potato with pesto for a comforting dinner. I usually serve it with mash and veg early in the week and use leftovers with tacos later in the week.

Grapefruit margarita

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Because if you’re having tacos it is rude not to have a margarita with them. The recipe for my grapefruit margarita is here.

I’d love to see what you end up with, so remember to share this on my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter when you make it. Tag it #ystcook so I can see!