TND – Not for the Onion Shy

November 22, 2011

I was not a kid who had to suffer through many cafeteria meals during my school years. I was spoiled and my mother packed me a lunch almost every day well into high school. By and large the only times I ever bought lunch were on the rare occasions that the school cafeteria was serving something I really wanted to eat. In the year I spent at Convent of the Sacred Heart this meant the days that they did Indian Fry Bread for lunch – don’t ask me how that was nutritionally viable, but it came hot from the fryer and covered in powdered sugar and everyone wanted one – and any time they served tater tots. In the year and a half I spent at the Old Greenwich Elementary School this meant the occasional pizza on Friday (why I wanted burnt pizza is an issue to explore some other time), and any time they served tacos.

Anyone who grew up in the Northeast (and probably other parts of the country) will recognize the school cafeteria taco – crispy (slightly stale) corn taco shell filled with a layer of (mildly) spiced ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheddar cheese and a dollop (or more than a dollop) of sour cream. I loved these tacos. Very occasionally my mother would make them for dinner and it was always a treat.

I think I won’t admit to how old I was before I realized that these tacos bore no resemblance to anything actually authentically Mexican. The discovery, when it arrived, was a disappointment to me because I was clinging to tacos as the only form of Mexican food I actually liked. I have subsequently, somewhat belatedly, come to the understanding that what I don’t like is TexMex food as interpreted by the Northeast, by which I mostly mean I don’t particularly like the food on offer at Border Café or Chipotle Mexican Grill. This, however, is fine, because as it turns out I do like Mexican food as interpreted by California. Or, in other words, I like fish tacos.

Now admittedly California/Baja style tacos – small soft tortilla filled with a little bit of meat or fish topped with some crunchy cabbage and garnished with a little crumbled cojita cheese or crema – may or may not bear any resemblance to something that would get served to you in Mexico. But, at the very least they’re a lot closer to the source material in California than we are in New England.

I like Baja style tacos so much that not only did a California style taco joint in Brookline make our standard restaurant rotation, when we haven’t managed to eat there in a while I will actually make a version of that style of taco for dinner. The degrees of separation between what I serve and authentic Mexican food are probably a little embarrassing to count – Mexican street food as interpreted by California cuisine, served to Northeasterners, recreated by someone who’s never been closer to Mexico than San Francisco (okay, my parents took me with them on a trip to the Southwest when I was nine months old, but I wasn’t really eating tacos at that point in my life). That being said, I like my new version of tacos as much as I liked the cafeteria taco I ate as a child, and that’s saying something.

Tacos with fixin’s
– Roasted Shrimp
– Braised Chicken
Black Beans
Orange & Kumquat Slaw
Quick Pickled Red Onions

Tacos with fixin’s
(serves 6-8 with leftovers)

Roasted Shrimp
All credit to Ina Garten for introducing me to the idea of roasting shrimp. It is hands down the easiest and most reliable way to cook shrimp without overcooking them.

1 lb shrimp, defrosted, deveined & deshelled*
Olive oil
1 lime zested & juiced

Preheat oven to 400.

Defrost your shrimp. Dry them well on paper towels. Toss with salt, pepper and olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 6-8 minutes, turning once.

Toss the cooked shrimp on the hot baking sheet with the lime juice and lime zest. Serve.

* Unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere within 45 minutes of shrimp being pulled fresh from the water daily then I recommend buying the frozen shrimp from the freezer case at your supermarket. The fish counter may say that they have fresh shrimp, but if you look closely the odds are that underneath that in small letters it will say ‘previously frozen’ and frankly you can defrost shrimp as effectively as they can and the less time your shrimp spends in a non frozen state the better. Plus, frozen shrimp usually come cleaned and with the shells split for easier deshelling and that’s the part of cooking with shrimp that I hate, so frozen shrimp are a winner all round.

To defrost shrimp simply place as many as you need in a bowl under running cold water (don’t ask me why running cold water defrosts things faster than running hot water, but it does) for about 15-20 minutes and your shrimp will be defrosted. Lay them on paper towels and pat dry thoroughly and then proceed with your recipe.

Braised Chicken
You can skip the cooling/refrigerating/reheating part of this, but trust me they’re better the next day when the meat has had time to relax and get groovy.

2 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp dried oregano *
1 bay leaf
Olive oil
1 large white onion, sliced into half moon rings
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1/8 tsp (or spinkle) red pepper flakes
½ cup chicken stock
½ orange, cut into 4 segments

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Mix together the cumin, coriander, oregano. In a large bowl toss the chicken with the spices and let sit for 30 minutes to marinate.

Meanwhile sauté the onion and garlic in some olive oil until the onion is softened and starting to turn golden. Add the red pepper flakes and stir to combine. Add the chicken to the pan and stir to coat. Add the chicken stock and orange segments (giving them a bit of a squeeze as you add them to the pan). Bring to a low simmer, cover and cook for 20-25 minutes until the chicken is done. Allow to cool slightly.

Remove chicken from the braising liquid and cut/shred into largish chunks, return to pan. Cool and refrigerate overnight. Reheat in the braising liquid, stirring as little as possible because you don’t want to break up the shreds/chunks of chicken too much (you’re not aiming for pulled chicken here).

* Or, if you’re like me and when you reach for the oregano you discover that you’re mysteriously out, you can substitute some dried thyme instead.

Chopped radishes
Diced avocado
Crumbled cojita (or ricotta salata)
(faux) Crema (i.e. some sour cream (or plain yogurt) whisked with a little lime juice to thin it out)
Small (4”) corn or flour tortillas (depending on what you can find)

Black Beans
(serves 2)

1 strip bacon, chopped
½ red pepper, diced
½ onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tsp chipotle in adobo *
¼ tsp cumin (or to taste)
¼ tsp oregano
1 (small) bay leaf
1 (15 oz) can black beans, with liquid
Lime juice

Saute the bacon until crisp. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Reserve.

Add the onion, garlic and red pepper to the pan and fry in the residual bacon fat (pour some off if it looks like there’s too much – but with just one strip of bacon it’ll probably be fine). When the onion and red pepper have softened add the cumin, oregano and bay leaf to the pan and sauté for 30 seconds or so to bloom the spices. Stir in the black beans with their liquid, the chipotle, and the reserved bacon. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. Mash some of the beans against the side of the pan (you’re looking to thicken the sauce a little, not make soup). Simmer for another 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and some lime juice.

You can make this a day ahead of time, refrigerate overnight and reheat – just be sure to stir it every so often or you run the risk of the mashed beans sinking to the bottom of the pot and burning.

* Chipotles in Adobo comes in small cans that still contain far more chipotles than I can use in one recipe. Fortunately they freeze nicely. Just separate them out on a plate and freeze until hard and then bag and label. Next time you need some you can remove just one chipotle, or even chop off a piece of chipotle if all you need is a ½ tsp. I’m still working my way through a can that I bought about 6 months ago this way.

Orange & Kumquat Slaw
(serves 6)
This is mostly because I saw kumquats at the grocery store this weekend and bought them on a whim. Any kind of slaw will work, I prefer vinegary slaws but a mayo based slaw would be fine too if that’s the way you roll.

1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tsp honey (or to taste)
¼ tsp cumin
¼ cup (ish) olive oil

Whisk together all ingredients except olive oil. Slowly whisk in just enough olive oil to create an emulsion.

(small) ½ head red cabbage, shredded finely
(small) ½ head green cabbage, shredded finely
1 apple, grated
10-12 kumquats, sliced finely (1/16th – 1/8th inch – I recommend a mandoline)
6 scallions, sliced finely

Toss the cabbages, grated apple, kumquats and scallions in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with enough dressing to moisten, but not be goopy. Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes to marry the flavors.

(makes about 2 cups)

2 large ripe tomatoes, diced
¼-½ large white onion, minced very finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded & minced
1 Tbsp lime juice (or red wine vinegar)
Handful of basil, chopped (or cilantro, if you like cilantro)

Mix all together in a bowl. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to marry the flavors.

Quick Pickled Red Onions

1 large red onion, cut in half and then sliced into thin rings
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup cold water
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp sugar
(optional – couple of dashes of hot sauce)

Combine all ingredients except onion in a bowl and whisk until sugar and salt are dissolved. Add onions, allow to sit for an hour. Serve.

This doesn’t keep particularly well overnight, I find it just gets overwhelmingly salty so plan to make it within a couple of hours of when you’ll be eating.



  1. […] fish tacos, mango slaw, pickled onions, black beans, grilled […]

  2. […] Recipe previously given:  Not For the Onion Shy […]

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