Tuesday, April 10, 2012

build a better taco salad

I have a thing for taco salad. And by taco salad, I mean the familiar amalgamation of iceberg lettuce, ground beef, cheddar cheese, sad tomatoes and a deep-fried shell and/or tortilla chips (or in the case of my childhood... Fritos). While eating one for lunch one day, I had a Linda Richman moment: a taco salad is neither a taco nor a salad. Talk amoungst yourselves.

Always trying to pack more fresh vegetables and "super-foods" into my diet (to balance out the booze and cheese and chocolate, you see), I saw potential in the humble taco salad. I could elevate this into an actual healthy salad and still retain the things I love from the taco influence: spice and crunch. Here's how I did it:

1. Kick out the iceberg and pick greens that are more... well, green. I used Mache, a small, tender green (also called "Lamb's Lettuce.") You can also use baby spinach, arugula, romaine, baby leaf greens, etc.

2. Instead of sour cream or some kind of dressing (when I was a kid my mom always served Catalina dressing with taco salad. Anyone?), add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt for creaminess and tang!

3. Tofu. Yeah, I said it. I love tofu. I think it gets a bad rep because people try to use to REPLACE meat. You can't replace meat. Embrace tofu for being what it is... a protein-packed food that lends well to any flavor you want to add to it. In this case I cubed up firm tofu and sauteed it with garlic, shallot, ancho chile powder, cumin, salt and pepper.

4. Add even more protein to your salad, along with buttery richness with chickpeas. My favorite legume!

5. Forget the shredded cheddar jack and make your taco salad more lively (and less fatty) with a young, fresh, crumbly cheese such as Queso Fresco, feta or chevré. In fact, if you want to skip the cheese altogether, you probably won't miss it thanks to that Greek yogurt.

6. I couldn't leave out tomatoes. Just don't settle for the sad, mealy out-of-season ones. If it's not home-grown tomato season, use grape or cherry tomatoes.

7. Jicama gives the salad that vegetable crunch that you might normally get from iceberg lettuce. But jicama also adds a sweet flavor and more nutrition.

8. Salsa! It's a taco salad, after-all. Salsa is a natural choice to dress it. Duh.

9. More beans? Yes. Black beans add great color. I like to spice mine up with cumin, hot sauce, Mexican oregano, garlic and lime juice.

10. Make your own tortilla chips! It's easy to do. It's also healthier and cheaper than buying chips. Just cut corn (or flour, or wheat or spinach... whatever tickles your pickle) into strips with a pizza cutter and bake them on an oil-sprayed cookie sheet at 375ºF until crunchy (7 minutes-ish, just keep an eye on 'em). I think chips made this way have a more satisfying crunch... they will be a great addition to your salad.

11. Cilantro. mmmmmmmmm.

12. Freshen up and dress your salad with a squirt (heh heh "squirt") of fresh lime. Done!

Other suggestions for taco salad toppings: fresh corn, avocado, ground turkey, shredded chicken, bell peppers, finely-chopped jalapeno peppers, red onions, sweet potato cubes roasted with chipotle, mango. What do you like on your taco salad?

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Kimberly said...

A healthy and delicious taco salad? It can be done! Great post, Steph!

Every Little Thing said...

Lots of great taco suggestions!

Pavlov said...

Needs roasted corn as well! This is a great salad, in fact, if you took out the tofu and added southwest ranch and BBQ'd the chicken, it's a dead ringer for California Pizza Kitchen's BBQ Chopped chicken salad! NICE SALAD BTW!