Breakfast of tacos

by Ari LeVaux

A breakfast taco consists of a warm tortilla filled with savory items and condiments; beyond that there are no hard-and-fast rules. The breakfast taco isn’t beholden to its Southwestern roots, although this region’s flavor combinations are well tested and worthy. Neither is the breakfast taco required to contain eggs, though that is often the case. It’s a breakfast taco even if it isn’t washed down with coffee, but that’s a scenario that I don’t ever want to endure.

The beauty of the breakfast taco is that it’s whatever you want it to be, limited only by the contents of your fridge and pantry. As a do-it-yourself food snob, what I like best about breakfast tacos is that they provide a venue for many of the foods I procure and preserve locally: wild game, pickled peppers, homemade salsa, friend-raised bacon, homegrown or farmers market onions, garlic, squash and potatoes kept in cold storage, or greens blanched and frozen. Breakfast tacos are a stage for your backyard eggs, your window herb box, your local goat farmer’s artisan cheese and meat.

When I fold such items into my breakfast taco, memories of the adventures that brought them to my plate add to their already considerable flavor. But the breakfast taco isn’t limited to your hand-picked morels any more than it should slavishly follow the flavor profiles of the lands whence it came. The tortilla is a blank slate, a tortilla-rasa if you will, that wraps around take-out fish ’n’ chips as tastefully as it cradles leftover holiday turkey, shredded and browned in the pan with chopped garlic and chunks of leftover squash. In a heated corn tortilla with salsa and mayo, leftover holiday dinner breakfast tacos will make your morning coffee taste like wine.

Because of the diversity of ingredients they can accommodate, breakfast tacos are a laboratory for the culinary art of co-munching, which is the act of chewing different foods together simultaneously. Co-munching is the final stage of cooking, the last pre-digestive instance in which ingredients are combined. At the moment of co-munching, each component should be in its optimal state – the eggs are perfect, having been scrambled in a pan in which garlic has been browned; the onions are raw and feisty; the cilantro is crisp; the jalapeños are pickled; the mayo is firm. The mastication-driven progression of flavors combining and unlocking each other can be so consuming you may end up reading the same sentence from your weekly paper a dozen times, comprehending the words only during the wash of coffee between bites.

But remember: just because there are few rules doesn’t mean any possible ingredient or combination will be good. That’s where common sense and exploratory co-munching come into play. Canned tuna is out in my book, as are grapes, fruit bread and oatmeal. And the experimental nature of a breakfast taco lends itself to small (6-inch) tortillas, allowing for multiple combinations.

If you have company for breakfast or brunch, preparing a buffet of fillings and allowing each guest to construct his or her own tacos turns the meal into a participatory event, and all the coffee that’s guzzled enhances the celebratory vibe.

I prefer corn tortillas to flour, but I have access to really good corn tortillas. If your options are limited, get whichever are better quality and easier to work with – some store-bought corn tortillas crumble pathetically when you fold them. If you’re shopping at a health-food type store, believe it or not the Food for Life brand sprouted corn tortillas actually perform quite well.

When dining solo or in small groups, the tortillas can be warmed in a skillet, no oil required. After flipping them once, you may want to scatter some shredded cheese on the tortilla and let it melt. For larger groups, heat a stack of tortillas in a covered baking dish in the oven at 350. Some people swear by the microwave; I swear at the microwave – or if my mouth is full I just give it the finger. Except when I’m using the microwave to reheat my leftover coffee.

In no particular order, here’s a list of my favorite breakfast taco fillings:

• Meat – Crispy, browned, braised or ground, as long as it isn’t too tough or chewy it works great. Meat snob that I am, I’d go meatless before eating mystery meat, but if well-raised or wild meat is on the table, it’s in my taco. Bacon is the poster child of breakfast taco meats, but many other meats will do. If you have a tough cut and want to make it breakfast taco-friendly, here’s a hint: the night before, braise it for several hours (exact number determined by toughness and size of meat) at 350 degrees in red wine, or a mix of red wine and coffee, until the cartilage and connective tissue melts. On taco morning, shred your meat and fry it in oil to put a nice brown on those tender chunks.

• Eggs – Classic but not essential, eggs are typically scrambled for the breakfast taco. First brown some chopped garlic in oil, then add beaten eggs and scramble.

• Salsa – If not salsa, then some condiment, or some combination of condiments, to complement the richer taco components with spice and acidic flavors.

• Pickled peppers and carrots – See above.

• Herbs – Cilantro and parsley add color and fragrance.

• Chopped onions – All but essential.

• Mayo – In my case, fake mayo: Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise, which is superior in every way to any real mayo on the market (and no, I’m not sponsored by Vegenaise, but I should be. If I didn’t have to pay for it I could afford that new boat trailer). Mayo adds much-needed crème to the equation, as does:

• Cheese – Shredded or in thin slices that melt in contact with the warm tortilla and fillings.

• Sliced avocado – For a greenish kind of crème.

• Squash – A sweet and savory filling that plays well with others.

• Potatoes – Not the most exciting filling, but they add a nice earthy tone.

Once you’ve assembled the prepared ingredients, your biggest technical hurdle is to avoid packing too much stuff into any one tortilla. Pace yourself. Tortillas are cheap. Eat and repeat. •



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