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Taco night. Those might just be two of the finest words that can be uttered when discussing dinner.
It's a regular event at my house, and it has always meant one thing: hard shell tacos with a highly seasoned ground beef filling. I grew up eating this dish, and yes, the taco shells invariably came from a box and the filling was seasoned with powder from a packet. Over the years, though, my tradition morphed, and nowadays I tend to fry my own shells and season my beef filling one spice at a time. I've fine tuned things a bit, but one element has remained the same: my homemade taco shells were always the standard thin variety. Recently, though, for a change of pace, I started making puffy tacos, and now I'm loving taco night like never before.
Puffy tacos hail from San Antonio. They're made by frying fresh masa—a dough made from dried field corn that has been treated with lime, cooked, ground—instead of frying already-cooked tortillas, which is how the flat shells are made. When the raw masa enters the hot oil, it puffs up, becoming crisp on the outside but retaining some soft spots within.
Years before my recent puffy-taco love-fest, I made a single attempt at whipping up a batch, but they were a total failure—not puffy and inedibly greasy. Part of the problem was just lack of experience, but another was that I had used masa harina for my dough, the dried flour that's used as a convenience to quickly make masa just by adding water. Masa harina is great for many things, but puffy tacos is not one of them. This is a case where freshly made masa dough makes a pretty significant difference.
Fresh from-scratch masa is a pretty serious cooking project, so I took the easy route and went a local tortilleria, picking up two pounds of it made that morning.
For these tests, I also made some batches using masa harina (about 1 1/2 cups Maseca and a cup of warm water, letting it rest for 15 minutes before forming shells), just to see if I could get it to work better than the first time.
To make the shells, I broke off approximately two tablespoons of masa and pressed it in my tortilla press between two pieces of a plastic bag to prevent sticking—they can also be rolled out using a rolling pin if you don't have a tortilla press.
After that I dropped the tortillas into about 2 inches of 375°F canola oil (I like frying in my wok since its wide shape helps contain some of the inevitable splatter). The dough initially sunk to the bottom, but quickly rose to the top and started to puff up.
As it puffed, I pressed the middle of it down with a spatula to create the essential taco shell U-shape.
Once the masa crisped enough to hold its shape—about ten seconds—I used the spatula to gently submerge one side of the shell into the oil and waited until it turned a golden yellow, then repeated with the other side.
Finally I transferred the shell to a paper towel-lined sheet pan to drain, seasoned with salt, and then repeated until I had made them all.
The puffy tacos made with masa harina came out better than my original attempt years ago, but paled in comparison to the ones made with fresh masa. The masa harina shells never puffed as much as the fresh masa, and were denser and chewier in the middle. Their exterior was overly delicate, which meant they cracked and broke more easily. For me, the flavor was the real kicker—the fresh masa had an outstanding robust corn taste; in contrast, the masa harina shells were a little dull.
If you have a local tortilleria or other source for fresh masa, it's definitely worth grabbing some for this application. Still, masa harina will work ok for those who don't have the option of the fresh stuff.
In San Antonio, you're more likely to find taco stuffings in shredded-meat form, but at my home there'd be all-out mayhem if I strayed from the ground-beef standard. I'm perfectly happy with that—I've been perfecting my ground-beef taco filling for years and it's hard to top.
I start with one finely diced white onion and sauté it until the edges of the onion just start to turn brown. Then I add a few cloves of minced garlic along with a couple of diced jalapeños and cook those until fragrant.
Next I add my spice mixture which is heavy with earthy chili powder and cumin, plus a bit of Mexican oregano for an herbal touch, ground coriander, and chipotle powder for a smoky undertone and heat.
Once the smell of the spices fill my kitchen, I add a couple pounds of ground chuck and cook it, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon or potato masher, until it's consistently browned.
I stir in chicken stock and finely diced fire-roasted tomatoes. After the liquids come to a boil, I reduce the heat to low and let it all simmer until it's thick and saucy, and then finish it with fresh cilantro, lime juice, and salt.
It's obviously more work than opening up a taco seasoning packet and pouring it onto ground beef, but the time and effort are worth it.
To serve, I spoon the meat into the puffed crevices of the taco shells, then select among a lineup of toppings—shredded lettuce, cilantro, onion, tomato, shredded Longhorn cheddar, and sour cream.
Since the best puffy tacos require a trek out to the tortilleria for fresh masa, I'll still sometimes make my standard thin taco shells. But on those occasions when I do get fresh masa, we'll talk about it using the best three words that can possibly describe dinner—Puffy taco night!