Veggie Tacos and Turnip Greens from Turnip Greens & Tortillas
It is far from disparaging when we say that the veggie tacos from Atlanta's Taqueria Del Sol restaurants taste like Taco Bell. Or at least what we remember Taco Bell tasting like when we were kids — savory and cheesy and just spicy enough. They're magnificent.
And, with the release of Taqueria's chef Eddie Hernandez's cookbook, "Turnip Greens & Tortillas," you can make them at home, and they'll taste just like they do at the restaurant.
We can promise that because at least one of us ate said homemade veggie tacos at least five nights in a row this month. (The recipe makes a plethora of beans.) Once the filling and salsa is made, it really only takes a few minutes to make a couple, and they even taste good cold, straight from the refrigerator, as a snack. Please take note, cold pizza fans.
The fact that the recipe for the veggie tacos is so spot-on speaks volumes about the intention of this book. If you've ever cooked from a restaurant cookbook before, you'll know that the recipes don't often hold up. Much like a coy grandmother, many chefs will hold back on certain ingredients or secret techniques to keep the real, real recipes the provenance of the restaurant alone. Or the recipes are incomplete simply because a technique may be too cumbersome for the home cook, or an ingredient too obscure; recipes taste close to the real thing but they never really satisfy.
Hernandez, on the other hand, spills secrets. There is American cheese everywhere in this book, just as it is at Taqueria Del Sol (and just about any other Mexican-American restaurant in the Southeast). Jury-rigged indoor smokers have played a big part in many of Taqueria's recipes, and these are described in the book as well. Want to know how to make the off-menu special "The George"? You can learn that, too.
Long recipe headnotes are written in a storytelling style by co-author and former Atlanta Journal Constitution food editor, Susan Puckett; you'll read about Hernandez's days as a musician while you learn how to properly roast a chile. You'll be painted a portrait of a chef who cares little for cooking "authentic" Mexican food or "real" Southern cuisine, and will be greeted with an array of colorful, spirited dishes that evoke the modern, melting pot of the South in which we live.
This storytelling is the highlight of the book. You can stick "Turnip Greens & Tortillas" on your bedside table and read through it as you would a novel. And while the average home cook will have great success with most of the simpler recipes — salsas, quacamole, those veggie tacos — they may become frustrated with others.
We're chalking up some of our struggles to issues with scaling down restaurant recipes to a practical size for home cooks. Hernandez's Skinny Margarita is a particular example; as written it is far too tart and needed more sugar to balance out all of its lime juice. We would, however, highly recommend whipping up big batches of the Fresh Sweet-and-Sour Mix for using in all kinds of cocktails this summer, like a fresh cosmopolitan.
Likewise, a pea salad with roasted chiles and red onion was, as written, a bit clunky with mayonnaise. We backed down from 2/3 of a cup to 1/2 and found it far more enjoyable and still just as creamy. And while we found the end results of both the veggie tacos and Eddie's Turnip Greens to be spot-on flavor-wise, overly finicky measurements such as 2/3 cup chopped onion left us, frankly, a bit annoyed. To be sure, some recipes need specific measurements of alliums — we're thinking about fresh salsas and other raw applications — but when you're sauteing an onion and then simmering it for 30 minutes, any small variances in measurement come out in the wash. We'd prefer a call for half an onion and leave it at that.
The chicken pot pie filling was, however, a delight, even with its, perhaps, overly generous use of heavy cream (and sour cream and American cheese). Next time, we'd probably lighten it up a touch with a higher proportion of chicken stock and whole milk instead of cream — all of its floury roux and cheese will keep the final result creamy enough. We also discovered a great trick for making those magical puffed tortillas — use a slotted spoon or spider to hold the tortilla under hot fryer oil until it starts to resist the spoon (you'll feel it push back), then release it and continue to fry as written.
Other winners? The chimichurri sauce for the steak churrassco offered bold flavor, and leftovers held up remarkably well for an extra day or so. Hernandez's cheese dip was, unsurprisingly, delicious, and it was easy, too. Just don't even try to attempt it if you're squeamish about American cheese.
We brought the cheese dip, in the recommended slow cooker, to a party a few weeks ago and it went like wildfire. Likewise, all of those salsas and guacamoles and tacos are all excellent party food; some may require a bit of work up front, but can be heated up and served, in any combination, at almost a moment's notice. This is how we'll continue to use "Turnip Greens & Tortillas" in our homes.