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Tacos

Nine out of 10 customers prefer the Waffle Taco to the Offal Taco.
NPR
Nine out of 10 customers prefer the Waffle Taco to the Offal Taco.

One of America's favorite snack foods is the taco, and we love it so much we even gave it its own night of the week: Taco Tuesdays. But it wasn't always so. People used to think of it as a cheap Mexican street food, not worthy of our interest. But Chef Jerry Pellegrino explains to us what happened to the humble taco that helped it capture our hearts?

First off, the taco was simply a warmed up soft corn tortilla filled with some sort of seasoned meat, similar to pulled pork or beef. There was no sour cream, no lettuce and tomato, just the meat. The original taco had the advantages of being cheap and easy to eat out of hand. Closer to the coast, grilled fish pieces would take the place of meat, and a touch of salsa verde might be used.

The classic taco underwent a big change in 1937 in San Bernardino, California.

A Mexican-American couple fondly remembered the crisp hard shell tacos they used to eat back home during lent. So they deep fried standard soft flour tortillas, and filled them with ground beef. They became a hit.

Not far away a guy named Glen Bell noticed the treat and thought about ways

to improve it. In 1951 borrowing an idea from the nearby McDonald's (the first one) Bell started stuffing his hard shells with beef, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. After a few early iterations Taco Bell was born, and it caught on.

Taco Bell thrived and most Americans naturally assumed that their hard shell version was the real deal.

If you want to make yourself an authentic taco, you will need to start with the tortilla. Take two cups of "masa harina" (Mexican corn flour), a half teaspoon of salt and a cup of warm water and work it into a dough. Make a walnut sized ball with your hands, and then place that on a tortilla press, if you have one. If not, roll it out on a floured surface until it is about 5" round. Place the tortilla on a medium hot griddle for 30 seconds, then flip it over onto a hotter part of the griddle for a minute.

Flip again, allow it to puff up and develop brown grill spots. Take it off, and stack it

with all the others you make, under a towel to retain steam.

One of the most classic contemporary taco recipes is called "taco al pastor"

or "shepherd's taco". Here is the recipe. (Over time the original recipe evolved from lamb to pork.)

Tacos Al Pastor

Ingredients:

1 boneless pork butt or loin (2-3 pounds)

1 white onion coarsely chopped

1 large pineapple, peeled and cored

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup white vinegar

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tbls minced garlic

1 chipotle pepper, de-seeded, cut in quarters

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp dried oregano

1 cup fresh cilantro

1 medium red onion, sliced

4 limes, cut into wedges

Directions:

1. Cut the raw pork into thin slices, and place in a large ceramic bowl or sealable plastic bag.

2. Cut the pineapple into 8 spears. Dice two of them and put the others aside.

3. Working with a blend or processor, add the chopped onion with the chopped pineapple. Add the orange juice, vinegar, chipotle, chili powder, garlic, salt and oregano. Puree until smooth. This is your marinade.

4. Pour the marinade over the pork and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours.

5. Heat a skillet to high heat. Working in small batches, sear each slice of pork until cooked through, roughly 2-4 minutes. Then grill the remaining pineapple spears until lightly charred. Roughly chop the pork and pineapple.

6. Serve the hot meat on a warmed tortilla and top with freshly chopped cilantro, red onion slices, diced grilled pineapple and a lime wedge.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.