Is there anything that doesn’t belong in a taco, if it’s seasoned properly? I can’t think of many things, as long as the combination stays in the spirit of the Mexican street-food favorite, with something hefty, something spicy, something crunchy - and excellent tortillas, of course.
Building a good taco is like building a good sandwich: It’s about the quality of each ingredient, of course, and flavor, but also it’s about controlling the moisture. Nobody wants a dry taco, but you can also go too far in the other direction and end up with a soggy mess.
For me, beans are a natural taco ingredient, because they are the world’s best source of plant-based protein and are so beloved in Mexico. But I’ve been known to make tacos out of pretty much any leftover cooked vegetable in my fridge. No matter the base filling, I often depend on pumpkin seeds or nuts to add more protein and, along with shredded lettuce or cabbage, that crucial crunch.
I’ve employed nuts as the starring filling before, blitzing raw walnuts with spices to approximate ground beef. But a recipe in Mark Bittman’s new book takes the idea to the next level. You chop roasted peanuts, then cook them a second time, toasting them in a pan with spices. You stir them into mushrooms you’ve cooked separately (to keep them from softening the peanuts with their released moisture before it has cooked off), then spoon the mixture into warmed tortillas and top with a warm tomato-chipotle salsa.
It’s not as unheard-of as it might seem, because peanuts star in at least one traditional Mexican salsa, from Chiapas. Here, they’re the main event, and they do the tacos proud.
CRUNCHY PEANUT TACOS
Servings: 4 to 6 (makes 12 tacos)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped yellow or white onion (from 1/2 medium onion)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted, such as Muir Glen brand
1 canned chipotle chile, chopped, plus its adobo sauce, as needed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus more leaves for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cups roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Twelve 6-inch corn tortillas, warmed (see NOTE)
2 cups shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce
Lime wedges, for serving
Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it shimmers, stir in the onion and add half the salt and half the pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is browned in spots, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes and chipotle; bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium low until the mixture is bubbling gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, to form a thickened salsa, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the chopped cilantro and lime juice. Taste, and add more salt, black pepper and/or adobo sauce as needed, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover to keep warm. (For a smoother salsa, use an immersion blender to puree the mixture in the pot, or transfer to puree in a blender.)
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Pour another 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once it shimmers, stir in the peanuts and add the remaining salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden and crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cumin and cayenne pepper; cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl; don’t bother to wipe out the skillet.
Pour the remaining tablespoon of the oil into the same skillet and return to medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned and crisp and the pan is dry, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir the peanuts back in, taste, and season with more salt and/or black pepper, as needed.
To assemble the tacos, line the tortillas with lettuce. Divide the peanut mixture among them and top each with a spoonful of warm salsa. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve right away, with the extra salsa and the lime wedges.
NOTE: To warm the tortillas, wrap the stack in a clean cotton dish towel or paper towels and microwave on HIGH for 30 seconds to 1 minute. (You can also heat them for a few seconds on each side in a dry skillet on medium-high, one at a time, and wrap them in foil until ready to use.)
Source: Adapted from “Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways - Easy, Vegan, or Perfect for Company,” by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, 2019).
Nutrition: The nutritional analysis is based on 6 servings. Calories: 500; Total Fat: 33 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 350 mg; Carbohydrates: 42 g; Dietary Fiber: 10 g; Sugars: 7 g; Protein: 18 g.