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Come out of your shell: Cook up a soft-taco bar and let guests roll their own dinner

By Bob Townsend
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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The notion of the do-it-yourself taco bar has many mothers going back to those cheap feed-the-kids kits that include seasoning mix, taco shells and sauce.

But it was the “Roll Your Own” section of the 1997 cookbook License to Grill by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby that won me over to the idea that a taco bar could be creative fun for tailgating or a cocktail party.

Schlesinger and Willoughby built their bar around marinated meat and seafood grilled on skewers and served with an abundance of mix-and-match garnishes.

Right now, food trucks are a major taco delivery system — part of a scene that’s as much social as culinary, and revels in cross-cultural experimentation with flavors from around the world.

Inspired by all that, we’ve taken to making taco fillings and salsas that borrow spicy, sweet and savory ingredients from Mexican, Korean, Indian and Southern cooking traditions. Laying them out buffet-style with some sides lets you feed a crowd, while your guests mingle and make a plate.

Set up the bar with the fillings and salsas, baskets of warm corn and flour tortillas wrapped in kitchen towels, and platters of crispy lettuce and cabbage leaves.

Include an array of garnishes like lime wedges, pickled onion, sliced jalapeño, scallion and radish, chopped cilantro, sour cream and crumbled Mexican cheese, plus guacamole, chips and several kinds of hot sauce.

And let the party begin.

SWEET POTATO AND BLACK

BEAN TACOS WITH SPICY

COCONUT GINGER SALSA

4 large sweet potatoes, medium dice

2 tbsp. canola oil

1 tsp. salt

1 clove garlic, minced

½ Vidalia onion, small dice

4 tbsp. Tandoori paste

1 can unsweetened coconut milk

1½ cups cooked black beans, or substitute canned

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the diced sweet potatoes in 1 tablespoon of oil and salt. Place on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until soft and lightly browned, approximately 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, saute the garlic and onions with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil until translucent, approximately 3 minutes. Add the tandoori paste and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the coconut milk. Then fold in the black beans and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Fold in the roasted sweet potatoes and keep warm until ready to serve.

Makes 8 servings.

SPICY COCONUT GINGER SALSA

1 jalapeño, stemmed and seeded

1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled

1 cup grated sweetened coconut flakes

1 bunch cilantro, large stems removed

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the jalapeño and ginger until smooth. Add the coconut and cilantro and pulse until roughly chopped and combined.

ROASTED CORN, TOMATO

AND ONION SALSA

1 cup corn kernels, either fresh or frozen

1 Vidalia onion, peeled and roughly chopped

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tbsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. canola oil

Juice of 1 lime

½ cup chopped cilantro

Salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine corn, onion and cherry tomatoes with cumin, salt and canola oil. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, or until corn is browned.

Transfer to a serving bowl and combine with the lime juice, cilantro and salt to taste.

PORK TACOS AL PASTOR

WITH PEACH SALSA

¼ cup canola oil

1 tsp. salt

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp. cumin

2 tbsp. chipotle chili powder

2 tsp. oregano, preferably Mexican

½ cup orange juice

¼ cup white vinegar

2 peaches or nectarines, peeled, pitted and chopped

1 (2-lb.) pork tenderloin, cubed

4 peaches or nectarines, peeled, pitted and cut into quarters

In the bowl of a food processor, combine canola oil, salt, garlic, cumin, chili powder, oregano, orange juice, white vinegar and the chopped peaches. Puree and transfer to a Ziploc bag, along with the pork, and marinate 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to broil.

Remove the pork from the marinade and place on a baking sheet along with the 4 quartered peaches. Broil for 5 minutes, turning once. Remove from oven and keep pork warm until ready to serve. Use peaches in Peach Salsa (below).

Makes 8 servings.

Note: Substitute any stone fruit for the peaches in this twist on the traditional pineapple-based Al Pastor taco.

PEACH SALSA

4 broiled peaches, roughly chopped

1 red onion, finely diced

1 jalapeño, seeded and finely minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro juice of 1 lime

In a medium bowl, combine chopped peaches, red onion, jalapeño, cilantro and lime juice.


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