A LOT of us start out in the kitchen depending on cookbooks or recipes from magazines. That was the story for Kelley Cleary Coffeen when she made her first dessert as a teenager. It was a peanut butter brownie she found in Seventeen magazine that became the hit of her neighbourhood.
She baked it for the next four years.
The idea of obeying step-by-step instructions to get something really great appealed to Coffeen and she followed her creative heart to a master's degree in home economics.
But the resident of New Mexico found her love of cooking was really influenced by geography.
"I just have a love for the Mexican culture and the music and the food and the way they share their meals with one another," Coffeen says. "It's all about family and friends and it's just a wonderful culture that I've learned to embrace while living on the border (in New Mexico)."
Coffeen's love of Mexican culture was the impetus behind her latest cookbook, 300 Best Taco Recipes (Robert Rose, $27.95). And it will have you thinking outside the box that is supposed to be the commercial answer to "Chicken Thursdays."
The main appeal of serving tacos for a meal is that it seems to automatically imply there's a party going on," she says. "You can invite someone over for dinner on Friday night and have roast, and that's fun... or you can invite everybody over for tacos and it just takes on a whole other atmosphere and feeling. It's festive and it's fun and it's interesting."
The other appeal is economy, of time and money.
"The more that we are on the go, running from here to there with kids and work, I think this whole `hand-held' dinner with a taco is just appealing to people," she says. "It's quick, it's immediate."
Coffeen says creating tacos can be as inexpensive or expensive as you want it to be, with some vegetarian tacos coming in at pennies apiece.
"You can go from a bean-and-cheese Sonoran taco to a prime rib taco," she says. "You can run the whole gamut."
The tortilla industry did over $6 billion in sales in 2009 and is poised to pass sandwich bread in the United States.
"I did a lot of research on the Internet and the word taco is searched on the Internet over 43,000 times daily," says Coffeen. "So there are people that are interested in this convenience. People are eating tortillas constantly. It's the number one hand-held food item besides the hamburger."
She suggests that cooks try one new taco every week from her book. (That will take you about six years.) It's a great way to be inspired to try your own ideas. The additional recipes for sauces, salsas, cocktails and desserts will take tacos meals from the everyday to special family celebrations.
Try your hand at these tacos. All of these recipes are excerpted from 300 Best Taco Recipes. You can visit www.300besttacos.com to find out more.
To start with you'll have to know how to warm tortillas. Here's how:
Skillet-warmed Flour Tortillas
On a griddle or a skillet over medium-high temperature, heat each tortilla on each side until soft and pliable. Keep warm by wrapping in foil.
Grilled Fajita Steak and Shrimp Tacos
Makes 12 tacos
This is a surf 'n' turf taco. Tender shrimp sautéed with sweet peppers and onions complement the grilled beefy taste of this taco. Cooked shrimp speeds up the prep time.
Preheat greased barbecue grill to medium-high or see variation below.
500 g (1 lb) beef skirt steak
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil, divided
12 medium shrimp, cooked, peeled, deveined and coarsely chopped
1 onion, sliced into 0.5 cm (1/4-inch) thick rings
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 orange bell pepper, julienned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 x 15 to 20 cm (6- to 8-inch) corn or 8 flour tortillas
2 limes, cut into 6 wedges
1. Brush meat with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the oil. Season with salt to taste. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the steak, until medium-rare and well browned on surface. Let stand for 5 minutes. Thinly slice meat across the grain.
2. In a large skillet, heat remaining 15 ml (1 tbsp) of oil over medium heat. Sauté shrimp, onion, red and orange bell peppers and salt and pepper to taste until peppers are tender-crisp, vegetables are slightly charred and shrimp is heated through, 10 to 12 minutes.
3. To build tacos, skillet-warm tortillas (see above). Divide meat and shrimp mixture equally among tortillas and fold tortillas in half. Serve with lime wedges.
Instead of grilling the steak, place it on a broiler pan and broil 5 to 7.5 cm (2 to 3 inches) away from the heat or sear in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Grilled Chicken and Roasted Veggie Tacos
Makes 8 tacos
This Italian-style taco is lightly flavoured with olive oil and lemon juice in the true spirit of Santa Margherita, a little village on the edge of the Italian Riviera. The fresh, seasoned vegetables wrap flavour around the grilled chicken filling.
Preheat greased barbecue grill to medium-high
Preheat oven to 100C (200F)
Vegetable grate or heavy-duty foil
750 g (11/2 lbs) boneless skinless chicken breasts
60 ml (4 tbsp) olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
1 yellow summer (zucchini) squash, cut in half lengthwise
1 onion, cut into 0.5 cm (1/4-inch) rings
1 red bell pepper, cored and cut in half
3 thick asparagus spears, trimmed
Juice of 1 lemon
30 ml (2 tbsp) minced fresh basil
8 x 15 cm (6-inch) corn tortillas, 8 skillet-warmed (see above)
250 ml (1 cup) shredded Mozzarella cheese
1. Coat chicken with 30 ml (2 tbsp) of the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Grill chicken, turning once, until no longer pink inside, 6 to 8 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board and let chicken stand for 6 to 8 minutes. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Transfer to ovenproof dish and keep warm in preheated oven.
3. Coat zucchini, squash, onion, bell pepper and asparagus with remaining 30 ml (2 tbsp) of oil. Place vegetables in vegetable grate or on foil on grill. Grill, turning once, until vegetables are tender-crisp, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into bite-size pieces.
4. In a large bowl, combine chicken and vegetables and toss with lemon juice and basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. To build tacos, divide chicken mixture equally among tortillas. Top with cheese. Fold tortillas in half.
Makes 4 cupitas
125 ml (1/2 cup) raspberry jam
250 ml (1 cup) raspberries
15 ml (1 tbsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 scoops mango sorbet (commercial brand)
4 corn or flour cupitas (see below)
4 fresh mint leaves
1. In a small saucepan, warm jam over medium heat until melted. Add raspberries and lemon juice and heat, stirring gently, until hot and bubbling, 3 to 6 minutes.
2. Place 1 scoop of sorbet in each cupita. Top with warm sauce. Garnish with mint leaves.
Small tortillas make the perfect shell for fruit and creamy fillings. These little cups are quick to make and delicious.
Makes 4 cupitas
Preheat oven to 200C (400F)
4 deep ovenproof cereal bowls
4 x 15 cm (6-inch) flour or corn tortillas (see Tip, below)
Vegetable cooking spray
1. Lightly coat tortillas with cooking spray on both sides. Place tortillas, 2 at a time, in a small plastic bag and microwave on high for 15 seconds. Tortillas should be moist and pliable, but not too hot to handle. Remove from plastic bag. Fit each tortilla in deep bowl, carefully using your fingers to fold and mould the edges into a curvy shape. Place bowls in preheated oven immediately.
2. Bake in preheated oven until tortillas are crispy and golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool in bowls. Transfer to platter.
It can sometimes be difficult to find 15 cm (6-inch) flour tortillas (unless you make them yourself) Try a high-quality 20 cm (8-inch) flour tortilla and trim it to a 15 cm (6-inch) size. A 20 cm (8-inch) tortilla is too large for the dessert tacos.