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Editor’s note: In the latest installment in our Book Club series, we spoke to Jordana Rothman and chef Alex Stupak, co-authors of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations (Clarkson Potter, October 2015).

How did this book come to be?

We met right before Empellón Taqueria opened in 2011 and instantly felt that we were simpatico in the way we think about, talk about and approach food. We quickly became friends, and as time passed we began talking casually about collaborating on a book project. Eventually those musings turned into plotting and that plotting turned into a book deal, and here we are a few years later with our names on the cover.

This book focuses specifically on tacos, using them as a springboard, as you’ve written, “to talk about cultural exchange, about idea appropriation, and about the way we value – or undervalue – ethnic cuisines.” How have tacos affected how you view Mexican cooking (regional and not) and its continuing evolution?

Alex Stupak at El Vilsito, photo by Jordana RothmanNeither of us felt that we were the people to write an exhaustive survey of regional Mexican cuisine – Diana Kennedy is still producing work that speaks to that goal and she does a beautiful job of it. We felt that tacos have the benefit of being a familiar reference point for an American audience, but are also a relatively unexplored space in terms of the deep end of Mexican gastronomy. Using tacos as a vehicle to pivot through a bigger cultural conversation was definitely effective for us, and we hope it will be for the reader. Narrowing the focus helped us think creatively about what belongs on a tortilla, both in the traditional Mexican culinary vernacular and – for Alex – as a chef who is inclined to explore his own creative instincts no matter the cuisine.

Did you encounter anything surprising or that you previously weren’t aware of when you were researching this book?

When we took stock of the recipes we’d gathered for this book, we were very surprised to find that we had more vegetable tacos than we did meat – everything from shishito peppers in cream to carrots in argan oil mole. It might seem like a hat tip to the clean-eating trend you see in cities like New York and San Francisco, but it’s something that really came about organically as we discovered how vegetable-forward much of Mexican cuisine truly is.

Another great surprise was what our research turned up about Tex-Mex cuisine. For a long time we both thought about Tex-Mex as an extrapolation, even a perversion, of Mexican cuisine. But what we discovered is that Tex-Mex actually has more in common with something like Creole food – it’s the result of what we like to call “indigenous fusion,” when the spicing traditions of 18th-century Canary Island immigrants collided with native Tejano cooking.

Finally, can you list a few of your favorite dishes from the book and tell us what makes them special to you and where one might find them in Mexico City or Oaxaca?

Al pastor tacos, photo by Jordana RothmanIt’s hard to pick a favorite taco in the book, because they each speak to such specific moments of discovery for us. We can say that Alex’s favorite taco on earth is al pastor –spit-roasted pork with a nick of warm pineapple – and there’s a lot in the book about the research we did to try and replicate those flavors in a home kitchen setting. In Mexico City, we love the al pastor tacos at El Vilsito and El Huequito. Jordana is really partial to the braised tongue with salsa de arbol – that’s the first taco Alex ever made her when Empellón Taqueria opened, and it is the one that first helped her understand what he was really up to back in the kitchen. Tongue is a very common ingredient for tacos guisados, so in Mexico you’d find those at a taquería that specializes in stewed tacos. And you might not find it in Mexico, but we both also love the sea urchin guacamole taco, because it is so decadent and over-the-top, and really challenges the notion that Mexican food is only a cheap-eats cuisine.

Shishito Pepper Tacos
(Excerpted and adapted slightly from Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s Tacos: Recipes and Provocations)

This simple taco is an adaptation of rajas con crema – typically, strips of poblano peppers simmered in cream. Rajas is one of those Mexican dishes that seems uncanny in the way it extracts so much flavor from so few ingredients; roasting, steaming and peeling the poblanos gives the stew a charred, earthy quality. Subbing in shishitos is a small tweak that saves time and subtly alters the flavor. The Japanese peppers are grassier than poblanos, with a variable heat level. And because they don’t need to be roasted and peeled (their skin is too thin for that), the finished taco has more of that raw pepper bite. Keep an eye on the shishitos while they’re cooking, and pull them from the heat while they still have some of their bright green color.

For the filling:
2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 cups heavy cream
¾ pound shishito peppers, stemmed and cut into quarters lengthwise

To assemble the tacos:
2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges
Corn or flour tortillas

Make the filling: Set a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the oregano and toast briefly, shaking the pan until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Set aside.

Set a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat and add the lard. Once the fat is shimmering, add the garlic and cook until golden-brown. Add the onion, season with salt and cook until translucent. Pour in the cream, reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook until the cream has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes.

Add the shishito peppers and oregano to the pan and cook until they are slightly wilted but have not yet turned army green, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside in a warm place.

Warm one batch of tortillas.

Assemble the tacos: Lay out the warm tortillas on serving plates. Evenly distribute the shishito pepper mixture among the tortillas. Squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the rest on the side.

(cover image by Evan Sung, courtesy of Clarkson Potter; above photos by Jordana Rothman)

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