The best recipes begin with a story . . . I have one for you today, a very easy, inexpensive, and filling dinner for your family: potato-filled soft tacos, or if you prefer to confuse your children, papas guisadas para tacos sudados. It is vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free without involving soy chorizo. I’ll get to it eventually – but first, a story.
I first learned about the amazing and inspiring Diana Kennedy at her keynote presentation during Monterey Bay Aquarium’s first Cooking for Solutions event. She told us of arriving in Mexico in 1957 with her husband Paul, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. In short order, she fell in love with the cuisine and the people and started on what has become her life’s work, traveling, studying, and recording all aspects of Mexican cooking. In her soft-spoken, deliberate manner, she lovingly described her ecologically sustainable adobe on a compound in Michoacán that serves as a research facility where she grows native herbs and vegetables. I left thinking – wow! What an inspiring, amazing woman, but moreover – how had I not ever heard about her before? This love child of Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain really should be on any culinary radar.
You should really click on this blog post I found online about a visit with her; it’s a quick lovely read and will give you an excellent sense of her charm, wit, and graciousness. She is a pioneer in both sustainable living and in the ethnography of Mexican food. Go read it, and then come back to make this recipe, straight from her cookbook My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey With More Than 300 Recipes. My Mexico is an anthropological treasure, serving as much of a travel diary as cookbook. Each chapter begins with a journey to a destination and a description of a place in time; for example, here is her first memory of entering the Michoacán town of Zitácuaro:
When I first came to Mexico in 1957, I remember passing through what was then a quiet little town. The paved highway stopped as it entered the town and started again at the other side, Avenida Revolución, which ran through it, was unpaved but divided by a line of old shady trees. The local houses, typical of the region, were of adobe brick with gently sloping roofs of thick tiles. Many of them still had their solares, a plot of land at the back covering a square block planted with fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs, with hens pecking around and often a cow grazing contentedly.
In Zitácuaro, Kennedy met several women who shared their family recipes with her. Señora Elvira Frutis Rivas was one of them.
Sra. Elvira is in charge of the large parking lot where I park my truck on the days that I go into town. She is a plump, pretty little woman, she widow of a laconic, pessimistic little man who recently died of a sudden heart attack at a relatively early age, leaving her with two of the children still to educate and bring up. She lives in a compact and immaculately clean little house at the back of the lot and makes the most delicious hand-patted tortillas on an improvised wood-burning stove next to the cars. … Almost daily she prepared the main meal of the day for herself and the family, her brother, and his two children – eight or sometimes nine in all.
One of the meals Sra. Elvira prepares is steamed tacos: freshly made corn tortillas filled with a large spoonful of various mixtures, doubled over, placed in overlapping layers in the top of a steamer, cooked for about 5 minutes, and served hot. (Sra. Elvira doesn’t worry about the tortillas sticking together, but I kind of like them tidier and steam them in single layer batches.)
I’ve tried all of Sra. Elvira’s fillings, and by far the best is this stunner of a potato recipe. Rustic, luscious, simple, and perfect with fresh corn tortillas. Serve with your favorite salsa. Here is her recipe for papas guisadas para tacos sudados, straight from the pen of Diana Kennedy:
- 1 pound (450 g) waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch (13-mm) cubes
- salt to taste
- approximately 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped white onion
- 3 chilacas or poblano chilies, charred, peeled, veins and seeds removed, and torn or cut into narrow strips.
- about 6 ounces (180 g) tomatoes, finely chopped, about 1 cup (250 ml)
- Barely cover the potatoes with water, add salt, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes - they should be half cooked. Drain and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a heavy skillet, add the drained potatoes, and fry, turning them over so that they brown evenly.
- Add the onion and chiles and continue frying for 1 minute more.
- Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the mixture is well seasoned and fairly dry - about 5 minutes.
- Makes 1-1/2 cups
I like mine best with pickled red onions, Tapatio, and a tiny bit of Monterey jack cheese. Leftovers are good the next morning with a poached egg!
If you’re looking to take a culinary journey this year, you won’t go wrong by visiting Diana Kennedy’s Mexico. Truly one of the most engaging cookbooks I’ve ever seen.