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A fiesta for your tastebuds: Wednesday is National Taco Day

According to National Taco Day statistics, last year Americans ate over 4.5 billion tacos.

That’s 490,000 miles of tacos, which could take you to the moon and back or, if you prefer, could, at 775-million pounds, equal the weight of two Empire State Buildings.

The word taco is the Mexican equivalent of the English word sandwich. The tortilla, which is made of corn or wheat, is wrapped or folded around a filling that is generally made of spiced proteins — beef, pork or fish.

For a dish so widely available, the history of the taco is really unknown. But according to taco expert Jeffrey M. Pilcher, the word originates from the silver mines in Mexico in the 18th century, when taco referred to the little explosives workers used to extract the ore.

These were pieces of paper wrapped around gunpowder and placed into holes carved in the rock. “When you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite,” says Pilcher in an article at Smithsonian.com. “The first references in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century. And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos. So the taco is not necessarily this age-old cultural expression; it’s not a food that goes back to time immemorial.”

Anthropologists say there is evidence suggesting inhabitants of the lake region of the Valley of Mexico ate tacos filled with small fish. The fish were replaced by small live insects and ants in the states of Morelos and Guerrero, while locusts and snails were favorite fillings in Puebla and Oaxaca.

There are many traditional varieties of tacos, some of which include Tacos de Cabeza, which are the brain, tongue, eyes and lips of a cow’s head. Others include crispy tripe tacos, shrimp tacos and Tacos dorados, which mean fried tacos. Called flautas because of their flute shape or taquito, these tacos are filled with cooked and shredded chicken or beef and rolled into tube or flute shapes and deep-fried until crispy.

Taco al Pastor, which means shepherd’s style taco, is the most popular variety in Mexico. It generally consists of spiced pork, which is cut in slivers from a vertical spit over an open flame.

Breakfast tacos are served at many restaurants, especially in the American Southwest. This fried corn or flour tortilla is rolled and stuffed with a mixture of meat, eggs or cheese and topped with onions, salsa and avocado.

Tacos El Pastor

• 1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

• 1 (8 oz.) can pineapple tidbits in juice, drained, reserving the juice

• 1 medium onion, chopped

• 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

• 1 Tbsp. Mexican-style chili powder

• 11/2 tsp. ground cumin

• 1 tsp. ground oregano

• 1 tsp. pepper

• 2 tsp. chopped garlic

• 3/4 tsp. salt

• 1 Tbsp. canola oil

• 6 8-inch corn or flour tortillas

Toppings: chopped radishes, fresh cilantro, crumbled queso fresco, chopped onions and chopped jalapeños

Combine pork, pineapple juice and pineapple bits and next 8 ingredients in a large, zip-top plastic freezer bag. Seal and chill four to 24 hours.

Cook pork mixture in hot oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring often, 10 minutes or until pork is done. Serve with warm tortillas and toppings.

Roasted Tomatillo Chipotle Sauce

• 3 tomatillos

• 1/4 onion

• 2 small cloves of garlic

• 1-2 chipotles (depending on level of spiciness you want)

• 3 Tbsp. of pineapple juice

• Salt and pepper to taste

Roast the tomatillo, onion and garlic in the oven on baking sheet at 450 degrees for 8-10 minutes; remove from oven.

Blend with the rest of the ingredients except the salt and pepper until well combined, using a blender or food processor. The blender will make a smoother sauce.

Put in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ground Beef Tacos

• 1 pound ground beef
(or turkey)

• 1 small onion, chopped

• 1 large garlic clove minced

• 1 Tbsp. good chili powder

• 2 tsp. dried cumin

• 2 tsp. dried coriander

• 1 tsp. oregano

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 6-8 corn or flour tortillas

• Shredded lettuce

• Chopped tomatoes

• Shredded sharp cheddar cheese

• 1 avocado, cubed

• Chopped fresh or pickled jalapeños, optional

Brown ground beef in a skillet with all ingredients except garlic. Add garlic when meat is nearly finished to prevent burning. Add 1/2 cup water and allow meat mixture to simmer for 10-20 minutes, until liquid is absorbed.

Warm tortillas in oven or microwave until pliable. Fill with ground beef and serve with lettuce, tomato, cheese and avocado. Sprinkle on jalapeños, if desired.

Serve your favorite salsa with the tacos.

Slow Cooker
Chicken Tacos

• 5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

• 3 large Tbsp. taco seasoning (packaged
or your  own)

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 1 14-oz. can fire roasted tomatoes

• 1 4.5-oz. can green chilies

• 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

• Juice of 1 lime

• Corn or flour tortillas

• Sour cream

• Toppings such as shredded cabbage, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, lime wedges, etc.

Place chicken breasts in a slow cooker and sprinkle taco seasoning over the top. Add diced onion, tomatoes and chilies.

Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.

When cooked, shred chicken with two forks, add the juice of the lime and chopped cilantro and serve with toppings and sour cream.

You can substitute skinless chicken thighs for the breasts, if desired.

Spicy Shrimp
with Garlic Cilantro Lime Slaw

• 1 pound peeled, deveined shrimp, tails removed

• 1 tsp. chili powder

• 1 tsp. cumin

• 1 tsp. garlic powder

• 1 tsp. coriander

• 1 tsp. oregano

• 1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

• Salt and pepper to taste

For the slaw

• 2-3 cups shredded cabbage

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 1/2 cup chopped green onions

• 1/2 cup chopped cilantro

• 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)

• Juice of two limes

• 1/2 cup sour cream

• 2-3 avocados, cubed

• Additional toppings such as cotija cheese, cilantro and lime wedges.

• Corn or flour tortillas

Blend the olive oil, green onions, cilantro, garlic, limes and sour cream. If it seems thick, add up to 1/4 cup water.

Drizzle some of the sauce over the cabbage and toss to combine. Set aside.

Heat a scant tablespoon olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Pat shrimp dry and sprinkle with the spices. Add to the hot pan and sauté about 2 minutes per side, until shrimp is opaque and just done.

Smash a spoonful of avocado in each tortilla, then top with a few shrimp, the dressed cabbage and desired toppings.

Drizzle over more sauce, if desired.

— Deirdre Parker Smith

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