Ideally, when you bite into a taco, you should think, “Taco, where have you been all my life?” All other tacos, past and future, fade into the misty background. You desire only this specific taco for all time.
Maybe you can hear in the background, like the soft swoosh of water over pebbles, the voice of your daughter complaining that there’s no sour cream and demanding to know why you didn’t get tortillas at the store because you know she prefers soft tacos and not these crispy monstrosities.
Ignore that. Focus on your taco, the One True Taco, and all will be well.
If, like me, you insist on bucking the soft taco trend and want your taco exterior to bestow some crunch on your filling, then come with me to Crispy Chicken Taco Land.
First of all, you need some crispy taco shells that have been in your pantry for about six months. Make sure the box has been opened and only half the taco shells are left. Perfect! Now find a bag of frozen chicken thighs and collect all the seemingly unusable little frozen chicken bits that gather in the bottom of the bag and put them into a slow cooker. Add a couple normal-sized frozen chicken thighs for good measure. You’ll need some liquid to simmer the chicken in, so throw in about 2/3 cup of salsa. If you have any pan drippings left over from a chicken you recently roasted, add that or a chicken bouillon cube. If you haven’t yet stockpiled any au jus, let’s talk about why you should always save it.
The liquid left over from a whole roasted chicken, chicken thighs or drumsticks is solid gold, flavorwise. Anytime you cook a chicken with bones and skin, especially if you’ve got both light and dark meat, that’s like treasure for your tongue. The au jus will have all the brothy fat from the chicken plus whatever herbs, spices or condiments you roasted along with the chicken. Layers of flavor, my friend. Put it in a Mason jar, write the date on the lid with a Sharpie and freeze it until you need it.
While we’re on the topic of saving things, let’s discuss canned fruit. (I’ll bring this back around to roast chicken and tacos, I promise. Bear with me.) Don’t toss all that sweet, delicious juice or syrup down the drain. You can pour it over ice and drink it. You can add it to whatever juice is already open in your fridge. Who’s going to detect a little extra mandarin syrup in a carton of orange juice or a jug of apple juice? No one, not even my highly picky family. You can add it to your next fruit smoothie. You can pour it into an ice cube tray and use it to chill your next fruity cocktail. You can use it to make salad dressing by mixing it with vinegar, olive oil, salt and herbs. Finally, you can use it to braise meat, which is what I did when I roasted a pan of chicken drumsticks last week. I mixed about ½ cup of canned pineapple juice with balsamic vinegar, a little mustard, a dollop of honey and a sprinkling of rosemary, then poured it over a pan of chicken legs. I reserved the liquid after cooking with complete faith I’d find a use for it.
Slow-cooked chicken for tacos was just the occasion I’d been waiting for. The pineapple juice, condiments and herbs joined the salsa and chicken in the pot, along with several generous dashes of cumin for classic taco taste. I set the slow cooker on high and let it simmer for six hours, since I started out with frozen chicken. (Chicken must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees to be safe for eating, so give those icy thighs plenty of time to braise. (Better yet, don’t risk food poisoning and instead follow USDA guidelines to thaw meat before slow cooking.)
Just before dinner time, I lifted the chicken pieces out of the sauce, placed them in a bowl and shredded them with a fork, adding a couple tablespoons of sauce to moisten the meat. I warmed the taco shells in a 350 degree oven; this magically counteracts any staleness. Leave them in the oven for a only a few minutes, otherwise you’ll have charred shells, much worse than stale.
Grated cheddar is practically mandatory on tacos, but we didn’t have enough, so I augmented it with mozzarella, which is not exactly like Mexican cotija cheese but is at least the same color.
Next, the tacos needed a green and fresh element. It just so happened that we had a bag of Mediterranean Crunch slaw in the fridge, with shredded cabbage, broccoli, carrots and bits of feta cheese. (More cheese is always good.) I mixed it up with the tangy dressing and put it on the table with a bowl of salsa. Let taco night commence! They will completely fall apart as you’re trying to eat them, but dentally induced taco disintegration is all part of the fun.
Yes, my daughter complained about the tragic lack of soft tortillas and sour cream, but I tell you what: She ate every single bite of two whole tacos. The complaining, apparently, was just theater.