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Cookbook review

There’s no longer an excuse for a stale or soggy taco night

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2009

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The last time you had a taco, it may have been a hard yellow corn tortilla with 4 ounces of dry, crumbly ground beef, a shaving of iceberg, and grated orange cheese. It was probably OK.

Alas, if you ever asked yourself, “Is this really all there is?’’ Mark Miller, chef-owner of Santa Fe’s famed Coyote Cafe, will offer a resounding “No.’’ His book, “Tacos,’’ eloquently argues in favor of bringing the American taco back to its Mexican street-food roots (marinated pork, Yucatan chicken, Zacatecas skirt steak), and pitching it forward into uncharted territory (Thai shrimp).

Miller’s efforts to re-create the beloved snack he’s eaten across Mexico can be dauntingly authentic. There are hard-to-find ingredients like Mexican oregano, epazote, huitlacoche, canned pickled jalapenos, and innumerable dried chilies. You’ll make salsa unlike any you’ve ever eaten. You are more than encouraged to make your own tortillas. Beg, borrow, or substitute ingredients. Buy a tortilla press and get some masa mix. It’s worth it.

Tacos made from mushrooms with roasted corn and marjoram have all the savory depth you expect from such glutamate-rich ingredients, balanced by poblano peppers. The real prize, though, is smoky-sweet chipotle sauce; you might find yourself eating it by the spoonful.

Calamari is just-cooked, tooth-tender rings playing off charred tomato and jalapeno. They come to life with tomatillo-blackened serrano chili salsa. Use the same salsa to achieve dizzying heights of deliciousness in skirt steak from Zacatecas. Marinated overnight in red chili and chipotle sauce and grilled, it has the caramelized, irresistible consistency only skirt steak achieves. Tart and textured sides - radishes, lime, cabbage - complement the meat.

Like many of these recipes, chicken with chorizo tacos benefits from a pungent seasoning base of cumin and oregano, both toasted and ground. (I skipped the green chili powder, which I couldn’t find.) It comes out a little on the dry side, which merely underscores how critical the salsa is.

Tacos al pastor, featured in the seductive cover photo, convinced me to look at the book. When I saw the ingredients, I almost convinced myself to put it down: 40 dried guajillo chiles, 20 dried ancho chiles, 20 dried pasilla negro chiles. I couldn’t get them all (I ended up with 27 guajillos, 11 anchos, and some New Mexicos). It took me a very messy 90 minutes to make the marinade, never mind roasted pineapple-habanero salsa. The vat of marinated pork was impossible to drain properly, and I had to dump out extra liquid from my largest skillet twice. The end result - ruby-like chunks of pork, caramelized pineapple - was like everything a Hawaiian pizza wants to be but isn’t. I realized, with a sinking feeling, that I liked it so much I’d have to make it again.

At 45 minutes start to finish, smoky Yukon potato hash with pasilla chili rajas is one of the quickest recipes. It involves diced potatoes that are spiced and sauteed with rehydrated chili strips and bacon. We had it for dinner, but I am quite serious when I say I would eat it for breakfast every day of the week if I were capable of waiting 45 minutes for my early-morning meal.

To read about a Sante Fe landmark, see Page 24.

There are many extra, time-consuming steps in “Tacos,’’ in which you blacken, dry-roast, and re-hydrate, none all that difficult. As Miller writes, in these dishes, technique equals flavor.

After a week, things seemed to get easier, especially when my husband and I learned to two-team our fresh tortilla operation. When I informed him that our taco testing had come to an end, he seemed anguished.

We’re back in the grip of tacomania. If you give in to this book, this is a warning that you may soon be too.

TACOS

By Mark Miller

Ten Speed Press, 176 pp., $21.95