When you ditch the soon-to-be-soggy taco bowl for tostadas, this Tex-Mex treat becomes a main dish salad the whole family can enjoy.
There is something about taco salad that just says family meal. Maybe it’s the customization option, so different palates can experience their perfect main salad components. Maybe it's the ability to bring children into the meal prep ritual since its varied components are easy to assemble. Or maybe it’s because it’s a one-dish and done meal that still satisfies.
Whatever the reason, with a little bit of preparation and the right ingredients, the humble taco salad still has the ability to serve an outsized portion of satisfaction for home cooks.
Taco Salad, a Dish Rooted in Pop Culture
A thoroughly American invention, the taco salad began its inaugural journey to the dinner table and fast food joints in the 1950s. It was the Texas brainchild of Elmer Doolin, the owner of Fritos corn chips. He called it the Ta-Cup, as the shell was a cup, not bowl-sized, and it soon showed up on the menu at Casa de Fritos in Disneyland, a restaurant where if you wanted to skip the salad and just have a snack, you could also get a bag of Fritos from a Fritos Kid official mascot vending machine.
In the 60s, according to Texas Monthly Taco Editor Jose Ralat, versions began showing up in print, including the recipe sections of the Los Angeles Times and Sunset Magazine, and in 1984 Taco Bell placed it on its menu. Originally created as a marketing vehicle for corn chips, it makes sense that it gained its way into our cultural psyche through an amusement park and fast food.
Ditch the Bowl and Use Tostadas
It’s time to bring the taco salad out of pop culture and back to the weeknight dinner table where it can shine. The first step was ditching the bowl because I have always wondered: is it good etiquette to break off pieces of the bowl as you eat it? Do you use those bowl shards as scoops? How do you keep the bottom from becoming a soggy mess?
I had too many questions, so instead opted for lightly crushed traditional tostadas, available in the Mexican aisle of most grocery stores these days. They’re not too salty, filled with corn flavor, and stay crunchy to the last forkful of this warm main dish salad.
Build a Better Taco Salad
Beyond the bowl, the key to making taco salad your particular family’s favorite is customization and correct layering. Crunchy romaine has enough heft to hold up as the base; warm meat should go next to shredded cheese for optimal melting, and a dash of salsa and a dollop of sour cream not only add a finishing flourish to the dish, but combine with the other ingredients to make a dressing of sorts. Go big or go home with this main dish salad, but just don’t call it Mexican.
Swaps and Subs
There are as many variations of this salad as there are families who enjoy them, so feel free to experiment!
- Add a can of drained black beans to your list.
- Garnish each dollop of sour cream with fresh or pickled jalapenos.
- For a fun layer of freshness, divide a peeled and finely diced cucumber atop the tomato layers. Its cool crunch will add a fresh counterpoint to the seasoned beef.
- Crumble your favorite corn tortilla chips instead of the tostadas.
To save a bit of time, drain the olives and the tomatoes ahead of time and stash them in the fridge, along with a quartered lime, then pull them out to warm up a bit on the counter while you saute the meat. You can also pre-chop the green onions and store in the refrigerator in a closed container until ready to serve.
But wait to cook the meat and chop the romaine until you’re ready to eat. Otherwise, re-warming the meat might result in a less-than-optimally-smooth seasoned sauce (which then becomes the salad’s “dressing”), and the lettuce might begin to wilt and get brown on the edges.
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Brown the meat:
Place a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil then beef into the pan. As the meat browns, intermittently use a spatula or wooden spoon to break it up but do not constantly do so or it will be too fine (uneven sizes will help the taco seasoning to adhere better).
Prep the salad ingredients:
While the meat is browning, take the time to prep all the remaining ingredients. Part of the joy of this taco salad isn’t just the taste–it’s the fact that it can get to the table in 30 minutes, start to finish–and using this time wisely means that when the meat is cooked, you’ll be ready to assemble.
Sauce the meat:
Once the ground beef has fully browned, turn the heat to medium and sprinkle the taco seasoning over it. Stir to coat meat, and then pour the water in the pan, stirring again to make sure there are no dry spots or clumps of seasoning. Then allow the meat to simmer and the sauce to reduce, stirring occasionally, until the meat is just damp but not soggy, about 5-8 minutes.
Assemble the salads:
Remove beef from the heat and set aside but keep warm. Do not drain.
Pasta bowls are ideal for these main dish salads, but any big plate or bowl will work.
For each serving, layer as follows: 1 crushed tostada, 1 cup loosely packed lettuce, 1/2 cup meat, 1/4 cup shredded cheese, 1/3 cup tomatoes, sprinkle of chopped green onion, 2 tablespoons olives, and 1 more lightly crushed tostada. Garnish with 1 tablespoon sour cream and 2 tablespoons salsa. Serve with lime wedges on the side for squeezing.
Just as is in any well made salad, the composition and proportion are keys to a great taco salad, and layering each ingredient in the order suggested will not only provide a better presentation at the table, but make sure the sour cream stays cool and the chips remain crunchy until it’s time to eat.
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