“Taco”: a Mexican-style “sandwich” consisting of a folded tortilla, crisp or soft, filled with various ingredients, which may include meats, veggies, cheese, guacamole, beans, salsa. (Definition paraphrased from the Food Lover’s Companion.)
This definition was the only rule per se that the participants of the Taco & Margarita Cook-Off were given. From there it was open to interpretation!
This was the cook-off for our summer of 2016! It starred our usual gang of culinary creators, and all told we had four entries of tacos and four entries of margaritas, as well as several tasty dips to enjoy on the side.
The day we chose for our taco-off was particularly perfect: hot and sunny, with a gentle breeze for those of us sitting on lawn chairs and plenty of sunshine for all who chose to jump in the pool. There was a gaggle of toddlers, an infant and a small gang of teenagers on hand for the cook-off as well.
At various times the various groups of kids were swimming, sleeping, throwing footballs at each other, playing King of Tokyo, and sneaking food off their parents’ plates.
To whet our appetites for tacos we had three zesty dips, homemade by Hillary: a rich guacamole made with diced tomatoes, a spicy and Creamy Jalapeño Dip, and a chunky, fresh pico de gallo made with tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro and lime. They were a perfect accompaniment to the Margaritas.
For the margaritas we had three varieties. All delicious and welcome on a hot summer eve, and all enjoyable in their own distinct way. We had classic margaritas from Rebecca, with lime, Cointreau, tequila and salt, served over ice. They were made all the more tantalizing by the wait, as we eagerly watched their assembly (by Rob, who by offering to make our drinks was then forced to wait to enjoy his own!)
From delayed gratification we went to instant gratification in the form of pitchers of margaritas. Kari and Eli provided frozen, slushy, Watermelon Margaritas in alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. The margaritas were bright pink and cheery in a tall decanters, and with refreshing watermelon sweetness.
From Lisa and Andrew came a big, beautiful pitcher of margarita made with a mixer from Stirrings. It was refreshing too and with a big dose of sugar that was so addictive! That slight breeze and bright sunshine made a perfect backdrop for these fruity drinks. We never did get around to voting on the margaritas, but when they were consumed we realized that we were all really, freaking hungry for tacos.
My entry in the taco-off was a brisket taco, made from a hefty beef brisket fresh off the smoker. The brisket spent the previous night bathing in a Spicy Wet Rub that I whipped up. The rub included sautéed onions, garlic, Urfa pepper flakes and apple cider vinegar.
Because I have a Kamado-style ceramic smoker that holds heat so well, the 6-pound brisket was done in about 4-1/2 hours. The finished brisket was smoky, had that desirable pink smoke ring and plenty of the heat from the wet rub.
This brisket was then chopped and piled into hand-shaped corn tortilla taco shells that I seasoned with adobo before crisping them in the oven. The taco was then topped with sautéed onions, queso sauce and cilantro.
My competition included Rebecca’s Asian-inspired soft tacos. They were loaded with juicy, seasoned chicken, a delicious peanut sauce from Thai Kitchen, chopped, red cabbage and fresh cilantro.
The peanut sauce and crisp cabbage brought an unexpected twist on traditional taco fillings. They were amazing, and my daughter’s favorite of the savory tacos. And they disappeared quickly!
Continuing on the theme of creative taco twists, the third savory taco contender was from the Chris-Rob duo who used Smoked Pork Butt, made at Rob’s. They paired the shredded pork with a flavorful Quick Spicy Kimchee.
The Habanero Carrot Hot Sauce is a staple at The Mad Taco Restaurants in Waitsfield and Montpelier Vermont. Chris found the recipe in the Vermont Farm Table Cookbook by Tracy Medeiros. Though the carrot is present in the sauce to help balance the habanero heat, it is still a REALLY hot sauce, and with brilliant flavor. We found that the sauce a few days later was even more intensely spicy. It is a serious sauce!
The multitude of ingredients in their taco was astounding, and every layer rich with flavor and heat.
It seemed at the start to be way too much food and drink for all of us, but every ounce of taco was devoured. I nearly missed out on a chance to try the pulled pork and kimchi taco (I don’t know what I was doing, holding a baby or something) and had to take one out of someone else’s hand to get a taste!
I was happy with the flavors I created for my taco entry, but what I didn’t expect was that the most popular component of the taco was the Easy Restaurant Style White Queso sauce! I found the recipe on The Cookie Rookie blog and thought it would be a great, cool topping on the spicy brisket. In addition to enjoying it there, I quickly realized that folks were using the queso as a dip for tortilla chips, veggies and anything else they could find to dunk into it.
The grand (and I do mean grand) finale of the taco off was the dessert taco entry by Kari.
She brushed wonton wrappers with a butter and cinnamon-sugar mixture, draped them over the edges of a baking pan and baked them to give them a taco shell shape. The fillings for these sweet little tacos were sliced strawberries, and a creamy mascarpone and honey filling. They were incredible, cinnamon-y and sweet.
Of course Kari was very modest about this creation of hers, and had no recipe: just her brilliant dessert instincts. We assigned her entry to a separate “Dessert Taco” category and immediately declared her the undisputed winner.
As for the savory tacos, the secret voting at the close of the party revealed that my brisket tacos were taste choice winner. However, they only barely nudged out the other two delectable tacos. And though folks were quick to deny it I highly suspect that the popularity of that White Queso sauce was key in my win.
I guess the lesson here is never underestimate the power of queso!
Here is the link for my Spicy Wet Rub, along with links for the other recipes used in our competition. Don’t wait for Tuesday to have your own Taco Cook-Off!