I'm a Texan born and bred, which means that tacos are my all-around food of choice. Growing up, I'd spoon ground beef or beans inside crispy tortilla shells and top with shredded iceberg lettuce and jarred salsa for quick meals any time, day or night. And tacos were the perfect food for entertaining a crowd. Taco parties were so common when I was a kid, we just called them parties.
These days I still serve tacos when I've got a big group to feed, but I've had to develop a more adaptable menu—what with vegetarians, vegans, and so on, I never know what people will eat. Instead of the Tex-Mex version from my childhood, I start with soft corn tortillas and offer a range of fillings and toppings, like the ones chef Deborah Schneider of SOL Cocina in Newport Beach, California, shares on these pages—roasted sweet potatoes and black beans with spicy chipotle sauce, tomato-braised chicken and avocado salsa, or grilled skirt steak and pico de gallo.
I recently hosted a party smack in the middle of one of those months that had become unexpectedly hectic. (We've all been there.) I had planned on making Schneider's chili-rubbed pork tenderloin with pineapple and Baja-style fried-fish tacos, along with homemade corn tortillas, which require just masa harina (limed cornmeal, available in many grocery stores), water, and salt and are well worth the extra effort. A few hours before everyone was scheduled to arrive, however, I learned that one of my guests abhorred fish, another had recently gone vegetarian, and a third was "allergic" to spicy foods. Had I planned another crowd-friendly dish—lasagna, say, or gumbo—I'd have been up a creek. But tacos allow for improvisation. After a quick dash to the store, I added the roasted sweet potatoes and black beans to the menu.
When my friends arrived, a few of them glanced furtively at the spread on the table and sighed in relief—no one would be resorting to a sad salad for dinner tonight. I had set out all the fillings and toppings—including diced red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro—in separate bowls so everyone could mix and match according to taste. The mood was convivial, bordering on raucous—you can't stay refined while eating with your fingers. The spice-averse chose the fish taco, while the vegetarian drizzled her sweet potatoes and beans with the chipotle sauce. The pescaphobe opted for pork, then went back for the sweet potatoes. I had a little of everything, with lots of cilantro. The end of the night found me satisfied and happy in the company of friends, rather than frazzled and ready to shoot picky eaters on sight.
Tucking sparse leftovers into the fridge that night, I spied a couple of eggs and knew that I would only need to scramble them with the scraps to indulge in a Tex-Mex classic, breakfast tacos. Which, incidentally, are famously effective at curing tequila hangovers. Ah, tacos—truly the solution to everything.
Julie Powell is the author of Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (both Little, Brown).
Next: Steak tacos with chimichurri sauce