Mex Out On Spice

Guerilla Tacos is a go-to guide for anything wrapped and Mexican
Guerilla Tacos is a go-to guide for anything wrapped and Mexican

Ah, the taco: the most democratic of foods, the perfect vehicle for any protein, vegetable, or sauce. Creator of highly acclaimed Los Angeles food truck Wesley Avila understands this, and presents a comprehensive collection of recipes for tortillas topped with every combination of ingredients imaginable: confit duck hearts with carrot-habanero salsa and pickled persimmons, classic carnitas, mussels, preserved lemons, and cauliflower.

Besides being a cookbook, Guerilla Tacos is also an autobiography of sorts. Many recipes are deeply personal to Avila, like the “Chubbs” taco, named for his father; or a mushroom taco inspired by his experience with a mushroom forager while working at restaurant L’Auberge. So, the first thing you’ll notice is the unorthodox way the recipes are organised. Each dish or taco comes from a specific period in Avila’s life—recipes inspired by family dishes, his early brushes with cooking during his time working as a forklift driver, and his journey training to be a chef—complete with lengthy (for a cookbook) narratives.

Chillies are a staple in Mexican cuisine and you’ll find the spice in a majority of the recipes in the book. While the techniques required don’t get any more complex than some confit-ing or slow-cooking of spareribs, finding all the required ingredients is going to be a challenge, especially if your area doesn’t have any Latin American grocers. We substituted most of the chillies—habanero, serrano, chile de arbol and jalapeños— with a mix of local varietals like bird’s eye and bullet chillies (which are commonly used in Indian cuisine) to match required levels of spice and flavour. And the results were not too shabby.

Mussel Quesadilla
Mussel Quesadilla

MUSSEL QUESADILLA

  • Tested by: Lee Hung Ping
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time: 45 mins
  • A Seafoody Snack

Mussels are not your usual taco filler. In this recipe, a quesadilla is topped with mussels and paired with a Californian-inspired combination of chilli, avocadoes and bacon.

Although this is a remarkably simple recipe, we had some problems procuring fresh mussels—and admittedly had to settle on some less-than-fresh ones. The other issue was making the preserved lemons—the recipe could have added more details as to how long it takes to rinse the salty brine off the lemons before you can get some that has the right balance of savoury and zing. Regardless of the amount of washing though, the bitter pith of the lemon slices was too acrid; however that could have been because these lemons had only been pickled for two days prior.

Apart from these problems, the preparation of the quesadilla was relatively simple. Bacon was fried until crispy. Mussels were poached then left to steep in their own juices. Tortillas were pan-fried, with cheese, mussels and bacon piled on top.

Taste-wise, the dish exudes a surf-and-turf, beachy vibe. The creaminess of the avocadoes complemented the briny mussels. The savoury, crispy bacon provided that much-needed contrast in texture from the oozy cheese. Rounding out the flavours was the much welcomed zing of the preserved lemon slices, which helped to cut through the richness of the ingredients.

That said, this dish could have been bumped up to the next level with the addition of a tangy salsa or sauce. The individual components of mussels and bacon were crying out for something moist to combine the two. Perhaps a lemon-based dressing, or even some mayonnaise if we’re not in the business of counting calories. Maybe we could even knock up a sauce from the preserved lemon brine and the mussel juices? Definitely something to keep in mind the next time we give this recipe a go.

Duck Heart Taco
Duck Heart Tacos

DUCK HEART TACO

  1. Tested by: Weets Goh
  2. Difficulty: Medium
  3. Time: 30 mins + 9 hours to marinate and confit
  4. Divisive Offal Offering

First up, duck hearts are near-impossible to find on the consumer end. So I had to make do with chicken hearts from the butcher (because what is chicken but a lesser duck?), which came attached to various other organs and required a very painful process of trimming and washing. I also tried a version with pork hearts.

Before cooking, the hearts have to be marinated with a herb salt a la Thomas Keller, before being confited for five hours in duck fat. Unable to find duck fat, I had to substitute it for goose fat (because what is duck but a lesser goose?). All that effort was worth it though, as the hearts were meaty but tender, and very flavourful.

The recipe is also a good reason to stock up your spice cupboard—there’s a whole laundry list of herbs and spices required, although most could be easily found. My only gripe? The cost of fresh herbs in Singapore mean that you’re going to end up spending more on the seasoning than the actual hearts themselves. Don’t skimp on them though, as they help to tame some of that offal funk.

To cut through the richness of the protein, Avila serves the hearts with a fiery carrot-gooseberry salsa and pickled persimmons. While the persimmons are straightforward enough with their bread-and-butter pickling technique, the book is unclear on whether cape or normal gooseberries were required. Either way, both were nowhere to be found in my friendly neighbourhood supermarket (or various specialty grocers), and I had to substitute the gooseberries with yellow cherry tomatoes. The final dish is an exercise in balance: deeply tasty nuggets of heart; almost prohibitively spicy salsa; and tart, sweet and exotically spiced persimmon pickles.

Cauliflower Tacos
Cauliflower Tacos

CAULIFLOWER TACO

  • Tested by: Tiong Li Cheng
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time: 1.5 hours
  • Good for Vegetarians

In line with a January detox and my attempts at keeping to healthy eating resolutions for 2018, I chose a vegetarian taco recipe to try out. As I discovered, the trick to making tasty meatless tacos is to pick filling ingredients that are deep and rich in flavour. Hearty vegetables like romanesco and cauliflowers are satisfying and substantial fillers. You won’t feel like you’re missing out at all.

This story is available on the March/April issue of SALT Magazine.