A just published cookbook, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by acclaimed chef Alex Stupak and food writer Jordana Rothman explores the world of tacos…beyond Taco Bell and food trucks.
The NYC chef learned the ropes at some of the top restaurants in the country including working as a pastry chef for Grant Achatz at Chicago’s 3-star Alinea before doing an about face from modernist pastry to Mexican cuisine–opening Empellón Cocina in New York in 2011 followed by Empellón Taqueriain and Empellón Al Pastor–receiving many accolades for his food including James Beard and best new restaurant in the country awards.
Stupak, describes himself as “a white boy from suburban Massachusetts” who grew up eating Old El Paso tacos. You know the ones–those contained in a cardboard box with a crispy sleeve of shells and a spice pack.
In other words, he didn’t know a lot about Mexican cooking.
While working in Chicago, Stupak was introduced to authentic Mexican food. He lived in a Lincoln Park walk-up with his future wife, Lauren Resler. On days off they would explore the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. When he discovered Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods his passion took root.
He would walk along 26th street where he would find ingredients that were alien to him including the likes of guaje seeds, spiny chayote, nopales and Oaxacan chiles. He’d bring them home and create recipes with them.
His passion soon became an obsession. After moving to New York, where he worked at wd-50, it was only a matter of time til he went out on his own.
His book tells the story of his ups and downs from starting his own restaurant and how he finally put it all together.
Now he wants to change the way much of the world thinks about Mexican cuisine that often isn’t regarded as seriously as other food cultures such as France or Italy.
The book dives deep into the art and science (yes, science) of making tacos–introducing the reader to simple and complex salsas, moles and innovative fillings.
The bottom line that he stresses over and over is–handmade tortillas.
Mexico has given us many things, perhaps my favorite is the tortilla. Strangely enough through, I have mostly relied on the store bought Mission Tortillas for my tacos. I have been aware of the difference between fresh and store bought tortillas, every time I eat at a Mexican restaurant, the likes of, La Casa de Samuel in Pilsen, or any restaurants or food trucks that make their own tortillas.
After one failed attempt trying to make my own tortillas from scratch using masa, water and a new tortilla press, a few years back–the press went back into the cabinet and the rest of the masa went stale and then into the compost.
When Alex Stupak’s Tacos: Recipes and Provocations arrived on my desk, begging to be reviewed and emphasizing the importance of using handmade tortillas, I reluctantly pulled out the press and bought some fresh masa.
This time, I read the book.
My mistake, first time around, was using the recipe but not “the method.” Stupak points out early on in his book that “it’s hard to call something with only one ingredient a recipe.”
“Making corn tortillas,” he says, “is really just a method and getting it right depends upon a lot of little details.” He reminds the readers that they’ll most likely have to practice making tortillas over and over before they get it just right.
In my case, it took four times before my creations looked anything like a tortilla–not quite perfection–but so much better than store bought that I’ll never go back.
I’m pretty sure anyone who sticks with “the method” will be hooked.
Pictured here is Stupak’s method. For written instructions, click on CORN TORTILLAS.
Of course, there’s a lot more than tortillas to this book. The book takes the reader through the world of tacos just as the title says with “recipes and provocations.” The recipes start out with the simple but important basics then build to a crescendo of amazing creations such as:
- Saffron Tortillas
- Chorizo Tortillas
- Cape Goosebeery Salsa
- Fava Bean Tacos with Blood Sausage and Mint Salsa Verde
- Sea Urchin Tacos with Guacamole and Sea Urchin Salsa
- Shishito Pepper Tacos
- Chicharron Tacos with White Beans and Oaxacan Green Mole
A favorite of mine and a big seller at his restaurants are his Cheeseburger tacos that combine the best of two food worlds.
Click here for the accompanying Salsa roja recipe for his cheeseburger tacos.
The book is filled with information that is easy to follow for anyone who wants to learn more about Mexican cooking. Stupak uses tacos as a starting point to pivot through the techniques and recipes to create tasty and beautiful presentations. His provocations are on-target making Tacos: Recipes and Provocations a cookbook you may want to read cover to cover and go back to again and again.
Recipes reprinted from TACOS: RECIPES AND PROVOCATIONS by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. Copyright ©2015 by Empellon Holdings LLC.
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