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When Taco Salad Won’t Do

Taco salad My June/July Taste of Home couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time. A chunk of family I rarely see (aunt, uncle, cousins, grandma—ok, I did see her last year) will be visiting over Memorial Day weekend. I suggested they come out to Brooklyn Sunday afternoon since it seems like it would be easier just to cook than to deal with a large group in a neighborhood that's not big on taking reservations (Lucali would be ideal but I can't even subject myself to that nightly pileup) and offers little more than Italian-American food (I already acquiesced on Little Italy for Thursday!) within a reasonable walking distance for car people.

Not everyone has relatives that would enjoy Jean Georges, Scarpetta, Pulino's, The Modern or wherever else it is that blogs and magazines often recommend you take adult out-of-towners. Two-starred as of a few minutes ago, Prime Meats, is the closest restaurant to my apartment but cramped, two-hour-wait eateries staffed by "a crew of handsome men and women dressed as if ready to ride horses back home to Bushwick, where they trap beaver and make their own candles" just isn't going to fly even with these visitors from The Beaver State.

But now I am mildly, only mildly, concerned because I know when people say “oh, I’ll eat anything” that is absolutely untrue. And frankly, I have no idea what this crew likes to eat. You never know what will give someone pause. In the past it has been cilantro and banh xeo (I know, I know, but it’s just an omelet filled with vegetables and meat). I am not saying they are yokels. One West Coast peculiarity is an affinity for wine even if you’re not a foodie type—they are bringing wine from a friend’s vineyard—but American flavors are probably a safer bet, cuisine-wise. I will temper my love of the fishy, fermented and mouth-burning.

And this is where I look to Taste of Home for guidance. So, what does America like to eat? I’m baffled by a taco salad recipe that is to-the-letter what we’d eat on a regular basis 25 years ago, the only difference being something called Western dressing instead of Catalina (I thought that maybe they were the same, but I’ve been schooled). I only turn into a food snob when I think about things like taco salad–Americans should not be eating like this still.

A search for taco salad on the Taste of Home site brings up 176 results, including a taco salad waffle, tater tot taco salad and the pictured patriotic taco salad. Readers undeniably score high marks for creativity.

Amidst the enchilada lasagna and chiles rellenos casserole, there is also a recipe for flour tortillas. Impressive, and more labor-intensive than I would expect from a weeknight cook. On the other hand, there’s nothing remotely spicy about the Thai chicken salad, all full of sesame-ginger dressing, peanut sauce and chow mein noodles.

I also couldn’t ignore the Cooking for Grandma contest featuring a 10-year-old boy who loves to fry (doughnuts and fried pickles are his two specialties). He came up with a recipe for Mexican ice cream (vanilla rolled in crushed cornflakes, sugar, cinnamon and honey). What’s up with all the Mexican-ish flair?

I almost went down that vague path myself; the grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade in the new Bon Appetit jumped out at me (yes, I quickly eschewed Taste of Home for Bon Appetit). But lamb? Not always a crowd-pleaser. Ancho powder seems benign, as well, but who's to say.

Tunisian chile sauce is no one’s taste of home either, but I am leaning toward the harissa-marinated top sirloin tips from the same issue. Everyone loves steak, right? Well, they’re going to, dammit. Now, I just need a few sides that don’t involve cream cheese.

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