At the time I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, I was working for Marion Cunningham, the proverbial fairy godmother of home cooking. She wrote the current edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, along with a slew of other books. She was the best home cook I’ve ever met.
Among the major perks of the job was being on the receiving end of the lunch Marion whipped up each day. No matter how busy we were, she would take time to cook and serve a meal. This wasn’t the “shove down a tuna sandwich while standing at the sink” sort of lunch. It was an immensely civilized exercise that involved a properly set table and a meal formal enough for a respectable Sunday supper: Roast chicken with all the sides, a beef and vegetable stew, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and so on. Savory dishes were always followed by one of Marion’s immensely comforting desserts, everything from apple pie to warm brownies crowned with vanilla ice cream. Considering my daughter’s diet in utero, it’s no wonder has always been so healthy.
One day round about lunch time, I noticed Marion in the kitchen making what appeared to be rather ordinary quesadillas. I was a little disappointed, frankly; I had grown rather accustomed to my mid-day feast. I <em>was</em> eating for two, after all. My expression was probably not far from what my kids look like when they tumble into the kitchen to sniff out dinner only to find me brewing up a pot of something involving kale or quinoa.<!–more–>
Anyways, one bite in and I was a convert. There was nothing ordinary about anything Marion cooked, least of all these tacos, or quesadillas, or whatever you care to call them. They are an exercise in both simplicity and texture. The crispy corn tortilla, creamy avocado and crunchy lettuce make a winning triumvirate worthy of the dinner table. Plus, all can be pulled together in under 15 minutes, which makes it perfect for a weeknight supper.
Now is a good time for these tacos since avocados are in season at the moment. While avocados sometimes get a bad rap for being “fattening,” it’s the “good” kind of fat that is full of nutrients. The richness of this creamy fruit is also what makes it so filling, which means your kids won’t be looking to snack after the tacos are down the hatch. Plus, most kids happen to like avocado, particularly if you refer to it as “guacamole” (marketing is everything in cooking for kids).
Crisp lettuce is a must here; save your arugula and spinach for other meals. Marion used iceberg, of which she was quite fond. I opt for the crunchiest, light green leaves from a head of Romaine, a variety which offers vitamin C, fiber and other nourishment, where the iceberg does not. Sharp Cheddar is my cheese of choice, but feel free to substitute a milder version or Monterey Jack.
A couple of these tacos and a simple side dish or two make a meal. Below are a few ideas. An icy cold Mexican beer with a slice of lime makes a fine, “adults only” side as well.
- A warm bowl of pinto or black beans, either doctored up from a can, homemade such as this recipe, or picked up from your favorite Mexican take-out.
- Corn, either on the cob when it’s in season, or frozen, both flavored with a little butter, lime and chili powder.
- Your favorite vegetables done in a sauté pan or on a grill: zucchini, onion, peppers, for example.
- A salad of shredded cabbage with chopped cilantro, scallions and a lime vinaigrette.
- Whatever raw veggies you have in your crisper, peeled and set out with salsa for dipping.
MARION CUNNINGHAM’S CRISPY TACOS
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)
- 8 corn tortillas
- Favorite salsa
- 2 ripe avocados, sliced
- 8 crunchy, light-green leaves of Romaine
Set a large saute pan over high heat. Lightly coat the pan with olive oil. While the pan is heating, distribute the cheese over the 8 tortillas.
When the pan is good and hot, cook the tortillas in batches until the cheese is melted and the tortilla is a crispy and dotted with little brown patches. Remove tortillas from the pan onto a serving platter.
Spoon 1 to 2 teaspoons of salsa over the cheese and top with a few slices of avocado. Lightly sprinkle salt on the avocado. Tear each Romaine leaf in half and tuck it into the tortilla. Fold and serve.
Makes 4 servings