A couple of weeks ago I got a profound hankering for tacos, so I went to Wegmans, bought all the ingredients, then headed home and started cooking. I was browning the ground beef and thinking about the fact that although I try to avoid eating meat, sometimes it can't be helped because sometimes I just need tacos, when it occurred to me that I could substitute some sort of textured vegetable protein for the hamburger in this recipe and it would turn out just fine--and that I already knew this because my friend Matthew and I did precisely that while I was visiting him last November in Brussels.
My mother made sure her young children got plenty of protein: we had meat--usually red--at almost every meal: bacon for breakfast, some sort of beef for lunch and dinner. Nowadays I eat less meat each week than I used to eat each day. Considering how carnivorous my upbringing was, I think I could use the slogan of those old Virginia Slims ads--"You've come a long way, baby"--but instead of raising a cigarette casually to my mouth as a sign of my very admirable and enviable progress, I'd be holding a bowl of spicy tofu and vegetables, contemplating the meal with glee.
I am opposed to meat consumption on so many grounds: it is very expensive to grow the food to fatten animals for slaughter; farm waste, ranging from manure to offal, is a significant source of pollution; most animals raised for meat in the US are treated very badly while they are alive; and last but certainly not least, in order to eat animals, you have to kill them. The only reason I'm not opposed to meat is that I really like the taste of beef, but I keep hoping that will go away.
Because I still occasionally enjoy a good steak or a fine reuben and there's no adequate substitute for filet mignon or good corned beef but there are decent substitutes for hamburger, I should use those substitutes. (Mad cow disease is more of a risk with ground beef, but I buy very expensive ground beef that's supposed to be free of all sorts of ickiness, so I pretend that's not a problem.) I'm not quite ready to become a vegetarian, but I can still severely limit my meat consumption. The next time I make this recipe, I'll do it with some sort of vegetable protein in place of the ground beef.
I got this recipe in high school, from a friend's mother whose tacos were WAY better than the tacos my mom made. (Mom makes a fantastic pot roast and the best mashed potatoes in the world, but her Mexican food has never been great.) I don't suppose it's terribly authentic, but it's still good.
Sylvia's Taco Filling
1 pound ground beef or appropriate substitute
1 clove garlic, minced (or more if you are one of those smart people who likes a lot of garlic)
1 large onion, diced
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 can diced green chilis
1 large can olives, sliced
salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper
Brown hamburger or meat substitute; add garlic and onions and fry until everything is thoroughly cooked. Drain off excess fat, then add tomato sauce, chilis and olives; season to taste.
If you are a traditionalist, you can buy taco shells or make your own by frying corn tortillas, one side at a time so they curve, until they are crisp. (My mom used to do this, and I'll admit that there's a bit of a trick to it and that she was good at it.) Anyway, take this traditional vehicle for taco filling, add filling, then top with grated cheese, shredded lettuce, more olives, diced tomatoes, salsa, guacamole, etc.
I am too cheap and lazy to insist on such trappings when I make tacos at home. I like to put a portion of filling in a bowl, top it with cheese, then use substantial blue corn chips to scoop it all up, with a salad on the side. Also, I like eating real food every day but don't like cooking it every day, so on the rare occasions when I make this dish, I double the recipe, then freeze individual portions. It reheats nicely.