Sylvia's Taco Filling


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.


I've been trying to reduce my meat consumption for the past seven years or so, for all the reasons you mentioned. In 1999, I decided to not eat beef for a year.

I allowed myself two exceptions--I could eat beef if someone treated me to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and if someone invited me to dinner and I forgot to communicate my no-beef rule. Each situation came up once, and I really appreciated the beef on those occasions.

That year did get rid of a lot of my cravings for beef. I basically don't eat it anymore, except when someone serves it to me. We eat a lot of Morningstar Farms products in our home, and use a lot of hamburger substitutes. We'll have to try your taco recipe.

I gave up meat and soda for Lent, except for seafood on Fridays. I grilled red peppers and portabella mushrooms on Sunday and have been putting those in sandwiches with good cheese all week--yum!

Sorry for the rambling response, but it's nice to see someone else moving leisurely into vegetarianism. Who says you need to give up meat cold turkey? Um...right.

Oh, Holly, you have made me so hungry, and for tacos!

My dad was born and grew up in San Diego, and I was born and grew up there as well. I literally cut my teeth on tacos Dad made, which were the best in the world. When I'm sick, the first food I can generally stand to look at are tacos with all the trimmings.

My filling is generally made this way, and it would probably work with vegetable crumbles as well: brown the meat-stuff, put in a little water, then shake on cumin, salt, pepper, and a waft of cayenne. Now add a couple of tablespoons of (are you ready for this) catsup, then stir it all up until the water cooks out and the spices are distributed. You then offer yourself (or your guests) all the goodies to put on, according to their taste. Even fussy eaters can make a taco they can like.

My dad taught me how to fry corn tortillas, just like you described. It's a matter of precise heat combined with timing and the right amount of oil that makes them crisp-tender.

You must have read _Fast Food Nation_, and if not, then go find it! You can add "the ethical treatment of beef industry workers" to your list of reasons to go veggie. And don't get me started on Tyson Chicken. Bhaah!

Hope your day is sunny and your salsa snappy.

Holly, I love the way you have a category on your blog devoted to your favourite grocery store. That kills me;)

I agree with Juti--the U.S. meatpacking industry has the worst abuse of its labor. There's also a feature article in Mother Jones by Schlosser on the horrors of the industry:

Not sure if it's connected to the book or not. It's probably one of the articles that's had the most influence in my life.

I, too eat less meat than I used to, but I have to confess that I crave it sometimes. Today I'm making gorditas (can't get good tortillas here), guacamole using the avocados from my tree out back, salsa with good local tomatoes, a little cheese,beans, and (confession begins here) beef with peppers, onions, and garlic. I also do this with carnitas: slow-roasted pork. I could come up with something in the meat substitute department and still have a great tasting and very nutritious meal. So maybe I'll do it, since there are such good ideas and products for vegetarians these days.

I'm late to this, but I've been trying to cut down on meat consumption myself. (Befriending a vegan means knowing stuff about your food production you never wanted to know.) Thanks for the taco recipe, though. There's no place around Microburg that serves decent tacos, so I'm forced to cook for myself. Can I blame the patriarchy for cooking, or would that be overkill?

Hey everyone--

thanks for stopping by. I'm glad I provided a recipe people are interested in; ain't no reason to talk about food, if you can't make other people hungry! :-)

Juti and John, thanks for mentioning problems with the way the meatpacking industry treats its workers. Considering how long I lived in Iowa, and considering that Iowa Beef Packers (which is part of Tyson Foods) was one of the main employers in the state, I should know about this. There were all these small towns in rural Iowa that had sizable Hispanic (mostly Mexican) populations, because there were all these poorly paid Hispanic workers at IBP. The Hispanic populations also meant the towns had Mexican restaurants, and while I did find one an hour away that served really good mole (chocolate sauce, not some weird rodent--that's the problem with words that have accents and word processing programs that don't include them) until it went out of business, usually, the food was terribly bland, to suit the taste of the white population who constituted the bulk of the restaurants' clientele.

John, what you did with beef--giving it up for an extended period--I did with pork and chicken: I didn't eat either for over five years. Aside from bacon, I don't care for pork any more at all. Chicken I just find so bland that I don't see much reason to eat it, though I admit there are occasions these days when I do. But I really like a good steak.

Mole...mmmmmm. By the way, in Spanish at least, "mole" would have no accent. For Mexican food, the word really just means "sauce"; it's usually prepared by grinding ingredients together. One mole from Oaxaca has unsweetened chocolate in it -- this is the sauce most estadounidenses (United Statesans? "Americans" is complicated since Mexico is located in America) are familiar with. But there are great regional variations and anyone living in North America and near good markets can probably find the nice varieties of dried chiles to make different recipes. Zarela Martinez (which SHOULD have an accent over the i) has a great recipe that uses ground almonds. I did a quick google to see if I could find some of the other moles (amarillo and verde, in particular) and here is a place with several variations, including one from Diana Kennedy (a goddess, no doubt):

A lot of the recipes are for meat dishes but I can see no reason why one wouldn't experiment with the sauces over meatless dumplings or vegetables, as one might sauce vegetables with curries.

I don't know if it is available in the US yet, but for meat-eaters who want to cut down on their consumption, I recommend Quorn. It is based on a mushroom-type fungus - it's much nicer than it sounds, believe me. The great thing about it and what makes it different from TVP (and other meat substitutes) is that it can be bought as steaks and chunks - so you can have your 'steak' and enjoy it too.

I became a vegetarian more than five years ago and I have never looked back - I recommend it to all of you - just try it for a while. Don't be too hard on yourself and do it gradually and it becomes a lot easier.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on March 10, 2006 8:09 AM.

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