News from the Tennessee Valley Food

Flavors of tomatillo sauce and chile-cherry compote harmonize well with thinly sliced seared duck breast.
Los Angeles Times photo by Eric Boyd
Flavors of tomatillo sauce and chile-cherry compote harmonize well with thinly sliced seared duck breast.

Glamorous side of homemade

By Amy Scattergood
Los Angeles Times
Itís is hard to pin down what is great about a great taco. Is it the succulent, smoky carne asada? The tender, charred hand-made tortilla? The sweet, ripe, spicy brightness of pico de gallo? More likely itís the way all those things come together.

You can find such taco greatness at restaurants, corner taquerias and taco trucks with cult followings. But the best tacos in the world might come out of your kitchen.

Imagine a warm corn tortilla filled with thinly sliced, pan-seared duck breast, tomatillo sauce and a cherry-chile compote. Or grilled lamb sausage with watercress and harissa. Or achiote-marinated yellowtail with shredded cabbage and chipotle mayonnaise.

Leave classics like tacos de barbacoa, carnitas and al pastor to your favorite neighborhood taco truck. When youíre inventing them at home, you can let your imagination take the wheel.

A terrific taco is about mouth-feel as well as flavor. There are no set rules about what goes into a taco; theyíre more about improvisation, maybe a happy accident, some smart calibration. A hot rush of habanero chiles, then a cool tempering of creme fraiche or watermelon salsa. The rich succulence of leftover wine-braised short ribs, then a bright, fresh celery-leaf salsa. A little crunch, a little heat, a sudden burst of flavor. A well-orchestrated taco should seem like a sudden inspiration of flavors that coalesce at the very last moment.

Start with a good tortilla as the foundation. Fresh, handmade corn tortillas, from a local source or ones that you make yourself (itís easier than you think), can make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. Quickly heat them in a dry skillet or right on the gas burner or outside on the grill.

Although flour tortillas can be amazing vehicles if theyíre freshly made (theyíre traditionally used in tacos in Sonora, Mexico), the richer flavor and rougher texture of a corn tortilla elevate the dish. Cornís subtle dimension is a terrific backdrop for other ingredients: Shrimp works beautifully with it, as does grilled fish; cherries and corn are unexpectedly wonderful together.

Use the best ingredients, considering how their flavors will work together. The classic taco combos work because they rely on balance. The deep flavor of cochinita pibil (pork slow-roasted in banana leaves) contrasts with the tart note of pickled red onions.

The wonderful char of carne asada is offset by the fresh, bright flavors of pico de gallo. Grilled wild salmon rocks with a spicy cucumber-serrano salsa verde or a garlicky aioli.

A contrast of texture and temperature is important too. The cool crunch of shredded raw jicama plays deliciously against fat shrimp, still warm from a simmer in a rich, nutty pepita-cilantro sauce, just as the hot fried fish in a Baja-style taco gets cold crunch from raw cabbage as well as the reprieve of cool, luscious crema.

And all of it against the warm tortilla that envelops it — slightly chewy, redolent of the corn that adds yet another dimension.

Tacos donít necessarily have to be built from the ground up — you can use last nightís grilled tri-tip or leg of lamb, or leftover dirty rice and beans. Even ratatouille. Just think of what would take those tacos to the next level.

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Duck Tacos with Chile-cherry Compote
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
11/2 pounds boneless duck breasts, with skin
10 dried chiles de arbol
6 ounces dried Bing cherries
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1/2 cup diced onion
6 tomatillos, husks removed, coarsely chopped
8 small corn tortillas
Finely chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

Rub 1 teaspoon of the salt into the duck breasts, place them in a large sealable plastic bag and refrigerate for 1 hour while you make the sauce.

Soak the chiles de arbol and dried cherries in 2 cups boiling water for about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. In a food processor, combine the drained chiles and cherries with 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 cloves minced garlic. Process to a thick paste, adding a little of the reserved liquid to help combine and adjust consistency. Set aside. This makes about 1 cup compote.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, place the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the onions and the remaining 3 cloves of minced garlic. Saute until onions just start to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatillos and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and continue to cook about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatillos are tender. Remove and cool slightly for a few minutes.

In a food processor, combine the tomatillo mixture with 1/4 cup of the chile-cherry paste. Set aside. This makes about 11/2 cups sauce.

Place the duck breasts, skin side down, into a cold, cast-iron skillet. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook the duck about 10 minutes, or until the skin is golden-brown and crispy and the fat has rendered off. (Turn the heat down to medium after a few minutes and watch to make sure the duck doesnít burn. Adjust the heat if necessary so that it cooks evenly.) Turn the duck over and cook for 1 minute to medium-rare; otherwise, continue cooking until desired doneness is achieved. Remove the breasts to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice very thinly on the diagonal.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and warm the tortillas. Place 2 to a plate and divide the sliced duck among the tortillas. Spoon 1 tablespoon or so of the tomatillo sauce over the duck and add 1/2 teaspoon of chile-cherry compote on top, or to taste. Sprinkle the top with fresh chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.

Total time: About 1 hour, plus 1 hour marinating time.

Servings: 4.

Each serving: 565 calories; 37 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 174 milligrams cholesterol; 464 milligrams sodium.

If you would like a spicier pumpkin seed sauce, double the amount of chiles.