I first heard about Indian Tacos while driving up through the Owens Valley of California one hot windy day. The eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada was on one side and the western flank of the White Mountains was on the other. We were traveling north on our way from Walt’s Point back to Bishop. In Lone Pine or thereabouts, I spied a vendor on the side of CA395. The sign – in handwritten letters – said “Indian Tacos.” What was that I wondered and immediately my interest was piqued. I like Mexican food in every shape, way or form. But Indian Tacos? I had never heard of those.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try them that day. My companions in the truck were too "destinated" on the next hang glider launch site. So I wondered and pined after Indian Tacos for years until I found a cookbook called Real American Food by Jane and Michael Stern. There, on Page 296, was a recipe for “The Ultimate Navajo Taco.” Not knowing anything and never having tried anything like this before, I was nevertheless too enthused to worry about making a mistake so I immediately set about making them.
Since then I have had Indian Tacos many times and in a lot of places. Not often. They’re impossibly caloric so you save them for special occasions when you’ve been good and exercised a little prior-calorie stinginess. They’re just like a regular taco in every way except one. What makes them special is FRY BREAD. Instead of the customary tortilla, fry bread is the base.
Now fry bread – to me – is an art and a science. In some ways a commercial vendor has a leg up on the average person. They have the large, temperature controlled fry vats. The average family can’t duplicate this. However, if you get yourself a good cooking thermometer, buy the right kind of oil and have a deep kettle you can do it, too. Native Americans traditionally make the fry bread over an open fire. It’s really not rocket science so don’t sweat it.
The secret to fry bread is making it fresh and hot every time. Cold fry bread is not nice.
Here is my favorite recipe from the Real American Food cookbook. I’ve used it many times over the years, and this version is tweaked a bit to make it more user friendly. Writer’s Note: this is not my image. I was too busy eating and forgot to take my own photograph! But it looks like a taco I would have made!
Photo: courtesy of eiteljorg.org
Gila River Fry Bread for Indian Tacos
Yields 6 small fry breads or 3 large.
2 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons lard or solid vegetable shortening, divided
About 3/4 cup warm water
Fat for frying. (Use a fat that has a high smoking point.)
Mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in 1 tablespoon lard. Melt and cool remaining 2 tablespoons lard and set aside. Add just enough water to flour mixture so dough holds together and can be handled easily. Knead on a lightly floured board until smooth, about 30 seconds, adding only enough flour to work dough.
Form dough into smooth balls. Two-inch balls make a small one. Use larger amounts to make the size you want. This is where you can experiment around. Brush each ball with cooled lard and let stand 45 minutes. You can be getting your toppings ready while they’re sitting.
In a deep skillet or kettle, heat your fat to 360 degrees F.
On a lightly floured surface, with the heel of your hand, flatten each ball of dough out into a round circle about 6 inches in diameter. Dough should be pretty thin. Maybe about 1/4 of an inch thick. If you’re using a bigger ball make the flattened disk larger.
Ease into deep fat. Dough will bob to surface. Cook until dough is light brown, a mere 45 to 60 seconds, turn, and cook the other side 45 to 60 seconds. Remove from fat immediately and drain on paper towels.
Layer refried beans or whole beans, then taco-flavored cooked ground beef, then chopped tomatoes, chopped iceberg lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese and finally a dollop of sour cream on top. You can also add chopped jalapeno, chopped red or sweet onion, chopped black olives, chopped green onion, or chopped avocado. You can also trade the taco-seasoned cooked ground beef with chili. The chili can be chili with beans or straight meat chili. If you use chili with beans, then omit the refried beans. Use your imagination!
Then go out and chop wood!