I have a soft spot in my heart for hard-shell tacos. It’s partly thanks to joyful childhood memories of meals whipped up from those boxed kits, but it’s also because they taste lip-smackingly good with their warm, spiced meat; crisp, cool vegetables and crunchy, fried shells.
These days, taco night at home takes as many forms as there are Tuesdays in a year, from fish with slaw on soft whole-wheat tortillas to sliced steak with charred poblano peppers on fresh corn tortillas. When I hanker for the crunch of those retro ground-beef tacos, I make them, but I ditch the box and give mine a healthy update by turning them inside out. I make lettuce leaves the shells to be piled with fillings and use crunchy tortilla chips as one of the toppings. This essentially flips the ratio of vegetables to fried tortillas from the original, and makes the whole meal lighter and more healthful while keeping all the right textures and flavors in place.
I also stir black beans into the spiced meat to introduce some plant protein. (You could use ground turkey or another can of beans instead of the beef, if you prefer.) Fill the lettuce cups with the fragrant meat and beans, top with chopped tomatoes, shredded cheddar, pickled jalapenos, a fresh sprig of cilantro and a sprinkle of crunchy chips for a meal that will take you back to you childhood but also make you glad you’re all grown up.
This recipe gives the hard-shell ground beef taco a fresh, healthful update by turning it inside out and using lettuce leaves in place of the shells and crunchy tortilla chips as one of the toppings. With black beans stirred into the fragrant meat mixture, you also get some good-for-you plant protein.
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon granulated garlic (aka garlic powder)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon onion powder
⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces lean ground beef (93 percent lean or higher)
1 can (15 ounces) no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup water
24 large leaves of gem lettuce or hearts of romaine (about 3 heads)
2 medium tomatoes, cut into small dice
2 ounces (½ cup) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
¼ to ⅓ cup chopped pickled jalapeno peppers (jarred)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 ounces (1 cup) crushed tortilla chips
Whisk together the chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, garlic, salt, onion powder and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Heat the oil until shimmering in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and breaking it up with the spoon until no pink remains. Add the beans and the chili powder mixture; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the water and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until the liquid is mostly absorbed.
Place the spiced meat mixture and each of the remaining ingredients in separate serving dishes, and put them out on the table so diners can build their own tacos. To assemble, place about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture into each lettuce leaf.
Garnish with tomatoes, cheese, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and some crushed tortilla chips.
Makes 4 servings. Nutrition per serving (using ¼ cup pickled jalapenos): 470 calories, 35 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 70 milligrams cholesterol, 560 milligrams sodium, 17 grams dietary fiber, 7 grams sugar.