ME: Jack, what do you want for dinner for the first night of school?
JACK: Tacos, please.
Tacos it is.
ME: Jack, what do you want for dinner for your birthday? Anything you want.
Um, again? OK.
ME: Charlie, what do you want for dinner for the first night back from camp?
CHARLIE: Tacos, thanks.
Most nights, I'm not asking my kids what they want to eat for dinner. I'm a food writer, so most nights I'm serving what I'm serving—usually based on what's in the fridge, what I have time to make, or what I'm testing for a column, a book, or a blog post. I get very excited about exploring new dishes, experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients, and attempting to make a home-kitchen version of something we fell hard for while eating at a restaurant in Chinatown.
People says, "Your kids must be such good eaters." (They are, in the grand scheme.) They say, "Your family is so lucky." (Most days they must grudgingly agree.) On any given night in our house, dinner might consist of chicken paprikash, turkey meat loaf, salmon with soy sauce and fresh ginger, or polenta with Bolognese sauce.
Sometimes I make tacos with nuggets of seasoned, pan-fried tilapia; sometime I make them with slow-braised beef shredded into tender chunks, or plump shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce. But not on the kids' birthdays or nights when we're celebration a debate team win. Those nights, the kids ask for tacos, and I make them as you see in the recipe below, with old-school hard shells and browned ground meat sautéed in typical Mexican spices, then simmered with a little bit of water to make a sauce. The seasonings are quite close to what you might find in a packet of taco mix, but it's a simple homemade blend of basic pantry spices, and it takes about three minutes to measure and stir up.
The tacos aren't fancy or authentic. They are the opposite of avant-garde. But we all love them. And because they usually get made on a day when we're celebrating—or maybe just a night when I'm feeling a bit magnanimous—they have become synonymous with a cheery family evening. It's hard to be in a grumpy mood when you find out it's taco night. No one is in a rush, people are forthcoming about their days, and a general feeling of good energy hovers over the table. Tomorrow will be another meal, hopefully one that everyone likes. But tonight is taco night, and taco night is just plain hard to beat.