I love tacos, but you know what the biggest problem with the taco is? Each time I take a bite into my crunchy shell overflowing with juicy, greasy meat, and diced up lettuce, tomatoes, onions and shredded cheddar cheese with a dollop of salsa and sour cream on top, my entire taco falls apart. The shell crumbles into about four different pieces, the insides spill all over the table top, and I get just a bit angry. Actually, while eating tacos, I can feel myself pass through the five stages of grief. Once my taco shell has fallen into an irreparable state, I immediately enter the state of denial. “My taco shell is not broken!” I reason. ” I can fix this, I just have to hold all the pieces together and it will still seem like a taco.” As I attempt to wrap my hands around the shattered taco shell, quickly crumbling into smaller pieces, and hold all my taco fixings in place, I become angry, the second state of grief. “Stupid taco!” I yell. “I didn’t want to eat tacos anyway.” Then I quickly enter the third stage, bargaining, and think, “Maybe I can make a taco salad instead. It won’t be the same, but it could be close.” The fourth stage, depression, hits next. “I never can eat tacos correctly. I don’t even know why I try.” And finally, I accept that my taco is indeed broken and no more. See, five stages of grief in a single taco shell.
The grief associated with eating tacos is hard to avoid; however, I have discovered a cure for the taco predicament. Instead of using a corn or flour tortilla shell, I have started making cheddar cheese shells. Haven’t had one yet? They are fantastic, super easy and quick to put together, and definitely solve the dilemma of the crumbling taco shell.
Start with preheating the oven to 400 degrees. Pull out a cookie sheet and liberally spray it with cooking spray. You could also put down a sheet of parchment paper. To save you time, I tried aluminum foil and that was a disaster. So, either coat the sheet with cooking spray or a sheet of parchment paper, and no aluminum foil. For this recipe, I would suggest using pre-shredded cheese. You could shred your own, but the shells hold together a bit better with the pre-shredded bagged cheese. I am sure the reason has to do with whatever they add to the cheese to keep it from clumping together in the bags makes the shells melt together just right, but I don’t know that for sure. Also, I used cheddar cheese for this recipe, mainly because a mild cheddar sounded like a great pairing with the elk burger, but you could use pretty much any type of cheese: parmesan, Monterey jack, or provolone. It really is your choice.
On the baking sheet, spread a half cup of cheese into an evenly filled circle. I made my tacos about six inches across, so with an eight ounce bag of cheese you can make four shells. Place the sheet in the preheated oven and set the timer for six minutes. The shells take between six and eight minutes to cook. I set the timer at six, and then that way I can decide if they need a little longer. They cook pretty quick, so you have to keep an eye on them. You will know they are finished when the edges of the shells are turning brown and crunchy and the center is bubbling. Pull the shells out of the oven and allow them to sit for a few seconds, maybe twenty to thirty, just so they are set enough to handle. Once they have quit bubbling, use a spatula to carefully remove them from the sheet.
To form the shells, set a long handled wooden spoon between to cans. Drape the shells over the handle and allow gravity to work its magic. The shells should start to form around the spoon, making a nice taco shell. Sometimes I am too hungry to wait, and I will just form the shells with my hand and kind of balance them on my plate. They don’t look as pretty, but it works too.
Okay, so the shells are done. Now onto the meat! I used elk for my tacos, but you could easily make this recipe with deer or pronghorn. It would also work with upland game birds like pheasant or turkey. For my elk meat, I ran about 3/4 of a pound of elk steak through the meat grinder with a 1/4 pound of bacon ends, which you can find at most grocery stores or butchers. You could also use plain old bacon, but bacon ends tend to be cheaper. I use bacon ends because it adds a really nice amount of fat to the meat and you also get a hint of bacon flavor, which is great when you are making burgers, meatloaf, and even these tacos. It isn’t an overpowering bacon flavor, just the hint.
Start a pan over medium-high heat, add a drizzle of oil and soften some diced onions for a few minutes. Once the onions are soft, I add the meat. When the meat is about half way through cooking, I add my taco seasonings. My absolute favorite taco seasoning is Bolner’s Fiesta Brand Extra Fancy Taco Seasoning. Bolner’s Fiesta Products, located in San Antonio, are some of my favorite seasonings to cook with. I also really like their fajita seasoning, which I flavor burgers with all the time, and their jalapeno pepper powder is great on fries. You can use any type of taco seasoning though, and you could even make your own and add that. I start out with about two tablespoons of the taco seasoning, let the meat finish cooking, taste it, and then add more if needed. I also add salt and pepper to taste at this point.
With the meat cooked and the cheese shells ready to go, all that is left to do is fill your tacos! Everyone styles their taco a little differently, but some suggestions for toppings include: lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo, salsa, avocadoes, guacamole, sour cream, radish slices, cilantro, jalapenos, onions, and lime wedges.
If you haven’t tried a taco with elk, I suggest you get started making some tacos! And if you haven’t tried one with a cheese shell, you should get started on that too! The cheese shells hold together beautiful, but also still provide the crunch of a corn shell. They also ensure that every bite has the perfect amount of cheese! Super delicious!