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Logo for magazine's cooking column w/ Christopher Kimball and cooks of Milk Street.

After we spent a week scouring Mexico City for great tacos, a few lessons became clear. The balance of flavors and textures, the interplay of fire and smoke, and the role of dried chilies were all as important as the tortilla and fillings themselves. For beef birria tacos, toasting three varieties of dried chilies delivers lots of earthy, fruity depth and complexity. With shrimp, the filling gets textural interest and bold flavor from fresh tomatoes, charred habanero chilies, and mild cotija cheese. And ancho chili powder and earthy cumin punch up pork loin for a simple filling that pairs well with a variety of toppings.

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Dutch Oven Beef Birria Tacos

Makes 6-8 servings

Birria, from the state of Jalisco on the western coast of Mexico, is a succulent stew of shredded meat in a thick, intense, chili-rich sauce. It traditionally is made with goat, but these days, beef and lamb are common.

Our version is made with meaty boneless beef short ribs and is loosely based on the recipe taught to us by home cook Aidee Gonzalez in Mexico City. We slow-cook the meat in the oven with a minimal amount of water until fork-tender so the flavor is concentrated. Only after reducing the cooking liquid and shredding the meat do we introduce a puree of chilies, aromatics, and spices. This unconventional technique results in a birria that we think tastes brighter and livelier than one in which the chilies are subjected to the same hours-long cooking as the beef.

For making birria tacos, Gonzalez offered warm corn tortillas, plus avocado for a little creaminess and sliced white onion for allium pungency and crunch.

Canned chipotle chilies don’t work in this recipe, as they’re packed in adobo sauce, which would alter the flavor profile of the birria. (If you’re wondering, morita chilies are a type of chipotle. They are dark red-purple and relatively soft because they have been smoked for less time than the very stiff, dry, brown chipotle variety, which sometimes is called chipotle meco. Either type works in this recipe.) Also, take care when toasting the chilies; the pods scorch easily, and if scorched, they will taste bitter. When they become aromatic and just a shade darker, they’re done.

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4 pounds boneless beef short ribs, trimmed and cut into 1- to 1½-inch chunks

½ large white onion, cut into large chunks, plus thinly sliced white onion, to serve

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

4 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

2 ounces guajillo chilies (10 medium), stemmed and seeded

1¾ ounces ancho chilies (3 large), stemmed and seeded

2 chipotle or morita chilies, stemmed and seeded

2 cups boiling water

3 large bay leaves

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican oregano)

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon lime juice, plus lime wedges to serve

3 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, and diced

18 to 24 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed

Heat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the lower-middle position. In a large Dutch oven, stir together the beef, onion chunks, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 cups water. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until a skewer inserted into the meat meets no resistance, about 3 hours.

While the beef cooks, in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, toast the garlic and all of the chilies, turning occasionally with tongs, until the garlic is browned on all sides and the chilies are fragrant and just a shade darker, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. When cool enough to handle, break the chilies (or snip them with kitchen shears) into smaller pieces, discarding any remaining seeds, and add them to a blender. Add the boiling water, garlic, bay, cumin, oregano, allspice, thyme, and ½ teaspoon salt. Puree, scraping the blender as needed, until smooth, about 1 minute; cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

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When the beef is done, remove the pot from the oven. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a large bowl. Tilt the pot to pool the cooking liquid to one side, then use a wide spoon to skim off and discard as much fat as possible from the surface. Bring the liquid to simmer over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced to about ½ cup, 5 to 7 minutes; remove from the heat. Meanwhile, shred the beef.

To the reduced cooking liquid in the pot, add the chili puree. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then stir in the beef. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to sizzle, 5 to 8 minutes. Off heat, stir in the lime juice, then taste and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, put the avocados, sliced onion, and lime wedges into small bowls. Transfer the birria to a serving bowl, then serve with the tortillas and garnishes.

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Seared Shrimp Tacos With Tomatoes and Cotija.
Seared Shrimp Tacos With Tomatoes and Cotija.Connie Miller/of CB Creatives

Seared Shrimp Tacos With Tomatoes and Cotija

Makes 4-6 servings

In her friend’s outdoor kitchen, Josefina López Méndez, chef at Chapulín restaurant in Mexico City, showed us how to make tacos gobernador, a modern Mexican classic that combines a sauté of shrimp, fresh tomatoes, and chilies with quesillo, a stringy cheese not unlike mozzarella, that’s melted onto the tortillas before assembly. We morph those tacos into something simpler but equally delicious and, we think, in the same spirit. We sear shrimp, then combine it with sautéed onion, fresh tomatoes, and a minced, charred habanero chili. Instead of melting a mild, milky cheese onto the tortillas before filling them, we simply garnish the tacos with crumbled cotija, a dryish Mexican cheese that packs lots of salty, savory flavor, along with fresh cilantro. The shrimp filling gets decent but not scorching heat from the habanero chili; if you wish to tame the spiciness, seed the chili after charring, before finely chopping it.

Be sure to pat the shrimp dry before searing. Removing surface moisture helps prevent steaming and ensures good, flavorful browning. Also, only brown the shrimp on one side—the point is for them to be only parcooked after searing. They will fully cook—to a plump, tender finish—when returned to the pan with the tomatoes.

1 habanero chili, stemmed

2 tablespoons grape-seed or other neutral oil, divided

1½ pounds extra-large (21/25 per pound) shrimp, peeled (tails removed) and deveined, patted dry

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

½ medium white onion, thinly sliced

3 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and chopped

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1 tablespoon lime juice, plus lime wedges to serve

3 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled (¾ cup)

½ cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, chopped

12 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed

Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until water flicked onto the surface immediately sizzles and evaporates. Add the chili and cook, turning every 1 to 2 minutes, until well charred on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the chili to a cutting board.

In the same skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until shimmering. Add the shrimp in an even layer and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Cook without stirring until the bottoms of the shrimp are browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a large plate and set aside; reserve the skillet. Finely chop the chili.

In the same skillet over medium-high, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and any accumulated juices, along with the tomatoes and chili; cook, stirring, until the shrimp are opaque throughout, 1 to 2 minutes. Off heat, stir in the lime juice, then taste and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, put the cotija, cilantro, and lime wedges into small bowls. Transfer the shrimp mixture to a serving dish, then serve with the tortillas and garnishes.

Ancho-Spiced Pork and Potato Tacos.
Ancho-Spiced Pork and Potato Tacos.Connie Miller/of CB Creatives

Ancho-Spiced Pork and Potato Tacos

Makes 4 servings

Potatoes and pork seasoned with ancho chili powder and cumin make an easy, flavorful filling for tacos. Be sure to use a nonstick skillet, as the potatoes’ starch makes them prone to sticking. If you like, offer a few of the garnishes suggested and allow diners to top their own tacos.

1½ teaspoons ancho chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1 pound Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, not peeled, cut in ½-inch pieces

1 pound boneless pork loin chops, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced

8 corn tortillas, warmed

Optional, for garnish (use one or a combination): Chopped fresh cilantro, thinly sliced radishes, thinly sliced red onion, diced avocado, lime wedges, sour cream

Mix the chili powder, cumin, and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. In 2 separate bowls, toss half the spice mixture with the potatoes and the remaining half with the pork. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the potatoes, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned and tender. Stir in the pork and garlic, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pork is lightly browned and cooked through. Season with salt and pepper and serve with tortillas and garnishes (if using).


Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.