Remember To Make Memories At The Table

Remember To Make Memories At The Table

Nonna used To Say...

Got Agita? It's Not What You Eat; It's What Eats You

Friday, January 28, 2011

Go West, Young Woman: Beef Taco O'Brien

The Summer of 1969.  I was young, sassy in the era of sex, drugs & rock n roll.  Flower Power ruled and I'd just graduated from High School. Life held immense possibilities. I was flying, not on pot. My dad had given me permission to spend that summer with my aunt and cousins in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was a big deal, a very big deal. Unlike the youth today who travel Europe, Asia and have been on 13 cruises before the age of 21, kids in my generation didn't stray far from home unless it was on their honeymoon.
Me at 17 in the yellow bathing suit
 with my best HS friend, Linda
My dad was strict. I asked permission to join the Peace Corp, dreaming of helping those in a Third World Country. I was unafraid of the dangers, the separation from family and unfamiliar cultures. Dad refused to sign the paperwork. Young women, he said, did not go tramping around a foreign country...good intentions or not! Then I wanted to be a flight attendant, a stewardess in those days. Dad called them flying floozies and " no daughter of mine will be flying willy-nilly around the world" Sigh. So getting his permission to spend a whole summer in another state was, well, so groovy.
I couldn't afford a plane ticket, so I boarded a bus and travelled 3 days to Phoenix. BTW, Dad made sure I was seated next to a "mature" woman who would keep an eye on me....and she did.
The first thing I noticed when I exited the bus terminal was that the sky was a brilliant blue and how darn hot it was. I immediately felt at home at Aunt Mim's and though I hadn't seen my cousins (all 6 of them) in years, we bonded as family in an instant. I had a wonderful time visiting the desert, local attractions, camping on the banks of the Colorado River. Met a blond, blue-eyed boy cute enough to be on Surf Magazine-my first & only "Southwestern boyfriend". We went dancing, mini-golf, to parties and swimming..just what teens should do. No matter where I went this was said, "You're from New York, I can tell by your accent. Say coffee". Okay, so you can take the girl out of the Bronx, but can't take the Bronx out of the girl. Ha, as if they didn't have an accent, too.
So my visit was exciting and adventurous...the only mishaps--being caught in a "gully-washer" flash flood and nearly drowning in the street and going down the Colorado river in a huge inner-tube that flipped over. All four of us, again, nearly drowned, but made it to a dock of sorts, then had to walk through a desert area, scorpions and all! back to our campsite. We were late by hours and was my Aunt ticked off at us! We were exhausted, sun-burned (badly), dehydrated, starving and slept for 13 hours! Ironic, two mishaps and both by a desert state, go figure?
And the Food! Aunt Mim was/is a good cook, after all, she was taught by the same persons who taught my mom to cook, Great Grandma Eugenia & Nonna. But this was a totally different cuisine. Tex-Mex was not popular at that time, so this was an exciting culinary experience for a kid from the Bronx. I had the best fried chicken, enchiladas, burritos, mac & cheese, and tacos. Of course, pasta and red "gravy" was still served on Sunday.
Browning Potatoes O'Brien
What separated my Aunt's tacos from others...I'm not sure if I ever had a taco before this vacation, was the addition of potatoes. Yes, fried-up potatoes, kind of like hash browns. She diced potatoes into tiny cubes, added onions and peppers, then added this to the ground beef. In a huge cast-iron skillet she fried the flat tortilla in lard!, bending it into a taco shape with a pair of tongs. It was a fantastic tasting meal, grease dripping down the arm and all!
So why the potatoes? First, how can any dish go wrong with fried potatoes and beef? And second, Mexican families needed to stretch the meal to feed the whole family. Meat is costly, so little is used. Potatoes are cheaper and act as a "filler". But what a scrumptious filler. The crunch of that lard fried corn shell, the spiced beef and salty potatoes, melted Longhorn cheese, lettuce and diced tomatoes had my taste buds dancing the Jarabe Tapatio!
Ground Beef & Potatoes O'Brien
Today, I still make the tacos the same way, sort of. My nephew, Geej, asks for this meal each time he visits from Florida...I make between 36 & 48 of them!  The boys inhale them and never a leftover. Those kids make me proud!!
Thank you Aunt Mim and Arizona Cousins for the wonderful memories and for my first Tex-Mex culinary pleasure. Love y'all.
Aunt Mim's Tacos My Way: Oreida  makes Potatoes O'Brien which is a combination of diced potatoes, onions and red/green peppers.  I brown the Potatoes O'Brien in a skillet. I don't fry in lard, but fill the taco shells with the beef and potato mixture, sprinkle with my favorite cheese then bake them until the cheese melts. I use salsa instead of plain, diced tomato as one of the toppings. Make this dish as spicy or as mild as you like.

Beef Taco O'Brien

1 lb of ground beef
1/2 bag Potatoes O'Brien
1 box of Taco Shells (12)
8 oz (2 cups) shredded cheese (Cheddar, Longhorn, Monerey Jack)
oil (canola or olive)
garlic powder
onion powder
1 teaspoon dried parsley
chili powder
additional spicy ingredient for heat (optional)
salsa and/or ketchup
Topped with Cheese
lettuce, bite-size pieces

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Add oil to a large skillet. Heat, then add the Potatoes O'Brien. Sprinkle with salt, garlic powder and onion powder. Mix well. When almost brown and crispy add parsley. Add ground beef and mix with potato. Re-season with a bit more salt, garlic and onion powders. When meat is half way cooked, add any additional spices (i.e. chili powder) depending on your taste and heat tolerance. Cook beef until no longer pink. Don't overcook as this will go into the oven for a bit. Stand taco shells in a large baking pan and spoon beef/potato mixture into shells. Top each filled shell with your favorite cheese. Bake in hot oven for 5 minutes or until cheese melts. At the table, top with chili powder, salsa/ketchup, lettuce. Serve with corn. Also great with refried beans and Spanish rice.
*you can use ground turkey, chicken or pork
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Remember To Make Memories At The Table


  1. Great story, Nanette! Like most good Texans, my husband loves Tex-Mex cooking though he doesn't get to eat it as often up here. Thanks for the recipe idea!

  2. Hey there Mary..hope you can bring a bit of "home" to your husband by serving this taco meal. Thanks for your comment. N