Sometimes tacos fix everything, at least temporarily.
Today needed to be one of those days. It was interesting to come across an older post of mine for Ground Beef and Chorizo Tacos, in which I vented about where I was at in my life almost two years ago. Things felt pretty shaky back then. I was virtually unemployed, transitioning from blogger to chef, toying with the idea of publishing my first cookbook and adjusting to life at home with a baby. Social media was driving me crazy and my ongoing battles with mental health weren't helping in that arena. I remember feeling like my passion and determination was drowning in self-doubt. It was a pretty dark period in my personal life, so much so that I avoid dwelling on it too much. It made me a little sad to read that post, because I wish that I could have reached out and reassured my younger self that things were going to be okay. Two years later, I have in fact accomplished most of the things I was worried about. I'm working as a freelance private chef, signed with a talent management agency to expand my brand, and published three (!) cookbooks, all while raising a thriving toddler and teenager on my own. (Unfortunately social media is still a thorn in my side, for all of the same reasons.)
That reality check was needed today, while I am feeling pretty beat up by life in general. No matter how proud I am to have gotten this far, there are so many more things I need to achieve to get back on my own feet. (As many of you know, I did attempt to go back to a full-time accounting position over the summer, which thankfully was a horrible experience and didn't last very long. I say thankfully because it isn't where I'm supposed to be.) Everybody will tell you that starting your own business is hard, but nobody can really explain how absolutely terrifying it feels to not know when your next check is coming. They certainly don't tell you how lonely it can be to work alone, or how nerve-wracking it is to be solely responsible for your company's success or failure. Sharing my life publicly with nearly 80,000 strangers online has been both a lifeline and the source of many of my triggers. I find myself relating less to my family and friends offline, who did not choose such a crazy path. After years of both sacrificing and hiding from a social life, the phone rarely rings these days and even if it did, I'm not sure how to verbalize what it is that I'm going through. I'm not sure if I can piece together parts of my personal life that have been shattered by so much change. I'm desperately in need of exercise and a better diet yet too stressed to think about taking the first step. And as ridiculous and stupid as it sounds, Valentine's Day coming up feels like cheap table salt rubbed into freshly opened wounds.
Do I need to mention how awful the news gets every day? Ugh.
I was just looking for the tacos, but it turns out that I needed to read that two year old post today. As gut-wrenching as it can be to look back, it offered perspective and proof that life does eventually work itself out. The times in my past that felt impossible have always been periods of growth. Right now that is painful and ugly, and about as difficult as things get. The hurt comes in waves, and much like labor pains, takes my breath away at times. The last couple of days in particular have felt brutal and there were moments that I wanted to walk away from this all. But if there is anything I have learned from my own trials and tribulations, this too shall pass. I know that I have been through worse, that I possess the tenacity to stick this out. So if I can just be patient and allow the process of transformation to happen, this will all give way to something new. Spring is literally and figuratively, right around the corner. In the meantime... thank god for tacos.
Over the holidays I spent a little bit of time pushing some culinary boundaries thanks in part to my sister and brother-in-law visiting. Jordan and Fola live in London now, but Fola is originally from Lagos, Nigeria, where they lived prior to getting married. Although I haven't been able to visit them overseas yet, their love of food always inspires me to cook with an international palate in mind. The first time I ever had Nigerian food was from a cookout during their wedding celebrations a few years back, and ever since I'd been itching to attempt some of the dishes. With Jordan and Fola around to offer some feedback, I did just that. By the end of their trip, I was feeling pretty good about my jollof rice! The dish I had the most fun with was grilled beef suya, a popular Nigerian street food. It's interesting attempting to cook something you've never had, but it helps to break things down into what you do know and go from there. I know how to grill, and I was comfortable working with beef, so what it really came down to was learning how to make a proper suya spice blend. I hit the internet to do my research and got the gist of things. One of my favorite blogs, Kitchen Butterfly, provided a wealth of information on Nigerian cuisine. Fola's taste buds were final confirmation, of course!
After grinding up an aromatic blend of peanuts, ginger, paprika and other spices, I knew at once that suya spice was going to become my new addiction. Like the Frank's Red Hot lady, I've been putting that shit on everything. I did take my own advice and cooked a traditional preparation first, hence the skewered beef seasoned with a thick coating of suya spice and grilled over open flame. Fola advised me that this sort of snack would typically be served with sliced tomatoes and onions, so that's exactly what we had. It was amazing. The beef was fragrant, smoky and spicy, with the flavor of peanuts, chile pepper and ginger giving it the unmistakable essence of West African food. The tomato and onions, which I merely salted and squeezed with lime, were such a brilliantly simple accompaniment that it made me question why we'd ever bother with more complicated salads. Everything I cooked that week made me yearn for an actual trip to Nigeria. Someday, I'll get there! For now, I'm excited to continue learning, especially the dishes that feature ingredients not often used in American cooking.
Today's post is the result of my foray into Nigerian cooking and a really terrible day that could only be fixed with tacos. I will turn anything into a taco. Let's just get that out of the way. I love tacos and they're something I've always turned to for comfort. While fusion food has become somewhat of a cliché, the challenge of taking the ingredients of one cuisine and fitting them into the formula of another is particularly well suited to tacos. So that's all I did here. Nigerian street food meets Mexican street food. It works, and the recipe is below.
(If you were compelled to endure all of my rambling tonight... thank you for listening.)
Nigerian Beef Suya Tacos
For the suya spice (makes about 1 cup):
1/2 cup shelled and peeled raw peanuts
2 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp cayenne
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp white pepper
1 crushed bouillon cube or 1 tsp poultry seasoning (optional)
For the tacos:
1 pound thin cut boneless rib eye steaks
2 tbsp butter, melted
Kosher salt, as needed
1/2 cup suya spice (recipe above), more as needed
Neutral cooking oil, for the grill (such as canola or grape seed)
2 plum tomatoes
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
Corn tortillas, preferably handmade style
Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 2
Special Equipment: cast iron grill pan or skillet, food processor, instant read meat thermometer
First, roast your peanuts. It makes a big difference in the flavor of the suya spice. Preheat your oven to 350° F. Spread the peanuts out on a pan and roast for 15 minutes or so, until they turn golden brown. Don't let them burn.
Transfer the peanuts to your food processor and pulse a few times to chop them up. I use my KitchenAid chopper attachment (affiliate link) for small tasks like this. A spice grinder or blender could work, but you'd have to be careful not to grind the peanuts too much otherwise it turns into peanut butter.
Add the remaining spices from the suya recipe. Use as little or as much cayenne as you think you'll want; I do think it shines with lots of heat. A lot of Nigerians would add a crushed Maggi cube to this. I'm sensitive to MSG so I don't use bouillon cubes, but poultry seasoning (like Bell's) is a good substitute. Otherwise just leave that out.
Pulse a few more times until the mixture is finely ground, but before it starts to get too oily from the peanuts. That's your suya spice. If some of the larger pieces of peanut remain, you can sift the mixture through a fine mesh sieve.
Sliced tomatoes and onions were easy to convert to a relish for tacos. Remove the seeds and core from the plum tomatoes before dicing. Dice up some red onion as well, then chop up your cilantro.
Mix the tomatoes, onion and cilantro in a bowl. Squeeze all the juice from one lime in there, then season to taste with a good pinch of salt. Allow that to sit while you prepare everything else. While I would typically add some jalapeno to make this into pico de gallo, the extra spice isn't needed with so much cayenne in the suya blend.
The first time I made beef suya, I used flap meat steak to make my skewers. I've also made these tacos with flank steak for my client. Both cuts benefit from extra time to marinate, so I rubbed and salted the meat down and refrigerated it for a few hours before cooking. Today, I picked up a couple thin cut boneless rib eye steaks instead. Rib eye is flavorful due to its fatty marbling, which also helps to keep it tender even if you cook it past medium. I think rib eye is the best choice for tacos if you're looking for something you can grill right away.
Baste the steak with melted butter, which will help with flavor and browning on the grill later. Then salt it generously on both sides (about a teaspoon total.)
Spread some of the suya spice out on a plate or pan and press the steak into it, then flip and repeat, so that the steak is encrusted with spice. Set the steak aside for a few minutes while the grill preheats. Discard any suya that was used to season the raw meat.
When the grill is just shy of smoking, oil the grates. By the way, if you don't have a cast iron grill pan, the next best thing would be a cast iron skillet. Of course you could absolutely grill this for real outside if you wish, especially if you already have your grill fired up for other things or need to make a bigger batch.
Place the steak down and allow it to sear and develop a crust on one side. For a thin steak like this one, that will only take a couple minutes.
Flip the steak over to sear the other side. Continue flipping frequently, until the temperature reaches about 145°F for medium well. I'll probably never say this in any other circumstances, but for tacos rib eye will be fine if you take it a bit further. (I'm often cooking for people who don't like to see a lot of pink. Look at me, adapting.)
Transfer the cooked steaks to a clean plate and let them rest for 5 minutes while you warm the tortillas.
I'm a huge fan of La Tortilla Factory's handmade style corn tortillas, which are really thick and hold fillings well. Best way to heat them is over your gas burner, just a few seconds on each side until it starts to puff up and char around the edges a bit. If you don't have gas, heat them one at a time on a dry skillet.
Finally, time to assemble! Chop the cooked rib eye steak up into bite size chunks. Toss it with extra suya spice too.
Fill those bad boys up! Really simple, just stuff the tortillas with the cooked steak and top with the tomato onion relish made earlier.
Serve immediately, with extra limes if you'd like. A beer and sliced fresh mango did not make this photo, but trust they were the perfect finish.
So there you have it, beef suya tacos! Today was an unusual break from cold winter weather (and a rare childless afternoon), so I took advantage and sat outside to enjoy my tacos alone. It gave me a chance to exhale, reflect and regroup. Things kinda suck right now, and that's okay. I need to feel it to get to where I'm going, but it won't be forever.
Sometimes tacos fix everything, at least temporarily.