I love the freedom and creativity of the taco. So many delicious things are flattered by the earthiness of a corn tortilla, from braised beef or spice-rubbed pork to grilled vegetables or clouds of scrambled eggs with gooey cheese. The toppings — magenta pickled onions, emerald cilantro, or a rainbow of salsas — add to their build-your-own appeal.
Rooted in Mexican culture and identity, tacos are in the pantheon of good foods best eaten with your hands, like burgers, lobster rolls, fried clams, and pizza. But tacos are in a class by themselves: they’re equally delicious for breakfast, lunch, or dinner — no offense to pizza-for-breakfast fans.
When the season of grilling fish for tacos ends, my favorite fall filling is a mix of mushrooms with chiles and squash. The autumn vibe of a wild mushroom taco calls for dried chiles. Fresh chiles like jalapeño, serrano, and poblano when dried become a whole other beast, usually with a different name. A chipotle is a smoked, dried jalapeño and a potent earthy expression of that pepper’s fresh self. The dark-garnet wrinkly ancho is a dried poblano. Anchos are fruity, with chocolaty notes and a whiff of smoke, but without much heat.
For this filling I wanted to bump up the Scoville scale — the official measurement of a chile’s capsaicin content or heat — a little. Thrill-seeking chile-heads go “off the scale” and willingly eat ghost or others peppers at over a million Scoville units. That is not my jam. I am drawn to chiles for their distinctive compound flavors, of which heat is just one element. Anchos clock in at 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville units; chipotles can range from 2,500 to 8,000. So, I reached for the chipotles.
When you’re starting with dried chiles, you snap off the stems, shake or trim out the seeds, then toast the chiles in a dry medium-hot skillet until they puff and soften slightly before rehydrating them in hot water.
Chipotles en adobo are a worthy shortcut. There is almost always an open can of these rehydrated chiles in tomato sauce living in my fridge. If you’re a vegetarian who misses bacon, you should have them on hand, too. A touch of the chile-tinged adobo adds smoke and heat to eggs, beans, pastas, braises, soups, and barbecue sauces.
If you haven’t foraged your own wild mushrooms for dinner, no worries: farmed ones work well. I like a mix of meaty shiitakes, delicate oysters, and plump creminis. A common question in my cooking classes is always, “Should I wash mushrooms?” I suppose if they’re seriously dirty you could give them a fast rinse and pat them dry. But I try not to do even that, because they absorb water, then steam and resist browning when sautéed. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms grow on logs, not in dirt, so I never wash them. And if your creminis have a tuft of dirt on the stem, trim it or brush it off.
You might pause when you see dried cranberries on the list of ingredients here. I promise they’re not a misplaced New England touch. Dried cranberries are not unusual in Mexican cooking. Dried fruits like raisins, figs, and prunes are used to add body and sweet balance to dried chiles in moles and salsas. I learned this years ago in Oaxaca, where I was intrigued by a jar of a Salsa Catalina — a variation of salsa macha that included dried guajillo chiles, nuts, and dried cranberries. I could not get enough of it.
When I added cranberries to these autumn tacos, the flavors bridged my two happy places — the Cape and the brilliant kitchens of Mexico.
Wild Mushroom, Squash, and Chile Tacos
3 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2 cups diced butternut or other winter squash
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive or peanut oil
10 oz. mixed wild mushrooms, quartered or sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 Tbsp. chipotles en adobo
1/3 cup mushroom or vegetable broth or water
12 corn tortillas
Crema or sour cream
For the toppings: Salsa verde or hot sauce, crumbled cotija or feta cheese, pumpkin seeds, pickled onion slices
- Toast the stemmed and seeded ancho chiles in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, turning until soft and slightly puffy, about a minute. Cool, then tear or cut the chiles into bite-size pieces. Put in a bowl with the cranberries. Cover with about 1 cup hot water. Set aside until hydrated and soft, about 20 minutes.
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Toss the squash with a tablespoon of the oil, season with salt to taste, and spread out on a baking sheet. Roast, turning once about halfway through, until tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet. When it shimmers, scatter the mushrooms evenly in the pan. Cook undisturbed until browned and beginning to wilt, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and season with salt. Cook, tossing until the garlic is softened and fragrant, about a minute. Scoop the chiles and cranberries from the soaking liquid and add them to the pan with about a quarter cup of the liquid.
- Add the cooked squash, the chipotle en adobe, and the broth or water and cook, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and add more chipotle as desired.
- Wrap the tortillas in a kitchen towel and warm in microwave until pliable. Alternatively, reduce the oven to 300 degrees, wrap tortillas in foil, and warm for about 10 minutes. Or run over a griddle to heat and char the edges.
- Serve the mushroom mixture with the warm tortillas and the toppings, letting folks build their tacos as desired.