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Giving classic tacos a facelift with homemade roasted tomato salsa, a savory turkey taco filling, and creamy cabbage slaw. These, my friends, are not your average hard shell tacos -they're so much better!
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What makes this dish special
The other day my husband mentioned that he always thought hard shell tacos were not real tacos. Compare the taco-seasoned ground beef with slow braised chipotle mojo pork tacos or classic birria tacos, and you have to admit, he has a point. That also made me think, "Could I make a delicious hard shell taco?" Challenge accepted! A little of this, a little of that, and here we are.
These are not your average hard-shell tacos my friend. These beauties are packed with flavorful ground turkey, creamy, tangy cabbage slaw, homemade charred tomato salsa, avocado, and cotija. You have something reminiscent of the classic hard shell tacos...but better. And yes, even the hubs approved.
- Roma tomatoes: Also known as plum tomatoes, Roma tomatoes are oval-shaped tomatoes with fewer seeds and thicker flesh than regular tomatoes. You can also use regular tomatoes.
- Jalapeno: The medium-sized chili pepper adds a moderate level of heat to the salsa. You can omit it if you prefer or omit the seeds for a milder salsa.
- Ground turkey: Ground chicken, ground beef, or ground pork can be used as alternatives, depending on dietary preferences.
- Taco seasoning spices: Instead of using taco seasoning packets, we're making our spice blend with cumin, chili powder, paprika, coriander, oregano, and cayenne.
- Tomato paste: The concentrated form of tomatoes, this paste gives a slight sweetness to the filling while also adding another layer of flavor.
- Green cabbage: For crunchy texture, we're topping the tacos with shredded fresh cabbage. For a creamy element, we're tossing the cabbage with sour cream.
- Hard shell tacos: To stick to classic tacos, we used hard shell tacos but you can substitute them with corn or flour tortillas.
- Cotija: A Mexican cheese that is crumbly and salty. You can replace the cheese with shredded Mexican cheese if you prefer.
How to make not your average hard shell tacos
Step 1: Make the salsa
No matter what kind of taco you prepare, you have to have a salsa that goes with it. Whenever I had hard shell tacos as a kid, we just bought the jarred salsa, but as an adult, I know I can do better. This charred tomato salsa is a fairly basic recipe but it's still quite delicious.
Place the tomatoes, quartered onion, jalapeno, and garlic on a baking sheet and roast them until lightly charred. Make sure to remove the skin on the onion but keep it on for the garlic. Keeping the peel on the garlic will help prevent it from burning.
Place all of the vegetables in a food processor along with cilantro, cumin, lime juice, salt, and pepper. If you want mild salsa, go ahead and remove the jalapeno seeds. Then, pulse the ingredients until coarsely ground. You can puree the salsa if you want but I personally like it chunkier for more texture. When it's pureed smooth, it can be too watery.
Step 2: Cook taco filling
Set aside the salsa while you prepare the taco filling. The old-school hard shell tacos usually just use the taco seasoning packets from the store. But why spend money buying those packets when you can make a better one at home?
I used my favorite fajita combination to flavor the ground turkey: chili powder, paprika, cayenne, cumin, coriander, and oregano.
Brown the ground turkey in a large saute pan, then add the vegetables and saute until softened. You can also substitute ground turkey for ground chicken, beef, pork, or a combination of meats. You can even switch it up entirely and use seafood or tofu instead.
Finish cooking the taco filling with tomato paste and water, simmering until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.
Step 3: Prepare toppings
While the filling is simmering, go ahead and prepare the toppings. I decided to swap shredded iceberg lettuce for a tangy slaw instead. Toss shredded cabbage with sour cream, cilantro, lime juice, and a pinch of sugar until well combined. I wouldn't make the slaw too far in advance because it can get soggy.
Assemble the tacos filling them with the turkey filling and pile on the cabbage slaw, salsa, and avocado. Sprinkle a bit of cotija, squeeze some lime and the tacos are ready!
I call these not your average hard shell tacos and with one bite, I think you'll see why. I can confidently say, I won't ever go back to the original dish!
Frequently asked questions
Fortunately, you can mix and match all kinds of salsas for these tacos. Habanero salsa, salsa verde, or a classic pico de gallo would all go well with the dish. You can also swap out the avocado for guacamole.
Absolutely. You can make the salsa up to 2 days in advance and prepare the taco filling the night before. Toss together the cabbage slaw up to 30 minutes before serving and assemble tacos right before enjoying.
I like to enjoy these tacos with a side of Mexican rice and braised beans. You can also have a simple salad on the side for a lighter option.
More taco recipes
Looking for more delicious taco ideas? Try these:
Not Your Average Hard Shell Tacos
Charred tomato salsa
- 5 roma tomatoes
- 1 jalapeno
- ½ medium onion cut into wedges
- 2 garlic cloves skin on
- ½ cup cilantro
- juice of ½ lime
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 lb ground turkey
- ½ medium onion chopped
- ½ red bell pepper chopped
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon oregano
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- ¼ cup water
- 2 cups shredded green cabbage
- ¼ cup sour cream
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- juice of ½ lime
- pinch of sugar
- salt and pepper
- 8 hard taco shells
- 2 avocadoes diced
- ¼ cup crumbled cotija
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Place tomatoes, jalapeno, onion wedges, and garlic cloves on a baking sheet. Roast vegetables for 25 minutes or until lightly charred, rotating them halfway through. Remove from oven.
- Remove jalapeno stem and seeds, if desired. Peel off garlic skin. Place all roasted vegetables in a food processor along with cilantro, lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper. Pulse until ingredients are coarsely chopped but not pureed. Transfer salsa to a bowl and set aside.
- Prepare taco filling. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add turkey and cook until browned, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon into crumbles. Add chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic and saute until vegetables are softened, about 4-5 minutes.
- Season taco filling with chili powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, oregano, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Add tomato paste and water, stirring to combine. Simmer until all of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the toppings. Combine shredded cabbage with sour cream, cilantro, juice of ½ lime, and a pinch of sugar. Season with salt and pepper.
- Fill taco shells with taco meat and serve with charred tomato salsa, cabbage slaw, diced avocado, and crumbled cotija.