Eighth grade trips to someplace historical are a rite of passage in our country. Growing up in the Southwest, I didn’t realize that for most kids on the other side of the country, this meant a long bus ride to Washington DC for an up close and personal history lesson. This wasn’t really an option for us desert kids. Oh, we got something it was just very different yet just as culturally significant. For us, a young and enthusiastic math teacher piled a bunch of squirmy 13-year olds on a bus and took us to visit her Grandmother. Let me explain.
Our teacher, Mrs. Campbell, was a proud member of the Hopi tribe and grew up on the reservation in northern Arizona. At the time and maybe still, she had family there. For our class trip, we learned first hand about life on the reservation, both past and present. Along the way we stopped at Sunset Crater and blew off steam at numerous ancient cliff ruins and pueblas. We visited the Hopi Cultural Center and learned about traditional crafts including intricate baskets, beautiful pottery and gorgeous kachina dolls. One afternoon, we took part in a traditional rain dance and ate blue corn piki bread, fascinated by the color and papery crispy texture. To our childish palates, it tasted like notebook paper. Blue-grey notebook paper. For a thirteen-year-old suburban kid, this was heady stuff.
And we did visit Mrs. Campbell’s grandmother. She lived high up on a mesa and we watched from a safe distance as she slowly worked her way up the cliffside path to a pocket of wild mint tucked high into the mesa’s rocky sides. She brought a few handfuls back down to where we waited impatiently and encouraged us to deeply inhale the strong, fresh scent. We marveled at how the boys in our group towered over her tiny, delicate frame. I was particularly drawn to her deep, almost black eyes and asked a lot of questions about her ornate silver and turquoise jewelry. Somewhere I have got to find these pictures taken with my cheap disc camera.
But what I remember most was the vast quantities of Indian frybread we consumed. We were very familiar with this treat because we’d made batches upon batches for various trip fundraisers during the school year under Mrs. Campbell’s watchful eye. We’d mix together a simple dough, let it rise then roll pieces into thick rounds. In a decision I am truly baffled by in this day and age, we – the kids – would fry the rounds until puffy and crispy in vats of hot oil. Liability and personal injury must not have been an issue in the early 80’s.
On this trip, amongst the wealth of cultural artifacts we didn’t appreciate nearly enough, we ate a lot of frybread. By far our favorite version was a concoction called “The Navajo Taco” – fresh frybread topped with chili, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and cheese. It was delicious and we ordered one for every single meal. We weren’t terribly adventurous and we knew instantly what we liked. Phfft … kids.
I had these “tacos” many times after that trip, always at the reservation cafes we’d stop at on the way to Lake Powell for summer vacations when I was in my late teens and early twenties. But I haven’t had one since and certainly not since I moved from Arizona. Recently I read about a movie on the filmfest circuit – “More Than Frybread” – featuring a frybread championship among 22 Arizona tribes and felt a nostalgic twinge for those tacos. So I made some and they were just as good as my teenage self remembers. That’s the great thing about being a cook – you want something, you figure it out and make it.
Thank you Mrs. Campbell for taking a bunch of rowdy 13-year olds home to share your cultural heritage. I was too young to fully appreciate or understand what you were offering but realize now it was rather special. I don’t know what in the world you were thinking taking the lot of us to meet your family but you were a remarkable lady. I can say with absolute conviction that trip by far beats a regular ‘ol DC trip by a mile. Doesn’t even compare. Though maybe someday we can talk about the wisdom of putting squirmy kids in front of hot oil.
I know these as “Navajo Tacos” but they go by many names and many versions such as “Frybread Tacos”, “Indian Tacos” and in Austin not long ago, I ordered something similar from a food truck called a “puffy taco”. I like them topped with a bean and beef chili and some typical taco fixings but you can make them any way you like, with whatever chili recipe is your favorite. And just so you know, you can skip the taco topping part entirely and eat the bread hot, fresh out of the fryer, with a drizzle of honey or a sprinkle of powdered sugar. It’s mighty fine that way too and at Midwest State Fairs something similar is simply called “fried dough”. (We’re fancy with names like that around here.) Whatever you call it or however you make them, it’s delicious across the board.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SMILE INDUCING. Everyone loves a big messy taco and one served on hot, crispy freshly fried bread? Get outta here. This probably isn’t something you cook up for yourself as a solo dinner, which is why you should invite a bunch of people over and have a Navajo Taco Feast. Trust me, it’s a good time.
NAVAJO TACOS - frybread recipe based on this one
Makes 8 tacos
for the chili:
½ pound dry beans, Rancho Gordo Santa Maria pinquitos are my favorite but pintos, black or kidney beans work well too as will 3 14 oz cans of beans
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
½ pound ground chuck, 80% lean
2 Tablespoons ground chile powder
½ teaspoon ground chipotle powder
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
for the frybread:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¼ cups warm water
shredded iceberg lettuce (yes, iceberg.)
diced sweet onion
shredded sharp cheddar cheese
sour cream, thinned with a little cream or milk for drizzling
hot sauce or salsa if desired
- For the chili: soak the beans overnight in water to cover or do a quick soak – in water to cover, bring the beans to a boil for 1 minute then let sit, covered, for 1 hour.
- If soaked overnight drain, cover with fresh water, bring to boil and simmer until tender, about 1-2 hours. If you used the quick soak method, there’s not need to drain; just use the same water to futher cook the beans. Alternatively, you can certainly used canned beans, well rinsed and drained. I just have a real thing for Rancho Gordo piquinos in my chili. They’re amazing.
- In a large saucepan, heat the Tablespoon of oil over medium high heat and sauté the onions until soft, tender and translucent; about 5-8 minutes.
- Add the minced jalapeno and garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute.
- Add the ground beef and cook, breaking the beef into small pieces, until cooked through. I’ve found a potato masher works well for this.
- Add the chile and chipotle powders, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to combine.
- Add the tomatoes and water, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Stir in the drained beans, which should be tender but not falling apart. Cook on low, lid slightly ajar, to combine the flavors, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
- At this point you can keep the chili warm while you make and fry the bread or let cool and store in the fridge until needed. Reheat before using.
- For the frybread dough: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder to combine.
- Make a well in the center and add the water, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine.
- Knead the dough with your hands until smooth and all the dry bits are incorporated.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest at least 15 minutes.
- To shape: cut the dough into 8 equal pieces and working with one piece at a time keeping the remaining pieces covered to prevent drying, roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into 6″ rounds about ¼” thick.
- Dust each side of the dough round lightly with flour and place, in a single layer, on parchment lined sheet pans. Cover with a kitchen towel to prevent drying.
- To fry: prepare your equipment – place a wire rack in a sheet plan and set aside until needed. Heat at least 1” vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pan – a cast iron skillet is perfect – to 350°F.
- Gently and carefully place one of the dough rounds into the hot oil and fry until crispy and puffy on the outside but still moist and pliable on the inside, about 2-3 minutes per side. The dough will sink at first, then rise and will likely pop and sputter so be careful and make sure you’re using a deep enough pan to contain the spattering oil. The dough should be cooked just until it’s puffed and bubbly – don’t let it get too brown or it will be crisp – you want a nice pliant, chewy fried dough.
- Transfer the cooked frybread to the rack lined sheet pan and and spinkle lightly with salt while warm. Continue with the remaining pieces of dough. Make sure the oil is back to 350° before adding the next piece of dough. It’s important to maintain that 350° temperature during frying. If too low, the bread will be heavy and greasy. Too high, and it will cook too quickly on the outside yet remain raw on the inside. Maintaining 350° is key. If desired, place the sheet pan with the fried dough in a low oven – 200°F or so – to keep warm while you finish frying.
- At this point, you can eat the frybread as is while hot and warm. I like a little powdered sugar or honey drizzled on top. Or you make tacos.
- For the tacos: top the warm, freshly fried bread with chili, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and onions, cheese and a drizzle of sour cream. Serve immediately. This is a messy, knife-and-fork kind of dish. Have plenty of napkins and cold beer within easy reach.