Carb Solutions: The Taco Shell
By Dennis Linden
Over half of the U.S. adult population, some 154 million, qualify as being overweight or obese. Another 29 million of us have Diabetes, many as a direct result of being overweight. Then there are the 23.9 million overweight children who are dutifully following the example of their XXL adult role models. Diabetes and these extra pounds cost this country billions annually in both medical and economic resources; not to mention the affect these weight-related maladies have on a person’s overall mental well-being and happiness. However, both diabetes and being overweight are very manageable, even preventable, with a few lifestyle tweaks. By maintaining a sensible diet in conjunction with some consistent exercise, no matter how minimal, we can all be in total control of our own weight. One easy way to start taking that control is to make decisions about the foods we eat based on the glycemic index [GI] and glycemic load [GL].
Simply put, our bodies convert all foods into sugar calories that provide energy to the body via the blood stream. The Glycemic Index assigns a score of 1 to 100 to all foods based how speedy the body converts that food into sugar. Foods that break down slowly enable the body to assimilate theses calories of energy more efficiently without overwhelming the body with more sugar than it can process. While this is especially important for diabetics who process sugars much slower than others, everyone can benefit from eating foods that have low glycemic scores since they also reduce appetite and encourage the metabolism to burn body fat. Conversely, a diet of foods high on the glycemic charts have been proven to actually increase appetite and impede effective fat oxidation.
A Quickie Glycemic Primer:
- The glycemic index of a food compares its effect on blood sugar level to that of pure glucose, which has a score of 100. White breads, which are made of processed white flour, are at the top of this scale, scoring a “perfect” 100 on the glycemic index. For perspective, a score of 55 or below denotes a low-glycemic-index food; 70 or above is considered very high. Serving size is not a consideration in arriving at a food’s Glycemic Index number.
- The glycemic load, on the other hand, focuses on how much digestible carbohydrates (sugars) a food contains in a typical single serving, which is defined as approximately 3.5 ounces. For glycemic load, a score of 20 or more is high, while 10 or less is low.
Since being diagnosed with Diabetes-2 some twenty years ago, these two scores have become the rudder that guides my own meal plans. It is hoped that the dishes featured in this monthly blog will inspire readers to develop the habit of checking both the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load scores of a recipe’s main ingredients before preparation and cooking with more fresh produce to lower those scores. Here is one very basic list that I reference before starting to prepare any meal.
A quick Internet search for low-carb tortilla recipes will produce many glycemic-friendly alternatives for this iconic component of Mexican cuisine. Unfortunately, most of these options are only successful at replicating the role of the tortilla as a food holder, while falling short in both texture and taste, especially when it comes to finding a satisfying stand-in for the crunchy corn-based taco shell.
One cannot deny the low calorie count of a lettuce wrap, for instance; however, it’s a stretch of the culinary imagination to try to trick one’s palate into believing that a piece of red leaf lettuce can actually do the same work as traditionally-prepared masa flour! There are also many Paleo and diabetic sites that tout no-grain formulas promising authentic tortillas using ingredients like almond, chick pea and/or coconut flours. I know—I tried them all in a never-ending quest for the perfect crunchy taco shell substitute. While all these recipes do produce round, thin, baked goods that resemble a flour tortilla, let there be no mistaken identity here…the result is definitely crepe-like in both texture and taste, albeit without grain-based flour. However, if you are looking for a crunch factor, don’t waste the salsa on these recipes of false hope!
In fact, after many dedicated hours of stovetop research, I have had to face the culinary reality that there is no real substitute for the crunch of a corn taco shell in all its bad-fat, high-carb glory! So get over it – sometimes it’s best to learn to accept life’s trade-offs when it comes to good health. Having said that, I can recommend one low-carb option with a crunch that does comes close – the cheese taco shell.
For the demo photos in this feature I used two rounds of pre-sliced provolone cheese. The cheese itself is rather neutral in flavor (bland), and using the conveniently sliced round makes shaping almost pre-done too. I use Melissa’s Hatch Chili Powder to add a touch more flavor to the cheese shells, but one could use almost any seasoning or herb combination to taste. I also make cheese taco shells with hand-grated cheddar cheese successfully, though the provolone make for a little more consistent uniformity.
The repurposing of the cheese into a crunchy taco shell will take a bit of practice. Try to work through the culinary doubt that is sure to set in as the cheese heats up and starts to bubble in the pan – looking more like a puddle of cheese than a tortilla! Hang in there. Use a spatula to push and pull the edges of that “puddle” until the blade can be slipped under the firming cheese. When it feels cooked through enough, quickly flip the cheese patty over for a one-minute sauté before laying out on the rack to shape. That “rack” is simply a long-handled wooden spoon suspended between two tall containers.
Of course, what goes in the taco filling is a matter of taste. The shredded chicken for this recipe was prepared by boiling a chicken breast in water seasoned with garlic, onion and chili powder. Not only does this flavor the chicken but also creates the broth called for in the recipe.
Taking control of one’s diet sometimes requires a bit of give ‘n take. A cheesy taco shell will be a little chewy compared to the corn version, but there is also plenty of tasty crunchiness. Can one tell the difference – yes and that is the healthy trade off, which is really summed up in the glycemic scores. Corn Taco Shell = 68 (GI) – Fried Cheese Taco Shell = 0 (GI).
Low-Carb Chicken Tacos!
1 pound Chicken Breast, shredded
½ cup Cilantro, chopped
1 cup Red Onion, chopped
¾ cup Chicken Broth
1 package Melissa’s Hot Taco Seasoning Mix
1 package Melissa’s Steamed Red Kidney Beans
2 rounds of Pre-Sliced Provolone Cheese Per Shell
1 Tablespoon Hatch Chile Powder
Canola oil, as needed
Melissa’s Hatch Chile Salsa
1 Hass Avocado, sliced
Preparation - Taco Filling:
In a large sauté pan, simmer shredded chicken, onion, cilantro, ½ cup of the broth and taco seasoning until liquid is almost completely cooked away.
Mix in the red kidney beans and the other ¼ cup of broth, cook another 5 minutes until all liquid is absorbed.
Preparation - Taco shells (repeat for each shell):
Overlap 2 slices of Provolone cheese sprinkled with Melissa's Hatch Chile Powder in an oiled, preheated, non-stick pan.
As the cheese slices melt together, stretch and shape them with a spatula into one large round.
Cook each side until a deep golden brown; the round should slide easily in the pan.
When done, immediately sandwich each taco round between two pieces of parchment paper and bend in half over a long mixing spoon handle while each is still pliable to form taco.
Plating: Pack each shell with filling, then add a few slices of avocado and top with Hatch Salsa, mild or hot to taste. Enjoy!