Make-Ahead Taco Salad: Perfect for lunch or dinner

Great for lunch or dinner, vegetarians or omnivores!
The other day, I posted this on Facebook: Fact: Taco salad is the best salad. Not a single person dissented; many agreed quite vocally. Seriously, what’s not to love? Taco salad can feel somewhat virtuous (though frequently it’s far from it), it’s a little more kicky than your usual garden greens, and it’s fairly customizable. One complaint I often hear about eating salad for lunch is that you wind up hungry by 3pm. Not so with a taco salad! There’s so much happening in there, so many good, filling ingredients, that you’ll be satisfied till supper.

When I was growing up, we’d often have taco salad for dinner. Matthew and I loved this meal and happily ate it out of an enormous salad bowl in which Papa tossed everything together, but if you have fussy little ones, it’s easy to do individual plates of taco salad, omitting the undesirable ingredients as needed. Feeding a crowd? For heaven’s sake, make a taco salad! I’ve yet to meet a person who was not delighted by the appearance of a bowl of these Mexi-ish greens.

I was a vegetarian for about half my life, so I typically make this salad without any meat, but you can add in whatever you like. My Papa used to cook up seasoned ground beef to toss in, and if I like to make Mike really happy, I’ll sometimes grill up a marinated chicken breast to shred. But even without meat, it’s plenty filling and quick to make. Perhaps best of all, you can pack it for lunch (even pack it days before) and have the best lunch ever at the office. Below is my recipe to feed a family of four, but below the main recipe I have included tips and quantities for making two lunch-size portions (and how to pack them). I usually prep 2 dinner salads in big bowls and make leftover lunch salads at the same time with the full 4-serving quantities.

Basic Taco Salad

Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 20 minutes | Serves: 4

Ingredients

6 tablespoons sour cream

6 tablespoons fresh salsa

3 tablespoons chili sauce (we like Heinz)

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauce

Salt and pepper

12 to 16 ounces romaine lettuce, chopped

2 cans (15.5 ounces each) black or small pink beans (pinquitos), rinsed and drained

1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved (or 2 medium tomatoes, diced)

kernels from 2 cobs of corn (or 1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed)

1 large bell pepper, diced

4 scallions, sliced (or 1/2 white onion, diced)

1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar, Colby Jack, or Monterey Jack cheese (6 ounces)

4 handfuls tortilla chips, lightly crushed into bite-size pieces

cooked taco meat or shredded cooked chicken breast, diced avocado, sliced black olives, cilantro leaves, toasted pepitas (optional)

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, stir together sour cream, salsa, chili sauce, cumin, and onion powder. Season to taste with Tabasco, salt, and pepper.
  2. In a large bowl, toss together lettuce, beans, tomatoes, corn, bell pepper, scallions, cheese, and dressing (along with any optional mix-ins). Divide among four plates and top with crushed chips.

For two lunch servings (note reduced quantities):

In a small bowl, stir together 3 tablespoons sour cream; 3 tablespoons fresh salsa; 1.5 tablespoons chili sauce; 1/4 teaspoon chili powder; 1/8 teaspoon cumin; and 1/8 teaspoon onion powder. Season with Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauce, salt, and pepper to taste. Divide the dressing between two 4- or 6-cup storage containers with tight-fitting lids (we use yogurt tubs). Splitting quantities between the two containers, layer the following items in this order to prevent sogginess: a handful of diced tomatoes (about 6 grape tomatoes per container); 1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained; kernels from 1 cob of corn (or 3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed); 1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced; 2 scallions, sliced; 1/2 pound romaine lettuce, shredded (about 4 handfuls per container); 3/4 cup shredded cheese (3 ounces). Cheese always goes on top! In a small bag, pack a handful of chips (don’t worry about them getting crushed; you’ll be crushing them shortly anyway). Refrigerate. At lunchtime, shake like the dickens or toss in a bowl with crumbled chips. Enjoy the envious stares. [Note: The photo below shows the dressing kept separate, which you can also do. I just don’t have tiny containers like that anymore and I learned it’ll do fine in the base of your 4-cup container!]

Notes:

  1. You can substitute Greek yogurt for the sour cream, if you like.
  2. If you choose to include avocado in your make-ahead salad (I like to), dice it and toss it with some lime juice, then put it on the very bottom of your lunch container before you add the dressing. The dressing will blanket the avocado to protect it from the oxygen/keep it from browning.
  3. If you put shredded chicken in your lunch salad, pack it on top of the lettuce, like the cheese (ground meat can go on the bottom).

Pack it the right way and your salad will be perfect at lunchtime.

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6 comments

  1. Sara – October 15, 2012 at 15:28

    Looks delicious, but my tongue fears overly spicy foods. How spicy would you say this is as described above, on a scale of “I can lick 30 tigers today!” to “Mama, please”?

    • Heather – October 15, 2012 at 15:38

      I wouldn’t consider this dressing spicy at all—I’d serve it to kids without any qualms—but the best thing is that you can customize this dressing, since you can season as you go. (Nothing in the salad is spicy on its own.) If you don’t add any Tabasco, this’ll be pretty mild, particularly if you use mild salsa. The chili sauce is not the spicy Asian kind, it’s the tomato-y kind (as one reader on Facebook pointed out, it’s often made by Heinz) and won’t add a ton of heat. Chili powder, as spicy agents go, tends to be pretty mild too. If you want to play it super-duper safe, use half the amount of chili powder, stir, and taste. I think you’ll find you can use the whole amount. If you’re happy with using only half the chili powder, just up the quantity of cumin a little. Also, green Tabasco is far more mild than classic red Tabasco—I find the flavor vastly preferable and I tend to drown my food in the stuff, as it’s more tangy than sock-knocking-off spicy. I encourage you to try it! If you omit the Tabasco, I’d recommend adding a small squeeze of lime juice to the dressing to replace the zip that’ll be missing.

      • Sara – December 4, 2012 at 22:16

        You were right – it’s delicious! I put green chilies (use what you have) and the juice of half a line in the dressing instead of Tabasco. I also whizzed the dressing with an immersion blender so it would smooth out the chunks, which I will do again. I skipped the cilantro and the olives, and added chicken with some taco seasoning on it. LOVE.

  2. Bill Scurry – October 15, 2012 at 14:24

    I see what you did there…

  3. Bill Scurry – October 15, 2012 at 14:12

    This is my favorite.

    • Heather – October 15, 2012 at 14:23

      It takes longer to order a salad than it does to make this! You can do it, Bill. (I will not bother giving you tips on how to make the dressing more complicated and tasty, like pureeing a can of chipotle peppers in adobo and then stirring a little of that puree in with the salsa. Nope. I will not.)

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