A Cinco de Mayo Fiesta

Tacos al Pastor at Taste of Mexico

Tacos al Pastor at Taste of Mexico

Tacos are trendy, so I’m reprising a 2009 In The Kitchen column in the Princeton Packet, which I’ve lightly updated. The article offers a little history along with a menu comprised of a nice green salsa of avocados and tomatillos, one of my favorite tacos, and a chocolate flan for dessert. Invite your friends over and go to it – and remember the margaritas!

Fiesta for Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is maybe even more enthusiastically celebrated by Mexican descendants in the United States than in their homeland, as a way of keeping old traditions alive.

The day is often erroneously referred to as Mexican Independence Day, although Mexico had declared its independence years before, on September 16, 1810.  Cinco de Mayo celebrates the May 5, 1862 victory of the Mexican Army against French forces at the battle of Puebla.  Sadly, that victory was short lived; within days the French forces had rallied and Puebla was captured, opening the way to Mexico City, and the defeat of Mexican President Benito Juarez.  With the help of the Mexican Conservative party, Louis Napoleon imposed Maximilian of Hapsburg as Mexico’s emperor in 1864.  But on June 5, 1867, Juarez entered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration.

This was the triumph of the Mexican Republic, and today, on Cinco de Mayo, restaurants all over, but especially in Puebla and Mexico City, offer that flower of Mexican cuisine, mole Poblano.  I have written about this complex dish before, so I do not include it here, but it’s on the menu at A Taste of Mexico, the little place in the Princeton Shopping Center, with a second location uptown behind Cox’s Market.

The recipes below are a sprinkling of dishes from all over, not necessarily holiday fare, but the making of a casual fiesta of your own.  I used to buy Wholly Guacamole’s Guaca Salsa at Wegmans, and Trader Joe’s briefly had an excellent version when they first opened here that I still crave. But there’s an easy recipe for it below from  “Celebración, Recipes & Traditions Celebrating Latino Family Life,” written for the National Council of LaRaza, the Latino advocacy group. (The recipe makes a lot, so feel free to downsize.)

When I plan a Mexican menu, I have a preference for the more casual dishes, but then when it’s time for dessert, I’m in the mood for something a little more elegant.  The modern take on flan below, really dresses up a meal, Mexican or otherwise. Of course, you could also seek out some chocolate-chili ice cream! (The Bent Spoon, maybe, or Mrs. Green’s.)

Avocado-Salsa Dip

Adapted from “Celebración,” Regina Cordova, Main Street/Doubleday, 1996

Makes 5 1/2 cups

1 pound (about 15 small) tomatillos

1 medium white onion, quartered

2 ripe avocados (peeled and pitted)

1/2 cup cilantro leaves

7 to 10 jalapeno chilies, rinsed, stemmed, and halved

3 large cloves garlic

2 teaspoons salt

Tortilla chips

  1. Remove husks from tomatillos and rinse under warm water to remove stickiness. Slice in half.
  1. Place tomatillos, onion, avocado, cilantro, jalapenos, garlic, and salt in a blender or food processor. Purée, adding up to 1 cup of water as needed, at medium speed for about 1 minute until smooth yet thick. Season to taste. Serve with chips.

Tacos al Pastor

Adapted from http://www.world-food-and-wine.com

Note: This will make enough for 16 tacos or tostados (flat tacos).  The chiles called for here are dried, not too spicy, and available in many supermarkets, Mexican grocers, or try Savory Spice Shop. You can heat the tortillas in the oven, wrapped in foil, but I prefer to blister them on a skillet or the stove top grill shown in this recent post. F.B.

10 chiles pasilla (dried)

10 chiles guajillo (dried)

4 cloves garlic

5 whole cloves (or 1/4 teaspoon ground)

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups white vinegar

1 cup chopped pineapple (fresh or canned, but not in syrup)

2 pounds pork, boneless chops, or shoulder if you like it fattier

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

2 limes, wedged

Corn tortillas, hard taco shells or flat, crisped tortillas for tostadas.

Cut the pork meat in thin steaks or slices and set aside.

  1. Wearing rubber gloves, take seeds out of chiles. Break them into little pieces. Grind in food processor with the garlic, cloves, cumin, and salt. Transfer to a saucepan, add vinegar, and simmer until it makes a heavy paste, stirring frequently. Allow paste to cool.
  1. Slather paste onto pork, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.
  1. Cut pork into bite-size pieces. Heat oil in a large skillet and add pork and pineapple. Sauté until the pork is fully cooked, almost burnt.
  1. Serve the pork in warmed corn tortillas, garnishing with cilantro, onion, and lime wedges. You could also, as does A Taste of Mexico, add shredded cabbage, chopped tomato, and crumbled Mexican cotija cheese.

Modern Mexican Chocolate Flan with Kahlúa

Adapted from “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen,” Scribner, 1996

Makes 6 individual flans

1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar

1 cup half-and-half

1 cup milk

3/4 cup (4 1/2 ounces) finely chopped Mexican chocolate

1 inch cinnamon stick, preferably Mexican canela

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon Kahlúa or other coffee liqueur

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

  1. Set six custard cups into a baking pan deep enough to hold about 2 inches of water. Measure 1/2 cup sugar into a small heavy saucepan. Dribble in 1/4 cup water and stir to blend. Bring to a boil.  Simmer over medium heat without stirring further, until syrup begins to color.  Swirl pan until syrup is deep amber, and immediately remove from heat and pour some into each cup, tilting ramekin to spread evenly over bottom.
  1. Heat half-and-half and milk in a medium saucepan. Add chocolate and cinnamon stick and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to simmer, stirring, over medium heat, then cover, remove from heat, and steep 20 minutes.  In a large bowl, whisk eggs, Kahlúa, and extracts, then slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture.  Strain into measuring cup or pitcher and divide among the cups.
  1. Preheat oven to 325. Pour 2 inches very hot water around cups, and lay a sheet of foil loosely over the top (do not seal). Bake 25 minutes or until a knife inserted into center of a cup comes out clean.
  1. Cool in pan, then refrigerate cups to chill. To unmold, run knife around edge of each cup to bottom, twist to loosen custard, invert a plate on top, and turn over to tip out flan.
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