Cinco de Mayo, “fifth of May,” is a vibrant Mexican-American celebration that honors Mexican heritage and pride. It is a minor holiday south of the U.S. border, except in Puebla, a state in East-Central Mexico. The holiday is predominately celebrated in the United States. How did that come to be?
The roots of Cinco de Mayo reach back to the American Civil War and Mexico’s Franco-Mexican War. In the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, Mexico’s ill-equipped army defeated an overconfident French army as it attempted to establish colonies by force. It wasn’t a strategic victory for Mexico, but established collective self-esteem and came to symbolize the fight for freedom and justice on Mexican soil — and in the United States. (France was sympathetic to the “states in rebellion,” not the Union.) The Mexican army sang victory songs to the tune of France’s national anthem, Marseillaise. President Benito Juárez proclaimed May 5 a Mexican holiday, but it was never as popular as Independence Day on Sept. 16.
In 1769, the first Mexicans settled in Mexico’s Alta California territory. In 1850, the area became the State of California under the United States’ control. One of the first documented Cinco de Mayo celebrations was in Columbia, Ca. in 1864, with the Mexican and American flags being raised.
Large-scale celebrations came into vogue in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of the “Chicano” movement. Cinco de Mayo may have originated from an event in Puebla, Mexico, but it became an American tradition celebrated from coast to coast.
Festivities include chili cook-offs, colorful parades, folk dancing, lively mariachi music, Chihuahua races and fabulous food. The spicy, cheesy, meaty dishes of Tex-Mex cuisine are defined as, “native foreign foods,” born in Texas, but inspired by Mexico. Arroz Rojo (red rice), enchiladas, frozen Margaritas and chips with salsa are classic Tex-Mex. The cuisine was influenced by home cooking of the Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent), transplanted Canary Islanders with their love of cumin and street vendors like the San Antonio “chili queens,” who sold chili con carne and tacos.
Southwestern cuisine consists of trendy, upscale dishes like Sautéed Chicken with Tomatillo-Cilantro Sauce. This popular influence lends an elegant nuance to Tex-Mex foods and is popular throughout the Western states. California’s Cal-Mex emphasizes healthy, lighter dishes. New Mexico’s signature dishes are often based on chilies, often offered in a restaurant as, “red or green.”
Cinco de Mayo is about freedom and liberty. Consider the Mexican flag’s tricolor background of red, white and green, then work these colors into menus and decorations. The photograph for this article includes patriotic splashes of color in the chips, guacamole, berry Margaritas, red rice, green tomatillo sauce and lacy flour tortilla “doilies.” Friends and family will enjoy these festive, easy-to-prepare foods that are a fun way to celebrate freedom!
The tangy marinated pineapple cubes can be eaten as a fruit salad, a refreshing dessert or laced on short skewers to compliment cold drinks like aqua frescas, sangrias and Margaritas.
1 pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into cubes
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or basil
Fresh-squeezed juice of 1 plump lime
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh-grated fresh gingerroot
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Allow the fruit to sit 30 minutes at room temperature. Refrigerate if not served right away. Serves 4 to 6.
A Mexican molcajete, or mortar with a pestle, is commonly made of porous volcanic stone. It will need to be seasoned before use. Use it for grinding spices, seeds and seasoning pastes. It makes a unique serving dish for guacamole. Authentic guacamole, like the recipe below, doesn’t contain mayonnaise or sour cream.
4 ripe avocados
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, finely minced (or to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
3 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 ripe medium tomato, seeded and chopped into small pieces
Chips or crisp veggies
Scoop avocado flesh out of the shells. Put into a molcajete or large bowl with all the remaining ingredients, except tomatoes. Mash coarsely with a pestle or a large fork, leaving some of the avocado in chunky pieces. Stir in tomato. Serve with chips or veggies.
Fresh Mango Salsa
Serve this fruity salsa over grilled fish or chicken, or as a salad on baby leaf lettuce, or with sturdy tortilla chips for scooping up as a healthy appetizer.
1 large ripe mango, peeled, cut in small dice
1/2 cucumber, seeded, cut in small dice
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded, cut in small dice
Fresh-squeezed juice of 2 plump limes or lemons
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
2 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
1/2 jalapeño, seeded and finely minced
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving the salsa in an attractive serving bowl. Serves 4.
Sautéed Chicken with Tomatillo-Cilantro Sauce
This festive chicken dish begins with delicious, ready-made Mexican verde cooking sauce in a jar. It is easily found in local grocery stores. Made with tomatillos, the flavor of the sauce is enhanced even further with additional ingredients. Tomatillos are a tart, green tomato, not botanically related to the red tomato. Select firm fruits, peel off the outer husks and rinse to remove any stick residue. Raw tomatillos can be added to numerous dishes. The tart flavor mellows with cooking.
About 1/2 cup flour
2 to 3 teaspoons red chili powder blend
Sea and black pepper, to taste
1 (12-ounce) jar Herdez® Tomatillo Verde Mexican Cooking Sauce
1/3 packed cup cilantro leaves
1 or 2 tomatillos, cut in quarters
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, more if needed
4 small skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, trimmed (about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese, or a blend
Fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish
Blend flour, chili powder, salt and pepper in a large zip-lock bag; set aside. In a blender, blend tomatillo sauce, cilantro and fresh tomatillos until smooth. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Drop chicken into the bag of seasoned flour; coat well. Sauté 2 to 3 minutes on both sides until golden brown. (Chicken won’t be completely done.) Remove chicken and pour off most of the fat in the pan, if desired. Add garlic to the pan; sauté 30 seconds, then stir in the reserved tomatillo sauce. Put chicken breasts back into the pan, on the sauce. Cover pan and simmer on medium-low heat 8 to 10 minutes or until they are done. If tomatillo mixture reduces too much, blend in a little chicken broth or even cream for a richer-tasting sauce. Sprinkle cheese over chicken pieces during the last 5 minutes cooking time. Taste sauce to adjust seasoning, if desired. Serve chicken topped with sauce; add a cilantro garnish. Serves 4.
Arroz Rojo is the basic red rice that you see on many Mexican restaurant menus. Too often, it lacks real flavor. Texmati rice has the aroma of popcorn and a nutty taste. It requires slightly less water than other types of long-grain rice. The recipe is versatile; you might add 1/2 cup thawed green peas, blanched diced carrots, corn or black beans about five minutes before the rice is done. Chopped fresh herbs or minced hot chilies are also a tasty addition. Salsa or tomato juice can be substituted for half of the chicken stock; omit the tomato paste.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (or olive oil)
1 cup Texmati rice (American Basmati), or other long-grain rice
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1-3/4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup thin sliced green onion
1/2 cup chopped tomato
Heat oil and butter in a medium saucepan placed over medium-high heat. Sauté the rice, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes or until slightly opaque. Add onion, garlic and cumin; stir 1 minute more. Whisk salt and tomato paste into stock. Pour into rice and bring to a boil. Cover pan and reduce heat to low. Simmer 18 to 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed into the rice. Remove from heat and let rice stand, covered, 5 more minutes. Mix in green onion and tomato; serve with lime wedges.
Frozen Blueberry Crema
Crema fresca is a rich, buttery Mexican sour cream. It is less thick than American sour cream, and some types are pourable, although they won’t whip. Some formulations are also slightly salty. Check Mexican markets and large supermarkets for quality brands like Crema Supremo® and Cacique. Or make your own in the recipe that follows.
1-1/2 cups fresh blueberries, or thawed, drained blueberries
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground Mexican cinnamon or other cinnamon
Fresh-squeezed juice of 1 plump lemon
1 teaspoon Mexican vanilla or other vanilla
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup Homemade Crema Fresca (recipe below) or crème fraîche, or sour cream
Simmer berries in a small saucepan with sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice until berries pop. Stir often. Put berry mixture into a blender and process until smooth. Cool mixture, then add vanilla, cream and crema fresca. Pulse the on-and-off button a few times, just to blend ingredients. Taste mixture; adjust sugar or lemon juice, if desired. Scrape mixture into a container; cover and chill several hours. Freeze ice cream base in an ice cream machine, following the manufacturer›s directions. When churned, scoop frozen crema into an airtight container and freeze at least two hours before serving. Serve within 1 to 2 days.
Homemade Crema Fresca
Mexican crema can be used like sour cream in a variety of Tex-Mex and Southwestern dishes. This homemade version is especially delicious and easy to make. It resembles homemade French crème fraîche and can even be used in cooking without fear of curdling.
1 cup pasteurized heavy cream (without additives and not ultra pasteurized)
3 tablespoons cultured buttermilk
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the cream to 85 degrees F, using an instant-read thermometer. Stir in buttermilk. Pour mixture into a sterilized jar. Partially cover then leave jar at room temperature (out of cool drafts) 18 to 24 hours to ripen and thicken slightly. A perfect spot is under a tea cozy. Stir when thickened, then top with a lid and refrigerate 24 hours before use. The cream will thicken further as it chills. Keeps about 10 days. Makes about 1 cup.
Biscochitos are the state cookie of New Mexico. They can be colorfully decorated for Cinco de Mayo or served with a simple cinnamon-sugar coating. The cookies are usually made with lard and anise seeds, which give the cookies a subtle licorice flavor. To include them, grind 2 teaspoons freshly toasted anise seeds and stir into the dough as you are making it.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar, divided
1 large egg
3 tablespoons Amontillado sherry or medium-dry Madeira (Rainwater) or brandy, or orange juice
3 tablespoons cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Cream butter, shortening and 1/2 cup sugar in a mixer until fluffy. Beat in egg and sherry. Reduce mixer speed to low, and add flour mixture; beat just to combine ingredients. Divide dough into 3 parts. Combine cinnamon with remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Roll out each dough piece, sprinkling with 1/3 of the cinnamon-sugar. With 2-inch cookie cutters, carefully cut out shapes. (Chill dough if too soft.) Cut cookies closely together, discarding scraps. Put cookies on a baking sheet 1-inch apart, and bake 10 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Reduce oven heat slightly if too hot. Cool cookies on a rack, then serve plain or decorate with colored icings, as desired. Makes about 6 dozen cookies.
Frozen Berry Margaritas
It is widely reported that Dallas socialite Margaret Sames created the classic Margarita in 1948, in Acapulco, Mexico. A top U.S. cocktail, the Margarita is a favorite Cinco de Mayo drink. Top-shelf tequila isn’t necessary for margaritas. Tequila is either 100 percent agave, made entirely in Mexico from the agave plant, or mixto, blended with sugar and water during distillation. Of several tequila varieties, unaged blanco (a.k.a. silver) provides more agave flavor. Reposado (“rested”) tequila, aged up to a year, has a smooth taste with warm notes. Unaged Joven (“young”) and oro (“gold”) is a sweeter tequila with caramel created for the American marketplace and good for mixed drinks. Fine Añejo (“aged”) is best for sipping and may be aged up to three years. Agave nectar or syrup can add a touch of sweetness to your Margarita and enhance the agave flavor.
1 (12-ounce) can frozen raspberry lemonade concentrate or frozen pink lemonade concentrate
1 cup golden tequila (or other type)
1/3 cup orange liqueur (Grand Mariner, Cointreau or Triple Sec)
1 cup chilled, fresh, medium-size strawberries (about 12)
1 cup chilled fresh raspberries (6 ounces) or strawberries
4 to 5 cups ice, or as needed
2 halved limes and Margarita salt
Two limes, sliced
In a blender, combine lemonade concentrate, tequila, orange liqueur and the berries. Cover tightly and blend. Fill the blender nearly to the top with ice cubes. Blend mixture until thick and slushy, and no ice cubes remain. Serve immediately in glasses with rims moistened with cut limes then dipped into Margarita salt. Garnish with lime slices. Makes 5 to 6 Margaritas.
The Margaritas can be stored in the freezer in a large container or portioned into small freezer jars for individual servings. Cover and freeze up to 1 week. Remove jars from the freezer just before serving; dip jar rims into lime juice and margarita salt, if desired. Tequila prevents the mixture from freezing solid. Break up the frozen mixture in each jar until a bit slushy; garnish with lime slices and serve.
Flour tortilla bowls can be produced by a free-form method or shaped using a set of Tortilla Shell Makers, available in cookware stores and online. To make a free-form bowl, use a large, soft, pliable flour tortilla, at room temperature. Drape the tortilla over the back of an oven-proof bowl of the appropriate size. Place in a 235 degree oven 10-12 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Keep an eye on the bowl as it bakes; turn occasionally, as needed. The bowl will continue to crisp-up as it cools. A tortilla can also be pressed inside an oven-proof bowl, but it may not bake as evenly. Bowls can be made in multiples. Use to hold foods like salads or chips. Or, dust with cinnamon sugar and fill with ice cream or pudding and toppings. Tip: Flower tortillas can be folded and cut with kitchen scissors into “snowflake” designs before being baked into bowls, baskets and even lacy doilies.