One of my best friends used to live in Southern California and some of the best vacations of my life were spent with her and her friends frolicking on the beaches and dancing up a storm in SoCal. Oh my did we have fun! The crowd of us had an annual tradition that I was able to participate in often. I would take time off work and head south to make sure I was down there to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. None of us had any Mexican heritage, but being native Californians, we all love the culture, traditions, and people of Mexico. It is incredibly rich heritage that goes back to at least 1200 B.C. and continues to flourish today. It is the largest country in Latin America and the home of more Spanish speaking people than any other nation in the world. The Mexican families I know are very loving people, incredibly generous and happy to share their wonderful heritage with everyone. I love the music, the language, and the culture. Traveling in Mexico as a child was a life-changing experience for me, one that opened my eyes to a beauty far beyond the borders of my own country.
Our rowdy gang would gather at a Mexican restaurant and bar in swanky Laguna Beach, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the magnificent California coastline. We would get there early to make sure we had a table on the patio and then stay until the early hours of the morning. Singing and dancing in the warm evening breeze, having the time of our lives as only the young can truly do. You never knew who you might see there, because it was a favorite hangout of celebrities. We always had far too many margaritas, nachos, chips and guacamole, but overall what I remember is the friendships with those amazing women. These weekends were brief escapes from our ordinary lives. We all used my arrival as the excuse to let go of our typical responsibilities – we all had corporate jobs – and be young and irresponsible for a couple of days a year. To this day, Cinco de Mayo holds a special place in my heart and I always find some way to celebrate my youth at least that one day a year!
While many mistakenly believe that the fifth of May is Mexico Independence Day, it is actually the celebration of an unlikely military coup in 1862, when the Mexican army won an unlikely victory over Napoleon’s French forces. This represented a significant morale boost for the Mexican people and government, leading to a great sense of civil pride. Cinco de May has become the annual celebration of their heritage and customs. Not unlike St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, and the Chinese New Year celebrate those of Irish, German, and Chinese heritage respectively. And as with all celebrations, Americans are more than happy to have any excuse to celebrate with vigor!
This year I want to share some of my favorite Mexican-inspired recipes with you so that you can create your own Cinco de Mayo celebration. It will be an odd combination of recipes, but each one is near to my heart and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Two of today’s recipes are my own and one comes from a favorite restaurant of ours. If you combine yesterday’s celebration of Mexican chocolate with today’s and tomorrows recipes, you will see what a typical summertime party in California might have on the table.
No party in Southern California would be complete without guacamole and chips. Everyone has favorite ingredients to add to the mashed avocado, but you never know for sure exactly what it will contain. Some make theirs completely bland and others like to make it really hot, but in reality guacamole is used to cool off your palate after eating the other spicy foods. Mine is somewhere in between, with a moderate amount of heat but plenty of richly flavored ingredients. When you combine it with salty tortilla chips and icy cold margaritas, you will swear you can hear the mariachi band playing in the background as you gaze over the Pacific at sunset!
One of my favorite soups is Tortilla Soup. A richly seasoned chicken soup that is garnished with tortilla strips, avocado, tomatoes, cheese, and a variety of other ingredients that you like. It is a little like a soup smorgasbord where you can pick what you like to add. The addition of freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice is what really sets it apart from an ordinary chicken soup. It is always a favorite of children and perfect for a do-it-yourself party. Today’s recipe comes from one of the best Mexican restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dona Tomas. Much more authentic than most, you can try foods that you only thought you knew. Their tacos, enchiladas, and burritos are so much better than the ordinary fare, and that is saying quite a bit in our area. We are fortunate to have some truly amazing cooks the create memories of their childhood on every plate they serve.
If you have ever tried to make Tortilla Soup before, you may be rolling your eyes at the thought of having to make the tortilla strips. They are notoriously messy and easy to burn, so they are my least favorite part of making the dish. But this recipe has fixed that challenge by utilizing store-bought tortilla chips that you just crush before serving. So much easier!!
The third recipe is another of my own, developed over the years until I have it down to a fine art. On days when you have a ton of things to do and no time to spend making dinner, this is the perfect recipe. In about 20 minutes you will have the entire dish assembled, then put in the oven and forget about it for a few hours. Dinner will be ready when you get back to the house. I have added directions for cooking it in a slow cooker if you need to make it early in the morning and leave it all day. This is one of those recipes that gets better with time and is actually better on the second day. That makes it perfect for parties, pot lucks, and other celebrations where you don’t want to spend the entire evening in the kitchen.
Pick out a few of these recipes or others of your favorites, make a pitcher of margaritas, and enjoy the beautiful heritage of the Mexican people as you celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And don’t forget, there are three more coming tomorrow! Ole!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Don’t bother to save the pit, the secret to keeping Guacamole fresh and stop it from turning brown is to prevent any air from coming into contact with the surface of the dip. Placing plastic wrap directly on the Guacamole will give you a beautifully green, fresh dip every time.
- 3 to 4 ripe avocados, seeded, peeled and cubed
- Fresh tomato salsa, 1/2 to 1 cup
- 2 to 3 shallots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 to 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Juice from 2 limes
- Tortilla Chips
- 1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
- The easiest way to work with avocados is to slice them in half lengthwise and twist to separate halves. Using a very sharp chef’s knife carefully hit the pit with the knife and twist it to release the pit. Then using a large serving spoon that is about the same size as the avocado, slip it just under the skin and scoop it out in one solid piece. Set cut side down on cutting board and dice.
- Place avocado in a medium bowl. Mash with a fork, leaving some chunks. Gently stir in salsa, shallots, cilantro, onion powder, garlic, salt and pepper to combine. Add lime juice, a tablespoon at a time, until you’ve reached a good flavor balance.
- Tear off a piece of plastic wrap and place it directly on the surface of the guacamole. Press to the sides of the dish and refrigerate at least one hour or until ready to use. The flavor of the salt and seasonings won’t fully develop for a while so start lightly and add more if needed. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving. Sprinkle diced tomatoes over the top for added color and texture.
- Let warm up slightly before serving with tortilla chips.
- Yield: about 10 servings
- 1-1/2 quarts chicken broth
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 white onion, cut into -1/3-inch dice
- 1 tsp chopped garlic
- 1/2 jalapeno chile, stemmed, and seeded if you want it cooler; chopped finely
- 2 heirloom or vine-ripened tomatoes, stemmed and cut into 1/3-inch dice
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 bunch cilantro, stemmed and chopped
- 2 cups shredded cooked chicken (can be from a store-bought rotisserie chicken)
- Kosher salt to taste
- 2 to 3 cups loosely crushed tortilla chips, in fairly small pieces
- Place the broth in a large saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
- In a separate soup pot, heat the oil over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until translucent, stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent burning. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds, stirring constantly until the aroma is released. Add the jalapeno and tomatoes, and lightly sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and half of the cilantro, and then remove the pan from the heat.
- Pour the broth into the pot of sautéed vegetables. Place the pot back on the stovetop over high heat until it boils. Add a few pinches of salt, reduce heat to medium, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, until the flavors completely fuse. Add half of the shredded chicken (reserve the remainder for another use) and simmer for about 5 minutes, adjusting the seasoning with salt if necessary.
- Ladle the soup into large bowls and top each with 1/2 cup of the crushed tortilla chips. Divide the remaining cilantro among the bowls. The garnish must be crispy and fresh and sized so that it fits on a soup spoon and provides appropriate contrast.
- The soup can be refrigerated in a covered container for up to 3 days and reheated as necessary, but the tortilla and cilantro garnish should always be added at the last minute.
- Yield: 6 servings (1 cup each); about 1-1/2 quarts
- 2 to 3 lb boneless pork shoulder or country ribs
- 1 medium to large onion, sliced thinly
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (19 oz) can Green Chile Enchilada Sauce (I prefer Las Palmas or Herdez brands)
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp ground ancho chili powder
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1 (14.5 oz) can fire roasted tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, washed well, patted dry and leaves chopped, divided
- Sour cream, for garnishing
- Trim pork of excess fat and connective tissue, and then cut into 1 to 2-inch cubes. In a 9x13-inch baking pan spread sliced onions over bottom and top with cubed pork. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- In a large bowl or an 8-cup Pyrex cup, combine the enchilada sauce with the cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and sugar. Whisk until smooth. Stir in tomatoes and water. There will be about 4 cups of liquid.
- Pour over pork and onions. Cover pan tightly with foil. Bake at 350°F for about 2-1/2 hours or until meat is falling apart. Remove foil, spoon off accumulated fat, and return to oven for about 15 minutes or until pork begins to brown. Stir in half of the chopped cilantro.
- Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Serve immediately with fresh tortillas.
- If you want to make this in a slow cooker, combine everything and cook on High for about 4 to 5 hours. Make sure not to lift the lid while cooking!
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings