Just as everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, we all join in the fiesta on Cinco de Mayo. But don’t just drink tequila while eating too many cheap tacos — you, and the holiday, both deserve far better.
The intent of honoring Mexican history and culture has been lost to the point that many consider Cinco de Mayo to be Mexico’s Independence Day. Instead, it commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, and the Mexican army’s victory over France in the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867). The day has become a far greater event in the United States, particularly in the Southwest, than it is in Mexico; in the state of Puebla, though, there are still festivals, parades, and celebrations.
Cinco de Mayo comes on Monday. So, play mariachi music and let’s talk about some new party foods.
In Puebla, the iconic street food is the chalupa. Ramon Perez, community organizer of the ONE Village Council, says that these are “sort of like tostadas,” although the base of a chalupa is smaller — only about 3-4” across — than that of a tostada, which uses a standard 6” corn tortilla. Chalupas are topped either with a green sauce (salsa verde) or a red one (salsa roja), and also with crumbled queso fresco. They are often served with shredded meat and with chopped onions, too.
Never having made homemade tortillas, this seemed a worthy project to try preparing from scratch. Alternatively, store-bought corn tortillas can be used and then cut with a biscuit cutter; but that’s not as much fun, or as satisfying. And it’s wasteful, unless you fry up the oddly shaped scraps to make tortilla chips.
But making the tortillas with instant corn masa flour — which only needs to be mixed with water to form a dough that’s very easy to work with — is really easy to do. And the freshly fried, rustic-looking, golden, crispy tidbits of goodness are irresistible even without any toppings. The chalupa bases only get better with salsa and with cheese.
Mr. Perez says that in Puebla, Cinco de Mayo dishes often also include mole Poblano, a dark sauce with peppers and chocolate; molotes, half-moons of dough that have been stuffed and fried; chilies en Nogada, stuffed poblano chilies covered with a walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds; pork barbacoa (barbecued); churros, fried strips of sugared dough often dipped in chocolate sauce; and Nevado, a whiskey and fruit drink. A Tex-Mex-style feast would include rice, beans, corn chips, guacamole, pan dulce (a Mexican sweet bread), tacos filled with carne asada (seared beef), and margaritas. And in both areas, tres leches cake would usually be served.
But rather than make a standard tres leches cake — one prepared with three variations on milk: whole, evaporated, and sweetened — it seemed appropriate to make an indulgent rice pudding, Arroz con Leche (Rice with Milk), which is a classic comfort food in Mexico. It’s rather like tender rice in a sweet, lusciously rich cream rather than a thick pudding.
So save the nachos for tailgating and the margaritas for happy hour, and try some new foods for your fiesta. ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
- 3 dried Guajillo peppers*
- 1 fresh Fresno chili pepper*
- 1 14.5-ounce can crushed fire-roasted tomatoes with chilies
- 1/2 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1/2 tablesoon oil
- pinch of kosher salt
When this was first made, it was quite spicy; after resting overnight, it was slightly tingly. Puree it if you want a smooth salsa, but the texture is nice if left a bit chunky. Salsa Verde is best made with green tomatoes, which aren’t readily available yet, so a jarred version can be purchased to spread onto some of the chalupas.
Trim the stem ends from the Guajillo peppers and remove seeds; place into a bowl, cover with warm water, and let soak for 30 minutes. Drain the peppers and mince.
While wearing gloves, remove the stem, the seeds, and the membranes from the Fresno pepper; mince. Add the Guajillo and the Fresno peppers to a small bowl along with the remaining ingredients.
Recipe from Mary Bilyeu; Makes 1-3/4 cups.
- 2 cups instant corn masa flour*
- 1-1/2 cups water
- oil, for frying
- Salsa Roja (see recipe)
- 2 cups crumbled queso fresco
Ideally, this is a two-person job: one to roll dough and one to fry tortillas. And it’s more fun to have company in the kitchen! But one person can still do it easily.
In a mixing bowl, combine the masa flour, a pinch of salt, and water; mix well until the dough feels like Play-Dough. Form the dough into 24 golf ball-sized rounds. One at a time, place each ball of dough between two silicone baking liners or two sheets of waxed paper; roll to a 4” diameter, and carefully remove. Set aside, then continue rolling until all the dough has been used up.
In a large deep-sided skillet, heat 1” of oil until very hot.
Three at a time, carefully place the tortillas into the oil; fry for about 30 seconds per side, until golden and crisp, then remove to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle very lightly with salt.
Spread some of the Salsa Roja onto each tortilla, spreading to the edges. Top with some of the queso, and serve immediately.
Recipe from Mary Bilyeu; Makes 24 chalupas.
Note: Ingredients with * next to them are available at Latin markets or in large grocery stores.
Arroz con Tres Leches (Rice Pudding with Three Milks)
- 1 cup long-grain white rice
- 2 cups water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
- 3 egg yolks, beaten
- ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
When this is finished cooking, you’ll swear that there is far too little rice swimming in a sea of milk products. It will thicken more as it rests overnight, as the rice absorbs more of the custard.
Put the rice, water, and cinnamon stick in a medium-size heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, then cook over medium-low heat until the rice is cooked, about 15 minutes; discard the cinnamon stick.
Add all three of the milks and bring just to a boil; immediately lower heat to medium-low. Whisk in the egg yolks.
Stir constantly and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes until the mixture thickens. Dip a small metal spoon into the pudding and let the pudding coat the back of the spoon; run your finger through the coating. If the edges don’t bleed back together, the pudding is done.
Transfer the pudding to a 9”x13” pan and cover with plastic wrap, pressing against the surface to prevent formation of a skin. Refrigerate overnight.
To serve, stir to mix the rice well with the custard; sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve warm or chilled.
Recipe adapted from one by Marcia Lisker of St. Louis, MO; Makes 12 servings.