Chef John Ash shares favorite Mexican foods for Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for May 5th. Ask most Americans its meaning, and they will probably tell you it has something to do with Mexican Independence Day, which it does not. Mexican Independence Day is Sept.16.
Interestingly, the holiday is a bigger deal in the U.S. than in Mexico. In fact, not many in Mexico celebrate Cinco de Mayo, aside from those who live in the Mexican state of Puebla. For them, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
The French army was big and powerful. Emperor Napoleon III sent them to Mexico, eager to establish a second Mexican empire favorable to the French, a New World outpost to make up for all that French land his uncle sold to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.
The French army was better trained and better equipped and outnumbered the Mexicans by as much as 10 to one by some estimates. But at the town of Puebla, the Mexicans won a big victory against them, holding the road to Mexico City and sending the much-vaunted French army heading for the hills. It was one of the few times Mexico’s army prevailed and a reason for great Mexican pride.
In the 1980s, beer companies, particularly Corona, saw there were profits to be made on Cinco de Mayo by selling beer to the rising Latino population in the U.S.
According to Latina magazine, “Through a series of well-received advertisements, Corona helped transform Cinco de Mayo into an all-day happy hour celebration, encouraging the growing Mexican and Mexican-American population to celebrate their heritage on May 5 by purchasing Mexican beer.”
Corona and other beer brands such as Dos Equis still spend massive amounts on Cinco de Mayo-related advertising. Drinking Mexican beer has become one of the great Cinco de Mayo traditions for Hispanics and gringos alike along with avocados, tacos and foods off the grill.
Cinco de Mayo became an official U.S. holiday in 2005, when the U.S. Congress declared it as such and called on President George W. Bush to issue a proclamation that Americans should observe the day by celebrating Mexican-American heritage with “appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
Some of my favorite recipes for this day include Sangrita (with a shrimp), Avocado Fries with Chipotle Aioli, Mexican Lentil Soup, Posole Blanco with Salsa Colorado, Grilled Marinated Flank Steak with Lime-Chipotle Sauce and Capirotada (Mexican bread pudding).
This drink is a great little starter for Cinco de Mayo. This is alcohol-free, but you could certainly add a little tequila or mezcal. Top with a grilled shrimp on a pick if you like.
Makes 16 small drinks in shot glasses
2 cups tomato juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice (or to taste)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Dash of Worcestershire sauce, preferably white
- Dash of olive brine from a jar of green olives
- Hot sauce to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
16 grilled shrimp on a pick (optional garnish)
Stir ingredients together and chill for at least one hour for flavors to marry. Taste again just before serving and adjust flavors to your taste.
This sounds like an unlikely recipe, but in Brazil, Mexico and other parts of South America, it’s a favorite street food. It’s often done with a batter, but I have done it here with breadcrumbs, which makes for a lighter version. I use the fries as hors d’ oeuvres, but they also are great in tacos and as a topper for salads.
Avocado Fries with Chipotle Aioli
2 cups or so vegetable oil for frying
1 large, firm ripe avocado
1/2 cup flour, seasoned generously with salt and pepper
1 large egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water
2 medium limes
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Chipotle aioli (recipe follows)
Heat the oil in a small saucepan to 375 degrees.
Leaving skin on the avocado, cut it into quarters lengthwise. Discard seed, peel and cut each quarter in half lengthwise for a total of 8 wedges.
Place seasoned flour on a small plate. In a small bowl, combine the egg mixture with the juice of one of the limes. Cut the other lime into 6 wedges. Place the panko on another small plate.
Dredge the avocado wedges first in the flour and shake off any excess. Then, dip into the egg mixture and finally into the panko to nicely coat. Fry the wedges until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and drain briefly on paper towels. Serve with the lime wedges and the chipotle aioli. They are fine at room temperature.
Makes about 3/4 cup
1 tablespoon finely-chopped chipotles in adobo or to taste
1 tablespoon lime juice
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro