Chef John Ash shares favorite Mexican foods for Cinco de Mayo

The Santa Rosa cookbook author shares his go-to recipes, from drinks to dessert.|

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

Serves 2

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.

Chipotle Aioli

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

- Salt to taste

Stir all together and adjust salt to your taste.

Let mixture stand for at least 30 minutes before serving for flavors to develop. Can be stored covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.


Easy to make, this is a base for all sorts of additions and leftovers. A favorite version is to top the hot soup with a lemony green salad - soup and salad in one bowl!

Mexican Lentil Soup

Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, washed and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons oregano, Mexican preferred

1 tablespoon pure ground chile such as ancho

7 cups or so chicken or vegetable stock

1 1/2 cups dried green or brown lentils, picked over and rinsed

2 cups homemade or store-bought fresh salsa or pico de gallo

- Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a soup pot over moderately high heat and add the garlic, onion and carrots. Cook, stirring until they soften and are just beginning to brown.

Add the cumin, oregano and chile powder and cook for a few more minutes. Add the stock and lentils. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until lentils are tender, about 25 minutes.

If lentils are still firm, cook for a few minutes longer. Stir in the salsa and season to your taste with salt and pepper and serve.


This is a classic Mexican home recipe that can be made with pork, chicken or goat. The Salsa Colorado is usually passed separately for each guest to stir in.

Posole Blanco

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 medium white onion, peeled, halved and thickly sliced

3 large peeled garlic cloves, chopped

1 large bay leaf

1/2 teaspoons fennel seed

1 tablespoon oregano, preferably Mexican

- Cilantro stems from garnish below

- Salt and freshly-ground pepper

1 2-pound boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

1 pound pork spareribs cut in half horizontally (ask your butcher to do this)

1 29-ounce can whiteposole (hominy) drained and rinsed

Salsa Colorado (recipe follows)


4 cups finely shredded green cabbage,

1 bunch finely sliced radishes,

2 cups finely diced white onion

- Dried Mexican oregano

1 large avocado, peeled, seeded and diced

1 cup seeded and diced tomato

- Cilantro sprigs

- Lime wedges

Add onions, garlic, bay leaf, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 3 1/2 quarts water to a large deep pot and bring to a boil. Add both porks and return to simmer. Skim off scum for the first 20 minutes or so. Cover and simmer until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove pork to a platter and, when cool enough to handle, discard any skin or fat and set aside. Strain the broth into a large bowl and chill for a couple of hours - at least until the fat rises to the top and congeals. Remove and save for another use.

To finish, add the pork, hominy and strained stock to a soup pot and bring to a simmer. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and serve with the salsa and garnishes, each guest adding what they like.

Salsa Colorado

8 guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed

6 chiles de arbol, stems removed

3 large peeled garlic cloves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

2 tablespoons white vinegar or lime juice

- Salt to taste

In a small skillet, toast the guajillos over moderately high heat until toasted in spots and set aside. In the same skillet, toast the chiles de arbol until fragrant. Be careful not to burn them or they will become bitter. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, add the chiles and, off heat, let them soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove chiles from the water and put in a blender along with the garlic, cumin, oregano, vinegar and salt to taste, adding enough of the soaking water to make a smooth salsa. Can be made ahead and stored, refrigerated, for 3 days.


This is a great summer dish since it doesn’t involve any stovetop or oven cooking. Leftovers can be used the next day for great burritos, tacos, quesadillas or fajitas or warmed over rice or roasted fingerling potatoes.

Grilled Marinated Flank Steak with Lime-?Chipotle Sauce

Serves 6 to 8

3 pounds flank steak

For marinade:

2 tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo

1 tablespoon minced garlic

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1/3 cup olive oil

3/4 cup hearty red wine

1/2 cup soy sauce

For Lime-Chipotle Sauce

1/2 cup honey

1-2 tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons brown mustard

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

- Salt and freshly-ground pepper

For accompaniments

- Grilled and sliced sweet red onions

- Grilled and sliced red and yellow peppers

- Cilantro sprigs

- Diced avocado

- Fresh tortillas

Trim the steak of any excess fat. Don’t be too crazy in your trimming. Leave a little. Remember, fat is flavor. Mix marinade ingredients together and pour over steak. Marinate for at least 4 hours (overnight is fine) covered in refrigerator, turning once or twice.

In a blender, puree the sauce ingredients together until smooth and set aside. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Remove steak from marinade and grill over hot coals to desired doneness, approximately 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium rare. Let steak rest for a few minutes.

To serve, slice meat thinly across the grain on an angle and spoon sauce over. Top with the accompaniments.


This is one of Mexico’s most popular Lenten dishes. The bread is important. It must have good body. Some recipes also call for adding an egg and milk custard, but I prefer this one without.

Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)

Serves 8 to 10

8 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) piloncillo or dark brown sugar

1 1/2 cups of water

1 stick of cinnamon

2 whole cloves

1/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup vegetable oil

16 1/3-inch thick slices of Bolillo or French bread

1 cup crumbled Cotija cheese

1/4 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup raisins

2 tablespoons cold butter cut in small cubes

Preheat oven to ?350 degrees.

In a medium size saucepan add the piloncillo, cinnamon stick, cloves and water. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. (Note: If you have difficulty cutting the piloncillo for the amount needed, place it in your microwave on medium for intervals of 30 seconds until it softens enough to cut. Be careful removing it from the microwave; it gets very hot.)

Mix the melted butter with the oil and brush over the slices of bread. Place single layer on baking sheets and bake 7 minutes, then turn over to bake 5 more minutes. The bread should have a deep golden color.

Start assembling the slices of bread in an oven-proof dish. Quickly dip the bread slices into the syrup to lightly coat and then place in dish in a single layer. Top this layer with a third of the cheese, raisins and peanuts or any other fruit or nuts you would like to add, according to the suggestions below.

Pour the remaining syrup over the last layer of bread and top with any remaining cheese, raisins and peanuts. Dot with the cubed cold butter. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until the top crust is golden, another 15 minutes or so. The lower layers should be moist. Serve warm or at room temperature.

A few notes:

Traditionally the bread is first fried instead of toasted in the oven. Choose whichever method you like.

Day-old Italian or French bread can be used. In northern Mexico, even toasted corn tortillas are added.

Fruits are also found in some recipes. The most common are fried plantain, bananas and apples. Use whatever dried fruits and nuts that you like.

Other cheeses can be used like Jack, mozzeralla, mild white Cheddar or queso fresco.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website,

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