To borrow a line from St. Patrick's Day, on Cinco de Mayo, everybody's Mexican. Bars and restaurants overflow with folks toasting the occasion with margaritas, chips, salsa and big vats of creamy guacamole. • Home parties also draw revelers who may or may not know they are celebrating the victory of a meager Mexican army over the much better armed French at the 1862 Battle of Puebla. Cinco de Mayo is mostly a regional holiday in Mexico but is marked all over the United States, especially in places with significant Mexican populations. • Typical party fare includes make-your-own taco and burrito bars and tequila shots, but we think an appetizer party that offers authentic cuisine along with convenience dishes is more interesting. Set out a bucket of ice cold Mexican beers (see Chris Sherman's recommendations at right) to offset the fiery food. • Plan your menu to include both home-cooked dishes and takeout items. For instance, if you love the salsa or guacamole at a favorite Mexican restaurant, call ahead and order some for your party. (Buy the avocados well in advance so they will ripen by party time if you plan to make your own guacamole.)
Here's our recommended spread: tortilla chips and salsas (offer a couple, including one that's a chunky black bean and corn); guacamole; a platter of sliced melon and peeled jicama sprinkled with cayenne and fresh lime juice; a variety of taquitos (look for them in the frozen food section; El Monterey has several flavors); a recent Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist called Mexican Stuffed-Pepper Biscuit Tostadas; and the show-stopping Chipotle Shrimp. Offer bottled hot sauces for those who want more heat.
For dessert, set out Mexican Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars and pass a tray of small scoops of colorful and refreshing sorbet (lime, lemon, mango, raspberry) skewered with toothpicks. (The day before the party, line a sheet with parchment paper and layer with sorbet scoops. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refreeze until time to serve.)
This menu makes the most of cold and hot appetizers and won't have you running from the kitchen to the serving table all night. The taquitos and biscuit tostadas should be served directly from the oven, but everything else can be prepared in advance. You might want to stagger the hot bites.
Chipotle Shrimp, from Rick Bayless, Chicago chef and Mexican cuisine expert, is one of the best recipes we've come across in a while. It's very nearly perfect as long as you know your limit on smoky chipotles in adobo sauce. (Chipotles are smoked jalapenos.) Just 1 tablespoon for 2 pounds of shrimp is ours, though the recipe allows for more if you have a cast iron tongue. (Freeze the leftover chilies for later use.)
The beauty of these party-ready shrimp coated in a roasted, spicy sauce is that they can be eaten hot, at room temperature or cold. Also, the sauce can be made a couple of days ahead. To prepare, heat the sauce and toss in the shrimp to cook. It wouldn't be a bad idea to double the recipe. We tested it using large and jumbo shrimp; both were delicious and appropriate for party finger food.
We'll make this dish again for dinner, using scallops instead of shrimp, and serve it with rice. Cinco de Mayo or not, this may become your signature dish.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Stir Crazy, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/food.
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 small white onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
6 ounces (1 medium-small or 2 to 3 plum) ripe tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped canned chipotle chilies, drained before chopping (see note)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 pounds (about 50) medium-large shrimp, peeled with tails left on
• Roasting the flavorings: On an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet set over medium, roast the garlic cloves, turning occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. They will blacken in spots. Set aside to cool; when ready to use, squeeze the softened garlic from the peels.
• While the garlic is roasting, lay the onion slices on a square of foil that has been coated with a nonstick spray, set on the griddle or skillet and let sear, brown and soften, about 5 minutes per side.
• Roast the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet set 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened in spots and soft, about 4 to 5 minutes; flip and roast the other side. Cool and peel, collecting the juices with the tomatoes.
• The sauce: Combine all the roasted ingredients in a food processor or blender, along with the black pepper, cloves and 1/4 cup water. Process to a smooth puree.
• In a very large skillet (12 inches), heat the oil over medium-high. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle noisily, add it all at once. Stir for several minutes as the mixture sears and darkens, then reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring regularly until very thick, about 5 minutes. A tablespoon at a time, stir in the chopped chipotles, tasting until the spiciness of the thick sauce suits your taste. Season with salt and remove from heat.
• The shrimp: Return the skillet with the sauce to medium-high heat. Add the shrimp, then slowly stir and turn for about 3 to 4 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through. The sauce will coat the shrimp, though it won't really pool around them. Taste a shrimp, sprinkle on more salt if necessary. Pile them on a platter and serve. These are good hot, at room temperature or cold.
Advance preparation: Sauce may be made several days ahead; cover and refrigerate.
Note: Canned chipotles are extremely hot but can be calmed by scraping out the seeds. Either way, we only used 1 tablespoon when testing this recipe and it was plenty spicy for us. Be cautious.
Serves 6 generously.
Source: Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless (Scribner; 1996)
Mexican Stuffed-Pepper Biscuit Tostadas
2 large bell peppers (any color)
4 cups water
1 pound lean ground beef
1 package (1.25 ounces) taco seasoning mix
1 cup chunky salsa
1 can (16.3 ounces) Pillsbury Grands! Homestyle refrigerated buttermilk biscuits (8 biscuits)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Mexican cheese blend or Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup sour cream, if desired
• Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a large cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
• Cut each pepper lengthwise into quarters, making 8 pieces; remove stems, seeds and membranes. In 2-quart saucepan, heat 4 cups water to boiling. Add bell pepper pieces; cook 5 minutes. Drain well on paper towels; set aside.
• Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, cook beef over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly cooked; drain. Stir in taco seasoning mix and salsa until well blended; set aside.
• Separate dough into 8 biscuits. Place biscuits 2 inches apart on cookie sheet; brush with egg.
• Press 1 pepper piece, skin side down, on each biscuit. Spoon heaping 1/4 cup beef mixture into each pepper, spreading to cover pepper evenly. Sprinkle each with 2 tablespoons cheese.
• Bake 18 to 22 minutes or until cheese is melted and edges of biscuits are golden brown. Cool 5 minutes. Top each with 1 tablespoon sour cream.
Source: 2008 Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist, Cynthia Bowser, Jonesborough, Tenn.
Mexican Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars
2 1/2 cups (about 10 ounces) pecan halves
1 cup (about 6 ounces) finely chopped Mexican chocolate (such as the widely available Ibarra brand; see note)
6 ounces (about 6 to 8 slices) fresh white bread, preferably sandwich bread (like Pepperidge Farm), torn into large pieces
1 cup (2 sticks) melted butter, plus extra for coating the pan
A generous ¾ teaspoon salt
5 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces not larger than ¼ inch
3 tablespoons flour
4 large eggs
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup corn syrup, preferably dark
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for garnish
• Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet. Bake until richly browned and fragrantly toasty, about 10 minutes. Let cool, then scoop into the food processor and coarsely chop. Remove about 1 ½ cups of the nuts and put in a large bowl to use in the filling.
• Add half of the Mexican chocolate to the nuts in the food processor and pulse the machine to mix them. Add bread slices; process until everything is fairly fine crumbs. Add 1/3 cup of the melted butter and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Process just to moisten everything.
• Liberally butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan, then evenly pat in the crumb crust mixture. Refrigerate while you make the filling.
• Add the remaining half of the Mexican chocolate, the chopped semisweet chocolate and the flour to the bowl with the reserved pecans. In the food processor (you don't need to clean it), mix the eggs and sugar until well combined. Add the corn syrup, pulse a couple of times, then add the remaining 2/3 cup of melted butter, the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and all the vanilla. Process to combine thoroughly, then pour over the pecan filling mixture, stir well and scrape everything into your crust-lined pan.
• Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until the bars have pulled away slightly from the side of the pan. Let cool to room temperature before cutting
into 2-inch squares, dusting with powdered sugar and arranging on an attractive serving platter.
Makes 24 bars.
Note: Ibarra chocolate can be purchased at Mexican specialty stores or at larger grocery stores. If you can't find it, use all semisweet chocolate.
Source: Frontera Grill, Chicago