As if we need more reason to whoop it up for Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the win of the meek over the mighty marks 150 years on Saturday.
Like St. Patrick's Day in March, Cinco de Mayo is an imported holiday that has taken on more importance here than in its home country. It is not Mexican Independence Day — which is in September — as some think but rather a commemoration of the victory of a meager Mexican army over the much better-armed French at the 1862 Battle of Puebla.
It seems, though, that the battle triumph takes a backseat to tequila-fueled margarita fests in watering holes across the land. It's a party-hearty day more than anything else, and with the help of a St. Petersburg mixologist, we've got some ideas to bring the festivities home.
We asked Jason Fackler of Mandarin Hide to put his spin on a Cinco de Mayo cocktail, and he shared three thirst-quenching beauties that put the margarita to shame. Two combine tequila with citrus notes and a third with mocha accents to take Mexico's native spirits to a new level. Fackler's cocktails inspired us to match them with nachos, including a dessert version, that correspondingly elevate the ubiquitous cheesy-beefy-tortilla-chip party dish.
Like the revelry of Cinco de Mayo, tequila sales have grown steadily in the last decade. U.S. imports of tequilas have jumped a whopping 67 percent, increasing from 7.2 million cases in 2002 to nearly 12 million in 2011, according to industry figures. In that time, sales of super premium sipping tequilas — you know, "Patron on ice" as the rapper T.I. sings — have quadrupled.
Fackler gets specific on tequila brands in his recipes, and one calls for mezcal, a more rambunctious Mexican spirit made from the maguey agave plant. Tequila comes from the blue agave plant that grows in Tequila, Mexico, and around the state of Jalisco. Not all tequilas are 100 percent blue agave; if they are, they'll say so on the label.
Well-stocked liquor stores might carry the brands he uses in these cocktails; some are small batch and fairly expensive. Almost all can be purchased online. A bottle of the dangerous-sounding Illegal Reposado Mezcal is about $70. If you can't locate the brands Fackler suggests or don't want to spend the money, you can find substitutes if you understand a little about tequila, including its five categories: blanco (silver), joven (gold), reposado (aged), anejo (extra aged) and extra anejo (ultra-aged).) Reposado has been aged from two months to one year. Anejo tequila is aged more than one year and extra anejo for at least three. All three cocktail recipes call for aged spirits.
We suggest you take the cocktail recipes with you to the liquor store and ask for help with substitutions.
As far as taste goes, the younger tequilas have more of a bite (and stinging hangover?) than their longer-aged siblings, which tend to be smoother and have more character. Aged tequilas can even be described in similar terms as wines — smoky with citrusy notes or some such comparison.
With Fackler's Pina Basilio, a tequila cocktail married with pineapple and basil, we pair Lobster Nachos with Avocado Salsa. A spicy drizzle made of sour cream and hot sauce — we like chipotle Tabasco — ramps up the flavor. These are a far cry from the melted cheese nachos served at every flat-screen laden sports bar. They are cold for one, the topping being lobster salad. You can substitute crab if you'd like. And there's no cheese, a definite departure.
Ree Drummond, city gal turned country cook who blogs at thepioneerwoman.com, has a recipe for Beef Fajita Nachos that we think pairs well with Fackler's Blood & Smoke cocktail. The drink has some serious citrus flavors, which also pair well with beef, in this case marinated and grilled flank steak. The fixings can easily be tucked into warmed tortillas if you'd rather eat them that way.
The cocktail that Fackler has dubbed Despierto, which translates to wide-awake in English, is fueled by a shot of espresso and other caffeinated ingredients. A couple shots of aged Don Julio tequila is also an eye-opener. A platter of Dessert Nachos with Warm Berry Salsa with overtones of cinnamon plays well with the chocolate-coffee cocktail, a tequila version of the espresso martini.
There's a bit of work involved in the Robert Irvine dessert recipe, but this is a special Cinco de Mayo. A 150th anniversary deserves a little attention — and some good tequila.
Lennie Bennett and Laura Reiley of the Times contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 894-8586.