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@example.com or (727) 894-8586.
Blood & Smoke
This cocktail is a crowd favorite at Mandarin Hide in downtown St. Petersburg. Mezcal is a more smoky alternative to tequila.
1.5 ounces Ilegal Reposado Mezcal or another aged mezcal
¾ ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
½ ounces agave nectar
½ ounce fresh squeezed orange juice
Splash grapefruit juice
Orange peel, garnish
Place all ingredients, except orange peel, in a shaker and strain over ice in a short glass. Garnish with a wide orange peel.
Source: Mandarin Hide,
This cocktail is a spin on Mandarin Hide's espresso martini, normally made with vodka. Tequila and coffee go great together, and this drink is proof.
2 ounces Don Julio Anejo Tequila
¾ ounces Kahlua
½ ounces dark Creme de Cocoa
1 shot of espresso
Bittermens' Xocolatl Mole Bitters (optional, see note)
Place all ingredients in a shaker, except bitters, and pour into in a martini glass. There will be a nice foam at the top from the espresso. Add a few drops of bitters, if using.
Note: Bittermans' produces interesting bitters, which may be difficult to find in the Tampa Bay area, though you can buy a 4-ounce bottle of the mole variety, with dropper, for about $20 from Amazon.com. Chocolate bitters can be substituted or left out completely.
Source: Mandarin Hide,
3 chunks fresh pineapple
2 large basil leaves
2 ounces Herradura Reposado Tequila
½ ounce lime juice
¾ ounce agave nectar
5 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 pineapple leaf garnish
Muddle the pineapple and basil in a shaker. Add ice, tequila, lime juice, agave nectar and bitters and shake well. Strain over fresh ice in a Collins glass. Top with fresh pineapple juice if necessary. Garnish with a pineapple leaf.
Source: Mandarin Hide, St. Petersburg
Lobster Nachos with Avocado Salsa
For the Lobster Salad:
½ pound cooked lobster meat (see note)
Zest of one lime
2 teaspoons lime juice
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Salt to taste
For the Avocado Salsa:
1 Haas avocado, ripe but not guacamole-soft, peeled and cut into small chunks
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Spicy Cream:
½ cup sour cream
Hot sauce such as Sriracha or chipotle Tabasco to taste (you want a lightly rosy-colored sauce)
For salad, chop lobster into small pieces, add other ingredients and stir. Chill.
For salsa, combine all ingredients. If not using immediately, fit plastic wrap directly on top of salsa to prevent browning.
For cream, combine both ingredients and chill.
For nachos: Line a platter with large corn tortillas. Put about a tablespoon of lobster salad and then a teaspoon of avocado salsa on each. Drizzle with spicy sour cream.
Serves 8 to 10.
Note: Substitute pasteurized crab — not canned — for lobster if you'd like.
Source: Lennie Bennett, Tampa Bay Times
Beef Fajita Nachos
⅓ cup olive oil
2 whole limes, juiced
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 whole canned chipotle peppers in adobo, with a little sauce
1 whole handful cilantro
1 (1 ½ pound) flank steak
For the Nachos:
Olive oil, for sauteing
2 yellow onions, peeled and sliced
2 bell peppers, seeded and sliced
8 ounces grated cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack or pepper Jack)
To prepare the steak: Combine olive oil, lime juice, garlic, chipotle peppers and cilantro in the bowl of a food processor or a blender. Blend until combined. Place flank steak into a large plastic bag or baking dish. Pour in marinade and make sure it adequately coats the meat. Seal bag or cover tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours at least.
When ready to make the nachos, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat an outdoor grill or an indoor grill pan (or you can use a skillet). Drizzle a little olive oil on the grill and grill the meat over very high heat, about 4 minutes per side. (Turn 45 degrees halfway through on both sides to get nifty grill marks.) Remove steak from grill and set aside to rest.
In a large skillet, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and peppers and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until vegetables are somewhat soft and starting to get black bits. Remove from heat and set aside.
Slice half of the flank steak into strips against the grain, then chop slices into smaller bites. Place sauteed veggies on a cutting board and roughly chop into smaller pieces.
Arrange tortilla chips on a large ovenproof platter (or cookie sheet.) Sprinkle plenty of cheese all over the top. Place platter in oven for 3 minutes or so, just long enough to melt the cheese (but not burn the chips.) Remove from oven, then generously sprinkle peppers, onions, and chopped steak all over the top. Return to oven for no more than another minute — just long enough to heat the meat and peppers.
Remove from oven and garnish with guacamole, salsa and sour cream.
Source: Ree Drummond at Thepioneerwoman.com
Dessert Nachos with Warm Berry Salsa
For the Berry Salsa:
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon liqueur of choice, such as orange-flavored cognac
1 tablespoon butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¼ cup blueberries
¼ cup raspberries
Hot sauce, chili-garlic sauce, diced peppers or chile seeds, optional
For the nachos:
4 cups flour tortilla chips, unsalted
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 cup grated semisweet chocolate
1 cup grated white chocolate
1 cup creme fraiche (thick French sour cream available at well-stocked grocery stores; see note)
To make salsa: In saucepan over high heat, bring ½ cup water to a boil. Reduce the heat and add the sugar and liqueur. Continue to cook until the sugar begins to brown, 6 to 8 minutes.Remove from the heat, add the vinegar and butter and place in the refrigerator until chilled, about 10 minutes.
Once the sauce has cooled, add the berries and mix thoroughly. Finish with splash of spice if desired.
Once mixed, reheat the salsa over low heat in a saucepan for 2 to 3 minutes or in the microwave for 45 seconds. Serve warm.
For the nachos: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a bowl, toss the chips with the cinnamon and sugar, spreading the sugar evenly.
Next, stack or mound the nachos on a large plate or serving dish. Top with the chocolate and bake until the chocolate is melted, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve with creme fraiche and warm berry salsa.
Serves 3 to 4.
Note: To make your own creme fraiche, whisk 1 cup sour cream, ½ cup heavy cream and ¼ cup confectioners' sugar together and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to overnight.
Source: Robert Irvine, Food Network