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Mexico's spiciest holiday

Forget Cinco de Mayo. The real Independence Day is Sept. 16, when Mexicans bring out the party food and celebrate.

You know all about Mexico's big national holiday. It's Cinco de Mayo on May 5, right? You've probably even quaffed a fishbowl-sized margarita just for the occasion.

Oh, how wrong you are.

Mexico's Independence Day is Sept. 16, not May 5. It commemorates the moment in 1810 when a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla urged Indians and native-born Mexicans to revolt against Spanish rule with the cry "Mexicanos, viva Mexico!"

That whole Cinco de Mayo bit actually marks another battle, more than 50 years later, when Mexican troops defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla.

Trouble is, food companies and restaurants latched on to Cinco de Mayo, and the rest is fractured history.

"Somebody was looking around for an excuse in May to promote things," says Rick Bayless, chef-owner of two Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and host of the cooking show Mexico _ One Plate at a Time.

Comparing it to the way St. Patrick's Day has become a bigger deal in America than it is in Ireland, Bayless says, "This has become the Mexican version of St. Patrick's Day."

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn't even a day off, says Angeles Ortega, president of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, N.C., a Latino advocacy group.

"I think a lot of times people in the United States like (Cinco de Mayo) because they can pronounce it," she says, laughing.

In Mexico, Dia de la Independencia is much more important. (And you pronounce it "deya deh la in-deh-pen-DEN-see-ah.")

"That's a big deal, like Fourth of July," agrees Alejandra Blair, 21, who moved to the Charlotte area from Mexico City two years ago. Families have parties with lots of food, then go out to celebrate, she says. About midnight, bells are rung as the mayor reads out the names of the heroes of the revolution, with people shouting "Viva Mexico!" after each name.

"That's the happy thing," Blair says. "And then we have fireworks. It's a big party. Nobody works that day. You get the family together and enjoy."

Getting together to enjoy also means getting together to eat _ that's the same in almost every culture. But figuring out what to eat for Sept. 16 is another story.

"Mexican food is way more regional than American food, way more regional," says Bayless, who has written several cookbooks on the subject. "If you tell somebody what people make in the Yucatan and then what they make in the north of Mexico, you would think you are in two different countries. It's a very regional cuisine. There are some classic dishes that they know from one end of the country to the other, but they may eat them at different times.

"It's like the United States: We know what's eaten at Thanksgiving, but from one family to another, the Thanksgiving meal will be very different."

For Dia de la Independencia, there is no one food associated with the holiday.

In Mexico, Ortega says, it is a day when people eat those foods that Americans associate with Mexico, like enchiladas and tacos, often bought from vendors while people are out celebrating and buying flags.

"People think we eat enchiladas at home every night, or tacos at home every night," Ortega says. "For us, tacos and tostados _ it's like Americans go out to eat fried chicken or ribs, things you don't do at home that are messy."

There are some common foods, though. Pozole, a soup of pork and hominy, is standard party food, Bayless says. "If you're going to have a party, you can assume somebody is going to start making pozole." It's easy to make, everybody likes it, and it's served with all sorts of garnishes, like shredded cabbage and lime wedges, so guests can fix their bowls to their own tastes.

Blair says holiday parties are like potlucks, with all the women bringing a dish, while the men take care of the drinks. At her family's home, the menu would be "pozole, barbacoa _ barbecue _ of lamb or goat, quesadillas, tacos. Lots of salsa, obviously. And tequila and cerveza _ beer. Agua fresca" _ fresh fruit drinks _ "for the children."

Parties can also be a chance for fancier foods. Bayless will mark the holiday at his Chicago restaurants with a special dish.

He makes chiles en nogado, an elaborate dish of stuffed chiles served with a special walnut sauce that takes two days to make.

Tinga de Pollo y Papas

Adapted from Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen (Scribner, 1996). Tinga, from central Mexico, makes a good buffet dish and can be doubled for a larger gathering. If you skip the potatoes in this version, you could also use the chicken and sauce as a filling for tacos or tostados.

2 chipotle peppers (see note)

2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 to 1{ pounds tomatoes

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

6 medium chicken thighs, skin removed

4 medium red-skin potatoes

1 white onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

About } teaspoon salt

cup crumbled Mexican queso fresco, or farmer's cheese

1 ripe avocado, pitted, peeled and diced

On a dry skillet or griddle over medium heat, roast unpeeled garlic, turning occasionally, until soft and blackened in spots. Set aside to cool, then remove skins. Place tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a hot broiler, turning, occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, until skin begins to blister. Cool, then peel, collecting all the juices. Prepare peppers (soak dried peppers or rinse sauce from canned peppers).

In a food processor or blender, puree tomatoes and juices, peppers and garlic. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add puree and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes to thicken. Nestle the skinned chicken thighs in the sauce, cover and reduce heat to medium. Cook about 25 minutes, turning thighs and basting with sauce about halfway through. Remove chicken with a slotted spoon, saving sauce, and let cool. Pull meat from bones in long shreds.

With grating blade on a food processor or with a hand grater, shred potatoes, squeezing out as much water as possible. In a large non-stick or well-seasoned skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add onion and potatoes and cook, stirring and scraping up any bits that stick, until well-browned, about 15 minutes. Add the cooked sauce, the chicken, the oregano and the salt. Cook until heated through, or cover and place in a 300-degree oven until ready to serve.

Sprinkle with crumbled cheese and diced avocado to serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Chipotles are smoked jalapeno peppers. If you use dried peppers, soak them in hot water for 30 minutes to soften. Or use chipotles canned in adobo sauce, which are available in Mexican stores and many supermarkets, and rinse off the sauce.

Pozole

From Cocina de la Familia, by Marilyn Tausend (Fireside, 1997). This is the one dish that every Mexican party has to have. Serve it with bowls of garnishes, so that people can fix their bowls to their tastes.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 pound pork shoulder or butt, excess fat removed, cut into bite-size pieces

1 medium white onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic

1 (15-ounce) can white hominy, drained

4 cups (32 ounces) chicken broth

Salt to taste

Garnishes:

Lime wedges

{ cup chopped white onion

Dried oregano, preferably Mexican

Crumbled or ground chile, preferably guajillo chile

Radishes, thinly sliced

Cabbage, finely shredded

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add pork, onion and garlic. Cook, adjusting heat to keep garlic from burning and stirring occasionally, until pork is browned, about 15 to 25 minutes. Add the hominy and broth, stirring up browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes.

Serve in large bowls with garnishes.

Makes 4 servings (can be doubled).

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