In Dinner in Five, Ivy Manning shares 5-element entertaining menus that are so easy, you can pull them off even on a weeknight. Cooking hacks, time management tips, shopping secrets, and beverage pairings – she covers all the bases, so you can enjoy the dinner party, too. Today’s meal? An authentic Mexican fiesta to celebrate Cinco de Mayo – a good reminder that this holiday and this country’s cuisine are about so much more than fast-food tacos and cheap beer.
Ah Cinco de Mayo…the holiday of nachos covered in Day-Glo cheese sauce and shots of cheap tequila, right? Wrong. In case you weren’t acquainted with the origins of the Mexican holiday, it’s really a celebration of the defeat of the well equipped French army at the Battle of Puebla May 5th, 1862. There are celebrations elsewhere in Mexico, but the day really belongs to the good people of Puebla and their ability to thwart foreign aggression in this non-decisive battle. The land locked state of Puebla, southeast of Mexico city is also known for its great culinary traditions including mole poblano, chiles en nogada, and my personal favorite, chalupas poblanas, crispy-chewy fried tacos with colorful red and green sauces.
Every year to commemorate Cinco de Mayo (and counteract the misconception that Mexican food has something to do with Taco Bell and crappy beer), I hold a little fiesta of my own with more authentic fare. Enter quickie chalupas, scratch margaritas with great tequila, homemade slow cooker beans, spicy pickled vegetables, and brownies with cinnamon and chili powder. It’s not a lot of work, but it is a lot of fun. The Napoleon III Piñata is optional.
I love to serve homemade margaritas with unexpected flavors, no sugary pre-mixed “marg mix” for me on Cinco de Mayo! This vivid magenta margarita gets a floral tang from hibiscus flower-infused simple syrup. Dried hibiscus flowers appear in teas and punches all over Mexico, look for the cranberry-red flowers wherever Latin American groceries are sold in small packets labeled “flor de Jamaica.”
To make the syrup, mix 3/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dried hibiscus flowers with 3/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, and 4 allspice berries in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and let stand 30 minutes. Strain and chill for up to 3 days, makes enough for 8 drinks. For 2 margaritas, combine 1/4 cup of the simple syrup with 1/4 cup reposado tequila, 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier orange brandy, and 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into 2 ice filled glasses.
Chalupas Poblanas (See recipe below)
Street carts in Puebla are full of all manner of things stuffed or smeared on fresh masa tortillas. In this colorful dish, tortillas are smeared with thick red chili-based salsa and green tomatillo salsa and then are fried in a shallow puddle of lard or corn oil. They’re topped with a pinch of shredded chicken, diced onions, and a scatter of cotija. You pick up the little bites and eat them like a taco, and while they are a little messy, they’re so delicious, you’ll never notice.
For ease, I use thick jarred salsas instead of making my own sauces to smear on the tortillas. The thicker the better, so I prefer Whole Foods Market’s 365 Chipotle Salsa and Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeno Green Salsa. I also cheat and use a rotisserie chicken instead of cooking my own. You can fry about 3 chalupas at a time in a large cast iron skillet (figure about this many per person for this meal), hold the finished chalupas in a warm oven as you finish the rest. For vegetarian guests, I skip the chicken and give them extra cheese and onions.
Slow Cooker Beans with Epazote
After I discovered how good homemade slow cooker black beans were, I’ve never been able to go back to mushy canned beans. The trick is soaking the beans 8 hours in salty water (about 1 tablespoon of sea salt to 8 cups cold water). This helps the beans hold their shape and seasons them perfectly. Slow cooking yields beans that are packed with flavor with a beautiful creamy interior. Mexican cooks often add epazote to their bean pots to enhance the flavor and aid in digestion. For every pound of dry beans (about 3 cups dry) you are cooking, add 2 teaspoons of dried epazote and 1 chopped white onion. It has an earthy aroma something like sage crossed with cilantro, look for it where Latin American ingredients are sold.
Pickled Carrots, Jalapeños, and Red Onions
I like to serve a little pickled salad of jalapeno peppers, sliced carrots, and onions on the side to make this meal livelier. For one pint of pickled vegetables (enough to serve 6 as a small side dish), bring 1/3 cup water, 1/3 cup white vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and a couple of pinches of cumin and coriander seeds to a boil. Remove from heat. Thinly slice 4 jalapeños (seeded if you wish), 1 large carrot, and 1/4 red onion and pack them into a glass jar just large enough to fit everything. Pour the hot brine over the top and let sit for at least 4 hours before serving. Refrigerate with tightly fitting lid for up to 2 months, the pickles will get spicier as they rest.
Chocolate Brownie Bites with Cinnamon and Chili
I love the flavor trio of cinnamon, chilies, and chocolate; they’re an ancient combination that has been used since the Mayan culture for religious ceremonies, a drink of the gods. I’m no goddess, but I do make a mean flour-less chocolate brownie: Melt 9 ounces of dark chocolate with 1 1/4 cups butter over simmering water. Add 1 cup of sugar and whisk until cooled down a bit. Add 4 eggs, one at a time. Stir in 1 1/2 cups almond flour, 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 generous pinch of cayenne or New Mexican chili powder. Bake in a buttered 9—inch square pan or a mini brownie bits pan in a 325°F oven until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean with a few crumbs on it, 25 to 30 minutes.
Cinco de Mayo Shopping List
- 6 limes
- 2 white onions
- 4 jalapeños
- 1 large carrot
- 1 small red onion
- 3/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dried hibiscus flowers (flor de Jamaica)
- 1 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 whole allspice berries
- 3 cups dried black beans
- 2 teaspoon Epazote
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 pinch each cumin seeds and coriander seeds
- 9 oz dark chocolate
- 1 1/2 cups almond flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Cayenne or New Mexican chile powder
Meat, Dairy & Booze
- 1 bottle reposado tequila
- 1 bottle Grand Marnier
- 1 cup crumbled cotija cheese (about 6 ounces)
- 1/2 rotisserie chicken
- 2 cups unsalted butter
- 4 large eggs
Recipe by Ivy Manning
- 18 corn tortillas
- 2 cups thick red chili salsa (I like Whole Foods Market’s Chipotle Salsa)
- 2 cups green salsa (I like Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeno Verde Salsa)
- 1 cup shredded rotisserie chicken, warmed
- 1 cup crumbled cotija or feta cheese
- 1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
- 1/2 cup lard, corn oil, or coconut oil
Preheat oven to “warm” setting and line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Spread half of the tortillas with red salsa, leaving a 1/4-inch uncovered around the edges. Spread the other tortillas with the green salsa in the same way. Sprinkle the chicken, cheese, and onion in the center of the tortillas.
Heat half of the lard or oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Fry the chalupas (filling side-up) 3 at a time in the oil, swirling the pan to make sure all the bottoms are getting fried. (Do not scoop the oil over the filling.) Cook the chalupas, adjusting heat if they begin to burn, until a little crisp, about 3 minutes. Transfer the chalupas to the prepared baking sheet in a single layer and keep in the warm oven while frying the remaining chalupas.
Repeat the frying process with the remaining chalupas, adding additional fat to the pan and letting it heat up before adding more. Serve warm.
For more Cinco de Mayo ideas, check out Spoonful’s guide to building better nachos, this pretty sparkling tequila cocktail as a nice margarita alternative, and this recipe for southwest breakfast tacos to start your day off right!
Ingredients photo by Nick Gang; Carrots photo by Brian Elledge