In our country, May 5 has become a high-spirited fiesta day too. Mexican food and flavors are so entrenched in what we cook and eat in the West that, intentionally or otherwise, many of our most popular dishes and cooking methods reflect varying degrees of this ethnic heritage.
Salsa is a great low-fat dip and sauce that now outsells catsup. Beans, low in fat and rich in nutrients, have surged to newfound popularity as the health food of the past decade, and chilies are the leanest, meanest seasoning of all.
Somehow to me, Mexican foods have always tasted better outdoors, away from home. When camping long ago, a favorite breakfast in my family was huevos rancheros. A small saucepan of salsa would heat over the morning campfire while the Coleman stove was started. In a black cast-iron skillet, corn tortillas were quickly fried in oil until crisp; then drained on paper towels. In another skillet, eggs would be fried in butter until firm. Each person would put a tortilla on his or her plate, a fried egg on top of that, spoon some salsa over the egg, sprinkle some cheese on top, and devour it while standing over the warmth of the morning fire.
Another favorite morning-starter is to place half an avocado onto a hot tortilla, fill the center with hot salsa, and top with scrambled eggs and a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Cinco de Mayo can be celebrated on the road with jicama, a root vegetable with thick, brown skin and crisp, sweet, white flesh. It tastes like a cross between water chestnuts and apples. Begin with a bowl of sliced jicama, peeled, and with a crinkle-edge cutter cut into 2 1/4-inch sticks. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of lime juice. Mix 1 tablespoon of salt with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder and scatter over jicama.
The foods of Mexico today are a blend of Indian, Spanish and other cultures. The foods preserve the virtues of all, and the resulting cuisine is a delight of contrasts—colorful and earthy, exciting and soothing, primitive and polished. Sometimes it is regal and refined, and other times it is as robust and brassy as a Mariachi band.
If you are going away for the weekend, it is easier sometimes to prepare the meat at home before you leave. Tacos and enchiladas are much better when the beef has been braised so it is so tender it falls apart as you tear it into fine shreds. This is known in Mexico as ropas viejas—old clothes or rags.
CHILES RELLENOS CASSEROLE
Spread 10 whole green chilies (canned) on paper towels and pat dry. Remove seeds. Slip a strip of Monterey Jack cheese in center (takes one-half pound), and lay them side by side in greased 9x13x2-inch baking pan and sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese (colby). Beat 3 eggs, add 1/4 scant cup of flour, 3/4 cup of milk, dash of salt and Tabasco sauce and mix well. Carefully pour mixture over chilies. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven, uncovered, 45 minutes or until it tests done.
1 1/2 pounds of boneless beef chuck
1 1/2 pounds of lean pork shoulder
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 green bell pepper
1 clove of garlic
2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes
7-ounce can of green chilies
1/3 cup of chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of cloves
2 teaspoons of cumin
2 cups of dry red wine
This is a delicious dish that can be made ahead and reheated, or better yet, cooked in a big cast-iron Dutch oven over coals in a fire pit. Start in the morning while the guys are fishing or hiking and you are tending camp. Brown boneless beef chuck and boneless lean pork shoulder, cut in 1-inch cubes, in 3 tablespoons of olive oil; remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. In pan drippings sauté a green bell pepper, seeded and chopped, and clove of garlic, minced, until soft; add more oil if needed. In a large pot combine tomatoes, minced green chilies, chopped parsley, sugar, cloves, cumin and dry red wine. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Add browned meat and sautéed vegetables. Cover and simmer 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Remove cover; simmer 45 minutes more until sauce is reduced to thickness you wish and meat is very tender. Serve with arroz blanco (white rice).
Place 1 1/2 cups of uncooked long-grain white rice in 1/4 cup of oil to which 1 whole clove of garlic and 1 white onion, cut in half, have been added. Slowly brown over low heat, stirring occasionally. When rice is wheat-colored, pour off most of the oil and remove the garlic and onion. Crumble 2 chicken bouillon cubes in 4 cups of cold water, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and pour over rice. Simmer, tightly covered, until liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes.
Join in the spirit of Cinco de Mayo wherever you are, in the Southwest, and even in the Northwest—have a little fun and lots of muy bueno food. This high-spirited fiesta day is a terrific excuse to get together with friends. Junto—like they do in Mexico— eat together.
HINT OF THE MONTH: Begin your meal with a traditional Mexican toast: Salud, dinero y amor, y tiempo para gustarlos (Health, money and love, and time to enjoy them).
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Marian Platt's regional narrative cookbook of Washington’s Sequim Valley, From My Kitchen Window, can be ordered by sending cash, check or money order for $25 (includes tax and handling/mailing costs) to Marian Platt, 434 Chicken Coop Rd., Sequim, WA 98382. Phone (360) 683-4691
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