Most Americans think that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican equivalent of our Fourth of July. But Mexico’s Independence Day is Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo celebrates a single battle, an 1862 David vs. Goliath conflict in which a 4,000-man Mexican army defeated the 8,000-man French force that had come to conquer.
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday, celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla, where the battle occurred. Like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo is much more widely and enthusiastically celebrated in the U.S. Probably both are due to immigrants’ pride in their heritage coupled with other Americans’ eagerness for a good time.
But historians say that there’s a very real reason for Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. They believe the consequences of that battle were far more important to the United States than to Mexico.
French Emperor Napoleon III sent his army – then considered the greatest in the world – to conquer Mexico. But he was less interested in Mexico itself than in using it as a base from which to supply support to the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Napoleon III rightly saw the U.S. as an emerging superpower, a threat to his own power. In his book, Cinco de Mayo, Donald W. Miles says, “Napoleon III had hesitated to take on the United States directly, but now the news of the Civil War changed everything.” By supporting the rebels, he thought could keep the emerging U.S. from becoming a rival. The battle on May 5 was a mere hiccup in Napoleon III’s takerover of Mexico. He would eventually succeed, albeit briefly. But losing that battle diverted French intentions, munitions and money from the Confederates. If the French had won, our United States may well have been permanently disunited.
There aren’t any dishes traditionally connected to Cinco de Mayo. Here’s a menu that includes appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. All but the entrée are simple and quick to prepare. The chile-glazed country ribs do take a bit more effort. But the marinade can be made even several days ahead of time, and the ribs, as with all braised dishes, are even better the day after they’re initially baked. Just refrigerate, then gently reheat them, covered, before the final glazing.
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- 1 lb. Mexican white cheese, often labeled as Queso Chihuahua or other mild white cheese such as Monterey Jack.
- 1/2 c. Mexican chorizo
- 3/4 c. white onion, thinly sliced
- 1 medium fresh poblano chile, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
In a medium skillet, sauté the chorizo until just cooked. Set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add the onion and poblano. If there is little or no fat, add a teaspoon of vegetable oil. Sauté the vegetables until soft and lightly browned and caramelized, 5–10 minutes, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Stir in the chorizo and set aside.
Preheat the broiler. Cut the cheese into approximately 1 inch cubes and place in an ovenproof serving dish or skillet just large enough to hold the cubes in a single layer. Broil until the cheese begins to melt. Remove from the broiler before the cheese begins to bubble – the cubes should still be somewhat discernible.
Spread the chorizo mixture over the cheese and return to the broiler. Broil until the cheese is completely melted and bubbly. Serve with tortilla chips or as a filling for soft tacos. Serves 6–8.
Jicama and orange salad
- 1 large jicama, peeled
- 3–4 large seedless oranges
- fresh lime juice
- pure chile powder (without salt or other spices)
- cilantro sprigs for garnish
Cut the jicama into sticks approximately 3 inches x 1/2 inch x 1/4 inch. Cut the peel off the oranges with a sharp knife so that none of the white pith remains, then cut the oranges into rounds. Arrange the jicama and orange slices decoratively on a platter. Sprinkle with lime juice and the chile powder just before serving. Garnish with cilantro sprigs. Serves 4–6.
Chile-glazed country ribs
- 8 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 3 ancho chiles
- 6 guajillo chiles
- 1/2 c. chicken stock or water
- 2 T. cider vinegar
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 T. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/3 c. honey
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt, or to taste
- 6 country-style ribs, about 3 lbs.
- 6 radishes with green tops, for garnish
Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat. Put the unpeeled garlic cloves on it and toast, turning them occasionally, until the skins are blackened in spots and the garlic is soft, 10–15 minutes. Alternatively, toss the garlic cloves with a teaspoon of vegetable oil, wrap tightly in foil, and roast in a 350° oven until softened 15-20 minutes. Peel the garlic and put in the container of an electric blender.
Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles and tear them in half so that they lay flat. Put them on the griddle one at a time and press with a metal spatula for a few seconds until they crackle. Turn them over and press again for a few seconds. When they begin to change color they are done. Transfer them to a large bowl. When all are toasted, cover them with boiling water, place a plate on them to keep them submerged and soak for 30 minutes. Drain the chiles and place in the blender. Add the stock, vinegar herbs, spices, salt and honey and purée until smooth, scraping down occasionally and adding a little more stock or water if necessary. Taste and add more salt if desired.
Place the ribs in a large resealable plastic bag. Add half the chile mixture, close the bag, extruding as much air as possible, and squish around to coat the ribs thoroughly. Refrigerate several hours, preferably overnight. Refrigerate the remaining marinade separately.
Wash the radishes and cut a thin slice down 4 sides of each, leaving the root end intact. Place in a container of water large enough to hold them comfortably and refrigerate.
Let the ribs come to room temperature an hour or two before baking. Preheat the oven to 300°. Put the ribs with their marinade in a baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer. Drizzle ¼ c. water over them, cover with foil and bake for 2 – 2 ½ hrs. or until the ribs are fork tender, basting occasionally with the pan juices. Remove the ribs from the dish. Increase the oven temperature to 450°. Pour the fat from the dish and return the ribs to it. Brush with the remaining marinade and bake until glazed and slightly crusty, about 10 minutes. Remove the radishes from the water and dry on a dish towel. Serve the ribs on a platter, garnished with the radishes. Serves 4-6.
Adapted from a recipe by Rich Bayless in In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs
Mexican mocha ice cream
- 1 qt. good quality chocolate ice cream
- 1 qt. good quality coffee ice cream
- 1 T. cinnamon
Place a large metal bowl in the freezer. Soften the ice creams slightly. Scoop in large chunks into the chilled bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Add the cinnamon and, using the paddle attachment, turn the mixer to medium speed. Work as quickly as possible, scraping down the bowl as necessary. The ice cream should remain semi-frozen. As soon as it’s completely combined, spoon into a chilled pan, cover and freeze immediately. Serve after the ice cream has completely refrozen, which takes about 4 hours. Makes ½ gallon.