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Cinco de Mayo
A Celebration Without Borders
By Kirk Leins
As we begin the month of May, it's a perfect time to explore a celebration that is rich in culture yet transcends nationality. May 5th, also known as Cinco de Mayo, is a day celebrated by Mexicans, Americans, and Mexican-Americans alike. Much of the celebration revolves around food, and I've got that part covered. The bigger question is – why are we all celebrating in the first place?
History of Cinco de Mayo
On May 5, 1862, the Mexican cavalry, under the command of Texas-born General Zaragosa, defeated the French at the battle at Puebla, a city 100 miles east of Mexico City. The French army, having not suffered a defeat in nearly 50 years, landed in the port of Vera Cruz and headed toward the capital city with a specific mission.
Fearless of any opponent, the French sought to overthrow the capitol and gain control of Mexico, even bringing along a Hapsburg prince to oversee the would-be empire. The goal of France's leader, Emperor Napoleon III, was to gain proximity to the US in hopes of supplying the Confederate Army in their fight against the North. He had a vested interest in sustaining the division within America.
To America's benefit, the undersized Mexican cavalry used their knowledge of the terrain to defeat the powerful French army. This victory enabled the Northern States to build the greatest army in the world at that time. Fourteen months later, the North soundly defeated the Confederate Army in the battle at Gettysburg, thus ending the civil war. Union troops were subsequently rushed to the Texas/Mexican border to help expel the French from Mexico.
It's hard to tell how much influence Mexico's victory had on the North's overall success, but it's safe to say that it was the beginning of a friendship between Mexico and the United States. For this reason, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in both countries. Truth be told, it's probably celebrated more on this side of the border. Nonetheless, it's a great occasion to honor freedom and friendship.
But here's where it gets a little tricky. Aside from less authentic versions of traditional Mexican dishes, Mexican-American food has a second meaning. To me, it would also include any dish indigenous to the United States developed by someone of Mexican heritage, utilizing the flavors of their homeland. One such style of cooking is what's known as Tex-Mex. Popularized by Mexican immigrants in Southern Texas, Tex-Mex cuisine is actually a perfect example of this second definition. I think it's also the perfect choice for your Cinco de Mayo menu.
Chili con Queso
In most Texas households, a very quick version of Chili con Queso is made by combining Velveeta with a can of Ro-Tel brand tomatoes and melting them together in the microwave. The version you are about to receive is slightly more involved but absolutely delicious and relatively easy. It makes for an awesome appetizer to kick off your Tex-Mex feast.
Restaurant-Style Chili Con Queso (Serves 4)
In a double boiler over medium heat, combine Velveeta and cheddar cheese until melted. Add cream and stir until you achieve a smooth consistency. Stir in onion, tomato, and chili. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and serve immediately along with tortilla chips.
For a larger group, double the recipe and serve in a heated fondue pot to ensure your queso stays warm.
Although fajitas now include both chicken and fish, authentic versions of the dish utilize only beef. The beef used for fajitas is what's known as skirt steak. For those who may be unfamiliar, the skirt is a long, narrow piece of meat that wraps around the cow's stomach and acts as a diaphragm.
My guess is that butchers and cattle owners of days gone by had a hard time marketing "cow diaphragm", especially since it was a fairly tough piece of meat back then. Typically, these texturally inferior yet tasty cuts were saved by the butchers for their own consumption or given to ranch hands as a form of payment.
Another reason for my theory is that in Spanish, faja is a belt or a girdle. I believe that only someone highly familiar with the anatomy of the cow would use that word in its diminutive – fajitas, or little belts.
One final piece of evidence is that butchers and/or ranch hands marinated the meat in large amounts of citrus juice for several hours. The acidity caused the meat to break down and, in turn, soften up. The meat was cooked on grills over mesquite wood, resulting in a smoky-citrus taste. Thin strips of the meat were then piled into tortillas, along with sautéed onions and bell peppers, and topped off with a dollop of guacamole. That's my theory…and I'm sticking to it.
If you've never tried skirt steak, it has several upsides. For starters, it's fairly inexpensive, especially when compared to more traditional cuts of steak. Another plus is that modern cattle-raising techniques have yielded much better skirt. Now it's not only moist and tender, but quite flavorful as well. Lastly, because of its long, narrow shape, a piece of skirt can be portioned off into a variety of sizes, making it family-friendly and perfect for the barbecue.
Beef Fajitas With Guacamole (Serves 4)
In a bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients except for the onions. Place the steaks, along with the onions, inside a large freezer bag. Add marinade and close the bag. Refrigerate for 4 to 8 hours, turning the bag occasionally.
Meanwhile, remove seeds and skins from avocados, placing the avocado meat in a bowl. Add lime juice, garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Using a fork, combine ingredients by mashing avocado. Be careful to not over-mash as good guacamole should have a chunky consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of guacamole. Using an additional piece of plastic wrap, tightly cover the top of the bowl and refrigerate.
Remove skirt steak from refrigerator. Drain off excess marinade, and pat the meat dry with paper towels. Allow meat to come close to room temperature.
Light your grill or barbecue, and allow it to become quite hot. Grill steaks over a medium-high flame for 31/2 - 4 minutes per side, or until charred on the outside and medium rare on the inside. Remove steaks to a plate and head indoors.
In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil until quite hot. Add onions and peppers, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Sauté vegetables for 3 minutes or until slightly charred but still crunchy.
Slice the steaks across their grain into pieces 1/2-inch thick. Add meat slices, along with their juices, to the vegetables and sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Remove the fajitas to a plate and garnish with tomato and lime wedges. Serve along with warmed tortillas and guacamole.
You now have the perfect menu for any Cinco de Mayo celebration. If you're looking for a beverage to wash it all down with, I would suggest making a pitcher of your favorite margaritas. If you're looking for something non-alcoholic, pick up a bottle of horchata (sweetened rice milk located in the milk case of most supermarkets, as well as any Latin market). Serve the horchata in large glasses filled with crushed ice and garnish with ground cinnamon. Have a wonderful and safe Cinco de Mayo!
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at EGcuisine@gmail.com.
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