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Wednesday, April 29, 2009 03:39 pm

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Flamenco dancers celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Puebla, Mexico.

It’s kind of disillusioning. First it was finding out that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a big deal in Ireland. For a variety of reasons, its most raucous, over-the-top celebrations take place in America: the Chicago River being dyed green; an almost de rigueur menu of corned beef and cabbage consumed by Americans — Irish or not — on the day, even though such foods aren’t especially traditional on “The Auld Sod;” and tipsy crowds quaffing rivers of green beer and sporting green clothing, some of which is downright tacky and/or bizarre. Shamrocks abound.

Next, I discover that celebrating Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger deal here in the United States than it is in Mexico. Don’t these folks know what they’re missing?

Actually, Cinco de Mayo is a huge celebration in one Mexican state. But in only just one — Puebla, located in the central southern part of the country — is it considered a major holiday. It’s not even the Mexican equivalent of our Fourth of July. That takes place on September 16 because on that date in 1821 Mexico finally freed itself from Spanish rule.

In the coming decades, however, European powers still coveted Mexico’s riches, and gladly loaned the fledgling nation money as a way of gaining influence. In 1862, France’s Louis Napoleon refused to accept the Mexican government’s loan guarantees and dispatched a force of 6,000 soldiers to march through the state of Puebla to take control of Mexico City, and hence, the country. They were met and ultimately defeated on May 5, 1862, by an ill-trained and ill-equipped mass of 5,000 Mestizo and Zapotec Indians in Puebla.

So that’s the why for Cinco de Maya — at least in Mexico. As for how — the biggest celebrations take place in the state and city of Puebla, which is in Mexico’s south central region. There are military parades, fairs and re-creations of the famous battle. Street foods and regional specialties are an important part of the festivities — especially the region’s moles — complex sauces, the most famous of which is Mole Negro, known in Puebla as Mole Poblano. (See the RealCuisine July 10, 2008 column at illinoistimes.com for more about moles.) The further one gets from the region, the less important Cinco de Mayo becomes.

At least until one goes north of the border. Here folks — both Mexican-Americans and gringos like me — regard Cinco de Mayo as the biggest Mexican holiday of the year. Cinco de Mayo recipes abound in cooking publications. Mexican restaurants offer special meals and celebrations such as the ones Carlos de Leon, chef/owner of Maya restaurant, is planning: a parking lot fest with a band on May 2 and a special dinner on May 5.

Why is Cinco de Mayo a bigger deal here than in most of Mexico? The reasons are obscure — as obscure as the reasons St. Patrick’s Day is more important in the U.S. than in Ireland.

And ultimately, although the “why” is interesting, I don’t care. I’m always glad to have an excuse to celebrate — especially when it includes eating great Mexican food!

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Sure, you can buy Mexican chorizo in most local grocery stores these days. But I can guarantee that commercial varieties won’t have the same wonderful flavor as the following recipe which hails from Toluca, which is only a short distance from Mexico City, making it an appropriate ingredient of any Cinco de Mayo celebration. The list of ingredients is long, but it’s actually a snap to make. The only thing that takes any time is toasting and grinding the chiles, which are available at surprisingly many local groceries as well as at Food Fantasies, but pure red chile powder (without salt, garlic powder, cumin, etc. and available at Food Fantasies) makes an acceptable substitute. Otherwise it’s just a matter of measuring and mixing.

There are many types of chorizo, in both Spain and Mexico — some cured and dried, others fresh, as with the one presented here. Tolucan chorizo is meant to be used as seasoning; the flavor is too intense to eat by itself. But its taste is so fantastic that I make it in large batches, then freeze it in half cup portions to use in many preparations such as beans, combined with scrambled eggs for a weekend brunch, and, not least, for the queso fundido below. While it’s traditionally made and most flavorful with pork, ground turkey, or even vegetarian ground meat substitutes can be used in place of the pork.

This recipe is an adaptation of one that appears in Authentic Mexican, by Rick Bayless, authored with DeeAnn Groen Bayless, that the authors based on Velásquez de León’s Platillos regionales de la República Mexicana.


2 dried ancho chiles
2 dried pasilla chiles
OR substitute one additional ancho chile for the two pasillas
OR substitute 4 ½ T. pure chile powder for all the chiles
1 ½ lb. ground pork
½ tsp. ground cinnamon, preferably Mexican
1 tsp. oregano, preferably Mexican
¼ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
½ tsp. ground black pepper, preferably freshly ground
2 T. good quality sweet paprika
4 cloves finely minced garlic
1/3 c. cider vinegar
1 tsp. salt, or to taste

Open the chiles and discard the stems and seeds. Tear them into flat pieces. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium high heat. When the surface is hot, lay the chile pieces, a few a time, on the surface and press with a metal spatula just until they blister and change color. Cool to room temperature, then grind in a spice grinder to a fine powder, or, alternatively, grind in a mortar and pestle.
Put the ground pork in a large bowl and mix in the chile powder and the remaining ingredients thoroughly. Cook a tablespoon of the mixture to check the seasoning and add more salt if desired. Refrigerate the chorizo, covered, for several hours or overnight to develop the flavors before using.

I’ve made queso fundido more times than I can count — for adult parties, my kids’ high school gatherings, cooking classes, potlucks, home alone nights for my husband and me, etc. — and there are never, ever are any leftovers.

Queso Fundido


1 lb. Mexican white cheese, often labeled as Queso Chihuahau or other mild white
cheese suitable for melting such as brick or Monterey Jack.
½ c. chorizo from above recipe or purchased
½ medium white onion, thinly sliced
1 medium fresh poblano chile, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced

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.

In a medium skillet, sauté the chorizo until just cooked through, breaking up any large chunks. Put the cooked chorizo in a small bowl and set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add the onion and poblano. If your chorizo is very lean and there was little or no fat in the skillet, add a teaspoon or so of bacon fat or vegetable oil. Sauté the vegetables until soft and lightly browned and caramelized, 5-10 minutes, being sure to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Return the chorizo to the pan and mix with the onion and poblano and keep warm.

Put the dish with the cheese under the broiler and broil until the cheese just begins to melt, removing before the cheese begins to bubble (the cubes should still be somewhat discernible).

Spread the chorizo/onion/chile 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.

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