Many people living north of the proverbial border think Cinco de Mayo is the ultimate holiday in Mexico. Well, it's not.
That honor goes to Mexican independence day, Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a famed victory of the Mexicans over a French army in 1862. It is a day to remember, yes, but the party generally takes place in the Mexican state of Puebla, where the battle took place.
Still, in the United States, the 5th of May celebration has increasingly become a salute to Mexican culture, heritage and food.
“In the United States, it is popular because it’s easy to say ‘Cinco de Mayo,’” says chef Fernando J. Olea, the Mexican-born chef behind Epazote restaurant and the landmark Bert’s Burger Bowl, both in Santa Fe, N.M.
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Olea says a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo is to get sauced — with the salsas and moles of Mexico. He has built a reputation at Epazote for an array of richly complex, aromatic moles paired with everything from halibut to rack of lamb to duck breast.
To Olea, moles are integral to the fine cuisine of Mexico.
“When I talk about Mexican food,” says Olea, “I say moles are like the sauces the French are famous for.”
Shrimp in Pumpkin Seed Sauce
Prep: 25 minutes Cook: 29 minutes
1 1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled, shells reserved
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds, unroasted, unsalted
3 serrano chilies
1/4 medium white onion, chopped
8 sprigs cilantro or more to taste
2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
Put shrimp shells, water and salt to taste in a saucepan; cook over medium heat, 15 minutes. Strain, reserving broth; discard shells. Heat shrimp in broth to a simmer; cook, 2 minutes. Strain, reserving the broth. Set shrimp aside.
Lightly toast pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet. The seeds should puff up a little but not brown. Puree the broth, pumpkin seeds, chilies, onion and cilantro in a blender until smooth.
Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat; stir in the sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. If the sauce becomes lumpy, return to blender; blend until smooth. Stir in the creme fraiche and shrimp; heat through.
Source: This recipe, published in “Recipes From the Regional Cooks of Mexico” and “Nothing Fancy,” is Diana Kennedy’s version of a sauce from Tampico in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, along the Gulf of Mexico.
New Mexico Mole
Prep: 10 minutes Cook: 1 hour, 7 minutes
1/2 cup each: pecans, pine nuts
1 stick Mexican cinnamon
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 stick butter
1/2 cup garlic
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 (1/2 ounce) chimayo chili, seeds removed
1/2 cup apricots, pitted
3 ounces white chocolate
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Heat a dry skillet over medium heat, 2 minutes. Lightly toast the pecans and pine nuts. Add the sesame seeds, anise seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves and cumin seeds; cook, stirring constantly, until lightly golden.
Melt butter in pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, onion and red chili; cook until soft, 3-5 minutes.
Place all ingredients, except white pepper and salt, in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth, adding water if necessary.
Pour sauce into a large saucepan. Heat to a boil; lower heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, 1 hour. Add white pepper and salt to taste.
Source: Chef Ferdinand J. Olea arrived in New Mexico more than two decades ago. The Santa Fe-based restaurateur decided to pay tribute to his adopted city on its 400th anniversary by creating a new mole using New Mexican ingredients. Olea serves this mole with rack of lamb.
Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 5 minutes Makes: 5 cups
3 to 6 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1 ( 32-ounce) can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
2 cloves garlic
1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Puree the chilies, tomatoes, broth, garlic, cumin seeds and oregano. Strain. Saute puree in hot oil and season with salt and pepper to taste; heat to a boil. Serve.
Source: Adapted from “Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo,” by Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Colle. The authors cook pork-beef meatballs in the sauce.